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Belief and Disagreement – An Interview with Kelly James Clark

Interviewer: Islam Saad

It gives me great pleasure to have this discussion with you. I would like to discuss “Philosophy of Religion Between Tolerance and Violence.” I seek to develop a couple of questions regarding this point, then, we will engage in epistemology and the nature of beliefs, especially religious beliefs.

1- Is there a difference between a theologian and a philosopher of religion? Can one become both?

I think there’s a fine but semi-distinct line between theology and philosophy of religion. In one of the universities that I taught at, the theology department was at one end of the hall and the philosophy department was at the other. In the middle of the hall, someone posted two signs, with arrows pointing in opposite directions. One, with the arrow pointing to the Philosophy department, said, “Unanswered questions.” The other, pointing to the Theology department said, “Unquestioned answers.” I think this illustrates a possible difference in attitude and maybe approach. I think, although philosophers and theologians may discuss exactly the same issues, philosophers are (or should be) less dogmatic, more open to criticism and more reliant on argument. That said, philosophers, too, can be dogmatic and closed to criticism. Both philosophy and theology are human disciplines and, as such, liable to all of the human biases we find in less well-trained human beings.

2- Do you agree with the distinction between believing “that” and believing “in”, or, between belief and faith? Is the first rational, at least in part, and the latter a matter of affection?

I think both believing that and believing in are matters of, for lack of better terms, reason and affection. I think that because I think, like William James, that even our most abstract, metaphysical beliefs are ultimately rooted in some basic human affections. Maybe in mathematics and physics our affections play a considerably lesser role, but in every other domain we are subject to our affections (though we seldom recognize them and even more seldomly concede them).  I recommend a careful reading of William James, “The Present Dilemma in Philosophy” in his Pragmatism. Of course, “belief in” might seem more affectional—I believe in my wife’s fidelity, I believe in my children’s prospects for the future—these have a faith element that one doesn’t see so clearly in believing that. Yet even believings that can have a less obvious faith element. “I believe that Messi is the best football player in the world” and “I believe that physical theories are mostly predictive devices (and tell us little about an unseen reality)” are every bit as loaded with affection as “I believe that there is a God” or “I believe Mohammed was a prophet.”

3- Is it rationally unjustified to appeal to the metaphysical? Why?

Of course not. And, yet, of course there is a movement in positivist and post-positivist philosophy that thinks otherwise. I think we appeal (rationally) to the abstract existence of numbers, propositions and properties, for example, because they are really good, maybe even the best, explanation of elementary arithmetic, meaningfu l sentences and human communication, and, finally, human categorical cognition. Even if the Platonist is wrong, I think he or she is not clearly wrong and so is rational in her metaphysical commitments. And I think one can reasonably appeal to a host of other, more existentially compelling, metaphysical entities such as God, morality and free will (even though some enthusiastically disagree).

4-  In your last book God and the Brain – the Rationality of Belief, you wrote: “We also typically think we are smarter and morally better than those who disagree with us, and we favor evidence that confirms our current beliefs (and we blissfully ignore evidence that opposes them).” Why do others’ beliefs seem irrational to us, prima facie?

It’s not so much, at bottom, that others’ belief seems irrational, as that our beliefs seem to us utterly and obviously rational. My beliefs seem rational simply because they are mine. This is as well established as any truth in cognitive psychology. We are, for lack of a better term, belief-narcissists. Our beliefs seem the paradigm of the True, the Right and the Beautiful. Should someone disagree with us, we discount or ignore their disagreement; should someone agree with us, we unduly attend to or praise their agreement (confirmation bias). How could others be so wrong on issues where we think ourselves paragdigmatically right? How could someone vote for Trump when it is so clear (to me) that he is a wicked, divisive man? The Republicans are, I think (maybe only to myself), irrational or immoral or even crazy. Because the belief seems so right and so obvious to me, we need to appeal to their “obvious” disregard of reason or morality or even normality.

5- How can people of conflicting beliefs coexist without societal animosity?

I think, for the sake of humanity, we need to cultivate the virtues of intellectual humility and tolerance. The former requires developing a healthy sense of, “I believe that p, but I might be wrong about p” (especially when p is not obvious or not widely accepted) and “I believe that p, but I can see why someone might reasonably disagree with me about p.” Note that intellectual humility does not require giving up one’s deepest beliefs. But it does require fighting against confirmation bias. For p, you might fill in “Islam” or “Christianity” or “the politics of Trump” or “socialism” or…. And tolerance requires us to cultivate respect for those who disagree with us. If we cultivate respect for those we disagree with then we cannot demonize their disagreement—we think they are fully human, fully sincere seekers of the truth (just as we think ourselves to be).

6- What are the cognitive faculties implicated in belief in God?

