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  • What Is It to Be Religiously Mistaken?A Pragmatist Perspective
  • Ulf Zackariasson

philosophers have always been attracted to disagreements, perhaps because they almost immediately lead to philosophically exciting questions about how to distinguish positions, theories, and so forth, that are right from those that are mistaken. Philosophy of religion is certainly no exception, and, here, focus has often been on disagreements over belief in the existence of the God of classical theism as manifested in the great Abrahamic traditions, on the one hand, and atheism, on the other—though disagreements between religious traditions have also attracted attention. Particularly in Anglo-American philosophy of religion, these disagreements have generally been conceptualized in epistemological terms: Which (if any) religious beliefs are epistemically justified or warranted? This is a debate where the philosophical expertise in epistemology seems to have practical application, and over the years, a great number of philosophers have joined it.

Where does American pragmatism fit into this picture? Well, pragmatists take disagreement to signal a need for reflection and, hopefully, mediation, and if philosophers can contribute here, then they should (James, Pragmatism 1–2). Also, pragmatists such as C. S. Peirce and John Dewey have stressed the important epistemological role that cases where we are mistaken serve as the nodes of inquiry (Dewey, Logic; Peirce). Not only is it easier to detect cases where we are mistaken, as Karl Popper rightly emphasized (Popper); they are also, pragmatists insist, important in that they concretely threaten our well-being, and we need to do something in response (James, Will to Believe 63ff.). Speaking from a pragmatist perspective, then, the judgment that some people whom we encounter are religiously mistaken is no idle or disinterested statement of fact: it is to claim (a) that something is wrong with the way they act in certain situations,1 and (b) that this has significant negative practical consequences for their and/or others’ welfare, and, hence, (c) that—ideally, [End Page 292] at least—they should engage with us in inquiry to chart the possibilities for a reconstruction of habits of thought and action. Such inquiries cannot, Elise Springer points out, meaningfully be characterized as a mere agent-patient relation terminating when the criticized party has begun to think exactly like us: instead, we need to investigate together how these people can reach a more satisfactory stance, and we should be open to the possibility that in this joint inquiry, we, too, may have much to learn (Springer, chap. 1). Of course, something similar holds when others judge us religiously mistaken: such judgments are temporal resting places rather than definite endpoints of critical engagement with others.

Note, then, that pragmatism urges us to concentrate on relevant ways of being mistaken, that is, ways that jeopardize our and others’ chances of leading decent human lives. When seen in light of this pragmatic requirement, pragmatism parts company, I will argue, with mainstream philosophy of religion. Hence, the purpose of this paper: I will argue that pragmatism enables us to develop a conception of what it is to be religiously mistaken that, in comparison with mainstream conceptions, helps us concentrate on relevant disagreements (and, hence, relevant ways of being religiously mistaken), and that this conception also helps us sketch the contours of how joint inquiries of the above-described type can be undertaken. The underlying idea here is that philosophy, like all human practices, should be subject to pragmatic tests, and that conceptions of what it is to be religiously mistaken in philosophy of religion can be critically compared with regard to how well they serve us by helping us concentrate on and articulate the really pressing problems surrounding religion today.

Accordingly, the bulk of this paper is devoted to a critical explication and comparison of conceptions we find in the mainstream of Anglo-American philosophy of religion (henceforth, just “mainstream philosophy of religion”) and in pragmatic philosophy of religion. Here, I develop a pragmatic conception according to which a person is religiously mistaken if she misdirects her religious energies and/or settles beliefs about how to direct her religious energies in ways that are insufficiently responsive to practical consequences. I use the somewhat awkward expression “being religiously mistaken...


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pp. 292-312
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