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November 2014 Policy Study, Number 14-7


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


Part II



There are some significant problems for Hick’s conception of religious pluralism. Immediately evident are four weaknesses in Hick’s position. The first is that the different religions have contradictory truth claims about reality. The second is that Hick cannot explain away contradictory truth claims between religions unless he reinterprets them. A third weakness is that Hick overlooks the conflicting accounts of what means to use to reach the end. The fourth is that Hick’s analysis presupposes that he has access to the Reality everyone else only partially describes. Before discussing these problems with Hick’s position, we must first venture into the nature of truth.


When dealing with the questions about truth claims, it is important to distinguish between different types of truth claims.  What is most useful in this discussion is to evaluate whether these are subjective or objective. Truth claims that are purely subjective are claims about matters of taste. It may be true that I prefer chocolate ice cream to vanilla (which is subjective). I, as the subject of the claim, am the only one who has direct access to whether what I say is true (though you may have knowledge of this for various reasons if what you’ve inferred corresponds to reality).[10] Objective truth claims are claims that are accessible to people other than only the subject. An example of an objective truth claim is George Bush was the President of the United States in 2005. Consider also that the claim that George Bush was President of the United States in 2005, if it is true, is true transculturally. This means that in every culture and for every person it is true that George Bush was President of the United States in 2005. One needs to ask whether the world religions claim to be objectively or subjectively true. If they claim to be objectively true, then their truth claims may be examined and found to be true or false.


Additionally, one must realize the difference between the truth of a claim and the process of testing the truth of a claim. Thus, there may be a number of ways to test the truth of a claim. For example, if a claim is logically coherent, it may be true. Logical coherence can thus be a good test for truth. However, a test for truth is different from the actual truth of the claim. For example, Shakespeare’s work on Julius Caesar may be logically coherent and still not be true.  Nonetheless, if a claim is true, then statements that are the opposite of the claim are false.


Something that one may note from Hick’s argument is that he says all the different religious views are valid. Consider the unique way Hick is using the term valid here. If Hick is using the term valid in the logical sense, then he is simply referring to the form of the claim.  For example, logicians consider the following syllogism to be valid:


P1) All insects have eight legs.
P2) A spider is an insect.
∴ Therefore, all spiders have eight legs.


So, although the argument is valid, the premises are not true. However, what is not so important is whether the religious view is valid, but whether the view is true. Similarly, when the world religions make claims about reality, what is important is whether the claims that are made correspond to reality.


The goal of an argument is to make sure it is sound. For an argument to be sound, it must have a valid form with true premises. When the argument is both valid and the premises are true then the conclusion necessarily follows and we call it sound. Thus, if Hick is strictly limiting his meaning to validity as a logician does, his claim that all religious descriptions are valid is not enough to tell us whether they are true. 


Further, all people, including Hick, must recognize the first principles of knowledge, specifically the law of non-contradiction and the law of excluded middle. These first principles are self-evident once one understands the terms. The law of non-contradiction says, “A is not non-A.” One way to illustrate this truth is to plug something in for the variable A. Thus, one can say, “Existence is not non-Existence.” One can also apply this principle to truth claims. For example, if the claim George Bush was President of the United States in 2005 is true, then the claim that George Bush was not President of the United States in 2005 is false.  Another first principle is the law of excluded middle. This principle says, “either A or non-A.” In an example similar to the principle of non-contradiction, something either exists or it does not exist, and there is no middle ground. Applying this example to another truth claim one can say, “Either George Bush was President of the United States in 2005 or he was not.” 


One criticism of Hick is that different religions have contradictory truth claims about reality. Hick admits that some say that God is personal and others say that God is non-personal.[11] Now either God is personal or not. It cannot be true that God is both personal and non-personal given the law of excluded middle. Applying the law of non-contradiction, if God is personal, then God is not non-personal. Thus, Hick cannot say that these contradictory truth claims about the nature of God are both true without violating a first principle.


Take the law of non-contradiction and apply it to the example of the officer taking several different reports on an accident. Suppose one person says that a car ran over only one graduate student in the philosophy department, and another says that a car ran over several students. One may ask whether both reports are describing the same event. If one discovers they are about the same event, at least one of the accounts is false (as they both can’t be true, but both can be false if nobody is actually run over).  Also, if one report is true, the other is necessarily false.[12] Similarly, in view of radically different descriptions of reality, if one is true, then the other is false.


