In my previous blog post, I asked the perennial and fundamental question: Out of all of these many diverse religions, major and minor, which one of them (if any) happens to be, you know, true?
In other words, which of the world’s religions affirms religious concepts and asserts religious claims which are objectively factual, correct, accurate, and otherwise happen to genuinely correspond with reality? Which most correctly reflects “the way things really are” — religiously, spiritually, theologically, and metaphysically speaking?
From a purely logical standpoint, there would seem to be four main possible perspectives, alternative approaches, or logical positions which could be adopted in facing head-on the question, “Which religion is true?”
One of them, of course, is simply the position that none of them are true. Atheists regard this as most likely, and agnostics accept that it is a real possibility. But most believers instead find themselves in one of the three other main camps:
Exclusivism. This is the view that only one religion (usually one’s own religion, naturally) is true, and that all other religions are false: “My religion is the one and only true religion; it alone accurately corresponds to reality; the religious concepts it employs, and the religious claims it propounds, are all uniquely true.” This view maintains that one’s own religion essentially has an exclusive monopoly on religious truth. Its beliefs alone are correct, whereas all other religions are riddled with erroneous concepts and inaccurate claims, thereby making all other religions “false religions.”
This position is common among fundamentalists of various sorts, who reject the possibility that any religion other than their own might be true, or might contain significant or sufficient religious truth. Many theologically conservative Christians, for example, are convinced that only their own version or interpretation of Christianity is true, and therefore insist that salvation is available solely (exclusively) through Christianity alone — that is, through their theologically conservative version of Christianity.
From an exclusivist Christian perspective, a Hindu praying to Vishnu or Shiva is simply praying to a false (nonexistent) god, a useless act which carries no hope of genuine salvation. (Of course, from an exclusivist Hindu perspective, praying to Jesus would likewise be praying to a false or nonexistent divine being.)
Inclusivism. This is a somewhat more open and, as its name implies, more inclusive view of other religions. This position still maintains that its own religious beliefs are at least the truest, and most complete, while not denying that other religions may contain at least some truth (if not the complete package of truth in its entirety, and at its most accurate and precise). And so this position still maintains that that it alone has the “whole truth,” while allowing that other religions may at least be “partially true”; other faiths are more or less true, according to how closely or how distantly they match up with one’s own faith.
More importantly, this position leaves the door open for adherents of other religions to be “saved,” despite their following a religion which is less than 100% true. However, it still maintains that any such “salvation” which might occur among adherents of other faiths is due not to any truth which might exist within those other faiths, but in spite of their lack of such truth.
The Catholic Church, for instance, affirms that adherents of other faiths may indeed receive salvation, but insists that whenever such salvation occurs, it occurs only because of the saving work of Jesus Christ, and not because those other faiths are in any way salvific themselves. In other words, people in other religions who might be saved are still saved by Christ, whether they know it or not. They are included within the broad sphere of salvation (a sphere broader than that allowed by exclusivists, who think that they alone are saved), despite these other religions’ lack of complete or accurate religious truth.
From an inclusivist Christian perspective, a Hindu praying to Vishnu may be praying to a false or nonexistent god, but nevertheless Christ might hear and accept that sincerely offered prayer. (Of course, a Hindu inclusivist could say the same thing: a Christian’s prayers to a nonexistent Christ may well be heard and accepted by Vishnu, who overlooks the fact that such sincere prayers might be innocently misdirected toward the “wrong” god.)
Pluralism. This is the most open position of all. In this view, no religion has a monopoly on religious truth, and no religion has a monopoly on salvation (using “salvation” here in its least literal and most generic sense, as the ultimate aim or goal or state or condition — heaven or paradise, moksha or nirvana, or whatever the case might be).
Unlike exclusivism, this position maintains that valid, even salvific religious truth is to be found not exclusively within one single religion alone, but within multiple religions; unlike inclusivism, it does not attempt to pigeonhole other religions into its own frame of reference, by insisting that its own theology ultimately trumps the theologies of other faiths, or that salvation might occur within the context of other faiths but if so only because of the saving activity or saving agent which it alone believes in, and despite those other faiths not believing in its reality.
A pluralist affirms, then, that there are plural paths to salvation — multiple completely independent, yet all equally valid, spiritual paths to salvation (or to spiritual liberation, or to union with the Divine, or to whatever the ultimate religious goal might be). They all “work.” In this sense, all religions are “true,” at least insofar as all religions — or at least all “true” or valid religions — work, or can work, equally well in providing the means by which human beings solve the most fundamental problem of the human condition, and achieve what each religion conceives of, however differently, as the ultimate state or final goal of spiritual human destiny.
As Hindu pluralists put it, all religions are just so many alternative paths, each ultimately leading up the same identical mountain.
So, that’s it. These seem to be the three logically possible stances or attitudes that any religious believer can take, with regard to the matter of the truth and efficaciousness (or otherwise) of religions other than their own.
Thoughtful readers may now wish to reflect upon the question of which of these three positions most closely corresponds with how they themselves view religions other than their own, as well as upon their basis (or bases) for holding the particular position that they hold on this matter.