Dr. Robert McKim (Ph.D. Yale) is professor of philosophy and Religion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dr. McKim has written on the twin problems of religious ambiguity and diversity focusing on the challenges these problems raise in religious epistemology. He most directly addressed this topic in his book Religious Ambiguity and Religious Diversity (OUP, 2001) where he argued that, given these problems, religious believers should adopt a “critical stance” with regards to the truth claims about their particular faith. This epistemic position is “religion conducted more in the mode of longing and aspiration than in the mode of confident assertion” though it does not rule out devotion in religion.
In his new book published in 2011 by Oxford titled, On Religious Diversity, Dr. McKim explores the interrelatedness of various religious traditions and attempts to analyze particular epistemic positions given the fact of religious diversity. In this three-part interview, we talk to Dr. McKim about the goals of his book exploring what religious diversity might mean for religious belief, what diversity means for exclusivism in religion (the idea that only one view is the correct view), and how religious epistemology will evolve over the next decade.
PN: You begin chapter 2, "Exclusivism about Truth" exploring the position in which someone claims, "Our tradition is entirely right, and all other traditions are entirely wrong." You claim that such a position appears to be obviously untenable. Despite the long term prospects of this kind of exclusivism, at present there seems to be a significant number of people that still hold this view. If you agree, what do you think motivates it?
McKim: My guess is that many people who say things like this just have not thought through the implications of what they are saying. This is so because there is a certain amount of overlap among the religious traditions so that if the claims of any one of them are correct, then some of the claims of others among them are also correct. So the view, or at least a view, that is worthy of consideration here is that other traditions are right only insofar as they endorse some of our claims.
As for what motivates views of this sort – either the more tenable version I just mentioned or the less tenable version you asked about and that some people certainly seem to endorse in spite of its untenability – I do not know how to answer this question. One issue is whether exclusivist beliefs require a special explanation of some sort. I assume that most people endorse their religious views for reasons such as these: because they have been told that this is how things are by an apparently reliable source and because the worldview in question enables them to make sense out of much of what they experience in life. At any rate factors such as this presumably figure in the explanation of why people believe what they believe – and not just in the area of religion. In the case of religious beliefs in particular, and especially perhaps exclusivist beliefs, it may be that there are additional interesting factors at work, perhaps including a need to define one’s group as different from other groups so that we stand very much apart in certain ways, and a need to have an unshakable and unquestioned commitment. Needless to say, though, the capacity of a set of beliefs to fulfill such needs is irrelevant to whether the beliefs in question are held for good reasons or are true. In any case I am certain that the vast majority of people who hold beliefs about religious matters are not making things up!
PN: Alister McGrath in Okholm’s and Phillips’ More Than One Way? writes: "It matters fundamentally whether Jesus Christ died on the cross, both as a matter of history and as a matter of theology. The historical aspect of the matter is crucial, in that both the New Testament and Qur’an cannot be right. If one is correct on this historical point, the other is incorrect. For the purposes of stating this point, it does not matter which is correct; the simple point is that both cannot be true." They make a distinction here about truth but not necessarily about knowledge. While this appears to be a type of exclusivism, it doesn’t seem to be all that relevant since claiming to know which religion is true is what seems to be important. Is this distinction important for the arguments you make in your book?
I am reasonably confident that the central claims of the major religious traditions are incompatible. Which is to say that pluralism of the sort that proposes that everyone somehow might be correct, or at least that many apparently incompatible views could turn out to be compatible, is not likely to work, or at any rate faces an uphill struggle. So what McGrath is saying is correct to this extent, in my view. For example, broadly speaking, Muslims and Christians can not both be correct in their beliefs about Jesus. And the same applies to umpteen other claims made by the religious traditions – though pluralist proposals that say otherwise deserve careful consideration. By the way, I am not inclined to use the term “exclusivist” for someone who contends that incompatible view can not both be correct: for one thing we already have words such as “consistent” that capture what is at issue.
