Friday, April 2, 2010

The Bigotry of Religious Pluralism

The title of this post probably offended some of you. If not, then I'm sure the image did the trick. The combination of the two is a sure bet.

Before I get started let me just say that offense is honestly not my intent. But sometimes shock value can be the best way to get people to open up enough in their beliefs to consider another point of view or at least to critically examine their own.

Recently I had a conversation with someone who was a convinced religious pluralist. 1 "There is one truth," he told me, "and all religions have their own way of getting to it."

Bigot is a really harsh word. It's also a good one, in that it expresses a very specific characteristic of a given person. But like many good words (e.g. 'tolerance'), it has been abused to the point that its original meaning has been largely lost in favor of a watered-down, more popular definition. Bigot used to mean someone who is so convinced of her own opinions that she refuses to even consider contrary views. However, the popular usage now denotes something closer to someone who holds an exclusive position at all, regardless of her views of other opinions.

Of course, this new definition effectively neuters the word since everyone maintains an exclusive position about something. But we don't want to say that everyone is a bigot.

So if mere exclusivity is not enough to amount to bigotry, then what makes the difference? Well, according to the old definition it's a person's attitude toward differing opinions. Does the person take them seriously? Does he accept them on their own terms, consider their merits honestly, and evaluate them based on their strongest representation? Or does he simply reject them outright, or else reduce them to some weaker, more palatable form that allows him to keep his own view intact?

My point is this: in order to be a thorough religious pluralist, one must largely ignore most of the essential claims of most religions, or else re-interpret them into some vague, watered-down version that would be nearly unrecognizable to genuine adherents of the religion. And this requires bigotry. 

So how does my friend fare here? Can all, or even most, religions really be different paths to the same truth? Only if one is willing to maintain a contradiction. 2 This is because each religion has its own claims about what the truth actually is, or if there even is one. And usually, these claims contradict each other.

For example, Islam claims that one God exists, and that He is in every way one. Christianity claims that one God exists, but that He is a Trinity. Buddhism, so far as it can be adequately understood, requires no deity of any kind and would in fact be strongly opposed to the idea that the divine and the 'natural' are intrinsically separate. The only way that these three views of God can be integrated is to make them mean something other than what they were intended to mean. It amounts to saying that the billions of religious believers in the world are simply wrong about what they believe, and that the lone, objective observer (as though such a thing were even possible) is capable of interpreting the various religions correctly.

Christianity, on the other hand, has never shied away from other claims to truth. It has confronted them head on and has encouraged honest dialogue. It is not coincidence that many of the world's top universities were founded by Christians, and that a lot of them remain committed to a Christian worldview. We trust that the truth we have received is strong enough to withstand criticism and to prevail over competing views for any honest seeker.

It is not bigotry to think you are right. It is bigotry to think that everybody can be right. Let's get it straight.



1 I will be using the term 'religious pluralist/ism' in this post in the somewhat popular sense of someone who believes that all religions are either equally valid or somehow compatible or paths to the same truth or some other variation of this idea. I do not intend it in any other sense.

2 As it turned out, my friend seemed perfectly willing to do just this. This is utterly incomprehensible to me.

* You may have been expecting a post about Easter, but there are quite a few apologetics blogs out there and evidence-for-the-resurrection posts are not hard to find this time of year. As such, I'll just link to two of them. Enjoy.

20 comments:

  1. So let's get it right. According to http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/bigot, bigot means:
    --
    –noun
    a person who is utterly intolerant of any differing creed, belief, or opinion.
    --
    If you read down a little further, it states:
    --
    One who is strongly partial to one's own group, religion, race, or politics and is intolerant of those who differ.
    --
    As a strong believer in cultural pluralism, I think it's a bigoted position to be against it. Sure, evidence supports my position on how I view religion, but it doesn't mean I am against cultural pluralism because I realize that it benefits society to the maximum good.

    Religious pluralism is actually the opposite of bigotry.

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  2. Charles: Perhaps you should read the post again, more closely. Especially paragraphs four and five.

