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Finding Common Ground Through Religious Disagreement

How can we use our religious disagreements for good?

Key points

  • Handling religious disagreement first requires acknowledging common ground.
  • Humility — allowing for the possibility that we might be wrong — can open up the space for us to learn from dialogue.
  • To help a loved one with whom you have a religious disagreement, prioritize their emotional well-being over convincing them to see your side.

We live in a world full of differing perspectives, values, and beliefs, especially in the realm of religion. How can we use our religious disagreements for the good of others, ourselves, and the world? In this interview, Matthew Benton shares how we can find common ground despite religious disagreement to cultivate resilience and healthy relationships with others.

Matthew Benton, used with permission
Source: Matthew Benton, used with permission

Matthew A. Benton is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Seattle Pacific University. Previously he was also a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Notre Dame and at the University of Oxford. He earned his PhD in Philosophy from Rutgers University. He writes and teaches primarily in epistemology, philosophy of language, and philosophy of religion. He is co-editor of Knowledge, Belief, and God: New Insights in Religious Epistemology (Oxford University Press, 2018), and of Religious Disagreement and Pluralism (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

Jamie Aten: How would you personally define religious disagreement?

Matthew Benton: I work in epistemology (the theory of knowledge and rational belief), so I focus on religious disagreement arising from contrary beliefs over claims with religious content: such as when someone believes that there is a God, and someone else denies this by believing that there is no God. That case of disagreement between the theist and the atheist we might call extra-religious disagreement: One holds a religious worldview, but the other does not. (What about agnostics, who do not believe either way about there being a God? In one sense, we might regard them as “disagreeing” with both the atheist and theist; but in another sense, they are withholding judgment on this topic, and so perhaps are better counted as neither agreeing nor disagreeing yet.)

We can also distinguish extra-religious disagreement from inter-religious disagreement when we examine disagreements between those of different major religions (between Muslims and Christians, say, or between Hindus and Jews). And finally, we can distinguish intra-religious disagreement, which is what happens when people within a major religion disagree on more specific matters of theology, practice, morality, or whatever (think of the many disagreements between Protestant Christian denominations, or between Protestants and Catholics, or between Jewish movements).

JA: What are some ways religious disagreement can bring people together and help us live more resiliently?

MB: One aspect of such distinctions is that we can identify religious agreements even between those who disagree in other ways, which allows us to acknowledge a lot of common ground. So monotheists in the broadly Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions agree (inter-religious) on a lot in their religious worldview (namely, that there is one God who created the universe and who has revealed God’s self to us in various ways), even though they have inter-religious disagreements with (say) non-theistic Buddhists or extra-religious disagreements with atheists.

Looked at one way then, there is large scale (inter-) religious agreement on a theistic worldview among such monotheists; and there is even broader agreement among all religious adherents (including non-theistic religions) over the reality of a supernatural or spiritual realm. That broadest inter-religious agreement reveals a sharp extra-religious disagreement of the (many) religious with the (comparatively smaller) group of non-religious (such as atheists). And recognizing broader moral and political consensus on many issues apart from religious topics can help us live more harmoniously with those who disagree on other aspects of our worldviews: Resilience and cooperation can be easier when we focus on what beliefs and values unite us.

JA: What are some ways people can cultivate humility and work with others despite religious disagreement?

MB: Often we care too much about our religious differences and being right about such matters, as if debate over religion needs to be won (by us! — whatever side we take). Humility sets in when we put to the side how much we think we’re right, and care to listen well to the stories and views of others with different views.

Often we can only learn new things about our own views, or our own reasons for holding them, through respectful dialogue and (again) listening first. This is done best when we allow that we might be wrong on some matters. Even if we’re debating over certain disagreements, it can be very useful and illuminating to hear why others don’t share one’s beliefs, or what their reasons or experiences or arguments are for their own. Similarly for others’ values: sometimes our disagreements are thinner than we realize, resulting less from differences of beliefs over certain facts, but rather owing to different weightings of comparable values, or how we assume such values ought to enter into our worldview, or public policy, or social activism.

So, growing in respect and understanding through conversation, while putting aside one’s own perspectives, can enable us to work better with those who nevertheless have serious disagreements with us.

JA: Any advice for how we might push through our religious disagreements to help support a friend or loved one struggling with a difficult life situation?

MB: When trying to help someone who is struggling, often we need to step back to discern what they need right now (which may not be your own advice borne of your religious, or non-religious, worldview!). Attending to them during a hard time should involve hearing their pain or their anxieties, validating their emotions even if it is uncomfortable or you can’t quite grasp where they’re coming from. In such cases, empathy is far more valuable than advising or educating. If you really care about this person, their emotional well-being should normally take priority over convincing them about some disagreement you may have. Only occasionally might it be appropriate, in such contexts, to offer them your side of things; more often, they’re trusting you to help them process their feelings or the practical question of what to do next. When life throws someone lemons, that’s normally not the time to debate with them why it happened or what we can learn from it; they want to know how to make lemonade.

JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?

MB: I’ve just finished a volume co-edited with Jonathan Kvanvig on Religious Disagreement and Pluralism (forthcoming soon with Oxford University Press). I’m also writing scholarly articles on knowing other persons, the epistemology of interpersonal relations, the epistemology of knowing God, and on honesty in linguistic communication.