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Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 4.1 (2001) 135-155

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Religious Diversity and Social Responsibility

Linda Zagzebski

Consider the situation of a person--let us call her Susan--who has many religious beliefs, some of which are important to her. Let us also suppose that it is important to Susan to be responsible in what she believes as well as in what she does. But Susan is not sure she understands what is involved in responsible belief and to whom she is responsible. She is not even sure that it makes sense to speak of responsibility in the realm of belief because responsibility is a social notion and it might be thought that one's believing is one's own private business. Susan will probably be willing to concede that she is responsible to herself, but is she also responsible to others, and if so, to which others? Does she owe anything to believers in other religions? It is usual in modern liberal society to think that we do not owe other people very much, and we owe the least to people who are not part of our own culture. Certainly, it is widely agreed that we ought to treat persons of other cultures and other faiths with tolerance--and those who wish to go further say that we also ought to treat them with respect, but how can we owe them anything with regard to our personal beliefs? How can it be the business of anybody else what Susan believes? [End Page 135]

At one extreme, then, is the common view that it really doesn't matter to others what you believe; it only matters what you do. Your responsibility to others ends at your overt behavior. At the other extreme, W. K. Clifford became famous for his position that responsibility for belief, any belief, is the same as responsibility for acts. It is moral responsibility. I think both viewpoints are mistaken, but Clifford is closer to being right. Where he went astray, I think, is in his particular account of the conditions under which a belief is responsibly held--that it must be based on sufficient evidence. Evidentialism has received a lot of attention because it is the sort of position that many philosophers love to hate. I think it is fair to say that evidentialism has been decisively refuted, but that does not mean that we do not have responsibility to others for our beliefs.

It is a truism that we share the same nature and the same rationality with all other human beings; a much more substantial claim is that all humans form one community. That is affirmed by the Vatican II "Declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions." When we reflect upon what it means to form one human community, I think we'll see that it commits us to treating all other humans as in some sense partners with us in pursuing our common human goals, one of which is the goal of reaching the truth. If that is right, then we have responsibilities to the other members of that community. Ironically, the religious skeptic Clifford was the most prominent advocate of the view that we are responsible to others for our beliefs in a robust moral sense of responsibility grounded in our social obligations. I think his position was basically correct, but I think that what makes it correct is something that Clifford did not believe--that we form a human community because we are all called by God to the same end.

So let us look carefully at Susan's situation. As I've said, we are supposing that Susan has many religious beliefs, some of which are not shared by a substantial number of people in the world. Of [End Page 136] course, Susan's religious beliefs are not the only beliefs she has that are not shared by others, and the fact that others do not believe something she believes is not in itself problematic. Often the reason that others do...


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