Religious Pluralism and Exclusivism

Do all religions lead to God, or do only a small handful? Might it be that only one religion is genuinely true? Supposing that God does exist, does atheism lead to God? What an odd question. A survey among students at Sheffield University included a section on questions such as these. One respondent made the remarkable assertion that after death people received the kind of after death experience (or lack of experience) that they believed in. This view is seriously problematic. Consider two friends with rather different views, one believing that death is the end, and the other believing that everyone goes to some kind of heaven. Now if the respondent's view was right, then it would both be the case that the first fellow was simply dead with no more life to come, and that the second chap would meet him alive in heaven when he dies. Another problem arises when we consider where all these "tailor-made heavens" would come from. They surely would have to come from some supernatural source. If that were the case there would have to exist some supernatural being, and strict atheism would collapse. This in turn would imply that some views about the ultimate structure of the universe were just wrong. So even when trying to accommodate everyone, this respondent's stated belief becomes not only internally incoherent but also excludes some systems of thought.

What this rather amusing illustration shows is that not all views should be taken seriously. It is my belief that most, if not all, forms of religious pluralism (the view that all religions lead to God, or that all religions are true) should not be taken seriously either.

The first serious question about religious pluralism is this: what counts as a religion? Does Satanism count? Does atheism count? There are only a small number of possible answers. It seems to me that the most consistent answer here would be yes but this seems unpalatable in the case of Satanism. I suppose that another fairly consistent answer would be, yes so long as the atheist, Satanist, or whoever, meets a certain minimal moral standard. However, there would be serious questions about quite where the line should be drawn. A third possibility would be that only the major religions count. But which are the major ones? Did Christianity count as major when the Church only had a few thousand members?

Putting this series of perplexing questions to one side, several others remain. What happens to intrinsically exclusivistic religions? Jesus famously said, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the father except by me." The implication is that other purported ways of getting to heaven simply don't get you there. This is clearly incompatible with religious pluralism. However, if religious pluralism holds that all religions are true, then problems arise. For, if all religions are true, then since traditional Christianity is a religion, traditional Christianity must be true. And if traditional Christianity is true, then Jesus is the only way to God. But if Jesus is the only way, religious pluralism is false. In other words the only way to hold onto religious pluralism is to reinterpret or simply ignore those elements of a religion which are exclusivistic. This would have two terrible implications. Firstly, one has to understand various religions differently from how they "understand themselves". This results in either excluding those who hold to these religions, or telling in them that they actually believe something other than what they say they believe, which seems remarkably patronising. Secondly, the practice is that of excluding exclusivism. This is problematic. For a religion or system of belief that excludes anything is itself exclusivistc. It follows that if a position excludes exclusivism, as pluralistic inclusivism must, it will also exclude itself. Total inclusivism is therefore incoherent. Exclusivism becomes unavoidable.

This is illustrated by even a cursory look at the "major" world religions. In Hinduism the Vedas are totally non-negotiable, reject these and you are in the wrong. Indeed the great Hindu debater Shankara used to challenge others to prove him wrong, and, if they couldn't, to accept his religion. Clearly he thought it was either his system that was right or theirs, and not both! Buddhism was born through its rejection of Hinduism. Christianity is exclusivistic in the way already explained. Islam clearly rejects polytheism, and is exclusivistic even linguistically in that the Koran can only be properly read in Arabic.

This short survey of some major religions reveals (contrary to popular thinking) that all religions are ultimately exclusivist. Exclusivism isn't distinctive of Christianity, and isn't in itself objectionable. The big question is not whether a religion is exclusivist, but whether it is true. The ultimate test of Christianity is whether the huge claims of Christ can be sustained. I encourage you to take a long hard look at Jesus' birth, life, death and resurrection, each of which are distinctive, and to judge for yourself.