Prescriptive pluralism is the idea that a multiplicity of faiths and cultures is not just an observable fact in the modern world, but something which is right.
All religions ought to be promoted as equally valid. This is the approach adopted by politically correct multiculturalism.
On the surface it sounds good. But the corollary is taken to be that therefore any group which claims to have ‘the truth’ in such a way that other faiths are deemed untrue or wrong is not to be tolerated.
We all want to see people of different cultures and faiths living peacefully together. But this outlook would want to legislate restrictions on what people, especially Bible-believing Christians, are allowed to believe and publicly declare. Inevitably it comes into collision with those who believe in Jesus, who said: ‘I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14.6).
There is a vast amount which could be said about what is wrong with prescriptive pluralism, but let me simply indicate three fatal flaws in its logic.
A biased agenda
Multiculturalism often promotes itself under the banner of being ethnically and religiously sensitive. If you, perhaps as a Christian, give your view of a subject you will be smiled at paternalistically by the politically correct person and told: ‘Well, that is just your perspective’. The implication is: ‘You are biased, but I am not’. But actually the whole exercise is biased. It is biased towards Western secularism, which is the mother of political correctness. ‘All cultures are equal’, we are told. But the question is: ‘Who says so?’ Does a Muslim believe that? Does a Hindu not believe that her way is right? Does a Christian not believe that Christian behaviour is the best path to follow? In fact, it is only the Western secularist who believes that all cultures are equal. So the agenda is biased from the start.
Or come at it through the religious route. ‘All religions are of equal value’, we are told. But how do you define ‘religion’? You cannot just say, for example, that religions are about belief in God or gods. Many Buddhists do not believe in divine persons. A Christian missionary gave a Bible to an Indian Hindu intellectual. After he had read it, the man said: ‘I thought you said this was a religious book? As far as I can see it is not about religion. It is a particular interpretation of history’. So, in his own terms of ritual, etc., this man did not recognise Christianity as a religion. Now, how does the politically correct agenda define religion? Basically it defines it as anything that is not Western secularism. It will not include itself. This is pure bias.
An irrational agenda
The multicultural agenda wishes us to believe that all faiths and cultures are equally valid. It does this out of a concern for human rights.
But at the same time there are certain faiths and cultures which do not match or actually attack the human rights which the politically correct say they are seeking to uphold. Let me take two extreme examples simply to prove the point.
During the 1930s, the philosophy of Nazism took root in Germany, with Adolf Hitler being swept into power. But Nazism, based on a version of social Darwinianism, believed that the Arian race was the ‘master race’ and that other races, like the Jews, were inferior. Nazism therefore promoted a culture of racism which led to the tragedy of the holocaust. Here then is a culture which opposes multiculturalism. For the politically correct to say that all people and cultures are equal is irrational and ludicrous if they include cultures (like Nazism) which say they are not.
But it is not just Nazism which has such a view. The late radical Islamist Osama bin Laden took an equivalent position. Interviewed on the Arabic news station Al-Jazeera after the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in New York, he made clear his hatred of Western culture. Commenting on what he hoped the attacks really meant, he let out an elated cry, saying: ‘The values of this Western civilisation under the leadership of America have been destroyed. Those awesome symbolic towers which speak of liberty, human rights and humanity have been destroyed. They have gone up in smoke’. Notice what he abhors: liberty and human rights. He would see those, presumably, as a challenge to the absolute authority of Allah and therefore to be repudiated.
Here, then, again is an attitude and (with extremist Islam) a culture which deplores another culture. How can such a culture sit rationally within an outlook which says that ‘all cultures are equal’? It cannot.
Most multiculturalists, I think, would rightly reject both Nazism and bin Laden’s form of extreme Islam. But, if that is the case, it is plain that they are bringing certain criteria to bear in considering what is an acceptable culture and what is not. In other words, they are contradicting the idea that all cultures are equal.
An imperialist agenda
In considering different faiths there is a famous parable to which people often refer. It is the story of a number of blind men touching different parts of an elephant and trying to describe the animal. One reports his feeling of the tusk. ‘The elephant is solid bone’, he says. Another speaks of a sturdy flexible cylinder — the trunk. Another indicates a smaller, thinner appendage — the tail. Another speaks of a large high wall — the body. They argue with each other and contradict each other as to what the animal is like. But the king, looking on, tells them they are wrong to argue. They are all touching the same animal, but just different parts of it. ‘There’, says prescriptive pluralism, ‘you religious people have such contrasting ideas but you are all in touch with the same reality and therefore should acknowledge that each person’s point of view is equally valid.’ It all appears so reasonable.
But listen to what Bishop Lesslie Newbigin says. ‘In the famous story of the blind men and the elephant … the real point of the story is constantly overlooked. The story is told from the point of view of the king and his courtiers, who are not blind but can see that the blind men are unable to grasp the full reality of the elephant and are only able to get hold of part of it. The story is constantly told to neutralise the affirmations of the great religions, to suggest that they learn humility and recognise that none of them can have more that one aspect of the truth. But, of course, the real point of the story is the exact opposite. If the king were also blind, there would be no story. The story is told by the king, and it is the immensely arrogant claim of one who sees the full truth, which all the world’s religions are only groping after. It embodies the claim to know the full reality which relativises all the claims of the religions.’1
The multicultural / prescriptive pluralism programme assumes the position of the king. It is, therefore, very much a kind of imperialistic agenda. ‘We know what is right and you religious people must do as we say.’ In particular, religious people must give up believing or declaring that they have found universal truth. This is the arrogant claim of the politically correct.
Once we step back and look at all this we see just how hypocritical the politically correct multicultural programme actually is. This is because it is actually itself guilty of all the things of which it accuses the religions (and especially Christianity). It is biased. It is biased towards Western secularism. It is irrational. It says that all cultures must be treated as equal, when it clearly would reject cultures which reject common human rights. It is imperialistic. It decries those who proclaim they have universal truth, but at the same time it says that all must bow to its agenda.
1. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Lesslie Newbigin, SPCK, 1989, p.9.
This article is an edited extract from Christians in a PC World by John Benton, recently published by Evangelical Press (ISBN 978 0 852 349 120, currently on sale at £7.64).
(This article was first published in the June 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
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