A society can be understood as religiously diverse when there are a variety of religious beliefs, practices, norms, and customs existing in harmony. Differences in opinions, attitudes, lifestyle, choices, and beliefs are present in every social setting. However, when it comes to the institution of religion, these differences may have fruitful as well as problematic implications on society. This article attempts to explore the nature of religious pluralism and examine its varied dimensions. The article underlines the implications of religious pluralism on the world at large.
As is well known, religion is deeply influenced by two prominent factors- location and culture, therefore it can have different meanings and interpretations in different countries or societies. The basic assumption in the apprehension of religious pluralism is the coexistence of various religions in one society. The plurality of religious beliefs and communities is present in almost every corner of the world. Interestingly, religious pluralism is often misunderstood to be the same as religious diversity. It is important to note that these two terms are not synonymous with each other. Religious diversity emphasizes the diverse features of religious groups in a religiously plural setting. Whereas, The basic idea of religious pluralism is to place all the religious groups together in a harmonious setting, irrespective of their different cultural identities.
It is noteworthy that, in the modern world, religious pluralism resembles a spiritual marketplace in which people could choose whatever beliefs satisfied their needs. There is a gradual erosion of orthodox belief systems due to the increasing adaptation of the rational approach all over the world. However, religion will continue to remain politically important as an active response to the secular implication of globalization.
In a religiously diverse nation, the idea of religious pluralism often runs into difficulties. The plurality of religions is closely associated with the idea of secularism. Although, in a democratic setting, the law considers all religious faiths as equal, nevertheless, it often ends up creating disparity among the masses by marking a division between the majority and the minority.
Different Dimensions of Religious Pluralism
In some contexts, religious pluralism refers to sympathetic consideration of every other religious system where people have a much more rational and tolerant attitude towards other religions. Whereas, in other contexts, it can mean equality of all religions.
Religious pluralism is believed to have more chances of survival in a democratic state where each individual has a choice and freedom to raise their opinions and concerns. The functioning of a religiously plural society is based on the democratic decision-making system where the interests of every religious and ethnic group are considered.
Religious pluralism can be witnessed in many countries around the world where immigrants from different cultural backgrounds are welcomed. For example, in the United States, there are several cities which are referred to as ‘Little Italy’ or ‘ChinaTown’ where immigrants from those countries reside in these cities while keeping up with their cultural identities. Moreover, there are some native American tribes in the US with a separate government who have preserved their traditions and religious beliefs for their future generations. Thus, the United States can be seen as a ‘melting pot’ where the locals and the immigrants are living in harmony while maintaining their cultural and religious identities.
India can be seen as the best example of religious pluralism. It is a nation with a Hindu majority but it is also home to various minority groups with different religious and cultural backgrounds. India is a nation with deep communal history, yet it is one of the largest democracies in the world where every religion is considered equal. However, the idea of secularism faces difficulties every day in such a nation where communal identity is more prevalent than national identity. In India, secularism cannot exist peacefully because the private and the public always flow into each other. Pluralism in India is resulting in intense religious fundamentalism and intolerance among the masses.
The foundation of pluralism is the harmonious coexistence of religious groups, their cooperation, understanding, and mutual respect that contribute to a better world. The supporters of pluralism believe that there can be many ways to reach salvation. Reality can have different interpretations according to different religious groups. On the other hand, critics argue that pluralism can often result in the creation of communal differences.
Religions Pluralism: an opportunity or a limitation?
The implications of religious pluralism can be interpreted in two different ways. Either it can be seen as an opportunity to build a better society or as an obstacle that may create disparity in society. Pluralism as an opportunity can be beneficial for society because it enables the masses to acknowledge other cultures and religions. It opens up a variety of opinions and possibilities where people have the choice to maintain their own religious identity while learning from others. Every person is at a different stage of spirituality. Acceptance of all religions and respect towards other belief systems allows one to grow spiritually. Moreover, pluralism holds the possibility to eliminate the ethnocentric attitude of society and strengthen the unity among the masses.
Pluralism as a limitation can be understood in a better way by examining it in the Indian context. In India, pluralism and secularism as an ideology is often seen in conflict. There is a constant tiff between the majority and the minority. This is mainly because of the different treatment of religious groups in India. Whenever the minority groups are given consideration and benefits under the secular law, it is often seen as an act of pampering the minority by the majority which further turns into a communal issue. Thus, instead of liberalism and secularism, India is experiencing the adversity of communalism.
In contemporary times, religious pluralism becomes quite challenging by presenting a range of complications to the different religious communities. Growing individualism in modern times is further contributing to the complexities of pluralism. Evidently, when a society is extremely diverse and communally divided, there is an emergence of religious intolerance and religious fundamentalism. However, if we try to understand religious pluralism in an elaborate manner, it is neither an opportunity nor a limitation. It is just a fact or reality which can be interpreted and manifested in many ways. Religious pluralism has a set of reactions, often in the form of religious fundamentalism which is a perversion of religion and has little to do with faith and more to do with politics.
Kumar.R. 1986. “The Varieties of Secular Experience”. in Essays in the Social History of Modern India. Calcutta, Oxford University Press. pp.31-46.
Dale Tuggy. ‘Theories of Religious Diversity’. Internet Encyclopedia Of Philosophy. 9 March’2019. https://iep.utm.edu/reli-div/.
Robert Longley. ‘What is Pluralism? Definition and Examples’. 31 July’2019. ThoughtCo. 9 March’2019. https://www.thoughtco.com/pluralism-definition-4692539.