On the Reality of “Pluralism”

There are few sociologists whom I admire more than Peter Berger, who once upon a time was one of the founders of the “secularization” thesis in sociology: namely, the idea that once a society became “modernized” it inevitably became secular. He has for some time now repudiated this earlier position, not least because of events around the world in the last thirty years or so outside of Western Civlization. When I was still in graduate school, I once taught a class on secularization in Western society, and I used one of his books for that course. (The course itself was, alas, a disaster; I am still not a very good teacher but was worse back then, and it was the first time I had had the opportunity to design my own course.) Berger these days is retired, but writes a blog for the American interest, which I sometimes read. In one of his blog posts the other day about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, he touched on of his favorite themes, that of religious pluralism. Though he has abandoned the secularization thesis, Berger still maintains that whenever a society embraces modernization, it does inevitably mark a shift—not toward secularism, but toward pluralism. Once religions, such as Judaism, no longer have a monopoly over their congregations consciences, must compete in the marketplace of religions with everyone else, they automatically take on a voluntaristic character that Judaism did not have previously.  The same goes for other religions as well.

There is of course much truth in this.  It makes a great deal of difference if, as in the Middle Ages, the Church could claim (to varying degrees) a monopoly on the spiritual lives of its adherents, and the situation in contemporary America, where no such claim can go uncontested.  This is without doubt a huge change, and I would not wish to deny it.  However, it seems to me there is something not quite right about this line of thinking.  A passage from the late Henri Cardinal de Lubac came to me when reading Berger’s post, and it is worth quoting in full:

Plurality is a fact, pluralism is a system—one that has been exalted as an ideal.  The former is observed, the latter is asserted.  The movement of faith tends to rise above plurality, through a spontaneous convergence, while pluralism, through the conscious desire for self-differentiation, affects faith itself.  (de Lubac, More Paradoxes, p. 80)

The first thing to note about this is the distinction, crucial I think, that de Lubac makes between the fact of a plurality of beliefs, and the belief—an interpretation of this fact—that we call pluralism.  Berger is of course aware that there are those interpret this fact differently, as an aberration of the true faith, but favors “pluralism” for a variety of reasons, mainly because of the social comity it allegedly produces.  But he is wrong to point out, as he does in another post, that this pluralistic drive to be as attractive as possible in the marketplace of religions is the default cultural expression of the vast majority of religious institutions and peoples in contemporary America.  The second thing to note is de Lubac’s definition of faith:  that it is something that necessarily “rises above” this plurality of beliefs.  I’ll come back to these definitions in a moment, but first let me go back to Berger’s post and what I believe are the problems with his definition of “pluralism.”

First off his definition of pluralism:

A simple definition of pluralism (or, if one prefers, plurality) is a situation of peaceful co-existence and interaction between different worldviews, value systems and lifestyles.

Note how this collapses the distinction de Lubac, rightly I think, mader between pluralism as fact and pluralism as a belief.  Just because there are a plurality of religions doesn’t necessitate the acceptance of them all, otherwise the Christian faith would simply have disappeared in the Roman empire (early Christians were not, to say the least, “pluralistic,” despite being confronted with a plurality of religions).  Berger goes on to say that this pluralism, combined with politically guaranteed religious liberty, led in America

to a situation in which in which no faith can be taken for granted and in which, therefore, the individual must make choices. This is the situation in which the distinctively American institution of the denomination was created—a voluntary association, which an individual is free to join or to leave.

Berger ends the post by noting that the complications that can arise from this situation for Jewish/Christian dialogue, he ends his post by stating “in the turbulent supermarket of American religion one may well wish for an earlier situation in which faith was a matter of tranquil certitude.  Unless one values the freedom of the individual.”

Now, it seems to me there are a couple of problems with this.  First of all, I think what Berger is describing is a sort of Weberian “ideal type.”  I say this because what he is describing is a bit too pure for an historian’s ears.  It seems to me pretty obvious that peoples in the religious marketplace take plenty of things about their faith for granted, just not the ones that they (presumably) would have in say the nineteenth century, when there was still a marketplace for religion, though not to the same extent.  Most Protestants these days, as far as I can tell, don’t take for granted that Catholics are idolaters, whereas most baptized Catholics in America, if I can trust surveys on the subject, don’t assume theirs is the one true Church.

The bigger problem with his thesis is that the various religions he is now describing, if indeed they are all “voluntaristic” in nature despite their differing theological content, all sound rather like one and the same religion rather than many different ones.  That is, what Berger takes to be the peaceful coexistence of differing religions is merely the reduction of many previously different ones to a new, reduced ideal of religious uniformity (“there are many different paths to heaven, all of which are equally valid,” I believe is the way it is sometimes expressed in opinion surveys on this subject.)   The same thing goes with the supposed “value of the individual”:  Americans, in their religion as in much else, are the most conformist people on the face of the earth, as de Tocqueville noted long ago about Americans.  A few years ago there was some controversy in the Catholic Church in California over when it was appropriate to kneel or stand at communion.  I believe the issue was between some parishoners wanted to kneel at communion, while the bishop was insisting all stand.  This sort of thing would never occur to Catholics in other countries, who alternately kneel or stand or what have you at various parts of the liturgy, including communion.  But not Americans:  with their thirst for equality in all things, all must do the same as everyone else.  It is little different in Protestant megachurches, whose worship, from what I can tell, is a testament to bourgeois conformity (as is the liturgy in most suburban Catholic parishes in the U.S. in my experience.)

My point is that, like Cardinal de Lubac, Berger thinks of the “individual” as somehow rising above all of this.  For him, the individual is that summum bonum for which all of this must be tolerated, and no claims to being the true Church (no popery!) must be allowed to intrude on the sacrosanct sphere of the individual.  (De Lubac’s ideal type, if you want to call it that, is obviously the Church, which for him rises above all this as well.)  But, aside from the fact that previous centuries (the so-called “Age of Faith” and so on) were really not pictures of perfectly tranquil certitude, the idea that this “pluralism” serves the “freedom of the individual” rather than to make conformity easier for the masses is hard for me to take seriously.   I simply don’t meet very many people in America whose beliefs differ so much from what is commonly taken to be Christian belief that their “freedom” might be threatened by overweening religious authority (i.e., the Church).   And those who do genuinely believe differently, are so few in number that they simply don’t matter in a mass society like ours.  Naturally, the exception is invoked in order to protect the rule of “pluralism,” but I don’t think the situation in America has much to do with Berger’s definition of it.  Berger has described himself in the past as liberal Lutheran, and so it makes sense he would take to this idea of pluralism-for-the-individual.  Naturally, as one of those “conservative Catholics” who doesn’t like this pluralism all that much, I see it rather differently—mostly, it just looks like a docile acceptance of unbelief, not terribly dissimilar from Berger’s Lutheranism, which, as a convinced papist, appears to me as a species of unbelief as well.  But there’s no doubt this pluralism, or as I would have it this “pseudo-pluralism,” whatever it is, remains the predominant reality of our times.


Alypius Minor


~ by Alypius on September 1, 2012.

One Response to “On the Reality of “Pluralism””

  1. […] it has been on my mind anyway, but also because of Peter Berger’s post on pluralism, which I linked to awhile back. His idea (and it is not exactly original) is that, in the current modern social […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: