This is an essay from the Christian Apologetics course at Concordia University-Ann Arbor, which has been revised to fit the purposes of this blog.
As a melting pot, America welcomes people of all ethnicities, cultures, and religions. The cultural diversity inherent in America is part of what makes America so great. Part of this greatness comes from the First Amendment of the United States Constitution that guarantees freedom to practice one’s religion, and thus religious pluralism has flourished in America. The plurality of religion has led to most people believing all religions are equal; therefore, there are multiple ways to salvation. No one religion can claim to have absolute truth under this worldview. In 2008, 57% of Christians and 70% of the general public believed “many religions can lead to eternal life” (Groothuis, 567). This is problematic for Christians because whereas the Christian faith confesses Jesus Christ to be the only way to eternal life (John 14:6), the large majority of the general public and even a large variety of Christians believe all religions have some claim to spiritual truth that will lead to eternal life regardless of what religion one practices. Despite its widespread acceptance, religious pluralism has become a religion in itself and, as it is self-defeating, becomes logically incoherent and is not a sufficient worldview.
A common argument used for religious pluralism is the elephant and the blind men parable. The parable is told as follows:
Several blind men were feeling an elephant. The man who felt the tusk said the beast was smooth and hard. Feeling the tail, another described the elephant as thin and wiry. One who touched the ear believed the animal to be a soft and flexible creature. The man rubbing his hand over the hide said the elephant was hard and rough like clay. Each man had but a limited exposure and understanding of the elephant. Because of his ignorance of the whole truth, each man assumed the entire elephant matched a very limited description. Of course, the elephant is made of all the things the blind men described. The tusk is smooth, the ear is soft, the hide is rough, and the tail is wiry. (568)
Due to shrewd semantics, this parable sounds attractive, and indeed it deceives many. However, we must call to mind Paul’s exhortation, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8). According to this parable employed against any single religion, “each religion has only partial knowledge of the divine reality, but each mistakenly thinks it has captured the essence of religious truth” (568). Before we dismantle this parable, we first need to address the essence and function of religion. “A religion is defined as a set of beliefs that attempts to explain the nature and the sacred and how humans can become in harmony with it” (569). There are three elements of life that all religions make different truth claims on: “ultimate reality, the human condition, and how humans can find spiritual liberation” (569). All religions claim to have absolute truth to these three elements that humans face. Space does not allow for me to address all these differences, but it suffices to say:
no single religion accepts the elephant parable because each claims to reveal ultimate and universal truths, not partial insights needing elaboration from other religions. Even Hinduism, which claims tolerance and universality, denies the absolute claims of other religions and reinterprets other religions according to its own worldview. Those who employ the elephant story claim to look down on all the religions from an elevated vantage point. In essence, the interpreter is creating a new religion that denies the particular claims of the actual religions he or she is assessing. (575)
What needs to be proved in the elephant parable is that all religions (the blind men) are part of a greater divine reality (the elephant). Yet the parable just asserts this to be true without any substantial evidence. Contrary to this parable, the law of non-contradiction applies to reality. Two contradictory statements cannot both be true at the same time. The ultimate divine reality, for example, cannot both be nirvana and the personal God of Israel. It is either one or the other; the laws of logic demand it cannot be both. As Groothuis says, religious pluralism itself has become a religion that asserts itself to be true over the plurality of religions without any substantial evidence. Therefore, the belief that all religions can lead to eternal life is self-defeating.
Modern thinker John Hick is arguably the driving figure of religious pluralism. He asserts the following claim:
[There is an] ultimate ineffable Reality which is the source and ground of everything, and which is such that in so far as the religious traditions are in soteriological alignment with it they are contexts of salvation/liberation. These traditions involve different human conceptions of the Real, with correspondingly different forms of experience of the Real, and corresponding different forms of life in response to the Real… [The Real] cannot be said to be one or many, person or thing, conscious or unconscious, purposive or nonpurposive, substance or process, good or evil, loving or hating. None of these descriptive terms apply literally to the unexperienceable reality that underlies that realm. (580)
Thus defined is the religion of religious pluralism that asserts itself to be true. As Groothuis later says, “Hick creates a new religious (and ultimately irreligious) category in order to harmonize religions” (585). In order to accept all religions as equally true, Hick—and every religious pluralist—”must drain the concept of ultimate reality of all substantial meaning in order to inflate it into a metaphysical and epistemological category capacious enough to serve as the source and basis for all religions” (580). The appeal that the divine reality is unknowable solves nothing. Instead, it causes several problems.
If the “Real” is unknowable—or “ineffable” as Hick claims—then nothing can be said of its essence, not even what Hick claims it to be. If the Real is unknowable, “then it cannot adequately explain the nature of the world’s religions, since knowledge is required for explanation… If our concept of the Real can never capture its essential nature, then why should we believe that the Real is the source of all genuine religious manifestations, especially when these traditions explicitly contradict each other on fundamental doctrines” (581)? The Real—and therefore religious pluralism—becomes feckless.
The summary of Hick’s assertion of the Real is as follows:
- Neither one nor many.
- Neither person nor thing.
- Neither conscious nor unconscious.
- Neither purposive nor nonpurposive.
- Neither substance nor process.
- Neither good nor evil.
- Neither loving nor hating.
This assertion is logically incoherent, however. Statements 1-5 exhaust all logical possibilities. If 1-5 are true, “there are no predicates remaining for an entity to possess” (582). If 1-5 are true, this means there is nothing, so he appears to be defining the Real out of existence—or defining literally nothing. Statements 6 and 7 then become self-defeating. These statements can only be true if the Real is impersonal, but statements 1-5 claim the Real can be neither personal nor impersonal (statement 2). In order to assert 6 and 7 as true, then Hick would have to admit the Real as impersonal, but he claims it to be neither impersonal nor personal. Therefore, 6 and 7 become self-defeating because of the logical incoherence of statements 1-5.
Logical incoherence appears elsewhere in Hick’s assertions of religious pluralism. He claims, “1) The Real generates saints (morally exemplary people) who as such bear witness to the reality of the spiritual world and the legitimacy of their own varying religions. 2) The Real itself cannot be said to possess any moral properties” (584). This is illogical nonsense. If the Real does not bear any moral properties, how can it disclose any moral property to people to make them saints? Since statements 1 and 2 are required for his religious system to function, and they are self-contradicting, religious pluralism cannot be true. We must also remember that Hick claimed the Real can be “neither purposive nor nonpurposive.” However, according to statement one, the production of saints is vital to the legitimacy of his system, which describes the purpose of the Real. In order for the Real to impart moral properties to people, it needs to be purposive, but he says it is neither purposive nor nonpurposive. So again, Hick’s system defeats itself and is not logically coherent.
Therefore, due to its self-defeating nature, religious pluralism is not a worldview that can be logically sustained and, furthermore, all religions being equally true is not logically supported and, therefore, cannot be true.
Groothuis, Douglas. Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011.