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Thoughts on “pluralism”

The accepted wisdom about Islam is that it has to accept pluralism to become a good citizen of the modern world. “Pluralism,” as a practical matter, is the view that the only public truth about religion is that no religion is better than any other and all religion ought to be kept private. Christianity, it is said, has already accepted pluralism, or at least its legitimate forms have. If the West wants to tell Islam to reform, the least the West can do (it is said) is crack down on its own anti-pluralists. So opponents of “gay marriage” or abortion can’t be distinguished from the Taleban, and it’s hypocritical to oppose the one without taking a stand against the other.

The essence of “pluralism,” then, is that liberalism comes first, and within the limits of liberalism you can be anything you want. As long as you agree it’s obligatory to honor equally all preferences that accept liberal equality you are perfectly free to have and pursue your own preferences. You can, for example, admire and love the scriptures, teachings, rituals and personages of Christianity or Islam as long as that admiration and love is wholly subordinate to liberalism. Your religious preference must be understood as a purely personal matter, and the true value of your preferred religion must be understood as its adumbration and poetic presentation of liberal teachings. Further, you must be willing to keep quiet about your religious beliefs, at least if there’s some risk they might be understood to be meant as authoritative. It’s against pluralism, for example, to say “Merry Christmas” in a Western society in which Christianity has historically (until a few years ago) had a privileged position.

The basic argument in favor of “pluralism” is that in a world in which beliefs do in fact differ it is the only way to achieve peace. The advantage of that argument, from the standpoint of those making it, is that it does away with the need to argue the truth, goodness or rationality of liberalism itself. It makes the unquestioned supremacy of liberalism a brute practical necessity that all other views must bow to as a precondition for avoiding the war of all against all and so being able to achieve any good whatever. For liberals, it’s a shortcut to total victory.

It’s not clear that the argument makes sense, though. It’s no doubt true that things will be peaceful if everybody strictly subordinates all interests to liberalism, but it’s equally true that things will be peaceful if everyone strictly subordinates all interests to Catholicism. One could, for example, have a Catholic pluralism in which you’re allowed to be liberal or Islamic, and admire John Stuart Mill and the concept of freedom or Mohammed and the Koran, as long as you strictly subordinate those things to the discipline and doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, view them as valuable strictly to the extent they can be understood as parables of Catholic truth, and keep quiet about them if there’s a risk they might be taken literally, so that in Egypt you’d have to keep quiet about Islam and in America about liberalism.

That kind of pluralism would have the same logical structure, and the same effect with regard to peace, as the kind deep thinkers want to enforce on Christianity and Islam. Would liberals be willing to render it the same submission they demand from Christians or Muslims with respect to their own version of pluralism? The fact of the matter is that if there are differences in belief there will be conflicts. It’s often possible to avert or moderate the practical consequences of conflicts, but the claim that there’s some principled way to dissolve conflicts altogether while leaving the conflicting beliefs as they are is obviously phoney. It’s an attempt to make a particular belief dominant by stealth, and no-one is required to accept it. Life, and the issues life presents, are real. It follows that when the good, beautiful and true come into question there’s no substitute for dealing with the issues actually presented.

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