Religious pluralism is a commonly-used term with several distinct meanings. Depending on the context, the term covers a wide variety of theological and philosophical discussions. At least four different concepts can be implied by this term, though each revolves around the central idea of different religious belief systems working together.
In many cases, this term is used as synonym for religious tolerance, although the two concepts have distinct meanings. Religious tolerance implies that each person is entitled to his or her own set of beliefs without judgment or conformity to some cultural or societal standard. It is a doctrine of religious tolerance that is implicit in the United States Constitution, which grants the right to freedom of religion. While religious pluralism includes tolerance, it is a more broad term that asserts that possible religious truth and value exist in many different doctrines, not solely that of the particular individual.
Some theologians argue that an omniscient deity, such as God, created all of the religions in order to speak to people in ways that most appeal or relate to their circumstances in life. As such, even though their customs are different, they are all from the same source. As a theological argument, pluralism suggests that if all religions are from the same original source, then all must be possessing of a similar truth. This argument stresses the similarities between religion, often citing common stories, figures and doctrines.
Suggesting that all religions have truth and value causes considerable problems for religions that preach an exclusivist idea. Some religions will assert, using quotes from their relevant texts, that their way is the only way to live correctly. A few go so far as to insist that those who do not convert will be punished in an afterlife, or should not be closely associated with on Earth. Doctrines such as this are difficult to resolve, and pluralists are often forced to resort to a tolerance doctrine, as it is paradoxical to embrace both an inclusivist and exclusivist view.
Pluralism has also come to mean the efforts between different denominations and different faiths to form an overall spiritual community. This is often used by leaders of the Christian faith to promote unity between the many different doctrines of Christianity. Because many religions have a similar basic goal or belief, proponents argue, they should be able to work together.
Those who identify themselves as practitioners of religious pluralism often mean that they have built their personal spiritual doctrine on a wide variety of traditional religious beliefs. Rather than subscribing to one particular religious sect, pluralists pick and choose which beliefs resonate with them, regardless of the source. Often, they believe in relativism, which suggests that all possible explanations of religious beliefs must be equal, as no conclusive evidence proving one idea right has ever been found. Pluralists may attend many different spiritual services and rituals with traditional churches, or they may choose to focus on an individual spirituality.
The concept of religious pluralism is tricky, particularly in regards to logical analysis. Many religions flatly contradict one another on some points, making pluralists stuck in the middle on some arguments. The goal behind all definitions of the term is meant to unite people despite different backgrounds and belief systems. Historically, such efforts at promoting unity and inclusiveness in society have met with varying success, but they are often praised as attempts to further society.