While quite a number of cognitive faculties are likely implicated, there is deep agreement on at least two of them—the, so-called, Agency Detecting Device (ADD) and the so-called, Theory of Mind. The basic idea with ADD is that upon some stimulation, like the rustling of grasses on the Serengeti, we are inclined to attribute the rustling to an agent (something that can act of its own accord); we are disposed, ADD holds, to easily attribute agency, without rational reflection, to a wide variety of phenomena—grasses, of course, but also clouds, rivers, mountains, lions, llamas, and persons. Some of that agency is misattributed—clouds, rivers and mountains are not agents (but lions, llamas and people are). And we are inclined to easily attribute intention and purpose to a wide variety of phenomena (Theory of Mind). So, we might think that the lion is hungry and wants to eat us (and so run), the face in the cloud portends rain, and that the person is a friend. Some attributions of agency and purpose appeal to disembodied spirits such as ghosts, deceased ancestors and gods. And, throughout human history, gods evolved into so-called “Big Gods” which are the source of morality, concerned for morality, widely knowing, and providential (they reward the righteous and punish the wicked).

7- Is the theory of evolution one of the basic reasons for believing that the relation between science and religion is based on conflict?

I think science and religion find themselves in conflict when it comes to various origins stories, when religion tells one story and science (apparently) tells a conflicting story. I think some Abrahamic believers think that either the creation story (in, say, six days) or the creation of Adam (from, say, the clay) conflict with the contemporary evolutionary story of the emergence of species including the human species through descent with modification. To take my Christian tradition, I think it a major theological and biblical to think the scriptures teach creation in six literal days and creation of everything by the direct hand of God; Augustine pointed out these theological and scriptural errors in De Genesi ad Litteram around 400 A.D., long before the introduction of Darwinian evolution.

8- Why has naturalism become the favored philosophical stance in academic circles? Or, as you phrase it: Is it all good?

I think there’s a causal, historical story of the rise of naturalism in the western academy (I take it that naturalism is not dominant in, say, Africa or the Middle East). I think that many scholars, including some very influential ones, grew increasingly dissatisfied with the dominance of Christianity and for very good reasons. Christianity stood on the side of slavery and against women for nearly 2,000 years. Christianity allied itself with racism against black people and bigotry against Muslims and Jews. Shame on Christianity. Of course, I think the gospel of Jesus clearly opposes slavery, misogyny, racism and bigotry. I think Christianity properly understood opposes such hatred and oppression, endorsing instead love and justice. But many scholars believed that Christianity itself was an essential part of the problem and so rejected Christianity and its God. When asked, why they are naturalists, naturalists will offer a different explanation. They will claim that there’s not enough evidence to rationally believe in God, or that there’s too much evil in the world, or that science is in conflict with religion. But I think that underneath their attempt to offer dispassionate reasons for their naturalism lies a deep disliking of Christianity (and, more recently, if you follow Dawkins and Sam Harris, Islam).

9- What is your advice for those studying, or at least reading sincerely, philosophy? How do we use philosophy for our mental capabilities? How can philosophy have a positive impact on our lives?

I think there are many benefits from the study of philosophy. For some of us, unfettered inquiry is a joy (just as obscure mathematical proofs are a joy others). I just plain like thinking hard about things. What I’ve learned has also made me better at assessing evidence; I’ve been involved with psychologists in empirical studies and I’ve also critically assessed and even rejected some alleged empirical “results” because the evidence is either mistaken or doesn’t support the conclusion. Finally, there is a more spiritual, less critical side to philosophy. While the Western tradition has more emphasized the critical aspects of philosophy, there have always been minor voices—from the Stoics and Epicureans to Wittgenstein—who defend the therapeutic aspects of philosophy. In this latter regard, you might enjoy reading Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life.

10- I am fully aware of your efforts to spread tolerance and humility between people from different nations. What are your current efforts for achieving that?

I try to work with young academics—phd students and young professors—that I’ve identified as thought leaders or potential thought leaders. I work mostly with Muslims, Christians and Jews in N. Africa and the Middle East. I use academic projects to bring scholars together and then we spend time together building bridges across some deep socio-political divides. I just finished a million-dollar project, “Randomness and Providence in Islam, Christianity and Judaism,” that brought together philosophers, theologians, biologists and physicists from all over the world—Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, USA, Germany, Austria, Indonesia, etc. We produced a high-level scholarly book, Abrahamic Reflections on Randomness and Providence, which can be downloaded for free here: And we also worked against anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia and for tolerance and peace. I’m currently directing a project on the afterlife with scholars in Israel and Turkey. I hope to secure funding for a project in Israel and Muslim-majority countries on the aesthetic cognition of empathy (and how empathy can be tapped into across religious divides). Finally, I’m nearly done writing a book on love in the Abrahamic traditions.

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