An Overview of Pluralism
The Diversity of Worldviews
Two of the most basic philosophical questions are, “What is true?” and “How do we know what is true?” One thing that is certain is that the answers that have been proposed to these questions are greatly varied. The same thing that Mahatma Gandhi once said of religions can be extended to worldviews more generally, religious and non-religious: “In reality, there are as many religions as there are individuals.”
There are, similarly, at least as many worldviews as there are individual people. Arguably, there are even more, given that the same person is likely to change views on a variety of topics over the course of a lifetime. The changes in one’s worldview over time can be subtle–perhaps a refinement or a deepening of a lifelong commitment–or drastic, like when one has an experience that leads to a religious conversion, or to an abandonment of religious faith in light of some profound encounter with suffering.
While there are, therefore, at least as many worldviews as there are people, it is also the case that worldviews tend to cluster into groups, such that it becomes possible for us to talk about a ‘Hindu worldview,’ or a ‘Christian worldview,’ or a ‘materialist worldview,’ to cite just a few examples. Each of these broad worldviews can be further refined–the Hindu worldview into a Vaishnava or a Shaiva worldview, for example, or the Christian worldview into Roman Catholic and Protestant worldviews–until we finally get down to the level of the individual, or even of the individual at a particular point in space and time. To keep our investigation of worldviews from being unwieldy, we are going to keep our attention mainly on the large scale, talking about the worldviews that are built into religious traditions and systems of philosophy, though always bearing in mind that these are generalizations, and that the individual at a given point in time underlies and can contradict the broad statements that are made at the general level.
So, to return to our original questions–“What is true?” and “How do we know what is true?”–it can clearly be said that the fact of the diversity of worldviews greatly complicates these questions. Our efforts to know what is true must contend with the fact that Christians are telling us one thing, Muslims are telling us something else, Hindus and Buddhists are telling us other, quite different things, and scientists are telling us something else yet again, and so on, and so on, and so on. Of course, we could simply disregard what all of these people are saying and think for ourselves. We must certainly, in the end, think for ourselves, because it is our own thought process that is going to lead us to answers that we find we can accept, at least until that thought process carries us in a different direction. But it would also seem to be folly simply to disregard the collective wisdom of the centuries of experience, interpretation, and debate that the world’s religions and philosophies represent. How do we sort it all out?
Responding to the Diversity of Worldviews
Setting aside, for a moment, the questions of truth and knowledge, of what is true and how to know what is true, let us look at the meta-question of how to address the vast diversity of worldviews that present themselves for our assent; for this question, too, has been addressed by others, and it may be useful to our quest to see where others have gone before us.
One response, which is a frank acknowledgment that the task of discovering the truth is difficult, or else it would not produce so many varied results, is to say that no one really knows the truth. It is, again, clearly difficult to know the truth with certainty–to have a worldview that can answer all our questions truly. If it were easy, there would be one, more or less unified worldview that would cut across cultural, geographic, and temporal boundaries and be shared by everyone. This response is called agnosticism. Agnosticism is the idea that no one really knows the truth, ultimately. There are what could be called stronger and weaker forms of this response to our question. Agnosticism in its strong form is the claim not only that no one knows the truth–that is, no one has a completely true worldview–but that no one can know the truth: that knowing, with certainty, which worldview is true, is simply impossible for human beings. No one knows, and no one will ever know. Weak agnosticism, on the other hand, considers even this to be too definite of a conclusion. Maybe it is possible that someone, someday, will know the truth. Maybe someone out there already does, but the questioner has not yet been persuaded that this is the case. So weak agnosticism is the claim that no one currently knows the truth, but it is possible that this may not always be the case.
Another, more definite response to our question, though still rooted, like agnosticism, in a skeptical approach to truth, is that the vast majority of the worldviews presented for our assent are not true, but are, in fact, false. Specifically, those worldviews that are rooted in religious faith are rejected as false. The fact that there are so many religions is seen as definitive proof that the methods used in religious traditions to ascertain the truth are inadequate, or else they would have produced some agreement by now. According to this response, though, there is an approach to truth that has begun to produce agreement across cultural, geographic, and temporal boundaries. This is the approach of modern science. And because science has produced no conclusive evidence of many of things whose existence is asserted in the world religions–such as a God, a soul, and an afterlife–it can be concluded that these things do not exist. This approach is typically termed atheism or materialism, as it denies the idea of a divine reality and affirms that what can be known is the existence of the material world and its processes as observed by science.
