A Critique on John Hick’s Religious Pluralism- part 2

Professor Ali Akbar Rashād

Chapter One
Ambiguity of Key Concepts and Claims

The first point in a theory which draws attentions is key concepts and claims used in that theory. In your works, many key terms such as “religious pluralism”, “transformation”, “salvation”, “Ultimate Reality”, “religion”, “religious tradition”, “religious experience” and the like have been used; in using such terms; however, many incoherencies or at least brevity and ambiguity are seen to some of which we allude here.

You know that religious pluralism may have various foundations and, consequently, various meanings and references. To explain, it should be noted that religious pluralism may be based on the assumption of unavoidable plurality of the truth of religion in the noumenal world; in other words, it may be based on the belief that, as a matter of fact, the essence of religion is plural, and this is an unavoidable truth; also, religious pluralism may originate from belief in the necessity of diversity of understandings and acquisition of plural kinds of knowledge of religion. Also, it may be the same as accepting possibility of various and equal functions for plural and different religions or spiritual traditions. These three kinds of religious pluralism may be called, respectively, “ontological religious pluralism”, “epistemological religious pluralism”, and “functionalist religious pluralism”.  In what follows, I provide some explanations concerning each of these assumptions.

One) In the ontological religious pluralism, in which reference of plurality is the external existence of the object of plurality, three situations may be found: 1) plurality of religion in the noumenal world, according to which there are some parallel religions without a particular link between them; 2) multifacetedness of the unique religious truth; i.e. though the truth of religion is but one, religion possesses various and parallel noumenal manifestations; 3) multifacetedness and multilayeredness of the noumenal world and the truth of religion, in other words, manifestations of the single noumenal religion are in vertical (and not horizontal or parallel) relation to each other).

In the first case, three states may be assumed:

One- all existing religions are true;

Two- all of them are false or some of them are true and some others are false; and

Three- none of them is completely true or completely false, but rather they are syntheses of truth and falsehood.

These three states may be assumed concerning the second and third cases (i.e. various facets and layers of the noumenal religion) as well.

Two) As epistemological pluralism emerges under the influence of various factors, all these factors may be classified under “three foundations involving in generation of knowledge”. Three foundations of formation of knowledge are the knower (subject), the known (object of knowledge), external and peripheral elements of knowledge which I call “aides of knowing”. By aides of knowing, I mean factors which lay out of the essences of two other foundations of generation of knowledge (i.e. the knower and the known). Aides of knowing, of course, are divided into three groups: some of them concern the knower, some others concern the known, and the third ones are those which concern none of them. Sometimes aides of knowing play a negative role and some other times they have a positive function; thus, they are classified under two categories: “obstacles” and “aides” (a brief explanation will be provided in the attachment 2 of this essay).

Three) Religions and quasi-religions have various functions in theory, practice, guidance, and salvation; thus, such systems may compared with each other in terms of what they have in common, their difference, or equality; then, functionalist pluralism may be regarded as one of the interpretations in the field of religious pluralism. In this case, depending on the kind of function which has been taken as a basis for pluralism, various kinds of functionalist religious pluralism may be assumed. 

All ideas and possibilities concerning religious pluralism can be displayed as follows:

In addition to the above division (which is based on the “kind of foundational assumption” for accepting plurality or its occurrence), religious pluralism may be classified based on other standards; for example on the basis of the extent of the scope of pluralism, it may be divided into three groups:  

1- Maximalist: in this version, of which you have spoken in some of your works and put emphasis upon it, no religion or religious knowledge or religious tradition lies out of the scope of pluralism; for example you have implicitly regarded irreligious wisdom of Confucius[1] and even atheist ideology of Marxism as being covered by pluralism. Even sometimes, based on the inclusive view of Cantwell Smith, you have claimed that new religious movements and great secular faiths such as Marxism, Maoism, and Humanism may be covered by pluralism (Problems of Religious Pluralism, p. 42)!    

2- Moderationist: as you said in your interview in Birmingham on 12 December 2002, only revelatory religions like Abrahamic faiths or only some traditions like great ones (to which you allude usually in your works (Problems of Religious Pluralism, pp. 68-9; Religious Pluralism, p. 607) or Eastern and Western traditions are covered by pluralism. Or, only truth or the life of right of religions or quasi-religions which have won debates with some of their rivals is recognized; in other words, pluralism is accepted only concerning schools demonstrative debates between them and their rivals has led to sufficiency of arguments; or pluralism is accepted only in the layer of religious “traditions” or religious “knowledge”, and not concerning noumenal religions (religions revealed in themselves).

