Saturday, August 24, 2013

Review: The Philosophical Challenge of Religious Diversity

There was a point in history when it may have appeared to Christians that their own tradition virtually dominated the world’s religious outlook, but following the so-called “expansion of Europe,” awareness of religious diversity increased, and the intellectual challenges posed by such diversity intensified. Today’s Christian apologists are faced with tough questions about religious diversity: How can a Christian rationally believe the claims of his own exclusivist tradition in light of all the competing exclusivist traditions out there? How can a Christian maintain that salvation is limited only to those few who put their faith in Jesus Christ? How should a Christian respond to proposals such as John Hick’s model of religious pluralism, according to which all the major religions of the world are responding to the same ultimate reality? Apologists interested in these questions will find much of value in Kevin Meeker and Phillip Quinn’s anthology The Philosophical Challenge of Religious Diversity (hereafter PCRD).

Meeker and Quinn note that there are basically three broad types of positions taken by religious people in response to the challenge of diversity: exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. Exclusivism and pluralism lie on opposite ends of the spectrum—the exclusivist holding that his own particular religion is right while others (at least insofar as they contradict his) are in error, the pluralist holding that many religious traditions are acceptable and soteriologically efficacious responses to ultimate reality. Lying in the middle are various forms of inclusivism, a common Christian variety being the claim that people from all manner of religious traditions will be saved, but all of them (many unknowingly) by the atoning work of Jesus Christ.

PCRD is a compilation of fourteen important papers on the challenge of religious diversity. The selections are interdisciplinary, Meeker and Quinn noting that “Religious diversity is of interest not only to philosophers, but also to scholars in religious studies and theology, and some of them have made significant contributions to the philosophical discussion.”[1] They also observe that, while exclusivism (especially Christian exclusivism) and pluralism (especially John Hick’s model) have been very prominent voices in the recent philosophical debate, inclusivism is not yet as well represented, and this is reflected in the selections that they have chosen for PCRD.

The first selection is David Hume’s “On Miracles,” an excerpt that includes one of the earlier formulations of an epistemic challenge to religious exclusivism. Miracles, Hume argues, cannot serve to prove the validity of a particular religious tradition because they occur in a variety of such (incompatible) traditions, and so cancel each other out. This kind of argument can be generalized to include all forms of religious experience. Since miracles and religious experiences are said to occur in a variety of religions worldwide, is it acceptable for an exclusivist to appeal to such things in an attempt to justify his own commitments? Similar questions arise throughout PCRD.

Following the selection by Hume, William Lane Craig tackles the question of how an omnipotent, omniscient and all-loving God can, according to much Christian tradition (and, as Craig argues, Scripture itself) save only those few people who put their faith in Jesus Christ. Craig formulates the argument in a way parallel to the traditional problem of evil, and he argues that a solution is available to the advocate of divine middle knowledge. If God knows what any possible person would do in any possible (appropriately specified) set of circumstances, it could be that, given what God knew about how various people would freely respond to his grace, this world represents the best achievable balance between the saved and the lost. Furthermore, it could be that God knows everyone in the actual world who is not saved would not have chosen to be saved under any other circumstances either. Oddly, this is the only selection in the book that deals directly with the issue of whether exclusivism can handle the soteriological problem posed by religious diversity. Perhaps this suggests that there is much more work yet to be done in this area.

By far the most prominent voice on the subject of religious diversity in recent years has been that of John Hick. Accordingly, six selections in PCRD are devoted entirely to presenting, defending, or critiquing Hick’s pluralism. Hick employs the Kantian distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal in proposing that all the major world religions are worshipping or responding to the same ultimate reality—what Hick calls the “Real.” The noumenal Real is the Real as it actually is (as opposed to how it appears to us), and transcends all but purely formal human categories. But it takes on different phenomenal manifestations in the various religious traditions of the world, where it is experienced as the Holy Trinity, or Allah, or Brahman (and so on), depending on the religio-cultural context. Furthermore, Hick maintains that salvation is basically the transformation of a person from self-centeredness to reality-centeredness, and that this process appears to be occurring in all the major world religions, suggesting that all of them are legitimate paths to “salvation.”

After a chapter in which Hick presents his model, the next selection is a piece by Sumner B. Twiss, who defends Hick’s pluralism against four objections: 1) that it is hermeneutically inadequate, not taking seriously what various religions claim for themselves; 2) that Hick’s approach to religious experiences in his model is problematic; 3) that Hick’s claims about the Divine Noumenon are incoherent; 4) that Hick does not have sufficient epistemic justification for his model. Twiss’s defense of Hick is followed by another essay that is largely sympathetic to Hick’s program—a selection by Ninian Smart where, among other things, he suggests that the Buddhist conception of the Empty may serve as an illuminating way of conceiving of the Real. This allows one to make sense of the notion that the Real in itself is neither singular nor plural, neither substance nor process. Following Smart’s paper are a few essays that take a more critical view of Hick’s pluralism. Keith Ward is doubtful about the prospects for uniting the world religions as Hick attempts to do, pointing out that not all religions believe in a transcendent absolute, and that even those religions which speak of a transcendent reality don’t hold that it is as radically ineffable as Hick proposes. Both Ward and Paul R. Eddy criticize Hick’s claim that the Real can only be described in formal categories, Ward arguing that much more can be said about it, and Eddy arguing that if we take Hick’s claims on this matter seriously, his view becomes virtually indistinguishable from atheism.

