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Exclusive Truth, Inclusive Truth, Pluralist Truth, or…..Nihilism?

June 21, 2010

From Andrew Pessin’s blog on Are all the major religions the same? Obviously not. But are they ultimately the same? Quite possibly, depending on what the word “ultimately” means here. Stephen Prothero’s best-selling book, God Is Not One, makes the rather easy case that the major religions are not all the same. But that is to leave largely untouched the much more subtle question of whether they are ultimately the same. If one wants to avoid mere glibness on the question, then there are a few things one needs to consider. First, the easy case for their difference: Some religions believe in one God, some in many, some in none. Some conceive of God as a person, some as impersonal. Some conceive of God as a unity, some as a multiplicity. Some believe God has taken human form, some do not. Some believe in a soul distinct from the body, some do not; some believe that that soul is repeatedly reborn, others do not. And so on. The different major religions could not be more different — on the surface. But let’s go deeper than the surface. When we do, we can identify at least four general positions one can take on the question. 1) Exclusivism. This is the position that truth, the truth, belongs to one religion alone, and that all other religions that differ from it are simply false. 2) Inclusivism. This is the position that the truth belongs to one religion alone, but it allows that differing religions may express that same truth — though less explicitly, clearly, or adequately. 3) Pluralism. This is the view that all religions are more or less equally true, or equally valid ways of expressing the truth. 4) Finally, Nihilism. This is the view that none of the religions is “true” in any genuine, literal sense, and so the problem of their differences just goes away. So which position should one adopt? Exclusivism seems outrageous, at least to most impartial thinkers. To believe that, say, your own religion is the one true one and all others are false seems incredibly arrogant and even offensive. There are just too many possibilities, and too little explicit evidence, to justifiably choose between the competing dogmas — not merely between religions but even between competing denominations of the same religion. Inclusivism is perhaps slightly less offensive but no less outrageous, philosophically speaking. For while it’s less dismissive of conflicting religions, it still privileges one religion over all others, as getting the truth completely right. To this it also adds the rather incredible claim that other religious doctrines are obscure versions of one’s own doctrines. For example, a Christian Inclusivist must hold that the “salvation” that other religions claim occurs by following the Torah, or Sharia, or the eight-fold path, etc. is the same as that salvation that occurs by faith in Christ — even when these religions explicitly repudiate Christ, the role of “faith,” and even the Christian notion of salvation. Then there is Pluralism, the kum-ba-yah position. This appeals to many because it’s so harmoniously inoffensive: you don’t have to determine which religion is true because they’re all equally true. There’s really only one problem with Pluralism: it completely dispenses with any reasonable conception of truth. For the irrefutable foundation of reasonable thinking is the Law of Non-Contradiction, that contradictory propositions cannot simultaneously be true. Christians insist on the divinity of Jesus; Jews deny it; and Buddhists deny “divinity” altogether. These propositions all contradict each other. To claim that they are all equally true is to so twist the concept of truth that it becomes absurd. That would leave Nihilism — which in fact comes in two varieties. Negative Nihilism denies the literal truth of all religions and adds a negative appraisal of the role and value of religious belief. This is the nihilism associated with Marx and Freud, who see religious belief as not merely false but dangerous and unhealthy and something to be overcome. But then there is Positive Nihilism. This position denies the literal truth of all the religions but does not, thereby, dismiss religious belief altogether: such belief can display all sorts of values, it may be beautiful, profound, transformative, and so on. What it isn’t is “literally true” — but it can be immensely valuable anyway. The main advantages of Positive Nihilism? It avoids the arrogance of Exclusivism and Inclusivism, and avoids Pluralism’s playing fast and loose, literally, with the “truth.” But perhaps more importantly, it allows one to fully support and promote religious belief and religious communities, to actually be a religious person of whichever denomination most moves one, without having quite the same need and urgency to do what fundamentalist Exclusivists seem enjoined, by rational norms, to do: to refute, reject, and maybe even destroy other forms of religion. So all religions may well be ultimately the same, after all, Prothero’s book notwithstanding — systems of practices and beliefs that share many of the same attributes and values, including, perhaps ironically, that of not being literally true. Some questions worth considering: Is Pessin too dismissive of exclusivist, inclusivist, and pluralist approaches to religious truth? Is it really fair to pluralists to call their viewpoint the “kum-ba-yah position”, implying a degree of impractical idealism that has little real-world applicability? Finally, considering “positive nihilism” presupposes that one cannot find literal truths in religious beliefs, does Pessin’s argument really speak to religious communities, many of whom maintain the literal truths of their traditions? Please offer your thoughts, and feel free to respond to your own questions that were raised. Join and voice your thoughts and comments about Pessin’s article. You can find it there as a featured blog.