PN: Do you think humans are in a position to determine which religious claims are true across various traditions? In your chapter on religious ambiguity, you argue that the fact that there are such diverse traditions with honest, reflective, intelligent people in every faith tradition all making truth claims, that this fact in and of itself creates a problem. You further argue that it seems plainly true that few of us has access to the type of information we would need to be able to adequately adjudicate between the truth of various traditions (or between a religious worldview and a naturalistic one) and that its tough even to determine what the relevant evidence for the truth of claims even of God’s existence might be. What do you think the appropriate attitude towards religious knowledge ought to be even if one is an exclusivist regarding religious truth (as McGrath defines it)?
McKim: I won’t comment on what one should say about the prospects for religious knowledge if one is this or that sort of exclusivist, partly because “exclusivist” is used in so many different ways. (I have two chapters on exclusivism in On Religious Diversity, as you know.) But your question obviously is broader than this. Leaving knowledge and the various conundrums associated with it aside, let’s consider the question whether the facts you mention – the presence of impressive people among the advocates of numerous perspectives and the fact that (as I see it) the relevant evidence outstrips the ability of each of us to get to grips with it in its entirety – have the result that most people do not reasonably hold whatever views they hold on religious matters.
My view is that it is reasonable for many to occupy the religious perspective they occupy. This is partly because religious perspectives are deployed in the interpretation of one’s own life-experience so that what one experiences conforms with, and indeed gives every impression of confirming, one’s religious perspective. Many religious perspectives make sense from the inside and have associated with them forms of life and a host of experiences that simply are inaccessible to most outsiders. So some have evidence that others lack. And access to all of the relevant evidence is beyond any one of us. We should all face up to this and adjust our attitudes to others and to their beliefs accordingly.
PN: I think a strong argument could be made along the lines you present in the chapter on religious ambiguity that such ambiguity exists in many areas knowers contend with (e.g. global warming, politics, mind/body issues, ethics). You stated in your previous book that ambiguity in religion and perhaps these other areas doesn’t necessarily warrant skepticism. Do you still agree with that assessment and if so, why?
McKim: This is a complicated set of issues. I would set aside the matter of climate change since there is a virtual consensus among scientists with the relevant qualifications that anthropogenic climate change is upon us – and indeed that in some respects the more worrying predictions about its consequences may also be the more accurate ones. So according to the vast majority of the people whose views are worth taking seriously, there is no ambiguity here.
Another aspect of this set of issues is that disagreements in philosophy in particular are, so to speak, part of the rules of the game: disagreement plays a role in promoting progress in the field. This is so because it is partly by juxtaposing opposing views that an understanding of issues is deepened. But in my opinion this is not the sole, or perhaps even the main, explanation of how it is that in philosophy we typically find competing and well-developed views with supporting arguments of some strength that can be mustered in support of each of the contending views. My guess is that typically there are bodies of evidence and lines of argument that support the competing positions. The way I think of this is that the relevant disagreement is partly accounted for by the relevant issues being ambiguous. And my idea is that there are certain responses that are appropriate in all such cases and irrespective of subject-matter, including a measure of tentativeness in our beliefs. In the case of religion I am not just talking about moves that it is reasonable to expect from philosophers of religion or other such scholars of religion, but also moves that ordinary religious believers should make – assuming they are up to the task.
So how are we to react to situations in which we see that there to be disagreement among others who seem equally well qualified, or close to it, and which we have reason to believe to be ambiguous? I don’t see that skepticism is required by a recognition that we are dealing with a situation of this sort. In particular I think there is space for tentative and exploratory membership, for investing your hope, for investing yourself, even while being aware of all manner of complexities. Complicated, no doubt, but doable all the same. There is, I know, a serious question whether one can sustain such a relatively detached identification and whether it will not devolve into, say, a sentimental attachment to one’s tradition or to wanting to belong but not quite managing to do so. But suppose we consider this an area for future reflection, bearing in mind that we may not currently have any institutional support to speak of for those who are attracted by such possibilities. At the very least the question of what sort of space there is for tentative and exploratory belonging is an interesting area for further reflection. Another thought is that if there are traditions that currently have no space for this, they might want to think about creating some space for it – though such a thing may in any case happen spontaneously in response to current challenges and without anyone setting out to create it.
Robert McKim’s faculty page at the University of Illinois
Religious Ambiguity and Religious Diversity