Wednesday, December 8, 2010

My Mother's Religious Pluralism--Formalized by John Hick

On Monday I turned to the last topic of the semester in my philosophy of religion class: religious diversity. This is a topic that, in a way, strikes close to home—specifically, the home in which I was raised. Not, however, because my home was characterized by religious diversity.

As I think I’ve mentioned before, I am the son of two agnostic preachers’ kids. Growing up, I cannot recall my father ever talking about God or religion or anything supernatural. I think it was in college that he once told me about a time he found himself in church reciting the words of the Lutheran liturgy—only to realize that he was simply mouthing words that meant nothing to him (and which, when he reflected on their meaning, he didn't believe).

My mother, by contrast, was bitter about her fundamentalist upbringing and so spoke about it quite a bit. If she had a faith, it was in the worth and dignity of all people regardless of their religion. If she had a doctrine, it was this: If there is a God, that God wouldn’t give a damn what religion you are and certainly wouldn’t condemn you to hell for being raised in the wrong faith tradition...or for failing to convert to the right one when you encounter it (even though its being the right one is obvious only to those who happened to be raised in it).

I can’t count how many times my mother said to me growing up, “If I’d been raised a Jew, I’d be a Jew today. If I’d been raised a Hindu, I’d be a Hindu today.” And I’d snidely think to myself, “Then why aren’t you a fundamentalist Baptist today?”

Of course, her mantra was precisely intended to explain why she was no longer a fundamentalist Baptist: The faith of her childhood taught that those who had not explicitly accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior would suffer eternal hell after death. My mother’s point was that which beliefs seem reasonable to you will be largely a matter of upbringing. Someone raised Muslim would be as likely to believe that salvation depends on accepting Jesus as Lord as someone raised Christian would be to embrace the Koran as the inerrant revelation of God.

On this basis, my mother came to the realization that if salvation does depend on explicitly accepting Jesus as Lord, whether you're saved will be largely a function of how you were raised. My mother—quite rightly—found this implication intolerable. When my grandfather, a baptist minister, relocated the family from Norway to California in pursuit of a vision of joining an American evangelist in leading a great religious awakening in the United States (didn't happen), my mother found herself in the vibrant artistic and intellectual climate of the Bay Area. Other faiths took on human faces, faces that my mother could not in good conscience condemn to hell. Nor could she work up any enthusiasm for trying to convert them to Christianity. After all, what reasons could she give that would sound any more convincing to them than an argument for converting to Islam would sound to her?

And so, instead, her natural curiosity and open-mindedness inspired her to respond to people of other faiths in a different way--by seeking to learn about their beliefs and traditions. And the more she learned, the more wonderful she found all of that diversity to be. She became appalled by any worldview that would cast a negative judgment on such diversity. She condemned all religious exclusivism. She became a respecter of all faith traditions...but a believer in none.

I remember, once, telling my mother that in order to have a rainbow, you need to have discrete bands of color. And in order to have religious diversity, you need people who are committed to a particular faith--that is, people who really believe what their religion teaches. And to the extent that one's religious teachings conflict with those of other faiths, to believe in one's own religious teachings is to believe that the opposed teachings are mistaken. "What you value," I told her, "depends on there being people who are exclusivists. Take that away, and it's like the kid who starts a painting with all the colors of the rainbow but keeps blending the colors together. Eventually it's all just a uniform brown."

When I got more philosophically sophisticated, I diagnosed my mother's error in terms of a distinction between soteriological exclusivism and what might be called doctrinal exclusivism. The former refers to the view that was rampant in the fundamentalist world of my mother's childhood: the view that salvation only comes through one particular faith. Fail to follow the path laid out by that religion...and you are doomed. The latter refers to the belief that one's own religion has a unique claim on the truth--that other religions, insofar as their teachings differ from one's own, are in error. The point I wanted to make was that while the existence of the religious diversity my mother so valued did not require soteriological exclusivism, it did require doctrinal exclusivism. Furthermore, my mother's objections to exclusivism were really targeting the soterliological kind, and didn't have any clear implications with respect to doctrinal exclusivism.

I don't think I ever tried to make this argument to my mother in such technical terms, but in whatever form I did make it, she wasn't impressed. What did impress her (far more than my kid-painting-a-rainbow analogy) was the Hindu parable of the blind men who encounter an elephant. One touches the elephant's side and declares, "It's like a wall!" One grasps the trunk and says, "No, it's like a snake!" Another takes hold of a leg and announces, "No, it's like a tree trunk." Still another grasps the tail and says, "It's like a rope."

