Philosophy Notes – For W.B.C.S. Examination – Religious Pluralism.
Religious pluralism, broadly construed, is a response to the diversity of religious beliefs, practices, and traditions that exist both in the contemporary world and throughout history. The terms “pluralism” and “pluralist” can, depending on context or intended use, signify anything from the mere fact of religious diversity to a particular kind of philosophical or theological approach to such diversity, one usually characterized by humility regarding the level of truth and effectiveness of one’s own religion, as well as the goals of respectful dialogue and mutual understanding with other traditions. The term “diversity” refers here to the phenomenal fact of the variety of religious beliefs, practices, and traditions. The terms “pluralism” and “pluralist” refer to one form of response to such diversity.Continue Reading Philosophy Notes – For W.B.C.S. Examination – Religious Pluralism.
Philosophical and theological treatments of religious diversity have generally adopted different attitudes and different methods insofar as their respective disciplinary commitments differ. Since theological accounts tend explicitly to be grounded in the faith commitments that characterize particular religious traditions (or at least larger sets of traditions, such as Christianity or the “Abrahamic” religions), they often explore how members of a given faith ought to regard the beliefs and practices of other traditions. Philosophical accounts, by contrast, often tend to adopt a more or less disinterested attitude and instead evaluate, for example, the epistemological or ethical issues raised by religious diversity; this is especially true within the analytic tradition, which raises questions about the justification of conflicting religious beliefs that have received much attention in analytic literature. Although this article’s examination largely focuses on philosophical positions, despite their methodological and perspectival differences theological and philosophical accounts inform and influence each other.
As with many other philosophical topics, there are also significant differences between the way religious diversity is treated as a topic by analytic and continental philosophers. In general, it has been taken up more directly and explicitly in analytic philosophy since the 1980s, though religious diversity has also featured as an important, if secondary, theme in much continental philosophy of religion (as well as continental social, political, and ethical philosophy). Therefore, after introducing some basic terminology and exploring treatments of religious diversity in the history of modern philosophy, this article explores analytic and continental approaches in separate sections. Significant feminist discussions of religious diversity have emerged in both analytic and continental philosophy; these will be treated their own section. In addition, sections are devoted to contributions from both process philosophy and liberation theology.
The phenomenon of religious diversity occurs not only between particular religious traditions but also within them. Approaches to inter-religious and intra-religious difference are therefore explicitly treated as distinct by some philosophers of religion, while others argue that they should not be treated differently. The present article opts for the latter position, except in cases where there is an obvious reason to do otherwise.
There are a number of different ways that philosophers and theologians have grouped various accounts of religious diversity. One of the most commonly adopted strategies – and the one that will be used in the following discussion – is the threefold division first introduced by Alan Race (1983): exclusivist, inclusivist, and pluralist. Exclusivist positions maintain that only one set of belief claims or practices can ultimately be true or correct (in most cases, those of the one holding the position). A Christian exclusivist would therefore hold that the beliefs of non-Christians (and perhaps even Christians of other denominations) are in some way flawed, if not wholly false; or that non-Christian religious practices are not ultimately efficacious – at least, to the extent that non-Christian beliefs and practices depart from or conflict with those defended by the Christian exclusivist.
Pluralist positions, in contrast, argue that more than one set of beliefs or practices can be, at least partially and perhaps wholly, true or correct simultaneously – or, that all beliefs intended to be understood in a realist fashion are false. Inclusivist positions occupy a middle ground between exclusivism and pluralism, insofar as they recognize the possibility that more than one religious tradition can contain elements that are true or efficacious, while at the same time hold that only one tradition expresses ultimate religious truth most completely. As McKim (2012) expresses it, inclusivists grant that many (perhaps all) religious traditions do well in regards to truth or salvation, but that one tradition does better than others by more accurately describing objects of belief or mechanisms of salvation. A Christian inclusivist might claim that those who live good lives but remain non-Christians may still achieve salvation, but that such salvation is nevertheless still achieved through Jesus Christ. Inclusivism thus may be understood as a more charitable variety of exclusivism, though exclusivists can also treat it as pluralism by another name. In addition, it is worth noting that exclusivist, inclusivist, or pluralist arguments about beliefs are sometimes presented separately from those about salvific practice and that consequently one approach to diversity of belief does not necessarily imply the same approach to diversity of practice, or vice versa.
There remain a few other possible positions outside of exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism that are worth mentioning briefly, though two of these are not commonly treated as sophisticated options in philosophical discussions of religious diversity. The first of these two is relativism: the view that the truth of beliefs or the efficacy of practices are wholly dependent on the perspective of the religious individual and her cultural environment. In contrast to the pluralist position, that of the relativist seems necessarily to imply an anti-realist theory of religious truth, which would deflate the significance of religious pluralism as a philosophical and theological issue since religious truth claims could only be upheld or defeated within the context of their own traditions. The second, which would have similar consequences, is the position that no positive religious beliefs are true in any sense, even the relativist ones, and no religious practices are efficacious (at least not according to their own terms). In this case, which may be termed strong anti-realism, religious diversity remains at most a sociological, psychological, or historical topic. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that serious philosophical approaches to religious diversity tend not to adopt either of these positions but rather to treat diverse religious traditions as at least possibly having some positive relationship to an ultimate reality. Another position, that of skepticism, seems to entertain this possibility insofar as it concedes that some set of religious claims may be true. However, since this position contends that, given the extent of religious diversity and disagreement, no one is ever justified in making such claims, this position will not be considered in detail here.
Religious pluralism, understood as a broad category of philosophical and theological responses to religious diversity, aims to account for this diversity as a positive phenomenon and to articulate ways that religious differences can be celebrated and conflicts mitigated, explained, or at least reasonably discussed. Pluralist positions can vary according to one’s understanding of religion (for example, whether it is taken primarily to consist of epistemic content, culturally constructed discursive practices, or salvation-oriented behavior), as well as according to one’s ultimate goal in articulating a position (for example, clarifying philosophical concepts of religion, or effecting social and political change such as in liberation theology). While there are significant differences in pluralist approaches evident in analytic and continental philosophy, there is also significant overlap in the content of arguments belonging to these traditions.
Major nineteenth and early twentieth century accounts of religion provide important precursors to religious pluralism, though they are largely not pluralist according to the strict sense of the term but rather exclusivist or inclusivist. Religious pluralism as a distinct philosophical and theological position has emerged more recently, and in its various forms it both draws on and is critical of these earlier accounts. Pluralism, of course, continues to be debated. It faces external challenges from exclusivists and inclusivists as well as religious anti-realists and relativists, and its various arguments are contested internally by those who argue that it concedes too much or that it has not yet become pluralist enough.
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