Religious Pluralism and Tolerance

Religious pluralism is the view that all religions are equally valid. According to religious pluralists, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism, et. al., are all equally worthy, even equally true religions. Each of these is a legitimate expression of a unique cultural heritage, and to reject it as false is to reject that cultural heritage, to marginalise a people. Religious pluralism is currently on the rise.

Religious Pluralism and Political Correctness

The reason that religious pluralism is on the rise is that it’s politically correct. To pronounce against any religion, it is often thought, to say that a religion is false, is deeply disrespectful. Religious exclusivists, those who believe that the various religions of the world contradict each other and so that only one of them, at most, can be true, are intolerant, and intolerance is to be condemned in all its forms.

On the contrary, religious exclusivism, the view that different religions can and do contradict each other, is a necessary foundation for religious tolerance; religious pluralists have no reason to be, and cannot be, tolerant. Further, religious pluralism, because it both asserts and denies that religious exclusivism is false, is self-contradictory, and the tolerance argument for religious pluralism, which holds that we ought not be religious exclusivists is, by its own standards, intolerant.

Religious Pluralism is not Necessary for Tolerance

The argument that we must be religious pluralists because we must be tolerant misunderstands what tolerance is all about.

To tolerate a point of view is not to believe it to be true, to agree with it; religious tolerance is not about agreeing with people from other religious traditions to our own. Rather, tolerance is about treating with respect those with whom one disagrees.

In order to tolerate a person’s beliefs, therefore, one has to disagree with them. Tolerance does not involve agreeing with people; it involves disagreeing with them but treating them respectfully anyway. There is no need to be a religious pluralist in order to be tolerant of those of other faiths.

Religious Pluralism Makes Tolerance Redundant!

It is therefore not only not necessary to be a religious pluralist in order to be tolerant, but is also impossible to be tolerant if one is a religious pluralist. Tolerance requires disagreement; one can only tolerate what one believes to be in error. Religious pluralism, which denies that any religion is in error, is therefore inconsistent with the virtue of tolerance.

Religious Pluralism is Self-Contradictory

Anyone who remains in any doubt about the tolerance argument for religious pluralsim should ask themselves what this argument says about the objective truth-claims of Christianity. On two levels, this pluralist approach to religion compromises its own foundational values.

First, religious pluralism involves the denial of objectivist Christianity; in saying that religious truth is relative it asserts that traditional Christianity is false. Religious pluralism, in committing itself to the view that no religion is false, condemns those religions that take the opposite view as false. Religious pluralism is therefore self-contradictory.

Second, in saying that we all ought to be religious pluralists, the tolerance argument for religious pluralism is, by its own standards, intolerant. If tolerance really is of overriding importance, surely, then objectivist Christians should be tolerated, allowed to hold their ‘intolerant’ beliefs.

The case against the tolerance argument for religious pluralism is overwhelming. Religious pluralism is not necessary for tolerance, and in fact makes tolerance redundant. Further, religious pluralism is self-contradictory, and the tolerance argument for it is, by its own standard, intolerant.

We are in danger of losing the ability to disagree respectfully. Religious pluralism, which claims to uphold the virtue of tolerance, actually threatens to erode it still further. The solution to religious intolerance is not to pretend that we are all in agreement really, but to learn to disagree respectfully.