(I have a cartoon clipping that used to hang on my office door, of four bindfolded men touching a strange construct--a wall standing on tree stumps, with a snake coiling over one end and a rope hanging from the other. All the men agree that it's an elephant.)

Now this parable captures, in a narrative way, not only my mother's view of religious diversity but also the religious pluralism of John Hick. In its briefest form, Hick sees world religions as culturally situated interpretations of  "the noumenal Real" that transcends our conceptual and empirical grasp. As Hick sees it, all religions, "at their experiential roots," are "in contact with the same ultimate reality, but that their differing experiences of that reality, interacting over the centuries with the different thought-forms of different cultures, have led to increasing differentiation and contrasting elaboration..."

For Hick, the divine, as infinite, "transcends the grasp of the human mind." As such, "the God whom our minds can penetrate and whom our thoughts can circumnavigate is merely a finite and partial image of God." Culture and historical setting influence what aspects of this infinite reality one can connect with. In Hick's words, encounters with the same divine reality "from different historical and cultural standpoints" will produce "differently focused awareness of the reality."

More significantly, the language we use to make sense of our encounters with the transcendent will be in terms of concepts and images that our culture makes available, and which are at best metaphors for the reality we are attempting to make sense of. As such, religious teachings--in the manner of metaphors--will only gesture towards truths that they cannot literally describe.

In sum, then, our cultural context provides us with mataphors for understanding and making sense of divine self-disclosures, and it also impacts which features of the manifold mystery of the divine that we are prepared to encounter and grasp (even in a finite, metaphorical way). Put in terms of the Hindu parable, our culture determines both what part of the elephant we are likely to touch and what metaphor we use to describe it.

If we can recognize our religious language as metaphorical--and if we can learn to understand the very different metaphors of alien cultures--then diverse religions can begin to appriate the insights offered by other religions, leading us towards a truer and more complete understanding of the divine. Put in terms of the Hindu parable, if the blind men come to see that "wall" and "snake" and "tree trunk" and "rope" are metaphors for something that is none of these things--and if they can realize that these metaphors may actually be about different aspects of the underlying reality they've come in contact with--then they can begin to construct a more complete picture of what they've eoncountered. At first, that picture may be a bit like the one in my cartoon: the metaphors mashed together into a strange construction. But, perhaps, if the metaphorical nature of the language is kept firmly in mind, a more elephant-like understanding will eventually emerge.

One of the things about this "Hickian" pluralism is that it does provide a framework for respecting and valuing religious diversity--a framework that does not require that adherents to various religions be exclusivists in any sense. In fact, exclusivism may actually block religious diversity from achieving the good that it is uniquely suited to achieve, namely, supplementing the limitations of each isolated religion. And so, in a sense, Hick's pluralism succeeds in undermining my kid-painting-a-rainbow analogy. My mother was right not to be impressed.

But, of course, much religion is explicitly exclusivist. Furthermore, much religion sees its teachings as more than just metaphorical. And so, if Hick is right about the nature of religion, then it is not the case that every religion deserves equal respect. Hick himself addresses the value of individual religions in pragmatic terms. In his view, the purpose of religion is to bring us into a kind of lived alignment with the ultimate reality, moving us out of a self-centered and towards a "Reality-centered" existence. That is, we live out lives with a sense of attunement and at-one-ness with the whole...what I am tempted to call a moral existence (and which is nicely captured in the quote from Simone Weil that serves as part of the header for this blog).

Not every religion bears such pragmatic fruits, and this provides Hick with a standard for critically assessing religion despite his embrace of diversity. Likewise, his commitment to the partial and metaphorical nature of every concrete religious understanding gives him a basis for critiquing religious communities that claim exclusive access to a satisfactory, non-metaphorical vision of the divine reality. Such communities are, in Hick's view, deluding themselves.

Now, my mother is clearly a Hickian pluralist. If she has a religion, that would be it. Am I a Hickian pluralist? Not quite. Instead, I think it's better say I'm a kind of Hegelian pluralist--a perspective which I sketch out, for example, in this post. And I'm not sold on Hick's tendency to view all religious language as metaphorical. I worry about the implications of casting too heavy a shroud of mystery over the divine, for reason I've gestured to here. And while I respect and admire many other faiths, I've preserved this much from my kid-painting-a-rainbow analogy: To have a rainbow, you need fields of different colors. If everyone were like my mother--a respecter of diverse religions but an adherent to none--there'd be no religions to respect.

