The Problem of Religious Pluralism

Perhaps a disclaimer before I begin this post: the title is referring to the fact that religious diversity or pluralistic perspectives are supposed to present a challenge to religious views which claim certain things are true, to the exclusion of other views. It is not intended to imply anything negative about the value of religious diversity or religious pluralism, and should not be read as such. On that note, let’s explore this topic.

It is an evident fact in today’s world that humanity has held, and continues to hold, a great diversity of religious beliefs. This is often said to pose a problem for those who believe in a particular religious tradition – and it is said to especially pose a problem for religions, like Christianity, which claim that there is only one way to obtain salvation, eternal life, and the greatest possible good that a person can experience.

Whatever problem it is that is supposed to be presented from there mere facts of religious diversity, I am calling the problem of religious pluralism. That will be the topic of this post. I’ll try to show why, from my perspective, the religious diversity in the world is not an overwhelming problem for belief in God, or for Christian beliefs in particular.

The problem that religious diversity is supposed to present specifically to religions that claim to be the only way to salvation, I am calling the problem of exclusivity, and that will be the topic of the next post.

Attitudes Towards Religious Diversity

First, let’s take a look at the different attitudes a person might have towards the diversity of religious beliefs that there are:

An attitude that some people express is that all religions are true. Call this naïve religious pluralism. It is naïve because it is obviously false: the world’s religions make conflicting claims. Some religions say there is one God; others say there are many. Some religions say God and the Universe are One; others say they are distinct. Some religions say there is reincarnation; others do not. They cannot all be true. (This goes even for doctrinal differences within a religion.)

(The naïve religious pluralist might try to avoid this objection by embracing relativism about religious truths: every religion is true for its adherents. But as I have argued before, relativism is not only false but incoherent. There is no rational escape down that path.)

So another attitude that people may hold is that all religions are technically false, but they are all effective in bringing about the ultimate human good. This can be called sophisticated religious pluralism. The idea here is that all the different religions are humanity’s attempts to relate to the Divine or the Ultimate Reality, and to access salvation or enlightenment, and that all of these religions are noble and valuable attempts – even if none of them can ever really be true because of the ineffable nature of the Real, or whatever it is that it out there.

Another attitude, of course, is that all religions are simply false, because there is no supernatural Ultimate Reality to be found. This is naturalistic atheism, and it would explain religious diversity as no more than a collection of delusions that have evolved alongside humanity’s capacity to reason about the world.

And the last attitude one may hold is that some religion is true – this is religious particularism. Usually, the person who holds this attitude believes that their religion is the true one, but that need not be the case: someone can think that there is a particular set of religious belief which are true, but that they do not know what they are (or if anyone has even discovered them yet).

Narrowing In On The Problem

It should be obvious that, if the atheist or the religious pluralist thinks that the religious particularist has a problem with the facts of religious diversity, that problem cannot be simply that the particularist claims a particular religion is true. The (sophisticated) pluralist and the atheist also make particular truth claims about reality – they also say that certain things are true, and that any belief system which denies those claims are false:

  • Atheism says that there is no supernatural reality, and that all the world’s religions claiming otherwise is false.
  • Pluralism says that the supernatural reality is not truly as any of the world’s religions claim, and that all religious paths are valid, contrary to the tenets of all particular religions.

Meaning that pluralism and atheism are not really any less particular than religious particularism.

So just what is the problem with religious particularism? One false start at this problem is sometimes alleged: that particular religious beliefs cannot be true, or cannot be justified, because they are so often culturally relative. But that is not correct. Beliefs may very well be true, and even justified, even if they happen to be correlated with a particular culture. (Pluralism and atheism are fairly correlated with our modern secular culture, yet their proponents surely think their beliefs are true and justified!)

More frequently, it is alleged that adherents of religious particularism are arrogant, narrow-minded, and intolerant for believing that only they have the truth, and that everyone else is wrong and should believe as they do instead. But again, this is not the case.

It is not arrogant to believe something if you have sincere and valid reasons for believing it. It is not narrow-minded to believe one thing instead of another, when one is logically incompatible with the other. It is not intolerant to think that others should come to believe the same thing as you, when you believe that we can experience the greatest good via knowing the truth. (And even if it were arrogant or intolerant, that would not prove that religious particularism was false.)

Perhaps the problem of religious pluralism is intended as an instance of the epistemic problem of disagreement: the diversity of religious beliefs should cause us to doubt, since, on a whole, humanity is filled with people who are roughly our epistemic peers, yet they disagree with us. But if this is the problem, it also cuts against the pluralist and the atheist, not just the particularist. (Not to mention that the epistemic import of disagreement is a subject itself containing a great diversity of beliefs and disagreement, so there is no consensus that this argument is effective!) And this objection does not actually work against the truth of religious particularism, merely the justification for belief in it.

