apologetics, Religions, Religious Diversity

The Presumption of Pluralism: How religious pluralism devalues all religious persons

Everyone has their own truth.

What’s true for you is true for you, what’s true for me is true for me.

All religious backgrounds have a piece of the puzzle.

All roads lead to the same goal.

Pluralism is rampant in our society. People want to affirm everyone’s belief. Tolerance is the buzzword. Few want to talk about the differences in worldviews. It’s easier to affirm everyone’s beliefs as having a place in the interchange of ideas.

Pluralism is the position that all religions are true. This can be qualified in a number of ways. Often, the views are not well-thought out and amount to little more than saying that all ways get to heaven. However, there are thoughtful pluralists with highly developed structures for affirming their professed pluralism. For example, John Hick, a well known proponent of pluralism, writes:

[T]he Transcendent in ‘its’ inner nature is beyond human description or comprehension… it is ineffable or, as I would rather say, transcategorical, beyond the scope of our human concepts. It is to this ultimate transcategorical reality that the religions are oriented and to which they are human responses. (Hick, 163, cited below)

Thus, for Hick and most other pluralists, all religions are oriented towards some kind of Ultimate or Transcendent, from which they derive all of their beliefs. Thus, these pluralists can affirm the notion that all religions are “true” in a qualified sense.

The problem with pluralistic claims is that in their gusto to affirm all religions as true, what they’ve actually done is said that all religions are false. Again, Hick realizes a problem inherent in qualifying religions–and specifically Christianity–such that they can all be true. The problem is that some claim to have stated actual truths about  transcendent reality. In other words, when a theologian claims that God is Triune, they are making a claim about objective reality. But Hick’s proposed solution is to simply place such theological claims into the reports of experiences about the “Real”: “according to our hypothesis, the different traditions are not reporting experiences of the Real in itself, but of its different manifestations within human consciousness” (171, cited below). Unfortunately for pluralists, what this has done is create what I find to be the real problem for pluralists.

The problem is that the pluralist is the only one whose claims about the Real/Transcendent are true.

The presumption of pluralism is that it assumes the invalidity of all religious claims. Only the pluralist can see that all religious claims to exclusivity are false. The exclusive claims of individual religions are dismissed offhand. After all, if all ways are true, then none can be exclusive.

Again, look at the reasoning from Hick: the claims of theologians are not actually claims about the Real itself. Rather, the claims of the theologian apply only to the Real-as-experienced in human consciousness. In other words, those making truth claims about individual religions are only expressing claims about their own subjective experience of an objective reality: the Real.

Thus, the pluralist undermines the truth claims of all religions, while simultaneously trying to affirm them. Only the pluralist is able to look beyond the truth claims of religion and see that when the Muslim claims that Allah is the only God, he is mistakenly reporting his experience as opposed to a claim about reality. Only the pluralist can see that the Christian who claims that Jesus is the only savior, she is only reporting her conscious experience of the Real. The Buddhist who says there is no God is similarly mistaken: perhaps there is? Who knows? Only the pluralist can see that all of these contradictory claims about religious reality are in fact merely the reports of conscious experience of a supra-reality: one which stands above all religions and is the true religion.

The bottom line is that the pluralist has become the exclusivist. Only the pluralist knows the true way. Thus, their system must collapse in on itself. It either relegates all religious claims to become mere reports of human consciousness and thus affirms itself as the only true religion, or it must affirm blatantly contradictory claims like “God exists” and “There is no God” or “Shiva is a god, Vishnu is a god, etc.” and “There is no God but Allah.” The pluralist has presumed much.

If all ways are true, then none are. Pluralism has failed.


Can we evaluate worldviews?– I discuss how to evaluate rival worldviews and outline some criteria by which to do it.

A Vision for Christian Apologetics to World Religions– I outline a vision for Christians interacting with believers of other faiths. Integral to this approach is understanding others’ beliefs.


John Hick, The New Frontier of Science and Religion (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).



