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The cross of the war memorial and a menorah for Hanukkah coexist in Oxford.

Religious pluralism is a loosely defined expression concerning acceptance of different religions, and is used in a number of related ways:

  • As the name of the worldview according to which one's religion is not the sole and exclusive source of truth, and thus that at least some truths and true values exist in other religions.
  • As acceptance of the concept that two or more religions with mutually exclusive truth claims are equally valid. This posture often emphasizes religion's common aspects.
  • Sometimes as a synonym for ecumenism, i.e., the promotion of some level of unity, co-operation, and improved understanding between different religions or different denominations within a single religion.
  • As term for the condition of harmonious co-existence between adherents of different religions or religious denominations.

Definition and scope

Religious pluralism, to paraphrase the title of a recent academic work, goes beyond mere toleration. Chris Beneke, in Beyond Toleration: The Religious Origins of American Pluralism, explains the difference between religious tolerance and religious pluralism by pointing to the situation in the late 18th century United States. By the 1730s, in most colonies religious minorities had obtained what contemporaries called religious toleration:[1] "The policy of toleration relieved religious minorities of some physical punishments and some financial burdens, but it did not make them free from the indignities of prejudice and exclusion. Nor did it make them equal. Those 'tolerated' could still be barred from civil offices, military positions, and university posts."[1] In short, religious toleration is only the absence of religious persecution, and does not necessarily preclude religious discrimination. However, in the following decades something extraordinary happened in the Thirteen Colonies, at least if one views the events from "a late eighteenth-century perspective."[2] Gradually the colonial governments expanded the policy of religious toleration, but then, between the 1760s and the 1780s, they replaced it with "something that is usually called religious liberty."[1]

Interfaith dialogue

Religious pluralism is sometimes used as a synonym for interfaith dialogue. Interfaith dialogue refers to dialogue between members of different religions for the goal of reducing conflicts between their religions and to achieve agreed upon mutually desirable goals. Inter-religious dialogue is difficult if the partners adopt a position of particularism, i.e. if they only care about the concerns of their own group, but is favored by the opposite attitude of universalism, where care is taken for the concerns of others. Interfaith dialogue is easier if a religion's adherents have some form of inclusivism, the belief that people in other religions may also have a way to salvation, even though the fullness of salvation can be achieved only in one's own religion. Conversely, believers with an exclusivist mindset will rather tend to proselytize followers of other religions, than seek an open-ended dialogue with them.

Conditions for the existence of religious pluralism

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. Exclusivist religions 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. Some 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. This was a common historical attitude prior to the Enlightenment, and has appeared as governmental policy into the present day under systems like Afghanistan's Taliban regime, which destroyed the ancient Buddhas of Bamyan.

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.

Giving one religion or denomination special rights that are denied to others can weaken religious pluralism. This situation obtains 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

Relativism, the belief that all religions are equal in their value and that none of the religions gives access to absolute truth, is an extreme form of inclusivism. Likewise, syncretism, the attempt to take over creeds of practices from other religions or even to blend practices or creeds from different religions into one new faith is an extreme form of inter-religious dialogue. Syncretism must not be confused with ecumenism, the attempt to bring closer and eventually reunite different denominations of one religion that have a common origin but were separated by a schism.

The existence of religious pluralism depends on the existence of freedom of religion. Freedom of religion exists when different religions of a particular region possess the same rights of worship and public expression. Freedom of religion is restrained in many Islamic countries, such as in Saudi Arabia, where the public practice of religions other than Islam is forbidden, in Iran, where the Baha'is have no legal rights and are persecuted, and in the Palestinian Authority, where Arab Christians report they are frequent victims of religious persecution by Muslims.

Religious freedom did not exist at all in many Communist countries such as Albania and the Stalinist Soviet Union, where the state prevented the public expression of religious belief and even persecuted some or all religions. This situation persists still today in North Korea, and to some extent in China and Vietnam.

History of religious pluralism

Cultural and religious pluralism has a long history and development that reaches from antiquity to contemporary trends in post-modernity.

