Tuesday 2 November 2021

Extreme Beliefs: An Interview with Rik Peels

Today I interview Rik Peels (Amsterdam) on a new exciting project he is leading, addressing extremism and fundamentalism. The project is funded by an ERC Starting Grant and is named, "Extreme Beliefs: The Epistemology and Ethics of Fundamentalism" (2020-2025). 

Rik Peels

LB: How did you become interested in fundamentalism?

RP: It was a combination of two things. On the one hand, ever since the start of my PhD in 2008, I’ve been working on the ethics of belief. In times of polarization and misinformation, I think the issue of how people form their beliefs and how they should form them has become even more important. On the other hand, especially since 9/11, the so-called new atheists have severely critiqued religious faith on both moral and epistemic grounds, but it has always struck me, as a religious person myself, that they seem to target only fundamentalist and other extreme versions of religion. I felt it was only natural to combine the two interests and the rise of terrorism, right-wing extremism, and conspiricism have only added to that. The public and academic conceptual conflation between, say, extremism, fundamentalism, terrorism, and fanaticism has been a final reason for me to engage in this topic.

LB: Your project deals with the epistemological and ethical issues raised by extreme beliefs. What are your research questions?

RP: The five main research questions are: 
  1. What turns a person’s extreme beliefs into fundamentalist beliefs and how do they relate to other epistemically detrimental phenomena like narrow-mindedness and belief in conspiracy theories? 
  2. How does the social environment affect the rationality and other epistemic statuses of fundamentalist beliefs of the individual and of the group? 
  3. What are people’s general and context-specific moral and epistemic obligations regarding fundamentalist beliefs? 
  4. Under which conditions are people excused for violating their moral and epistemic obligations regarding their fundamentalist beliefs? 
  5. And exactly how does an epistemology and ethics of individual and group fundamentalist belief help us to better understand, explain, and assess fundamentalism?

LB: What expertise is required to study fundamentalism? Does your project team involve experts in different disciplines? If so, how will they work together?

RP: The challenging thing about fundamentalism is that, in order to properly understand and explain it, one needs expertise in countless disciplines, at least: philosophy, theology, religious studies, law, history, psychology, sociology, criminology, and arguably even much more than that. My project team combines philosophical (particularly epistemological and ethical) expertise with empirical expertise.

LB: Some believe that philosophy has a role in helping tackle serious problems. Will your project inform societal responses to extreme beliefs?

RP: That is indeed also an aim, one that will become more important towards the end of the project, as the results are coming in. We are involved in public debates in newspapers, for instance, on how to respond to Covid-19 conspiricism. We provide input for policy documents by ministries and public safety agencies (the equivalents of the FBI). We are involved in other projects building resilience towards extreme beliefs among various groups in three Dutch cities. All our work, both academic and public, will be made freely available on our website.

LB: What is the final goal of the project?

RP: Since the start of the project in early 2020, I have come to see (I believe) that what is needed now is a new paradigm for studying fundamentalism, extremism, terrorism, conspiricism, and fanaticism that: 
  • combines insights into these movements rather than studying them in isolation;
  • takes the first-person perspective of, say, the extremist – her reasons, beliefs, narratives – seriously, something that has been neglected for years now; and 
  • synthesizes ideas and methods from the empirical sciences and more theoretical (conceptual, normative) approaches as developed in philosophy. 
The long-term and rather ambitious goal, then, is to develop this paradigm with numerous other philosophers as well as empirical and historical scholars, that is, to find the right terms and concepts needed to articulate it, back it up by empirical evidence and rigorous argumentation, and make it flourish.

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