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Psychologist and intellectual humility researcher Mark Leary and Reverend Eva Suarez of St. John the Divine explore the role intellectual humility plays in faith-based communities as well as in their own minds.


Sara Ivry: Hi, folks. Welcome. I’m Sarah Ivry, features editor at JSTOR Daily. We at JSTOR Daily are very happy to be bringing you a special podcast series about intellectual humility, broadly defined. That’s an openness to being wrong. We’re delighted to bring you the following conversation between Professor Mark Leary and the Reverend Canon Eva Suarez, on how intellectual humility might be put to work in a faith community. Mark Leary is an emeritus professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, and he’s an expert on intellectual humility. Eva Suarez is a reverend at the Church of Saint John the Divine in New York City. Here’s their conversation. Enjoy.

Mark Leary: Welcome, Eva. I’m delighted to be here with you today.

Eva Suarez: Hey, Mark. It’s really nice to be here with you, too.

Leary: As a starting point up, before we jump into our discussion of intellectual humility, perhaps you could say a few words about what led you into the priesthood. Tell us a little bit about your personal journey.

Suarez: So, one of the things about me that feels so core to who I am but is always a shock to people who don’t know me, is I actually come from an interfaith family. My dad’s family is Puerto Rican and Christian, and my mom’s family comes from Russia and is Jewish. And so those were two traditions that in the ’50s in Brooklyn did not get along super well. And so there was some conflict in my family. But, at the same time every year, life slowed down. And so, Passover and Holy Week would be happening at the same time. And so, some of my earliest memories as a child are that sense of, wow, these people are really different. Everything about them is different, and yet we both recognize, that something really special and holy and mysterious is happening right now. So, I think from the very beginning of my life, I’ve had this sense of mystery and holiness and questions and reverence at the heart of life.

And in terms of being a priest, uh, priests, we like to joke, at least in the Episcopal Church, that you really have to be a generalist. Um, there’s lots of reading and writing and thinking and then lots of just time with people. Time with kids and old people going to the hospital, going to school. And my area has actually usually been homeless services and social services, soup kitchens. So for me, it was a way to get at this mystery and this holiness at the heart of life while, um, walking alongside people in all the intricacies of life. So, it was a nice way, to have an interesting life, I guess.

Leary: That does sound like an interesting life. Absolutely.

You know, I think most people seem to assume that people should hold their religious beliefs with absolute certainty; that your beliefs are entirely correct and that anybody who disagrees with you is wrong. But, um, everybody can’t be right, so it seems like we all need to come to terms both on the basis and the validity of our own convictions, and with how we deal with all those other people who don’t see things the same way we do. So maybe a good place to start is to hear about how intellectual humility fits into your role as a priest. I mean, is there any conflict between you serving people and being an Episcopal priest, and still being somewhat open and intellectually humble in terms of your own views of things? How do you put those together?

Suarez: Gosh. Um. It’s funny, I know our topic is intellectual humility, but in some ways it feels like the whole ball game, right? That is the number one most difficult question because, um, there’s the intellectual humility of personal beliefs: How are you, a person in the world who believes, which you believe, still with openness towards others? But then there’s also, as you just said, ministering to people with a variety of beliefs and beliefs that serve a lot of different functions. So I might be in a pastoral scenario with someone, which is sort of when you’re offering care to someone and they believe something really strongly that I don’t, for example, something you hear a lot is, well everything happens for a reason. God wouldn’t give me more than I can handle. And it’s a scenario where, you know, that might mean that God gave them cancer, or that it’s somehow God’s responsibility that someone died. I don’t believe those things at all, but I would want to approach them very gently, because all of those interactions can be so different. And so what they might need for me is to hear that they’re going to get through this. And so, me trying to attack that core underlying belief would not be helpful to them. I actually wouldn’t be serving my purpose.

So there’s a lot of moments where I realize the purpose of the interaction is not for me to be right, or even to convey everything that I believe, but just to be a supporter for someone else. And if there’s room in the conversation where maybe I can guide them towards something that I would see as more life-giving, more helpful, the idea that actually this is all sort of an accident that this has happened, and yet there’s still the possibility that God could be present in a different way, as being a comfort instead of a cause and a terrible thing, I’ll go there, but sometimes that’s not something that can happen.