The second criticism of Hick’s position is that his account reinterprets a religious belief when it cannot account for contradiction. For example, when discussing what the goal of all religions is, he says that the goal is to move people from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness in order to relate to the Absolute.[13] Further, this goal is reached by giving oneself freely and totally to this One as our final salvation or liberation or enlightenment.[14] Why does Hick equate salvation with liberation and enlightenment? Hick must blur the distinction between certain terms to equate them to such an extent that they are rendered completely different than what they mean to each of the world religions that use them. Thus, Christians believe that salvation describes the fact that they are saved from at least some of the consequences of sin. Yet, liberation often is used to mean that one is freed from thinking there is any such thing as sin. Enlightenment often has different meanings as well and can be used to describe coming to a realization that desire is the primary obstacle to finding a release from suffering.  As is seen in these examples, changing the meaning of a word from the way it is used in its own religious system commits the fallacy of equivocation. Salvation does not mean liberation or enlightenment. 


The consequence of this criticism of Hick’s equivocal account of different religious views is made clear in two ways. First, if Hick’s description uses the word salvation equivocally to mean enlightenment, then by not using the word as Christians use it he has not really told us how the Christian term salvation is like the eastern teaching of enlightenment. Second, Hick has not really shown how all religions teach the same thing because he has not accurately represented all religions. As a matter of fact, he ignores essential distinctions that different religions make, and does not even address all religions due to his equivocation of certain religious terms. Thus, Hick fails in the task he set out to demonstrate (that all religions describe the same reality) given the fact he does not even address all religions. At most he has shown that there are some superficial similarities between some religions.


A third criticism is that Hick overlooks the most important difference that various religions make – what are the means to reach the end? Thus, when two religions claim one can have a relationship with God in different ways, Hick focuses instead on the ends that both share instead of the means by which to reach the end. Thus, one may grant that Hick is correct that the essence of all world religions teaches one about how to have a relationship with God. Suppose that the thing in common among the various religions is the end they all want to reach.  Even with this supposition, that which is different is the means the different religions explain by which one can reach the end. One religion claims that it is only by doing enough good works that one will be reconciled to God. Another claims that one can never be reconciled to God by doing good works.[15]  One is either reconciled to God by doing good works or not. If one is reconciled to God by works, then the one that claims the opposite is wrong and vice versa. These are contradictory means given by different religions to reach God. 


The fourth criticism is that Hick’s analysis presupposes that he has access to the Reality everyone else only partially describes. Hick actually admits his description of religious pluralism is like the one of the elephant and the six blind men.[16] However, he also says that he does not claim to know his description with infallible cognition. But, Hick does not see this as a weakness of his position. The reason is that other religions have no infallible cognition either.  The problem that becomes obvious does not relate to whether Hick has infallible cognition, but that he views a reality that all the other world religions miss. Further, by the very nature of his analysis, Hick claims to be in the position that he can view reality as it really is in order to critique all the other religions. Thus, despite his denial, his description puts him in the place that he has the “point of view of someone who can observe both elephant and blind men.”[17]


Of course, the problem with this is twofold. First, how did Hick get this transcendent view that all others do not have? He admits that his hypothesis is arrived at inductively. Yet, I can see no good reason to believe that his hypothesis is true given the nature of competing and contradictory truth claims. Second, it seems like the account of the blind men and the elephant actually points to the fact that all the blind men are wrong about reality. This is obvious because the elephant is not like a rope, spear, snake, or any of the others. The entire parable rests on a fundamental mistake that the men make because they are blind. However, the one describing the picture of the elephant and blind men who has sight can clearly see what the elephant is.


Hick may respond in two ways. First, he may say that it is possible for there to be a middle path in some religious descriptions, which goes against the principle of excluded middle I am trying to apply. Not all religious descriptions are exclusive. One may think of the way some scientists describe light in terms of waves and others describe it in terms of particles. Second, he may point out that the elephant in the story is really like the rope, spear, etc. in certain ways. Similarly, the ways various religions describe the ultimate reality may reflect it in certain ways, but may be wrong in other ways.


In reply to the first, one can concede it may be the case for there to be different ways to describe the same reality. For example, someone may say the President spoke on TV, another says the President and Vice President spoke, and another says a TV news anchor spoke. All three can be true as they are not contradictory as long as they don’t exclude each other. However, what this example does not show to be true is that the truth of the matter has a middle ground. The description about reality is either true or it is not. Although it may be hard to ascertain what the truth is, it does not affect the nature of truth. Thus, the scientists who describe light in terms of waves and those who describe light in terms of particles are similar to those who describe man as risible and others who describe man as rational. These are not contradictory accounts as are the world religions and cannot be a criticism of my assessment.


To the second criticism, one must see what it is that each religion actually claims that excludes contradictory claims. One can concede that different religions may have truths that others do not and thus accurately describe reality. For example, consider one religion that teaches that the planet earth is round and another that teaches it is flat. One of these describes a reality the other does not. Only one can be true in its description of reality. Both cannot be true given the contradictory claims. Given the fact that there are contradictory claims between religions, and that only one can be true, Hick’s account is implausible.




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