And I love religion too much to stand outside the rainbow. To be part of the rainbow, you need to fall somewhere in the spectrum of colors. And Christianity sings to my soul.


  1. Well said! Love the reference to Saxe's poem. My Baptist father used to walk around the house performing it in a sing-song voice while we were getting ready for school. He and I had a conversation about it a week ago, as a matter of fact, after listening to a podcast featuring John Dominic Crossan. We sat in my parents' kitchen early on a Saturday morning, sipping weak coffee, and conveyed our love for and commitment to Christianity and our wonder at the beauty and range of religious experience.

  2. Nice post. The distinction between soteriological and doctrinal exclusivism is important.

    I'm wondering if you've come across Mark Heim's book on this from a Christian Perspective, _The Depths of the Riches: A Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends_? He puts pluralism and exclusivism in terms of "all roads lead to salvation" and "one road leads to salvation," and argues that both options miss the differences in the particular ends that actual religions are pursuing. That is, Nirvana is simply not the same thing as eternal life in Christ. So, he argues, it's possible that different religions are in fact valid paths to different places, which allows the possibility of affirming other religions as substantively true while leaving open the debate about which end is really 'ultimate.'

    He then goes on to argue that the doctrine of the Trinity allows Christianity to make sense of the state of affairs in which there could be such diverse religious ends, perhaps better than any other religion.

    I think it's a helpful and original approach, and I'd be interested to read your take on it.

  3. Hi, Eric-

    "Furthermore, my mother's objections to exclusivism were really targeting the soterliological kind, and didn't have any clear implications with respect to doctrinal exclusivism."

    With all due respect, it doesn't seem that way. She claimed that not only should salvation (probably stipulated as a debating point) not be dependent on how one is raised, but likewise, so shouldn't the real and true doctrine- if anyone knew the right doctrine. She was willing to see various doctrines espoused, but clearly didn't believe any of them herself, which certainly strikes at the heart of doctrinal exclusivism.

    ... Which is to say, she was tolerant of exclusive doctrines in a sort of patronizing, anthropological way, but thought their very multifarious existence and their obvious origin rendered their exclusivism nonsensical, if not their entire premises and content.

    "As such, "the God whom our minds can penetrate and whom our thoughts can circumnavigate is merely a finite and partial image of God.""

    It seems like a biased sort of pluralism that uses the same old name -god- for the putatively pluralist idea, which has many names and no names & no gods as well.

    "Not every religion bears such pragmatic fruits, and this provides Hick with a standard for critically assessing religion despite his embrace of diversity."

    Doesn't this sort of grade each religion on its ability to disbelieve its own koolaid? It marks those down whose metaphors deal with infallible popes, perfect scriptures, and totalitarian political programs, among other issues. All this has zero theological justification, theology being always internal to each tradition. Apparently, for some people the pragmatic project of living together somehow trumps the eternal truths of god's own word, etc. ... the devil will surely take the hindmost!

    " ... and "tree trunk" and "rope" are metaphors for something that is none of these things--and if they can realize that these metaphors may actually be about different aspects of the underlying reality they've come in contact with"

    Ah yes- that is the question. Suppose these are all metaphors for something that isn't divine at all? Isn't even external to ourselves? Is, in point of fact, the very yearnings and dreamscapes that so naturally arise as our unconscious deals with the mysteries of reality in its own dramatic and emotional way?

    Such a position has many advantages:
    - Doesn't do any violence to physics or other reliable knowledge.
    - Explains easily the variousness, yet ultimate unity, of cultural and personal traditions.
    - Welcomes future scientific endeavor in cognitive and related sciences.
    - Doesn't engage in the vast ego inflation of infinite, transcendent, superwhatever, etc., which is of course the reason that doctrines become exclusivist in the first place.

  4. Hi Eric

    Not sure about the rainbow metaphor here. In fact a rainbow doesn't have discrete colour bands, that's just the way we view it (interestingly the traditional seven divisions is an historical quirk, seven was considered a more noble number than six, hence the indigo/violet divide). And, to stretch the metaphor even further, I don't think religious/cultural diversity is necessarily dependent upon the sort of adherence you refer to.