Leary: I suspect there’s an awful lot of people in the ministry who aren’t that open and would try to convince people to change their views. And I’m just wondering, do you think that your, your diverse family background led you to an increased ability to be accepting of and tolerant of views that are much different than yours? Is that where this came from?

Suarez: That’s a great question. And I do think my family background had something to do with this, because you can’t be a hardliner in a family where one parent believes one thing and one parent believes another. There are some Christians, and I’ve met them, who would argue that my mom and my whole maternal side of family are all going to Hell, and she’s my mom. I could never believe that. And so I think from the very beginning, the idea of ambiguity and nuance was a seed that was planted in me.

Leary: That just beautifully said. You know, in a lot of the research that I’ve done and other people who have done psychological research on intellectual humility, there are an awful lot of benefits to having a more open mind and being less defensive and less dogmatic. And many of those benefits are social benefits, because it allows you to get along better with other people. You don’t automatically dismiss and reject people who disagree with you, and there’s a lot of research showing that that’s, that’s helpful to people.

In one of the studies that we did, we recruited people who describe themselves as either very religious or non-religious, and we had them read an essay that was either very pro religion, that religion’s all very good, and it does good things for the world and gives people meaning and truths. And then some people were assigned to read a negative essay saying, oh, no, religion creates divisions among people, and it makes up stories it tells people that really aren’t true. And then some people, some people read a blended essay that presented both positive and negative sides. And we had previously measured how intellectually humble these participants were. And what we were interested in is not just their reactions to this essay that may agree or disagree with their religious views, because of course, the people who disagreed with it disagreed with it, and those who agreed, and that’s not a big deal. What was most interesting is how they rated the person who wrote the essay. We said, “What do you think this person is like?” And the people who were lower in intellectual humility were far more likely to derogate the essay writer, to rate them less competent, as less friendly and nice, as less honest and moral, whereas the people who were higher in intellectual humility still would disagree. If this was a position they disagreed with, they would disagree. But if they were high in intellectual humility, they didn’t derogate the person. They just say, “I just disagree with you.”

And that’s a little bit of what about what you’re describing here is, I think, that if you could walk through life and sort of separate your disagreement on some kind of an intellectual level, somebody from that person, then then you’re going to get along better. And of course, there’s exceptions to that, there’s some things people would say to you or I that are just so horrendous and awful. Yeah, it shows that they’re not a good person, but on things where it’s not quite clear what the answer is, you know, why aren’t we just a little more open?

Suarez: I think that’s really well said. But that also then raises the question of like, how do you put things into one category or the other? How do you decide? Well, that’s something that’s open for debate and other pieces of information, and that’s something that is closed off. And I think maybe a lot of the issues I see are it’s more almost a category dispute of whether or not something, like, for example, the Holocaust—to go there—is open for debate or not. Not whether or not I believe the different pieces of evidence.

Leary: That’s a very good point. And I’ve given a lot of thought to this. We all have red lines that we draw, where there’s no chance in the world that we’re going to believe the other person’s position. And in fact, we would there be something wrong with us if we did. If I’d say, well, I think it’s wrong to commit cold-blooded murder on the street and kill strangers, but I could be wrong about that. You’d say, “Well, what is wrong with you?” So, we all draw various red lines, and the question is, do we draw them in justifiable places?

The other thing you said, the categorical decision, I think is a good one, because there’s research showing that if you can get people to think about their beliefs not as is it right or wrong, but in terms of what’s the probability that it’s right or wrong, people become more discerning because, you know, you and I could disagree, but in fact, the difference in the probability we have may not be that different, that you grant that there’s some probability it’s right. And I grant that there’s some probability that is wrong and it doesn’t become as black and white that way. So it’s like we need to be thinking about our ideas in a probabilistic sense. How likely is it that I’m right rather than am I right, which is very categorical.

