How (not) to talk about religious pluralism

February 28, 2017

Over the weekend, a tweet from CNN promoted a new series called “Believer” with Reza Aslan that begins airing on Sunday, March 5.

Now, the series has not yet begun, so there’s some degree to which I need to give the series the benefit of the doubt and hope for the best. But by the looks of it, based on the commercial enclosed within the tweet, CNN is engaging in gross distortion of a hotly debated word—“pluralism.”

Here’s the text from the commercial, featuring Aslan:

Faith is mysterious. It’s indescribable. And religion is just a language you use to describe your faith. Although we’re all speaking different languages, we’re all saying pretty much the same thing. Religion is about who you are, how you see yourself, your world; that’s what it means to say “I am Christian,” “I am Muslim,” “I am Jewish,” “I am Buddhist,” “I am Hindu.” These are far more statements of identity than they are statements of faith.

Without using the word, Aslan is using categories related to pluralism. I want to be respectful toward CNN and Reza Aslan, but the descriptions offered above defining “religion” and “faith” are nothing short of awful, and I’ll explain why.

First, it’s important to understand the context of the word “pluralism.” In many circles (not just Christian), pluralism is a bad word and often viewed with hostility, and for good reason. Some individuals mindlessly rattle off “pluralism” as a way to gloss over our religious differences in society. The “COEXIST” bumper stickers might come to mind. So the thinking goes: If we can all just agree not to take our differences too seriously, everyone will learn to live together in relative peace and harmony.

Seen in a similar light, pluralism is akin to religious relativism, and is used by liberals as a way to make religion merely an expression of sociological diversity. Because “God” is unknowable, according to the skeptical mind, all religions are merely grasping after partial truths of the divine. This viewpoint is philosophically problematic because it assumes a vantage point from the one offering this perspective, namely, that he or she—the skeptic—can claim that God is unknowable. This is a truth claim that some world religions would object to (ex. Christianity), because some religions believe that God has revealed himself in such a way as to know him and commune with him.

These assumptions are the problematic assumptions born out in the commercial. Reducing religion to another form of identity politics, Aslan makes the astounding—and frankly, tendentious—claim that religious viewpoints are “far more statements of identity than they are statements of faith.”

Any serious religious believer who understands the exclusivity of their faith knows that Aslan is blowing smoke in their faces and glossing over serious, often mutually-exclusive truth claims in order to pacify fears of religious extremism. But Aslan, however, is also engaging in an absolute claim as well. Saying that all religious claims are saying essentially the same thing is just as tendentious as the accusations are that one religion is right over others. For example, as a Christian, I believe Jesus Christ is the only way to truly know God and have a relationship with him (John 14:6). This means, according to biblical Christianity, that Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists do not know God. That is a very bold claim, but honesty requires one to acknowledge what his or her faith actually teaches. From real honesty can come authentic dialogue. We need to be honest about the implications of our truth claims and should expect other religions to do so as well if any real hope for pluralism is to be achieved. If I am not honest with my Muslim neighbor about the tenets of Christianity, I am betraying my own Christian faith and in the process, denying the substance of what I believe will save my Muslim neighbor. Anything less than the full truth prevents the possibility of real pluralism from being realized.

Aslan’s claim that religion is about “identity” more than “statements of faith” is simply wrong because it approaches religion from the wrong vantage point. Religion is about much more than identity, but never less. But taking this logic further, we must see that it is religious devotion itself that builds one’s identity; not the other way around. I am a Christian, but I am not a Christian on secularized grounds that countenances progressive faith claims first. I make no apologies in confessing that Jesus Christ is the only way to be saved (Acts 4:12; 1 Tim. 2:5). That truth is about much more than my identity; that truth is about how the universe is ultimately accountable to divine judgment (Acts 17:30-31).

But above all, and central to the argument I’m making in this article, in making this claim, Aslan is actually undermining the positive aspects and prospects of what pluralism means, strives after and entails.

Real pluralism means being honest about our religious beliefs and religious differences.

Real pluralism strives for social tranquility by agreeing to to live peaceably, kindly and respectfully despite deep, irreconcilable beliefs about who God is, how he calls us to live and how we attain a relationship with him.

We do no service to our neighbors in weakening the claims of our religion in order to serve a greater social good. The social good is better served when honest brokers approach one another within a society that pledges to foster religious liberty by giving each equal space in the public square—not in spite of deep difference, but because of it.

This means true pluralism entails religious liberty. Only an environment committed to treating religions with respect and equal freedom can hope to attain a social environment where disagreement is resolved without recourse to violence and social unrest.

Reza Aslan means well, and I hope the show is better than what is advertised, but let’s live in a society honest about our religious differences and which refuses to drain religion of its doctrinal center in the name of feel-good liberalism.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24