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Pluralism And Relativism?


BillM
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I've been doing some reading on post-modernism recently and thought I would ask, do you see a difference between pluralism and relativism? If so, what?

 

I'm not looking for dictionary definitions, just personal experience. How would you (or would you) differentiate between pluralism and relativism?

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ok, avoiding dictionaries...

 

Pluralism is the acceptance that those who differ from you have a right to their difference, even if you disagree. Passionate disagreement is not a sufficient reason for someone to be seen as illegitimate. Even if they are in my eyes demonstrably wrong, they have a right to their wrongness, and there should be a limit to how much their wrongness is punished by society. Pluralism always implies certain beliefs, practices, and groups are illegitimate.

 

Relativism is pluralism without ground rules. It is also a negative term that I've never seen used in a positive light outside of academia (and in academia only with some specific qualifiers). Relativism also seems to go two very different ways, depending on whether people are talking about individuals or communities. Individually,relativism is when difference becomes as meaningful as fashion. Individuals can float between different propositions, beliefs, and practices, and this is perfectly acceptable because those beliefs and practices don't really matter. Communally, relativism means the rules change depending on your membership card. Women of a certain religion must behave a certain way because that's what tradition says, and who are you to judge? The two look closely related to the person who feels morally threatened by relativism, and they therefore use the same term, but they are very different beasts.

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I'm glad this came up, and I like your definitions.

 

My favorite aspect of Progressive Christianity is the acceptance that others' truths are as true for them as mine is for me. I like the respect given to various rites and understandings of the divine. What I dislike is the feeling - whether or not I am the only one to feel it, of relativism (i.e. "no ground rules"). I was getting the idea that all the traditional beliefs of Christianity were thrown out the window - trinity, resurrection, Jesus as the Christ, the efficacy of prayer, etc. I have a great deal of respect for the forum, but I gotta say, I'm not quite as comfortable here as I one was. I've had to take a step back and re-assess my own beliefs and priorities.

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Pluralism accepts that everybody has different opinions, beliefs, and cultures and we can all co-exist with each other in spite of our differences. Relativism argues there is no such thing as objective truth and all truth is subjective and constantly changing. Under pluralism, you can respect another person's right to believe a different truth even if you believe in objective truth yourself. Under relativism, relativists believe respecting another person's truth beliefs requires you to never have an objective truth belief yourself. To shorten this to make it easier to understand, pluralism focuses on the legal rights of those we disagree with whereas relativism is a personal belief about your attitude towards truth.

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Nick, Yvonne, I appreciate your input on this. Further thoughts are, of course, welcome.

 

As I mentioned, I'm reading some stuff on post-modernism while, at the same time, questioning whether I should continue going to the Baptist church (a question that, I suppose, only I can answer). This church is a good church, as far as churches go, but I'm not sure it is good for me. It could be described by, in Brian McLaren's words, a Type 1 church. It is for "finders only", for those who pretty much agree that they have the truth and seekers are welcome only insofar as they are "convertible" to Baptist doctrine and faith. Yvonne, this church certainly holds to what you call the traditional beliefs of Christianity, but seems to allow for one and only one interpretation of these traditions. And I guess that is the rub for me.

 

At the other end of the spectrum is what Brian calls the Type 2 church. It is for "seekers only" and they are usually quite opposed to Type 1 churches. Everyone is welcome at "seekers only" churches - atheists, agnostics, pantheists, monotheists, convinced, and unconvinced. But if you find yourself more committed to something or Someone specific, you can find yourself out of sync with this church. Type 2 churches can turn people from seekers who are trying to find something to seekers who are subtly pressured not to find anything. I've visited a couple of this type of churches in my area and, while "nice", they just seemed...blah. The only belief that they seemed to hold to was that, when it came to religion, they agreed not to agree. :) I guess this safe-guards them from dogmatism, but I need more than a "seek-and-don't-find" church.

 

So I'm wondering how pluralism or relativism plays into this.

 

Does pluralism mean that all religions are equally true? Does it mean that it doesn't matter which religion you follow as long as you are sincere? If it does, then what do we make of the particular claims of religions that they are the true ones (for most of them do this)?