Inter-religious pluralism

Bahá'í views

Bahá'u'lláh, founder of Bahá'í Faith, urged the elimination of religious intolerance. He taught that God is one, and has manifested himself to humanity through several historic messengers. Bahá'u'lláh taught that Bahá'ís must associate with peoples of all religions, showing the love of God in 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: Abraham, Krishna, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, and Bahá'u'lláh (the founder of the Bahá'í Faith) among them. In the Kitáb-i-Íqán (Book of Certitude), Bahá'u'lláh explains that messengers of God have a twofold station, one of divinity and one of an individual. According to Bahá'í writings, there will not be another messenger for many hundreds of years. There is also a respect for the religious traditions of the native peoples of the planet who may have little other than oral traditions as a record of their religious figures.

Buddhist views

In the Brahmajala Sutta,[3] the Buddha is recorded as stating that the teachings of other sects of his day were based on one or more of 62 erroneous theories, and that falling into those errors would prevent attaining permanent liberation from suffering:

Bhikkus, there are countless philosophies, doctrines, and theories in this world. People criticize each other and argue endlessly over their theories. According to my investigation, there are sixty-two main theories which underlie the thousands of philosophies and religions current in our world. Looked at from the Way of Enlightenment and Emancipation, all sixty-two of these theories contain errors and create obstacles… A good fisherman places his net in the water and catches all the shrimp and fish he can. As he watches the creatures try to leap out of the net, he tells them, ‘No matter how high you jump, you will only land in the net again.’ He is correct. The thousands of beliefs flourishing at present can all be found in the net of these sixty-two theories. Bhikkus, don’t fall into that bewitching net. You will only waste time and lose your chance to practice the Way of Enlightenment.[4]

The earliest reference to Buddhist views on religious pluralism in a political sense is found in the Edicts of Emperor Ashoka:

"All religions should reside everywhere, for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart." Rock Edict Nb7 (S. Dhammika)
"Contact (between religions) is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions." Rock Edict Nb12 (S. Dhammika)

When asked, “Don’t all religions teach the same thing? Is it possible to unify them?” the Dalai Lama said:[5]

People from different traditions should keep their own, rather than change. However, some Tibetan may prefer Islam, so he can follow it. Some Spanish prefer Buddhism; so follow it. But think about it carefully. Don’t do it for fashion. Some people start Christian, follow Islam, then Buddhism, then nothing.

In the United States I have seen people who embrace Buddhism and change their clothes! Like the New Age. They take something Hindu, something Buddhist, something, something… That is not healthy.

For individual practitioners, having one truth, one religion, is very important. Several truths, several religions, is contradictory.

I am Buddhist. Therefore, Buddhism is the only truth for me, the only religion. To my Christian friend, Christianity is the only truth, the only religion. To my Muslim friend, [Islam] is the only truth, the only religion. In the meantime, I respect and admire my Christian friend and my Muslim friend. If by unifying you mean mixing, that is impossible, useless.

Classical Greek and Roman pagan 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. The 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, see syncretism a form of Inclusivism.

Christian views

Some Christians have 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. Some Christians hold this idea to be logically impossible from the Principle of contradiction. (Most Jews and Muslims similarly reject this maximal form of pluralism.)

Other Christians have held that there can be truth value and salvific value in other faith traditions. John Macquarrie, described in the Handbook of Anglican Theologians (1998) as "unquestionably Anglicanism's most distinguished systematic theologian in the second half of the twentieth century,"[6] wrote that "there should be an end to proselytizing but that equally there should be no syncretism of the kind typified by the Baha'i movement" (p. 2[7]). In discussing 9 founders of major faith traditions (Moses, Zoroaster, Lao-zu, Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, Krishna, Jesus, and Muhammad), which he called "mediators between the human and the divine," Macquarrie wrote that:

I do not deny for a moment that the truth of God has reached others through other channels - indeed, I hope and pray that it has. So while I have a special attachment to one mediator, I have respect for them all. (p. 12[7])

Hindu views

The Hindu religion is naturally pluralistic. A well-known Rig Vedic hymn stemming from Hinduism claims that "Truth is One, though the sages know it variously." (Ékam sat vipra bahudā vadanti) The Hindu religion has no theological difficulties in accepting degrees of truth in other religions. Just as Hindus worshiping Ganesh is seen as valid by those worshiping Vishnu, so someone worshiping Jesus or Allah is accepted. Many foreign deities become assimilated into Hinduism, and some Hindus may sometimes offer prayers to Jesus along with their traditional forms of God. 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.

