The new definition of pluralism is not only indefensible, but it also discourages critical thinking about the real issues
by Greg Koukl, June 12, 1996
You know, I hate reading the newspaper. I would not pick up a single newspaper if I didn't have to do this show. I just don't care, to be honest with you. I'd rather read someone who has been dead for 300 years than some of these newspaper articles. Nevertheless, since I've got a show, it's good to be informed. Certainly, reading the newspaper you have wonderful opportunities to see how poorly people think about the critical issues. Apparently there was an article on January 27, where a Muslim thinker said something that sounded religiously pluralistic and people responded to it in the L.A. Times , Friday, February 10. This response comes from Edward Tabash. Here's what he says.
Let me just read the thing, it's just two paragraphs and we will go from there. "It was refreshing to see your article on the religious relativism of Abdul Kareem Surash in which this Iranian theologian is quoted as saying that all religious understanding is relative and that no one interpretation is absolute. Such a lesson in religious tolerance and pluralism is not just needed in Iran. In the United States, people like Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan and Jerry Falwell need to comprehend that they do not possess a monopoly in understanding God's will. Additionally, of course, it would be a great day for the world if the Pope would also adopt Surash's admonition to abandon religious absolutism."
As usual, I'm amazed at how frequently very sensible and intelligent people can make very foolish and absurd statements about the nature of truth. Those of you who were listening carefully to what I just read and those of you familiar with the suicide tactic will recognize a flaw here. This person is commenting that the nature of religious knowledge is merely relative, not absolute. That's what the Muslim scholar said, and Edward Tabash, who is writing this letter from Beverly Hills, agrees with him. Religious knowledge is merely relative. However, Tabash's statement itself is a statement about religious knowledge, making it merely relative, not absolute, according to his own rules. See the problem there? In other words, here is an absolute statement about religion that says one can't make any absolute statements about religion. The argument commits suicide.
But there's more than one problem here. Not only is this point of view self-refuting, it's like saying, you can't trust anything about religion except for my view about religion, which is that you can't trust any other views about religion. Sounds self-serving. But there is another problem. It has to do with the statement that all religious understanding is relative and that no one interpretation is absolute. Now that's the statement apparently that the Iranian Muslim theologian made. Why should I believe that? That's a good question to ask of all so-called religious truth statements. Why should I believe that "all religious understanding is relative and that no one interpretation is absolute?"
I can actually prove that that is false, and I can do it very quickly.
Either God exists, or He doesn't exist. It is the law of excluded middle. Either God or no God. One of two categories. One or the other has to be true. They both cannot be true because of the Law of Non-contradiction. Not at the same time. And they both can't be false because of the Law of Excluded Middle. Simple. Either God exists or He doesn't exist.
Did you notice, by the way, that both statements are religious statements? Now, maybe I don't know which one is true, but I'll tell you one thing, one of them is, which means there is such a thing, at least to some degree, as absolute religious truth. It is either an absolute that God does not exist, or it is an absolute that He does. One or the other. Therefore, it is a false claim that all religious statements are merely relative. Do you see that? This is not that hard. Here is a scholar, though, making a comment that is just absolutely foolish. Why should I believe what he has to say when it is so easy to refute it?
Is it reasonable to believe that there simply is no spiritual truth about the whole world, no true God to discover, and we're stuck with merely relativistic inventions of our own minds? If there is not such truth to discover, then why search? Why engage any religion whatsoever--Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Animism? Any "ism." There is nothing to discover, just all kinds of things that we invent. That is, by the way, what it means when one says that religious truth is relative and it is not absolute. It means that there is nothing out there to discover. We make it up.
I'll give you a counter-example. Either God exists or He doesn't exist. That's a fact out there to discover. Both of those things are religious statements so there must be some religious truth that is out there to discover.
Maybe he means that we cannot have flawless knowledge , but that's a different issue. It's possible for anyone to be mistaken, but that's not what he said. He said there was no absolute religious truth. The writer of the letter, Edward Tabash, is giving him a hearty "amen." My response is, that is simply foolish.
I think that the current notion of religious pluralism is stupid. (I asked Melinda if I could say stupid on the radio. People don't like that word. They tell their kids not to use it. I think it is a useful word in the right situation, and this is the right situation.) I don't think that people who use this current notion of pluralism are stupid. In fact, they're quite bright, generally, which makes it all the more surprising that people who are rather bright rely on rather stupid concepts.
