forms of pluralism in religious discourse



several seminal theories

Several seminal theories in religious studies have helped to stimulate academic reflection on

the origins and the nature of religion. Among these theories mentioned in your textbook, are

Edward B. Tyler’s animism, Emile Durkheim’s totemism, Paul Tillich’s ultimate concern,

Rudolf Otto’s idea of the holy (numinous), and Mircea Eliade’s view of the sacred. Each of

these theories (and many others) have contributed to the development of the field of religious

studies by revealing highly different ways to approach and define the topic-matter. Whereas

Tyler and Durkheim (an anthropologist and a sociologist respectively) viewed religion as

‘nothing more than a human [cultural or] social construct’ (p. 23), based on notions of

cultural evolution or the apotheosis of social ideals, scholars such as Tillich and Otto saw

something ultimately meaningful or mysteriously powerful in humankind’s religious search.

Each of their theories reflect their own biases about religion, and remind us that religion can

mean many things to different people. A single definition, therefore, may not be inherently

privileged or better than another. (see pp. 19–23)

missionary religions

Missionary religions have had an ambivalent impact on human societies for several reasons.

On the one hand, their usually altruistic motivations to help others have often contributed to

increased social welfare programs to aid the poor and to care for the sick/orphans (albeit

social tensions often accompanied such activities). Secondly, the adherents of missionary

religions often produced pioneering linguistic ethnographic, and historical studies of

indigenous religions enriching the understanding of them.

On the other hand, missionary religions have been tied to cultural imperialism, hostility

towards competing religions, and military aggression. Their adherents have sometimes been

insensitive to the religious beliefs and practices of outsiders generating considerable

resentment and even violent conflict. As a result, it is rather paradoxical to observe that the

usually altruistic impulse for spreading religion has given birth to remarkable kindness,

compassion, and generosity, yet also produced religious chauvinism and colonial

imperialism. Thus, your textbook suggests that the ‘missionary record has been mixed at

best, with some very disturbing undertones’. (see pp. 8–11)

pluralism and secularism

careful consideration of the nature, definition, and contemporary context of religion,

the authors make an important distinction between the terms pluralismand secularism.

They define pluralism as ‘the granting of equal support, acceptance, or decision making roles

to more than one religious group’ (p. 12). As such, pluralism is a conscious attitude toward

the issue of religious diversity, which embraces a spirit of openness and acceptance towards

religious heterogeneity, seeing such diversity as inherently positive; in contrast, secularism in

the Western context, is defined as ‘the exclusion in principle of all religious groups,

institutions, and identities from public support and participation in public decision making’

(p. 12). Secularism asserts that society is better off curtailing the roles of religion to a limited

sphere without government support (or even suppressing religion altogether). It sees the

separation of church and state to be inherently positive and even very wise. (It should be

noted that in the context of India, the term ‘secularism’ has a different, unique meaning,

which refers to guaranteed constitutional protections for India’s religious groups, where the

state plays an active role in their preservation.)

One can also differentiate other important forms of pluralism in religious discourse such

as ‘epistemological pluralism’ and ‘theological pluralism’. In theological language, ‘religious pluralism’ has a specific meaning in relation to other faiths, which posits that the world’s

religious are all efficacious paths to salvation/liberation. This theory, championed by the

philosopher John Hick and many others, remains highly influential today, although it is often

criticized. (see pp. 11–14)


Several seminal theories

There are myriads of seminal theories and these theories have rendered different interpretations regarding the nature, scope, evolution, etc of religion. But among those there are certain theories which can help an individual to a great extent in analyzing and understanding the origins and natures of different religions of the world. Among such theories is Edward B. Tyler’s theory of animism, Emile Durkheim’s theory of totemism, Paul Tillich’s theory of ultimate concern, Rudolf Otto’s theory of idea of the holy (numinous), and Mircea Eliade’s theory of view of the sacred. Just like the viewpoints of scholars vary from one another their theories too vary and through such various theories one can observer the different ways of approach towards revealing the real nature of religions. For an example, Tyler and Durkheim opined religion to be a human or social construct whereas, Tillich and Otto found out an essence of mystery as well as meaningfulness in the quest for unearthing the real nature of religions. But whatever may be the approaches, all of them are composed of the own biasness of the theorists’ about the concept of religion. And that is the reason why it is hard to give a proper definition of religion as this word itself denotes different meanings to different individuals.

Missionary religions

Missionary religions have a two-faced impact on the societies of different countries across the globe. On one hand the missionary religions’ urge to spread their respective religious philosophy among the masses did pave the way for a new kind of socio-cultural and religious interaction leading to myriads of welfare and philanthropic programs for the betterment of the concerned societies, but on the other hand the approach of these missionary religions to almost invade a particular society and transform its members into followers of a particular religious belief, without heeding to the existing religious beliefs, cultures, and customs, has often gave rise to hostilities, conflicts, chaos, and confusion. In many occasions it has been seen that though the adherents of some missionary religions have contributed a lot to the enrichment of the cultures of the indigenous people of different countries, it has also been observed that the insensitiveness of such adherents towards the philosophies of other religions has given rise to ambiguities, violence, and dilemma. So the history of missionary religions can be considered as an amalgamation of both the good and the evil.

Pluralism and Secularism

There is a demarcation between the terms pluralism and secularism in the context of religion. Pluralism is a term that denotes equality, acceptance, and particular mode of decision making adopted by particular religious groups. Besides, pluralism is a concept which embraces within itself the approach of accepting the diversity and heterogeneity that prevails in the realm of different religious beliefs. Secularism, on the other hand, denotes the policy of excluding the principles and philosophies of different religious groups from the aspects of public decision making processes and administrative policies. Moreover, the concept of secularism firmly supports the principle that religious principles should be limited to some extent and religious should not influence governing policies of particular governments of the world. For an example, the Constitution of India has incorporated within its sphere the principle of secularism thereby, rendering protection to the different religious groups residing within the country. And it has assured such protection by declaring that the government is free from any biases towards any particular religion. But though pluralism is not composed of any such exclusive policies it can surely be divided into categories like epistemological pluralism and theological pluralism and in the context of theological language religious pluralism generates the idea that all the philosophies of all the religions of the world actually lead human beings in the path of attainment of salvation or liberation. And such a theory has been upheld by philosophers like John Hick and this theory has still remained an influential but widely criticized one.

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About the Author Doris C. Chesser