Imagine that three people are all touching a part of an elephant. The first is touching the elephant’s leg and says that the elephant is like the truck of a tree. The second is touching the elephant’s trunk and disagrees with the first. They think that the trunk is more like a large snake. The third person thinks that the elephant is more like a great wall because they are toughing the side.
Each person is convinced that they are right and the others are wrong because of what they know and have experienced. What they don’t realize is that they are all technically right because they are each describing a different aspect of the elephant. The same analogy can be applied to the major religions of the world.
In 1973, John Hick discussed the idea for a paradigm shift in thinking about different religions in his book God and the Universe of Faiths. Hick’s idea is that the different religions could be viewed as “different human responses to one divine reality” In a later book, Hick presented a theory that attempted to explain all the religions. Hick refers to this theory as a “pluralistic hypothesis” and defines it as that all religions can be described as “culturally conditioned responses to the same ultimate reality.”
This theory faces one major difficulty though, the contradicting claims that each different religions makes. How can it be possible that all major religions are responses of the same ultimate reality if they contradict one another? For a pluralistic view to be plausible, the hypothesis has to sufficiently explain how religions can make incompatible claims while at the same time be responses of the same ultimate reality.
To overcome this difficulty, Hick attempts to explain four critical factors: (1) people are inherently religious; (2) the substantial diversity of the content of religious beliefs; (3) that religious beliefs are not an illusion; and (4) that basically every religion positively changes its followers’ lives.
Hick doesn’t spend much time on the first two factors because they are self-evident to most. To argue the third factor Hick examines naturalism and absolutism. Naturalism is the belief that only natural laws and forces operate in the world and that nothing exists beyond the natural world. Hick believes that the universe can be understood when looking at it from this perspective. What he does not find plausible with the claim is that all religious beliefs are delusional.
Absolutism, in contrast to naturalism, generally accepts a realist view of religious phenomena. Absolutism is also setup so that only one system of religious beliefs is exactly true and all other religions which disagree with it are false. Hick rejects this attitude because although absolutism may seem plausible when looking at only one religion, application to the real world leaves it highly implausible. Also if absolutism were true, empirical evidence would exist to confirm it.
It is obvious that different religions hold conflicting beliefs on several aspects. It seems obvious enough also that almost every religion has positive moral change on its believers. So it implausible to believe that only one religion is true and it is the people who believe this that Hick’s hypothesis has the most appeal to because it provides the framework for the claim that any religion which positively affects its believers’ lives is valid. However, for the hypothesis to be plausible it must sufficiently cover the conflicting truth-claims problem.
A difficulty Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis faces is the conflicting belief systems of various religions. In Hick’s book An Interpretation of Religion, Hick claims that all religions authentically experience what he defines as “the Real.” Yet each religion has beliefs that are different and often contradict other religions. The question then is if different belief systems and conflicting truth-claims leaves Hick’s pluralistic theory implausible.
Hick does not believe that conflicting truth-claims disproves his theory but they do present a difficulty. Hick devotes an entire chapter in An Interpretation of Religion to discussing them, covering three separate points on which religions tend to disagree on. First are matters of historical fact, then matters of trans-historical fact and differing conceptions of the Real.
Hick believes that these disagreements can be resolved by applying the historical method but it proves to be difficult. One reason is because many historical claims of religions have no other historical support outside the religion that makes them. Hick reasons that historical differences just must be accepted, because many are not over central articles of faith. Hick’s basic argument is that most historical disagreements cannot be resolved and since the disagreements are not related to the essence of any religion, resolving them is not critical to the argument and therefore the disagreements do not create a problem for his hypothesis.
Later in is his book, Hick considers conflicting trans-historical truth-claims. He defines them as having “to do with questions to which there is, in principle, a true answer but which cannot be established by historical or other empirical evidence.” Two examples he gives are the nature of the universe and the fate at death of human beings.
The nature of the universe has been a main dispute between theistic and non-theistic religions. In applying Hick’s definition, this is a dispute to which there is, in principle, only one valid answer. Nevertheless, the question cannot currently be answered, even by modern science because current scientific cosmologies can be companionable with either perspective.
The fate at death of human beings is another example of conflicting trans-historical truth claims. This conflict mainly arises between eastern and western religions. Eastern religions emphasize multiple reincarnations or rebirths after death. Western theistic religions claim though that a person lives a single life that is followed by judgment at death to determine their eternal fate.
These points are important to Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis. In Hick’s examination of various religions, he does not directly address different religions different beliefs of what happens at death because despite the differing beliefs, Hick reasons that every faith helps its people develop morally which he believes is an essential result of the switch from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness. On this basis, he argues that these differences do not hamper salvation/liberation and therefore do not present any problems for his hypothesis.
In his book, Hick also examines conflicting beliefs about the ultimate Reality. Hick’s hypothesis asserts that all religions are correct interpretations of the “Real.” However, one obvious problem of this is the drastically different notion of the “Real” that each religion holds. As Hick previously claims, each religion’s deity is a correct, yet different face of the “Real” and since no concepts, categories, or distinctions can be applied to the “Real”, this prevents any potential contradiction between religions.
So the differences between the basic concepts and practices of different religions, the different (and often) conflicting historical and trans-historical beliefs and the varied belief systems on which all of them are formed, are harmonious with Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis. Compatible in that the multiple world religions constitute different conceptions and perceptions of, and responses to, the “Real” from within the different cultural ways of being human.
However, Hick’s hypothesis does not offer a satisfactory explanation of the problem of the conflicting truth-claims of the different religions. In order for Hick’s hypothesis to be probable it has to be free from internal contradictions and accurately explain religious phenomena. It cannot sufficiently meet either of these conditions.
This paper began with the scenario of three people each touching a different part of an elephant. This metaphor is basically a simplified version of Hick’s hypothesis. Each religion is like a man who is unable to see the elephant as the whole it really is.
But how do we know that the people are all describing the same elephant? Perhaps the first was actually holding the truck of a tree and the second was actually holding a fire hose and the third was touching the side of a building. This scenario has a critical flaw, it assumes the same thing it allegedly proves, that all three were touching an elephant.
Furthermore, the scenario described does not really describe the world’s religions. None of the descriptions were conflicting, just different. What if each of the statements made about the “elephant” contradicted the statements of the others? Would it still be possible to assume that everyone is describing the same elephant? How much contradiction is required before it becomes clear that it’s not the same elephant everyone is describing? This same question can be applied to Hick’s hypothesis. With the conflicting truth-claims of various religions, is it really reasonable to accept Hick’s claim that all religions are just different interpretations of the same reality?
Hick addresses the credibility of the possibility that every religion worships the same God and just refers to him by different names in Disputed Questions, entitled “Jews, Christians, Muslims: Do We All Worship the Same God?” He concludes that the trouble of this claim is that the various descriptions have to be compatible. The same criticism Hick applied against that position can be applied to Hick’s own hypothesis. The differences between religions are far too great for his hypothesis to be plausible.