XFiles Friday: You only thought you knew what tolerance and pluralism were

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 1)

Having explored the fact that mutually-contradictory religions can’t all be true, Geisler and Turek take a break from apologetics to wallow in some extremely slanted social commentary, in a section entitled “Truth vs. Tolerance.”

[S]ome religions must be wrong. But you’re not supposed to say that in America today. You’re supposed to be “tolerant” of all religious beliefs. And in our culture, tolerance no longer means to put up with something you believe to be false (after all, you don’t tolerate things you agree with). Tolerance now means that you’re supposed to accept every belief as true! In a religious context, this is known as religious pluralism–the belief that all religions are true. [emphasis theirs]

That loud crunching sound you just heard was a huge crack obliterating the Ninth item on Judge Roy Moore’s granite monument to the “Ten Commandments.”

What on earth do Geisler and Turek mean when they say that religious pluralism means believing that all religions are true? It’s hard to tell, because despite their penchant for illustrating their points with examples and anecdotes, they offer nothing in the way of clarifications, citations, or even folksy homespun stories to support their claim that “America” now requires its citizens to accept every religious belief as true. Nor would we find any such examples if we went looking for them, since now, as always, “religious pluralism” simply means people living together in a cooperative society that respects each person’s right to believe and practice the religion of their choice.

Nor do Geisler and Turek offer any specific details about what penalties are allegedly imposed on those who fail to embrace religious pluralism. Jail? Fines? Capital punishment? Or is it just the fact that you look like a bigot when you start denying that other people have a right to disagree with you about religion?

Whatever. The fact remains that Geisler and Turek’s claim here is laughably false. If it were true that America required everyone to believe that all religions are true, you wouldn’t have best-sellers with names like The God Delusion, God is Not Great, Breaking the Spell and The End of Faith. Nor, for that matter, would you have books like I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to be an ATHEIST. Religious debate is and always has been open, vibrant, and contentious, especially in America (unlike some of the “Christian nations” of Europe, which have hate speech laws restricting what you can say about other people’s beliefs and practices). Heck, we even have entire television networks dedicated to airing Christian beliefs, including their criticisms of non-Christians.

So what in God’s name are Geisler and Turek talking about? Nothing. They’re just setting up a straw man for later, so that when they need to present their own intolerant views regarding religion, they can dismiss the boogeyman version of “pluralism” by saying how silly it is to claim that all religious beliefs have to be true. Never mind that nobody actually defines pluralism that way. Geisler and Turek need pluralism to be evil and silly, so they invent a version that is evil and silly.

[T]he claim that “you ought not question someone’s religious beliefs” is itself a religious belief for pluralists. But this belief is just as exclusive and “intolerant” as any religious belief of a Christian or a Muslim. In other words, pluralists think all non-pluralist beliefs are wrong. So pluralists are just as dogmatic and closed-minded as anyone else making truth claims in the public square. And they want everyone who disagrees with them to see things their way.

Clearly, pluralism is supposed to be both evil and silly: evil because it tries to force its beliefs on those who do not embrace them, and silly because it does so in violation of its own beliefs. I’ll address that claim in a second, but first let’s note that Geisler and Turek are being quite frank here: Christianity is opposed to pluralism. It may be a distorted view of pluralism, but there’s no mistaking the attitude they have towards the whole pluralistic system. They don’t like it, and they see it as an enemy to be overcome by the Gospel.

As for their point, they make two serious errors. The first is the error of thinking that pluralism means you can’t even question someone else’s beliefs. That’s nonsense, of course, because pluralism just means you can’t interfere with their right to believe and practice their own faith. Question it all you want, just don’t try to pressure people into conforming to your beliefs via social and/or legal pressures. Their second error is in describing pluralism as a mere religious belief. It isn’t. Pluralism is a social policy based on pragmatic experience. Societies are more likely to thrive when their citizens cooperate and respect one another despite differences. Societies are more likely to stagnate or decay when their citizens waste their energies trying to force their beliefs on one another against the other party’s will. Pluralism is just good, sound social policy.

Geisler and Turek continue on in the same vein for a while, belaboring their own misperception of pluralism. It’s a waste of time. If you’ve got someone on your doorstep trying to sell you a religion, and you don’t feel like getting into a religious argument, you might make some silly excuse like believing that all religions are true. Perhaps that sort of thing is what Geisler and Turek are really responding to. But that’s not pluralism, nor is it any kind of official policy or standard custom. It’s just Ordinary Joe trying to get out of an annoying and pointless debate over irrelevant dogmas. Geisler and Turek are treating it like some kind of formal school of thought deliberately defining American culture, but it’s really just a manifestation of the psychology of how we get rid of pests.

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