Religious pluralism is the belief that one can overcome religious differences between different religions, and denominational conflicts within the same religion. For most religious traditions, religious pluralism is essentially based on a non-literal view of one's religious traditions, hence allowing for respect to be engendered between different traditions on core principles rather than more marginal issues. It is perhaps summarized as an attitude which rejects focus on immaterial differences, and instead gives respect to those beliefs held in common.
The existence of religious pluralism depends on the existence of freedom of religion. Freedom of religion is when different religions of a particular region possess the same rights of worship and public expression. Freedom of religion is consequently weakened when one religion is given rights or privileges denied to others, as in certain European countries where Roman Catholicism or regional forms of Protestantism have special status. For example see the entries on the Lateran Treaty and Church of England; also, in Saudi Arabia the public practice of religions other than Islam is forbidden. Religious freedom has not existed at all in some communist countries where the state restricts or prevents the public expression of religious belief and may even actively persecute individual religions (see for example North Korea).
History of religious pluralism
Religious pluralism has existed in the Indian Subcontinent since the rise of Buddhism around 500 BC and has widened in the course of several muslim settlements (Delhi Sultanate 1276-1526 AD and the Mughal Empire 1526-1857 AD). In the 8th century, Zoroastrianism established in India as Zoroastrians fled from Persia to India in large numbers, where they were given refuge. The colonial phase ushered in by the British lasted until 1947 and furthered conversions to Christianism among low caste Hindus. In 1948 as many as 20.000 Jews (Bene Jews and Cochin Jews lived in India, though most of them have emigrated to Israel in the meantime.
The rise of religious pluralism in the modern West is closely associated with the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Religions like Judaism and Islam had existed alongside Christianity in many parts of Europe, but they were not allowed the same freedoms as the established form of Christianity. New forms of Christianity were suppressed by force (see for example Lombard heresy and Huguenots). Early forms of Protestantism sought the same privileges as those previously claimed by Roman Catholicism; In Protestant England, Scotland, and Ireland, there were severe legal and social on Jews and Roman Catholics until the passing of acts of emancipation in the nineteenth century.
Similar restrictions on smaller Protestant sects who disagreed with the national churches in these countries prompted such groups as the Pilgrim Fathers to seek freedom in North America, although many historians have noted that when these groups became the majority they sometimes sought to deny this freedom to Jews and Roman Catholics. However, Protestant and freethinking philosophers like John Locke and Thomas Paine, who argued for tolerance and moderation in religion, were strongly influential on the Founding Fathers, and the modern religious freedom and equality underlying religious pluralism in the United States are guaranteed by First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states:
- "Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."
In the United States, therefore, religious pluralism can be said to be overseen by the secular state, which guarantees equality under law between different religions, whether these religion have a handful of adherents or many millions. The state also guarantees the freedom of those who choose not to belong to any religion.
Freedom of religion encompasses all religions acting within the law in a particular region, whether or not an individual religion accepts that other religions are legitimate or that freedom of religious choice and religious plurality in general are good things. Many religions in the United States, for example, teach that theirs is the only way to salvation and to religious truth, and some of them would even argue that it is necessary to suppress the falsehoods taught by other religions. The Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, with many other Protestant sects, argue fiercely against Roman Catholicism, and Fundamentalist Christians of all kinds teach that religious practices like those of paganism and witchcraft are pernicious and even Satanic.
Religious pluralism as opportunity for change and dialogue
Many religious believers believe that religious pluralism should entail not competition but cooperation, and argue that societal and theological change is necessary to overcome religious differences between different religions, and denominational conflicts within the same religion. For most religious traditions, this attitude is essentially based on a non-literal view of one's religious traditions, hence allowing for respect to be engendered between different traditions on fundamental principles rather than more marginal issues. It is perhaps summarized as an attitude which rejects focus on immaterial differences, and instead gives respect to those beliefs held in common.
Literal truth and spiritual truth
Religious pluralism generally does not claim that all religions are absolutely true. Different religions make certain claims that logically contradict each other: For example, most Christians believe that Jesus was God incarnate and part of the Trinity, while both Muslims and Jews hold that it is impossible for any human to be God incarnate, and that no Trinity exists. Christians believe that Jesus was crucified, while Muslims believe that Jesus was not crucified. Therefore, claiming that both Chritianity and Islam are absolutely true gives rise to a logical contradiction.