    One can imagine a world where faith traditions are seen purely as a way of building metaphors that help us make sense of our lives, so art really, where a splendid diversity still flourishes. Indeed it may even be that a more glorious diversity emerges, once followers are cut free from the requirement of belief as such.

    I think you had a very wise mother, because for me any story that requires us to believe it carries more truth than competing narratives, when this truth is not demonstrable, is simply distasteful. There is a huge difference between saying 'here is a story that I find beautiful' and 'here is a story that is true, in such a way that other versions must be less true.'

    The first it seems to me can be defended as quite reasonable. The second I would be at a loss to even be able to begin to defend, because it appears to require some way of escaping the inherently personal nature of assessing such truths. I don't think there's a way of making that work. Certainly I've never seen one articulated.


  5. I remember, once, telling my mother that in order to have a rainbow, you need to have discrete bands of color.

    Not that it really pertains to the topic of the post, but I hate to see physics being mistreated... a rainbow doesn't have discrete bands of color, but is, in fact, a continuous spectrum.

    Then again, perhaps it is relevant. Isn't the spectrum of human spirituality also continuous? So in order to get the "rainbow" of religious plurality, it is only necessary that one person be a Baptist, one person be a Hasidic Jew, one person be Shintoist... and so on. Even within each group there are subgroups, and within each subgroup even further divisions, until you end up with a spectrum that is discrete only on the level of individual persons, just as a rainbow is only discrete on the level of individual photons. It is our perception that groups the photons - and the people - into larger bands of "color."

    Perhaps it means that each one of us has to be equally inclusive and exclusive, equally tolerant and doctrinal. And this discretization on the individual level probably points to something underlying that is far more fundamental, just as the appearance of a rainbow is due to fundamental laws of physics. It's Hickian pluralism, but on an individual basis. Hmm.

  6. (Beat by 6 minutes to the note about rainbows... serves me right for thinking so much about my comment!)

  7. Bernard: Yes, I have a wise mother. And I'm pretty sure she'd adore you and want to invite you to an aquavit party if you lived close enough (where you'd likely sit with a plate full of herring talking to an atheist scientists, a lapsed Hindu, a Jew raised by Catholics, a globe-trotting artist, and a biblical theologian).

    The *literal* inaccuracy of the rainbow metaphor I used (years ago) raises some interesting further complications about the use of metaphorical language, doesn't it? That is, there aren't merely difficulties having to do with the fit between the metaphor and what it describes. It's also the case that that which is being invoked for metaphorical purposes can itself be different than the one invoking it imagines it to be-- or it can be open to various interpretations and understandings, meaning that people can invoke the very same metaphor to mean very different things, or can take it in very different directions. Nuclear.kelly's comment is really helpful in this respect.

  8. Bernard,

    “…because for me any story that requires us to believe it carries more truth than competing narratives, when this truth is not demonstrable, is simply distasteful. There is a huge difference between saying 'here is a story that I find beautiful' and 'here is a story that is true, in such a way that other versions must be less true.'”

    Remember, it is also the atheist, the philosophical naturalist/materialist who believes his narrative carries more truth than competing narratives. Do you find that distasteful as well? For instance, Burk believes his atheism to be a more true narrative than transcendent ones. I assume you disagree with people sometimes regarding their narrative of the world, right? Why? Because you believe yours to be more accurate, truer, right? Do you find your own position distasteful?

    Beyond that, the word “demonstrable” might be a problem with your formulation. We all believe certain things about the world and ourselves that cannot be “demonstrated” or “proved” in the same way one can “prove” the earth is round. Such doesn’t make those beliefs false. What is different about the philosophical naturalist, however, is that he will tell us his narrative is the more true narrative because it is based upon “facts” and empirical evidence. Well, one can’t argue with the “facts” right? I mean facts are facts, right? It is a way of stopping the conversation. It is the same tactic as the believer who say, but “God said so.” Well we can’t argue with God, now can we? It’s funny how “God” and the “facts” becomes the same sort of tool to wield power and stop the conversation, which is what the fundamentalist and atheist both attempt to do.

    What we need is a way for people to say, “I think your narrative is wrong and here is why, but that we disagree doesn’t make me better or respect you any less.”

    Now, the more interesting question might be- are there some narratives that allow for and even compel or provide for such a sensibility regarding conflicting narratives? For instance, one can think of the admonition of Jesus to love one’s enemies.

  9. As always, I don't much disagree with you, although from your tone I suspect you disagree with me. I can't quite put my finger on how this asymmetry comes about.