It seems to me that the best way to present the problem of religious pluralism is actually this: atheism or religious pluralism explains the facts of religious diversity better than religious particularism does. In other words, it is claimed that religious particularism is an inferior explanation for religious diversity than the alternative, and therefore the alternative is preferred by abductive reasoning.

Explanations of Religious Diversity

Inference to the best explanation can be roughly formalized using Bayes’ theorem. For example, the claim that atheism better explains the diversity of the world’s religions than Christianity does can be stated by saying that the conditional probability of atheism is greater than the conditional probability of Christianity, given the facts of religious diversity.

Let’s say G is the hypothesis that the Christian God exists. The negation of G, symbolized by ~G would include (at least) all other particular religions, religious pluralism, and naturalistic atheism. Now let’s say E is the evidence of religious diversity, and K is our background knowledge: all the relevant facts we know with G and E (as well as ~G and ~E) cordoned off, so to speak.

Then the objection against belief in this particular religion is:

\frac{P(G|E,K)}{P(\sim G|E,K)}<1

Using Bayes’ theorem this ratio is the product of two other ratios:

\frac{P(G|E,K)}{P(\sim G|E,K)}=\frac{P(G|K)}{P(\sim G|K)} \times \frac{P(E|G,K)}{P(E|\sim G,K)}

In other words, the odds ratio for the existence of God, conditioned on the evidence of religious diversity, is the product of the prior odds ratio and the Bayes’ factor coming from the evidence in consideration.

The prior odds ratio depends pretty strongly on what is included in the background knowledge, K, and how that knowledge is evaluated. From my perspective, it makes sense to include as much in K as we can while keeping the question of G or ~G and E or ~E open. Therefore, it may include the kind of information that goes into the other arguments for or against God’s existence: the arguments from natural theology, the historical argument for the resurrection of Jesus, the problem of divine hiddenness, and the problem of evil.

Given this background knowledge, my assessment is that the prior odds ratio for G is fairly high, with the arguments from natural theology outweighing the force of the problems of evil and divine hiddenness. But, since we are interested here in exploring how the problem of religious pluralism affects the balance of things, I think it is reasonable to ignore the prior odds for now, and focus on the Bayes’ factor.


An aside on the scope of the background knowledge:

Note: the argument for the resurrection is pertinent to G specifically, since G is the hypothesis that the Christian God exists. If the information relevant to the resurrection argument is removed from the background knowledge K, there are two options. One is for that information to be included in E. But that would arguably make the evidence E too specific, lowering the probabilities P(E|G,K) and P(E|~G,K), simply due to the fact that any event becomes highly improbable when you specify it very precisely, and making those probabilities harder to estimate. Not only that, but it would artificially inflate the Bayes’ factor, since P(E|G,K) would not be reduced as much as P(E|~G,K) due to the higher explanatory power of G over ~G for the evidence surrounding the resurrection.

The other option is to not consider that information anywhere. Then the prior odds for G are reduced, but this does not tell us anything about the strength of problem of religious pluralism. Moreover, the fact that the prior odds are low is not particularly significant when there is information highly relevant to G which is being ignored. So again, for the purpose of this discussion, it makes sense to ignore the prior odds and focus on the Bayes’ factor.

End aside.


Therefore, the strength of the problem of religious pluralism is measured by the Bayes’ factor, the ratio of the probability E given G to the probability of E given ~G, or in other words, the degree to which E can be explained by G compared to the degree to which E can be explained by ~G. The smaller this ratio, the stronger the problem.

Let us start by assessing P(E|~G,K). One of the sub-hypotheses under ~G is naturalistic atheism. The atheist would explain the facts of religious diversity as simply the result of false beliefs that have grown up alongside our species and its different cultures. This explanation seems plausible. In fact, under religious pluralism, the explanation is very similar: these different beliefs are just humanity’s various natural attempts to relate to the Ultimate Reality. And there are several world religions where the Ultimate Reality is impersonal or takes no active role in the world, and various religious beliefs grow up naturally just as they do if there is no Ultimate Reality at all.

Which means that, if there is enough background information in K (the existence of human life on earth, for instance) and if E is not construed with too great specificity (so that it can be considered satisfied with any highly diverse set of religious beliefs, not just the particular beliefs that have happened to occur in reality), it is not unreasonable to assume that a significant portion of the probability space under ~G has quite good explanatory power for E. We can thus say that P(E|~G,K) is fairly high; perhaps greater than 0.5, or maybe even close to 1.

This means that the Bayes’ factor will be roughly the same magnitude as P(E|G,K).

So the question now becomes: what is P(E|G,K)? How likely is it, if God exists, that he would create a world full of a great diversity of religions – most of them wrong about who he is and how he wants humankind to relate to him? What reason could God have to do that?