In contrast, most religious pluralists hold that no religion can claim to teach the only or absolute truth, arguing that religion is not literally the word of God, but rather is mankind's attempt to describe the word of God. Given man's finite and fallible nature, no religious text can absolutely describe God and God's will in absolute precision. On this view no religion is completely true and there is an infinite Reality, or God, that is beyond the ability of any single religion to capture with total accuracy. Instead, all religions make an attempt at capturing this Reality, but this always occurs within a cultural and historical context that affects the viewpoints of the faith's holders.
Religious pluralists note that because nearly all religious texts are a combination of historical documents, journalist accounts, essays, and morality plays, distinctions must be made between the literal claims within religious texts, and those claims contained within spiritual metaphors. The differences between spiritual metaphors are seen as common.
A recent theological innovation, held by some religious liberals, is a maximal form of religious pluralism. This viewpoint holds that all religions are equally valid and equally true. This form has become held by some who accept some forms of post-modern philosophy, especially deconstructionism. Critics of this viewpoint hold that this claim is self-contradictory.
In the last century, liberal forms of Judaism and Christianity have modified some of their religious positions. Religious liberals in these faiths no longer claim that their religion is complete and of absolute accuracy; rather the Jews teach that their faith is only the most complete and accurate revelation of God to humanity that we have, and the Christians teach the same thing in reverse. This allows a religious believer to admit that other faiths have common ground with their own faith, and that these other faiths may even appreciate some other aspect of God that they might not. Adherents of this position argue that just as scientists must have intellectual humility in order for them to find the truth about the laws of nature, religions must have theological humility, and admit that they do not have a exclusive path to God. Religious conservatives in Christianity reject these claims outright, and hold that only their path allows a person to reach God. However, many if not most of these same conservatives would acknowledge that some expressions of faith will vary from culture to culture and from time period to time period, and new cultures may indeed shed new light on old dogmas.
Many people hold that it is both permissible and imperative for people of all faiths to develop some form of religious pluralism. It is intellectually valid for us to do so because since Biblical times, our understanding of man's place in the natural world has changed radically, due to advances in science; since Biblical times, philosophers have challenged us to rethink our notion of truth, and the very way that we use language itself; advances in travel and communications rule out isolationism; and advances in weaponry and warfare rule out religious intolerance, as this can now lead to mass-murder on scales previously unimaginable.
Some religions hold a retrospective form of religious pluralism. A religion can tolerate and sometimes endorse religions which were created before its beginning, but will not accept any new religion which has arisen after itself.
For example, Christianity accepts some aspects of Judaism, but generally rejects Islam. Islam accepts some aspects of Christianity, but does not tolerate the Bahá'í Faith. Most adherents of Baha'i accept Christianity, Islam and Judaism, but do not accept new theological innovations that have been created in their community since then.
Classical Greek and Roman pagan religious views
The ancient Greeks were polytheists; pluralism in that historical era meant accepting the existence of and validity of other faiths, and the gods of other faiths. Greeks and Romans easily accomplished this task by subsuming the entire set of gods from other faiths into their own religion; this was done on rare occasion by adding a new god to their own pantheon; on most occasions they identified another religion's gods with their own.
Inter-religious pluralism (between different religions)
There is a separate entry on Jewish views of religious pluralism, which discusses both classical and modern views of Judaism's relationship to other religions, and the permissibility and purpose of inter-faith theological dialogue.
Classical Christian views
Christianity teaches that on their own, it is impossible for any person to have a relationship with God, and that the result of a lack of such a relationship is damnation. To avoid such a fate, Christianity teaches that Jesus Christ was God made flesh in a literal manner, and that by accepting various beliefs about Jesus and God and repenting, a person could then have a meaningful relationship with God and avoid damnation, and earn eternal life in Heaven. All non-Christians, especially Jews, are specifically pointed to as destined for damnation; they complain that such teachings may be considered hateful or anti-Semitic.
Christians hold that the consequence of self-separation from the triune God, who they view as the ultimate source of all life, is eternal death. Some view Christianity as a form of egalitarianism, because it teaches that all humanity potentially has equal access to salvation: a person simply has to renounce their faith and sincerely adopt Christianity.
