There can be no doubt that John Hick’s An Interpretation of Religion has already made a huge impact in the field of Philosophy of Religion. Perhaps what John Hick is most known for is his pluralistic hypothesis. This pluralistic hypothesis is mainly a philosophical examination of Religious Pluralism. In this paper, I’m going to look at Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis and the reasons he gives for thinking that his hypothesis corresponds to reality, or at least that his hypothesis is the best explanation of the data we come to experience or see. So, I’m going to first explain Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis. After that, I’m going to explain the significance of his hypothesis in light of the book as a whole. Thirdly, I’m going to summarize how Hick develops the argument; I’m going to look at the reasons Hick gives for thinking his hypothesis is strong. Finally, I’m going to give my assessment of Hick’s argument; I’m going to look at potential objections/concerns to Hick’s hypothesis/doctrine.
To start, what exactly is Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis? Well for one, it seems to at least be an explanation for why we see such diversity of religion in the world/religious ambiguity; it should be obvious to us that there are multiple religions in the world. It seems Hick is intending his hypothesis to be the best explanation for at least the diversity of religion. Hick likes to use something like an analogy to explain his hypothesis; the analogy is from Kant’s distinction between the noumenal world and the phenomenal world. The former is things as they are in themselves, and the latter is things as they appear. Let’s take a chair as an example. When we look at a chair, for Kant, we are seeing the appearance of a chair and not the chair as it is in itself. When I’m looking at the chair I’m seeing qualities like color and so on, but I’m not seeing it as it really is. Presumably, the chair as it really is might be something like a collection of atoms, and there would be quantum events happening; however, I don’t see any of that as a perceiver.
For Hick then, various religions/religious experiences are the phenomenal world; that is, they are the world of appearances. Behind the religious appearances, there is “The Real” that is the causes of all these experiences. The Real is the religious thing in itself, and it is ineffable. In other words, the Real is ultimately unknowable and indescribable, but the Real is the explanation for all the diversity of religious experiences. These experiences aren’t of the Real itself, but they are manifestations of the Real. Therefore, religions like Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, are appearances or manifestations of The Real, and these religions aren’t experiences of the Real as it really is (as it is in itself).
Even though people of various religious can’t experience the Real as it is in itself, nevertheless, the Real does indeed exist. The Real is a necessary postulate or presupposition, just like how in Kant’s system the noumenal world is a necessary postulate. On Hick’s hypothesis, like with Kant, we can’t say how the Real is in itself. Why? Because like Kant we humans bring forth structures from our mind which thereby bring structure to our experience. Hick explains this by saying, “The ‘presence’ of the Real consists in the availability, from a transcendent source, of information that the human mind/brain is capable of transforming into what we call religious experience” (Hick 244). We can see how this is somewhat similar to Kant.
However, the situation isn’t perfectly analogous to Kant, because Hick talks about how, unlike with Kant, the categories of religious experience aren’t universal but relative to culture. In other words, Hick doesn’t think we have to necessarily “employ” these categories of religious experience. But, the exact same thing couldn’t be said of course of Kant’s doctrine. So while Hick’s analogy isn’t perfect, it at least gets our intuitions going to try and make sense of the situation. In fact, it might also be questionable as to whether someone can come up with a perfect analogy of even Kant’s doctrine.
Hick’s hypothesis of religious pluralism seems to almost be the center (or at least near the center) of the entire book. The book constantly talks about the fact that there are multiple religions, so naturally one wants to know what the explanation is for this empirical fact. Hick does have such an explanation in his own hypothesis. His explanation is that all the religions are manifestations of the Real. Hence, I think Hick’s hypothesis makes perfect sense in light of the rest of the book. In addition, the book talks a lot about theism. One account of theism, which one can sign up to, is religious pluralism (such as the account of religious pluralism that Hick offers).
Hick’s hypothesis also makes sense in light of the epistemological issues that Hick talks about. Hick seems to think that one doesn’t necessarily need an argument in order to be warranted in believing something. This seems to then later allow Hick to insert the Real (Hick’s hypothesis) as being believed in a way that is not based on arguments. Being warranted in believing that the Real exists, without argument, seems to make sense in light of Hick not thinking that any of the theistic arguments are too compelling, nor do they obligate someone to accept theism.
Hick’s hypothesis develops out of the troubling fact (troubling for a lot of believers in various religions) that there are multiple religions. Hick has his hypothesis, but what reasons does Hick give for thinking his hypothesis is the best explanation of the fact that there are multiple religions? Hick seems to think one advantage of his hypothesis is simplicity. That is, his hypothesis doesn’t add on a bunch of unnecessary assumptions. In addition, Hick’s reason for thinking that there exists the Real in itself, that is nevertheless ineffable, is that the Real is a necessary entity. What he means is that we can’t make sense of our religious experiences-once we enter the experience- unless we posit the Real. This goes along with Kant who said we can’t make sense of our experiences of things as they appear, unless there are actually things that exist in themselves.
