Freshman seminar FRS 101:
Religious conviction, religious disagreement

Fall 2004
Adam Elga.
Butler College, Thursdays 1:30-4:20


Whatever your religious views, many of your peers - equally smart, and equally well-informed - are sure to disagree. What explains the prevalence and intractability of religious disagreements? And how can one reasonably hold on to one's convictions about religious matters (e.g., one's theism, atheism, or agnosticism), in the face of such massive disagreement? We will explore the tenacity of religious belief from the perspectives of both psychology and philosophy.

One factor that exacerbates religious disagreements is biased assimilation: the tendency to give new evidence special weight when it supports one's existing view, and to discount it otherwise. Another factor is bias blindness: the tendency to think, "My opponents are prone to various biases (for example, believing what is comforting, or what is accepted in their family or ethnic environments), but I merely follow the evidence where it leads." We will examine such disagreement-exacerbating tendencies.

Perhaps one's opponents are no more subject to bias than oneself. But then what justifies sticking to one's own religious views? Should one attempt to take a stance that is somehow neutral on religious questions? Or should one stick to one's guns, and think that one has special incommunicable insight in favor of one's views? Or is it that the mere fact of peer disagreement is no evidence at all against one's views?

The above discussion has assumed that one's religious beliefs should be based on evidence. But perhaps such beliefs should also be based on practical considerations. Can one choose what to believe? If so, can it be reasonable to choose the beliefs that will make one happy - even if those beliefs are not supported by one's evidence?

Students will bring notes on the readings to class each week, write two papers, and make at least one short formal presentation to the class.


Thursday Oct 14, in class: Paper 1 skeleton due.

Monday Nov 8, noon: Paper 1 due.

Tuesday Dec 7, in class: Paper 2 skeleton due.

Tuesday Jan 11, 4pm (Dean's date): Paper 2 due.



About 3/4 of your grade will be based on your major papers (with paper #2 counting more than paper #1). The remaining 1/4 of your grade will be based on your homework, in-class writing assignments, and presentations.

Some readings have been linked from this page (sometimes to resources that are accessible from Princeton only). Others are on electronic reserve. You can access the ereserves through the library's electronic reserve page. You'll need the course userid (frs101) and course password (supplied in class) to log in. You also may need to download some special software; see the help page for details.

Missing seminars

If you need to miss a seminar, please let me know in advance. After the missed seminar, find someone in the class who has a good grip on what went on. Talk to them to get the important things that happened in class (you may want to find someone who takes notes). Then if something is unclear, or you feel you didn't get a full picture of what happened, come to my office hour and ask some questions. In general, I expect you to have a pretty good idea of what happened in previous discussions.

Course Outline

Thu Sep 9, Thu Sep 16

Van Inwagen, Peter. "'It is Wrong, Always, Everywhere, and for Anyone, to Believe Anything, Upon Insufficient Evidence'" in Jordan and Howard-Snyder (eds.) Faith, Freedom, and Rationality (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996), pp.137-154. {Annika}

Pronin, E., Puccio, C., & Ross, L. (2002). Understanding misunderstanding: Social psychological perspectives. In T. Gilovich, D. Griffin, & D. Kahneman (Eds.), Heuristics and biases: The psychology of intuitive judgment. New York: Cambridge University Press.) [PDF] {Thomas}

Thu Sep 23

Plantinga, Alvin. "Pluralism: a defense of religious exclusivism". In Quinn, Philip L. and Kevin Meeker, eds.The philosophical challenge of religious diversity (Oxford: OUP, 2000), pp. 172-192. {Nate}

Pronin, E., Gilovich, T., & Ross, Lee (2004). Objectivity in the eye of the beholder: Divergent perceptions of bias in self versus others. Psychological Review, 3, 781-799. [PDF] {Jennifer}

Thu Sep 30

Richard Feldman. "Plantinga on exclusivism". Faith and Philosophy 20 (2003): 85-90. {Zoe}

R.B. Cialdini. Influence: Science and Practice. Longman, 2000. Chapter 4: Social Proof. {Catherine}

Thu Oct 7

Thomas Kelly. "The epistemic significance of disagreement". Manuscript. {Brendan, Will}

Optional reading:

Pronin, E., Kruger, J., Savitsky, K., & Ross, L. (2001). You don't know me, but I know you: The illusion of asymmetric insight. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 639-656. [PDF]

Thu Oct 14

Thursday Oct 14, in class: Paper 1 skeleton due.

pp. 56-67, 65-72 of Philip Zimbardo, Michael R. Leippe. Psychology of Attitude Change and Social Influence. McGraw-Hill Education, December 1991. Chapter 2: Influencing Behavior: Taking Direct Approaches. {Dave}

Optional reading:

Parker, Ian. "Obedience". Granta 71. [Available through the course blackboard page, under "course materials".]

