The Benefit of the Doubt

A blog about Dialogue, Doubts, and Christian Faith ~Travis Dickinson~

Religious Pluralism and the Myth of Inclusivity


Perhaps the most attractive part of Religious Pluralism (RP)—the notion there are many ways to God—is its supposed inclusivism. Religions are not exactly known for coming together on almost anything. If the major religions can come together under the big tent of RP, then this would be, it seems, a good thing. But is RP a big tent? Does it include a diversity of views? I think RP is no more inclusive than the exclusively exclusive Christian exclusivist.

Prof. John Hick

There are a variety of ways to understand RP. The most plausible version, I think, is John Hick’s.[1] It has the benefit of being logically coherent unlike many of the more simplistic forms of RP that say (literally) all religious views are correct (which is literally incoherent). By contrast, Hick actually argued that all religious views are strictly speaking false in terms of the particulars they defend. Religions, for Hick, attempt to describe the indescribable. Though he thought all religions are false, he wasn’t an atheist. He thought there was a terrific value in the major ancient religious traditions in that they each provide a way to God, or what Hick calls the Real. The Real is that indescribable transcendent reality all religions point us to. So when the Christian says that Jesus died on the cross and this provides the way to God. The Christian is wrong that it is Jesus’s death that provides the way to God. For Hick, Jesus is not God and nothing happened on the cross other than someone died. But being a follower of Jesus is a way the Real. It is the way that Christians get to the Real, but so do the practices of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.

Some people seem to think this lack of exclusivity is refreshing. But is this really inclusivism? The problem is that it is only inclusive in the sense we are all inclusively wrong in our particular narratives about salvation despite the fact it’s going to end up okay. But when we think carefully here, we’ll see that Hick’s beliefs are a set of exclusive truth claims themselves. There is not much that is truly plural about Hick’s pluralism.

To see this, consider the fact that Hick’s pluralism asserts that all of us religious folks are wrong in what we assert. That’s a lot of disagreement and falsehoods for a view labeled as pluralistic. Hick clearly believed that his view about the world was the one true view and he defended that view for decades. Pluralistic? No, it isn’t. Tolerant? Not really. Exclusive claim? Bingo! If you disagree with the pluralism, the pluralist will say that you are wrong. The pluralist believes that it is only she who has the full view of reality, and the rest of the world, both now and historically, is just simply wrong about what they believe religiously.

As it turns out, inclusivity is impossible. This is a consequence of the nature of a truth claim. Whenever we make a claim, we are claiming that it is true, and this implies that its contraries are all false. One can try to be perfectly inclusive, but it will always exclude whoever holds the contrary view. Imagine we assert the following view: “everyone, no matter what they believe, is right.” If anything is inclusive, this is it. But doesn’t this exclude everyone who says there are only some who are right? This extremely inclusive statement excludes all those who disagree (which, by the way, is almost everyone on the planet since probably no one believes this). The claim, though it seems inclusive, actually excludes everyone!

Anyone who makes a truth claim, given the nature of truth, is an exclusivist. Thus, if being exclusive is a problem, it is a problem for everyone! But there’s no reason to think that being exclusive, all by itself, is a problem. There seems to be no way to have meaningful dialogue without it. Let’s just stop pretending like we don’t disagree and then we can have thoughtful, loving and tolerant-but-sharp disagreement. This is very possible and far more meaningful.

[1] John Hick. An Interpretation of Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).


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7 Replies

  1. Philmonomer

    It strikes me that this blog post uses “inclusive” to mean different things at different times. I think it would help if you tried to nail down what you mean by it.

    In my–lay–understanding, an inclusive view of religion would say 1) “There are many ways to Truth. My religion is not the only way.” An exclusive view of Religion says 2) “I have (or know) the only way to Truth. The other Religions are wrong.”

    This strikes me as perfectly coherent, and it is simply wrong to say that 1) and 2) are really, in the same way, exclusive views on Religion.

