In all things, charity
How can we navigate difficult conversations? A Q&A with Associate Professor of Philosophy Matthew Benton
In 2021, riots broke out at the U.S. Capitol. States battled it out over voting laws. Politicians argued about climate change, and individual Americans clashed over everything from masking requirements to vaccine mandates. Despite the presumably unifying power of faith, even those in church pews across America couldn’t find common ground on most of these issues.
It was a timely year for Oxford University Press to publish Matthew Benton’s latest book, Religious Disagreement and Pluralism, which he co-edited with Jonathan L. Kvanvig. The book examines the epistemology of religious disagreement and discusses religious diversity and pluralism.
Benton, an associate professor of philosophy at Seattle Pacific University, agreed to an interview with Response to discuss how we can navigate difficult religious disagreements and reach for truth and honesty in a time of deep discord.
You teach courses at SPU on logic and critical thinking, advanced logic, ethics and critical reasoning, contemporary epistemology, and the philosophy of religion at SPU. What is your favorite course to teach, and why?
Hard opener! I really love them all. I especially like teaching logic and epistemology.
In logic, students learn about clear ways to reason and how to understand valid (and invalid) patterns of reasoning. This teaches them how to assess an argument and how to think carefully about their own arguments.
It also shows the value of being charitable toward someone’s argument even if they reach a conclusion you disagree with. You can sometimes agree their reasoning is well structured but still disagree with one of their starting points, their premises.
In epistemology we discuss what makes believing something rational. What is the nature of evidence? What is knowledge? And what does it take to acquire knowledge? Reasoning is often related to how one acquires knowledge.
Because we often try to form beliefs based on arguments, we should understand how and why an argument could lead you to more knowledge, if it started with known premises. And we often take for granted what we believe and why, without examining how we got there. For example, if a student in my class believes that community needs can outweigh individual rights, or that evolution is incompatible with Christianity, it can be helpful to examine what their belief is based on, what their evidence or arguments are, including what other evidence there might be for or against it. By doing this, students also come to appreciate strong arguments for views they may not otherwise have carefully considered.
We seem to be living in a time where there is high degree of mistrust everywhere. We don’t trust the press, politicians, or leaders. People argue over what constitutes a fact or truth. How do you teach your students to discern fact from fiction? How do you teach students how to assess what is believably true?
One thing I try to develop is a sense of which sources are trustworthy, and why. All of us tend to think there are truths to be known, or at least truths that we can get a bit closer to, even in the difficult terrain of morality and politics.
The fact that we disagree isn’t an argument that there are no truths to be learned. Often, the big issue is how to proceed given the many voices which disagree — and how to proceed when many rachet up the disagreements as a way of muddying the waters.
One helpful approach is to learn how people react to different sources of information. We should understand how we evaluate evidence or testimony from experts — the people who seem more knowledgeable than us.
Often, when confronted with evidence that contradicts a view we cherish, we become unwilling to even hear it. Or, we might downgrade the evidence as less important, perhaps not even as evidence against our view. If a student believes her boyfriend is devoted to her, but her roommate tells her he was flirting with another friend, the student might dismiss this evidence out of hand because she doesn’t want to deal with the possibility of betrayal, even though she might have no good reasons to mistrust her usually honest and reliable roommate. Something similar can happen with ideas which may not involve relationships, but which are nevertheless very dear to us.
As a result, people can become more confident of their beliefs even after being shown information that should make them less confident (a phenomenon called belief polarization). This is why so many people, especially in recent decades, seem stuck in echo chambers where they mainly listen to or read news sources which spin things the way they prefer and dismiss all other sources or views before even giving them a hearing.
There are no easy solutions to counter this, but I try to impart to my students in daily classroom discussions that it’s OK to carefully and charitably disagree. Doing so helps them become more comfortable with different ideas. Also, they can see the fruit of treating others with respect and can even end up learning from them.
About 63% of adults in America identify as Christians, but Christians disagree on immigration, abortion, gun control, etc.
How can Christians engage with each other when they vehemently disagree with each other?
I think it’s lamentable that American Christians — perhaps the most vocal ones, at least — are so divided in terms of partisan political values, but also on other issues, too. One pattern we see a lot is certain Christians, even some leaders, dismissing others as not really Christians if they don’t share their core values or policy ideas.
Instead of trying to find common ground in Christian values and beliefs — and how to accommodate differences that are compatible with essential Christian commitments — there is a lot of disparagement and shunning. There are appeals to “our” side as exemplifying the “true” Christian take on some difficult issue.
Christians would do better to focus on what essentials unify us, and then to display humility and respectful dialogue in the areas where we can reasonably disagree. There are two kinds of humility that matter here. One is the humility of holding one’s views loosely enough to accept that one might be wrong about them. This sort of humility is expressed by being willing to learn from others and change your mind.