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  3. I prefer the term immutable. I've read your post, but I'm still not sure how believing that every path is a path towards an ultimate goal is bigotry, and believing only one path is the true path is not.

    Perhaps I could illustrate it as I see it: http://aviary.com/artists/cw1925/creations/paths_of_bigotry

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  4. http://aviary.com/artists/cw1925/creations/doodle is a more updated illustration.

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  5. Charles: Hm. I'm honestly not sure I can make it any clearer than I did in the post. But I'll give it a shot.

    Your link actually illustrates my point well. There is a fundamental misunderstanding regarding what bigotry actually is. The definition of bigotry has much more to do with how one views the opinions of others (look again at the definition you supplied) than one's own beliefs. The point I am making is that while Christianity takes seriously those other views (even while disagreeing with them), religious pluralism actually ignores or distorts them to make them all compatible. Further, everyone--even the pluralist--holds exclusive beliefs. As I said above, thinking you are right is normal. Bigotry occurs when you fail to take the views of others seriously. And this is exactly what the religious pluralist does.

    Any clearer?

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  6. Yes it does. But I think that everyone's bigoted on at least one issue when it comes to religion. I know I am.

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  7. This will probably be my last post. I have put you in the 'brainwashed' category if you think Christianity has "never shied away from other claims to truth." I remember when they wanted us glue our science pages together that contained the theory of evolution. We won't even get into the witch hunts, book burnings, or priest who molest little boys with co-op cover-ups. I can openly admit to having a small chip on my shoulder when it comes to Christianity. When I even thought about reading other books on spirit I often got comments like "you are wasting your time" or "Jesus is the one" from Christians. I think people would be better off reading Ralph Waldo Emerson or Carl Jung than anything from a bigot group claiming the other is wrong. People found God and spirit before there was a book that lead them to it and i'm sure none of them are 100% right, just like none are 100% wrong. Bigotry (imo) is not having an open mind.

    I leave you to answer these two questions:
    Are you more interested in selling your religion or being right with God?

    What if something brought you closer to God but went against your religion?

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  8. Thanks for the comments Bobby. I'll give others a chance to reply before I do. Anyone else want to respond?

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  9. I think at best, Mr. Author, you're playing word games and framing the argument in your favor. You are choosing a fairly specific definition to alter the argument in your favor, when the definition is clearly not the case.
    I take umbrage with your repeated claims that Christianity is somehow an exceptional religion when it comes to truth claims. They DO shy away from arguments, often butchering science or history in their favor (often through the same fallacious redefinition as you've used). As for so many universities made by Christians: they were in the right place at the right time culturally. Islam did the same thing in the Medieval period. Is Islam equally entitled to this crown of "Intellectual Religion"?

    Christianity has large numbers, due to being born into it, the geographic spread of evangelism circa 1500-1900, and cultural and institutionalized mandates of Christian belief. There is no "deeper" truth in it than in any other main religion.
    And I take offense, as a UU, to your claim that one needs to water down the central precepts of a religion to see compatibility. If you cannot see the compatible central precept of most religious traditions, then you never bothered to read your Decalogue or the Sermon on the Mount.

    Religions are social movements, used for good and ill. Witch hunts, killing heretics, expelling Hindus... or charities, science, and peace to large regions of the world. Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism in a nutshell there. It's what we do with them that is good or bad. To claim the inherent goodness of a religion above all others simply because one believes it is to elevate dogma above compassion.

    That makes you a Pharisee.

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  10. I suspect the nature of this discussion is fruitless.

    My problem with the nature of this post and subsequent discussion is that Christianity has the same problem that every other ideology and religion has: humans. Humans are addicted to the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

    Maybe it is original sin, and maybe it is something else entirely, but there seems to be something at the core of humans, which drives them to control others. Jesus talks about this in Matthew 7:1-6. Don't try to control people through rules (judgment), and don't try to control people through gifts (pearls before swine). Both tactics are perverse. That doesn't mean we don't have relationships, but it does mean we should examine why our motives.

    Jesus modeled service and sacrifice. Jesus wants us to make disciples, but the body of Christ does not grow through niggling over words on the Internet.