Islamic views

Islam considers itself the only true path for following the will of Allah (God) and going to Jannah (Paradise, Heaven).[8]

Muslims consider the monotheistic faiths that preceded it, Judaism and Christianity, to be valid in its original form.[9] Yet they believe that these religions were corrupted and are consequently invalid today. Muslims also believe that the Quran confirms the scriptures that came before including the Torah and the Gospel.[10]

Jain views

Anekāntavāda, the principle of relative pluralism, is one of the basic principles of Jainism. In this view, the truth or the reality is perceived differently from different points of view, and no single point of view is the complete truth.[11][12] Jain doctrine states that an object has infinite modes of existence and qualities and they cannot be completely perceived in all its aspects and manifestations, due to inherent limitations of the humans. Only the Kevalins - the omniscient beings - can comprehend the object in all its aspects and manifestations, and all others are capable of knowing only a part of it.[13] Consequently, no one view can claim to represent the absolute truth. Jains compare all attempts to proclaim absolute truth with adhgajanyāyah or the "maxim of the blind men and elephant", wherein all the blind men claimed to explain the true appearance of the elephant, but could only partly succeed due to their narrow perspective.[14]

Jewish views

Sikh views

The Sikh Gurus (religious leaders) have propagated the message of "many paths" leading to the one God and ultimate salvation for all souls who treading on the path of righteousness. They have supported the view that proponents of all faiths can, by doing good and virtuous deeds and by remembering the Lord can certainly achieve salvation. Students of the Sikh faith are told to accept all leading faiths as possible vehicles for attaining spiritual enlightenment, provided the faithful study, ponder and practice the teachings of their prophets and leaders. The holy book of the Sikhs (the Sri Guru Granth Sahib) says, "Do not say that the Vedas, the Bible and the Koran are false. Those who do not contemplate them are false." Guru Granth Sahib page 1350.[15] and "The seconds,minutes,and hours,days,weeks and months and various seasons originate from One Sun; O nanak,in just the same way, the many forms originate from the Creator." Guru Granth Sahib page 12,13

The Guru Granth Sahib also says that Bhagat Namdev and Bhagat Kabir, who were both believed to be Hindus, both attained salvation though they were born before Sikhism took root and were clearly not Sikhs. This highlights and reinforces the Guru's saying that "peoples of other faiths" can join with God as true and also at the same time signify that Sikhism is not the exclusive path for liberation. Again, the Guru Granth Sahib provides this verse: "Naam Dayv the printer, and Kabeer the weaver, obtained salvation through the Perfect Guru. Those who know God and recognize His Shabad ("word") lose their ego and class consciousness." Guru Granth Sahib page 67 [16] Most of the 15 Sikh Bhagats who are mentioned in their holy book were non-Sikhs and belonged to Hindu and Muslim faiths, which were the most prevalent religions of this region.

Sikhs have always being eager exponents of interfaith dialogue and will not only accept the right of other to practise their faith but have in the past fought and laid down their lives to protect this right for others. See the sacrifice of the ninth Sikh Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadar who on the final desperate and heart-rending pleas of the Kashmiri Pandit, agreed to put up a fight for their right to practise their religion. In this regard, Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh Guru writes in the Dasam Granth:[17]

He protected the forehead mark and sacred thread (of the Hindus) which marked a great event in the Iron age.
For the sake of saints, he laid down his head without even a sign.13.
For the sake of Dharma, he sacrificed himself. He laid down his head but not his creed.
The saints of the Lord abhor the performance of miracles and malpractices. 14.