Christians have traditionally argued that religious pluralism is an invalid or self-contradictory concept. Maximal forms of religious pluralism claim that all religions are equally true, or that one religion can be true for some and another for others. This Christians hold to be logically impossible. (Most Jews and Muslims similarly reject this maximal form of pluralism.) Christianity insists it is the fullest and most complete revelation of God to Man. If Christianity is true, than other religions cannot be equally true, although they may contain lesser revelations of God that are true. So the pluralist must either distort Christianity to make it pluralistic, or reject it and acknowledge that one cannot be a complete pluralist.
One image of the Church that was often used by the Church fathers was that of a hospital. In this analogy the doctor does not always care for a patient in the way the patient would like, but in the way best suited to bring about healing to the patient. (Entry into the hospital should of course be voluntary.) Doing what pluralists ask would be somewhat akin to accommodating the false "pillow prophets" of the Old Testament who prophesied to the king what he wanted to hear, predictions of victory, rather than God's words of certain defeat that could only be avoided through thorough repentance. Thus, Christianity must preach salvation through the Church to all outside the Church, in order to help people realize that through conversion to Christianity one will achieve salvation.
To these Christians, it appears to be a contradiction for non-Christians to acknowledge the validity of Christian prayers or sacraments, but continue to deny the beliefs which underlie those prayers and sacraments. The central sacrament, the Eucharist, for example, is believed to be the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ; belief in its efficacy is based on the belief that it really and truly is. If a person were to deny that the Eucharist is Christ's body and blood, that would amount to denying that it unites us to God, imparts grace, or administers any other benefit, save possibly through a sort of psychological placebo effect.
Modern (post-enlightenment era) Christian views
In recent years, some Christian groups have become more open to religious pluralism; this has led to many cases of reconciliation between Christians and people of other faiths.
In recent years there has been much to note in the way of reconciliation between some Christians groups and the Jewish people. Many modern day Christians, including many Catholics and some liberal Protestants, have developed a view of the New Testament as an extended covenant; They believe that Jews are still in a valid relationship with God, and that Jews can avoid damnation and earn a heavenly reward. For these Christians, the New Testament extended God's original covenant to cover non-Jews. The article Christian-Jewish reconciliation deals with this issue in detail.
Many smaller Christian groups in the US and Canada have come into being over the last 40 years, such as "Christians for Israel". Their website says that they exist in order to "expand Christian-Jewish dialogue in the broadest sense in order to improve the relationship between Christians and Jews, but also between Church and Synagogue, emphasizing Christian repentance, the purging of anti-Jewish attitudes and the false 'Replacement' theology rampant throughout Christian teachings."
A number of large Christian groups, including the Catholic Church and several large Protestant churches, have publicly declared that they will no longer proselytize Jews.
Most Christians, including most most conservative Protestants, reject the idea of the New Testament as an extended covenant, and retain the classical Christian view as described above.
The Eastern Orthodox View
As is often when viewed from a Western perspective, the Eastern Orthodox teaching appears confusing and paradoxical. On the one hand, the Orthodox Church teaches that Eastern Orthodoxy is the only path to choose for salvation. On the other hand, the Church also teaches that no human being, by statement nor by omission of a statement, may place a limit upon the Will and choice of God, who may save whomsoever it pleases Him to save. Orthodox try to explain how the paradox is resolved by metaphorically comparing the Church to Noah's Ark. It is not, in theory, utterly impossible for someone to "survive the flood" of sin by clinging to whatever driftwood is around or by trying to cobble together a raft from bits and pieces of whatever floats, but the Ark is a far safer choice to make. Likewise, it is not inconceivable that the heterodox and even non-Christians might be saved simply through God's own choice, made for His inscrutable reasons, but it is far safer for any individual person to turn to the Orthodox Church, thus, it behooves Orthodox Christians to exhort others to take this safer path. Likewise, the Orthodox remember that Christ mentions one, and only one thing that unfailingly leads to perdition--blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. No other path is explicitly and universally excluded by Christ's words.
Ultimately, however, the question of salvation of unbelievers is considered purely secondary to what the Church expects of ordinary Orthodox Christians. As St. Theophan the Recluse put the matter: "You ask, will the heterodox be saved... Why do you worry about them? They have a Saviour Who desires the salvation of every human being. He will take care of them. You and I should not be burdened with such a concern. Study yourself and your own sins... I will tell you one thing, however: should you, being Orthodox and possessing the Truth in its fullness, betray Orthodoxy, and enter a different faith, you will lose your soul forever."