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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


26 thoughts on “The Presumption of Pluralism: How religious pluralism devalues all religious persons

  1. Excellent. Interestingly, we are in agreement on this.

    I usually use ‘pluralism’ in a Constitutional sense: that, in America, we should pass no law favoring one religion, or religion over irreligion. This has nothing to do with truth claims, only the role of government. I suppose this would be ‘social pluralism’, while you seem to be addressing factual pluralism.

    Posted by donsevers | September 17, 2012, 10:34 AM
  2. Oh, how many times have I had this conversation! I’ve even said nearly the exact same thing you wrote at the end of your post, JW: if everything is true, then nothing is. That was probably two years ago or more. And we have never gotten any further with the discussion. She said she didn’t agree with me, and I said either what I said was true or it was false, she didn’t agree with that either, and that was that. Impasse. Brick wall.

    Funny, isn’t it? The very people that say “you have your truth” and “they have theirs” can completely shut you out when you say anything about “your truth”.

    Posted by Disciple | September 17, 2012, 3:59 PM
  3. Tolerance seems more logical than being a religious bigot, yet Christians think they are taking the high road when they choose to be bigots. That is what this boils down to. Christians won’t think for a moment about anyone but themselves. At least a religious pluralist has respect for other religions. This is what Christianity lacks, respect.

    Posted by Jason W. | September 18, 2012, 3:02 PM
    • Actually, as this post made clear, the pluralist shows disrespect for all religions by essentially forcing them to all be false.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | September 18, 2012, 4:29 PM
    • Isn’t that interesting. Calling for tolerance from Christians while simultaneously showing a breath-taking intolerance toward Christians. So it’s okay to talk about tolerance as long as one only wants tolerance to be shown by the other guy. And how dare any Christian claim truth when all religions are true and all philosophies are true. Wait… Wouldn’t that mean that Christianity is true, too? Can’t say no and still maintain that all these ways are true. Wouldn’t be logical.

      By the way, for the record, I’m not a bigot. Not about religion, not about race, not about anything I can think of at all.

      Posted by Disciple | September 18, 2012, 8:52 PM
  4. JW, I would be curious to know how you think all this fits in with Romans 2?

    13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. 14 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.)

    This is a verse that somehow sticks with me — a verse that I feel is important but have never exactly understood how it fits in with other doctrines of salvation.

    This passage would seem to say that anyone’s beliefs can lead to salvation, as long as their hearts and consciences are in the right place. So any religion could lead to salvation. I suppose the better interpretation would be that Christianity is the true religion, but that others who aren’t given the opportunity to know Jesus are not automatically condemned through the accident of where they were born.

    Anyway, what are your thoughts?

    Posted by tjfolkerts | September 18, 2012, 8:54 PM
    • Thanks for the comment. I can see why this passage might seem to at least allow salvation apart from certain truth claims. First, I would say that there even if this verse does seem to entail that salvation is possible apart from faith in Jesus, the entirety of the Biblical witness must be taken into account. Was Jesus lying when he said that no one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6)? What of the passages where Jesus talks about the narrow door? What of Ephesians 2:8-9, that great passage which shows that salvation is through faith, not works?

      Second, look at the context of that passage. In order to try to get even a pseudo-pluralistic claim from what Paul wrote here, one would have to say that it is possible to be righteous by the law written on their hearts. But look just one chapter later, in the exact same context, by the exact same author:

      There is no one righteous, not even one;
      there is no one who understands;
      there is no one who seeks God.
      All have turned away,
      they have together become worthless;
      there is no one who does good,
      not even one.

      Romans 3:10-12. This is quoting Psalm 14 and Psalm 53. So even if it is possible to be saved by the law on their hearts, not even one person can do that. Furthermore, immediately following that:

      Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin… But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.

      Romans 3:19, 21-22.

      So not once, but twice in the same context as Romans 2, Paul notes that yes, if one was righteous and followed the law exactly, they could be saved. But this is impossible, for not even one person can do this. Instead, Paul explicitly affirms in the exact same book and context as the Romans 2 passage that the only way to be saved is “righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.”

