The problem with pluralism 

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Whittaker Chambers wrote that “the crisis of the Western world exists to the degree in which it is indifferent to God.” Pluralism is the manifestation of such indifference because it admits that belief is subjective and personal rather than an expression of existential reality. A believer cannot profess to be a good Jew, Christian, or Muslim while admitting to the theological truth of another faith. But, while different faiths cannot simultaneously represent the truth of ultimate existence, belief in one faith does not demand intolerance toward others.

Avery Cardinal Dulles confronted this issue in the weeks following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, in a lecture entitled “Christ Among the Religions.” There, Dulles acknowledged that we live in a society that “includes people of many faiths and of no faith at all,” and examined four possible models by which different faiths can relate to one another: coercion, convergence, pluralism, and tolerance.

Coercion was the predominant model throughout the majority of human history. Political leaders often compelled religious unity among their subjects, and conquerors forced their own beliefs upon their subject peoples. In Rome, for example, religious pluralism existed until the emperors insisted that they be accorded divine honors. Following Constantine’s conversion in 312, and the Roman Empire’s adoption of Christianity as its official religion, emperors “began to enforce Christian orthodoxy and persecute all other religions, including dissident forms of Christianity.”

This continued throughout the medieval and modern periods when single states adopted uniform rites. Dissent was not tolerated and heresy quashed. At my own university in St Andrews, Scotland, the streets are littered with monuments to those burnt in the name of religious purity — both protestant and Catholic alike. Coercion ensured orthodoxy, but more often than not, it bred personal dissatisfaction and hate.

In the modern West, the coercion model is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. We have learned from generations of religious warfare that the cost is too high and that, from the perspective of Christian moral theology, it is indefensible to attempt to coerce genuine belief. Past efforts to enforce orthodoxy through coercion have led to resentment and a wide-scale abandonment of faith. True faith must be freely cultivated. As Dulles notes, in most cases, “religious coercion survives only in nations that have come late to modernity.” This is particularly true with regard to Islamic extremism as propagated by ISIS and the Taliban.

The second model, convergence, is also untenable because it demands that believers concede that differences among faiths are superficial and that every religion is an equally valid path to God. This model is premised on the theory that all religions are human constructions and, in the words of Dulles, are “faltering attempts to articulate the whole and transcendent mystery by which human existence is encompassed.”

But to maintain the integrity of this view, it is necessary for orthodox believers to concede too much. Religious belief is not necessarily a subjective human creation, especially when it is the product of divine revelation as in the cases of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. True belief, by definition, requires an ability to exclude ideas that are incommensurate with a faith’s core teachings, and for that reason, convergence is an unsatisfactory means to achieve religious harmony.

In the politically correct atmosphere of early twenty-first century America, the third model – pluralism – has become a near ubiquitous ideal. To some degree, it has become a polytheistic faith in its own right and reflects the idea that all religious teachings embody particular aspects of the Logos, and that every faith must be a partial manifestation of reality, which can be improved by its interactions with other faiths.

Like the convergence model, this is a favorite of relativists who believe in the epistemic impossibility of objective truth. To the average apologist of pluralism, religion is a personal feeling or sentiment, and claims relating to ultimate reality are viewed as strictly private matters. But to the devout believer, faith is not an individual preference and the idea that every religion is entitled to equal deference belies the very idea of truth. To be a pluralist, for many, is to propagate a lie.

But, how are we to coexist peacefully in a world of many faiths? Are we to live as isolated beings, disconnected from each other and utterly separated by our beliefs? I would propose that the most reasonable answer is the fourth model – tolerance.

While religious beliefs form the core of our being and inform every aspect of our existence (including atheists and agnostics), we need not shut out people of other faiths, nor should we treat them as a subclass. Civilized people understand that the freedom to choose one’s faith is a God-given right, an intimate part of personhood.

Tolerance allows believers to engage with people of different beliefs, but to do so in a manner that does not compromise first principles. This is the model embraced by the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council and is a model for others looking for a way to approach inter-religious dialogue. Donald Trump and other secularists in the public square should take note, especially given the central role tolerance played in the American founding.

Religious tolerance can be engendered by people of different faiths working to achieve common goals that reflect shared moral values: running soup kitchens, maintaining homes for unwed mothers, or staffing health clinics. If we embrace those things that bring us together, we can more easily respect those principles that keep us apart. We can have differences regarding ultimate questions, but there are plenty of areas in which we can work together to promote a culture of mutual respect. To get there, we need to cultivate a society premised on tolerance, and not a misguided pluralism.

Glen A. Sproviero is a commercial litigator in New York. Read his previous columns here


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