Suarez: I like this because it’s sort of like there are steps to how we evaluate our own thoughts, but something I’ve encountered in just sort of the world of religious conversation, is the idea of discernment. That’s a word you hear a lot in church, even though it’s definitely not a church-only word. But when I was growing up, my church had a group called a discern-, it was like a discernment club, almost. And if you were struggling with major decisions in your life, you could be a part of this, this group and, and talk things out. And they had rules of conversation, and one I’ve adopted and sort of held with me. So, this might be a companion to your like we have to evaluate our own thoughts—this rule was about how we evaluate the thoughts of others. And it was, one of the rules of this discernment committee was you’re not allowed to think of what you’re going to say while another person is talking, and it makes you actually listen to what someone else is saying, without merely thinking of it as something that you are bouncing yourself and your preconceived notions off of. It is like the number one most difficult task for me, but I do hold on to that, particularly in difficult conversations like I’m not allowed to think of an answer while someone else is talking.

Leary: That is a great strategy. I had not heard of that. But the things that really interested me the most when I think about intellectual humility and how hard it is for all of us to accept the fact that some of our beliefs might be wrong, or at least not completely right, is where does this come from? Because in some sense, you would think that we would all want to have the most accurate view of the world. We’re going to make the best decisions if we are most accurate in our beliefs. And if we believe that everything we think is 100 percent accurate, we’re not going to be open to revising incorrect beliefs. And so, um, from a religious standpoint, what would lead people to cling to beliefs that are really kind of far out, that are probably not really defensible, but yet they cling to them really firmly. And religion is such an existential thing—our religious beliefs are really a part of us. Just, you know, I don’t know, there’s a good answer to this, but what’s your speculation when you meet people who are just so dogmatic and so unwilling to think of other views, what do you think feeds that?

Suarez: Well, I guess I should maybe start by being honest, which is that I am dogmatic in my own way. There are certain things that I’m not willing to give an inch on. Yet at the same time, it’s my life, and I sort of view myself as the only realm where I’m holding these truths to be a hundred percent. So like, I am steadfast in my own beliefs, but I’m not going to insist on them for another person.

Leary: That’s a nice distinction. That’s a really good distinction.

Suarez: But again, that’s, that’s really difficult, when it gets to the ways that things that I believe, because of my faith interact with just topics in the world. So, for example, the rise of the religious right in politics speaks very much to this of like there are policy positions that some would argue flow out of religious beliefs. And then, and then we really get in sort of a jurisdictional clash. But I think the way you said it about—you use that word existential, like—why do we do this? I think it is an existential question because there’s things that our beliefs do for us. So, my belief in God does something for me, and so in some ways, my holding fast to it is not just about who I believe God to be, but who I believe myself to be. And so I think our beliefs do things for us, and, I was talking about this, with global warming with someone the other day. I said, I think there are people who, as we discuss global warming and climate change, to give an inch on those and acknowledge their existence, brings in a whole, you know, like, a flood of fear and anxiety and hopelessness, and all of these things that it’s much easier to filter out anything that challenges your belief that actually everything is fine.

Leary: Yeah. The existential security in the intellectual humility literature, some people study intellectual humility in religious contexts, and they talk about the fact that we all want to feel sort of secure in our beliefs about the world and our beliefs about how we fit into the world. And that is a motivator to cling to these things tightly, even though there’s often not sufficient evidence in a real logical sort of way.

It’s interesting, some of the research shows that there are two primary religious motivations or orientations that people can adopt to varying degrees. One is a security motivation: is it my religious beliefs give me security, and they make me feel better about myself in the world, and they give me answers to big questions, they give me information about an afterlife and that kind of thing. Other people adopt more a sort of a growth orientation—that I’m using my religion to grow as a person and to expand and to get through the world as best I can. But the feeling of security and reducing existential anxiety is not the driving factor, and approaching religion from those two different viewpoints would obviously create a difference in terms of how open a person is to other people’s views. Do you pick up anything like that distinction in people that you interact with, in terms of what’s most important to them about their religious beliefs?