      And Romans 2 fits perfectly into Paul’s continuing discussion through Romans 1 in which he talks about the unrighteousness of mankind, through Romans 2 in which he shows that the Law is that which shows our sin, and through Romans 3 in which he shows that none can be saved by the law, for no one is righteous, but instead are saved through faith in Christ Jesus.

      Finally, coming from a Lutheran background as I do (and so do you!), we know that this is one of the most beautiful pieces of affirmation of Luther’s view of law and gospel, expressed so eloquently through CFW Walther in “The Proper Distinction of Law and Gospel”: The law always condemns; the gospel always saves. Romans 1-3 is a paradigm of this Lutheran doctrine in Scripture. Paul shows how the law can save no one, for none are righteous. Instead, it is the gospel truth of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ which saves.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | September 18, 2012, 9:43 PM
      • Now I would like to comment on the last piece of your comment:

        “I suppose the better interpretation would be that Christianity is the true religion, but that others who aren’t given the opportunity to know Jesus are not automatically condemned through the accident of where they were born.”

        I am sympathetic to this view. I certainly do not wish to think that anyone is condemned through the accident of where they are born. But this turns upside-down the notion of God’s justice and providence. People are never condemned for their lack of belief. Instead, they are condemned for their sins. This is made explicit through all of scripture. Condemnation does not come through accident of birth, but rather through the sin against God and the fact that no one is righteous.

        As far as the salvation of those who have never heard is concerned, that is a very complex issue. However, I would note that your comment is extremely far from the pluralism against which I direct this post. For, as I pointed out in this post, the pluralism which claims all religions are true entails that all are false. But you affirm the truth of Christianity, so pluralism is a different issue. What is the issue, it seems from your comment, is inclusivism vs. hard exclusivism vs. soft exclusivism. I tend towards soft exclusivism, but that’s a really broad topic.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | September 18, 2012, 9:49 PM
      • As always, you have great insights and depth of knowledge. That does help put the passage in context. The passage does seem more about Christianity being “big enough” to deal with people of other religions and backgrounds, not about other religions being equal. And the passage is ultimately about how no person can be saved by law, no matter if they know the law or if they simply follow (some) of the law due to their intrinsic conscience.

        I do still wonder about those who never are exposed to Christianity (or even those who are never effectively exposed). A big part of me wants to think that God’s grace is great enough even for them. Oh well — that is a topic for another day I suppose.

        Posted by tjfolkerts | September 18, 2012, 10:08 PM
  5. “The problem with pluralistic claims is that in their gusto to affirm all religions as true, what they’ve actually done is said that all religions are false.”

    Right on, JW!

    Posted by "No Apologies Allowed" Weekly Apologetics Cartoons | September 18, 2012, 9:05 PM
  6. There is just one ultimate goal, and it’s the same for everyone. However, there are many good paths to that goal.

    Posted by John Moore | September 19, 2012, 1:52 AM
    • What is that ultimate goal? Why is it that the religions seem to say mutually exclusive goals? (I.e. Buddhism-extinction of self, Christianity-salvation from sin and resurrection, Islam-life in heaven).

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | September 19, 2012, 8:56 AM
      • They don’t know clearly. They’re just grasping at shadows, trusting their traditions. But really it’s all the same thing they’re looking for. Objective truth exists! The problem is that we don’t comprehend it.

        Posted by John Moore | September 19, 2012, 7:39 PM
      • Can you objectively comprehend that you don’t comprehend objective truth?

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | September 19, 2012, 11:57 PM
      • Well, this is certainly a conversation-stopper. You can always use this kind of recursive argument, and it’s like “turtles all the way down.” But why not try to have a real discussion here? Surely you’re not denying that people lack comprehension …

        Posted by John Moore | September 20, 2012, 12:26 AM
      • You’re denying that there is any comprehension of objective truth. If that’s true, then you have uttered a self-refuting statement. If objective truth is incomprehensible, can we comprehend that we can’t comprehend it?