In short, this approach claims that there is one true worldview, out of the many that exist, and it is the worldview of atheism and materialism.
Another approach to this question is to assert that one’s own worldview, whatever it may be, is the truth, and that all others are false. One can see atheism fitting this description; but it also fits with the approach of those religious people who assert that their religion and their religion alone is true. This approach has come to be known by scholars as exclusivism.
One important difference between atheism and religious forms of exclusivism rests with the fact that the stakes, for the individual, of a religion being true or not are arguably far greater than in the case of the more general, abstract question, “What is true?” In other words, an atheist will likely argue that other worldviews–religious worldviews–are not only false, but bad for society, due to their being conducive to war, persecution, marginalization of the other, and so on. But in terms of the beliefs themselves, the religious person is not, from the point of view of atheism, in danger of experiencing some kind of eternal suffering or damnation from a divine being, because no such thing exists. In terms of belief, the religious person is, from the point of view of the atheist, simply wrong.
Religions, though, typically do not present themselves simply as worldviews, but as entailing ways of living and practicing that are aimed at achieving the ultimate aim of human existence, however the religion may conceive of it. For Christians, for example, the ultimate good for human beings is salvation. For Christian exclusivists, non-Christians will not, by definition, attain this ultimate good. Indeed, they will, moreover, experience eternal damnation and torment in the afterlife. So religious exclusivism, unlike atheistic exclusivism, amounts to the claim not only that everybody else is wrong, but that everybody else is going to hell (at least for those religions that affirm the idea of eternal damnation).
Religious exclusivism evokes many objections from those who do not adhere to it. Its advantage, for those who do adhere to it, is that it seems to follow very clearly and directly from some of the claims made in the scriptures of certain religions. It offers the certitude and comfort of knowing that one is part of the small elite of human beings who will attain eternal salvation. Others, though, see this view as deeply problematic, and even monstrous. There are, of course, the objections of both religious and non-religious people that this way of thinking has fueled warfare and imperial projects throughout history; for, if one holds this view and takes its implications seriously, one has not only a right, but a duty, to spread the true faith to others. There are also objections internally to the religions. There are Christians, for example, who argue that the God of love proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ would not create the vast majority of human beings, with the knowledge that they would not be Christian, only to cast them into hell for eternity simply for, in effect, being born in the wrong place and at the wrong time to hear the Christian proclamation.
An alternative to exclusivism thus emerges, which is called inclusivism. Inclusivism is the idea that one’s own worldview is certainly true–just as is the case in religious exclusivism and atheism–but that other worldviews may nevertheless include important truths and other redeeming qualities that suggest they should be viewed positively, and not simply as false, even if they do not match the full truth that one’s own worldview represents. Inclusivism has the virtue of being internally consistent, and clearly rooted in a definite set of convictions, while at the same time maintaining a measure of openness to other worldviews. In practice, there is, as with agnosticism, a spectrum of possible ways in which inclusivism may be held. A relatively closed inclusivism would be the view that all of the really important truths are contained in one’s own tradition alone, with anything of value in other worldviews being already present in one’s own. This would mean that there is no great value to oneself in studying or engaging with the beliefs of others, unless it might be to persuade them of the greater value of one’s own. In this sense, closed inclusivism is not all that different from exclusivism. A Christian closed inclusivist, for example, might believe that those who follow other religions or no religion are nevertheless saved by the loving grace of Christ; but this would appear to be in spite of, rather than because of anything positive in, the worldviews of those people. A relatively open inclusivism, on the other hand, affirms that the most important, saving truths are found in one’s own worldview, but that there might be very significant truths in the worldviews of others, and that the worldviews and practices of others might indeed play more of a positive role in their attainment of salvation than would be allowed in a closed inclusivism. An open inclusivist might be someone like Thomas Merton, a Catholic monk who was profoundly committed to his faith, but who was so open to the views and practices of others that he humbly studied at the feet of Hindu and Buddhist masters to learn their spiritual practices, incorporating many of these into the life of the Catholic Church, thus enabling Catholics, as Catholics, to practice yoga and Zen.
Inclusivism, though, also produces objections similar to those raised against exclusivism. There is a paternalism seen in the idea that one is in possession of the highest and fullest truth while the views and lifeways of others represent merely a partial truth. This leads many to embrace an even more radical approach to truth and the diversity of worldviews: namely, pluralism.
