What is Disagreement? – Part III




This is Part 3 of a 4-part series on the academic, and specifically philosophical study of disagreement. In Part 1 we discussed the basics of this field: the different kinds of disagreement and the different kinds of agents who can disagree. In Part 2, we gave an overview of the four major stances within the research field of peer disagreement. In this third part, we will apply what we have learned in Parts 1 and 2 to explore some potential ramifications and complexities of an otherwise abstract debate. Religion will be our study case.

Part 3: Religious Disagreement

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An Example of Peer Disagreement: Religion

I would argue that few debate areas showcase the meaning and implications of disagreement as clearly as that of religious diversity. “Religious diversity” refers to the mere fact that there exist multiple religious worldviews and that their beliefs often seem to contradict each other. As it turns out, many scholars who are active in peer disagreement are also active in religious diversity, and some of the major names in the field of peer disagreement are motivated by religious concerns. The debate between the advocates of the Equal Weight View and those of the Steadfast View, for example, sometimes assumes religious connotations: the former might argue that, given the disagreements between religious worldviews, all religious people should drastically reduce their confidence in the degree to which they believe their worldview is correct. The latter, on the other hand, might argue that one is justified in holding on to their religious beliefs, independently of the disagreement. Let us examine specific examples.

Disagreement and Religious Beliefs

William Alston, one of the more prominent philosophers both within peer disagreement and within religious diversity, famously defends a Steadfast View. At the basis of his argument we find the idea that epistemic justification is always circular. In other words, there exists no universal way of determining that a belief is fully justified. Why does one, for example, believe they are justified in trusting their sense experience? They either simply do, which is not much of a justification, or they believe so because there is a track record (i.e., so far it has worked just fine), but in that case, one is using experience to justify experience itself. Alston believes this circularity is inevitable in any attempt at epistemic justification regardless of the subject matter.

Now, in those debates in which there appears to be a shared ground for judgment – say, scientific debates in which it is assumed that empirical evidence is reliable – one should be willing to revise their beliefs in light of disagreements. However, when people do not agree on one set of standards for judgment no one position can be said to be more justified than the others. Alston argues that this is often the case for religious questions: some believe that religious matters should be resolved empirically, others phenomenologically, others by studying sacred texts, and still others by trusting the Church’s authority. When it comes to many religious disputes then, since there is no shared ground for judgement, every religious tradition can consider their specific methods of forming beliefs (their “doxastic practices”) as justified as those of other traditions. (With the further specification that these traditions have to be “established,” meaning that their doxastic practices must have a good track record). This ultimately means that it can be rational to stay steadfast in one’s religious beliefs in the face of disagreement.

Even though Alston’s view is commonly classified as a Steadfast View, it shares with Justificationism the conviction that disagreement in itself can be completely irrelevant to whether one should revise their belief or not. Alvin Plantinga, another major scholar working on religious disagreement, gives a full justificationist spin to Alston’s approach. Plantinga argues that what truly counts when disagreeing is whether one’s beliefs were formed reliably before the disagreement itself. “Reliable” means for him that the belief is non-accidentally produced by a properly functioning cognitive process, in an appropriate environment. A reconstruction of the full argument is not possible here. It suffices to say that Plantinga believes that the Christian dogmas are reliable beliefs, in this sense of the word. This ultimately means that the presence of different religions, sometimes in disagreement with each other, is irrelevant to whether one should abandon their faith.

These examples can give us a general idea of how complexly ramified the application of abstract debates on peer disagreement to specific scenarios can be. Focusing on religious diversity can also give us an indication of the broader theoretical implications of peer disagreement. To show this, we can turn our attention to the three main theories of religious diversity.

Disagreement and Religious Worldviews

There exist three main theories within the field of religious diversity: exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. Exclusivists believe that only one religion – usually the religion they adhere to – is the correct one. This position is not as popular among scholars as it used to be, especially given how informed everyone is about the potential dangers of such a stance. Many religious scholars prefer to hold an inclusivist position: my religion is the better, or more correct one, but other religions can also have good insights, or fit other people better than mine (perhaps because of the different cultural backgrounds). Finally, pluralism is a particularly popular view in academic circles nowadays, especially given the direct connection with tolerance it seems to imply. The idea is that, within determined boundaries, all religions are equally right or true.

Now, I believe we can see clear analogies between these three positions on religious diversity and the takes on disagreement we have been studying. Exclusivism, for example, often goes hand in hand with a Steadfast View: I am justified in holding on to my beliefs, despite other people disagreeing with me; therefore, I am justified in believing that my religion is the only true one. Inclusivism can instead be understood as a consequence of a Total Evidence View: After having considered all the available evidence, I believe that my religion is closer to the truth than others; but I cannot deny the useful, or meaningful insights presented by other religious worldviews. Finally, pluralism can emerge from Justificationism: all religions appear to be equally justified in holding the beliefs they hold, therefore, we should take them to be equally true.

My point is not that certain stances on disagreement and certain stances on religious diversity always go together. As a matter of fact, with some creativity, all the positions in one field can be paired with all the positions in the other field. What I am rather interested in pointing out is how far-reaching the implications of one’s abstract opinions on disagreement can be. As we will see in Part 4, they can even influence one’s beliefs about truth, knowledge, and the purpose of philosophy in general.

In the fourth and final part of this series, we will follow this last remark and explore the wider implications of what could be called “global-scale” disagreement: the fact that humans all over the world appear to disagree on virtually any subject ever. As we will see, while some have seen this fact as a major reason for despair, others have found it to be the very proof that (capital T) Truth exists.

Read Part 1 of this series

Read part 2 of this series

Read part 4 of this series

You also may be interested in: How to Argue With People


Alston, W. P. (2014). Perceiving God. Cornell University Press.

Christensen, D. A., & Lackey, J. (2013). The Epistemology of Disagreement.

Epistemic Circularity | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (n.d.).

Frances, B., & Matheson, J. (2018). Disagreement (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Matheson, J. (2015). The Epistemic Significance of Disagreement. Springer.

Plantinga, A. (2000). Warranted Christian Belief. Oxford University Press.

Religious Disagreement | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (n.d.).

Religious diversity, theories of | internet encyclopedia of philosophy. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


Alberto Cavallarin completed a Bachelor Degree in Philosophy at Ca’ Foscari University (Venice, Italy) and a Research Master Degree in Philosophy at Utrecht University (Netherlands). He graduated with a thesis on the metaphysical and epistemological status of mystical experiences; i.e., whether the word “truth” applies to such states. His current interests include (religious) disagreement and non-ordinary experiences.

Instagram: @alberto_cavallari



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