It’s a pleasure to have some of my work featured here in the Cocoon (again!). Thank you to my hosts, the regular Cocoon bloggers, and especially to Marcus Arvan, Pupa-in-Chief.
For this first of three posts, I’ll introduce you to this problem for religious belief and set up how I mean to solve it. In the next two posts, we’ll see if my solution works.
I’m interested in a very old and very common objection to religious belief: a problem of contingency, of irrelevant causal factors, of historical variability. We notice how contingent our religious beliefs are, how much they depend on an accident of birth. If we had been born and raised elsewhere, elsewhen, we easily might have had different religious beliefs. These beliefs have been shaped to a disturbing degree by factors which don’t bear on their truth, factors like who our parents were, what culture we were raised in, which peer-group we happened to admire most, which book we picked up while wandering in the library after school, which conversations we stumbled into in college (and which we didn’t). We so easily might have ended up with different religious beliefs—why trust the ones we chanced into? We may as well consult a Magic 8-Ball on life’s most important questions, you might think.
This skeptical thought is old. One finds it with wit in Xenophanes’s attacks on Greek popular religion, less clearly in Sextus Empiricus, and more clearly in Descartes’ Discourse. It springs up again in J.S. Mill’s On Liberty, and later in Antony Flew’s The Presumption of Atheism. Here’s a nice recent statement of it from John Hick:
[R]eligious allegiance depends in the great majority of cases on the accident of birth: someone born into a devout Muslim family in Pakistan is very likely to be a Muslim, someone born into a devout Hindu family in India to be a Hindu, someone born into a devout Christian family in Spain or Mexico to be a Catholic Christian; and so on. The conclusion I have drawn is that a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ is appropriate in relation to beliefs that have been instilled into one by the surrounding religious culture.
And another from Philip Kitcher:
Most Christians have adopted their doctrines much as polytheists and the ancestor-worshipers have acquired theirs: through early teaching and socialization. Had the Christians been born among the aboriginal Australians, they would believe, in just the same ways, on just the same bases, and with just the same convictions, doctrines about Dreamtime instead of about the Resurrection. The symmetry is complete… Given that they are all on a par, we should trust none of them.
The skeptical thought seems to be this: the connection between many of our religious beliefs and the truth isn’t good enough for knowledge, even if those beliefs are true. And so, when we are made aware of this frail connection, we acquire an undermining defeater for our religious beliefs, we can no longer sensibly claim to know that these religious beliefs are true.
So, I propose that we understand the problem of contingency for religious belief as a problem for religious knowledge, as an argument for the conclusion that, because of the shady way in which they were formed, religious beliefs do not rise to the level of knowledge even if they’re true.
But exactly how is the undermining meant to happen? What’s lacking in the literature—what Xenophanes, Sextus, Descartes, Mill, Flew, Hick, and Kitcher all failed to pony up—is a clear statement of just which epistemic principle our religious beliefs allegedly violate. According to the skeptic, some virtue is missing from our religious beliefs, and this missing virtue precludes knowledge. But which virtue is it? The skeptic stammers where it matters most.
So I thought it would be a service to figure it out. Next time, we’ll explore some candidate virtues that are often taken to be necessary for knowledge and which our religious beliefs may plausibly lack, virtues like sensitivity, safety, and non-accidentality. We’ll also examine the troubling sort of symmetry that Kitcher gestures at: the apparent lack of dispute-independent reasons to ignore all those epistemic peers (and superiors!) who disagree with us on religious questions.
The skeptic’s way forward won’t be easy. Perhaps (as I'll argue) the contingency of our religious beliefs doesn’t really preclude sensitivity, safety, or non-accidentality. Perhaps (as I'll argue) these virtues aren’t even required for knowledge after all. And the skeptic must step lightly to avoid self-defeat: her own “negative” beliefs on religious topics seem at least as contingent as those of the typical religious believer.
Can the skeptic avoid these pitfalls and fashion a sharp challenge to religious belief? Or will the skeptical project dissolve—slowly, harmlessly—like a coastal fog in the afternoon sun? Tune in next time to find out!
(Probably Friday. Maybe Monday.)