Islam, like most other monotheistic faiths, views itself as the only true path or way. For someone who is living after prophet Muhammad, the only way to go to Paradise, and avoid Hell, is to follow the message of Islam. Other monotheistic faiths before Islam are considered also as valid. For someone to worship other Gods (contradicting monotheism), or denying the prophethood of Muhammad is a sure way to Hell.
However, this view does not at all translate to religious intolerance. Far from it, Islam has guaranteed freedom of belief and freedom of worship from the time of Muhammad himself. Non-Muslim minorities living under Muslim rule were guaranteed certain freedoms and protections, under the dhimmi system. Although that system was initially for people of the book (i.e. Jews and Christians, it was extended to include Mandeans, Zoroasterians, and Hindus.
Despite the common allegation that Islam spread by the sword, in reality, forced conversions of adherents of other religions is not sanctioned by Islam, and is not common throughout Islamic history. It is true that Muslim rule spread through conquest, but that is the military and political aspect only, and not the religious one. In other words, war was waged to put lands under Muslim rule, but the subjects were free to continue practice whatever religion they chose. However, they were subject to taxation and political and economic impediments based on their non-Muslim status. At one time this was not a unique activity of Muslim countries, as similar legal restrictions and penalties were imposed on minority Christian groups within European Christian countries.
Religious persecution is also not sanctioned by Islam, although a few occurrences are known in history, but are mostly due to cruel rulers, or general economic hardships in the societies they are in.
To that effect, most pre-Islamic religious minorities continue to exist in their native countries, a fact which is in glaring contrast to the extinction of Muslim minorities in Europe at the time of the Renaissance.
Over the centuries, several known religious debates, and polemical works did exist in various Muslim countries between various Muslim sects, as well as between Muslims and non-Muslims. Many of these works survive today, and make for some very interesting reading in the apologetics genre. Only when such debates spilled over to the unlearned masses, and thus causing scandals, and civil strife did rulers intervene to restore order and pacify the public outcry on the perceived attack on their beliefs.
As for sects within Islam, history shows a variable pattern. Various sects became intolerant when gaining favour with the rulers, and often work to oppress or eliminate rival sects (e.g. Mu'tazili persecution of Salafis, Safavid imposing Shia on the population of Iran, ...etc.). Sectarian strife between Shia and Sunni inhabitants of Baghdad is well known through history. In contrast, several sects coexist in other parts of the Muslim world with little or no friction.
Bahá'u'lláh urged the elimination of religious intolerance. God is one, and has manifested himself to us through several historic Messengers. We therefore must associate with people of all religions, showing the love of God in our relations with them, whether this is reciprocated or not.
Bahá'í's refer to the concept of "Progressive Revelation", which means that God's will is revealed to mankind progressively, as mankind matures and is better able to comprehend the purpose of God in creating humanity. In this view, God's word is revealed through a series of messengers: Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Bahá'u'lláh (the founder of the Bahá'í Faith) among them. In the Book of Certitude, Bahá'u'lláh acknowledges that what these messengers say about themselves is inevitably true, thus if Jesus claims Divinity then this cannot be denied, since God is speaking through him.
According to Baha'is there will not be another messenger for many hundred of years.
The Hindu religion is naturally pluralistic. As such the Hindu religion has no theological difficulties in accepting degrees of truth in other religions. Just as Hindus worshiping Ganesh is seen as valid those worshiping Vishnu (who accepts all prayers), so someone worshiping Jesus or Allah are accepted. Indeed many foreign deities become assimilated into Hinduism, and some Hindus may sometimes offer prayers to Jesus along with their traditional Gods. For this reason, Hinduism usually has good relations with other religious groups accepting pluralism. In particular, Hinduism and Buddhism coexist peacefully in many parts of the world.
The Wisdom tradition of Buddhism necessarily entails a plural position, but does not adhere to ideas of religious syncretism. Ethnocentrism of any sort (including the idea of belonging to a 'school of Buddhism' as well as evangelism and religious supremacism) is, for Buddhists, rooted in self-grasping and reified thought - the cause of Samsara itself.
The current Dalai Lama has repeatedly pointed out that any attempt to convert individuals from their beliefs is not only non-Buddhist, but abusive: the identification of evangelism as an expression of compassion is considered to be false, and indeed the idea that Buddhism is the one true path is likewise false for Buddhists. What Buddhists are encouraged to do is to act as sensitively and appropriately to each situation as they can, and in the process not allow any reifying views obscure their capability to do so. Buddhists are supposed to use their understanding of the shortfalls of the world as the basis for compassion, and then focus this compassion on their own development: as enlightened beings, they will be able to deal more adequately with the sufferings of the world.
