Reconciling Mormonism with Pluralism

By Ronn Smith

Ronn Smith is a consulting engineer in Wyoming who taught college physics and engineering for fifteen years. He and his wife founded the Sheridan Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in 1983.


As A Mormon youth enthralled with physics and philosophy, perhaps my post-mission departure from the LDS Church was inevitable. I wrestled with all the usual difficulties—the legacy of polygamy, the injustice toward Blacks, the denial of evolution, etc. But I allowed that I could be mistaken, or that Church policy would eventually right itself. (Indeed, it did change or soften on these issues). What really drove me out was Mormon exceptionalism. Considering other religious traditions as misguided—or, in the words of my great-great-great uncle Joseph Smith, “abominations”—simply did not comport with my experience. I knew many honorable people who drew their inspiration from other faiths. I agreed with marginalized Mormon scholar Lowell Bennion when he said that Latter-day Saints have no monopoly on truth or virtue.

It is perplexing why we so eagerly celebrate being different from other religions but why we are so reluctant to accept them as being different from us. Aside from the logical asymmetry, this mindset carries destructive potential. World War II hero Douglas MacArthur said the most dangerous question in the world is, “Why can’t everyone be like me?” The question is particularly deadly as the 21st century pushes the world’s inhabitants closer together spatially and pulls them farther apart religiously. Like all exclusive faiths, to ameliorate this problem, Mormonism must relinquish its hope for a unified belief system and face the reality of religious diversity. Tolerance is no longer enough; interfaith dialogue calls for rational and respectful engagement.

But to make use of diversity, we must first understand that sameness is a liability, a fleeting comfort that time erodes. In politics as in religion, the pursuit of genuine diversity exacts an early price but pays dividends in the long run. Similarly, the presence of competing factions and principles is a painful but crucial part of a functioning democracy. In early America, the separation of church and state won support because it prevented any single church from gaining excessive power. The alternative was evident in Europe where, as Robert Ingersoll remarked, “the throne skulked behind the altar.”

Any religion, if allowed to rise to a position of dominance, will suppress new ideas and oppress those who don’t conform. This happened with Catholicism in medieval Europe, Calvinism in colonial New England, and Mormonism in territorial Utah. The Protestant Reformation demonstrated how readily an open quest for truth can collapse into a fierce defense of dogma. As an epigram of unknown provenance implores, “Bring me into the company of those who seek the truth and deliver me from those who have found it.”

Diversity not only resists the concentration of power; it supplies the backdrop and the motivation for learning. As an analogy, global positioning systems rely on a constellation of orbiting satellites to establish locations on Earth. The broadcast positions and clock times, transmitting at the speed of light from at least four satellites, enable an earthbound GPS receiver to solve for its latitude, longitude, altitude, and signal arrival time. Extra satellites improve reliability and accuracy. (In all, the U.S. system operates twenty-four.) Similarly, the search for truth relies on many external viewpoints. To figure out your position, you must know theirs, even though none of them suffices by itself. The more viewpoints you use, the more dependable your discovery will be. But slight errors are unavoidable and motion is unstoppable, so your answers are never certain or permanent.

In contrast to Mormon exceptionalism, pluralism responds to diversity by acknowledging partial truth in many conflicting belief systems and concluding that none of these encompasses the whole truth. A leading pluralist, British philosopher John Hick, explained the variety of religions as an ever-evolving reaction to “divine self-revelation to mankind.” Hick proposed that morals and aspirations common to all religions are divinely infused and unfiltered, while the more diverse creeds and rituals are shaped by history and culture.

Hick and his followers fall into a category of pluralism I will call the romantic strain. It proposes a two-tier universe, exalting the mystical over the mundane. “The God whom our thoughts can circumnavigate is merely a finite and partial image,” Hick states. Still, he held that the divine speaks in equally valid ways to all the world’s major religions. In a similar vein, Unitarian-Universalist minister Forrest Church uses the symbol of one light shining through many windows to describe how there is a single source for the holy, differently viewed or interpreted by each religion.