Edited by Wayseeker
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Nick and Neon,

 

I really liked your definitions. However, does anyone espouse absolute relativism? Don't we all (or most) accept that there is, at some level, absolute truth? As I have mentioned here before, someone has said, 'even relativism is relative.'

 

As an example, I think all humans (well, maybe sane, sober and mature) would agree with the general principle: 'Thou shall not murder.' However, the relativism would come into play in the details, the exceptions. Most people, I think, make exceptions for self defense or to prevent unjustified killing. Some would define abortion after conception as murder, some after the 3rd trimester, some at birth, others at sentience. But, none of us claim it is morally right to kill an innocent 10 year old.

 

George

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You can say there are two types of relativism: anthropological relativism and philosophical relativism. Anthropological relativism merely describes the nature of reality as changing from culture to culture and says nothing about how we should react to such issues. Philosophical relativism takes it a step further and argues that because what is understood as truth changes from culture to culture, that there is no absolute truth and we should refrain from making absolutist truth claims to respect other people's beliefs. One can say that anthropological relativism describes the way things are whereas philosophical relativism deals with how things ought to be.

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Great questions. David Hart briefly defined postmodernism as an "incredulity toward metanarratives". One could add, a rejection of the modernist pretense that reason alone can establish a foundation for universal truth. Pluralism to my mind is a view that there is no single approach to truth/reality. Truth and meaning can be embodied and discovered in many ways and senses. These need not be seen as mutually exclusive, competing claims but simply genuinely different: different by virtue of the terms, categories and concerns which embody their worldview. This plays into my view that reality is not an object that can be circumscribed or defined as such. Actuality is much more dynamic and personal.

 

Relativism seems to me a more slippery word. To tell you the truth -- though I hadn't really thought about it until now -- it seems to be a word that hasn't been in my vocabulary much lately -- it's just not speaking to me much at present. To my mind relativism is simply an acknowledgment that what reality is is relative to any given vantage point. As a general point I can fully agree with this, but stated as such it doesn't seem to say anything really interesting.

 

Peace,

Mike

Edited by Mike
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I like Nick's distinction between relativism and pluralism.

 

For me the core question here is "Do I have a faith and belief system that I can hold onto?" One of the stages in inter-religious dialog is to become grounded in one's own belief. This is not relativism. It is being a centered individual inter-related with everyone else - in a pluralistic world.

 

Just because it is not hard and fast does not mean that it is relative.

 

Haidt, through surveys in many cultures has identified five moral foundations:

  1. Care/Harm,
  2. Fairness/Cheating,
  3. Loyalty/Betrayal,
  4. Authority/Subversion
  5. Sanctity/Degradation

By the way, he says liberals only value 1 & 2 in political conversations. Perhaps that is an issue here, also.

 

We like to say morals are universal, instinctual, part of the evolution of a pro-social animal. Infants and toddlers recognize help/hindrance, fairness, and believe in retributive justice. The problem is that these moral tendencies are circumscribed by self-centered and tribal-centered perspectives.

 

I think, then, that the toddler who insists in fair distribution of goods among animate objects can be influenced into perceiving that some group of animate objects don't count any more. This is the true relativity. :o Only my relations count.

 

Take Care

 

Dutch

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Not hard and fast -

on the Moral Foundations site a comment about Fairness/Cheating

This is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. This foundation generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulate the theory in 2011 based on new data, we are giving greater emphasis to proportionality, which is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]

 

and they are thinking about adding another one or two more ;)

Edited by glintofpewter
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For me pluralism is the realization that God could have and probably has reveled himself/herself to more than one. It is more that simply being tolerant (or difference as is being described) because tolerance assumes that there is something to be tolerant of.

 

I find it a bit arrogant to think that God has been revealed to only one religion that just happens to be my own. ...... Marcus Borg

 

I have no idea what relativism is.

 

steve

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The company that I work for has just come out and said, at least internally, that we need to and must support our GLBT members of our workforce and that intolerance will not be tolerated. I applaud them in taking this stance, but I question as to how they will incorporate this policy into practical measures.

