Religious Pluralism: True or False?

On New Years Eve, Ce-Lo Green changed John Lennon’s lyrics from “And no religion too” to “And all religion is true”. Green was obviously promoting “religious pluralism”.

“Pluralism”, like many abstract terms, has many meanings. And I imagine that the people listening to Ce-Lo Green’s lyrics understood his meaning in very different ways that are captured by the variety of meanings of “religious pluralism”. Here are some of the meanings with my evaluation of the truth value of those meanings.  Remember, my definition of “truth” is “the best approximation of reality.”:

  1. All religions say the same thing.
    Well, this is just hogwash, pure and simple. Some people believe Vishnu was a god and some do not. Both can’t be true
  2. All religions can grant their believers eternal life.
    Wrong. None of them do.
  3. All religions aim for the same thing.
    Well, this is more subtly wrong. Various religions have very different effects on people. People who say this usually are kind of being cocky and telling other people what their religion is trying to do.  See this great post by David Chapman: “The essence of all religions“.
  4. All religions can grant their believers happiness and meaning.
    This is partially true. But depending on how they are used, they can also offer their believers pain and suffering. Some atheists think that all religions offer nothing but bad things — but they are blatantly wrong.
  5. All religions have truth in them
    Well, this is blandly true. The Christian Bible says Paul was in Rome. Sure, that is true enough, I guess.
    And for another example, Surah 12:103 of the Qur’an says “And most men will not believe though you desire it eagerly.  Yep, that is true too.”  Yawn.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

18 responses to “Religious Pluralism: True or False?

  1. I can pretty much agree with your chart, even number 2, but for a different reason. You believe none grant eternal life. Obviously I disagree. Granted most religions claim to grant eternal life, all but one does (on my view). The pluralist, however, usually holds the view that each will grant eternal life because the believer believes it — which is not how truth works.

  2. Ah, John, I think there is an important point here.
    Many religious pluralists who believe that whatever state occurs after death, everyone’s religion can be used to improve that state. Not necessarily because that religion is true, but because even mythical concepts can be used to help a person (in this life, or if there is a next one, in that too.)

    I actually think most pluralists believe this version of pluralism and not yours which is a bit of a strawman, I think. Some may hold the version you put forward, but I’ve not met any. So I think it would be best for you to attack to stronger version, which of course you also disagree with. (I will place this comment on your blog too.)

  3. I think then we maybe quibbling over terms. You say they they believe… not because they think its true, per se.

    But if in fact holding the belief actually produces the benefit that it believed, then by definition, they think its true.

    So I agree with your comment here, but I think we’re arguing over what the pluralist thinks is true.

  4. All religions say the same thing. No, obviously they do not. They have different views of reality – for example Buddhism and Hinduism pre-suppose reincarnation whereas Judaism, Christianity, and Islam pres-suppose this life plus just one eternal life afterwards.

    All religions can grant their believers eternal life – obviously since I am an atheist I do not believe this to be true. No religion can. However what it interesting here is that those religions which believe in reincarnation already believe that they already have eternal life. Which makes their problems and issues different from those who do not believe in eternal life. Do you think that the fact that Jesus supposedly came back from the dead would have the same impact among believers I reincarnation as it does with Christians? I would think this would make a significant difference – and I am getting off track.

    All religions aim for the same thing. This one is dependent on what the same thing is and on how broad you wish to define it. If it is defined as a way for justice to be given to those who have none in this life and a way to find eternal bliss then possibly so. However the means for attaining this is often very different from religion to religion or even within a particular religion.

    All religions can grant their believers happiness and meaning. I agree with you, partially true dependent on the particular religious belief and the particular circumstances of that believer.

    All religions have truth in them Again partially true. I would extend this beyond just matters of historical fact though and say they all have something to say about human needs, wants, wishes, desires, etc. After all, I believe that these desires came first and were in large part responsible for religion coming about.

    Of course the same could be said for atheists. Atheists do not all say the same thing, cannot grant their followers eternal life, do not aim for the same thing (except very broadly), cannot fully grant their believers happiness and meaning. As for truth in atheism, as it is for the religous believers so to for the atheist; partially true.

  5. Gary

    I wish I had time to enter into a thorough discussion with you on this Sabio but presently I don’t. Still…I can not help but smile (actually I found my self chuckling out loud) as I point out the obvious irony in your comment under #3.

    “People who say this usually are kind of being cocky and telling people what their religion is trying to do.”

  6. Yes, Gary, I am looking forward to your elaboration on why I am cocky.

    Prior to that, I think reading Chapman’s link (above) and this Christian’s post about Pluralism.

