The Problem of Religious Diversity
Abstract: This paper is a study and critique of John Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis as presented in his book An Interpretation of Religion. I primarily focus on two issues: Hick’s epistemology of religious beliefs and the pluralistic hypothesis itself. Hick uses his epistemological stance to argue that there is an epistemological problem of religious diversity. After he argues that there is a problem, he presents his solution, i.e. the pluralistic hypothesis. After explaining these issues, I focus upon the connection between the two, arguing that his hypothesis is unwarranted. Lastly, I argue for my position of religious falliblism.
Currently in the philosophy of religion, a debate over the problem of religious plurality continues among many philosophers. John Hick, a leading philosopher of religion, cites the problem in the following way:
. . . the most viable defence of religious belief has to be a defence of the rationality of basing beliefs . . . on religious experience. From the point of view of a Christian philosopher – as distinguished from a philosopher simply as such – there is, however, an obvious challenge to this in the fact that the same epistemological principle establishes the rationality of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists etc. in holding beliefs that are at least partly, and sometimes quite radically, incompatible with the Christian belief-system.
In this paper, I aim to explicate and take a stance on the debate of religious pluralism by using the works of Hick, primarily An Interpretation of Religion, as my focal and entry point into the debate. In explicating the views of Hick, I will concentrate on two issues which for Hick are inextricably linked. The first issue concerns the justification of religious beliefs based upon religious experience; the second is Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis. These are certainly two separate issues, but for Hick, the first gives rise to the second. Hick basically claims that the fact that religious beliefs are justified by religious experience creates a problem, the problem of religious diversity. Hick’s solution to this problem is his pluralistic hypothesis.
After explaining Hick’s position on these two issues, I will reexamine the issue of the justification of religious beliefs and argue that Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis is unwarranted. I will advocate the position of religious falliblism; that is, the position that religious beliefs are inherently uncertain and possibly mistaken. I will support Hick’s claim that it is rational to trust our experience, even if it is religious experience, but argue that this does not lend itself to his version of pluralism. It does, however, suggest that religious beliefs (among other types of beliefs) should be accompanied with the realization that they could very well be mistaken. Moreover, this position of religious fallibilism will help us "move beyond the static situation of rival absolutisms." This is the end that Hick hopes will be attained by his pluralistic hypothesis, but I hope to show that my position is a better and more efficient mean to that end.
A central premise to Hick’s argument for the problem of religious diversity is that the justification of religious belief must be grounded in religious experience. Hick distinguishes between two types of religious experience. "In the one kind the ‘information’ is mediated through our material environment: things, events and processes in the world are experienced as having a religious character or meaning in virtue of which they manifest to us the presence of the transcendent". This first kind of religious experience is common both to the ordinary believer and to the great prophets and leaders of the various traditions.
Distinguished from this type of religious experience is mystical experience, which Hick defines as "those forms of religious experience that express the presence of the Real, not as manifested in our material environment, but as directly affecting the human psyche". This mystical experience can take the form of the unitive experience of the oneness of God/Absolute etc. or the communitive experience of visions/auditions.
For Hick, the impossibility of proving the existence of God is similar to the impossibility of proving the existence of the external world. While we cannot prove the external world’s existence, it is rational, and even necessary, for us to trust our experience. "That is to say, we are so constituted that we cannot help believing and living in terms of the objective reality of the perceived world." The same is true for religious experience. Those who vividly experience their lives in relation to a transcendent reality are behaving rationally when they trust this experience and believe that this reality exists. In fact, such persons would be irrational not to trust this experience.
Hick describes the problem of religious diversity by pointing out that most contemporary philosophers of religion are in agreement that "the most viable defence of religious belief has to be a defence of the rationality of basing beliefs . . . on religious experience."  This defense of religious belief, however, poses problems for the Christian philosopher because the epistemological stance applies not just to Christianity, but to the other world religions as well.
