Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Religious pluralism

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In the first of his lectures on Pragmatism, delivered in Boston in 1907, William James suggests that there are two kinds of philosophical temperament, which he calls the tender-minded and the tough-minded. The tough-minded are those who have a tendency toward empiricism. They trust their senses. They are content with a variety of sensations and with a plurality of fields of inquiry, each with its own questions and theories. The tough-minded feel no strong urge to arrive at a single “theory of everything.” The tender-minded, in contrast, gravitate to the intellect rather than the senses, and they seek unifying theories and a single metaphysical principle that unites all the varieties of beings and sensations. The tender-minded are also inclined to dogmatism and to a sense of discomfort with what cannot easily be fit within their unifying frameworks.

In the final of the eight lectures on Pragmatism, James turns his attention to Pragmatism and religion. Again, he notes two prevailing trends in religion: a tendency to absolutism in some contrasted with a tendency to religious and moral pluralism in others:

So we see concretely two types of religion in sharp contrast. Using our old terms of comparison, we may say that the absolutistic scheme appeals to the tender-minded while the pluralistic scheme appeals to the tough. Many persons would refuse to call the pluralistic scheme religious at all. They would call it moralistic, and would apply the word religious to the monistic scheme alone.

It is not merely that the tender-minded prefer absolutism and dogmatic certainty, says James. The very idea of pluralism is repugnant to the tender-minded.

There can be no doubt that when men are reduced to their last sick extremity absolutism is the only saving scheme. Pluralistic moralism simply makes their teeth chatter, it refrigerates the very heart within their breast.

Pluralism is closely associated with Pragmatism. The heart of Pragmatism is the notion that true differences in opinion must result in differences in action. If two people have a disagreement on some issue but would act the same way no matter how the dispute might be resolved, then the dispute is merely a logomachy—a war of words only. Rather than using the words “true” and “false,” Pragmatists prefer to speak of propositions as having or failing to have agreement with reality. What it means for a belief or proposition to be in agreement with reality is just that if the belief is acted upon, then it will have expected results. If I am thirsty and drink the contents of a cup and my thirst is slaked, then the belief that the contents would slake my thirst was in agreement with my sense of reality. Beliefs, propositions are instruments by which a person gets from one experience to another. Given that there are often several beliefs that have the capacity to serve as instruments for successfully getting to an expected experience, it would make no sense to say that there is only one belief in agreement with reality; it makes little sense, in other words, to say that there is only one truth.

When Pragmatism is applied to religious doctrines, it turns out that not only are there many paths to salvation, but there are also many goals that can be described as salvation. So while it may be the case that many religious traditions promise some kind of salvation, it does not at all follow that all religions are promising the same salvation. The beatific vision described as the salvation for which Roman Catholics strive may not at all appeal to the Buddhist striving for nirvāṇa, and one Buddhist’s nirvāṇa may not appeal at all to another Buddhist. The religious pluralist is not in the least bothered by this, for he has no expectation that all people should have the same ultimate goal.

I am both a religious and a moral pluralist. It is probably this fact that makes me quite comfortable with both Quakers and with Buddhists, and with several varieties of each of these. It is my pluralism that makes it possible to call myself both a Quaker and a Buddhist. I have no wish or need to convince others that this approach to life makes sense. Given one’s temperament, religious and moral pluralism either makes sense or it doesn’t. James was probably right in saying that for some the very idea refrigerates the hearts within their breast. Perhaps the most one can ask of such people is that they at least recognize that they are sharing a planet with people whose mentalities are constructed other than theirs and that there is no evidence that this fact is plunging the human race into disaster. If anything is proving unworkable and disastrous, it is the conflict that comes about when those whose dispositions incline them more toward absolutism and dogmatism attempt either to impose their wills on others or to rid the world of those who have other absolutes or those who have no absolutist tendencies at all.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Sunday, November 8, 2009 at 09:09

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