The stupid concept is the idea that all religions are basically equally true. That is just flat out stupid. Only a nitwit would really hold to something like that, having really thought it through. I suspect that most people haven't really thought it through, and those that do--and I should qualify this--are not nit-wits, but are not holding it for a rational reason. They are holding it for a personal, subjective, emotional reason.
This comment by this Iranian theologian I think is false, but it is commendable in one sense. I do agree with the larger point that it's commendable to take a spirit of genuine pluralism in the classical sense, a "live and let live" policy, which you don't often find in Muslim circles. I mean that quite literally. Muslims who are spiritual free-thinkers are liable to get executed if they don't hold to the party line. That's what I mean. I'm talking a "live and let live" policy, literally. That's good pluralism. When you can say, I disagree with you but I am not going to kill you for it.
But notice in this article the definition of pluralism shifts dramatically. This person says live and let live is good, therefore now "such a lesson in religious tolerance and pluralism is not just needed in Iran but in the United States." Then they refer to Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan and Jerry Falwell. Wait a minute. These three people are not saying that if you disagree then I can kill you. They are just simply saying that they're right and others are wrong.
Notice how the definition of religious pluralism has changed: in the first case, live and let live, and in the second case, you can't say somebody else is wrong because that is just not pluralistic. That is the view that is stupid because when you say that, you are saying that the people who are saying it are wrong and you are right, committing the same crime that you are saying they are committing.
Some of you remember the caller from yesterday, Lee, who fell into the very same error right before our ears, not eyes. Lee, a Jewish man, was reprimanding me in a very terse way for promoting the Christian idea that Christianity was true and all other religions were false. What was wrong with that? This view spreads hate, he said.
He said, "We shouldn't criticize other people's religions." I said, "Then why are you criticizing mine?" He said, "It's wrong to say other religions are wrong." I said, "Then why are you saying my religion is wrong?" He said, "You're encouraging hate by saying only your view is right and others are mistaken." I said, "Then why are you spreading hate by publicly reprimanding me saying that only your view is right and mine is mistaken?"
Do you see how these arguments are self-defeating? And how this second version of tolerance is just silly? In order to tolerate somebody and be loving you can't assert your point of view as being correct. That's what they are saying. It is hateful. It is spiteful. It is like the guy yesterday who defined homophobia for me as someone who thinks that homosexuality is immoral. That's not a definition, that's just a name. I don't agree with your view, so you call me a name. A homophobe. Now, is that loving? Of course not. You see, these people can't play by their own pluralistic rules.
This is where the bottom falls out of this new definition of pluralism. The only way one can defend it is by violating their own principles of pluralism, which goes to show that this view just doesn't work. People rant and rave about being judgmental--all the time delivering their own judgments. And boy, I wish we could catch this: because they spend their time abrading people for thinking critically about the issues instead of asking the critical question themselves: Which religious view is more worthy of belief? They discourage proper critical thinking about these issues.
Isn't it unusual that this view encourages people never to assess the truth value of their religious claims. It's saying, don't think about those things, don't criticize, don't say somebody is wrong. If you buy that, then you can't criticize even the assessment of your own spiritual claims. Yet at the same time these are the folks who fault Christians who they think are blindly following the Bible. Religious truth claims must be challenged if we're to have any confidence whatsoever that they're true. If the truth claims of Christianity can be challenged--as they constantly are by these same religious pluralism devotees--why can't the truth claims of other religions also be challenged? It seems to me that what's good for the goose is good for the gander.
Mr. Tabash can only say that any individual who says that others are out of step with God's will--Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, for example--are intolerant and wrong because they claim to know what God's will actually is. But according to Edward Tabash, because Robertson, Falwell, and Buchanan think they know what God's will is, then they don't. But Tabash thinks he knows what God's will is, apparently, because these people are out of step with it. So then he must be out of step with God by his own rules.
Let's get rid of all this silly talk. Let's get down to the more vital questions. What is God's will, after all? How can we know it? How can we be confident of our knowledge? Let's think about those questions instead of throwing stupid arguments at everybody to get people to stop doing the critical thinking on the critical issues.
This is a transcript of a commentary from the radio show "Stand to Reason," with Gregory Koukl. It is made available to you at no charge through the faithful giving of those who support Stand to Reason. Reproduction permitted for non-commercial use only. ©1995 Gregory Koukl
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