3- Minimalist: pluralism is accepted in a very limited scope; for example plurality of the sects of a single religion such as Shiism and Sunnism in Islam and Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism within Christianity.

Religious pluralism may be divided into pluralism of “truth” and pluralism of “salvation” or “positive” and “negative”, or “cause-centered” and “argument-centered” or vertical and “in time” (belief in legitimacy of every religion in its own historical context) and horizontal and “simultaneous” (belief in truth of all religions existing in parallel in the course of history).

Such separation and divisions are not a mere assumption; most or all of them have their advocates, or- though not so accurately- they have discussed and confirmed in ideas of the authors of pluralistic views.

The most important term in your theory is “religious pluralism”. Taking into account the above divisions, now I ask you: “Do you mean by this term an ontological pluralism i.e. acceptance of plurality of religions in the noumenal world, the essence of religion, and “Ultimate Reality”? Or do you mean acceptance of epistemological diversity of religion, i.e. diversity and plurality of knowledge concerning religion and the ultimate truth? Or by religious pluralism do you mean acceptance of the plurality of popular spiritual traditions created in the context of cultures and religions? Or do you mean functionalist pluralism; in other words, do you think that there are many ways to guidance and salvation (and even references of salvation)? Or do you want to recommend another version, i.e. religious, moral, and social acceptance of others and toleration of opponent to those who believe in religions? Firstly, you write that “… and metaphysical impersonae, as I shall call them, are not illusory but are empirically, that is experimentally, real as authentic manifestations of the Real” (Hick, An Interpretation of Religion, p242); and “I suggest that in fact the truth-claim and the salvation-claim cohere closely together and should be treated as a single package” (Problems of Religious Pluralism, p. 46); according to you, religion is real and the importance of religious beliefs to the believer lies ultimately in the assumption that they are substantially true references to the nature of reality. You say: “and the importance of religious  practices to the practitioner lies in the assumption that through them one is renewing or deepening one’s relationship to the transcendent divine Reality” (Ibid., p. 16). Since some ideas in some religions cannot be brought in agreement with some other ideas in some other religions, religious pluralism is the same as [acceptance of] plurality of the truth of religion.

Secondly, you have regarded Kant’s epistemological views as the source and basis of your own theory (Fifth Dimension, pp. 62-3; Philosophy of Religion p. 245; and An Interpretation of Religion, p. 42). You say: “… divine Reality which is in itself limitless, … is humanly thought and experienced in various conditioned and limited ways” (Problems of Religion Pluralism, p. 104); and think of this diversity as a product of the role played by the mind and the basic concepts which form knowledge. You think: “… the great world faiths embody different perceptions and conceptions of, and correspondingly different responses to, the Real or the Ultimate from within the major variant cultural ways of being human” (Problems of Religious Pluralism, p. 47). You have emphasized that “Persons living within other traditions, then, are equally justified…” (An Interpretation of Religion…, p. 235). Such sayings mean plurality of knowledge of religion, and not noumenal plurality of religion.

Thirdly, you accept that the noumenal religion is other than religious tradition and regard cultures as the main players of the scene of birth and death of religious traditions; and religions and religious traditions as products of cultures; nowhere you find a pure religion, and regard whatever there is as religious traditions; and ascribe diversity, neither to the truth of religion(s) nor to knowledge obtained from them, but rather to movements and traditions emerged within cultures (Problems of Religious Pluralism, Fifth Dimension).

Fourthly, you emphasize functionalist pluralism and say: “Pluralism, then, is the view that the transformation of human existence from self-centredness to Reality-centredness is taking place in different ways within the contexts of all the great religious traditions. There is not merely one but a plurality of ways of salvation or liberation. In Christian theological terms, there is a plurality of divine revelations. making possible a plurality of forms of saving human response” (Problems of Religious Pluralism, p. 32). And this means that yours is a functionalist pluralism.

Fifthly, having described discriminations against Asian and African immigrates after the age of British Colonialism, you have proposed religious pluralism as a solution to remove debates, reject discriminations, and oppose to oppressions (Problems of Religious Pluralism, Three Controversies, p. 8). This means that your theory is a moral solution for problems originated from diversity of religions and nations and debates between them.

