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November 2014 Policy Study, Number 14-7


Religious Pluralism: John Hick and the Elephant With Every Other Name


Part I



This section explores religious pluralism and the reasons that Hick gives for what he thinks supports his case.


Religious pluralism holds that although there are many religions, each contains different perspectives on the same divine reality. Hick writes,


Stated philosophically such a pluralism [i.e., religious pluralism] is the view that the great world faiths embody different perceptions and conceptions of the Real or the Ultimate from within the major variant cultural ways of being human; and that within each of them the transformation of human existence from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness is manifestly taking place – and taking place, so far as human observation can tell, to much the same extent. Thus the great religious traditions are to be regarded as alternative soteriological “spaces” within which, or “ways” along which, men and woman can find salvation/liberation/ enlightenment/fulfillment.[1]


Thus, Hick’s description of religious pluralism does more than recognize that there is religious diversity. His view emphasizes that essentially all the religions are simply different expressions or explanations of the same divine reality. Yet, how can Hick hold that his view is true given the admitted differences in the explanation of both reality and what is divine?


Hick gives several reasons for holding his belief in religious pluralism. These reasons constitute what he calls the ground plan to hold a theory of religious pluralism.[2] The basis for needing this theory is to reconcile the differences between the religions and focus on the similarities. First is the claim that all the great religious traditions hold a similar view in what they describe as the ultimate Reality. He writes,


Each of the great religious traditions affirms that in addition to the social and natural world of our ordinary human experience there is a limitlessly greater and higher Reality beyond or within us, in relation to which or to whom is our highest good. The ultimately real and the ultimately valuable are one, and to give oneself freely and totally to this One is our final salvation/liberation/enlightenment/ fulfillment.[3]


Hick sees this characteristic that all religions share – namely, the belief in a higher reality – as significant. Coupled with this belief is that only by having a relation to the higher reality will we reach our highest good. Third, the only way to have a relation to the higher reality is to give oneself freely and totally to it.

Hick also wants people to accept a distinction that has been handed to him by Immanuel Kant. As Kant famously said, there is a difference between something as it appears to you and as it is in itself, so too one needs to understand there is a distinction between the Real as it is in itself and the Real as we experience it.[4] The reason for the variety of religions is basically the Real as it is in itself can be experienced in many ways and described differently.[5] For Hick this is the heart of his hypothesis.[6] For example, when a police officer questions many people who were witnesses to an accident, he writes many different reports about the same event. In the same way, people may experience and describe the same Reality in different ways.


Further, the culture of each person affects the way they look at the Absolute. Hick explains, “But human projection does not – on this view – bring God into existence; rather it affects the ways in which the independently existing divine Reality is experienced.”[7]In other words, a human projects certain anthropomorphic features onto the description of God. This happens because of the culture the person was born into as well as the different ways the person has been given to interpret an experience with the Absolute. This explains why each tradition calls God a different name. In one tradition God is the Father, another calls God Allah, and yet another calls God Shiva.[8]


This explanation is used to say how each of the world religions has a different, but equally valid view of the same Reality. Hick explains,


These many different perceptions of the Real, both theistic and nontheistic, can only establish themselves as authentic by their soteriological efficacy. The great world traditions have in fact all proved to be realms within which or routes along which people are enabled to advance in the transition from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness. And, since they reveal the Real in such different lights, we must conclude that they are independently valid.[9]


Thus, theistic and non-theistic religions are only different conceptions of the same reality, having both authenticity and validity because they move people from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness. 




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