I didn’t grow up religious. When I was young I didn’t give much thought to why people attended church, or prayed, or read religious literature. I couldn’t tell the difference between a Catholic and a Lutheran, or a Baptist and a Methodist. I wasn’t even sure what made people of other faiths like Buddhism different from Christians, apart from cultural differences. I assumed much of what anyone believed was a product of their upbringing and that there was no real substance behind the seemingly different worldviews that people held. Like so many others before me, I concluded that all these religions were just different perspectives of the same truth. I thought everyone was worshiping the same God or higher power in their own way, and I looked down on those who didn’t accept this interpretation. My view was that of an ancient parable.
The Elephant in the Room
Several blind men were walking along and came upon an elephant that allowed them to touch and feel it. ‘This creature is long and flexible like a snake’ said the first blind man, holding the elephant’s trunk. ‘Not at all – it is thick and round like a tree trunk,’ said the second blind man, feeling the elephant’s leg.‘No, it is large and flat,’ said the third blind man, touching the elephant’s side. Each blind man could feel only part of the elephant – none could envision the entire elephant.In the same way, it is argued, the religions of the world each have a grasp on part of the truth about spiritual reality, but none can see the whole elephant or claim to have a comprehensive vision of the truth. ~Timothy Keller, “The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism” (Pg.8-9).
The oldest known reference of the parable of the elephant and the blind men is found in the Buddhist Udana, though it is likely much older. It is a perfect description of a specific type of relativism known as “religious pluralism.” In contrast to “exclusivism,” religious pluralism is the belief that multiple worldviews or religions can be equally valid or true. This is distinct from “religious tolerance” (a social expectation of accepting others regardless of their religious beliefs). Tolerance makes no claims to the truth or validity of religions but only mediates the behaviors of society.
Do All Roads Lead to Rome?
A common expression of pluralism is that there are multiple paths to God or salvation. Think of a mountain where the peak is the end goal. Though many climbers may start on opposite sides or take different routes, as they ascend the mountain, they will all eventually meet at the same peak. The allure of religious pluralism lies in its free and inclusive nature. If all religious views are equally valid or true, then what we believe becomes less of a matter of what’s true, and more about what personally appeals to us. This is generally thought to be a peaceful alternative to religious exclusivism, which has been a divisive force throughout all of history.
Major world religions paint pictures of reality that are vastly different from one another, such as their description of prime reality (the “truly real”).
Theravada Buddhism is nontheistic; Vedantic Hindus believe that Ultimate Reality (Brahman) is a nondual Absolute, lacking any distinctions. Orthodox Christianity is trinitarian and Hinduism polytheistic, whereas Islam and Judaism are strictly monotheistic. ~Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, David Basinger, “Reason & Religious Belief” (Pg.321)
Beyond prime reality, these worldviews made differing claims of our ultimate destiny or means to salvation.
Most forms of Hinduism teach that God is an impersonal force. Islam, Judaism, and Christianity that God is a personal being. In Buddhism, the question of God is irrelevant.In classical theism, death is final, followed by either eternal reward or eternal punishment. In Eastern religions, death is a door the soul passes through many times as it works out its karma in reincarnation. Some religions teach that reprobates are destroyed while the righteous live on. …When someone dies, they mightgo to Heaven or Hell, or they mightbe reincarnated, or they mightsimply turn to dust… ~Gregory Koukl, “Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions” (Pg.119)
Who Really Knows?
The idea that one can “know the truth” about reality is often seen as arrogant, rude, or presumptuous. The religious pluralist, in contrast, is seen to be humble in their view and considerate of others. Herein lies a great irony: the religious pluralist is making the claim that religious pluralism is true (they “know the truth”) and that all competing views of reality (like exclusivism) are incorrect.
The accusation of arrogance is a subtle ad hominem attack (where one tries to invalidate an argument or claim by attacking the character of the one who holds it). But the claim that exclusivists are arrogant or immoral does not address whether exclusivism or pluralism is true. Our character is irrelevant to our claims. If claiming other’s views were wrong invalidated one’s own position, then pluralism itself would be invalidated. To claim that pluralism is true and everyone with differing views was wrong would be just as arrogant or immoral as claiming exclusivism was true.
The Clash of Culture
A popular argument for religious pluralism is the idea of cultural relativism. Because many cultures, countries, and people groups across history disagree about reality, there must not be any one true answer. Your beliefs would be a product of where and when you were born. “For example, if you had been born in Pakistan, you would likely have been a Muslim. Therefore, your belief in Christianity is false or unjustified. But again, this seems to be a textbook example of what’s called the ‘genetic fallacy.’ This is trying to invalidate a position by criticizing the way a person came to hold that position.