Another form of pluralism, which I’ll call the pragmatic strain, agrees that divine reality is too big to fully grasp and that no religion has a corner on revealed truth. But it does not assign equal merit to all interpretations; nor does it presume that they all draw from the same source. Philosopher Joseph Runzo observed, “Evidence supports the conclusion that all humankind does not share the same innate concept or primal experience of Ultimate Reality.” This brand of pluralism favors beliefs that advance human dignity and wellbeing in the “here and now.” It pictures a one-tier universe, where the sacred is embedded in everyday experience. (As Jesus said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is among you.”) William James exemplified this perspective. His book The Varieties of Religious Experience portrays the sincerity of religious believers with utmost reverence, but he measures the truth of their religion by the goodness it brings to this world—by its “fruits for life.” (I believe Mormonism holds up well against this standard.)

To escape religious conflict, romantic pluralism calls us to focus on our shared source of beliefs. But pragmatic pluralists propose that evading conflict creates new, often graver conflict. As John Dewey said, the avoidance of conflict is “a hopeless and self-contradictory ideal.” Pragmatic pluralists, therefore, don’t merely tolerate diversity, they advocate it, so long as it honors individual conscience and preserves the common good. But they are talking about a particular kind of diversity: the kind that mixes. In their view, tight religious enclaves do not qualify as diversity any more than gated communities count as being part of the larger neighborhood. Authentic diversity requires earnest exchange and discord. A free market of ideas must exist if there is to be a vigorous inter-faith (and intra-faith) dialogue. The goal is not consensus, but mutual understanding and expanding possibility.

Romantic pluralism has some philosophical difficulties. For example, it places all religious perspectives on the same plane yet implies that romantic pluralism itself has a more complete explanation than these religions do. It admits that Ultimate Reality is beyond human comprehension but insists that this reality motivates all religion. How can romantic pluralism know that the source underlying these various religions is the same? To invoke a familiar fable, if six blind men conjure conflicting images of an elephant, how can one of them know that the other five are touching the same animal?

For the sake of establishing common ground, romantic pluralism trivializes the unique content of each religion. It ignores the fact that for most people, religious values acquire substance and urgency only in the context of their particular faith. That is why pragmatic pluralists take specific beliefs, and those who espouse them, seriously.

While it accepts diversity, romantic pluralism ties the meaning of life and the possibility of redemption to some connection with a transcendent source. On the other hand, pragmatic pluralism regards the value of a human life as foundational, not conditional; in other words, value can neither be bestowed nor withheld by a divine power. Columbia University Professor Philip Kitcher wrote, “By treating human ethical life as a peculiar projection from an allegedly higher realm, human beings and their problems become subordinated to something supposedly vaster and greater.” How many religions have forged God’s signature to justify bigotry, polygamy, or slavery?

To grasp the principles of pragmatic pluralism, consider the less provocative subject of diet:

• We recognize that diet is largely an accident of geography and culture.

• We prefer our own tastes over anyone else’s, but we allow others their own tastes.

• We do not enjoy our food any less just because others may not share our tastes.

• We may sample and appreciate an unfamiliar food, possibly adopting it into our diet.

• We allow that different dietary regimens can produce perfectly healthy people.

• We do not concede equal value to a diet proven unhealthy by objective measures.

The food metaphor may seem glib considering that religions differ on profound questions of meaning and mortality. But I think it helps us sift the essential from the peripheral. What is taste and what is truth? Knowing the difference could help a lot. For instance, in the clash between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, history and injustice seem to supply the explosives, while religion acts as the detonator. What would happen if the detonator no longer sparked? In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift portrays people’s penchant for turning the smallest difference into hostile aggression with the Lilliputians. Tiny in stature and tinier in wisdom, they go to war with their neighbors over the proper way to break a hardboiled egg. Could pragmatic pluralism, sifting taste from truth, defuse such tensions?

It will be difficult to find out because adherents to pluralism represent a distinct minority. The more common responses to religious diversity are atheism, relativism, and exclusivism. Atheists generally declare all religion to be fantasy. Exclusivists (like orthodox Mormons) claim their religion is true while all others are wrong. Relativists view all religions as true, each within its own framework.

However, these responses do not provide all the requisite ingredients: reason, respect, and realism. Exclusivist religion is lacking on all three counts. The New Atheists have one step up on them, being ultra-rational, but they ridicule faith and delude themselves that the world could thrive without religion. Relativism conveys respect, but it fragments reality by relegating truth to the mind of the beholder. It fails to answer the question, “How was the Catholic doctrine of an earth-centered universe, although sincere, not an illusion?” Or, “How was human sacrifice by the Aztecs, although tradition-bound, not reprehensible?” Relativism renders all truth and reason unreliable. It is also unrealistic in its aim to foster inter-faith harmony. By its own declaration, if you and I belong to different religions, I cannot enter your reality, nor can you enter mine. Moreover, since we’re both already right we have no incentive to try.