The answer, it seems to me, comes back to the problem of divine hiddenness. In creating the world, God has the choice between revealing himself to everyone, or not revealing himself to everyone (and therefore remaining hidden to some degree). We can suppose that if God were to choose to reveal himself to everyone, that would significantly decrease the degree of religious diversity in the world. (Though even then it may not eliminate it entirely: people could still choose to interpret God’s revelation of himself differently.) If H is the hypothesis that God remains hidden, we can say that P(E|~H,G,K) is close to zero, so that:

P(E|G,K)=P(E|H,G,K) \times P(H|G,K) + P(E|\sim H,G,K) \times P(\sim H|G,K) \simeq P(E|H,G,K) \times P(H|G,K)

Now if God chooses not to reveal himself universally, then to the degree that he remains hidden, the same natural causes for religious diversity can operate as are postulated by atheism and religious pluralism. We can also have religious diversity even in areas where God has revealed himself to some degree, because free creatures can choose to ignore or reject God’s revelation and come up with religion of their own, or they might be deceived by others who have done so. And God may choose to allow the consequences of these free choices (for the kinds of reasons outlined in response to the problem of divine hiddenness and the problem of evil).

All this is to say that we can take the probability P(E|H,G,K) to be fairly high: the hypothesis that God hides is about as good in terms of explanatory power for religious diversity as the hypothesis that God is not there. So P(E|G,K) is roughly the same magnitude as P(H|G,K). And this means that the problem of religious pluralism is derivative: it actually borrows most of its strength from the problem of divine hiddenness.

So speaking in general terms, the reasons that God has for creating a world full of religious diversity are the reasons that he has for choosing to remain hidden – for choosing not to reveal himself universally, but instead only in particular times and places, to particular people. The improbability of religious diversity, given God’s existence, is dependent on the improbability that he would hide.

And, since there are reasons for which God might choose to remain hidden (as I discussed in my earlier post), I don’t think we can say with any confidence that divine hiddenness is very improbable. If it isn’t very improbable, it isn’t sufficient to overcome the (to me, powerful) arguments for God’s existence. Which means that again, the problem of religious pluralism introduces tension into the theistic worldview, but that tension is not insurmountable.

The one caveat I gave in my response to the problem of divine hiddenness becomes very relevant now. The best argument I can think of for saying that P(H|G,K) is very low is this: God cannot have overriding reasons to remain hidden, and allow religious diversity, if it is necessary for humans to accept certain particular religious truths in order to experience the greatest possible good (e.g. salvation or eternal life). If God is all-good, he would not allow humanity to remain in such darkness.

This is the problem of exclusivity, and it is what I will explore in my next post.

4 thoughts on “The Problem of Religious Pluralism

  1. I generally agree with the overlap you identify between hiddenness and pluralism, but I would prefer to not say that the pluralism argument is dependent on hiddenness. Instead, I might say that it is a facet, or corollary, of the hiddenness problem. That may seem pedantic, but I think it’s relevant to discourse because when we simplify an argument down to a single notion, our corresponding response can underestimate its force, or overlook relevant factors. For example, there was no mention of this relationship in your original hiddenness post, and the considerations were largely focused on God belief in general. Clearly you are not simply dismissing the pluralism issue (as evidenced by this post and the one forthcoming), but there is a bit of an implication here of something like “the pluralism issue is nothing more than the hiddenness issue that has already been addressed”, and so my caution is to only put everything into the same bucket when our treatment of that bucket is based on an accurate and complete accounting of its contents.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. That largely depends on your next post. I agree that “P(H|G,K) is very low … if it is necessary for humans to accept certain particular religious truths in order to experience the greatest possible good”, but I’m inclined to believe that the scope is larger than what you have thus far hinted at (i.e. salvation or eternal life). The “greatest possible good” would also encompass a proper relationship with the divine, proper knowledge of divine will, proper reverence for the divine, and everything that follows from these. Where the hiddenness argument is often focused on the absence or presence of divine knowledge and relationship, the religious diversity argument focuses on the quality of divine knowledge and relationship.

        I would also suggest that putting this in terms of accepting “particular religious truths” could overlook the goods that we associate with ineffable relational or intuitive knowledge. If one of the theistic religions is true, then there are billions of people out there who are almost certainly unwittingly in a sub-optimal (and many far from optimal) relationship with the divine, and it is difficult to see how much of that could not be improved by the revelation (be it propositional or interpersonal) of an omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent God.


      2. Proper relationship with, knowledge of, and reverence for the divine are part and parcel of the salvation and eternal life package, but I see what you are getting at. I did intend for my discussion about the hiddenness problem to address relationship quality as well as its presence or absence, and one of my points was that some of these things may only be realized in the context of eternal life.
        But yes, the hiddenness problem is somewhat harder for me to get past than the problem of evil, in terms of seeing how the present state of affairs could work out for the best in the long run.


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