The fact that your beliefs depend upon where and when you were born has no relevance to the truth of those beliefs.If you had been born in ancient Greece, you would probably have believed that the sun orbits the Earth. Does that imply that your belief that the Earth orbits the sun is therefore false or unjustified? Obviously not! And once again, the pluralist pulls the rug from beneath his own feet: For had the pluralist been born in Pakistan, then he would likely have been a religious particularist! Thus, on his own analysis his pluralism is merely the product of his being born in the late twentieth-century Western society and is therefore false or unjustified. ~William Lane Craig, “On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision” (Pg.270).
To claim religious pluralism is exclusively true is a contradiction. Two or more conflicting statements cannot all be true. But the fact that every major world religion makes exclusive and irreconcilable claims implies that either one of them is true or that none of them are (but to claim that none of them are is a view in and of itself). Religious pluralists will sometimes object to the laws of logic in order to avoid this issue.
The most common escape route from this problem is the claim that the law of contradiction is a Western notion that doesn’t apply in Eastern thought like Hinduism. Eastern thinkers are comfortable with contradiction, so they say. This problem, though, has nothing to do with what people are ‘comfortable’ with.It has to do with how reality is structured. People may be comfortable with all sorts of unusual things. This may tell you something about psychology, but not about reality. Computers work on a binary system of 0s and 1s. The law of noncontradiction functions to keep these two distinct.It doesn’t matter if the computer is in the Eastern Hemisphere or the Western Hemisphere or if the person at the keyboard is Christian, Hindu, Taoist, animist, or atheist. The computer works regardless because reality is still structured according to the law of non-contradiction,even if people from other cultures are psychologically confused about this point. ~Gregory Koukl, “Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions” (Pg.116-117).
Suspend All Judgement?
The problem of discerning truth from religious diversity can be seen as an overwhelming if not impossible task and has prompted many to take a more agnostic approach, claiming that truth cannot be known or communicated. This claim rests on the basis of the limitation of human reason and sense experience as well as the limitations of language. Is it fair to determine, according to one’s own seeming inability to know, that no one possesses the truth?
The overall skeptical attempt to suspend all judgment about reality is self-defeating, since it implies a judgment about reality. Why discourage all truth attempts, unless one knows in advance that they are futile? And how can one be in possession of this advance information without already knowing something about reality? Now if someone should press the argument that the agnostic need not be making any statement at all about reality but is simply defining the necessary limits of what we can know, it can be shown that even this is a self-defeating attempt. To say that one cannot know any more than the limits of phenomena or appearance is to draw an unsurpassable line for those limits. But one cannot draw such firm limits without surpassing them. It is not possible to contend that appearance ends here, and reality begins there unless one can see at least some distance on the other side. In other words, how can one know the difference between appearance and reality without already knowing both so as to make the comparison? ~Norman L. Geisler, “Christian Apologetics (2nd Edition)” (Pg.13-15).
With the evidence considered, it cannot be maintained that all religions are the same. Their claims about God, the meaning of life, our ultimate destiny, and a host of other meaningful descriptions cannot logically coexist.
[The ‘Blind men and elephant’] illustration backfires on its users. The story is told from the point of view of someone who is not blind. How could you know that each blind man only sees part of the elephant unless you claim to be able to see the whole elephant? How could you possibly know that no religion can see the whole truth unless you yourself have the superior, comprehensive knowledge of spiritual reality you just claimed that none of the religions have? ~Timothy Keller, “The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism” (Pg.9)
If the goal of religious pluralism was to unite all religions in the name of peace, it must necessarily deny their central tenants by altering them or ignoring them. Far from bringing religions together, it attempts to destroy them, in favor of its own view. This is logically and practically self-defeating. Although peace is a virtuous goal, it cannot be logically achieved through pluralism. This does not mean that we cannot be tolerant or graceful. In the pursuit of tolerance, it is better to acknowledge that differences exist, that these differences are irreconcilable, and meet where common ground can be found. As Christians, we are commanded to speak the truth in love. This entails patiently listening, and respectfully engaging with those who hold differing views. We would do well to remember the words of C.S. Lewis:
If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through. If you are an atheist, you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole word is simply one huge mistake.If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all these religions, even the queerest one, contain at least some hint of the truth. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view. But, of course, being a Christian does mean thinking that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong. As in arithmetic- there is only one right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong: but some of the wrong answers are much nearer being right than others. ~C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity” (The Rival Conceptions of God)
“You shall have no other gods before me.” ~Exodus 20:3
“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” ~Acts 4:12
“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” ~Luke 11:23
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Steven Worthey, founder of “Standardized Apologetics,” began teaching at Mill City Church in Neenah, WI, in 2015 and has since had the opportunity to teach at other local churches, as well as U.W. Fox Valley. His class is designed to make apologetics accessible and effective for all Christians. Standardized Apologetics regularly releases free content on social media platforms to encourage and train Christians to share their faith with confidence, build up the church, and spread the Gospel to a world that has adopted an array of non-biblical worldviews.
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