    To answer some of your questions, yes a purely atheistic standpoint, that claims that there simply can't be anything of a transcendent nature, troubles me for exactly the same reason. I don't think most atheists do actually support this sort of fundamentalism, it's certainly not how I read Burk for example, but I may be wrong. Larry appeared to be supporting such a hardline approach recently and I tried, unsuccessfully, to discuss this with him.

    I agree that we can't say 'these are the facts and that is that.' The long and ongoing discussion on the free will post shows I think that some metaphysical topics are more interesting than that, and trying to unpick the various narratives and definitions can be most fruitful.

    And this question about which narratives best support curiosity/tolerance/respect and so forth is vital. I think ultimately it's about attitudes rather than overarching narratives. I suspect one can be a buddhist, atheist, Christian or agnostic and be an overbearing bore, and equally any of these narratives can easily sustain open minded and generous points of view.

    I do continue to believe that when we move beyond the demonstrable, we have an intellectual duty to acknowledge that we are in the realm of imagination and invention; a crucially important human realm, but one where one must accept that a different set of rules are in play.

    One of these rules might be that truths that emerge from these are personal truths, and to seek to extend them into something like universal truths is at heart disrespectful. Clearly that in itself can not be a universal rule, it is a personal feeling I have with which you are welcome to disagree. Indeed I invite it.


  10. Hi, Bernard, Darrell-

    It seems to me that there is a very fundamental and qualitative difference between the propositions that ...

    a. God says so, so that is that.

    b. There don't seem to be any gods to the naive, or even the careful observer, so let's start our epistemology from known foundations, such as that we have complex brains with honestly unknown and interesting capabilities.

    Option b is just so much more humble and appropriate as a position, in view of the well-aired doubts of this community, that there really shouldn't be any competition. Far from being exclusionary, it is the default and responsible starting position, based on what we know.

    I realize that this leaves aside the intuitions of so many people that there are religious matters, religious physics, religious realms, etc. But where's the evidence? I would suggest that in this case, intuition does not serve us well, particularly not philosophers. Intuition is OK as a starting point. But if we have been starting at this point for thousands of years and never getting anywhere reliable, it is hard to defend as a starting point. If we keep getting to exclusionary, absurdly mythical, and disparate places, then Eric's mother might just have a much more important point to make than that we should all just get along.

    So I would agree that I'm of the opinion that there isn't any transcendent realm of the sort religious people go on about. That realm is very much in our minds, and there are very good reasons why that is so, consciousness being what it is.

    But more importantly, whether there is or isn't, what is patently clear is that humans have no decent evidence for such a realm, other than the bare fact that the universe exists with fundamentally unknown causes. Talking about such grandiose things (and especially claiming "absolutes" and exclusionary principles, etc.) without reliable evidence is quite simply intellectual malpractice, in my view, and thus the somewhat harsh approach I often take in this discussion.

    It is also why these discussions are in reality species of art & metaphor rather than the science they take themselves to be. Which to say that supernaturalism is wholly misguided as a theory of reality, while it is perfectly fine as a psychological trope.

  11. Burk

    This comment from you interests me:

    'It is also why these discussions are in reality species of art & metaphor rather than the science they take themselves to be.'

    I agree that philosophical discussions and scientific discussions are quite different things, and art is something else again, although there are points of overlap of course. For me, I get a lot of satisfaction out of living and thinking in all three spheres. I get by without religious metaphors, it's my preference, but I can't make the leap to seeing why others shouldn't take a different approach. At heart, I just don't much care what others believe.

    In the end, isn't 'well, it works for me' the only sane measuring stick? We're all puny minds muddling through in a universe that in all likelihood is far stranger than any human imagination will ever grasp. I revere science for all it can teach us, but without a narrative context all our learning would be meaningless for me.

    Sometimes I suspect the big differences are personality based. It's not preposterous for instance to suggest that maths and the sciences are particularly attractive to a certain type of mind. It could well be that discussions like this are to a large extent biological predispositions playing themselves out on the keyboard. The drama teacher in me suspects I would understand these arguments far better if I could meet the people making them.


  12. Darrell,

    Your comment about the invocation of "the facts" and "God's word" as conversation-stoppers is interesting. But I'm not sure that atheists who want to shut down religious belief are really invoking "the facts" as such to do so. Or, perhaps it's better to say that they are invoking the facts in a very special way.

