Don’t Be Fooled by the Pretty Parables of Pluralism

By L. Alfred James

Last week we dissected the intellectual attitude of those who compare the religions of the world to blind men groping around an elephant, or those who compare the religions of the world to multiple paths leading up a mountain.

These parables are claiming that the religions in the world are all equally valid systems of truth and equally valid ways of having a relationship with God. The official name for this belief is called religious pluralism because it argues that there is no one single religion that is exclusively true. There is a plurality of ways to God. Thus, all of the religions are true, though in a limited sense.

What Makes the Parables of Pluralism so Persuasive?

Technically speaking, these parables are what philosophers call paradigms or mental models. Just as one can create a miniature model of, say, the solar system, or the workings of the atom, one can also create a mental model of these things. In fact, when we say that the parts of the atom (the nucleus and the electrons) are like the sun being orbited by planets we are using a mental model. Scientists know that this is not exactly an accurate view of the atom, but it illustrates some basic concepts about the atom. These basic concepts are what we might call the “inner core” of the mental model.

Don't Be Fooled by the Pretty Parables of PluralismAnother example: Aristotle believed that the cosmos was analogous to a series of bigger and bigger crystalline spheres. This was his mental model. He thought that the stars and planets were all suspended within gigantic crystal-like orbs, nestled within one another. And this model did a decent job of explaining why some planets had bigger orbits than others, and why the orbits of the stars were the biggest orbits of all (because they were part of a bigger sphere). Because the model fit perfectly well with what people observed (and believed), they thought it also explained what they couldn’t observe: the inner workings of the universe. However, the core of the model, the idea of concentric crystal-like spheres, was completely false. And though many thousands of people agreed with this model for a long time, there is absolutely no astronomer alive today who thinks this way.

What’s the point of this little rabbit trail into intellectual history? Simply this: just because someone can give a mental model that seems to fit with what we observe, this does not at all mean the entire model correct.

The parables mentioned above are mental models, models that describe the way human beings relate to God. These models fit with our observations (and beliefs) in significant ways. Here are a few of the things that most people readily agree with:

  • There are multiple religions in the world saying different things about God. (There are multiple blind men saying different things about the elephant. And there are multiple paths going up the mountain.)
  • The adherents in each of these religions are probably good people who are doing their best to know God. (The blind men are doing their best to understand the elephant. The adherents going up the mountain are doing their best to reach the top.)
  • These religions cannot all be completely true because they contradict each other in many important ways. (The blind men made contradictory claims that were very different from each other. The paths up the mountain are distinct and separate paths.)
  • These religions make hasty generalizations about God or the spiritual world. (The blind men make pronouncements about the entire elephant based off of a tiny bit of information. The adherents of each religion, who are traversing their paths up the mountain, make the hasty generalization that they are on the only path that leads to the top of the mountain.)

Thus, because of certain parts of the model agree with our beliefs and our observations, it is tempting to swallow the whole thing: hook, line, and sinker. That is what makes these parables so persuasive. It is tempting to say, “Well, I guess one religion is as good as another. It doesn’t really matter what you believe, as long as you are sincere. All religions are ‘true’ because they will all lead you to God.” That is the main point of each of these parables. That is the “inner core” of the mental models they provide us with.

Aztec SacrificeBut there are a lot of problems with this inner core. First of all, how far are they willing to go with this idea that “All religions are true”? Are they willing to say that ridiculous religions are also true, that they are valid paths to God? What about, say, the Church of Bey? This is a group of people who actually worship Beyoncé. Yes, I know it is absurd, but that is my point. Are these worshippers of Beyoncé on the path to knowing God? How about Jihadists who kill innocent people in order to enter paradise in the afterlife? Are they on the path to knowing God? How about Aztecs who sacrificed other human beings? Were they on the path to knowing God? How sick and twisted does a person’s religion need to be before a religious pluralist will admit that that particular “path” does not lead to the top of the mountain?

Second of all, the religious pluralist should admit that he is really an exclusivist. He believes that only religious pluralism is true. He thinks that all other belief systems are wrong and his belief system is right. Atheism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, they are all wrong. But religious pluralism, ah, that’s the good stuff. That’s right. This gets back to the intellectual arrogance we discussed last week.

To be sure, it is perfectly fine for a person to be confident that their belief is true, whatever that belief happens to be about (religion, history, science, art). However, if they imply (or explicitly say) that their belief is correct and the beliefs of others are incorrect, then they should be able to give reasons for their belief. If they are not willing to then it is not very likely that they are interested in pursuing the truth.

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