 

This company, like many nowadays, is big on "diversity." It realizes that people come in all shapes and sizes and wants everyone treated fairly. But, and this is my opinion, it interprets diversity as "sameness." In other words, if the company truly believed in diversity, it would allow everyone there to express their uniqueness and all the variety that comes from blending different cultures and personalities. Instead, it tries to remove the distinctions, it tries to downplay the differences. To me, this is not diversity, but homogeneity (sp?). It doesn't celebrate the differences, it tries to ignor them.

 

What it does do, in its efforts to be pluralist, is to encourage people to hold to the same values - integrity, safety, respect for others, accountability, etc. How people arrive at these values is, I suppose, mute. But it wants a workforce that is diverse because it, at least at some level, knows that everyone has something good to contribute and that no one should be persecuted for different beliefs, culture, etc.

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But, and this is my opinion, it interprets diversity as "sameness." In other words, if the company truly believed in diversity, it would allow everyone there to express their uniqueness and all the variety that comes from blending different cultures and personalities.

Because many of us must be forced in to be tolerant by mandates. The company cannot change people's tribalism. I maybe too harsh. But the ecumenical movement failed because it looked for commonalities and that temptation to stress sameness, as you observe, Bill. It is easier legislate or to gloss over the differences, partly because we don't want to get to know ourselves and the other that deeply.

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It seems to me that the issue in pluralism and relativism is a matter of degree, where one draws the line. The idea of absolute relativism is, as Nick has said, a caricature; no one has no values. The more conservative worldview would draw the line much closer to home where a liberal worldview would draw it at some distance.

 

As an example, in religion, one could view anyone outside their denomination as a heretic. Alternatively, one could draw the line at Protestantism/Catholicism > Christianity > Judeo-Christian > Abrahamic religion > any religion > any or or no religion.

 

This plays out as well in the political world as well. Conservatives draw the line closer to home. They are more parochial, more 'patriotic,' more nationalistic, more states' rights, more assertive in promoting national interests. We see this in the idea of American exceptionalism. It surfaces in one’s view of the U.N. which some consider a serious threat to national sovereignty and others the best hope for the world and accept the right of other countries to have a say.

 

George

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As I understand it, contemporary pluralism is a movement away from traditional metaphysical and epistomological concerns towards an emphasis on the diversity of social practices and the roles of language. That said, there is the human tendency to take an issue that that begins as a degree of emphasis and turn it into dichotomous categories. So my question is, in the fashion of Jung and Whitehead, can we really tear these issues apart without loss?

 

I would add that pluralism, in its many forms, has itself been debated for thousands of years and takes on different shades of meaning over time.

 

Myron

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I would add that pluralism, in its many forms, has itself been debated for thousands of years and takes on different shades of meaning over time. Myron

 

Excellent point. We have a nasty habit of breaking history into modern / pre-modern (or whatever other dichotomy we want to use), which often deforms analysis as much as anything else. Thinking that tolerance got invented by the Founding Fathers helps nobody.

 

I also agree with Neon that relativism needs an adjective. We're talking about something very different if we're talking about what is truth (epistemological relativism), what we believe is good (moral relativism), or something else.

 

I suppose one could accuse me of methodological relativism. Sociology doesn't really have an equivalent to positive psychology, since "what makes a society awesome" ended up being a path to nasty things (ethnocentrism, naturalization of gender roles, etc). I'm not saying it had to go that way, but it did, and as a result, those type of questions are something we shy away from.

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I have some questions:

 

Is pluralism a positive thing? What if pluralism (in religion) results in a watered-down religion? I'm thinking of a Universalist "church" not too far away. It seems, in an effort not to offend anyone in the congregation, the Sunday service was really bland to me.

 

I am not - definitely not - one who thinks my religion is the only right one. However, I don't think I should water down my beliefs in order to make someone else comfortable in my church. Am I missing something here?

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Thinking that tolerance got invented by the Founding Fathers helps nobody.

 

Robert Wright in The Evolution of God has a lot to say about this under the rubric of 'universal love.' He relates it to the degree of contact and interaction among different religious or ethnic groups. Contact motivates mutual interests which promote tolerance (or universal love). He gives early examples such as Philo, a Jew, living in Egypt and later Paul. (He suggests that Jesus' universal love was more limited to Jews).

