Pluralism and Tolerance

“Why should there be more than one religion? Are all religions true? Are some truer than others? Can religion aspire to function as a positive force in the world?”[1] Thus does a leading contemporary academic identify some of the major questions posed by human curiosity. The relationship between religions is something that has long drawn the attention of theologians, scholars and historians, and in today’s global context of increased mutual awareness of and interaction between religions, the subject is of still greater practical relevance. Without detracting from this, I will assert that it behooves every individual to ponder upon such questions in the context of their own spiritual quest, and that indeed, that is ultimately the more important dimension of such enquiry.

Humility is an essential attitude in anyone claiming to be religious; so too in the seeker, and even, I proffer, in the skeptic. We must be humble before God (or at least before truth and reality, for one who has not yet acknowledged God), realizing our frailty, our own limitations of knowledge, our shortcomings and the uncertainty of our final state. We must also exhibit humility toward our fellow human beings, and not be so presumptuous as to regard ourselves as absolute judges (let alone assume the roles of judge, jury and executioner) over other individuals.

Nevertheless, humility does not imply having fluid principles, refraining from having conviction, or un-knowing fundamental truths one has come to know (through sound reason and experience, as opposed to conjecture, blind faith or pseudo-reasoning). Ultimately, most people do accept some principles as being absolute, and this in itself implies a sense of exclusivity. Few people, for example, even amongst the most ecumenically minded, would include Satanism as a legitimate religion. Some measure of absolutism is an inevitable consequence of a belief in the phenomenon of particular revelation — that God has explicitly sent communication to mankind through prophets. Attempts to disqualify absolute claims on an a priori basis (as have Radhakrishnan and others)  — whether one regards all religions as sharing an invisible geometry (H. Smith), or having the same essence in different forms (Schuon), or as converging to a commonality (WC Smith), or as co-contributors to the fullness of religious experience (Hick), or as resources for a creative synthesis (U. King), or for cross-religious pilgrimages (Dunne) — all carry the implicit assumption that either particular revelation does not exist, or that it does not survive in an distinguishable form today.[2] Furthermore, without the concept of revelation, the very notions of right and wrong, and of good and evil, become relative and potentially even meaningless.[3]

To reject to claims of superiority of a particular idea, religion or sect is but to tacitly affirm of a different kind of exclusivity. To quote one of my (Christian) professors, “arguments for superiority of a religion cannot be ruled out by fiat”. The problem, then, is not of exclusive truth-claims in themselves, but rather of truth claims that presume, “a degree of certitude that transcends human discussion and argumentation.”[4] Nor does affirming an absolute truth necessarily imply arrogance, for realization of the truth is not the end of the journey; rather it is the start of a different struggle, that of striving to implement the truth in one’s life, and to continue to aspire to perfection of one’s worship, behavior, character and morals. realization of truth is not the end of the journey, nor should it make one self-righteous or arrogant. Rather it should bring about humility without leading to doubt regarding things which are clear-cut. It is also the start of a different struggle, that of striving to implement the truth in one’s life, and to continue to aspire to perfection of one’s worship, behavior, character and morals. Only an arrogant individual would be so presumptuous as to claim that he/she is perfectly conforming to God’s will, and only the truly reckless could venture to be certain that he/she would always maintain such a state in the future.

We therefore need to realize the distinction between that absolutism (or exclusivism) which remains in the domain of belief, and that which produces intolerance and violence towards others. Religious diversity is a reality, and in order for us to function in this world, we need to exhibit tolerance, but trivialization of theological disagreements runs the risk of being a mere sycophantic endeavor.

There must be discussion and dialog between religions with a view to better understanding of the other. As Capps observes, “The pretense of knowing all about some other religions because one is devoted to one’s own should be recognized as the arrogance it most surely is.”[5] The value of such dialog to the seeker is self-evident. Someone who mistakenly thinks they have already found the truth might come to realize their error through this dialog. For one who has actually discovered the truth, such dialog can lead to enhanced and deeper understanding of it, and facilitate his conveying his discovery to others. In the words of Jefferson,

“That if there be but one right, and ours that one, we should wish to see the 999 wandering sects gathered into the fold of truth. But against such a majority we cannot effect this by force. reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments. To make way for these, free enquiry must be indulged[.]”[6]

Certainly, proselytization  based on tricksterism, and other unjustified strategies provoking resentment, must be denounced. At the same time, inter-religious dialog should not degenerate into a mere nonchalant, placating, social exercise. In the words of the late Professor John Clayton, “the otherness of the Other must be preserved…. but not at the price of abandoning public contestability of religious claims.”[7] Clayton’s proposition of debate based on the Indian vãda-tradition model[8] is a welcome step in this direction.

Peaceful and productive religious co-existence is clearly a desirable and achievable goal. At the same time, it should not become confused with the deeper, theological issues involving absolute truth. The latter is best left separate, in the individual domain, with each person pursuing their spiritual quest and struggle within a tolerant global community of mankind. “Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself,”[9] as Jefferson declared, but this pre-supposes an individual who is sincere, principled and resolved; one who will not be swayed by sheer force of popular opinion, nor satisfied to accept, without investigation and reflection, every claim to objectivity, rationality or absolute truth, nor by the challenge of potentially adjusting one’s life to conform to the truth when it is found. Ultimately, we are born individually, leave the world alone, and similarly should be prepared to face our Creator alone.


[1] Capps, p. 330.

[2] This is aside from the unjustified simplifications and logical inconsistencies of declaring all religions to be equal. In this respect, I have found the following (abridged from Clayton, pp. 22-23) to be insightful:

“Some would make it the task of philosophy of religion to set about establishing a new consensus within pluralism by denying that differences ultimately matter; that all religions represent different paths to the same goal. However attractive it may seem, it raises problems. Religions are not just different ways of worshipping or contemplating the same Ultimate Reality. What is experienced as “Ultimate” is specific to the tradition concerned. But to claim that what all religions experience as Ultimate must be the same Ultimate Reality is ot be guilty of what logicians call a “quantifier-shift” fallacy. Nor are religions just different paths to a same goal; they are different paths to different goals.”

[3] The theory of “natural religion” is relevant to this, but its discussion is beyond the scope of this brief piece.

[4] Collins, p. 32.

[5] Capps, p. 330.

[6] Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, p. 160

[7] Clayton, p. 25

[8] Clayton,  pp. 26 ff.

[9] Thomas Jefferson, The Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, xviii, cited in Clayton p. 5


  1. Capps, WH; Religious Studies, The Making of a Discipline, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1995.
  2. Clayton, John; Thomas Jefferson and the Study of Religion, inaugural lecture at the University of Lancaster, 18 Nov 1992.
  3. Collins, John J., Does the Bible Justify Violence?, Fortress Press,  Minneapolis, 2004.
  4. Hobbs, Edward C. , Theological and Religious Pluralism: Pluralism in the Biblical Context, 11/16/73,, accessed 06/20/05.
  5. King, Ursula; Is There a Future to Religious Studies as we know it? in JAAR, June 2002, vol 70. No 2 pp. 365-388.

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