Dasam Granth, Bachitar Nanak, Page 131

The Sikhs have promoted their faith as an Interfaith religion and have taken a lead in uniting all the different religions of the world. The message of unity of the faiths is summed up in this quotation from the Guru Granth Sahib: "One who recognizes that all spiritual paths lead to the One shall be emancipated. One who speaks lies shall fall into hell and burn. In all the world, the most blessed and sanctified are those who remain absorbed in Truth." (Guru Granth Sahib page 142), Guru Granth Sahib page 142

Intra-religious pluralism

Christian views

Classical Christian views

Before the Great Schism, mainstream Christianity confessed "one holy catholic and apostolic church", in the words of the Nicene Creed. Roman 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 sees and recognizes the Orthodox Sacraments as valid. Eastern Orthodoxy does not have the concept of "validity" when applied to Sacraments, but it considers the form of Roman Catholic Sacraments 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.

Many Christians hold that the Christian church is not just an institution, which can be broken into many denominations. They hold that each instituted church is able to worship God in a way that conforms to Scripture, which allows for many different styles and customs. They hold that all true Christians are united in belief in Jesus Christ, which can be judged against such documents as the Apostles' Creed.

Modern Christian views

Many Protestant Christian groups hold that only believers which believe in certain fundamental doctrines know the true pathway to salvation. The core of this doctrine is that Jesus Christ was a perfect man, is the Son of God and that he died and rose again for the wrongdoing of those who will accept the gift of salvation. They continue to believe in "one" church, believing in fundamental issues there is unity and non-fundamental issues there is liberty. Some Protestants are doubtful if the Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy are still valid manifestations of the Church and usually reject movements begun within 19th century Christianity, such as Mormonism, Christian Science, or Jehovah's Witnesses as not distinctly Christian.

Modern Christian ideas on intra-religious pluralism (between different denominations of Christianity) are discussed in the article on Ecumenism.

Islamic views

Classical views

Like Christianity, Islam originally did not have ideas of religious pluralism for different Islamic denominations. Early on, Islam developed into several mutually antagonistic streams, including Shiite Islam and Sunni Islam. In some periods believers in these two communities went to war with each other over religious differences.

Modern (post-Enlightenment) Islamic views

The concept of pluralism was introduced to Islamic philosophy by Abdolkarim Soroush. He got the idea from Rumi the famous Persian poet and philosopher. Soroush tried to expand his theory and put it on a solid foundation. His views have been criticized extensively in traditional religious circles.

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.

Jewish views

Religious pluralism and human service professions

The concept of religious pluralism is also relevant to human service professions, such as psychology and social work, as well as medicine and nursing, in which trained professionals may interact with clients from diverse faith traditions.[18][19][20] For example, psychologist Kenneth Pargament[18] has described four possible stances toward client religious and spiritual beliefs, which he called rejectionist, exclusivist, constructivist, and pluralist. Unlike the constructivist stance, the pluralist stance

recognizes the existence of a religious or spiritual absolute reality but allows for multiple interpretations and paths toward it. In contrast to the exclusivist who maintains that there is a single path "up the mountain of God," the pluralist recognizes many paths as valid. Although both the exclusivist and the pluralist may agree on the existence of religious or spiritual reality, the pluralist recognizes that this reality is expressed in different cultures and by different people in different ways. Because humans are mortal and limited, a single human religious system cannot encompass all of the religious or spiritual absolute reality. (p. 167[19])

Importantly, "the pluralistic therapist can hold personal religious beliefs while appreciating those of a client with different religious beliefs. The pluralist recognizes that religious value differences can and will exist between counselors and clients without adversely affecting therapy" (p. 168).[19] The stances implied by these four helping orientations on several key issues, such as "should religious isssues be discussed in counseling?", have also been presented in tabular form (p. 362, Table 12.1).[18]