In brief then, the expression of compassion is done so in the languages and beliefs that Buddhists find around them. For instance, when Buddhists talk with Christians, it is an abuse to deny Christ, God or the immortal soul- what they can hope to do is to help people within their own belief structure to greater insight and greater kindness. Indeed what Buddhists philosophers such as Nagarjuna and Candrakirti demonstrated so well is that Buddhists can use language to defeat language. Buddhists can use the conventions of the world to reveal them for what they are, within the contexts that they find them. If Buddhists wish to help those around them, they are admonished to continually demonstrate exampler behaviour; a way of being that inspires everyone to better themselves, which is contextual, sensitive, and everyone-centred. These positions hold for both inter-religious and intra-religious pluralism.
Intra-religious pluralism (between different denominations within the same religion)
Classical Christian views
Before the Great Schism, mainstream Christianity confessed "one holy catholic and apostolic church", in the words of the Nicene Creed. Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Episcopalians and most Protestant Christian denominations still maintain this belief.
Church unity was something very visible and tangible, and schism was just as serious an offense as heresy. Following the Great Schism, Roman Catholicism and recognizes the Orthodox baptisms as valid. Eastern Orthodoxy does not have the concept of "validity" when applied to Sacraments, but it considers the form of Roman Catholic baptism to be acceptable, if still devoid of actual spiritual content. Both generally regard each other as "heterodox" and "schismatic", while continuing to recognize each other as Christian. Attitudes of both towards different Protestant groups vary, primarily based upon how strongly Trinitarian the Protestant group in question might be.
Modern (post-enlightenment era) Christian views
Most fundamentalist Protestant Christian groups hold that only their Church provides a pathway to God and salvation. All other Christian groups are held to be heretical, and are sometimes attacked as Satanic. Neo-evangelical Protestant Christian Churches reject this view outright, and hold that most forms of Christianity are valid pathways to God. They continue to believe in "one" church, but see the Church as being generally invisible and intangible. Many Protestants doubt that either Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy are still valid manifestations of the Church.
Modern Christian ideas on intra-religious pluralism (between different denominations of Christianity) are discussed in the article on Ecumenism.
Classical Muslim views
Like Christianity, Islam originally did not have ideas of religious pluralism for different Islamic denominations. Early on, Islam developed into several mututally antagonistic streams, including Shiite Islam, Sunni Islam and Sufi Islam. In some periods believers in these two communities went to war with each other over religious differences.
Modern (post-enlightenment era) Muslim views
Many Muslims brought up in Western nations now accept some modern views of religious pluralism. Some Shiite, Suni and Sufi Islamic leaders are willing to recognize each other's denomination as a valid form of Islam. However, many other Islamic leaders are unwilling to accept this; they view other forms of Islam as outside the Islamic religion.
- Anti-cult movement
- Projects working for peace among Israelis and Arabs
- Jacques Dupuis
- Bat Ye'or
- Freedom of religion
- Noahide System
- Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism, Robert Gordis et al, Jewish Theological Seminary and the Rabbinical Assembly, 1988
- Ground Rules for a Christian-Jewish Dialogue in The Root and the Branch, Robert Gordis, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1962
- Christians and Heretics in Rabbinic Literature of Late Antiquity Richard Kalmin, Harvard Theological review, Volume 87(2), p.155-169, 1994
- Toward a Theological Encounter: Jewish Understandings of Christiantiy Ed. Leon Klenicki, Paulist Press / Stimulus, 1991
- People of God, Peoples of God Ed. Hans Ucko, WCC Publications, 1996
- Kenneth Einar Himma, “Finding a High Road: The Moral Case for Salvific Pluralism,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, vol. 52, no. 1 (August 2002), 1-33
- The imperative of religious pluralism: A Conservative Jewish view
- Tolerance and Pluralism: A Comparative Study Mission In Israel
- Dabru Emet
- Christians for Israel
- Relations between Christians and Jews
- World Council of Churches Bibliography of works on religious pluralism
- Ayodhya: India's religious flashpoint (Hindu-Muslim conflict)
- India Potential trouble spots abound (Hindu-Muslim conflict)
- A Scholarly Study from the Al-Tawhid Journal on "Islam and Religious Pluralism"