However, at the moment, exclusivism speaks for most of the world, representing thousands of religions, united only in their conviction that everyone else is wrong. Renowned Notre Dame professor Alvin Plantinga contends that exclusivists need not submit to common rules of discourse, saying that their belief springs from conscience, which insulates it from public contestability. “Only when it excludes, without sanction by some universal court of appeal [i.e., reason], the dignity or worth of other humans, does it become egotistical and dangerous.” So, according to Plantinga, reason can arbitrate human worth, but it can’t settle doctrinal questions. He is summing up the pragmatic pluralist’s argument: civilization needs agreement only on those human values that matter most. The rest boils down to dietary preference.

However, Plantinga has little use for pluralism. In one essay he switches from philosopher to preacher. “Religious pluralism is a manifestation of our miserable human condition; and it may deprive us of some of the comfort and peace the Lord has promised his followers.” He is right that misery is inherent to the human condition, and exclusive faiths like Catholicism and Mormonism seem to offer an effective antidote. But taking comfort and peace in private truth does not do the hard work of getting into the mind of one’s opponent, a practice that usually demystifies and softens your differences, not to mention reducing misery. Here is a reasoned argument about why exclusivists, by their own criteria, should be willing to do this work.

We observe many conflicting religious belief systems whose literal claims cannot all be true. (Exclusivists would certainly agree.)

These conflicting claims have at least one quality in common: whether revealed, inscribed, or merely felt, they rest on an authority unaccountable to reason and verifiable evidence. (Plantinga admits that he has no argument that would convince a dissenter.)

Since conflicting religious claims are founded on similar methods of inquiry, the methods themselves come into question, totally apart from the truth of such claims.

If a particular religious belief system happens to be uniquely valid, it is only by coincidence since contradictions among rival beliefs arise from the same unreliable methods. (I think Plantinga would agree, as he places all mutually exclusive belief systems on equal epistemological footing, meaning they employ similar ways of “knowing.”)

Given this unreliability, pluralism allows that all religions may possess some measure of truth, but regards with suspicion any religion claiming to possess the whole truth.

After all, what are the chances that at least one religion has the capacity (in the words of George Eliot) to overhear the gods or surprise their secrets? As a neutral agnostic, I’ll guess fifty percent. Now let’s assume, as Plantinga implies, that the 4,200 religions in the world espouse equally tenable theologies. Then the probability that religion “X” is right, and all others are wrong is one in twelve thousand.

Maybe I’ve underestimated the reach of human insight. Let’s raise the odds that humans can apprehend Ultimate Reality to ninety-nine percent. It seems counterintuitive, but this reduces by an order of magnitude the chance that religion “X” has the exclusive truth. Why? A high probability that Ultimate Truth is discoverable makes it very improbable that only one religion would have discovered it.1

To generalize, the exclusivist consecrates the content of religious belief, the romantic pluralist consecrates the source of belief, and the pragmatic pluralist consecrates the believer.

Romantic pluralism, akin to relativism, attempts to reconcile diversity by minimizing difference, essentially uniting humankind by dividing reality.2 Pragmatic pluralism sees unanimity as impractical and undesirable. Instead, it seeks mutual respect communicated through a reciprocal openness to differences. It finds meaning in a diversified humanity and a unified reality. The German prodigy Leibniz described the best possible world as the one that yields the greatest variety of phenomena governed by the simplest set of principles. Imagine a diverse society committed to the simple (albeit difficult) principles of honesty and human dignity. With these baseline values in common, pluralism might succeed in defining the collective good amid profound moral disagreement.3

Within the bounds of justice, pragmatic pluralism concedes to people of all faiths: (1) the possibility that they hold valid beliefs; (2) the legitimacy of their right to believe; and (3) the durability and productivity of their belief system. In strategic doses, these principles have the potential to inoculate a world torn by sectarian hatred and violence. As Susan Jacoby said, “We won’t rid the world of revealed religion, but we can neutralize its destructive tendencies.”

It seems to me that Mormons could adopt pragmatic pluralism without sacrificing the potency of their beliefs. All it requires is the right attitude rather than the right viewpoint. Diana Eck, director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard, calls this attitude “the active pursuit of understanding across lines of difference.” It is not relativism, but “the encounter of commitments.”

