Religious disagreements are conspicuous in everyday life. Most societies, except perhaps for theocracies or theocracy-like regimes, show a diversity of religious beliefs, a diversity that young children already are aware of. One emerging topic of interest in the social epistemology of religion is how we should respond to religious disagreement. How should you react if you are confronted with someone who seems equally intelligent and thoughtful, who has access to the same evidence as you do, but who nevertheless ends up with very different religious beliefs? Should you become less confident about your beliefs, or suspend judgment? Or is it permissible to accord more weight to your own beliefs than to those of others?
In November and December 2014, I surveyed philosophers about their views on religious disagreement. I was not only interested in finding out what philosophers think about disagreements about religious topics in the profession (for instance, do they consider other philosophers as epistemic peers, or do they take the mere fact of disagreement as an indication that the other can’t be right?), but also in the influence of personal religious beliefs and training. I present a brief summary of results below the fold; a longer version can be found here.
518 philosophers completed the survey in the course of November and December 2014. 77.6% of respondents were male, 20.7% female, and 1.5% other. The majority came from English-speaking countries: The United States (48.3%), the United Kingdom (15%), Canada (7.2%), and Australia (3.7%). Most respondents outside of the English-speaking world came from Germany (5.4%). The average age of respondents was 37.5 years (SD = 12.1 years).
Religious views: many philosophers of religion are theists, and they are regular churchgoers
Philosophers were asked to describe their current religious beliefs, and given the choice between theism, atheism, agnostic or undecided, and another view. The majority of respondents were atheists (50.2%), followed by 25.5% theists, 16.4% agnostics, and 7.9% who held another view. This latter category is quite heterogeneous; here is a selection of responses:
“Effectively: atheist; strictly: Russellian teapot-agnostic”
“Some kind of pantheism or panentheism”
“Spiritual, but not a classical theist.”
The theists in the sample are regular attenders of religious services. Of the philosophers who are theists (N=130), only .8% never attend religious services 6.9% do so rarely, 9.2% a few times a year, 3.8% about once a month, 13.8% a few times a month, 43.1% once a week, and 22.3% more than once a week.
In line with previous surveys among professional philosophers (e.g., Bourget & Chalmers in press), there is a positive correlation between theism and philosophy of religion as an area of specialization (r= .258). In this sample, theists are disproportionately represented in philosophy of religion (60.5%). By contrast, atheists and agnostics are underrepresented in philosophy of religion (22%, and 6.7% respectively).
Philosophers frequently regard colleagues with whom they disagree as epistemic peers
I asked philosophers when they read or heard a religious view defended by another philosopher, how often they considered that person to be an epistemic peer. Respondents could answer on a seven-point scale, ranging from “never” to “always”. Results indicate that philosophers regard religious peer disagreement as relatively common, with only a minority of respondents reporting that they rarely or never encounter an epistemic peer. The median response was “sometimes, 40-60% of cases”.
Given that philosophers of religion take more part in specialized discussions on religious matters than philosophers without this specialization, I predicted they would report a higher frequency of peer disagreement. This was confirmed: the median response for philosophers of religion was “frequently, in 70-80% of cases”, whereas the median response for philosophers without this specialization was “sometimes, in 40-60% of cases”. A Mann-Whitney test for independent samples indicated that this difference was significant (N=518, U = 20218.5, p = .022).
Intellectual Virtues most important in assessing whether someone is an epistemic peer
Participants were asked what they considered to be the most important factor in deciding whether someone is an epistemic peer in a religious disagreement. They were offered the choice between an epistemic virtues account, an evidence account, and a probability to be right or wrong account. The majority of respondents (60%) thought virtues were the most important factor, followed by evidence (17%).
What should you do when confronted with an epistemic peer?
Respondents were asked what they thought one should do if confronted with disagreement with an epistemic peer in general, and what one should do in a religious disagreement. For both questions, respondents could choose between conciliationism/conformism: you are required to accord weight to your peer’s attitude, steadfastness/nonconformism: you are not required to accord weight to your peer’s attitude, and another view.
For the general case, the majority of respondents (54.1%) thought conciliationism was the proper attitude, 23.7% selected a steadfast position, and 22.2% opted for another view. For this option, they specified a wide range of views:
“There is no generally appropriate reaction (no way to tell in advance whether to hold fast or change your beliefs)”
“The belief that p has the burden of proof; the sceptical belief (not-p) does not. If I hold that p, I accord as much weight to the peer’s attitude as my burden of proof requires.”
“It depends. In some cases (as Christensen’s check-splitting cases) it is rationally obligatory to conciliate. But not all cases are like this.”
There was a high consistency between responses for the general and the religious case (r=.691). 40.2% of respondents were conciliationists for both cases, and 21.8% of respondents were steadfasters for both situations, 16.9% preferred another view for both. The remaining respondents had differing answers for the religious and the general case. Only 1.4% of respondents thought conciliationism was appropriate for the religious case, but steadfastness was in general the best attitude. By contrast, 8.6% of respondents thought that while conciliationism was the most appropriate in general cases, religious disagreements required a steadfast position. To examine whether this is a significant difference, I performed a McNemar’s test for paired categorical variables, focusing philosophers who responded either “conciliationism” or “steadfastness” on the question of general cases, and comparing their responses to the religious cases. The number of people who responded conciliationism-general and steadfast-religion (N=44) was significantly higher than the number of philosophers who responded conciliationism-religion and steadfast-general (N=7), (p < .00001).