    After all, moderate/progressive theists and atheists are in broad agreement about the empirical facts (although there may be disagreement about whether there are such things as "moral facts" and the like). And many theists are more than ready to embrace something like Burk's principle that we should "start our epistemology from known foundations" in the sense of limiting knowledge claims to the realm of "facts" (assuming this realm can be adequately specified).

    But there is a difference between saying that the realm of facts is co-extensive with the realm of knowledge and saying that the realm of facts is co-extensive with reality, or co-extensive with what we may legitimately believe.

    To say the latter is a different kind of invocation of the facts--an invocation meant to shut down narrative understandings of our lived experience that posit something beyond the realm of facts to help situate and give meaning to what we encounter in that realm. Such understandings do not DENY the facts (and as such are not at odds with the facts). Rather, they go BEYOND the facts (however "fact" is to be specified--a problem I'm ignoring for the sake of this comment). It's one thing to say, "Here are the facts. Don't deny them." It's something else to say, "Here are the facts. Don't believe anything beyond them." It is the injunction to LIMIT oneself to the facts--not only when it comes to knowledge claims, but when it comes to deciding which narrative worldview to live out--that operates as the conversations-stopper. But the move is shrouded in a failure to make relevant distinctions, such that it seems as if THE FACTS ALONE are being invoked.

    Put simply, there are three distinct things that need to be clearly distinguished:

    1. The act of denying the facts.
    2. The act of claiming to KNOW something outside the realm of facts.
    3. The act of believing in something outside the realm of facts (without claiming to know it).

    When these are not distinguished, it is easy to let objections to (1) or (2) invalidly pass as objections to (3).

    I think a similar blurring of distinctions is going on when religious fundamentalists invoke "God's word" as a conversation stopper.

  13. Relating all of this back to the issue of religious pluralism, consider someone whose religious beliefs do not deny the facts and are not put forward as knowledge. The person believes X in the pragmatic sense of "living as if" X is true--perhaps because doing so coordinates elements of their experience that DON'T rise to the level of "fact" with elements that do, in a way that doesn't force them to dismiss the former as delusional (and thus infuses those elements with a life-enriching meaning that they otherwise would not have for that person).

    The question is what implications this sort of religious belief has when the believer confronts someone with different religious beliefs. It seems clear to me that a strong exclusivist condemnation of all rival faiths cannot be justified. Someone who believes in this way MUST, it seems, at the very least be a fallibilist about their religious beliefs. That is, they must recognize that their belief could be in error. This is part of what it MEANS to say that they don't conflate their belief with knowledge.

    But I don't think Hick has described the only alternative to an unjustified infallibilism. Accurately and precisely characterizing the various species of non-exclusivist religion is therefore important. In this regard, I'm quite interested in reading the Heim book that Spaceman Spiff recommends--especially since I've read some of Heim's other work and found it very challenging.

  14. Eric,

    "But there is a difference between saying that the realm of facts is co-extensive with the realm of knowledge and saying that the realm of facts is co-extensive with reality, or co-extensive with what we may legitimately believe."

    You are exactly right and the difference you are speaking of is what I meant.

    The problem I have is that I think many people who think they are "neutral" so to speak or simply objective observers think everyone else has a narrative or world-view (or religion) and they pass judgment all the while not noticing they are doing this from their own narrative or world-view.

    Further, all "facts" and all "evidence" is interpreted and we do that (all of us) through narratives or world-views and it is another feature missed by materialists/naturalists.

    Thank you for clarifying this difference regarding facts and how we speak of them. We all are starting with the basic “facts” of this world and ourselves, but we interpret them differently and this is what leads to a plurality of views.

  15. Bernard-

    Yes, indeed, and you won't see me on street corners pressing passersby to accept the truth of atheism. But here we are, in a philosophical community, putatively dedicated to rigorous thinking and interrogating each other about the foundations of our respective positions & views, which is a different matter.

    The point is that exclusivism is invalid in the absence of data. That is why Bob's adherence to unicorns should be taken no more seriously than Jane's adherence to Jesus's divinity. Both are imaginative forays into the unknown. They are "reasonable" beliefs in Eric's parlance, meaning that they are non-disprovable, like most contemporary religious claims and ideas. They lack positive evidence, and thus can not logically compel anyone else to believe in them, especially someone as acute as Eric's mother.

