The blind men and the elephant: an argument for religious pluralism?

From Please Convince Me, a post by Aaron outlining 7 problems with the blind man and the elephant story.

Here’s the set up:

Maybe you’ve heard the parable of the six blind men and the elephant. In this parable, six blind men feel a different part of an elephant and come to different conclusions regarding what the elephant is actually like.

One blind man grabs the tusk and says, “An elephant is like a spear!” Another feels the trunk and concludes, “An elephant is like a snake!” The blind man hugging the leg thinks, “An elephant is like a tree!” The one holding the tail claims, “An elephant is like a rope!” Another feeling the ear believes, “An elephant is like a fan!” The last blind man leaning on the elephant’s side exclaims, “An elephant is like a wall!”

This parable is often used to illustrate a view known as religious pluralism. Like the blind men, no religion hasthe truth. Rather, all religions are true in that they accurately describe their personal experience and the spiritual reality they encounter, given various historical and cultural backgrounds.

There are various types of religious pluralism, but one way to define it is as follows: “the view that all religious roads – certainly all major or ethical ones – lead to God or to ultimate reality and salvation.”1 This idea is commonly reflected in such statements as “All religions basically teach the same thing” or “All roads lead to the top of the mountain.”

The elephant parable, while attractive to many, suffers from a number of problems.

And here’s one problem:

Problem #4: The parable commits the self-excepting fallacy.

The religious pluralist who tells this parable claims everyone is blind, except the religious pluralist himself! In other words, there is an objective perspective presented here. However, if all religious views are essentially blind, this would include the religious view of religious pluralism. But the religious pluralist conveniently exempts himself, having somehow escaped the spiritual blindness which has enveloped all other religious views and has come to see the truth of religious pluralism! In so doing, the religious pluralist claims to have the only objective perspective:

In fact, he wouldn’t know that the blind men were wrong unless he had an objective perspective of what was right! So if the person telling the parable can have an objective perspective, why can’t the blind men? They could – if the blind men suddenly could see, they too would realize that they were originally mistaken. That’s really an elephant in front of them and not a wall, fan, or rope. We too can see the truth in religion. Unfortunately, many of us who deny there’s truth in religion are not actually blind but only willfully blind. We may not want to admit that there’s truth in religion because that truth will convict us. But if we open our eyes and stop hiding behind the self-defeating nonsense that truth cannot be known, then we’ll be able to see the truth as well.5

5 Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004), 49.

Read the whole thing!

UPDATE: Greg West of The Poached Egg tweets an announcement of his post on the same topic.

4 thoughts on “The blind men and the elephant: an argument for religious pluralism?”

  1. Did a lesson on this once, focusing on John Hick’s work. Made the point that no matter what, it’s still an elephant. Kind of nullifies the whole concept since that part is objective. Good stuff. Humorous that people buy into it though.

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  2. I think that this “problem” is missing the point of the analogy. The Pluralists fall into two groups. One group acts in the way described, saying “I know that there is an elephant in the room, but all these (lesser) beliefs only see part”.

    The other type of pluralist says “I see a trunk, but I can understand that from this view you can see a tail. I believe that there must be something greater than a trunk and a tail in the room, and none of us can know the whole truth, in this world anyway”.

    In a way all of us follow the second view to a certain extent, in that we would accept that we cannot know everything about God, and at least within our religion people can have different emphasises and views; God could be a loving father to one, a wise teacher to another, and the strength to do right to someone else.

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    1. See the problem is that you are telling us your view, and that we are all wrong. So you are doing exactly pluralists cannot do, which is tell everyone else what to believe. You are not a pluralist, you have your exclusive view and you are telling us that our view is wrong. Which is fine! But it’s not pluralism. Hinduism isn’t pluralist. It has a view of reality and it rejects other views. The only question, then, is why should we think Hinduism is true, and then you have to look at things like cosmology to verify or falsify it, and the other contenders.

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      1. I agree with what you say, Hinduism is generally only weakly pluralistic, believing that we see the elephant in the room (or more of it – nobody can know God completely) and other religions see less.

        However there are some people (including a few Hindus, it is a very wide group) who do believe that they and others only see a little bit. They end up progressing from pluralism to universalism.

        Now I have issues with Universalism, not least that they often end up saying “you see a tail, I see a head, lets not mention what we see at all but talk about a vague something”. I do think that this is the group that the analogy represents though.

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