This suggests that philosophers do have differing intuitions about religious case as opposed to idealized, generalized scenarios. In particular, a significant percentage of philosophers think one should generally accord weight to one’s peer’s attitude, but think a steadfast attitude is more appropriate for religious cases.
Theists and agnostics are less inclined than atheists to think they are in a better epistemic position in cases of religious disagreement
As we have seen, philosophers think they are sometimes involved in disagreements on religious matters with epistemic peers. But in many cases, they think there is an asymmetry. When such an asymmetry occurred, who is in the better epistemic position? The options were: (1) in the majority of cases I am in a better epistemic position (2) in the majority of cases, they are in a better epistemic position (3) in about half of cases, it’s they, in the other half it’s me.
Unsurprisingly, most philosophers (71.1%) thought that they were mostly in a better epistemic position, followed by 26.5% of respondents who thought they were in the better position half of the time, and 2.4% who thought that the other was usually in the better position.
I tested whether religious belief might make a difference in how epistemically modest our respondents were. One could argue that theists, because they adhere to religious beliefs that have their own epistemological criteria of acceptance, would be less epistemologically modest (i.e., more likely to choose option 1). On the other hand, theists might be involved in different religious debates than atheists, for instance, about whether Hell exists, or about which concept of the Trinity is correct, fine-grained discussions where they might feel less confident they are right than the more coarse-grained discussions on whether theism or naturalism is true.
Overall, theists, atheists, agnostics and those who have other beliefs differed in how often they thought they were in an epistemically better position in religious discussions, X2(6, N = 457) = 33.4, p = .000001. After Bonferroni correction, the following responses remained significantly different: theists responded less frequently that they were in an epistemically better position than atheists (p = .0018), a similar pattern was observed for agnostics (p = .0004). Theists were also more likely to respond they were correct in half of cases (p = .0035) compared to atheists, as were agnostics (p=.0028). There were no significant pairwise differences between those who self-identified as holding another view and any of the other positions.
Atheists responded more frequently than expected that they were correct in the majority of cases (p < .00001) and less frequently that they were correct in half of cases (p < .00001) than theists and agnostics.
Philosophers see religious beliefs as fact-like in character, but those with a training in continental philosophy or nonwestern philosophical traditions, as well as agnostics and philosophers who hold nonstandard religious beliefs are less inclined to do this
Some authors (e.g., van Leeuwen, 2014) have argued that religious credences lack properties that are characteristic of factual belief. One characteristic element of factual beliefs, such as scientific statements, is that two people who hold incompatible beliefs about them cannot both be right.
To examine whether philosophers regard religious beliefs as more fact-like or more preference-like, I asked participants about a scenario of religious disagreement “Jesse thinks there is a god, and Tim thinks there is no god, Is it possible for both of them to be right?”. The majority of philosophers (72.7%) thought it was impossible that both are right, 18.4% thought it was possible that both are right, and the remaining 8.9% was not sure. So philosophers seem to predominantly regard religious beliefs as fact rather than subjective preferences. By comparison, of the adults in the study by Heiphetz et al, about 60% of adults responded that both could be right in matters of religious doctrine, compared to only 20% responded that both could be right about factual statements. Philosophers thus seem to significantly differ from adults from the general population in viewing religious beliefs as more fact-like.
Interestingly, though, different religious outlooks did result in differences in the extent to which philosophers think incompatible religious beliefs can both be right. Atheists are significantly less likely to say “yes, it is possible that both are right” (13.6% of atheists, p =.001), whereas agnostics are less likely than theists and atheists to state, “no, it is impossible that both are right (56.6% of agnostics, p = .001). People who identify with another view are more likely to say than theists and atheists, “yes it is possible that both are right” (43.6% of other view, p < .00001), and significantly less frequently state “it is impossible that both are right” (56.6% of other view, p = .0002).
Does philosophical specialization make a difference? When one compares analytic and continental philosophy of religion, there is a marked difference in style and approach (see Trakakis 2007, for a review). Particularly, analytic philosophers approach religious questions in a way that is reminiscent of scientific inquiry. By contrast, continental philosophers draw more on literary criticism and literature.
This leads to the prediction that analytic philosophers regard religious claims as fact-like in character. By contrast, continental philosophers are less concerned with truth claims and subjecting religious beliefs to thought experiments and other tests. I found a significant effect of continental philosophy as an area of specialization, X2(2, N = 510) = 17.19, p = .0002. Posthoc tests with Bonferroni corrections for multiple comparisons reveal that continental philosophers (N=67) were more likely to think that both could be right (37.3% of continental philosophers) than philosophers who were not continental philosophers (N=443), where only 16.5% thought both could be right (p < .0001). A similar trend was observed with philosophers who studied non-western philosophical traditions (N=28), where 46.4% of respondents believed it was possible for both to be right, compared to 17.6% of philosophers who do not specialize in nonwestern traditions (p < .0001). There were no other effects for philosophical specialization on this question when controlling for multiple comparisons. Non-significant but potentially interesting trends were observed for history of philosophy, which gave a slightly higher likelihood to answer “yes”, p =.002, but not significant after controlling for multiple comparisons and for epistemology, with a slightly lower likelihood of answering “yes”, with 12% of epistemologists answering yes, versus 22% of non-epistemologists, p = .002, not significant after Bonferroni correction.
To conclude, this empirical study reveals that personal beliefs (religious background) and philosophical specialization influence the views of philosophers on religious disagreement.
Note: I am cross-posting this on three blogs, because I advertised the survey on three different blogs. Many thans to everyone who participated.