    But I am looking forward to my couch session.

  7. Just a brief kudos on this, Sabio. I once attended a dinner party in which one of the guests asserted that all the great religious teachers — Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha — “basically said the same thing.” Had I had a bite of meatloaf in my mouth, it would have landed on the table. And speaking of meatloaf, there may be a fitting analogy here . . . . Put all the religions in a ‘pro-inclusion’ grinder, add some spices, maybe eggs and breadcrumbs, serve with gravy, and what have you got but a nice, warm, helping of spiritual yum!

  8. @ Andrew (& Gary) ,
    Thank you. I remember when I was transitioning out of Christianity, I embraced Christian mysticism and then other mystics. At that time, I fell for the “all religions do the same thing” trap too. Yet none of my Christian friends at Wheaton colleges were mystical by any stretch and as I tried to witness to them about the mystical “true” roots of Christianity, they flipped the proverbial holy bird at me — and rightfully so. That is what I meant by cocky. As David Chapman’s post tells, most Muslims would be deeply offended if someone told them their religion was really about union with God.

    People use religion very differently, so when anyone says, “I’ve got it figured out.” and declares the universal religious impulse, they are projecting their own inclinations more than truth.

    But then, that is what religious prescriptivism is all about. I know, because I have done it.

    Gary, above, considers himself a pluralist and thus may have taken unnecessary offense by the post. For if pluralism is less ambitious, #4 should contain plenty of truth to let them live confortably in a live-and-let-live religious skin. So either Gary over-read me, or he is ambitious, or, he really thinks I am cocky and just needs an excuse to tell me so. 🙂

  9. Gary


    Now Sabio…I don’t take offense that easily. I am a bit surprised at your snarkiness however. I actually thought you might embrace the irony and have a chuckle with me.

  10. Sabio, do you think mysticism comes under the heading of “religion”? I’m curious what you think about that because I’ve seen it argued that mystics are significantly different from religious people. For one thing, mystics rely on direct experience, while religious people rely on authority or revelations from others. Any thoughts on that?

  11. @ Gary
    Come on Gary, I don’t see any irony whatsoever. You’ll have to explain. Patiently waiting your thoughts.

    @ Paul
    Great questions. It all hangs on what one calls “religion” and what one calls “mysticism” — both which come with a variety of definitions so the permutations of answers is large. I took a stab at creating a definition of religion here. And as you see, Mystics are included.

    But I think your analysis has very important points. Revelation is key to most religions and Mystics take it away from power oligarchies and texts. Mystics can’t be tested. So mystics are a threat to powers that be. I think mystical tendencies develop often as social solutions in many faiths.

    But is there some shared experience between all mystics — that is a more difficult question. I tend to say, that there are a huge variety of experiences that people lump under one expression: “mystical experience”. So in that way, the term itself can become manipulative.

    I hope that starts to give you a glimpse of my thoughts. It sounds like you have thought about it a lot. Give us a post and come back here and link so we can visit — or tell us here.


  12. Thank you for the encouragement, Sabio. I’ve been mulling over a post on the relation of mysticism to religion for awhile, but I haven’t completed my readings yet. When I saw my opportunity to get your input on the subject, I pounced on it. You have a way of raising the right issues and helping to clarify them.

    I am especially intrigued by your remark that mystics are a threat to the powers that be. I hope to come up with a post on that aspect soon.

  13. Gary


    Seriously?? sigh Never mind.

  14. Note to readers:
    I am proud to brag that a very popular liberal, pluralist (#4 & 5) Christian scholar just linked to this post. See James McGrath’s post here. It seems like we largely agree. And James tells us even more about ways of viewing the Bible. Fun post — check it out.

  15. Pseudonym

    It doesn’t matter if religious pluralism is true or false. In the John Lennon hippie utopian vision, you’re supposed to imagine what would happen if it were.

  16. Sabio, your #2 reminds me of the “many paths up the same mountain” response I hear sometimes. Along with that comes “We’re all one,” which I don’t believe for a minute.

  17. @ Paul
    Indeed, and all the people who declare that the many religions are “many paths up the same mountain”, have their own idea what that mountain is, and are ready to tell us. The problem is, many religious people will disagree with what the mountain is.

    And when they tell us we are all one, as you say, that is pure hogwash.

  18. Sabio, I just thought you might like to know that an old professor of mine — now retired — is writing a book on the conflict between mysticism and religion. He has offered to send me some outtakes from his manuscript, after which I will post an interview with him on my blog. I’m not sure when all of this will take place, but I’m guessing within this month.

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