Serious Religious Disagreements Help Prevent Charlie Hebdo-like Attacks

Serious Religious Disagreements Helps Prevent Charlie Hebdo-like Attacks

How To better understand —and hopefully avoid—events like the Charlie Hebdo attack

By Professor James Kraft (Huston –Tillotson University)

January 7, 2016          Picture: Philippe Leroyer/Flickr

This article is part of The Critique’s Great War Series Part II: Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech & Religious Violence Exclusive.

This essay discusses a strategy for better understanding—and hopefully avoiding—events like the Charlie Hebdo attack, namely, a strategy distilled from recent discussions in religious studies and philosophy regarding religious disagreement: Let’s see what happens when we take the attack and similar ones as about religious disagreements gone awry. We can see the attack as about the absence of serious religious disagreements. It wasn’t an isolated occurrence. In 2006 there were riots about derogatory cartoon renderings of the Muslim prophets. And after the Charlie Hebdo event there was an attack in my home state of Texas in the USA with very similar characteristics, which many didn’t hear about because a particular off duty policeman was a very good shooter and stopped the attack from taking other lives. So, the strategy we will be talking about has implications well beyond the Paris attack.

Let’s spell out some of the underlying religious disagreements of the Charlie Hebdo attack, and other similar ones, before talking about how serious religious disagreement can help us understand and prevent such attacks. There are certainly at the core of animosities specific disagreements about religion. On the one hand are those who promote the derogatory renderings of the Muslim prophets. They believe at the very least that Muhammad didn’t receive a revelation from God through the angel Gabriel, otherwise they wouldn’t be picturing Muhammad in such derogatory ways. While I haven’t presented written support for my understanding of their beliefs, it is appropriate to make this claim given the sort of extremely derogatory cartoons of Muhammad that they published. The worst one I can think of is a cartoon rendering of Muhammad kneeling down and viewed from behind through his legs with his scrotum hanging down. Nobody on the planet would have anything to do with publishing such a picture if they believed that Muhammad actually received a revelation from God through the angel Gabriel.

On the other hand are the attackers who certainly believe Muhammad did receive a revelation from God through the prophet Gabriel. It is pretty standard Islam to believe so. The attackers saw themselves as standing up for the honor, sacredness, and importance of the revelation of God to Muhammad. And they saw themselves as upholding the very traditional dictate against picturing the prophets, whether Muhammad, Jesus, or Moses.

Now let’s apply some recent developments in philosophy and religious studies as regards disagreements. You might think that people must avoid religious disagreements for there to be peace and tolerance. Yet, serious religious disagreements actually help promote lasting peace, tolerance, and even spiritual development. When a person has a disagreement with a cognitive peer (that is, people equivalently knowledgeable about the issue and equivalently capable of evaluating the details of the issue) the other brings up considerations the person hasn’t adequately taken into account; otherwise the other isn’t a cognitive peer.

Evidence of cognitive peer disagreement is evidence one has made a mistake (Richard Feldman famously says something similar.). Perhaps one should just trust that the process producing the belief about religion is functioning properly (as does Alvin Plantinga, arguably the most famous Christian philosopher alive today) or is reliable (John Greco). But the more one sees the other as having command of the relevant details and as having similar skills for thinking with the honesty and sincerity required to get a correct understanding, the more the trust just mentioned is undermined. The more the opponent demonstrates similar skills and a comparable command of the details, the more one should begin to rethink one’s own view. We are told to treat similar situations similarly. Why should I think I got it right if the other uses similar skills and similar command of the details to come up with the alternative? As one learns more about the other with such similarities surfacing this should lead to humility even with respect to the most deeply held views about religion, and this humility in turn should promote tolerance. In the literature of the epistemology of disagreement, a cognitive peer is often called an “epistemic peer.”

“The more the opponent demonstrates similar skills and a comparable command of the details, the more one should begin to rethink one’s own view”.

Also, the sophisticated opponent listens intensely to the opposing justification given, and describes vivid possibilities for how one has made a mistake. Like the skeptic, the opponent in a disagreement presents mistake possibilities that one can’t rule out with the allotted justification one has, and that one comes to believe need to be ruled out in order to remain just as confident that one has adequate justification for one’s belief. The target of the opponent’s wrath is the justification one feels for one’s belief regarding religion. And such loss of some confidence in the justification of one’s belief is very troubling, since justification is like (as Plato says in the Meno) a tether that holds a valuable thing in one’s possession. We are more likely to hold on to beliefs that we feel are adequately justified, since it is justification that assures one that one’s belief is more likely true than false. The more symmetries of skill level and background knowledge, the more difficult it is to rule out the mistake possibilities presented by the cognitive peer.

In addition to this intuitive argument for reduction caused by the need and inability to rule out vivid mistake possibilities, good empirical evidence exists that challenging and vivid presentations of mistake possibilities reduces the confidence one has in the justification of one’s belief. Just one example is given in the work of Westley Buckwalter (For example, Knowledge, Stakes, and MistakesNoûs, 2013).