    1. Travis Dickinson

      What I’m saying is that, as truth claims, they do exclude in the same way. If 1) is true, then this excludes 2) from being true. 1) is making the exclusive claim that “there are many ways to truth.” 1) denies this fact. Thus, 2) is no less exclusive than 1).

      1. Philmonomer

        Sure, as truth claims. But I see that almost as a tautology (as you note). Any claim that X is true about the world is going to also assert that Not X is not true about the world. I see this as, essentially, trivial.

        Where the danger comes from, IMHO, is believing that you have somehow shown 1) and 2) are the same in their exclusiveness. Obviously, they aren’t.

        So i see this as operating on two levels A) a level of semantics (where you are) and B) on the level of the “real world,” in terms of who-gets-salvation.

        By saying A), where 1) and 2) are equally exclusive, you are (IMHO) leading people into thinking that you have somehow shown the inclusiveness of Religious Pluralism (that is B)) to be false. It isn’t.

        1. Philmonomer

          Sure, as truth claims. But I see that almost as a tautology (as you note). Any claim that X is true about the world is going to also assert that Not X is not true about the world. I see this as, essentially, trivial.

          Actually, from the view of formal logic, this is probably wrong. But I don’t have the time/interest to track it down now. For now, don’t assume I am talking about formal logic.

        2. Travis Dickinson

          So you agree 1) and 2) are equally exclusive in terms of truth claims, but you think pluralism (2) is more inclusive than, say, Christianity (an example of (1)). The latter point was not the point of the post but, since you bring it up, I think it is not necessarily true. If you are asking which is more inclusive in terms of who will be saved, it really depends on the view. A Christian may be a universalist and believe that all people will be saved by the truth of Christianity whereas a religious pluralist might think only some will be saved. I maintain there is no interesting sense in which Religious Pluralism is inclusive and, at the very least, it need not be seen as any more inclusive than any other view.

  2. Philmonomer

    I maintain there is no interesting sense in which Religious Pluralism is inclusive and, at the very least, it need not be seen as any more inclusive than any other view.

    So, it seems like you really think Religious pluralism isn’t any more inclusive than Calvinism. This strikes me as strange.

    Let’s define inclusive (as in “religious inclusive”) to mean that an “inclusive” position is a position that believes that any given follower of a world religion is “doing religion mostly right,” that follower is doing it “right enough” that they are partaking, in a mostly-right manner, in the real underlying “spiritual” (for lack of a better term) nature of the universe, and (we can throw in) these people are going to get “salvation.”

    Under this understanding, which is more inclusive, Religious Pluralism or Calvinism?

    The idea that “religious pluralists” also think some people are doing “religion wrong,” just like Calvinists think some people are doing “religion wrong,” therefore they are both equally exclusive, is to focus on the wrong understanding, IMHO, of “inclusion/exclusion.” [Indeed, I suspect the religious pluralist would say that the orthodox Christian, who believes that there is no salvation outside of Christ, is still mostly doing Religion right, but is just wrong on this one point.]

    Maybe one way to ask this question is to ask who is being included in (what exactly?), and who is being excluded from (what exactly?)?

    1. Travis Dickinson

      Sophisticated religious pluralists don’t typically think that all religions are “mostly doing religion right.” John Hick thought that Christians believed many false things and that they were doing wrong when they preached an exclusive gospel (which is almost all the time for many Christians) and whenever they evangelized. So you can’t maintain that RP is inclusive in this sense. There are simplistic versions of RP that think everyone is right, but these are logically incoherent versions. As for who, Calvinists or Pluralists, are more inclusive in terms of salvation, it again all depends on the Calvinism and the Religious Pluralism. There are really liberal Calvinists who think that everyone will be saved even if they are Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist or Mormon. They are not pluralists since they might believe that all of these will be saved by Jesus’s work on the cross in some sense, but they are as “inclusive” if not more so than the Religious Pluralist.