Are There Empirically Informed Solutions to the Problem of Religious Disagreement?

Kirk Lougheed
Monday 6 September 2021
  1. Introduction
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction

The epistemology of religious disagreement explores the following scenario: Suppose Sally evaluates a particular body of evidence and comes to believe the proposition ‘God exists’. But Sally discovers that her epistemic peer – someone equally likely to be right about the topic in question – Jane, evaluates the same body of evidence and disbelieves the proposition ‘God exists’. Epistemologists have recently asked what Sally and Jane should do when they find themselves in a situation like this one. While the judgments of Sally and Jane cannot both be true, it’s a distinct question whether they can both be epistemically rational in holding these competing judgments. Epistemologists thus want to know whether once Sally becomes aware of the existence of an epistemic peer who disagrees with her if she has a defeater for her original belief.

Conciliationists argue that both Sally and Jane need to revise their initial beliefs. Strong versions of conciliationism require that Sally and Jane both suspend judgment about their original beliefs. Since religion is rife with peer disagreement, if strong conciliationism is true then a serious sceptical challenge has been raised against the epistemic rationality of religious belief. Strong conciliationism, if true, poses what I will call throughout this article the problem of religious disagreement. Non-conciliationists, on the other hand, argue that Sally and Jane need not revise their original beliefs. According to non-conciliationism, then, it’s possible that they can both be epistemically rational in holding competing positions. So, if non-conciliationism is true, then there is no serious problem of religious disagreement.

In this article I’m going to begin by explaining the epistemology of disagreement in more detail. After that, I focus on outlining empirically informed defenses of non-conciliationism and hence on explaining potential solutions to the problem of religious disagreement. The first solution takes a direct approach in arguing that there are epistemic benefits to be gained from the existence of cognitive diversity. There is empirical research to suggest that a community of inquirers epistemically benefits if Sally and Jane maintain and defend their respective positions. Disagreement helps us arrive at the truth, at least in the long run. For instance, economic modelling suggests that when certain conditions are met, cognitively diverse groups will always outperform homogenous groups with respect to tasks such as problem-solving and prediction. Likewise, the Argumentative Theory of Reasoning tells us that disagreement is also epistemically beneficial because we’re better at evaluating the arguments of our opponents rather than defending our own views. An important question about this solution is whether it can be applied to the many cases of religious disagreement that don’t, in any clear sense, occur in research contexts. The second response takes an indirect approach in arguing that there are psychological and health benefits to religious belief, and that this provides reasons for someone like Sally to remain steadfast in the face of disagreement. However, such reasons are better construed as practical instead of epistemic. A follow up question here is whether practical reasons should ever outweigh epistemic reasons in cases of religious disagreements.

2. Fields of Study

2.1 The Epistemology of Disagreement

Recall that conciliationism is the view that Sally and Jane each need to revise their original beliefs once they become aware that they disagree with one another, while non-conciliationism is the view that they are not required to do so. Before describing some reasons for holding each of these, a few more details regarding the nature of epistemic peerhood are in order. Do Sally and Jane need to be epistemic clones, instead of just epistemic peers? (Elgin 2018, 15). Consider that even slight differences in evidence or reasoning ability about the evidence could explain why they disagree in the first place. Furthermore, such differences could serve as relevant epistemic asymmetries to show why Sally and Jane aren’t actually epistemic peers about God’s existence. But then, there aren’t any epistemic clones in real-life. No two people are ever evidential and cognitive equals. If this is right, the problem of peer disagreement evaporates before it even gets off the ground (King 2012). However, Sally and Jane need not be epistemic clones in order to be epistemic peers. They simply need to each be equally likely to be correct about whether P, even if they have different evidence and reasoning abilities about P. Elsewhere I’ve suggested that if Sally isn’t sure whether Jane is her epistemic peer, she has reason to act as if Jane is her peer (Lougheed 2020, Ch.3). So, Sally and Jane do not need to be epistemic clones in order to be epistemic peers. The problem of religious disagreement remains intact.