    Just serve and love people. Tell them your story, speak spirit into their life, and trust them to God. If they see something in your life and want it, then share it. If they don't see something they want, then that's cool too.

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  11. Amazing Michael! I agree with everything in your post which makes me feel good as I assume your christian? I do love the stories of Jesus which makes me feel guilty for slamming Christianity at times. I guess in all sincerity I really want to slam the people representing it. I want to apologize for my original post, I sometimes for get my opinions are not really MINE just adopted from wise men throughout time, so there is really no need to defend anything. Thank you especially for your last paragraph in which I felt like Maharaj-ji was speaking to me. When Richard Alpert from Harvard was studying with him he ask "how can I be closest to god?" and his response was "Each person is a manifestation of the divine, so to serve and love people is to serve and love God"

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  12. Bobby: You say, "I remember when they [Christians] wanted us glue our science pages together that contained the theory of evolution. We won't even get into the witch hunts, book burnings, or priest who molest little boys with co-op cover-ups."

    It should be clear that none of these examples are really genuine representations of Christ's teachings. My claim is of course that GENUINE (I use caps bc I don't have italics on here) Christianity has never shied away from contrary truth claims. Jesus certainly didn't.

    You also say, "Bigotry (imo) is not having an open mind." No offense, but one of the purposes of this blog is to encourage people to move beyond mere opinion. But you are at least partially right. Bigotry does involve being 'closed-minded' to some degree, although this terminology is itself rather vague and unhelpful. But even if we go with it, it still seems pretty clear that religious pluralism is far more closed-minded than pure Christianity. Or pure Islam or Judaism or Buddhism (etc.) for that matter.

    Regarding your questions, to the first the answer is clearly being right with God. I'm not interested in 'selling' anything, least of all religion. The second is a bit more difficult. In theory, if Christianity is correct, then nothing contrary to it will bring me any closer to God. Similarly, if Islam were correct, then nothing that went against it would bring one closer to God. So it seems that the issue isn't really what experiences do and do not accord with a given religion but rather whether or not the specific claims of that religion are in fact true. While experience is very important and can teach us much, it is nearly always (I can't think of an exception) a bad idea to use it as the basis for establishing truth. Something a bit sturdier is needed.

    As always, thanks for your comments! I do hope you stick around.

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  13. Anonymous: Steven, is that you? If not, I apologize. But there's only one person I know who uses the word 'umbrage' in normal conversation. :) Anyway, for clarity I'll respond point-by-point.

    First, I assure you there are no word games going on here. I'm just clarifying a definition that has existed for several hundred years and only recently been corrupted in the popular mind. If there is indeed something wrong with the definition as I presented it, you'll have to make that case. Merely stating it isn't enough.

    You say, "I take umbrage with your repeated claims that Christianity is somehow an exceptional religion when it comes to truth claims." I never said this. In the present context, in fact, I do not think it is exceptional at all. My claim, rather, is that every religion makes truth claims and that they are all at bottom exclusive. Christianity is in very good company here. The way in which it is exceptional, of course, is that its claims happen to be true, and often verifiably so.

    "They [Christians] DO shy away from arguments, often butchering science or history in their favor (often through the same fallacious redefinition as you've used)." This is what is sometimes called 'elephant hurling.' That's where one tries to sound convincing by alluding to arguments or evidence without actually making/giving any. Again, I'll need more here.

    "As for so many universities made by Christians: they were in the right place at the right time culturally. Islam did the same thing in the Medieval period. Is Islam equally entitled to this crown of "Intellectual Religion"?"

    I think any honest observer could compare the current educational/intellectual situation among Christianity and Islam and readily perceive marked differences. You know this. How many fair, reputable Islamic universities can you name, where study of alternate worldviews is encouraged? I can think of lots of Christian ones. I bet you can too.

    "There is no "deeper" truth in it [Christianity] than in any other main religion." Again, where's the argument?

    "And I take offense, as a UU, to your claim that one needs to water down the central precepts of a religion to see compatibility. If you cannot see the compatible central precept of most religious traditions, then you never bothered to read your Decalogue or the Sermon on the Mount."