Obedience. Chief Investigator: Stanley Milgram. 1 videocassette; 40 minutes. Distributed by New York University Film Library, c1965 {Ria}

NPR (audio) documentary "Father Cares". NPR description {Kav}

Thu Oct 21

Pascal, Blaise. "The Wager". In John Perry and Michael Bratman, eds Introduction to Philosophy, section 233. {Annika}

Egan, Greg. Quarantine. London : Legend, 1992. pp. 73--75 (first 3 pages of chapter 5). {William} [Explanatory note: the selected passage occurs shortly after the narrator, a detective, has been captured by his enemy, BDI. Rather than kill him, BDI installs a "loyalty mod" in his brain---a device that changes his priorities in ways that the passage reveals.]

Philip Zimbardo, Michael R. Leippe. Psychology of Attitude Change and Social Influence. McGraw-Hill Education, December 1991. Chapter 3: Influencing Attitudes Through Behavior: When Doing Can Become Believing {Andris}

Thu Nov 4

Upcoming deadline-- Monday Nov 8, noon: Paper 1 due.

Ginet, C. "Deciding to Believe". Chapter 4 of Knowledge, Truth, and Duty, edited by Matthias Steup. {Ria}

Egan, Greg. "Axiomatic". In Axiomatic (Harper Prism, December 1997). {Kav}

Thu Nov 11

Kelly, T. "The Rationality of Belief and Some Other Propositional Attitudes", Philosophical Studies 110: 163-196, 2002. [Kluwer online] {Nate}

Taylor, S. E. & Brown J. D., Illusion and Well Being: A social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychological Bulletin, 1988, 103, 193-210. [PsycNET] {Will}

Thu Nov 18

Frontline: A Class Divided (VHS) - AV Item In 1970, an innovative teacher attempted a daring experiment in her elementary school classroom. To evaluate how racial stereotypes affect young children, Jane Elliott divided her class between those with blue eyes and those with brown and gave blue-eyed children preferential treatment. PBS video

Quiet rage [videorecording] : the Stanford prison study / Stanford Instructional Television Network ; produced and directed by Ken Musen ; written by Ken Musen and Philip Zimbardo. New York : Insight Media [distributor], 1990. Description: 1 videocassette (VHS) (50 min.) {Katherine}

Thu Dec 2

Kirk KM, Eaves LJ, Martin NG: Self-transcendence as a measure of spirituality in a sample of older Australian twins. Twin Research 2:81-87, 1999. [PDF] {David}

Waller, N., Kojetin, B., Lykken, D., Tellegen, A., & Bouchard, T. (1990). Genetic and environmnetal influences on religious interests, attitudes, and values. Psychological Science, 1, 138-142. {Jennifer}

Christensen, David. "Disagreement". Manuscript. [Will be made available through the course blackboard page, under "course materials". You need only read sections 1-4]

Tue Dec 7

Note special (changed) meeting time/day: Tuesday 7:00-9:50pm

In class: Paper 2 topic due. 1 page description of topic.

Dmitri Tymoczko. What Good is Religion? December 1997/ January 1998 issue of Boston Review. [html] {Andris}

William James. The will to believe. In The will to believe and other essays. {Brendan, William} [Available through the course blackboard page, under "course materials".]

Optional background:

Dmitri Tymoczko. The nitrous-oxide philosopher. Atlantic Monthly, May 1996. [Available through the course blackboard page, under "course materials".]

Thu Dec 9

Special activity

Upcoming deadline--Tuesday Jan 11, 4pm (Dean's date): Paper 2 due.

Adam Elga | | Princeton University
Last modified: Mon Nov 22 19:16:15 EST 2004