The other kind of humility can manifest even when you are very confident that you’re right. It’s a humility in how you carry yourself; how you treat others whose views you think are quite wrong. It’s not needing to show everyone how right you are and how wrong others are.
Sometimes humility breeds the wisdom of restraint. This sort of humility means we still value those we disagree with. We listen to them respectfully, centering them and the reasons, experiences, and beliefs behind what they hold dear.
Because we often try to form beliefs based on arguments, we should understand how and why an argument could lead you to more knowledge, if it started with known premises.
How can Christians navigate difficult conversations with each other?
An old theological slogan goes: “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” (It’s often attributed to John Wesley, although I don’t think he said it!)
This advice is only so helpful because it gives us no guidance on how to distinguish what is essential Christian teaching from the nonessential teachings. Nevertheless, it seems many Christians cannot follow it even where its guidance is clear. This slogan invites us Christians to start with the values which unify — for instance, bearing God’s image — before discussing together where that “essential” line might best be drawn.
It also requires of us charity above all. Many Christians have not considered what, at a minimum, makes one a Christ-follower. Many have also elevated contentious secondary views untested by a broader or more conscientious examination of what all Christians share. Then they often want to assess who is aligned with them and malign who is against them.
Instead, Christians have the opportunity to model respect for others for a broader culture that sees too little of that from us. I wish Christians cared more about loving their neighbors, practicing mercy, caring for the poor and the marginalized, and worshiping God in humility, than they do about winning arguments. But even in such disagreements, we can emphasize the things that unite us and engage with greater self-awareness over the disputes that divide us.
Part of this involves us prioritizing others’ voices and listening to their stories, particularly if their backgrounds are different or their perspectives have been historically sidelined or silenced. This is a practiced and embodied way of showing love, and in the best cases, it can lead one to reconsider why it is one accepts a particular view.
Philosophers have discussed lying a great deal but have had less to say about the moral implications of being misleading. How much must one share in order to count as fully honest?
You are part of the Honesty Project. What is the Honesty Project?
The Honesty Project is a three-year project based at Wake Forest University and Carnegie Mellon University, supported by a $4 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation. It aims to support new research and collaboration on the science and philosophy of honesty, particularly to discern what honesty is, and what its moral and intellectual consequences are.
I received a small grant from this project to research and write articles on linguistic honesty and on interpersonal honesty. The linguistic part looks at how we represent ourselves honestly or dishonestly in linguistic communication.
Philosophers have discussed lying a great deal but have had less to say about the moral implications of being misleading. How much must one share in order to count as fully honest? Honesty is part of what it takes to know someone deeply in a relationship, and this is the interpersonal part: Truthful awareness of self and others seems crucial for knowing another and being known by them. But are there norms or limits to how open and authentic one must be — with oneself as well as others — to develop deeper relationships? That’s part of what I’m interested in exploring.
Are there situations where it would be unwise for us to be fully honest?
Often, we are less transparent with some people because we don’t want to be vulnerable, or we don’t want to let them in (and sometimes for good reasons). A common cause of this might be a fear of others judging us or a fear of being misunderstood.
We might fear relational consequences by people whom we value or want to remain friends with. This can be particularly painful when, by being forthright and vulnerable, others opt to argue us down or neglect what we value.
In other cases, we might hold back because we’re not sure which version of ourselves to put forward, or perhaps we’re still figuring out who we really are or what we think about some controversial matter. In still other cases, we might go along with what others say to experience a sense of belonging, perhaps acting like we agree and are on their side, even though we disagree or feel like it would be too much to ask tough questions of them.
How should we handle conversations when we have strong disagreements with people?
When we uncover strong disagreements, how best to proceed is probably dependent on the people, one’s relationships with them, and the circumstances of the discussion.
Some people are very good at accommodating divergent views and can remain friendly even while debating difficult topics. Those who are best at this tend to do it with a lot of humility and by practicing and seeing the good in others’ perspectives, even if they don’t share them. When this is done well, others tend to walk away from such conversations feeling valued and excited about the ideas, rather than discouraged.
But others will feel slighted if certain people they are close to, or who they want affirmation from, do not side with them, so I think it depends on the topic and those who are disagreeing, especially with regard to how they treat each other.
If people are bad at listening, react defensively, or are poor at empathizing with others’ values, reasons, and experiences, those conversations should probably be avoided, at least in some moments. Avoiding such hot-button topics can even be a way of loving someone, as it can open up other spaces for relating to them on better terms.
MATTHEW BENTON is an associate professor of philosophy at Seattle Pacific University. Before moving to Seattle, he was a postdoctoral research fellow in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, as well as a postdoc and junior research fellow at the University of Oxford. Benton earned his PhD from Rutgers University. His wife, Laura Benton, is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice, and co-founder of Unity Collective, a group of mental health professionals offering counseling and trainings integrating faith, race, and mental health. They live with their two children in Seattle.