Maybe you’ve heard this famous story before. A small group of blind men encounter an elephant. Each makes an observation based on touching a certain part of the elephant.
So does this story reveal logical truth?
The Blind Men and the Elephant story reveals some of the big problems with relativistic thought. It quickly unravels upon analysis and reveals itself as illogical and self-defeating, proving the exact opposite of what it claims.
The Blind Men and the Elephant Poem
Let’s take a look at the poem. The famous English translation is by John Godfrey Saxe. Saxe was a 19th century American poet who wrote a number of well-loved poems in English. He might be most famous for taking this old story from the Hindi language and transforming it into an English language poem:
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me!—but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried: “Ho!—what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ‘t is mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”
The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“‘T is clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”
so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
Let’s do a quick review and analysis of the story:
The Blind Man and Elephant Moral
The stated moral of the Blind Men and Elephant fable is that all religions are like the blind men. They perceive the truth in very different ways so it looks different to them.
All religions –so they say- are trying to say the same thing, but it’s impossible for them because they all have different viewpoints. And they have a limited ability to know, because they are all blind. They are lacking the sense of sight, and nobody knows what the others mean.
Except for the narrator of the story- who is placed in a high enough level of authority to “know” that none of the blind observers has it right.
“How could you possibly know that no religion can see the whole truth unless you yourself have the superior, comprehensive knowledge of spiritual reality you just claimed that none of the religions have?”
There is also something lost in this translation. Other versions of the story mention another man who leads the blind to the elephant. What did the sighted man see? And how did his observations affect the conversation?
This sighted man is in a position to tell the blind men what we already know: They each have only a partial view of the elephant. When he tells them they’ve got only that incomplete view, where does that place him in the whole relativist narrative?
Now he tells them that each man only has a dim and incomplete view of what an elephant is. Since he is able to see the entire elephant, he is in a position to fully inform them.
Now if religious pluralism is “true” –how can it possibly be Relativistic? If Religious Pluralism is “true” then it has now become exclusivist and can no longer be counted as relativist.
The claim of the Religious Pluralist is that all religions are equally true, but now Pluralism breaks its own rules by saying it is the only truth.
This fact makes Religious Pluralism self-contradicting and self-defeating.
Since this fable has been well-known for millennia in the East, there are variations in its interpretations from different corners. But what’s more important than the variations are the similarities.
Almost every variation includes criticism of anybody who disagrees with the accepted premise that the fable teaches religious pluralism.
Blind Men -What is Religious Pluralism?
Religious Pluralism is currently a fashionable idea. Its major premise is that all religions are equal and equally valid, and its claim is that it doesn’t matter what religion you believe as long as you believe in something.
It’s like saying it doesn’t matter if you believe the earth is flat –or the earth is round. As long as you believe in something, you are good.
And who are you to say –if you believe the earth is round- that in some way it really is flat for somebody else? Maybe in their neighborhood the earth is somehow flat even though it might be round in your neighborhood. Who are you to say that the earth isn’t flat in their neighborhood?
And here is where the proponents of this fable really step in over their heads. They hold to the view that it doesn’t matter what you believe –and that all religious views are valid –except for those who disagree with their idea of religious pluralism. And those who disagree must be wrong, because religious pluralism absolutely –positively- must be right!
Logical Fallacy of Pluralism
The proponents of Religious Pluralism have then committed a logical fallacy. They posit a claim that the One Truth is Pluralism -but since the fundamental claim of Pluralism is that there are many truths- the statement is completely self-defeating.
In other words, they use an exclusivist truth claim to say that truth is not exclusive.
In the context of the Six Blind Men and the Elephant, Pluralists claim each of the men find some truth about the elephant, yet each one is wrong because he is blind. Only the narrator can know the truth because only he can see what the whole elephant looks like.
But if the Truth is different for each man, then how could anybody be wrong?
And this is where the truth claim of relativism unravels. It absolutely claims there is no absolute truth while claiming its version of the truth is absolutely true.
If these proponents of Religious Pluralism believed their own story, they wouldn’t criticize those who disagree, because the very act of disagreement displays belief in their truth claim.
I can’t imagine a better person to explain this than a man who was born in the land of the Six Blind Men and the Elephant -a man who has thoroughly studied these truth claims and wrestled with them for years- than Ravi Zacharias.
Ravi travels the world explaining these things to the world’s greatest thinkers at prestigious university auditoriums in front of some of the most skeptical audiences and wins them over with his penetrating observations and comments.
Here is a short video explaining his encounter with a relativist/pluralist and how that conversation went. It powerfully shows the logical problem of pluralist claims:
Parts of the Elephant
These blind men argue with each other over the true nature of the elephant even though none of them have seen it. Each man has only felt a portion of the pachyderm, yet each argues forcefully with the others over his understanding of it.
Do All Religions Lead to God?
This old story has at its heart the claim that all religions lead to God. It says we all see things a bit differently, but we are all trying to do the same thing and we are all trying to get to the same place, right? And what’s so bad about that?
That’s like saying that if I can drive my car from Los Angeles to Cleveland then I should also be able to drive from Los Angeles to Honolulu. They’re both about the same distance. The problem is there’s no road leading from Los Angeles to Honolulu like the one to Cleveland.
But now it gets even worse. All the major religions –while they may have superficial similarities- are fundamentally in disagreement with one another.
Law of Non Contradiction
The Law of Non Contradiction simply states that a thing cannot be both “A” and “not A”. Another way to put it is that two mutually exclusive ideas cannot be resolved.
The Six Blind Men and the Elephant story runs afoul of this law, because the moral of the story is that all religions are working toward the same goal even though they all contradict each other at many levels.
Disagreements of Major Religions
A great example of disagreement between major religions is this comparison between the Bible and the Quran. The Bible asserts -in multiple places- that Jesus died on the cross and rose again. The disciples wrote eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. Many facts are shared in these written accounts. These facts were available to contemporaries of the disciples and apostles, and most of them paid for their beliefs by dying horrible deaths at the hands of adversaries.
The Quran, written hundreds of years later -with zero eyewitness testimony- asserts that Jesus appeared to have died but was revived.
So there are two contradictory accounts from two major religions. Pluralism –through the Elephant analogy- attempts to resolve these by saying these two religions are just two blind men touching a different part of the animal, but Pluralism can never resolve the contradiction.