Religion, Humility, and Democracy in a Divided America: Volume 36

Cover of Religion, Humility, and Democracy in a Divided America

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(9 chapters)


Pages i-xi
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A growing interdisciplinary literature explores how people can simultaneously hold strong convictions and remain open to the possibility of learning from others with whom they disagree. This tension impacts not only knowledge development but also public discourse within a diverse and disagreeing democracy. This volume of Political Power and Social Theory considers the specific question of how religious convictions inform how people engage in democratic life, particularly across deep political divides. In this introduction, I begin by discussing how a narrow vision of religious citizens as dogmatic believers has led observers to frame religion as a concerning source of democratic distortion – encouraging too much arrogance and not enough humility. Yet this dogmatic believer narrative captures only one aspect of American religion. Juxtaposing a snapshot of dogmatic believers alongside two other snapshots of religious groups engaging in political life raises complex questions about the relationship between religious conviction, humility, and democracy in a time of deep political polarization. I argue that answering these questions requires a sociological approach that is attuned to power, context, culture, institutions, and history. At the same time, I show how attention to the tension between conviction and humility has the potential to enrich the sociological study of religion and democracy, and particularly ethnographic research across the moral/political divide.


How ought religion and democratic politics relate to each other in a spirit of intellectual humility? This chapter suggests four potential understandings of the relationship: hindrance, resource, evaluation, and source. Each of these understandings seems to take for granted a form of Enlightenment rationality (whether in support or opposition), and the final section of the chapter develops a synthesis of Durkheim and Dewey to consider a different way through which religion and deliberative democracy can coexist, one more sensitive to the role of emotion, ritual, and contingency and thereby more open to the problem of epistemic arrogance and the necessity for intellectual humility.


Intellectual humility and religious conviction are often posed as antagonistic binaries; the former associated with science, reason, inclusive universality, and liberal secularism, the latter with superstition, dogma, exclusive particularity, and rigid traditionalism. Despite popular images of white American evangelicals as the embodied antithesis of intellectual humility, responsiveness to facts, and openness to the other, this article demonstrates how evangelicals can and do practice intellectual humility in public life while simultaneously holding fast to particularistic religious convictions. Drawing on textual analysis and multi-site ethnographic data, it demonstrates how observed evangelical practices of transposable and segmented reflexivity map onto pluralist, domain-specific conceptualizations of intellectual humility in the philosophical and psychological literature. It further argues that the effective practice of intellectual humility in the interests of ethical democracy does not require religious actors to abandon particularistic religious reasons for universal secular ones. Rather, particularistic religious convictions can motivate effective practices of intellectual humility and thereby support democratic pluralism, inclusivity, and solidarity across difference. More broadly, it aims to challenge, or at least complicate, the widespread notion that increasing strength of religious conviction always moves in lockstep with increasing dogmatism, tribalism, and intellectual unreasonableness.


Philosophers and political theorists have long warned of the “perils of dogmatism” for public discourse and identified intellectual humility as a necessary corrective. Sufficient intellectual humility encompasses at least four elements: openness to error, recognition of bias, recognition of intellectual parity in interlocutors, and avoidance of recourse to authority. Religions seem to present obstacles on all four fronts, particularly when actors embody more conservative renderings of a given religion’s repertoire. As such, a case involving different groups of religious exclusivists engaging one another on topics that directly interact their deepest faith commitments and political visions presents a useful test case for our theories of intellectual humility. This chapter considers conservative protestants engaging in public discourse with Muslims about whether or not Muslim and Christian understandings of “loving God” and “loving neighbor” have sufficient overlap to support political cooperation. The results of the dialogue effort were a mixture of controversy and cooperation. For evangelicals, the engagement produced sharp conflict and yet helped to shift the community’s plausibility structures, opening further the possibility of fruitful public discourse and strategic action in cooperation with Muslims. The analysis suggests a conceptualization of practical intellectual humility that emphasizes recognition of the other.


Scholars who study humility tend to think of it in highly individualized terms, such as an absence of vanity or an accurate self-assessment. Individuating definitions can lead to such jarring concepts as the “humble white supremacist” (Roberts & Wood, 2007). Qualitative sociological research in the (predominantly North American) evangelical movement to accept and affirm lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI) identities, same-sex marriage, and sex/gender transition reveals that humility is not simply the awareness that “I could be wrong.” That awareness is rooted in what we have found to be humility’s defining element, concern to foster relationship. These findings prompt us to define humility as a fundamentally social disposition, as concern to protect the kinds of intimate connection with others that can transform the self. Recognizing the social nature of humility reveals why humility is incompatible with injustice.


This chapter offers a speculative essay regarding how religion may foster intellectual humility in public life, drawing on case studies from faith-based community organizing in the United States. and liberation theology in Latin America. Despite a plethora of religious teaching about the virtue of humility across a variety of traditions, I do not think there is anything inherent in religious belief – in any tradition – that predisposes believers toward authentic humility in their personal or public lives. I argue instead that religious conviction – when embodied in particular kinds of religious practice – does help drive us toward the balance of confidence and intellectual humility required for vigorous engagement in democratic public life. My argument draws on the concept of focal practices and insights from philosophy, theology, and social theory as I consider religious practices, religious conversion, and the nature of human passions as they relate to democratic life.


What is the relationship between the descriptive and the normative? The usual answer, in the social sciences, is based on a sharp distinction between facts and values. This chapter reprises and radicalizes long-standing critiques of the fact/value distinction, proposes an alternative theory of ontic webs in its stead, and then uses it to delineate six different forms of public sociology. It argues that facts are value-laden and values fact-laden; that facts and values are entangled in webs of belief and practice; and that attributions of causation and moral responsibility are connected via ontological assumptions. Effective public sociology therefore requires a combination of ontological extension and moral translation.


Pages 169-174
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Cover of Religion, Humility, and Democracy in a Divided America
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Political Power and Social Theory
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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