The profession of chaplaincy, a religious profession, must also deal with issues of pluralism and the relevance of a pluralistic stance. For example, Friberg (2001) argues that "With growing populations of immigrants and adherents of religions not previously seen in significant numbers in North America, spiritual care must take religion and diversity seriously. Utmost respect for the residents' spiritual and religious histories and orientations is imperative" (p. 182).[20]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Beneke 2006: 6.
  2. Beneke 2006: 5.
  3. Brahmajala Sutta, retrieved 2009-06-18.
  4. Brahmajala Sutta, translated by Thich Nhat Hanh (1991), Old Path, White Clouds, Parralax Press. ISBN 9780938077268 (pp. 399-400)
  5. Dalai Lama Asks West Not to Turn Buddhism Into a "Fashion", Zenit, 2003-10-08, retrieved 2009-06-18.
  6. p. 168, Timothy Bradshaw (1998), "John Macquarrie," in: Alister E. McGrath (ed). The SPCK Handbook of Anglican Theologians (pp. 167-168). London: SPCK. ISBN 9780281051458
  7. 7.0 7.1 John Macquarrie (1996). Mediators between human and divine: From Moses to Muhammad. New York: Continuum. ISBN 0826411703
  8. Qur'an: 3:85, 3:85
  9. Qur'an: 5:44, 5:69,3:199
  10. Qur'an: (5:48–74
  11. Dundas (2002) p.231
  12. Koller, John M. (July, 2000) pp.400-7
  13. Jaini, Padmanabh (1998) p.91
  14. Hughes, Marilynn (2005) p.590-1
  15. Guru Granth Sahib page 1350
  16. Guru Granth Sahib page 67
  17. page 131
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 Kenneth I. Pargament (1997). The psychology of religion and coping: Theory, research, practice. New York: Guilford. ISBN 9781572306646
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 Brian J. Zinnbauer & Kenneth I. Pargament (2000). Working with the sacred: Four approaches to religious and spiritual issues in counseling. Journal of Counseling & Development, v78 n2, pp162-171. ISSN 0748-9633
  20. 20.0 20.1 Nils Friberg (2001). The role of the chaplain in spiritual care. In David O. Moberg, Aging and spirituality: spiritual dimensions of aging theory, research (p. 177-190). Routledge. ISBN 9780789009395 (NB: The quotation is discussing residents in nursing homes)

Works cited

  • Beneke, Chris (2006) Beyond Toleration: The Religious Origins of American Pluralism (New York: Oxford University Press).
  • Eck, Diane (2001) A New Religious America: How a "Christian Country" Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation (San Francisco: Harper).
  • Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism, Robert Gordis et al., Jewish Theological Seminary and the Rabbinical Assembly, 1988.
  • Ashk Dahlén, Sirat al-mustaqim: One or Many? Religious Pluralism Among Muslim Intellectuals in Iran in The Blackwell Companion to Contemporary Islamic Thought, ed. Ibrahim Abu-Rabi, Oxford, 2006.
  • Ground Rules for a Christian-Jewish Dialogue in The Root and the Branch, Robert Gordis, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1962
  • Hutchison, William R. (2003) Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal (New Haven: Yale University Press).
  • Kalmin, Richard (1994), Christians and Heretics in Rabbinic Literature of Late Antiquity, Harvard Theological Review, Volume 87(2), p. 155-169.
  • Toward a Theological Encounter: Jewish Understandings of Christiantiy Ed. Leon Klenicki, Paulist Press / Stimulus, 1991
  • Momen, M. (1997). A Short Introduction to the Bahá'í Faith. Oxford, UK: One World Publications. ISBN 1851682090. 
  • Monecal, Maria Rosa (2002),The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company)
  • 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

Further reading

  • Ankerl, Guy (2000) [2000]. Global communication without universal civilization. INU societal research. Vol.1: Coexisting contemporary civilizations : Arabo-Muslim, Bharati, Chinese, and Western. Geneva: INU Press. ISBN 2-88155-004-5. 
  • Albanese, Catherine, America: Religions and Religion. Belmont: WADSWORTH PUBLISHING, 1998, ISBN 0534504574

External links




  • Big Picture TV Video of Ela Gandhi, granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi, talking about religious pluralism



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