George Mavrodes also criticizes Hick, but from a different angle. Mavrodes sees a lot of polytheistic elements in Hick’s pluralism and even goes so far as to claim that Hick is “probably the most important defender of polytheism in the history of Western philosophy.”[2] Following a philosophical analysis of an ancient form of polytheism, Mavrodes applies the insights of that analysis to Hick’s pluralism, and finds an ambiguity in the relationship between the noumenal Real and its various phenomenal manifestations. On the disguise model, the Real is like a prince who dons various disguises to go and mingle among his people without being recognized, whereas on the construct model, the Real is like a landscape that is interpreted differently by several abstract painters, resulting in very different paintings. So, are the different phenomenal manifestations of the Real the noumenon appearing to us in different ways (the disguise model), or are they human constructs responding to/interpreting a common experience (the construct model)? Movrodes charges Hick with endorsing both of these apparently incompatible models.

A couple chapters are devoted to Alvin Plantinga’s reformed epistemology. David Basinger argues for a “middle road” between Plantinga’s and Hick’s perspectives on the epistemic position of a religious exclusivist. Basinger maintains that while someone raised in an exclusivist tradition may be initially justified in trusting the belief-forming faculties that functioned in producing his religious views (as the reformed epistemologist maintains), a growing awareness of other exclusivist traditions should lead the exclusivist to ask whether or not other traditions offer a better overall explanation of reality as we know it. Following Basinger’s piece, Plantinga defends exclusivism against charges that it is arrogant, self-serving, oppressive or in some other way morally objectionable, and then argues (contra Basinger) that the exclusivist may also enjoy epistemic justification and warrant in a properly basic way, even while fully aware of competing exclusivist traditions.

William Alton’s exclusivist epistemology also earns itself a place in PCRD. Alston maintains that there are certain socially established belief-forming practices that confer prima facie justification on the beliefs they generate, while also providing potential overriders for those beliefs. Each major religion has its own such doxastic practice. Does the challenge of religious diversity threaten to override the results of the Christian doxastic practice for a Christian exclusivist? Alston argues that while religious diversity diminishes the justification that a Christian exclusivist has for his religious beliefs, it does not render him totally unjustified in continuing to hold them. Alston’s critics are less certain. In the essay following Alston’s, J. L. Schellenberg maintains that Alston has made a mistake in his reasoning while defending the Christian doxastic practice against the challenge of religious diversity, and that once this mistake is recognized, the challenge proves more devastating than Alston wants to admit. William Wainwright also critiques Alston, arguing (among other things) that on Alston’s epistemology it may be pragmatically rational (and not epistemically irrational) for a Christian to continue engaging in the Christian doxastic practice after becoming aware of religious diversity, but that does not mean it is positively epistemically rational for a Christian to do so.

Finally, reminiscent of Basinger’s “middle road” between pluralism and reformed epistemology, Phillip Quinn’s approach to the challenge of religious diversity seeks to meld some of the positive elements of both Hick’s Pluralism and Alston’s epistemology. In the final selection Quinn argues that, while someone involved in Christian doxastic practice (with no independent reason for trusting that practice over others) may, as Alston argues, be rational to remain in that practice even after becoming aware of the challenge of religious diversity, nevertheless that isn’t the only rational option. Quinn suggests that altering Christian doxastic practice from within to accommodate a (modified) version of Hick’s pluralism may also be a rational response for the Christian exclusivist in light of religious diversity.

Some readers may feel that PCRD raises more questions than it answers, but even so there is no doubt that it serves as a high-quality resource for exploring the modern philosophical debate, and it provides the necessary background for informed thinking on this issue. In fact, this is probably the best anthology that this reviewer has ever read, simply because the editors have done such a good job selecting only the most significant and high-quality work on the subject. Meeker and Quinn say they have “…collected in this volume what we regard as some of the best recent responses to the philosophical challenge of religious diversity.”[3] They’re right. Reading through the book, one gets the sense that each selection represents a major “plot twist” that has occurred somewhere in the course of the discussion of religious diversity up to this point. For apologists (and others) interested in digging deeply into issues of religious diversity, this reviewer highly recommends this book.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Justin Mooney is an undergraduate art and design student from Michigan. He has a passion for apologetics and is planning to study philosophy of religion in graduate school. More of his writing can be found at

[1]Meeker, Kevin and Phillip L. Quinn, editors. The Philosophical Challenge of Religious Diversity. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000 p. 2
[2] Ibid. p. 139 
[3] Ibid. p. 2


The Janitor said...

Philosophia Christi devoted an issue to this topic a few years ago. Check that out too.

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