    You will see that the case against exclusivism is closely allied with the case for the default state- atheism. This isn't to say that if you wish to believe in my little pink pony, that would be socially wrong or psychologically wrong- we are humans after all. But it would be philosophically wrong, there being insufficient evidence. At best, one might adopt a mental state of "entertaining a hypothesis", or "making an uncompelled supposition", or as Eric puts it.. "living as if X were true, though I have no rational idea whether it is or not", rather than "holding a belief".

    You ask whether a narrative context is needed. This is where the "meme" idea really comes into its own. Yes, humans need a narrative context, and as you well know, the more dramatic, the better. Planetary wars of good versus evil, excruciating choices of deep personal and social import.. all this makes for great narrative. But does it make for good philosophy, or even good public policy? Should those who provide satisfying narratives regularly win out over those who provide accurate factual information about our world and its very real predicaments, in narratives that are, frankly, a bit wan and depressing? I wish those were not either/or questions, but they often are, since theological narratives have a way of expanding beyond the strictly non-disprovable remit which Eric terms "reasonable".

  16. Burk

    Yes, very interesting. There is a danger in stopping at 'everybody needs a narrative and here is mine' when the next step clearly is to begin to examine both our narratives and their implications. This is one of the roles that I think philosophy can usefully serve. Unexamined, a narrative that appears harmless at first blush can smuggle in a number of psychological implications that when exposed to sunlight, we might choose to walk away from.

    One of the things about religion is that often it wears its narrative on its sleeve, they're easy to get at and examine even if there's a psychological pressure against doing so. For those of us without overt religious beliefs, our narratives can be harder to examine because they're often less explicit. (Some atheists for example a narrative about intellectual superiority that they really ought to examine. Economic systems embed narratives that quickly become accepted as background facts etc.)

    This then becomes the danger we are obliged to guard against, just as thoughtful religious folk have an obligation I think to guard against fundamentalism. And, like you, I would challenge narratives of religious exclusivity. Eric's get out of jail card on this is fallibilism, but I don't yet see how that's being applied fully.


  17. The lurking question here is whether respect for religious diversity and acknowledgement that your own faith enjoys no epistemic privilege over others, on the one hand, is compatible with exclusivism on the other.

    A great deal hinges on one's sense of "exclusivism." I'm strongly opposed to religious exclusivism in one sense--the sense of exclusivism that I think Bernard has in mind when he says, "(A)ny story that requires us to believe it carries more truth than competing narratives, when this truth is not demonstrable, is simply distasteful."

    But the philosopher Allen Stairs has sketched out a different form of allegiance to one's own narrative that can be called "exclusivist" but which does not involve commitment to the mistakenness of competing narratives. I think I want to quote Stairs at length on this point--so I think I'll make that the topic of my next post rather than try to do Stairs justice here.

    But before I do that, I have some more papers to grade from my daily quota.

  18. Bernard,

    "For those of us without overt religious beliefs, our narratives can be harder to examine because they're often less explicit. (Some atheists for example a narrative about intellectual superiority that they really ought to examine."

    Yes! Exactly. And fundamentalists do the same thing just from the other side of the coin so to speak. It is the unexamined assumptions, on both sides, that I find most fascinating.

  19. Bernard-

    That is a very good point. Since it is likely that others will do a better job of searching through and criticizing one's narrative (especially if it is implicit) than one can do on one's own, the key is to learn from dialog, and think through incoming criticism as dispassionately as possible. Direct criticism should be recognized as a great gift.

    On the other hand ... some seem to view facts as nuisances, some kind of plastic, postmodern confection, to each his own. While epistemology is hardly simple, and the postmodernists make some interesting critiques, the idea that narratives can be compelling without data just isn't (philosophically) sound. Which is why theists used to set such store by signs and wonders.

    On the other hand, data without narrative is meaningless, so we are forced to examine our narratives all the time. That is why they are so important, and worth getting right, both in their adherence to reality as well as their adherence to human ideals and needs. Humility is the watchword- creating what we must, without going overboard into the wilds of unnecessary narrative ornamentation, as humans are so creatively wont to do. I think humanism generally fits the bill in this respect. Boring? Perhaps, but also minimal.

  20. Burk,

    “While epistemology is hardly simple, and the postmodernists make some interesting critiques, the idea that narratives can be compelling without data just isn't (philosophically) sound.”

    What you describe is not the postmodern critique. No one says narratives can be compelling “without” data. The postmodern critique is that all data requires a narrative to makes sense of and give any meaning to the data. All data has to be interpreted.