What are some of the arguments to be found in the epistemology of disagreement literature? Conciliationists tend to rely on arguments from analogy. They present idealized cases of disagreement where it seems obvious that we should conciliate and then suggest that they are analogous to more complicated cases like the disagreement between Sally and Jane. Here are two common examples I’ve slightly modified for our purposes: First, suppose Sally and Jane go out to dinner as they often do. They agree to split the bill evenly with a 20% tip. Sally calculates that they each owe £43 while Jane figures that they each owe £45. Further suppose that Sally and Jane know each other to be equally good at mental arithmetic, and in this situation there is no reason to think the other made a mistake (e.g. Sally is really tired, or Jane drank too much wine). It is obvious, so conciliationists argue, neither Sally nor Jane are rationally permitted to remain steadfast in their original sums. The same goes for disagreements about more complicated matters like their dispute over God’s existence (Christensen 2007). Second, imagine that Sally and Jane each have thermometers that, in the past, have always given identical results. The thermometers work well and are equally reliable. But suppose that one day Sally’s thermometer reads 20 degrees and Jane’s reads 22 degrees. What should they believe? The conciliationist thinks its obvious that neither Sally nor Jane are rationally permitted to remain steadfast in their respective thermometers’ initial readings; they must revise. The same, of course, is true for their more complex disagreement about religion (Christensen 2007; Matheson 2015).

What about non-conciliationists? There are perhaps less straightforwardly obvious patterns in the arguments for non-conciliationism in the literature. Some appear to be non-conciliationists simply because they reject conciliationism. For example, some worry that conciliationism is self-refuting since if a conciliationist followed her own advice she would have to give up conciliationism upon discovering an epistemic peer who believes non-conciliationism (for a discussion of this, see Elga 2010). But here are some of the explicit arguments offered for non-conciliationism: One is based on the idea that there are strong moral intuitions in favour of non-conciliationism. Sally believes that torturing and murdering babies for fun is morally reprehensible. She is dismayed to discover that her epistemic peer in moral matters, Jane, does not agree with her. This argument says that Sally’s moral intuitions are so strong here that they ought to override any worries about disagreement. She remains rational to remain steadfast (Bergmann 2009). If it’s rationally permissible to remain steadfast in this case, then it can also be rational to do so in less controversial cases. Others have argued that non-conciliationism is true because disagreement constitutes higher-order evidence, but what Sally and Jane should believe ought to be based on their initial first-order evidence or that remaining steadfast typically leads one to hold more true beliefs than to constantly conciliate (Kelly 2005, Oppy 2010, respectively). Below I present empirically informed reasons to remain steadfast in the face of religious disagreement. These are thus different reasons for holding that non-conciliationism is true. If they succeed, they can provide Sally with justification for remaining steadfast in the face of her disagreement with Jane.

2.2 Economic Modelling

The first type of empirical evidence I want to offer for non-conciliationism is based on modelling from economist Scott Page. According to Page, heterogenous groups composed of less talented individuals always outperform homogenous groups composed of more talented individuals when the following conditions obtain:

Condition 1. The Problem is Difficult: No individual problem solver always locates the global optimum.

Condition 2. The Calculus Condition: The local optima of every problem solver can be written down in a list. In other words, the problem solvers are smart.

Condition 3. The Diversity Condition: Any solution other than the global optimum is not a local optimum for some nonzero percentage of problem solvers.

Condition 4. Good-Sized Collections Drawn from Lots of Potential Problem Solvers: The initial population of problem solvers must be large and the collections of problem solvers working together must contain more than a handful of problem solvers (Page 2007, 162; see also Lougheed 2020, 70-71).

Page’s work implies that when these conditions are met it may be reasonable to remain steadfast in the face of religious disagreement. While consensus needs to be reached (eventually) the reason an individual changes her beliefs on Page’s model is not because she becomes aware of peer disagreement; it’s because continued dialogue with epistemic peers convinces her that she was mistaken. Page’s work is, of course, hardly uncontroversial (e.g. Thomson 2014; Singer 2019). Furthermore, notice that Page doesn’t purport to show that every heterogenous group always outperforms homogenous groups. Rather, Page’s guarantee only holds when the conditions he sets out obtain. Still, if Sally reasonably believes she is in a similar enough situation, then she could appeal to Page’s models as a reason not to conciliate in the face of her disagreement with Jane. If Page’s conditions obtain, then if Sally and Jane continue to disagree and dialogue with each other they are more likely to get at the truth of the matter in the long run.

