(The Nationalist, 15 February 2002)
A pluralist society is one in which various groups are free to maintain their traditions, whether religious, cultural, or linguistic. Where religion is concerned, the difference between a pluralist society and a secular one is that pluralism treats all religions with respect, while secularism treats all religions with disrespect. It is not a small difference.
Pluralism respects and welcomes diversity, including religious diversity, and does not seek to impose a monopolistic State ideology as, for example, secular societies such as Marxist ones did.
This applies also in the field of education. Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Islamic and other schools reflect the pluralist character of a society. They contribute to it; they bring it colour, vitality, character and the challenge of variety. Yet there is an idea around that religion should be excluded from society, and especially from education – and this on the ground of pluralism! How illogical can you get? It is on the ground of pluralism that religious values and ideas should be accorded a hearing on an equitable basis. Pluralism is inclusive; secularism is exclusive.
Pluralism recognizes that all truth, from whatsoever source, or mediated through whatever channel, is to be respected. It recognizes that truth is one; one truth cannot contradict another. We human beings are not the authors of truth; our challenge is to recognize and accept it.
Is it not remarkable that, in the United States, where the tradition of separation of Church and State had its constitutional birth – and a welcome one at that – graduation ceremonies in civil universities begin with a public religious service? In Irish universities, any religious service is distinct from the official academic ceremony. And in the USA, the motto of the country is ‘In God we trust.’ Is it not remarkable, too, that, in most countries, there is no prohibition on the existence of religious radio or TV stations, but in the Irish Republic (not in Northern Ireland) they are prohibited? What kind of pluralism is that?
People are more likely to become mature in their thinking, culture and behaviour in conditions of pluralism than of monopoly. And at the same time, a pluralist society is not afraid to draw lines where the common good is concerned. It is not a soft touch in the face of the selfish individualism which thinks only of its own wants regardless of the cost to others. A pluralist society is not a testosterone-free zone inhabited by wimps but a place for people with intellectual honesty and moral courage.