Religious pluralism is a fact (not a belief system)

Religious pluralism is a fact (not a belief system) October 6, 2014

“Religious pluralism [is] the idea that all religions are basically the same.”

I came across that astonishingly confused statement yesterday reading a Christian blog.

That statement is so precisely wrong that it can provide a kind of service. It is wrong in a way — or, rather, in several ways — that can help us to better understand a great deal of the world around us. The misapprehending and misapprehension distilled in that single statement can give us new insight and understanding into many things — the misplaced assuredness of one kind of earnestly addled pop-apologetics, the angry bewilderment of the teavangelical white right, the persistence of sectarian violence in post-colonial regions of the Middle East and Africa.

This Anemone rivularis will be a guest at next month's Civil League Luncheon, where it will be debating the doctrine of heliotropism with a Helianthus maximiliani.
This Anemone rivularis will be our special guest at next month’s Civic League Luncheon, where it will debate the doctrine of heliotropism with a Helianthus maximiliani.

We’ll unpack some of those implications of this epic confusion later, but here I just want to focus on the glorious, epic wrongness of that sentence:

“Religious pluralism [is] the idea that all religions are basically the same.”

What we have here is a complete misrepresentation and misunderstanding of religious pluralism. The statement gets only a single letter correct — the “s” at the end of the word “religons,” which signifies that more than one religion exists.

That single correct letter underscores the remarkable wrongness of the rest of the sentence. It leaps out at us as an isolated, accidental acknowledgement of the actual meaning of religious pluralism: More than one religion exists.

That shows us how this poor guy’s assertion starts careening off the rails just a few words in:

“Religious pluralism [is] the idea …”

No. Religious pluralism is not an “idea.” It is simply a fact — documented, measurable, demonstrable, undeniable.

More than one religion exists. That is not an idea, or a hypothesis, or a belief, or an ideology. The existence of more than one religion is an aspect of reality.

Our poor friend may have been misled by the suffix “-ism,” mistaking that for a sign he was dealing with another example of the many -ism words dealing with the realm of ideas. A generation or two ago, railing against all such -isms was a popular populist theme — a way of proclaiming one’s independence of all such ideologies (and one’s moral and intellectual superiority to those fools who saw value in any given school of thought).

And thus our friend seems to have forgotten that this suffix is also used in myriad nouns that are not schools of thought at all, but are simply the names we give to observed phenomena — heliotropism, giantism, heterothallism, polymorphism, etc. He assumes that all -ism terms — including “religious pluralism” — must be doctrinal or creedal, which is to say matters of belief rather than matters of fact.

But religious pluralism is not that kind of word. Anemone rivularis flowers track the motion of the sun across the sky. That does not mean that these flowers are believers in the ideology/doctrine of heliotropism. We do not refer to them as heliotrop-ists. No doctrine or ideology is involved — on their part or on ours. We’re simply describing a fact we have observed: Anemone rivularis is heliotrop-ic.

Similarly, we acknowledge that more than one single religion exists. That does not make us devotees of the doctrine of religious pluralism — it does not make us religious plural-ists. It simply means we have observed the rather obvious fact that our world is religiously pluralist-ic.

And, in fact, it is. A plural number of religions exist in our world.

This fact has many implications and presents many challenges. We can have many different ideas in response to this fact. We can debate various ideas about how to live together given the fact that more than one religion exists. (Or we can debate ideas about how we should refuse to live together until it is no longer a fact that more than one religious perspective exists.)

But please note one thing that this fact of a plural number of religions does not and cannot suggest — that “all religions are the same.” That’s nonsense. If all religions were “the same,” then we wouldn’t say “all religions are the same” — we’d say “all religion is the same.” We would refer to a singular phenomenon — a unified, uniform single thing. If all religions were the same, then referring to “religious pluralism” would make no more sense than referring to the “chromatic pluralism” of 1909 Model Ts. (“Any customer can have a car painted any color he wants so long as it is black,” Henry Ford said.)

The fact of religious pluralism is a fact precisely because we can observe that all religions are not the same. Our friend inserts a wiggle-word in there. “Basically the same,” he writes. But that won’t provide enough wiggle room to wriggle out from under the very large problem that this is not what “religious pluralism” means and that is is not something that religious pluralism can mean.

So how does our friend arrive at the weird notion that religious pluralism means “all religions are basically the same”? Where does he get that idea?

It arises from his inability/refusal to grasp the distinction between legal/civil equality and total equivalence.

Thus if there is more than one religion, and the law treats them all equally, he perceives this as a claim that this plural number of religions are all equal in every way — equally true, equally valid, equally admirable, equally desirable, equally meaningful, etc.

He imagines he’s hearing this sweeping larger claim of total equivalence and rejects it. And, because he also imagines this imaginary claim is indissolubly linked to the existence of legal/civil equality, he rejects that too.

That misapprehensive (in both senses) rejection of legal and civil equality for all religious persuasions in a pluralistic world leads to a host of Very Bad Things.


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