Worldview pluralism is the view that there is truth in many worldviews. Not unlike agnosticism, this approach begins with a frank acknowledgement of the fact that the sheer diversity of the views that exist must tell us something important about the nature of truth. Pluralism parts company with agnosticism, though, in regard to what may be called its relative optimism, which is in contrast to the relative pessimism of agnosticism. The agnostic, one could say, is dismayed by the diverse worldviews that human history and culture present to us for our assent. Given the enormous range of views, the many sharp disagreements, and the cases of traditions simply talking past one another, the agnostic concludes that no one really knows the truth. The pluralist, on the other hand, looks at this same data, and concludes that truth itself must be really vast. There must be a lot of truth out there, for people to have apprehended so many different dimensions of it!
Pluralism stems, one could argue, from a basically religious instinct, and many pluralists present their view as a specifically religious conclusion. This is the instinct to see the cosmos ultimately as neither the indifferent play of random forces, nor as the handiwork of a malevolent deity who saves only a chosen few and abandons the rest to eternal damnation. The pluralist sees the cosmos as a field of diverse possibilities, but as ultimately affirming the individual quest for greater depth of meaning and understanding. Framed in theistic terms, the pluralist believes that God will not abandon anyone because of the way they approach to truth. On the contrary, God, if the pluralist thinks in theistic terms, has provided many paths to truth precisely because we are diverse beings who need diverse ways to achieve our ultimate fulfillment. To again cite Mahatma Gandhi, who is a classic pluralist: “I believe in the fundamental truth of all great religions of the world. I believe that they are all God-given and I believe that they were necessary for the people to whom these religions were revealed. And I believe that if only we could all of us read the scriptures of the different faiths from the standpoint of the followers of these faiths, we should find that they were at the bottom all one and were all helpful to one another.”
In short, worldview pluralism is the view that there are many true worldviews, religious and non-religious, and that these worldviews and the practices and ways of life associated with them are all effective in leading human beings toward their ultimate fulfillment, whatever that might consist of or mean.
The phrase “whatever that might consist of or mean” points to a feature of pluralism that many are inclined to criticize. This is the sense in which it is akin to agnosticism, and thus, from the point of view of those with definite convictions, a “wishy washy” position for those who do not wish to take a stand.
This is not entirely a fair characterization of pluralism. The reality is that, as with the other views and approaches we have been discussing, there are many varieties of pluralism. Many authors on this topic, for example, focus specifically on the diversity of religious worldviews, and so speak of religious pluralism. I have parted company with these authors in wishing to affirm worldview pluralism–that is, not to restrict the range of worldviews we should consider to those that are seen as ‘religious.’ In the quest for truth, science, for example, should certainly be part of what we take into consideration, even if we do not agree with the view that it is the only thing we should consider. Similarly for existentialism, Marxism, and other non-religious philosophies that claim to disclose something important about the nature of reality.
Many pluralists have something definite in mind when they speak of the ultimate fulfilment of our existence. The nineteenth century Bengali sage, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa (1836-1886) is a very well-known exponent of religious pluralism, who famously affirmed yato mat, tato path: each system of belief and practice is a path. A path to what? To God-realization. To the absorption of the mind into its divine source in the experience of samadhi, an experience which Ramakrishna is said to have cultivated multiple times, using, in succession, the paths and practices of a wide range of Hindu disciplines, as well as Islam and Christianity. In the tradition based on his teachings, it is said that he thus established on an experiential basis the truth of religious pluralism, which this tradition calls the ‘harmony of religions’ (dharma-samanvaya).
One could argue that in making a religiously specific aim the ultimate end toward which all paths point, this position is not truly pluralistic, but is, rather, a form of inclusivism, as discussed above. The question is the extent to which Ramakrishna committed himself wholly to each tradition that he practiced on its own terms. To the extent that he did so, his position would arguably be pluralist, because it does not argue that each tradition leads to the revelation of the truth of just one, but that each tradition in its own right leads to the same ultimate realization. Again, pinning a particular approach as pluralistic or inclusivistic, or in terms of any of the broad categories we are discussing here, is more often a matter of degree, of where a position falls on a spectrum, than of locating it with ease and precision into a single ‘box.’
Other pluralists argue for a degree of agnosticism with regard to the ultimate aim or end to which religions are believed to lead. John Hick (1922-2012), for example, argues that, on topics of this kind, which is where many religions disagree, we will only know the final answer when we ourselves die and go on to experience the ultimate truth for ourselves. He calls this “eschatological verification.”