Hick points out that the proposition 1) ‘religious belief is rational because it is based upon religious experience’ and the proposition 2) ‘there is at most one true religion’ are contradictory. "For if only one of the many belief systems based upon religious experience can be true, it follows that religious experience generally produces false beliefs, and that it is thus a generally unreliable basis for belief-formation." Hick then alludes to his own position by claiming that the first proposition seems correct, but that it would be a "much stronger contribution if the doxastic practices of the other world religions could be seen as further instances of it rather than as contradicting it." We shall see later in my critique of Hick that certain additional premises are needed in order for these two propositions to be strictly inconsistent. Hick simply assumes these premises, but (as will be shown) one of them is highly questionable.
By arguing that there is a problem of religious diversity, Hick is able to argue why there is a need for his positive work, his pluralistic hypothesis. For Hick, anyone who holds the position that religious experience is what grounds religious belief in rationality invites the problem of religious pluralism. "For if the different kinds of religious experience justify people in holding incompatible sets of beliefs developed within the different traditions, has not our justification for religious belief thereby undermined itself?" If we accept Hick’s argument of the rationality of religious beliefs, we seem to be faced with this problem. In an attempt to solve this problem, Hick posits his hypothesis.
In the briefest way, Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis can be stated as follows: "The great post-axial faiths constitute different ways of experiencing, conceiving and living in relation to an ultimate divine Reality which transcends all our varied versions of it." To flesh this out, Hick begins by making a distinction between ‘the Real’ [the transcendent divine reality] an sich and ‘the Real’ as humanly experienced by different people. ‘The Real’ an sich is ‘the Real’ as it is independent of people’s experiences of it. It is ‘the Real’ in itself, as it is unable to be perceived. Distinguished from ‘the Real’ an sich is ‘the Real’ as it is humanly experienced. This is not ‘the Real’ as it is in itself, but ‘the Real’ as it appears to human consciousness. Moreover, this appearance to human consciousness occurs in myriad ways. ‘The Real’ appears to different people in different cultural and historical contexts in different ways. This then accounts for the plurality of religious traditions.
My critique of Hick will be two-fold. First, I will show that the argument Hick gives for the need of his pluralistic hypothesis rests on a false premise. Secondly, I will argue that even if I am wrong about this and the premise is true, then Hick will be forced to thoroughly change his entire hypothesis. Thus, I will argue that Hick either has to come up with a new argument for the need of his hypothesis or change the hypothesis itself.
Hick’s argument for the need of his hypothesis faces difficulties in that it rests upon a heavily implicit and questionable assumption. Hick adheres to an externalist/reliabilist theory of justification. "Most externalist theories of the adequacy of grounds can be represented as reliabilist theories of various kinds, the central idea of which. . . is that grounds of a particular belief are adequate if (and only if) the particular. . . process of belief formation belongs to a reliable kind. . . A process is more reliable, the greater the proportion of true beliefs it produces." Externalist theories of justification place great emphasis on the process or source of beliefs. In order for a belief to be justified, the formation process or the source of the belief must tend to produce true beliefs rather than false beliefs.
Hick shows this to be his epistemological stance in his argument for the problem of religious diversity. He argues that if only one religion is true then religious experience is an unreliable basis for forming beliefs. This then leads him to the conclusion that the ‘one true religion’ belief is "fatal to [the] thesis that it is . . . rational to base beliefs on religious experience." For Hick, if there is at most only one true religion, then religious experience is an unreliable basis for belief formation. If religious experience is an unreliable basis for belief formation, then it cannot adequately justify religious beliefs. Note that Hick does not admit the first premise and, therefore, does not have to admit the conclusion. But implicit in Hick’s argument is the assumption that in order for a belief to be justified, it must be arrived at by means of a reliable (or truth conducive) basis.
However, this assumption is questioned by more internalist theories of justification. Internalist theories espouse the idea that the justification of a belief is necessarily internal to the believer. "The internalist insists that it is only the subject’s beliefs about whether a process is or is not reliable that are relevant to the justification of a resulting belief. . . "
While it would be entirely outside the scope of this paper to try and settle the debate that continues between externalist/reliabilist and internalist theories of justification in favor of the latter, I can at least point out some of the major objections to the former and show how this applies to Hick’s epistemological position. To begin with, it is important to note that "reliabilism does not require that the believer in question have any sort of cognitive access to the fact that the belief producing process is in this way reliable in order for his or her belief to be justified. All that matters for justification is that the process in question is in fact reliable" independent of what the believer happens to think about the process.