    Of course I have read them. But I have also read the OTHER stuff in the book. Believe it or not, Christianity is about more than not killing folks and loving our neighbors (even our enemies). Peripheral similarity does not and never will equal central compatibility. Yes, you may quote that. ;)

    "Religions are social movements, used for good and ill. Witch hunts, killing heretics, expelling Hindus... or charities, science, and peace to large regions of the world. Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism in a nutshell there."

    This is actually a pretty decent illustration of the inherent bigotry of the pluralist view. None of these worldviews can be put 'in a nutshell.' They are far too complex (and important) for that.

    "To claim the inherent goodness of a religion above all others simply because one believes it is to elevate dogma above compassion. That makes you a Pharisee."

    I suppose it would be pharisaical if it were true, but of course I do not 'claim the inherent goodness' of Christianity simply because I believe it. I claim it (and believe it) because it is true. I'm really not interested in dogma. Never been called a Pharisee before though. Thanks for that. And for reading!

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  14. Michael: Interesting comment. I (honestly) appreciate and agree with much of your insight here. However, only a little of it seems relevant to the current discussion, so I'll limit my comments to those portions.

    You say, "I suspect the nature of this discussion is fruitless," and give the reason that "...the body of Christ does not grow through niggling over words on the Internet."

    I hope this is not the case. And if it ever becomes clear to me that it is fruitless, I'll be the first to abandon ship. 'Niggling over words' is surely not my aim. However, battling false and dangerous ideologies through clear and concise reasoning is. Religious pluralism is one such ideology, and it deserves to be exposed. This is (as I pointed out in a recent post) one of the not-so-fun tasks of apologetics. It is, however, often necessary to expose error before the truth can be fully appreciated. Jesus did this. As did the apostles.

    I'm very interested in your other thoughts, but I'd rather discuss them with you in person. Thanks for commenting!

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  15. If the response to this blog post is a small indication of a larger atmosphere, then this type of blogging, where one storms the ramparts of "false and dangerous" ideologies is not what people are crying out for.

    But who knows? I could be wrong. You may be dead-on.

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  16. Michael: I appreciate your honesty. And my goal really isn't controversy, though I don't shy away from it. But I wonder, what exactly are people 'crying out for'? Discipleship? I doubt it. And even if that is right, that process itself involves ridding oneself of false ideas. Different folks start in different places. This blog is largely (though not entirely) geared toward those who need reason, argument, evidence, etc. Not everyone is in that place. In fact, most probably aren't, at least not at first. But it is a great mistake to assume that no one is.

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  17. I wrote a blog post for you Kyle: http://eyewashed.blogspot.com/2010/04/what-do-we-really-know-about-spirit.html

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  18. Bobby: Thanks man. I left you some feedback there. :)

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  19. You ask, "what exactly are people 'crying out for'? Discipleship?"

    Nope. They are not crying out for discipleship. That requires discipline, and besides being called to it, Christians don't even want discipleship.

    I believe people are crying out for what people get most excited for. This is not an exhaustive list, but people yearn for love, hope, beauty, peace, and grace. The marvelous thing about the Christian life is that the Father, Jesus, and Holy Spirit not only provide those things, but they exceed the human imagination. The kingdom of God offers love which is beyond human imagination, hope which is beyond human imagination, beauty which is beyond human imagination, peace which is beyond human imagination, and grace which is beyond human imagination.

    I love Jesus. I praise the Father. I pray in the power of the Holy Spirit. Maybe I was wrong to argue with you about the efficacy of reason. I probably was. I now bow out of this discussion and go back to the one thing I know is efficacious: prayer.

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  20. If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism and the Trinity, please check out my website at www.religiouspluralism.ca, and give me your thoughts on improving content and presentation.

    My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

    In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

    The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

    1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

    2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or "Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the "body of Christ" (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

    3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

    Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

    * The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

    ** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

    For more details, please see: www.religiouspluralism.ca

    Samuel Stuart Maynes

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