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | September 20, 2012, 12:27 AM
      • No, there is certainly some comprehension. I just deny that we humans have full comprehension. No need to take an extreme view on this point. I don’t claim I have objective knowledge, or that my claim is objectively true, or that it’s objectively true that I claim something … or any of that rigmarole. I’m just speaking as a humble human person with limited capabilities.

        Posted by John Moore | September 20, 2012, 1:26 AM
      • I don’t think we have full comprehension either, but we must be able to comprehend some truth in order to say anything about objective reality. So once more, how is it that you can say that all these paths are good when they all endorse different outcomes? Not only that, but are you really saying that, for example, satanism or voodooism are “good”? Let’s look at some quotes from the Satanic Bible, Anton LaVey’s treatise for Satanism:

        “By learning to release your hatred towards those who deserve it, you cleanse yourself of these malignant emotions and need not take your pent-up hatred out on your loved ones.”

        “Satanism advocates practicing a modified form of the Golden Rule. Our interpretation of this rule is: ‘Do unto others as they do unto you’; because if you ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ and they, in turn, treat you badly, it goes against human nature to continue to treat them with consideration. You should do unto others as you would have them do unto you, but if your courtesy is not returned, they should be treated with the wrath they deserve.”

        Or what of those religions which endorsed human sacrifice. Those paths were “good”? It seems to me your definition of good has little-to-no meaning. I deny that these are good are even possibly good. You must affirm that they are good, while contradictory statements are also good. I do not envy your position.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | September 20, 2012, 10:00 AM
      • Whoa! I didn’t say all paths were good. Just many of them.

        I think we can say lots of things about objective reality, but everything we say will be subjective, because we are not God. We might be wrong. Things can be black and white for God, but from our human viewpoint, things are mostly grey.

        I’m not a relativist, and certainly not a satanist or anything like that. I say things are good or bad because they’re objectively good or bad. On the other hand, I admit I don’t know for sure.

        I like to say there’s just one ultimate goal for everyone. A path is good if it leads to the goal. Otherwise not. The goal is happiness, prosperity, eternal life. People can describe it in many ways, but I think there’s just one ultimate goal.

        Posted by John Moore | September 20, 2012, 7:40 PM
      • So what of religions that say the ultimate goal is something like extermination of the self? It seems that does not follow into the guidelines for the “goal.” Furthermore, your assessment undermines the truth claims of individual religions. For example, Christianity affirms the words of Jesus in John 14:6 No one comes to the Father except through HIM. Islam claims that Muhammad is the prophet and that only by living the 5 pillars of Islam can you achieve eternity. Both Islam and Christianity claim exclusivism. Thus, their paths are mutually exclusive.

        What this means for your claims is that you must actually claim that both Islam and Christianity are false. I as a Christian do not think that any other path leads to the goal. Therefore, no other path is good. All other paths fail. But according to you, many paths can achieve many, mutually exclusive goals. In saying that, you’ve said my religion is wrong.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | September 20, 2012, 8:11 PM
      • Only one goal for everyone, but many paths – that’s my stance. I think Islam and Christianity are different paths to the same goal. Perhaps they’re both right? God, Allah and Yahweh are all the same person, after all. It’s true that many religions claim all others are wrong paths, so they can’t all be right about that particular claim. But it’s still possible for both Islam and Christianity to lead us to the Father by their different paths.

        If “extermination of the self” means non-existence, then that’s the wrong goal. That’s just wrong. On the other hand, some Buddhists might interpret it as extermination of individuality, so their goal is not non-existence per se. It’s a blending of the self into the universal oneness, or whatever. And that can be yet another way of describing the same goal of eternal happiness.

        Christianity may be the best path of all, I admit. Still, I think it’s important for people to take different paths. Some must follow the second-best and third-best paths, etc. Strength in diversity!

        Posted by John Moore | September 20, 2012, 9:43 PM


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