 

I have a rough hypothesis that relates urbanism and tolerance as a result of interaction with those who are culturally different. Multicultural interaction would, I think, be more common in urban environments. It is easier to hate/fear the Other in the abstract than in face-to-face reality.

 

George

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I have some questions:

 

Is pluralism a positive thing? What if pluralism (in religion) results in a watered-down religion? I'm thinking of a Universalist "church" not too far away. It seems, in an effort not to offend anyone in the congregation, the Sunday service was really bland to me.

 

I am not - definitely not - one who thinks my religion is the only right one. However, I don't think I should water down my beliefs in order to make someone else comfortable in my church. Am I missing something here?

 

Pluralism is good when done right. And just like all potentially good things, it can be done wrong.

If a path isn't distinctive enough to be meaningful, then there's an issue, though it could be a lot of different things. At the same time, tribalism and hard boundaries are at least as problematic.

 

Negotiations are tricky, messy, and inevitably ad hoc. Speaking pragmatically, the trick is to find a bargain where the things that matter to you embraced. This could be a certain ethic (social gospel), a set of beliefs (Lutheran), or a community (a church can be defined by its neighborhood and be better for it). If you go somewhere that's made the wrong bargain for you, then there's a problem.

 

In terms of what I think is the right way to do it... I dunno. One of my horrible confessions is I still cannot bring myself to attend a church on a consistent basis. Going into that would be a personal stories thread, but it limits what I'm willing to give as an opinion on the right (effective or moral) way of doing things.

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I have a rough hypothesis that relates urbanism and tolerance as a result of interaction with those who are culturally different. Multicultural interaction would, I think, be more common in urban environments. It is easier to hate/fear the Other in the abstract than in face-to-face reality.

 

I basically agree. Social capital has been shown to create all types of interesting effects, including generalized trust in a society. Even just having bowling leagues or bridge games helps create a network in society that increases care for one's common man. The central book about this is Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, which isn't perfect (there's some huge problems with race & gender in his analysis), but is nevertheless brilliant.

 

A key question for me is how much contact do people have with people who aren't exactly like them, and what kind of contact is it? If one has very 'thin' interactions with a group, it is very easy to maintain superficial stereotypes. As such, I think urbanism may help, but can't be relied on by itself as the central independent variable.

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Nick,

 

Can you think of any societies in which the urbanites are generally less open minded (tolerant) than their rural counterparts?

 

In the U.S., as an example, if liberal correlates with tolerant (and I think it does), it is clear that urbanites are, on average, more tolerant than ruralites.

 

I would think that the intensity of contact would be a factor. As I recall, Wright emphasized commercial cooperation being a (or the) factor in promoting universal love. Maybe it becomes harder to hate the guy who buys your fish every week.

 

George

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Nick,

 

Can you think of any societies in which the urbanites are generally less open minded (tolerant) than their rural counterparts?

 

In the U.S., as an example, if liberal correlates with tolerant (and I think it does), it is clear that urbanites are, on average, more tolerant than ruralites.

 

I would think that the intensity of contact would be a factor. As I recall, Wright emphasized commercial cooperation being a (or the) factor in promoting universal love. Maybe it becomes harder to hate the guy who buys your fish every week.

 

George

 

Off the top of my head, no. I mean, if I tried, I could probably find something, but I'm willing to agree with you it's a generally true thing. I could probably dig up in a day or two a substantial list of descriptors on how all urban social spaces are not created equal, which was really all I meant. Urban space in areas of major cities are actively disciplined into making sure interactions don't take place. Geographer Mike Davis writes a lot about this (see City of Quartz - another informative & relatively accessible read). If one wants to go old school (i.e. enjoys reading dense stuff).

 

Again, I agree with you: it is harder to hate the guy you buy fish from every week. It gets even harder when you know his name, when you see him outside of work, etc. Or, to put it in a personal anecdote, realizing that a guy was a conservative evangelical after I had spent 4 years practicing aikido with him made me more willing to see him as a person than a crazy.

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