The most formidable cognitive peer in these ways presents similarities and mistake possibilities that reduce the confidence one has in the justification of one’s belief regarding religion. It isn’t that one necessarily loses one’s belief regarding the religious matter, rather one has at least slightly less confidence in its justification. And this reduction in confidence in justification tends to result in more tolerance. Humans are limited in their ability to justify their beliefs in the most challenging situations such as religious disagreements with epistemic peers. Perhaps God always has adequate justification for her beliefs in all contexts, but humans don’t. Whether or not you believe the Hebrew story about Adam and Eve literally happened, the message is that humans ought to accept their limited knowledge and not eat from the tree of the fruit of knowledge. Here we have a strategy, based on the epistemology and psychology of religious disagreement, for understanding and hopefully avoiding events like the Charlie Hebdo attack. This epistemic strategy may not be the only one, but it can be very effective (If you want the think more about this issue, you could read my book on the topic: The Epistemology of Religious Disagreement, Palgrave/Macmillan, 2012).

Besides tolerance-producing humility, serious religious disagreements have other desirable by-products. They build skills for living with others who hold radically different religious views. In the year 2050 many believe our planet will have around 9 billion people, and such skills will be even more crucial for facilitating tolerance. Serious religious disagreements help people see better what they deeply believe and the justification they have for beliefs. Serious religious disagreements force one to learn more about the others at the deepest level.

It is one thing to read in a book that Hindus believe in reincarnation. It is quite another thing to listen to your intelligent neighbor explain why she has organized her entire life around such a belief. It is harder to discriminate against another when knowing why they believe what they believe.

Serious disagreements develop tools for reducing racism and xenophobia. One thing characteristic of racists or xenophobes is that they generally don’t care about what the other thinks. Serious religious disagreement involve an openness at the deepest level to what the other is thinking, an openness that seeks the deepest level of understanding of the other’s view. At the very same time it challenges one’s own confidence in religious beliefs. Also, serious religious disagreements make us more human. On the one hand it seems strange to say this, since all of us share the right amount of chromosomes needed to be human. On the other hand, serious religious disagreements make us aware of the diversity of perspectives around the world, and force us to see, and reflect on, the different ways that people around the world come to their most cherished beliefs. They help us see the range and depth of human thought, what humans are capable of, and this makes us understand better what it means to be human. The realization of the depth, breadth, limitations and cultural/historical contingency of human thought makes us more human. Most people on the planet, when asked why they believe, will say, “Because it is the way I was raised.”

When serious disagreements stop taking place, this paves the way for Charlie-Hebdo-like attacks. Each side closes themselves off from the other’s views. On the Charlie Hebdo side, they fortified themselves with security guards knowing that they have been attacked in the past and that it is likely it will happen again. Similarly, they fortified themselves against serious disagreements about religion with their opponents.

The attackers likewise fortified themselves against the Charlie Hebdo publishers. They wanted nothing to do with them other than to kill them. It isn’t time to talk, to reason, to think and consider, they thought. It is time for action. In this they fortified themselves against any serious religious disagreement.

Let’s respond to serious criticisms of this view from both sides. From the side of the attackers the criticism can be imagined that serious religious disagreement has been tried, and no humility has come from the other side, and this is exactly why violence is needed as the next step. The unbelievers have disgraced the memory of the prophet exactly because they are unbelievers. They would go to hell anyway and we might as well send them there earlier, they thought. But in this, where is the recognition of the limitations of the human ability to support even the most cherished claim? An intellectually honest Muslim would take seriously the considerations of the sophisticated critic who brings up very specific and difficult challenges pointing to human limitations concerning knowledge regarding the origin of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or any other religion or anti religion on the planet. Humility resulting from serious epistemic peer disagreement is a two way street.

From the side of the Charlie Hebdo publishers, you can imagine the criticism also that serious disagreement about religion has been tried. The extremists don’t have any humility about the limitations of knowing that Muhammad—or Christ, or Abraham, or Moses—received a revelation from God. It is time to insist on derogatory publications of the prophet, since this is a matter of human freedom of speech, and since we want them to show their true colors by engaging, before the jury of the world, in violent activities. Someone has to stand up and be willing to die for the freedom of speech. But where is the humility in this? An intellectually honest publisher of derogatory cartoons would take seriously the considerations of the sophisticated critic who brings up very specific and difficult challenges pointing to the human limitations concerning knowledge against the origins of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or any other religion or anti religion on the planet. Humility resulting from serious religious disagreement is a two way street.

One can pitch one’s flag and declare the other to be completely ignorant and unworthy of discussion, but that denies both the epistemic limitations of being human and that epistemic peers are often members of the opposing side. Interestingly, there are deep similarities among the members of both sides, the desire not to engage in serious religious disagreement, the denial of opposing epistemic peers, extreme conviction, and the lack of recognition of human limitations for knowledge. Both sides are willing to die for what they believe. Both sides aren’t able to admit the human limitations to support beliefs ultimately. Both sides aren’t opening themselves up to the humbling challenge of serious religious disagreement with epistemic peers. Of course they are miles apart with respect to what they believe regarding religion. But, they are ironically, and even shockingly and destructively, similar in how they believe what they believe. Let us all encourage serious religious disagreements as a way to help prevent Charlie-Hebdo-like attacks!

James Kraft
James Kraft
Dr. James Kraft is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Huston-Tillotson University.
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