2.3 The Argumentation Theory of Reasoning

Another empirically informed response to peer disagreement is found in social psychology, specifically in the Argumentation Theory of Reasoning (this is in contrast to the more widely accepted dual process theory). Social psychologists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber argue that humans create and provide reasons in order to persuade others. We aren’t worried whether such reasons are accurate or good, we simply want to persuade people to think and act in certain ways (Mercier and Sperber 2017, 7). On the other hand, however, we are very good at evaluating the arguments of others; in the past this was an adaptive advantage because it helped us know who we could trust. How do these ideas relate to religious disagreement? Well, suppose Sally and Jane both agree that the proposition “God exists” is true. If the argumentation theory of reasoning is true, then Sally and Jane will epistemically suffer from the fact that there isn’t an opposing peer to evaluate their reasons and evidence for believing as they do. We aren’t particularly good at offering arguments. But if Sally and Jane disagree, as they do in our original case, they will do well at evaluating each other’s arguments for their opposing conclusions. Disagreement, then, is beneficial if we want to be rational. If this is right, then it’s reasonable to remain steadfast in the face of at least certain types of disagreements.

2.4 The Psychological and Health Benefits of Religious Belief

A plethora of research confirms that there are psychological and emotional benefits to be gained from religious belief. It’s far too of an enormous task to summarize the literature here. But the general conclusions are that the devout tend to have better health outcomes, longer lives, and report higher levels of happiness or well-being than their non-religious counterparts (e.g. Cohen 2002; Diener and Clifton 2002). More specifically, in a widely cited article on religion and health Linda K. George et al. explain that when assessing religion’s association with health outcomes the following four ways of measuring religious involvement are often used: (i) ‘public participation’; (ii) ‘religious affiliation’; (iii) ‘private religious practices’ and; (iv) ‘religious coping’. They explain that a number of studies suggest that public participation and religious coping are the two most strongly associated with positive health outcomes (e.g., Koenig et al. 1999; Pargament 1997, respectively). For example, “people who attend religious service once a week or more typically have fewer illnesses, recover more quickly from illness, and live longer than individuals who attend less frequently” (George et al. 2002, 191). Likewise, “persons who report relying on their religion to help them cope with illness tend to recover more quickly from illness and better tolerate invasive medical procedures (e.g., coronary bypass surgery). They are also more likely to survive serious illness” (George et al. 2002, 191). Additionally, those who leave the religious tradition in which they were raised (and adopt no other religion) “experience poorer health and lower well-being than those consistently affiliated and those who are consistently unaffiliated […] the disadvantage for those who leave religious traditions is completely mediated by frequency of church attendance, as disaffiliates attend church less often” (Fenelon and Danielsen 2016, 49). Some have even contended that religious believers are less likely to commit crimes or reoffend (Baier and Wright 2001). However, fetal and reproductive health is perhaps the one area where significant research tends to suggest that religious beliefs can sometimes have negative impacts on health outcomes, particularly because certain types of care will simply not be sought out by certain religious groups (e.g., Arousell and Carlbom 2016; Demir and Yildirim 2019). In sum, with a few areas of exception, there is significant psychological research to suggest that someone like Sally might be permitted to remain steadfast because she can point to the health and psychological benefits of religious belief.

3. Discussion

One way of solving the problem of religious disagreement that we haven’t yet discussed is by appealing to what some have called the “special insight view” (see van Inwagen 1996). Maybe Sally has a special insight about the question of God’s existence which Jane simply lacks. And perhaps Sally is unable to effectively communicate this insight. The problem with this response to disagreement is that it is equally available to both parties if they really are epistemic peers. For Jane could claim that she, not Sally, has a special insight. No progress can be made in this way. However, empirical studies of religious experience might be one way to generate a relevant epistemic asymmetry (e.g., Wiebe 1997). If such studies could validate religious experiences then they would, in some sense, make the typically private nature of such experiences publicly accessible. This isn’t a topic I will discuss further here, but it deserves more exploration in future discussions of religious disagreement.

We’ve seen a number of empirically informed potential solutions to religious disagreement based on economic models, the argumentation theory of reasoning, and the psychology of religious belief. In what follows I’m going to examine some potential objections to these solutions. This is because the benefits of these solutions should be obvious: If they are correct, then there are at least some cases where reasonable religious disagreement is possible. If they are in the right type of situation then both Sally and Jane are reasonable to remain steadfast in the face of their disagreement with each other. The far-reaching sceptical threat to religious belief posed by strong conciliationism would be defeated.