With this basic tenet in mind, consider a group of people who live in a world that is controlled by a malicious demon of the sort imagined by Descartes. This malicious demon controls all of the sensory and intuitive experiences of the people, causing them to believe that a material world much like the one we experience exists, when in fact no material exists. These people are just as rigorous in their science and philosophy as we are, yet they form the false belief that the external world that they experience exists and form many other false beliefs based upon the deceptive appearance.
Intuitively, it seems that the people of this world are justified in believing in the beliefs at which they arrive. For "their epistemic situation may, from their own subjective standpoints, well be entirely indiscernible from or even superior to our own, so that if we are confident that our own beliefs are frequently justified, we should seeming be equally confident that theirs are." But this is just what the reliabilist denies.
In addition to this Bonjour’s objection, it seems to me that if the reliabilist theory of justification is correct, it would be impossible to distinguish with certainty justified beliefs from unjustified beliefs. Moreover, it seems that any claim that a certain process is or is not reliable is itself a belief, which in order to be justified by the reliabilist standard must also be formed on the basis of a reliable process. Unless the reliabilists can provide an ultimate ground, this is the beginning of an infinite regress.
Still, the debate over externalism and internalism is one that continues today and there are also many objections to internalist theories of justification. But even if externalism and Hick’s basic point concerning the need for his hypothesis are correct, then his hypothesis and even his entire definition of the problem are much too limited in scope. For if we think about religion as a ‘family concept’ so that it would include Marxism, Humanism, etc. then we would have to conclude that given the diversity of opinions that are based on experience, experience generally produces false beliefs unless we can come up with a hypothesis that sees all these ideologies as equally true.
Taken to a more general level, Hick’s own argument for the problem of religious diversity can be used against his pluralistic hypothesis. It is clear from his writings that Hick is a dualist and believes that materialism and idealism are false. However, Hick also maintains that given the ambiguous nature of the universe others can justifiably believe in materialism or idealism if these beliefs are based on experience. But Hick’s assumption that only one of these can be correct is fatal to his empiricist position that it is rational to base beliefs on experience. For if only one of these can be true it follows that experience generally produces false beliefs, and that it is an unreliable basis for belief formation. Hick focuses our attention on transcendental religions and then gives his argument that there is a problem of religious diversity that needs to be addressed. However, if this is in fact a problem it is much wider than religious diversity and is rather a problem of world-view diversity.
Keith Ward, in his critique of Hick, notes that Hick focus attention to religions with beliefs of a "transcendent salvific reality," but does not focus upon it to question whether there is in fact a problem of religious diversity. But when this observation is made in conjunction with the argument Hick gives for the need for his hypothesis, there does seem to be something wrong with focusing attention on one type of religious belief, for it presents the alleged problem to be much simpler than it actually is.
Thus, if Hick wants to continue to maintain that the argument he gives for the need of his hypothesis is correct, then he needs to change his entire hypothesis because it is much too limited in scope. His hypothesis would have to explain how all or most rational world views can be viewed as being equally true despite their differences, not just how all of the major post-axial religious faiths can be seen as equally true. Conversely, if Hick wants to preserve his hypothesis the way it is, he needs to give a different argument for the need of the hypothesis. He needs to argue for what he simply assumes in his argument for the problem of religious diversity, namely externalism/reliabilism; but at the same time argue that this epistemological position somehow only applies to the beliefs of the religions he is considering at not to beliefs in general. For if externalism/reliabilism holds for all beliefs, then, given the diversity and mutual incompatibility of beliefs based on experience in general, experience cannot be a reliable method in justifying beliefs.
In the absence of any new argument for the need of his hypothesis, I will now argue for what I think does follow from Hick’s observation that people can be equally justified in believing contradictory religious propositions. If I recognize that other people are equally justified in believing religious propositions that are contradictory to my own, it seems that I must admit that my own religious views are fallible and uncertain. This observation does not need to force me to religious skepticism, for "just because it is possible for me to go wrong, it does not follow that I can never go right." And while the position of religious falliblism hedges those who hold it from religious skepticism on the one end, it has the added advantage of hedging those who hold it from religious dogmatism on the other. For while religious falliblism requires the observation that I could be wrong, it also requires the observation that people from traditions different from my own could be right in many important respects. Thus, it keeps my religious beliefs open to constant revision. Moreover, on this observation, my proposal of religious falliblism seems to be a "moderate, rational, balanced, Anglican-style middle way" of the kind of which Hick is so fond.