Because of ambiguity of the key term of theory (religious pluralism) ambiguity has been admitted in the nature and goal of the theory as well. In other words, the ambiguity in the main claim of the theory shows itself in its goal or function as well. Thus, it is not clear that what your main problem is; and by propagating religious pluralism you want to solve which problem. Do you try to prove “being guided of followers of all faiths” or solve the problem of their “salvation”? (Problems of Religious Pluralism). Or, are you trying to solve the problem of discriminations made by God? Or, do you intend to “provide an acceptable explanation for plurality of religions and their relations to each other”? (Madreseh, no. 2, p. 60) Or, are you seeking for a way “to propagate moral tolerance” concerning religious and social debates? Which one the four is the main problem? It is as if you have been suffered by the fallacy of “collection of problems in a single problem”. And you know that some of them cannot be brought in agreement with others; for example, either religion is in the station of subsistence and noumenal world but one, but in the station of proof and knowledge it is plural (epistemological religious pluralism) or it is plural in the station of subsistence and noumenal world (ontological pluralism).

You should clarify that whether religious pluralism is a philosopher theory or an epistemological one, or a historical and culturological view, or it is a theological idea, or a moral recommendation for social interest. various kinds are different in terms of their foundations and methodologies:

If it is a philosophical theory- which is apparently so-, then it should be proved and analyzed by rational and non-religious arguments in which case there is no need to appeal to all these non-philosophical evidence; also, if it is a theological view- since a religious view is a special one and not all religions and believers accept it-, then you have to appeal to intra-religious arguments specified to a special religion; and that you insist that all people should accept it is not correct; for this is a non-pluralistic and exclusivist conduct!! 

There is no need to all these philosophical and epistemological arguments and conflicting pieces of evidence for moral recommendation and social interest (in this essay, I will show that, to prove your claim, you have appealed to different and incoherent arguments!).

One of the other widely used key terms in your theory is the term “transformation” or “salvation”. You have regarded a religion’s capability to create “transformation” as a criterion for “a religion to be a religion” or a school to be regarded as a “religious tradition”; and religions’ power to cause transformation as a standard for them to be covered by “religious pluralism” (Problems of Religious Pluralism, p. 84). But what is this transformation; and what does salvation mean? You have never provided a clear explanation for it. It is not clear that which of the followings you mean by “transformation”:

1- Is it power to ignore material things and worldly joys for which you have regarded (in Fifth Dimension, part V, Chapter 20) Mahatma Gandhi as one of its most striking examples?

2- Is it attainment of the station of self-denial (Problems of Religious Pluralism, p. 84)?

3- Or, is it attainment to the station of annihilation or something similar to it (Problems of Religious Pluralism, p. 84), which you have confirmed Rahner’s ideas (Problems of Religious Pluralism, p. 56)?

4- Is it transformation to a limited “image” of God (Fifth Dimension, p. 155)?

5- Is it belief “in the essential unity of man” (Fifth Dimension, p. 200)?

6- Is it acquisition of power to intervene in the world of generation (which is called in Islam “generative authority”)?

7- Is it, as you have emphasized the power of Marxism to create such states in its own followers , self-sacrifice and readiness for abnegation (Hick, Philosophy of Religion, p 3)?

8- What is the worldly function of religion as a worldly ideology as in some of the above assumptions?

9- What is its other-worldly function? (sometimes you have regarded “transformation” as an other-worldly function, and “religiosity” of traditions and “truths” of claims as dependent of other-worldly eschatology! While confirming Peter Pyrne’s understanding of eschatological salvation in your Problems of Religious Pluralism, you have emphasized pluralistic view as a basis, and said: “it is not a morally or religiously acceptable view that salvation depends upon being a member of the Christian minority within the human race” (Problems of Religious Pluralism, p. 102). In the eighth and ninth chapters of problems of Religious Pluralism you have interpreted and defended it (eschatological salvation) very well (Ibid, pp. 11-118).

You should clarify that which of the followings you mean by transformation and salvation (which you regard it as the main criterion for religions to be covered by pluralism). And as you know, some of them cannot be brought into agreement with others.

Nevertheless, in your articles and books, you have repeatedly defined that this transformation as the transformation of human existence from self-centredness to Reality-centredness (Problems of Religious Pluralism, p. 31). This is a special interpretation of salvation provided by you, and in addition it is very absurd and brief; and does not remove ambiguity of this key term! Of course, religions themselves are not in agreement concerning the meaning and reference of salvation; each of them presents a particular meaning for it; and each Saint has acquired one or more of the above states and meanings.

On the other hand, you have admitted: “There is of course no reliable census of saints! Nor indeed is the concept of a saint by any means clear and unproblematic; very different profiles of saintliness have operated at different times and in different places” (Problems of Religious Pluralism, p. 36).

