CESNUR - center for studies on new religions


Dr. Michael George (Religious Studies Department, St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada)
Paper presented at the "Spiritual Supermarket" Conference, London School of Economics, April 2001.

      The multitude of religious perspectives available today, as evidence of which this conference is a good indicator, offer a number of interesting (and often foundational) choices for a great many people. At least in the West, adherence to a religious group or community is itself a choice that individuals consider to be a personal choice, and not merely the result of historical and cultural contexts in which religious identity was assumed as a matter of course. The increasing privatization of religion from the Enlightenment onward, and the concomitant relegation of ethics to the personal sphere highlight, inasmuch as one happens to be aware of this movement, the significance of personal choice in how one chooses to identify with a religious community, if one does so at all.

       On the other hand, it is safe to say that most religious groups still claim to have a particular,  and usually exclusive, understanding of how the truth of reality is to be perceived and as such, to be lived in according to the precepts that best embody the truth or truths claimed by the religious community. Except for those who live in relatively circumscribed and self-controlled religious communities, this creates a situation where religious identity and values exist in a tension between the personal interpretations and the willingness to belong to a group, where the  group tends to emphasize group solidarity and exclusive claims to one's allegiance. For most people in the West, this is further complicated by their involvement, for economic reasons if no other, in a public world wherein their religious identity is not considered to be either primary, or necessary. While this fact indicates some of the foundational biases about liberalism, in that a certain religious and ethical relativism is considered necessary at least at a pragmatic level for civilized behaviour to exist in a pluralistic society, it begs some fairly serious questions about the nature of truth, the possibility of meaning, and the factors that influence identity, whether they be religious or otherwise.  That is, of course, only insofar as one is concerned also with coherence and comprehensiveness, along with rational intelligibility. Otherwise, operative group biases (especially for dominant or favoured groups) are usually sufficient to indicate the ways and means required for a life where personal and social choices and patterns are sufficiently harmonious to the point where really difficult and significant questions of meaning and identity just don't arise.

      Interestingly enough, and now relating to the theme of this particular session, the fact of religious pluralism, and the growing awareness for more and more people that this pluralism exists, raises these difficult questions about the nature of truth, meaning, and identity. Now it is entirely conceivable that maintaining an uncritical acceptance of one's group biases can be carried a long way, even to the point where such projects become the basis of public policy, whether at a local, regional, or national level. Indeed, such responses are to be expected given the significance of social conformity for our emotional, psychic, and physical well-being.  Many studies, in many disciplines, have indicated that the desire for the recognizable and familiar usually far out-weighs the curiosity that spurs change and leads to increased understanding. On the other side, there is sufficient evidence that change and adaptability are prerequisites of human growth and development. So where does that leave us? And I don't intend for that to be taken as a purely rhetorical question. For those scholars and students of religion who are primarily interested in the social scientific study of religion an adequate description and analysis of the various and sundry forms and behaviours of religious expression is a good response. For those who are interested in the ethical dimensions of religions as a practical question and concern, there is a growing recognition that religious pluralism challenges many traditional and received accounts of truth, at least to the extent that the growing number of truth claims and definitive interpretations indicate some serious challenges to any account of truth which attempts to be both coherent and comprehensive.

     The problem is not a small one. Everyone surely appreciates the ideals of liberalism, of an objective system of justice, of the international charter of human rights, even if we tend to appreciate them more as theoretical ideals than as practical indicators of constructive courses of action. Pragmatically speaking, we tend to favour our own group biases, which agendas often undermine or override the more general values pertaining to rights on a global scale. I believe that most often an analogous process takes place when issues concerning religious pluralism arise. It would be nice to be mistaken   about this, but I receive a great deal of information on a regular basis from people who are concerned with the rights of religious groups which are persecuted that indicate that these problems continue apace. In a foundational way, these types of issues indicate real problems that arise when ethical relativism provides the philosophical basis for any response.

     In the absence of a sufficiently comprehensive notion of truth, dominant group interests will continue to dictate the actual course of events that take place in everyday life. Paradoxically, or perhaps inevitably, one of liberalism's own biases is that truth is not possible, except in a purely relative fashion. More succinctly, the truth is that truth is not possible. Religions in the West today find themselves dependent on a social ideology which allows for religious freedom, but only as a form of private expression. In the public realm, truth is replaced by power and vested interests which we tend to go along with, especially as our own vested interests are tied to the dominant ones. What, then, does this mean for religious identity and for the possibility and desirability of truth?