One objection to responses based on economic modelling or the argumentation theory of reasoning say that these solutions conflates practical reasons with epistemic reasons. Practical reasons are about what we should do; they are about action. But epistemic reasons are about what we should believe. It might be practically rational for Sally to remain steadfast in the face of her disagreement with Jane because there are some benefits in the offing down the road. However, it doesn’t follow from this fact that Sally is epistemically rational to remain steadfast in her belief that conciliationism is true. Elsewhere I’ve argued that this objection fails because the future benefits in question for someone like Sally are epistemic; she’s more likely to get to the truth about whether P if she remains steadfast (Lougheed 2020, Ch.5). A better distinction is that of between synchronic epistemic reasons and diachronic epistemic reasons. The epistemology of disagreement seeks to address whether Sally is epistemically rational right now once she discovers her disagreement with Jane. Thus, it’s asking about synchronic epistemic rationality. But in appealing to future epistemic benefits as a reason to remain steadfast, Sally makes use of diachronic epistemic reasons. Questions remain: Is there an all-things-considered epistemic perspective which accounts for both synchronic and diachronic epistemic reasons? If not, can appeals to diachronic epistemic reasons really solve a problem which is first and foremost about synchronic epistemic rationality?

This worry about practical reasons being conflated with epistemic reasons does, however, seem to apply directly to the psychological benefits of religious belief discussed above. Let’s assume that, on the whole, individuals are better off psychologically and emotionally if they participate in a religion. It doesn’t follow that because it is beneficial to believe P, that it is epistemically rational to believe P. Such a claim would clearly conflate practical reasons with epistemic reasons. Consider: it might be practically rational to disbelieve in climate change if I’m wealthy enough to fly all over the world in first class. What are the practical reasons? It’s very pleasant to fly first class. However, it doesn’t follow that it is epistemically rational for me to disbelieve in climate change. Where does this leave the psychology of religious belief as a solution to the problem of religious disagreement? As it stands, it must be admitted that it doesn’t offer a solution at the level of epistemic reasons. At best, it provides practical reasons for religious belief and practice. Again, questions remain: What should we do when there is a conflict between practical reasons and epistemic reasons? Does one type of reason always override the other? Does this solution suggest that we should act as if religion is true even if it is epistemically irrational to believe it? Is such a suggestion even coherent?

A final worry regarding the first two solutions has to do with the fact that the benefits in question occur in the context of inquiry. Do Sally and Jane have to be explicitly inquiring into religion in order to reap the future epistemic benefits of disagreement? After all, Page’s conditions are unlikely to be met if Sally and Jane are not disagreeing within a research context. With respect to the Argumentation Theory of Reasoning, how careful are we in evaluating arguments outside of research domains? Does relying on this theory work better in contexts explicitly focused on inquiry? Presumably, a significant majority of religious disagreements occur outside of research contexts so it’s important to think about these questions if we want to appeal to the empirical solutions discussed above.

4. Conclusion

Sally and Jane disagree about whether God exists. If conciliationism is true, then both Sally and Jane must revise their original positions upon discovering that they disagree with one another. Furthermore, if strong conciliationism is true, then a serious sceptical threat has been posed to the epistemic rationality of religious belief since religious disagreement is widespread. This is the problem of religious disagreement. I examined three empirically informed potential solutions to this problem based on the benefits of religious belief. They were: economic models about the benefits of disagreement, the argumentation theory of reasoning about the benefits of disagreement, and the psychological benefits of religious belief. The first two solutions show that, at least in certain cases, there may well be epistemic benefits down the road if Sally and Jane each persist in their respective beliefs. However, these are diachronic epistemic benefits and it remains to be seen whether they can solve the problem of religious disagreement about synchronic epistemic rationality. The third solution provides practical reasons to remain steadfast in the face of disagreement, but not epistemic reasons. It thus also remains to be seen whether practical reasons can ever override epistemic reasons. Finally, the first two solutions are within the context of inquiry and it is an open question whether they can be carried over to the religious domain more generally. Religious disagreement is a phenomenon that appears here to stay and deserves our attention when considering the rationality of religious belief.


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Cite this article

Lougheed, Kirk. 2021. “Are There Empirically Informed Solutions to the Problem of Religious Disagreement?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 3).

Contact the author

Kirk Lougheed
[email protected]