Pluralism vs. Relativism

I read an article earlier this week (“Theorizing Religion in the Global Age: A Typological Analysis” by Martin Geoffrey, who, like me, has two first names) in which the author laid out a typology between four different types of religion in our modern, global world.  Among these four were pluralist and relativist.  I found Geoffrey’s distinction interesting and worth elaborating in my own fashion in this blog.

Now, many people might not draw a distinction between the two. gives the following definitions of “pluralism”:

1: the holding of two or more offices or positions (as benefices) at the same time

2: the quality or state of being plural

3 a : a theory that there are more than one or more than two kinds of ultimate reality

b : a theory that reality is composed of a plurality of entities

4 a : a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain an autonomous participation in and development of their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilization

b : a concept, doctrine, or policy advocating this state

Definition 3a might sound a lot like relativism to some – it’s a denial of a single, universal, capital “T” truth, as is relativism (which Merriam-Webster defines as follows: “1 a : a theory that knowledge is relative to the limited nature of the mind and the conditions of knowing b : a view that ethical truths depend on the individuals and groups holding them”).  These two are not, however, the same – one says that there is more than one kind of ultimate reality, and the other says that each person defines her or his own ultimate reality.

It’s not really Merriam-Webster’s third definition that I want to defend or discuss, though – it’s the fourth.  This definition has two parts which fit perfectly with the two ways I wanted to talk about pluralism even before I went and looked up that definition.

On a first and most basic level, pluralism describes a state of society, without passing judgment on that state one way or another.  Pluralism at this level is a recognition that diversity exists – religious, ethnic, racial, gender orientation, and other types of diversity.  At this basic level, we can say that America is a pluralist society, and that’s a hard statement to argue with.  We could even further say that globalization increasingly knits us all together into an interconnected, pluralist, global world.  These are facts, not value judgments.  They may provoke value judgments and present certain challenges and opportunities for societies that call for critical evaluation, but that’s a second level of analysis.

Pluralism as a value can be a part of that second level analysis, though, and this is where Merriam-Webster’s definition 4b comes in.  This definition refers to “a concept, doctrine, or policy advocating” the state described in the paragraph above.  It seems to me that there are two versions of such a position: an active pluralism which seeks to encourage the creation of such a pluralist society and a passive pluralism which accepts the existence of such a pluralist society.  I’ll probably spend time later in this blog defending at least a passive pluralist position, but for now, I just want to draw the distinction between that and a relativist position.

Relativism is essentially about truth, ethics, and values.  Pluralism (in the 4b sense) is essentially about social relations.  Relativism says that each person or group of people defines their own truth, establishes their own ethics, and chooses their own values, and none of those truths, ethics, or values are inherently any more true, ethical, or valuable than any others.

Pluralism doesn’t really comment on the trueness of others’ truths, the ethicality of others’ ethics, or the valuableness of others’ values.  Even in the definition 3a sense, which says there’s more than one aspect to ultimate reality, doesn’t comment on the validity of others’ perceptions of ultimate reality.  And pluralism in the 4b sense isn’t about judging other’s truths, it’s about granting the legitimacy of their right to pursue those truths.

Indeed, there are reasons why you might think another person or group of people have missed out on some important aspect of the truth, but still think it very important that they be allowed to pursue their own understanding of the truth.  Ethics is a bit more tricky, since ethics impacts other people, and values can a bit, too, and part of pluralism is trying to create a system where all can live and let live.

Still, even if there is some negotiation around ethics or values, pluralism in general tries to leave people alone to pursue their own ends as long as they’re willing to play nice with others.  Part of playing nice with others for pluralism is not trying to coerce others into adopting your truths, values, and ethics, even if you think you’re right and the other party is wrong.  That live and let live attitude may be the same practical result as relativism, but it is reached by starting at a different philosophical standpoint.

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