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
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”).
Beyond prime reality, these worldviews made differing claims of our ultimate destiny or means to salvation.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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:
“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
Good read. Coming from a Catholic perspective, we would say that there are truths to be found in other religions. I love your pull from “Mere Christianity”. While we lay the fullness of faith in Christ’s Church, it’s important to not silo ourselves off from others and open dialog. Too often I find we make enemies out of people before we even open our mouth.
All the best!
Excellent article! “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.” I had some of the best conversations with my New Age chiropractor about the importance of recognizing that unresolved emotional issues can have physical side effects and the answer oftentimes is emotional healing. Yes, we differed in our approaches but talking with her really magnified to me that some belief systems have “some hint of the truth”. Your closing paragraph is spot on: “If the goal of religious pluralism was to unite… Read more »