Disagreement and the rationality of religious belief
Scott, Kyle Irwin Andrew
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Concerning religious matters there are a wide variety of views held that are often contradictory. This observation creates a problem when it comes to thinking about the rationality of religious belief. Can religious belief be rational for those who are aware of this widespread disagreement? This is a problem for a view in religious epistemology known as reformed epistemology. Alvin Plantinga, one of the leading defenders of this view, has argued that there is no successful argument to show that religious belief is irrational or in any other way epistemically unacceptable – he calls these arguments de jure arguments. I respond to this claim by seeking to develop two new versions of de jure argument that Plantinga has not dealt with. The first of these I call the return of the Great Pumpkin; and the second, the problem of religious disagreement. The return of the Great Pumpkin is an objection that develops an earlier objection that Plantinga has considered called, simply, the Great Pumpkin objection. This objection is that Plantinga’s methodology for defending the rationality of religious belief could be adopted by anyone, no matter how strange their beliefs – even someone who believed in the Great Pumpkin could use it. I develop this objection further by showing that it would be possible for a person with clearly absurd beliefs to find themselves in the same situation as the hypothetical Christian whom Plantinga is seeking to defend. There is, however, a response available to Plantinga, which involves showing how the historical and sociological context in which the person finds themselves makes a difference to the rationality of some of the beliefs that they hold. This discussion naturally leads into the second version of the de jure argument which asks whether knowledge of several religious communities who hold incompatible beliefs undermines the rationality of religious belief. This discussion engages with work in religious epistemology, but also more widely with the literature on the epistemology of disagreement. I consider whether, and in what circumstances, finding out that others disagree with you could ever rationally require you to give up one or more of your beliefs. This issue involves discussion of epistemic peers and defeaters. One of the arguments I consider is that if a religious believer continues to hold on to her religious beliefs in the face of disagreement then that will give her a reason to think that she is epistemically superior, which will lead to dogmatism, and a sort of epistemic arrogance. I respond to such an argument by showing that there is a problem with the inference involved in this argument.