Open-mindedness and Religious Devotion


To be open-minded is to be willing to revise or entertain doubts about one’s beliefs. Commonly regarded as an intellectual virtue, and often too as a moral virtue, open-mindedness is a trait that is generally desirable for a person to have. However, in the major theistic traditions, absolute commitment to one’s religious beliefs is regarded as virtuous or ideal. But one cannot be completely resolved about an issue and at the same time be open to revising one’s beliefs about it. It appears, then, that religious devotion is inconsistent with open-mindedness. The more religiously devout a person is, the more firmly she will hold to her convictions. And the stronger her belief commitments, the less open-minded she will be regarding these beliefs. So there appears to be a paradox here, where from the standpoint of religious devotion, it is virtuous to display an intellectual vice, namely closed-mindedness. I discuss this problem and explore some potential routes of escape from the paradox.

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  1. 1.

    In this section and the next, some material has been drawn from my article “Open-mindedness and Intellectual Humility” in Theory and Research in Education 10(1), 27–38.

  2. 2.

    This seems to reveal a certain dependence, interdependence, or unity among the intellectual virtues, such that they are useless, or much less useful, in the attainment of knowledge if they do not occur together. Just as moral virtues must be balanced against one another—e.g., courage with temperance, justice with compassion, etc.—perhaps the same is true in the realm of intellectual virtue.

  3. 3.

    In his classic study of religious experience, William James says, ‘Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto’ (James 1958, p. 63). Although James has much to say about other aspects of the religious life, here he clearly affirms the centrality of the cognitive aspect. More recently, Keith Yandell has defined religion as ‘a conceptual system that provides an interpretation of the world and the place of human beings in it, that rests on that interpretation an account of how life should be lived . . . and that expresses this interpretation in a set of . . . practices’ (Yandell 1990, p. 451).

  4. 4.

    Some would also distinguish the religious devotee’s personal faith, understood as trust or hope, in God regarding the prospects of personal salvation or eternal life in heaven. But such faith itself can be analyzed in cognitive and behavioral terms.

  5. 5.

    There is some debate as to whether beliefs come in degrees. That is, may one affirm more or less that X is the case, or is belief an all or nothing matter, like a gestalt switch? We may ask this question specifically regarding religious beliefs. For example, may I more or less believe that God exists or that God cares for me? It seems that belief does admit of degrees or levels of confidence in the truth of the propositions to which one assents. We reserve the term ‘certainty’ to denote complete or absolute confidence about a truth claim. And about some of our beliefs we say we are ‘almost certain,’ ‘pretty sure,’ ‘unsure,’ or ‘doubtful.’ Such adjectives describe various levels of confidence about our beliefs, suggesting that there is a continuum in the degrees of belief (or disbelief), ranging from positive certainty to negative certainty. In any case, settling this dispute is not necessary for our purposes here.

  6. 6.

    This and all other biblical references are from the New International Version of the Bible.

  7. 7.

    Admittedly, Descartes and Kierkegaard represent extremes when it comes to their emphases on reason and the will, respectively. However, what is not extreme is their shared conviction that ideal religious devotion is unmoved by further evidential review. One who takes a more balanced approach than either Descartes or Kierkegaard, such that reason and the will together make one’s religious convictions unassailable, may also affirm such a view.

  8. 8.

    The distinction here is roughly that between the two senses of knowledge denoted in the German words wissen and kennen. Wissen knowledge pertains to impersonal, factual information, while kennen knowledge refers to that which is personal in nature.

  9. 9.

    Bertrand Russell was the first to distinguish knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance, defining the latter in terms of direct, non-inferential awareness (Russell 1959, p. 46). Personal knowledge might be seen as a sub-category of knowledge by acquaintance.

  10. 10.

    For some helpful work on the role of interpretation in religious experience, see Caroline Frank Davis’s The Evidential Force of Religious Experience (1989), Chap. 6, and Keith Yandell’s The Epistemology of Religious Experience (1993), Chaps. 8-9. And for an essential study of the epistemic status of claims to experientially encounter God, see William Alston’s Perceiving God (1993). While Alston does not focus on the personal dimension of religious experience, his analysis of the doxastic implications of the analogy between religious experience and sensory perception is nonetheless profoundly insightful.

  11. 11.

    I would like to thank two anonymous referees of this journal for many helpful critical remarks and suggestions on an earlier draft of this article.


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Correspondence to James S. Spiegel.

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Spiegel, J.S. Open-mindedness and Religious Devotion. SOPHIA 52, 143–158 (2013).

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  • Open-minded
  • Humility
  • Virtue
  • Devotion
  • Descartes
  • Kierkegaard