Suarez: Definitely. It’s interesting, as you as you’re laying out this formulation, I’m not familiar with it, but it immediately rings true. And I wonder—I think of it almost as a spectrum. And with those two, with those two different sort of views as the far poles, because I think both of them can lead you into trouble. I think we are, at least it’s become obvious in this conversation, the ways that clinging to things like even the word clinging, it’s not a very nice word, right? We can sort of see some of the downsides of that security mindset. And I think someone who’s not religious might hear the other and say like, well, growth sounds nice. We all like growth. But I also think that that raises the issue of using religion as a tool only, because it is also, at least from my faith, a set of truths that help, you know, create the boundaries of the world and the shape of things for me. And it can’t just be a tool, because then my growth becomes the most important thing about religion. And I’ve always been very grateful that the most interesting thing about religion is God, not me. So I would encourage people that a healthy faith is somewhere on that spectrum. 

Leary: In thinking about, you know, our conversation today, in thinking about the reasons why sometimes people cling to beliefs more strongly than they should. And again, we’re not just talking about religious beliefs. The things I’ve studied are often not religious beliefs, they’re getting an argument with somebody about what the best NFL team was or whatever, and we’re both—and we get in a fight in a bar because of it.

But I was wondering, you know, in the religious context, is there a scriptural basis for needing to have absolute belief as opposed to believing firmly but being open? Because you get the sense that a lot of religious people feel like it’s a failure of faith, or maybe it’s even sinful not to absolutely confidently one hundred percent believe. And if I begin to question at all, then I’m lacking in some ways. But just because you ask doesn’t mean you’re doubting. So I just wondered, is there a scriptural basis in any religion for saying, do not doubt at all?

Suarez: No. At least not a scriptural basis that that I feel confident in citing. There is, however, a pithy saying that I’ve heard in many sermons over the years which is the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Rather, yeah—opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. And rather I think we see in Scripture lots of stories of doubt and growth and surprise. People are constantly surprised by God. One of the most common lines in the Bible is “Do not be afraid,” because angels pop up, and no one is ever expecting to see an angel. No one’s like, “Oh, Gabriel, there you are.” It’s not, be afraid. Like this is directly challenging you. Please don’t freak out. I would say that my reading of Scripture is very much in line with this growth mindset, and that there’s room for doubt and, and that is sort of one of the purposes of faith for us to ask questions.

So, the word in Hebrew for Jewish law is halacha, which means walking with God. Hopefully I’ve got that right. But, there’s a great line. I think it’s in Isaiah. God says, “Come, let us argue it out.” And I mean, so much of the New Testament is called the Epistles, the Letters. Paul is in this, you know, real correspondence of weighty questions with people who are arguing it out, walking it out together and figuring out in real time, how do we understand God and ourselves and each other?

I remember as a teenager—I don’t know why this is a core memory, but it is—driving home from church one day with my dad. I do not want it to sound like I have been a hundred percent, you know, clear on God my whole life. I’ve definitely had, uh, religious evolution. And one of the things that was true for me in my upbringing was that I had to go to church. The rule was, as long as I lived under my parents’ roof, I had to go to church on Sundays. That’s what we did. So there were a lot of Sundays that I found myself in church, and I was not thinking of myself as someone who believed in everything that was going on. Though I did, after a while, come to believe, and ask my questions and get satisfactory answers.

Long way of saying we were on our way home and I asked my dad, “Is it difficult to have faith? Like it seems really difficult to have faith.” We were talking about it, and someone ahead of us swung wildly out of the CVS parking lot into oncoming traffic. And he said, “That right there. That person had faith that they were not going to get hit by all the other cars.” Like, we actually all have faith all of the time, and I think Americans more than most places, because for the most part, we have infrastructure that works. You can press an elevator button, get in the elevator, and trust it will bring you up to the sixth floor and not, you know, hurtling down to your death. We believe in things and trust in things all the time. And I think a lot of people have faith who do not think of themselves as religious or faithful people would be almost perhaps dismayed to think of themselves as faithful people.

Leary: That’s a great story.

Suarez: And so, part of intellectual humility is also recognizing the ways that we do have faith in a lot of things.

Leary: And particularly in light of the quotation you had earlier that the opposite of faith is certainty. Yeah. So, yes, you have faith. Are you certain the elevator’s not going to plunge? No. There’s no way you can be certain. But you have faith. I like that a lot. I like that a lot.

