The Religious Pluralist is often accused of equivocation when she suggests that there is no meaningful or relevant difference between various religious creeds and systems of doctrine. People want to say that there is, however, clearly a semantic difference between the statements issued by different religious systems of doctrine. For example, the Christian faith commits one to believing that Jesus died on a cross and rose again from the dead, whereas the Muslim faith commits one to believing that Jesus did not die on the cross and did not rise again from the dead. Clearly there is a semantic difference here, and no amount of sophistry will convince Muslims, Christians, or onlookers otherwise.
However, I take it that the sophisticated religious pluralist will want to say that while religious systems of doctrine are either incommensurable or else are relevantly different, the religious pluralist will want to appeal to a symbolic epistemology, and argue for semiotic equivalence of various world religions. In other words, when one puts together the whole system of doctrine of a particular religion, and couples it with practice, one is able to preview through symbol a story about the transcendent which is identical to all other such religious stories.
The trouble here may arise since not all religions are created equal. A religion which sanctions the sacrifice of firstborn children on pain of damnation, for example, is obviously more morally obnoxious than a religion which sanctions suicide. Perhaps only some religions, then, are semiotically equivalent (and semantically incommensurable). How is one to tell which ones are? Perhaps the evidence of saints; practitioners, we expect, will live a life better conformed to the story in which they believe, and their activities in the world will end up being the natural outworking of their faith. If faiths are semiotically equivalent, we would expect to see the actions of the ‘saints’ in all religions looking very similar. However, since obviously some religions are more morally obnoxious than others, it stands to reason that some religions may have a preferable system of religious symbols. If the best gauge we have of this is simply sanctity, then this easily turns into a weak but noteworthy argument for Roman Catholicism. Of course, as a first principle, one must always take the best, and not the worst, exemplars of respective faiths. When one does this, though, doesn’t Catholicism stand out as offering a surprising reservoir of saints to whom none seem equal? Who in their right mind, for instance, would compare Gandhi to St. Francis of Assisi? Perhaps one will sneer at this suggestion, thinking it just ideological bias on my part (I am, after all, a Catholic, and liable to be impressed with the sanctity of Christian saints). However, I offer it as a thought because I think it has some merit. It has the unfortunate quality of being difficult or impossible to demonstrate, but it’s a point I’ve heard raised in debates; Catholics have sometimes noted against Protestants that Protestantism has never given the world a Little Flower, a St. Francis, an Angelic doctor, or anything like them. The argument is tongue in cheek to be sure, but there’s something to it. The more one finds out about Gandhi, the more conflicted one is about him, even if on balance he is found to be praiseworthy. The more people find out about St. Francis of Assisi the more they fall in love with Jesus Christ.