Hick seems to be concerned with opening up space for religious dialogue and is interested to "move beyond the static situation of rival absolutisms." But if this is a driving force for Hick in the creation of his hypothesis, then one should notice that religious falliblism offers an alternative to Hick’s way of accomplishing this goal. For if I recognize that I could be wrong and others could be right, it becomes advantageous for me to listen to those with opposing religious views. And while it would not be rational for me to accept religious propositions that completely clash with my experience, I am kept safe from the ‘static situation’ Hick mentions because religious fallibilism keeps my religious beliefs open to constant revision. Moreover, Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis has just as much potential to be held dogmatically as any other religious system.
Throughout this study of John Hick and religious pluralism, it has been shown how Hick’s insistence on the importance of religious experience in justifying religious beliefs leads him to argue that there is a problem of religious diversity that can only be successfully solved by his pluralistic hypothesis. The two issues of the rationality of religious beliefs and religious pluralism are for Hick inextricably linked, for the way he argues for the rationality of religious beliefs pushes him to his religious pluralism. However, I have argued that one can agree with the way Hick argues for the rationality of religious belief without maintaining that there is a need for a pluralistic hypothesis. This can be done by adopting an internalist theory of justification. By doing this we avoid the extremes of skepticism and dogmatism and keep the line of religious communication open. Moreover, we preserve an attitude of humility that is advocated by all of the great religious traditions.
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Epistemology. Ed. Paul K. Moser. Oxford, New York: Oxford UP, 2002.
Hick, John, ed. Dialogues in the Philosophy of Religion. New York: Palgrave,
---. Disputed Questions in Theology and the Philosophy of Religion. New
Haven: Yale UP, 1993.
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---. "Religious Pluralism and the Divine: A Response to Paul Eddy." Religious
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Swinburne, Richard. Epistemic Justification. Oxford: Clarendon, 2001.
Ward, Keith. "Truth and the Diversity of Religions." Religious Studies 26 (1990):
Wiredu, Kwasi. Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective.
Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996.
 John Hick, Dialogues in the Philosophy of Religion (New York: Palgrave, 2001) 25.
 John Hick, Disputed Questions in Theology and the Philosophy of Religion (New Haven: Yale UP, 1993) 154.
 John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion (New Haven: Yale UP, 1989) 154.
 Hick, An Interpretation of Religion 165.
 Hick, An Interpretation of Religion 165.
 Hick, An Interpretation of Religion 213.
 Hick, An Interpretation of Religion 213.
 Hick, Dialogues in the Philosophy of Religion 25.
 Hick, Dialogues in the Philosophy of Religion 26.
 Hick, Dialogues in the Philosophy of Religion 27.
 Hick, An Interpretation of Religion 228.
 Hick, An Interpretation of Religion 235-6.
 Richard Swinburne, Epistemic Justification (Oxford: Clarendon, 2001) 13.
 Hick, Dialogues in the Philosophy of Religion 26.
 Hick, Dialogues in the Philosophy of Religion 26.
 Swinburne, 9.
 Swinburne, 21.
 I am entirely indebted to Laurence Bonjour’s article "Internalism and Externalism," The Oxford Handbook of Epistemology, ed. Paul K. Moser (Oxford, New York: Oxford UP, 2002) 234-263, as the source of the objections to externalism.
 Bonjour, 244-45.
 Bonjour, 247.
 See Hick’s parallel argument in Dialogues in the Philosophy of Religion, 26.
 Ward, Truth and the Diversity of Religions," Religious Studies 26 (1990): 3.
 Kwasi Wiredu, Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996) 140.
 Hick, "Religious Pluralism and the Divine: A Response to Paul Eddy", Religious Studies 31 (1995): 420.
 Hick, Disputed Questions in Theology and the Philosophy of Religion 154.