I seem to remember a sort of a parable in Buddhism where somebody asks the Buddha, “Hey, is all this stuff you’re teaching about suffering and everything true?” And he said, “Try it out, see if it works,” which I thought was a nice, empirical, open-minded thing. Now, did he really say that? Who knows. But it’s a very different approach than somebody asking, you know, a fundamentalist minister a question. You know, it’s there’s a difference there in the certainty and it allows people to, again, to find their path on their own, which is seems to be what you’re suggesting.

Suarez: And also I think that calls on us to have some open-mindedness, even towards the faith expressions that might have become a bit of a whipping boy in this conversation. So, for example, that that poor fundamentalist minister that I think we both keep, keep sort of tossing to, so yeah, I might not be a fundamentalist in my own Christian expression, but I have to, as a coreligionist with these people that I disagree with, try to look at what they get out of it, and are there things that their understanding of the tradition adds to my own? So, for example, Episcopalians, I’m an Episcopalian. We’re often lovingly called by our presiding bishop as God’s quiet people. If you ask for prayers in Episcopal Church, people are going to be thinking quietly to themselves. It’s not usually very loud and crazy time, but there are more fundamentalist traditions that have a real charisma to them. And they have people get up and share their testimony. And my faith has grown immeasurably from those faith expressions from communities that I might not agree with. But at the same time, I’m like, wow, like, what if I got up more and gave my testimony? Like, what if we all were getting up in these quiet Episcopal churches and talking about what we feel our faith has done for us?

There’s an author, Barbara Brown Taylor, who wrote a book. I’ll admit, I’ve yet to read it called Holy Envy, that it is about that exact idea that even in faith, traditions and faith expressions that we might disagree with and even find sort of hostile to us, particularly around these issues, where there’s real disagreement, there is still something in one another’s traditions that we can have some envy of and learn from.

Leary: That’s a very nice point. And in my own, I wasn’t necessarily going to talk about my own, you know, faith journey, but I felt lucky that I have sort of fallen into and been exposed to, you know, different approaches. I grew up in sort of a mainline Protestant church—Methodist. And it seems looking back, I was just sort of mainline right in the middle of things. Um, but in but in high school, I got involved in a pretty fundamentalist Christian group for a couple of years. Sort of an evangelical group and then I started thinking some of this stuff they were teaching just didn’t quite fit. And I fell away from everything as I went on into college and then sort of came back, you know, as an adult and started sort of reading about world religions more broadly, you know, reading into the Eastern religions and Indigenous religions. And, you know, I’ve sort of end up with a big hodgepodge in my own mind of sort of picking the best of what I consider to be the best from everybody, because there’s sort of like you said, you know, all these faiths have something to offer. But to me, every single one of them has also has some has some shortcomings. And so you pick and choose. Am I confident that my view of the world, through whatever spiritual lens I have right now is accurate? No, not at all. But it does sort of have a functional value in terms of giving you a perspective and some understanding.

Suarez: Yes. I, in college, I tried studying everything before I studied religion because I had this this thought in the pit of my stomach that I might end up being a priest, and I really sort of, uh, was not thrilled by that. And so I tried being an English major and a philosophy major and a history major. And when I did finally sort of give in and become a religion major, I was like, well, let me, let me study Hinduism because I can’t just study Christianity. I can’t just stay where I’m comfortable. And for me, that was a real time of spiritual growth, seeing the ways that this very different collection of traditions—because in its own ways, it’s also a collection of traditions, Hinduism—taught me so much about what I believe, and I learned so much about different expressions of holiness and doubt and faith. But I also, that being said, have not adopted things from those traditions for my own piety. They’ve made my experience richer, and I hope they’ve made me more, uh, understanding and open minded. But I also think part of, um, intellectual humility is recognizing what you are and what you aren’t. And so for me, as a Christian minister, there may be all these other traditions that I admire and learn from, but I have to respect what they are in their totality and that there are places where we’d be, you know, we’d be at complete odds. And so I often talk about coming from an interfaith family and, you know, having a Jewish mother, according to, you know, Jewish law that would make me Jewish. And so, I often have people ask me like, well, do you consider yourself Jewish and Christian? And I always say no, because to me that would be disrespectful of Judaism. I take communion all the time—that doesn’t seem very fair.

