Macquarie University
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Don't say all religions are equal unless you really mean it: John Hick, the axial age, and the academic study of religion

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posted on 2022-03-29, 01:14 authored by Jack Tsonis
This dissertation undertakes a critical analysis of the "pluralist" view of religious diversity, which holds that all religions are responses to the same transcendent reality. Although the pluralist ideal has a long history in western thought, primary focus is placed on recent articulations of the argument as represented by figures such as John Hick, Huston Smith, and Wilfred Cantwell Smith. Particular focus is placed upon the philosophical theory of religion offered by Hick in 1989. The aim of this work is to show that despite the intention of pluralist thinkers to move beyond the Eurocentric categories that have traditionally pervaded the western study of religion, their arguments invariably remain predicated on the problematic "world religions" paradigm, as well as a number of other discourses that have their root in the cultural hierarchies of the nineteenth century. I therefore suggest that in spite of their egalitarian ideals, the pluralist theory of religions ultimately reifies and reinforces many of the Eurocentric assumptions about "religion" that it seeks to overcome. -- This argument is made by employing a discourse-analytical reading of Hick's theory, building upon numerous critical works in religious studies that have addressed the problematic history of the world religions paradigm. After providing a detailed introduction to the pluralist perspective and its place in contemporary debate, attention turns to the various criticisms that have been levelled at the world religions paradigm, focusing particularly on the cultural hierarchies that are implied by the seemingly benign rhetoric of "great" traditions and "world" religions. Focus then returns to Hick's argument with these problems in view, paying attention primarily to his use of the "Axial Age" metanarrative, which serves as the historical backbone of his argument. As will become clear, by following Karl Jaspers' division of religions into "pre-axial" and "post-axial", Hick reproduces a form of civilizational exceptionalism that stems directly from nineteenth-century race theory and other paradigms of cultural difference by which European imperialism was justified. I show that Hick's argument replicates at least six standard tropes of colonial discourse with regard to the non-urban (i.e. "primitive") other, and claim that this undermines his clearly stated methodological and ethical goals. This dissertation therefore also begins to outline a much needed critique of the Axial Age construct, something so far missing from critical literature in the field. The final chapter provides a detailed survey of recent historiographical trends that render the key assumptions of the Axial Age narrative empirically untenable; but in the interests of constructive critique, this discussion is also used to sketch out some alternative approaches to emplotting long-term religious history that are more in line with current historiographical standards. -- The Conclusion looks at how these issues impact on the pluralist theory, as well as the larger question of how they relate to contemporary debates about the place of pluralism and theological essentialism in the academic study of religion. Although I suggest that it seems impossible to reconcile traditional theological pluralism with contemporary critical standards, my ultimate contention is that if these issues continue to be addressed, then opportunities will be presented to develop an increasingly sophisticated vocabulary for the treatment of long-term religious history that could bring together many strands of recent scholarship and move the academic study of religion in exciting new directions.


Table of Contents

1. Theological pluralism and the 'World Religions': sketching out the issues -- 2. John Hick and the pluralist theory of religions -- 3. Historicizing the rhetoric of great traditions: a genealogy of the world religions paradigm -- 4. From Hegel to Hick: pluralism and problem of the Axial Age -- 5. Beyond the great traditions: towards a redescription of the Axial Age -- Don't say all religions are equal unless you really mean it: theological pluralism and the academic study of religion.


Includes bibliographical references. 267-302

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


PhD, Macquarie University, Faculty of Arts, Department of Ancient History

Department, Centre or School

Department of Ancient History

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Stephen Llewelyn

Additional Supervisor 1

Brent Nongbri


Copyright disclaimer: Copyright Jack Tsonis 2013.




1 online resource (302 pages)

Former Identifiers

mq:31110 2120130