A Place for Truth in a Pluralistic Society

Is truth so all-inclusive that it doesn’t really matter what you believe as long as you are sincere? We wouldn’t say that about scientific truths, but what about religious truths?

In particular, are the distinctions between the various religions so minor that it doesn’t matter which one of them you believe? Or any of them at all?

These are questions that arise in a pluralistic society such as we have in the United States and much of the Western world. Pluralism accommodates differences, celebrates diversity and promotes inclusion. Pluralism, generally, is a good and wholesome thing in a civilized society.

Whereas, people with differences once harbored hostilities toward one another, and waged war and walled each other out on the basis of those differences, a pluralistic society tolerates, accommodates and even celebrates diversity.

Pluralism allows people to live as they see fit to live and as they believe they ought to live, within reason of course. (My right to live as I see fit ends at your right to be free from my intrusion.) Pluralism maximizes liberty and freedom and allows people choice. Pluralism is a necessary construct in a free society.

Truth, however, is not so inclusive. We don’t accommodate any or all theories in science. We don’t tolerate views in science that compete with proven evidence without equally compelling evidence to the contrary because truth matters to the scientific endeavor.

Truth is what it is.

This is not to say that people aren’t free to adopt their pet theories, but pet theories are not relied upon by a circumspect scientific world that is trying to launch probes to Mars and program vehicles to drive by themselves without killing innocent people.  In the same sense, if truth matters, and if there is any truth to be found in religion, we defy logic and common sense to say that one religion or set of beliefs is just like the next. And the consequences of failing to discern fact from fiction may be just as dire.

In a world of finite creatures such as ourselves, we need a principal like pluralism to allow a marketplace of ideas and worldviews so that people have freedom and legitimate choice. Truth, however, does not afford the same kind of liberty. This means that our choices have real consequences and make real differences.

In an imperfect world filled with imperfect beings such as ourselves who struggle to know and understand truth, we should not confuse the value of pluralism with the exclusiveness of truth. Truth is exclusive by definition.  What is true cannot be the same as what is not true.

In the end, the issue for most of us isn’t whether some things are true to the exclusion of other things, but what is truth. With so many differing worldviews and different religious and political views, it’s hard to sort it all out. None of us are the final arbiters of truth; it’s also easier to celebrate the differences than to examine and judge them. It feels better too.

In a society that values pluralism, as we should, we want to minimize the differences people have because we are all people. We value getting along and living in harmony with each other over blowing up the differences that have traditionally divided people, caused tensions and led to hostilities.

This is a good sentiment. We have advanced past our differences in much of the world, and the world is a better place for it. But still … truth is not so forgiving.

We should value pluralism without letting go of the fact that truth, by definition, is exclusive. To do so is like ignoring gravity in a world that highly values the freedom of flying.

The fact is that pluralism and truth both have value, but we have to hold them in the right tension. We can accommodates differences, celebrate diversity and promote inclusion while using truth to our individual and mutual benefit – like we do when we build planes that fly.

This is as true in religion as it is in science.

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