One of the most interesting magazines in America, First Things (online at firstthings.com), focuses on religion and public affairs, taking a broadly Christian (often Catholic) stance but also regularly featuring Orthodox, Jewish and other writers.
(The April 2016 issue includes an article, translated by Brigham Young University’s redoubtable Ralph Hancock, by the noted Paris intellectual Pierre Manent. May’s issue includes a piece about Mormonism by the friendly critic Richard J. Mouw, former president of California’s Fuller Theological Seminary, online at firstthings.com/article/2016/05/mormons-approaching-orthodoxy. June’s features a response to Mouw by Terryl Givens, online at firstthings.com/article/2016/06/mormons-at-the-forefront.)
Among the most interesting contemporary thinkers on religion and society is the Austrian-American sociologist Peter Berger, who published a valuable essay in First Things for April 2016 titled “The Good of Religious Pluralism” (online at firstthings.com/article/2016/04/the-good-of-religious-pluralism, subscription required).
As we’re all acutely aware, we moderns live in a religiously varied world. It’s not merely that there are Christians of various denominations, as well as Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and others. That’s been true for centuries. More than ever before, however, thanks to modern means of communication and travel and because of immigration to and emigration from different countries, the fact of alternative religious beliefs constantly confronts us. The largest Buddhist temple in the Western Hemisphere stands near my parents’ former home in Southern California. There’s a mosque in Pocatello, Idaho. A temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is under construction near Rome.
When he started his career as a sociologist, Berger says, “Like just about everyone in the field, I operated within so-called secularization theory. We thought that modernity invariably means a decline of religion. It took me more than 20 years to conclude that the theory is empirically untenable.” The evidence, he says, is “overwhelming”: “The world today is as religious as it ever was, in places more so than ever. (There are exceptions, notably Western Europe and an international so-called intelligentsia. These have to be, and can be, explained.)”
So what to make of the still-religious and religiously complex world in which we live?
Berger describes four “benefits,” as he sees them, of living on a planet where competing religious (and nonreligious) viewpoints reside in close proximity to one another. I’ll mention them, and briefly comment on them, in his order:
“First benefit: It becomes more difficult to take a religious tradition for granted. Acts of decision become necessary,” according to “The Good of Religious Pluralism.”
We tend to follow the culture in which we were raised, and that includes religion (and irreligion). In the past, this was almost invariably so. A child raised by Catholics in a Catholic society was extremely likely to die a Catholic. So, too, with the child of Hindu parents raised in a Hindu culture. Today, though, alternatives are everywhere, within easy distance, and no longer unthinkable. People change churches and faiths more than ever before.
“Second benefit: Freedom is a great gift, and pluralism opens up new areas of freedom,” according to Berger.
As Lehi understood (see 2 Nephi), real freedom is only possible — and “choices” only meaningful — where options exist to make choices possible. And a vigorously competitive market, in religion as in other goods, confers many benefits.
“To each of you,” says Quran 5:48, God has “appointed a law and a way. If God had willed, he would have made you one people. However, he wanted to test you in what he has given to you. So vie with one another in doing good. All of you will return to God, and then he will inform you about the matters in which you differed.”
“Third benefit: If pluralism is combined with religious freedom, all religious institutions become in fact voluntary associations,” according to “The Good of Religious Pluralism.”
Religious movements cannot compel obedience or membership under such conditions, and this is very much in the spirit of Doctrine and Covenants 134:10: “We do not believe that any religious society has authority to try men on the right of property or life, to take from them this world’s goods, or to put them in jeopardy of either life or limb, or to inflict any physical punishment upon them. They can only excommunicate them from their society, and withdraw from them their fellowship.”
“Fourth benefit: Pluralism influences individual believers and religious communities to distinguish between the core of their faith and less central elements,” according to “The Good of Religious Pluralism.”
The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia believed that the worst court decisions were the unanimous ones. Why? Because nobody on an opposing side was pointing out errors, flaws, poor assumptions, silly irrelevancies and other shortcomings (see "Concurring Opinion Writing on the U.S. Supreme Court," by Pamela C. Corley).
We become better by interacting with people different from ourselves.