Nor is it clear that what you mean by “Ultimate Reality” and its equivalents- which is one of your key terms. Is the object of that appeal and encounter with which causes man’s transformation a real thing (which you have sometimes emphasized (An Interpretation of Religion, p246, Problems of Religious Pluralism, p. 87)? And if the Ultimate Reality is a real thing, how may inconsistent interpretations of it (such as objectivism and other than it apply to it equally and correctly? Or, is the Ultimate Reality a non-real thing (which you have sometimes confessed) (exclusivism versus Pluralism in religion: a response to cevin meecer, religious studies, no 42. page 210)? How can a non-real thing exercise some influence, and that a so important and great thing, i.e. salvation- which is according to you the end of all religions (John Hick, (2006). (Exclusivism versus pluralism in religion: a response to Kevin Meeker, Religious studies, 42. p 210)? And if the object of encounter is a real thing, should that real thing be necessarily the Origin of being and life from whom all beings have been issued and it is the creator every things and every ones, dominates and surrounds everyone? Or, it is not necessary for the object of encounter to be the origin and creator of all things and surrounds everyone? If this is the case, will you accept that such a being may be the origin of such transformation? And is not such a being dominated by another creator, owner, and  lord who is the real God of the world?

And what is that reality for which you cannot even select a name(!), but use various names for it (Absolute, i.e. Real in Problems of Religious Pluralism, p. 49; Ultimate Reality, ibid., p. 39; God; Fifth Dimension, p. 14; also An Interpretation of Religion, p. 236, p. 297). As you see it cannot possess all references and attributes claimed by various religious traditions; since, as you confess, claims are very conflicting, incoherent, and different (Problems of Religious Pluralism, p. 167). May the problem of ambiguity or “exclusivism” solved through avoidance of applying the term God for that ambiguous Ultimate Reality, or applying the term “The Real or the Absolute” to it? (Problems of Religious Pluralism, p. 172). And if various religious traditions have provided erroneously dogmatic and fanatic definitions for divinity and none of them is in a cosmic vantage-point to view the truth as it is (Problems of Religious Pluralism, pp. 97-8), then how can such erroneous or incomplete traditions and definitions lead to man’s salvation/liberation?

From among non-revelatory traditions, the greatest one is the Buddhist one; and, Gautama Buddha, according to some of his followers, will return to this material and lower world (perhaps to find some time to attain Nirvana as some Buddhist sects think), how can one believe that Buddhism and other quasi-religions will grant salvation? And how can this school be regarded as falling in the scope of pluralism of salvation?!   

And even if Gautama (and hundreds like him) has (have) attained, through Buddhism, Nirvana and liberation, is this sufficient to accept efficiency and sufficiency of this school for mankind’s salvation? How about billions who, in spite of their attempts to attain salvation through Buddhism, have not succeeded?! Does such a fruitless or lately-found way deserve to be traversed?

What do you mean by religion and religious tradition? Is religion a cognitive and practical (theoretical and practical) system sent down through revelation by the Origin of being and life for mankind’s perfection and happiness in this world and the world to come? (I define religion as such, and revelatory religions are such systems). Or any school popular among men and women (even non-Divine ones such as Confucianism) may be called religion or religious tradition? (Problems of Religious Pluralism, p. 43) Or any idea and school of thought existing in the world, even though a human one (An Interpretation of Religion…, p. 253) or a secularist one (Problems of Religious Pluralism, p. 43-4) or atheistic and anti-religious (Ibid., p. 44), may be called “religion”?

And what is the standard for truth a revelatory system or sprititual school or human school, or to classify religions and quasi-religions?

Rationality and testability by man’s reason? (Problems of Religious Pluralism, p. 79) Or, enjoyment of a lofty morality or enthusiastic vision-granting or conquest of hearts (Ibid., p. 70-9)? Or a power to change mankind from self-centeredness to God/Reality-centeredness (which you have noted repeatedly)? Or other-worldly and eschalatogical testability? (Ibid, p. 80) Or, all religions should be confirmed since not all of them may be tested and classified?! And all of them should be regarded on a par (Ibid., p. 86)? And it seems that you do not consider a standard to apply the term “religion” and “religious tradition”, and consequently a concrete standard to specify the scope of religious pluralism! So that you welcome Ludwig Wittgenstein’s definition for religions based on “family resemblance” and according to it, you regard atheist and religion-fighting Marxism as being among religions (Hick, Philosophy of Religion, p 3).

The above ambiguities are a part of coneptologic ambiguities in your theory which have found their way to the essence of your theory and made it profoundly ambiguous; and you should solve this problem. Concerning such points about the theory, we suffice to this, and proceed to discuss the second category i.e. methodological problems of your theory.


[1] . You have called Kung-fu-tzu “a social thinker concerned to create harmony in society…” (An Interpretation of Religion, p. 256)

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