  21. Darrell

    Yes, and the most fun to be had is perhaps in examining one's own assumptions. So, for example, before establishing whether religious belief is reasonable or not, there is first the requirement to establish what is meant by belief.

    One assumption that I've naturally carried with me is that it makes sense to talk about something really existing, so the real/unreal divide comes naturally to me, and I've tended to follow a sceptical line in terms of questioning how one could establish whether something is indeed real. That leads me to a sort of pragmatism, if we can't say whether something is real for sure, we can at least say whether believing it is real is helpful.

    But now I discover that for some pragmatists, the real/unreal divide is the problem. So, they apparently suggest doing away with the notion of reality altogether, which I can't immediately dismiss as silly, although my narrative about 'reality' runs pretty deep so it will take some thinking about.

    Conversations like this help.


  22. Hi Eric,

    I too am not entirely happy with John Hick’s understanding of religious language as metaphorical. Strictly speaking, even language about common objects such as apples is metaphorical. After all we don’t know what apples are *in themselves*, we only know and speak about what apples are *to us*. So we say that apples are colorful, tasty, can easily be held, and so on. Scientific knowledge about apples too is nothing more than formalized empirical knowledge about apples, and therefore also describes how apples relate to us, or, what place apples hold in our experience of life. Therefore every time we speak of apples using objective language we are in reality speaking metaphorically.

    As for religious language, a theist may argue that how one experiences God (be it in the nature of one’s own being or in one’s relationship with God), to the degree of how God is to one, to that degree God is *in Him/Herself*. Thus, arguably, religious language, and in general personal language, is not metaphorical but the only specific language about existents there can be. The fact that different people and different cultures express their knowledge of the Real using different language only reveals the wealth and fruitfulness of our experience of what is most real. The Real, if anything, is nothing like boring or static, but is rather a source of inexhaustible and creative delight. Which is what makes the study of other religions and cultural responses so very interesting and inspiring.

    I am not saying that there are no differences in our experience of the Real, or that the differences are not real. A mountain when seen from two different spots looks different, and the Real is bigger than a mountain. A piece of music when listened to by two different people sounds different, and the Real is a source of more beauty than any piece of music. To expect propositional analysis of the type “The Real is X” that fails even when applied to common everyday objects to apply to all of reality is, hmm, shortsighted.

    And, finally, how different is really religious language in the end? Where it counts, namely about what the implications of our experience of the Real are, or, how our disposition to the Real should be given how It is to us - all great religions are virtually identical. Pragmatically speaking there is one religion, the religion of self-transcendence.

  23. Hi Bernard, You wrote: I think you had a very wise mother, because for me any story that requires us to believe it carries more truth than competing narratives, when this truth is not demonstrable, is simply distasteful.

    I am sure that Eric's mom was wise indeed, although my mom is certainly a little more wise than Eric's (I have to think that about my mom who actually is wise though:-). But I guess I don't quite agree with your Theory of Distastefulness. If all you are saying is that you don't like it when people believe they are right even when they cannot provide you with evidence for their belief, well, I can't very well disagree with your self-report, but I don't share it. To ME, what makes something distasteful isn't the content of the belief but rather the attitude with which a person expresses it. I've known a lot of people who like to mock other people for having stupid beliefs, and their arrogance can't made any more tasteful by having evidence to back up their claims.

    My other issue with your comment is (what I am taking to be) the implied epistemology you hold, one that says unless you can provide evidence to somebody else that YOUR belief is correct, you ought not believe it. The thing is, there are all kinds of things I believe are true that aren't even the KIND of things you could find evidence for. So much the worse for my beliefs you might say, but I simply cannot BUT believe that (for example) the current proposal to deny birthright citizenship to the children if illegal aliens is immoral. There is no way to prove such things, but when I reflect on it, I find myself totally convinced. Necessarily this means I think people who disagree with me are wrong about that. I try to be nice when I talk to people about such things, I use qualifying language like "it seems to me" and such to make it clear that I am not condemning them for disagreeing. But at the end of the day I simply have to believe whatever it is that seems true to me. I actually don't see any choice in the matter.

  24. If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism and the Trinity, please check out my website at, and give me your thoughts on improving content and presentation.

    My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

    In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universal Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

    The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

    1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

    2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or "Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the "body of Christ" (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

    3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

    Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

    * The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

    ** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

    For more details, please see:

    Samuel Stuart Maynes