Hick also argues, however, that we are not entirely in the dark with regard to the kind of personal transformation the world’s religions are ideally intended to bring about in the consciousness of their practitioners. He speaks of a movement from an egocentric mode of existence to a universal or ‘cosmocentric’ mode. As Hick points out, there are certain characteristics shared by persons of many religions, across the world and throughout history, that are presented as praiseworthy in those traditions: traits such as compassion, empathy, wisdom, and so on. While the religions of the world are truly diverse, there are also many topics on which they converge.
Other thinkers also focus upon the convergences of the world’s religions, arguing that, behind their apparent diversity, there is a deep unity: shared values, but also shared experiences of transcending and going beyond the sufferings of worldly life. Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), for example, argues in The Perennial Philosophy that a thread of shared wisdom unites the world’s religions, and that it is this shared wisdom, more so than the many topics on which they differ, that is the important element to focus upon in our quest for truth amidst the diversity of worldviews. This perspective, known as perennialism, is often differentiated from pluralism precisely by its emphasis on a unity connecting the world’s religions. Again, though, we find a spectrum of views making up these broad categories. Hick is generally not known as a perennialist, but as a pluralist. His pluralism, though, nonetheless emphasizes, as does that of Ramakrishna, the idea of one ultimate realization to which the world’s religions point.
Still other pluralists have argued that this approach is not pluralistic enough. John Cobb and David Griffin, for example, influenced by the process thought of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), have argued for a ‘deep religious pluralism,’ in contrast with the ‘identist’ pluralism of scholars such as Hick. Cobb, Griffin, and other Whiteheadians have argued that a metaphysical worldview can be postulated in which adherents of diverse worldviews and religious practices each achieve the fulfilment of their respective practices without claiming that this ultimate fulfilment is exactly the same in every cases. Christians, for example, can be reaching salvation as this is conceived in Christianity–eternal loving communion with a singular Supreme Being–while Buddhists are at the same time reaching nirvana–the extinction of all ignorance and craving and freedom from the cycle of rebirth. These can both be happening in the same universe.
From this point of view, each of the religions is capturing an important part of the truth, and the practices that accompany each of these perceptions are really and truly effective in achieving the goals they set out to achieve. This is a complex, multi-faceted universe, which allows for a multiplicity of worldviews and lifeways. The challenge for this approach is to articulate how apparently incompatible worldviews can, in fact, be mutually compatible.
The approach I have pursued in my own work is close to that of Cobb and Griffin (and I contributed to Griffin’s edited volume on this topic, cited in the preceding paragraph). Situated in the tradition of Sri Ramakrishna, but also drawing on both Whitehead’s thought and the Jain tradition of India, I have sought to develop a model of worldview pluralism that addresses various concerns that have been raised about this position by its critics, and that advances the ideal of pluralism as a model with much to recommend it to contemporary humanity. Jain metaphysics offers a systematic view of reality as anekānta, or multi-faceted, and corresponding approach to multiple perspectives as capturing a portion of the total truth.
Apart from climate change, the most urgent issue facing humanity today is probably the clash of differing worldviews. Differences over beliefs and practices lead to everything from unpleasant interactions within a single family to violent conflicts between communities that span generations. Many argue that religion itself is the problem, and that humanity needs to embrace a scientific way of viewing reality rather than one based on ancient texts and traditions. And yet this proposal, in the end, becomes just one more contender in the global debate. A way of approaching difference that does not require people to give up, at the outset, their most deeply held views and values, but that begins with the idea that there is a core of insight in every worldview, is needed. The hope of pluralism is that it can serve as a model of truth that can be a foundation for dialogue and greater appreciation across worldviews. Furthermore, there is the question of truth itself. Even if we set aside the issue of conflict, let us ask ourselves the question, “Which method is most likely to lead us to truth? One which draws upon the insights of many traditions, many currents spanning human history, and containing the collective wisdom–and also the mistakes–of our collective heritage? Or one that excludes, advancing only one perspective, based on only one set of experiences? The Rig Veda tells us, “Reality is one. The wise speak of it in many ways.”
Even if we do not take it as an endorsement of pluralism in the contemporary sense, it certainly captures a truth evident to any who would assess our current situation with honesty and humility: that is, people far wiser than ourselves have differed over the great questions of existence. Would we not be wise to take all of their views into account when developing our own?