Leary: And the other point it brings up is that you do have to make choices about what you’re going to believe. You can’t believe everything at once. I mean, that would just be exactly the same, right? So you do have to pick the ones that you think have the greatest foundation and are the most beneficial to you, and there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you’re open minded enough to appreciate the value in others and open minded, in my view, enough to be able to do to say, well, yeah, here’s what I believe, but could I be wrong? And none of us like ambiguity and uncertainty. We’d rather have definitive answers for everything. But some people are far more troubled by that ambiguity than other people are. And if it doesn’t bother you as much, you’re going to find it a little bit easier to hold your beliefs tentatively. If you can’t handle ambiguity, ambiguity, and uncertainty, well, then yeah, then, then you’re going to have to believe everything pretty firmly or you’re going to feel anxious about it.

Suarez: And I think also we have to be able to handle some ambiguity for our beliefs to be strong. I think that’s part of the point of that—you know—the opposite of faith is not, it’s not doubt, that it’s certainty. If we are one hundred and ten percent sure of this collection of beliefs, and then just one of them is shown to us to be wrong in a way that we can take in—there are people who all of a sudden the entire thing crumbles. I don’t know if you’ve experienced people like that, but I’ve seen people have crises of faith in that way of, well, I believed all of these things, and now I can’t believe this one thing, and so it’s all over. And that’s not actually a very strong faith. It might look strong, but it’s not because it cannot withhold any criticism, any ambiguity, or any change.

Leary: Yes. Some people that that one little thing causes the whole belief system to crumble. And that’s not healthy either.

Suarez: Yeah, so I really view my role as a pastor, as helping people to ask questions and in some ways to withstand challenges, that your beliefs are allowed to change and, and in a fundamental way still remain the same. So I would, I would say that the ways that I, that I think and feel about God on the deep down level are in some ways the same now as they were when I was a little girl. That sense of awe and mystery is still at the heart of my religious life, but everything else around it is totally different.

Leary: Interesting. Do you think now that you’ve become more familiar with the concept of intellectual humility, and we’ve had this discussion, is there anything, as you walk out today to deal with your parishioners and or other people that you’re going to think about a little bit differently by having this concrete concept in mind?

Suarez: It’s nice to have a name for an idea that once you’re familiar with it, you’re like, oh, okay. Because I think I asked you, when we first met, sort of what’s your five-second definition of what intellectual humility is? And you said the recognition that the things that you believe might not be true. So the idea that there’s actually a name for that and research about that, it helps us—isn’t there an idea in linguistics that if there’s a name for something, you’re more likely to use it?

Leary: Um, yeah, I think so, yeah.

Suarez: Yeah, so to have a name for it. I hope this makes me more likely to, uh, identify it when it’s at work in my own, in my own thought process and in others, or when it’s lacking, um, to be able to say to somebody like, well, you know, what would it mean if that wasn’t true? What would that do? How could we still, I don’t know, work together or get through whatever we’re trying to get through if this core thing wasn’t true.

Leary: This has been a delight. Thank you so much Iva for sharing your views with us. I’ve learned a lot and I’ve had a lot of fun. Thank you so very much.

Suarez: Well, I have too. Thank you so much, Mark. This has been great.

Ivry: That was the Reverend Canon Eva Suarez and Professor Mark Leary. We’ve got other equally riveting conversations about intellectual humility, what it is, and how it might be applied on our website Daily dot JSTOR dot org. We’ve also got a reading list about intellectual humility. We hope you’ll check it all out and share it. I’m Sara Ivry, the features editor at JSTOR daily. This conversation was produced by Julie Subrin with help from JSTOR Daily’s Cathy Halley and from me.

Funding for this project was provided by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center as part of its expanding awareness of the Science of Intellectual Humility initiative, which is supported by the John Templeton Foundation. Thank you so much for listening.

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