Confidence is not Bigotry

If a committed Christian arrives for her first year at college and is confronted with the plethora of religious and so-called non-religious belief systems is she obligated to take a step back and conduct a check on her own belief system? If so, what is it that makes such a religious self-check obligatory? What kind of check is required and by what standard?

It seems intuitively probable that most people, given a particular upbringing and personal history, would be open to a cross examination of what they hold to be true. "Have I merely swallowed what my parents/youth pastor have taught me without sufficient critical thought? Should I at least consider the possibility that other people might be right and that I am wrong about what is true?" But, for some, the lack of any kind of doubt in a system of belief amounts to a kind of bigotry. They contend that unchecked, maximal confidence in religious commitments is morally suspect since it fails to take up the challenge to those commitments implicit in an encounter with other belief systems.

Furthermore, such an unchecked, maximal confidence often leads many to attempt to persuade others of the veracity of their beliefs. This, for those who object to such confidence, is morally repugnant. From such confidence, they suggest, comes the passion to "impose" such beliefs on others. There is, therefore, an objection to the confidence and to the ensuing proselytism. And, since a person with maximal confidence is more than likely to want to convince others of her view, the two objections are equally paired.

The problem is what, if anything, obligates the Christian to conduct such a self-check? One suggestion is that she is obligated to check her beliefs if those of competing beliefs are on an equal epistemic footing. If there is no reason to suggest that those committed to other belief systems are less able to form rational beliefs, then, it is argued, the Christian should check her own beliefs in some way. However, as Plantinga argues, it may be that one belief in that system is that she is favored in her epistemic position. For the Christian, Plantinga suggests, this might be the belief that the Holy Spirit has given her special illumination in her understanding of the word of God in scripture.

The difficulty with Plantinga's idea is that the epistemic equality thesis is undiminished if other people, as part of their system of belief have a similar belief that they are specially favored in their ability to form a belief. For example, one of those beliefs might be that in order to have maximal confidence one must have been through a certain amount of doubt. Since the Christian refuses to undergo such a process she is less justified in her position.

Another solution, put forward by Jerome Gellman, is to suggest that checking beliefs is only morally obligatory if there is not maximal confidence in such beliefs. What, asks Gellman, would oblige someone who is not already doubtful, to doubt the very thing she has confidence in? It is only once doubt has been introduced that it is obligatory to check to see if such a belief is warranted. But, if there is no doubt, there is no reason to doubt and therefore no obligation.

The response to such a view is that religious tolerance is only possible if one holds to beliefs with a certain amount of epistemic humility. Since religious tolerance is morally desirable and religious intolerance is immoral it is moral to check one's beliefs in order to produce such tolerance.

Another response is to say that since checking one's beliefs supposes that there is a standard by which one must check beliefs by (logic, empirical evidence etc), then it is not clear which standard is more obligatory than another. The Christian may then say that, according to her belief system, the ultimate standard by which all belief systems are checked is the beliefs held by God. And since God has spoken in the scriptures such beliefs are, at least partially, given to human beings by which all beliefs will be measured. The problem is, she will suggest, that any kind of check presupposes a straight line, so to speak, by which to measure any religious claim. The fight then becomes over what that standard should be.

It might be suggested that there is no straight line, but the very idea of a check on beliefs presupposes that such beliefs are checkable. And if a belief is to be checked, it must presumably be checked against something. The most obvious contenders outside the Christian belief system are evidence and reason. Does evidence support the claims of the Christian and are those claims rational? The trouble with this is that the answer, for the Christian is emphatically yes, but evidence and reason are not the grounds for her beliefs if they are devoid of a Christian interpretation based on what God has revealed in scripture. In other words, the Christian worldview is the lens through which reason and evidence are taken into account. Furthermore, the Christian will contend, reason and observation only make sense within a Christian worldview and would not on any other basis.

This last point might sound like a stretch, but consider the alternatives. Human ability to arrive at truth presupposes a plethora of conditions. It presupposes a set of rational rules that govern thought, a human ability to access such rules and to communicate between each other in describing them. It also presupposes that empirical evidence can be accessed and interpreted in such a way that it is possible to arrive at a correct interpretation. The challenge, coming from the Christian, is two fold. First, it seems that what the Christian believes about the world accounts for all these possibilities well. And, second, she can see that all alternatives miss the mark.

But there is one more factor in the discussion worth looking at. An assumption in the epistemic equality thesis is that there is more than one (workable, true, rational, sustainable etc.) worldview. The problem is that in order to check this one has to assume the possibility of more than one possible interpretation of reality. In other words, the Christian might say, if I check my beliefs against anything outside of a Biblical interpretation, I am immediately committed to multiple possible worldviews even if I return to the original Christian Biblical worldview from which I started.

Furthermore, if I agree that it is morally obligatory that worldviews should be critiqued in order to be held, then I am forced to argue that it is immoral to believe that one should hold to one and not another. And to make that last statement I have to arrive at what is moral not from a Christian view of what is morally obligatory, but from another non-biblical source. But one vital component of my Christian belief is that morality for human beings is determined by the character of the Christian God and in no other way. In cross checking in the manner described I am forced to give up this belief before I conduct my check.

I think that it is quite possible to examine lots of worldviews without leaving one's own. The Christian should be allowed to enter a conversation, listening to her new friends, exploring their beliefs, explaining her own without conducting a "self-checking" exercise over the truth of her own system of belief. The check she carries out is the check made against the source of her system - the Bible. This is her authority and the straight line against which she determines the truth of a matter. She should also feel confident in such truth without putting herself through the rational ringer. She should feel equally humble in holding to such a system knowing that her understanding of it is only possible because God has given her eyes to see it and a mind that understands it. And she should feel free to attempt to persuade her friends of the truth of her claims and the falsity of alternatives.  


Slimjim said...

I like how you took the direction of the article concerning "checking" one's worldview back to the fact that this cannot be done in a vacuum in a worldview; and the Transcendental argument (in a compact form) has it's role in this discussion.

Ben Holloway said...

Thanks Slimjim.