On one hand, I think Hick’s hypothesis poses a serious challenge to Christian theism. On the other hand, I don’t think the challenge should be understated or overstated. What’s obvious is that there are multiple religions, but what is not so obvious is whether Hick’s hypothesis is the best explanation of the fact that there are multiple religions. But before I expand on that, I want to talk about Hicks’ claim that the Real is a necessary presupposition of religious experience. I honestly don’t really see any reason Hick gives to think it’s true that the Real has to be presupposed; Hick seems to just assert it, which isn’t much of an argument. If the Real really is a presupposition or seems to be presupposition, then Hick might very well be epistemically justified in believing so. But there is quite a difference between a belief being justified/warranted and showing (or arguing) a belief is in fact true. If Hick wants to convince his opponents, he must give external evidence or argumentation.
Hick’s response to a Christian like me, is that I’d be committed to other religious experiences as being illusory. Hick seems to be uncomfortable with this; he seems to think this poses a problem. But what exactly is the problem? For one, a Christian doesn’t have to be committed to saying that all or even most religious experiences outside Christianity are illusory. If Hick thinks that, he could be in danger of attacking a straw man. In fact, on the Christian view, God has revealed Himself generally to mankind, so it’s not surprising that people of other religions have religious experiences.
Also, given Christian theism, humans can have illusory experiences of God but these experiences are actually demonic in nature. Another way of putting it, the experiences aren’t totally illusory because they do match up to something externally. However, I will grant that some/a lot of religious experiences are illusory, and that includes religious experiences of even some Christians! But I don’t see this fact as undermining genuine religious experiences, anymore than I don’t see illusory experiences of the external world undermining genuine sensory perception.
I’m not quite sure why Hick thinks his hypothesis is the best explanation of the data. Certainly, it’s an explanation; however, is it the best explanation? Unless Hick gives us strong reasons for thinking his explanation is the best, then I don’t see how far his hypothesis can go. There are many explanations for religious diversity, just as there are many explanations for most things in our lives. One explanation is that religious diversity is caused by human rebellion. I’m not saying I think this is probable, at least in terms of a total account of religious diversity; it is one explanation. Another explanation for why there are multiple religions is because there exists an evil creator, which would also account for the amount of suffering in the world. What I’m trying to illustrate is that we need evidence to think one explanation is better than another explanation. The onus is not on the opponent to demonstrate that Hick’s claim is false; rather, the onus is on Hick to come up with argument and evidence to think his claim is true. After all, it seems one can just reject a claim if there’s no evidence; however, I am not endorsing epistemological evidentialism.
As I mentioned before, Hick might be suggesting that his explanation is evidenced as the best explanation, by the fact that his explanation is simple. Even if this were true, I don’t see how this is sufficient to conclude that his explanation is the best. What about the plausibility of the explanation? Is the explanation contrived? Does the explanation fit with our other knowledge? I could go on but I think we get the point. In addition, I’m not quite sure Hick’s explanation is the simplest explanation. What about being a philosophical naturalist or an atheist? If one is an atheist, then they don’t have to postulate an additional entity like the Real. Hick could respond that this would commit the atheist to saying that all religious experiences are illusory. However, one can escape this problem by being an agnostic. An agnostic doesn’t know if God exists. If an agnostic doesn’t know if God exists, then how could they rationally claim that all religious experiences are illusory?
Another concern is that Hick might be confusing epistemology with ontology, and this seems to be somewhere along the lines of what Keith Ward has said on the matter. For example, I might not be able to know whether or not a lamp is in the other room; however, I can say that there is either a lamp or there is not a lamp. And if there is a lamp, it is what it is, and it is not what it is not. In addition, there can’t be a lamp and not be a lamp at the same time and in the same manner. Similarly, I might not able to know whether the Real is identical to the universe, but it either is or it isn’t. If it is, then we aren’t saying anything significant. If it isn’t, then it seems we can attribute meaningful attributes to the Real (e.g. Transcendent, Timeless, Powerful, Immaterial, etc.).
Overall, Hick’s hypothesis is very interesting and it is something to talk about over coffee (at least for those who are interested). However, I don’t think Hick’s hypothesis is very convincing, even though I do think it is still the best case given (so far) in favor of a form of religious pluralism. I suspect that Hick will convince people who are already indeed committed to some form of religious pluralism, but I don’t think he has convinced many people who are not already in that camp. I can grant that Hick’s hypothesis can be warranted, but as of right now I don’t see how anyone is rationally obligated to accept it. But even if someone is warranted or justified in believing something, this isn’t the same thing as the belief being irrefutable.
Hick, John. An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent. 2nd ed. Yale University Press, 2005.
Law, Stephen. “The Evil-god Challenge.” Religious Studies: 353-73.
Ward, Keith. “Truth and Diversity of Religions”. 1990.
John Hick. An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent. 2nd ed. Yale University Press, 2005. xxxiii.
 I’m not excluding Hick’s hypothesis as explaining other facts of religion/religious experience.
John Hick. An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent. 2nd ed. Yale University Press, 2005.
Stephen Law. “The Evil-god Challenge.” Religious Studies: 353-73.
 Keith Ward. “Truth and Diversity of Religions”. 5-10.