     I tend to believe that these two factors, religious identity and the desire for a coherent account or possibility of truth are linked, inasmuch as they are both essential features of what it is to be human. (Clearly, I draw upon an Enlightenment model here, largely because the demands of the problem seem to indicate a perspective that intends universality, even though the practice that entails is usually somewhat suspect. ) In fact, I think that the two features are inextricably linked, even though they are usually considered to be antithetical. Unfortunately, on the grounds of much  of the existing historical evidence, many hold a contrary position. A quick response to this perspective would be that the negative evidence notwithstanding ,the attempt to create lives of meaning require some sort of universal value at the very least, where truth is inherently present as a criterion in selecting among the options that are available as responses to any given question. That is, given the option most people attempt to come up with the correct answer to a question, where correctness depends on all of the relevant demands of the question being met in the answer that is chosen. Instead, we find that certain group biases tend to be taken as sufficient criteria for truth, rendering any opposition or opposing perspectives practically invalid. The fact that, in the current time, a plethora of religious perspectives abound indicates that meaning and identity remain significant factors in peoples&Mac226; lives, and that the significance of a truth claim remains, despite the theoretical and practical problems that flourish. This I take to be an indication of a certain degree of social psychic health (for want of a better term), and contrary to various proponents of religious fundamentalism a necessary and, indeed, good thing in human culture. I would like to briefly explore why religious pluralism is a benefit to culture, and how this ties into the possibility of a coherent notion of truth, and thus to value.

      Given the current climate of ethical relativism, and a more or less articulate desire for coherence and meaning that many people desire, new forms of religious expression and truth claims are to be expected. Moreover, the recognition of the actual or perceived lack of relevance of traditional religious forms accentuates peoples&Mac226; desire for meaning. Four basic choices exist for people today:

1) [to] follow the traditional religious pattern whether it be familial, ethnic, or geographical;

2) [to] reject religious identity or membership as a waste of time or energy;

3) [to] join a new religious movement, which may itself be an explicit adaptation of a traditional form; or,

4) [to] construct your own religious/spiritual worldview based on your own inclinations and best  understanding.

Present in all the choices, inasmuch as the choice is possible at all and is a conscious and deliberate one, is an awareness of the contingency of human truth claims, whether they are religious claims or not. Even when absolute and exclusive truth claims are made, the recognition of personal choice and the necessity for interpretation of the significance of the claim is generally recognized. That is, the value of a religious truth claim is only fully appreciated by one who has accepted the claim per se. This seems to be a general trait, like the need for meaning and coherence, that most people can identify with, and also perceive in others. In the meantime, we recognize a cacophony of competing claims historically and up to the present time. At the very least, it is possible to perceive that religious claims are subject to historical fluctuation, as, if we think about it at all, we ourselves are as well.

      I think it is inevitable that people will ground their identities, and thus their values, in particular sets of images and symbols. We do not seem to have many options, in this regard. Accordingly, religious identity will be located in specific groups or communities, or composed with parts new and old salvaged from the culture at large. It is, at the same time, not very difficult to recognize that all people, to some extent, display similar traits and tendencies in their own lives. Usually, there will be very little similarity in the nature of the worldviews from culture to culture. However, religious pluralism is a significant indication that despite powerful operative group biases religious tolerance, if not understanding, is a good thing. That is, assuming that you do not consider religious violence to be either reasonable or good, which I take to be self-evidently the case.  Religious pluralism also forces a member of a religious group to address the historical nature of religious expression. Any form of religious expression is necessarily historically mediated, and thus relative to a particular time, regardless of the nature of the truth claim contained within it. That is, inasmuch as it is received, expressed and maintained it is carried out by human beings. And we human beings seem to have a propensity for finding and expressing patterns that help us make sense of our selves and our realities, students and scholars providing a classic example of this.

       The various historical developments in religion and the burgeoning expressions that we encounter today suggest that while the search for truth is contingent, it is also continuous. It may well be that religious pluralism is a necessary stage in the development of homo religioso, or whatever the gender inclusive equivalent is. Religious pluralism is also not a new phenomenon; Christianity itself was born in such a time and such a culture. Assuming that historical cycles of growth and decline are not absolute, and that uneasy tolerance and barbarism are not the only options open to those with, or concerned with, religious inclinations, it is my considered opinion that cultivating a certain degree of religious ambiguity, both as individuals and as societies, is a necessary and healthy thing to do. As we come to recognize that all human expressions are necessarily contingent, even as the desire to fully comprehend and grasp the meaning and significance of our selves and reality continues to motivate and inspire us, we can strive for the possibility of a coherence that will probably always elude us. Somewhere in the religious tradition of which I am at least a nominal member it states "the truth will set you free." My guess is that the truth is always going to be bigger and more complex than any one particular expression or form, but all people share a vested interest in it nonetheless. If I'm wrong, I trust that most people will continue to seek.

The Spiritual Supermarket: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century

April 19-22, 2001

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