I. Definition and Key Ideas
Pluralism is a belief in difference – a philosophy supporting diversity, religious tolerance, and multiculturalism. Pluralism has always been controversial, as nearly all societies experience a tension between diversity and homogeneity, which can both give benefits and create problems for a society.
Most of the time, when people talk about pluralism they’re talking about religious pluralism, or the idea of different religions thriving alongside one another in a single society. This is not the only form of pluralism, just the most common usage of the word.
This is a popular bumper sticker that spells out the word “COEXIST” with a series of religious symbols. There are several variations, but this one has a crescent (Islam), a peace sign (secular), an om (Hinduism / Buddhism), a Star of David (Judaism), a khanda (Sikhism), a yin-yang (Taoism) and a cross (Western Christianity). This is a clear expression of pluralism, with a message of tolerance and peace among all faiths.
In Futurama, the main religion is the First Amalgamated Church, a syncretic faith made up of bits and pieces from every religion we know today. The Church is led by Father Changstein El-Gamal, a name that combines several cultures / religions: Christian, Chinese, Jewish and Arabic. Clearly, the world of the 31st Century is a pretty syncretic place.
III. Types of Pluralism
There are two main types of pluralism:
The Fact of Pluralism is Descriptive
That is, it’s a fact about the way the world is, whether we like it or not. The fact of pluralism is easy to see in the world today where nearly every country on earth contains multiple languages, cultures, religions, ethnicities, and political views. However, this is really nothing new: global trade has been “pluralizing” society for thousands of years, so modern technology has only accelerated what was already going on.
The Ideal of Pluralism is Prescriptive, meaning it’s about the way things should be
The ideal of pluralism is the argument that we all need to accept and embrace pluralism and let go of any feelings of intolerance. The ideal of pluralism holds that societies are strongest when they synthesize multiple perspectives rather than insisting on a single religious or cultural view.
To avoid confusion, this article will use the second definition; “Pluralism” will mean the ideal, and we’ll use the word “plurality” to discuss the fact.
IV. Related Terms
Pluralism vs. Syncretism vs. Tolerance vs. Majoritarianism
In a society with high plurality, people may have all kinds of different beliefs, appearances, and habits., which may or may not conflict sometimes. Imagine:
- On one corner we have punk rockers in leather and ripped t-shirts;
- across the street is a group of Buddhist monks meditating;
- two African Muslims stop to put money in the monks’ alms-box;
- one of the punks is Jewish, but her ideas about Judaism are very different from her parents’
- finally, this society has a non-religious government, but its president is Catholic while most other officials are either Protestants or atheists.
Some people believe that the plurality of a society needs to be managed in some way; such beliefs could be placed on a spectrum from more pluralistic to less pluralistic. (This is a very incomplete list, but will do for a basic introduction.)
In this diagram, the least pluralistic idea is majoritarianism, or the idea of majority rule. When it comes to issues like language, ethnicity, and religion, majoritarianism holds that the majority should control everything; so if you live in a society with mostly Muslims, then Islam should be the official religion and other religions should only have whatever rights the majority agrees to grant them.
Above majoritarianism is tolerance, or the ideal of coexistence. Unlike majoritarianism, tolerance holds that minorities need to be accepted in a society and granted some absolute rights, even if the majority disagrees with their ways. For example, in the United States the majority religion is Christian, but the First Amendment still guarantees that other religions can be practiced freely; even if the majority of people wanted a certain religion to be suppressed, that wouldn’t be legal.
Syncretism goes far beyond tolerance, actually mixing together different traditions. Syncretism has happened in many places in the world, usually due to conquest or colonialism, and it’s great for innovation and cultural integration; today’s Tibetan Buddhism has a unique character because it syncretized with the pagan Bon religion which dominated in Tibet before Buddhism. The same is true Christianity in Central America, among the Maya. But syncretism may threaten to erase the original religions’ traditions and identities.
V. Famous Quotations About Pluralism
“Contact between religions is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions.” (Edict of Ashoka)
King Piyadasi is another name for Ashoka the Great, an emperor of ancient India who lived around the same time as Alexander the Great. Ashoka ruled a vast empire containing many religions, languages, and ethnicities — just like modern-day India. Rather than trying to impose his own religion—Buddhism–on his subjects, Ashoka encouraged different views to thrive within his empire. He viewed the different religious traditions as resources for mutual learning and growth.
“The first thing that appealed to me about Islam was its pluralism. The fact that the Koran praises all the great prophets of the past.” (Karen Armstrong)
Karen Armstrong, a scholar of religions and former Catholic nun, writes books, both scholarly and popular, that cover nearly all of today’s major religions—but especially about Christianity and Islam. In this quote, she points out the pluralism of Islam (according to the Koran), which recognizes all of the prophets who came before Islam (meaning the prophets of the Old and New testaments) as divinely-inspired; clearly, this works against the popular image of Islam as inherently hateful and intolerant.
VI. The History and Importance of Pluralism
We tend to imagine that pluralism is a new phenomenon–that the past was a place of intolerance and cultural isolation, in which religious and ethnic minorities were violently persecuted. Then, the story goes, modern ideas of rationality kicked in and globalization made the world ever more interconnected so that now we’ve become more pluralistic and syncretic than ever.
This story is quite wrong. As a matter of fact, there are many examples of times and places in the past where pluralism was the dominant philosophy!
We’ve already seen that ancient India was ruled at one time by a pluralistic emperor, Ashoka the Great. Ashoka was a Buddhist, but he allowed Hinduism, Jainism, and countless other religions to thrive in his empire. In more recent times, India was ruled by the Mughal Emperor Akbar, who was also renowned for his pluralism. Akbar was a Muslim, but he took counsel with Hindus and other religious thinkers in his royal court. In fact, Akbar went beyond tolerance and tried to create a new syncretic religion for India, based on a combination of Hinduism, Islam, and elements of Jainism and Buddhism.
Pluralism was also dominant in many times and places in the Ottoman Empire, an Islamic state that ruled the Middle East and lasted from 1299 all the way to 1923! Of course, in all those centuries there were some times that were less tolerant than others, but on the whole the Ottoman Empire was remarkably pluralistic and allowed all sorts of ethnicities and religions to coexist under a single flag and a loose imperial alliance.
Given all this history of pluralism in the pre-modern world, some scholars have been led to wonder whether our era is one of the least pluralistic in human history! Of course, scholars disagree on whether that’s true, and these things are always hard to prove; at the very least, we can say that pluralism is a far from new idea and we shouldn’t act as though we moderns invented it!
Can Pluralists have a Universal Morality?
To some, pluralism seems to suggest relativism. According to this line of reasoning, in order to be a pluralist it’s necessary to believe that all ethical laws are relative to culture and circumstance, so there can be no one moral law that applies to everyone. So by extension, some people believe that pluralism cannot exist alongside universal morality. This is often a criticism of pluralism.
However, not all pluralists think this way. Some pluralists, for example, argue for a limited kind of tolerance in which all views are tolerated as far as possible, with some restrictions added for truly hateful views. Other pluralists argue that universal morality comes from compassion and acceptance—the core of pluralism, and a primary message of almost every religion; thus, for example, they argue that issues like abortion or gay marriage are less important than being empathetic towards other human beings. This allows for pluralism alongside universal morality.