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. What follows is part 3 of 3 of this interview.
PN: Some philosophers of religion attempt to make arguments for exclusivism that rely on inferences from the truth of a small number of claims to the probable truth of a larger body of claims. For instance, some argue that if it can be shown that the Bible is accurate in its account of Jesus rising from the dead, then it’s also probable that most of what Jesus claims in the New Testament is accurate without having to have evidence for every one of those claims. What do you think of such arguments?
McKim: The substance of your question has, I think, to do with attempts to establish the veracity of entire religious traditions by appeal to, say, particular historical observations or details that they contain and that can be independently corroborated. Once again your question opens many cans of worms. Just for a start, scholars of the New Testament have a lot to say about which of the remarks attributed to Jesus may reasonably be believed to be, or to reflect, what Jesus actually said. So that is one area of inquiry that is relevant to your question. Another is just that it goes without saying that a document can be accurate in some respects and inaccurate in others. I would be wary of moves that ignore or downplay this possibility. All this being said, if a source – whether it be a person or a text or something else – is discovered to be accurate in some respects, it would be foolish, all other things being equal, not to take seriously the possibility that it is accurate in other respects. It would be foolish to ignore the fact that it has acquired enhanced standing as a source of information in virtue of having been found to be accurate – and especially so if the matters about which it has been found to be accurate are significant.
PN: In the existentialist tradition (particularly in the work of Kierkegaard), there is this idea that from the outside religion appears absurd. But from the inside, things begin to make more sense. Kierkegaard likens it to being in love. You suggest something similar when you write, "If you are a serious member of a religious tradition, your own tradition feels right. When you follow its path, you feel that you are on the right path. You have a sense of inner conviction." You also claim that a good number of people in every tradition feel this way about their tradition. How ought a person in a particular tradition respond to this fact? Should it change the degree to which she is convinced that her tradition is right?
McKim: I will start with the last question, the answer to which, in my view, is an emphatic “yes.” What I reject, though, is the idea that an awareness of the range of religious experiences across many traditions requires skepticism from all of us, or from all of us who are aware of the situation and who have the opportunity to reflect about various possibilities. Even if I am aware of the loyalties of others and have some sense of what it feels like to be them, I am still me, with my life experience and perhaps my inner sense of assurance. Yet, as I see it, there is no denying that many people of integrity in many traditions exhibit roughly the same level of conviction, feel the same level of meaningfulness in what they do religiously, and all the rest. Some advocates of each of these perspectives will continue to insist that they (or we!) are THE SPECIAL ONES, and to feel that if only outsiders could feel/experience/see/enjoy what they feel (etc.) they would rush to sign up for a life membership. I find such thinking implausible. Not only that: its implausibility has, in my view, an obvious and irresistible character and it confronts me as something that I have no choice but to recognize.
PN: Given the degree of the exposure to diverse religious beliefs, many seem to be finding it difficult to maintain an exclusivist epistemic stance (your narrative about Billy Graham might be evidence for this type of shift) more than previous generations. How do you see belief in a particular tradition evolving over the next 50 years? Do you think exclusivism will go the way of racism or patriarchalism and be difficult to hold rationally?
That last question is both difficult and interesting. Again, I won’t answer it in terms of exclusivism because the term is used in so many ways. And I am not competent to predict what is going to happen – though I will say that it has caught my attention that life can be surprising and that things can turn out in ways that you could not have anticipated. But let’s consider the idea that my co-religionists and I are superior in some way. Ethically or culturally or in terms of our ways or our lifestyle or our level of authenticity, say. I can imagine it coming about that such ideas would make people roll their eyes and would elicit a “surely you are not serious” sort of reaction – as fortunately is the case in many circles for many other forms of prejudice.
PN: How do you see religious belief in the West in general evolving over the next decade or so? Are there particular themes you see developing in the way people talk about their faith?
McKim: My answer to your first question is once again that I don’t know. I am much happier talking about what should happen, as I see it. But one thought about the future is that I would not be surprised if people in many countries came to resemble each other more, religiously speaking, than they have in the past. I say this partly because it seems that they will be responding to many of the same forces. This sort of convergence would mirror what is happening linguistically and to some extent culturally, for good or ill.
On the other hand you never know when a bent twig is going to lash back: the term is Isaiah Berlin’s and his topic is nationalism but the same thinking applies in the area of religion. People feel pushed and trodden upon and they feel that what they regard as precious is not taken with the sort of seriousness that they think it deserves and that they themselves are not receiving the respect and esteem they deserve, and next thing you know they are up in arms and full of anger and lashing back. And this reaction may be exhibited in their beliefs and in the ways in which they hold them so that it may serve to consolidate those beliefs, perhaps leading them to hold them in a more extreme way or to identify more with them or to make them more definitive of who they are. In addition I also sense a certain hunkering down in many religious communities in many countries and in response to the uncertainty of the times we live in – though I certainly do not have a comprehensive sense of these matters, and I also wonder if a sense that we live in uncertain times is not more or less a fixture in human life.
On yet another hand we do not know what sort of major social and even geopolitical dislocations we may encounter even in the coming decades and we are therefore totally in the dark about how human communities will respond to them, including what the religious response will be. But it would be remarkable if some such dislocations were not coming our way – perhaps about as remarkable as would be an ability to predict either what they will be or how human religious reflection will respond to them.
PN: Do you have any projects in the works? What direction is your existing research taking?
McKim: Thank you for asking. I am finishing some shorter essays on religious diversity at present. I am also thinking quite a lot about an independent area of inquiry. This is the possibility that the religions may be able to help us to come to terms with global climate change and, more broadly, with the serious consequences that the human presence is having for the planet, including other forms of life. I am interested in the cultivation of ways of thinking that will help us to navigate our way through various perilous waters in which we find ourselves. In fact this applies both to the questions about how we see religious others and their views that I have been working on, and the matter of the human impact on the planet, and the ways in which religious perspectives might be relevant to it, which is what I am writing about now. In the latter area one topic I am thinking about is the idea of comparing religious traditions with respect to their environmental usefulness. I want to develop a comparative framework that applies to entire religious worldviews, to large-scale religious institutions, and even to particular houses of worship. This is in fact another set of issues that has preoccupied me since childhood.
Special thanks to Dr. McKim for participating in this interview and for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk to us.
Robert McKim’s faculty page at the University of Illinois