How can a devout Mormon integrate pragmatic pluralism into their faith? I suggest starting with recognizing the distinction between believing absolutely in the truth of a proposition and declaring a proposition to be true absolutely. Believing a proposition to be true absolutely honors your subjective reality but leaves space for legitimate differences of opinion. Declaring a proposition to be true absolutely makes inferences about objective reality (often unwarranted) and slams the door on dissent. The ninth Article of Faith supports the attitude of pragmatic pluralism when it declares the reality of future revelation, implying that our current perception of truth is potentially inaccurate and certainly incomplete. As Lowell Bennion said, “Our understanding of the gospel is not eternal truth and ought not to be unchanging truth.” We can be convinced without thinking ourselves invincible. The LDS Church showed an instance of this when apostle Joseph Fielding Smith published his anti-evolution book Man, His Origin and Destiny. The book became a subject of controversy even among the Church hierarchy. In a rare compromise, the Church declined to take an official position on evolution. There is no shame in admitting that we simply don’t know. Ultimately, as President Spencer W. Kimball reminded Church members, “It is not so much what we know that is important, as what we are and what we do.” In fact, I see strength in imperfection and insecurity. Our fallibility contributes to our humanity which in turn draws us nearer to each other despite our differences.4

In contrast to romantic pluralism, pragmatic pluralism does not value all religious belief systems equally. Rather, it holds them to the same standards of internal consistency and external consequences. This allows orthodox Mormons to preserve their commitment to the tenets of Mormonism while still interfacing with contrasting beliefs. It engenders an awareness of the talents and sincerity of people who don’t agree with them, and the likelihood that they have something intellectually and morally valuable to impart.

Personal experience tells me the pragmatic approach to pluralism can work. My Mormon sister has unwavering faith in the gospel, but we get along splendidly because we admire each other’s autonomy and integrity. One of my most cherished friends in recent years is a former Mormon bishop who now works regularly in the temple. As with my sister, we share a mutual respect and a tension-free exchange of ideas. Our disagreements never deteriorate into judgments. I have a cousin who loves the Church profoundly but is troubled by a particular policy. I sent her Gregory Prince’s recent Sunstone article, “Own Your Religion,” and encouraged her not to give up on the Church. I echoed Prince’s advice to pursue change from within, advice she says pulled her “from the deep.” (Perhaps being an outsider afforded me extra credibility.) I could cite many other examples, but these three people are as generous and Christ-like as any I’ve known. I believe their willingness to entertain new ideas and expose their own ideas to critique has made them better Mormons. Certainly, as unwitting ambassadors they have made me more appreciative of Mormonism and less sure of my own dogmas.

In the face of collective discovery (or advancing revelation) truth will always be tentative, but our commitment to it need not be. Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “The highest courage is to stake everything on a premise that you know tomorrow’s evidence may disprove.” I challenge myself and my Mormon friends to find the courage to stand for something and the humility to stand corrected.



1. This doesn’t mean the literal claims of all religions are irrational, only that they are improbable. The renowned mathematician Pascal saw the acceptance of Christian doctrine as quite rational, even if it was a long shot. He wagered that a slim chance at eternal life with God is worth the inconsequential risk of believing incorrectly. Conversely, the desire for unvarnished truth does not warrant even a slight risk of suffering forever in hell. Pascal’s conservative bias, though intellectually unsatisfying, may exhibit an evolutionary advantage. Better to mistake the wind in the grass for a lion than to mistake a lion for the wind.

2. Forty-five years ago, John Hick boldly predicted this view might “eventually render obsolete the sense of belonging to rival ideological communities.”

3. At present, Americans struggle just to rank shared goals like liberty, security, equality, and prosperity, say nothing of resolving divisive issues like gay marriage, euthanasia, and abortion.

4. LDS Church President David O. McKay welcomed a diversity of sincerely held opinions, including those he did not share. Arguably, some of them provided the impetus for changes in Church policy and practice.

One comment

  1. Steve Warren says:

    I am struggling to believe that something so deep and sensible was written by a resident of Wyoming. Yes, I’m ashamed of my bias. After reading this, I no longer believe that the primary reason for Wyoming’s existence is to prevent travelers between Colorado and Montana from falling off the face of the earth.

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