Before you begin to read this chapter, ask yourself what your attitude is toward those whose religious beliefs and practices are different from your own. Do you feel curious? Interested to know more about them? Defensive? As if their religion is not “true” or “right”? Would you want to convince them of your own views? Do you think your own point of view might be enriched by dialogue with them?
Religious diversity in the United States and throughout the world is increasing. All of us can expect to be part of communities, workplaces, and social groups that include people of many faiths and of none. The development and growth of this diversity comprise an important social phenomenon and one that extends far beyond the confines of religion:
The radicalism of religious diversity is a fact of contemporary life and may well become the most significant feature in the development of society and culture in the twenty-first century…. A Muslim living in the United States today is not a Muslim only when he [or she] visits the mosque, recites Allahu akbar
, or fasts during the sacred month of Ramadan. He is a Muslim when he votes in a local election, goes to market, visits a museum, or reads the newspaper. He is, indeed, a Muslim when he meets a Christian or a Jew in the local park.1
We also encounter many other kinds of diversity—racial, lifestyle, political, and sexual orientation, to name but a few. Thinking through our responses to religious diversity can help us be more conscious of how we respond to diversity of other kinds, as well. There is also a particular feature of religious diversity that we should note. Most—although certainly not all—religions make claims to absolute truth. The existence of wide-ranging religious diversity coupled with absolute truth claims poses a particularly interesting challenge for thoughtful, reflective response.
Each of the five responses described in this section stems from authentic human concerns. Many are grounded in the sacred writings of their proponents’ religious tradition or in specific interpretations of those writings. Each has its adherents within most of the religions, as well as among the different religions. Various authors who write on responses to religious diversity may use the terms differently, as well.
We first need to distinguish all of these responses from tolerance, which may go along with any of them. Tolerance refers to the willingness to grant basic civil liberties to members of a faith other than one’s own, regardless of how one feels about that other faith. Tolerance encompasses the willingness to grant freedom to gather for religious meetings or to speak publicly in the hope of winning other people to one’s viewpoint, as well as avoiding religious discrimination in matters of employment or housing, for example. A person who is tolerant may disagree, may be convinced that the other’s position is wrong, but is still willing to see the other person share these fundamental freedoms.
The first response, exclusivism, is the most clearly defined. The exclusivist holds that, because religion deals with ultimate truth, there can be only one true or correct religion and the rest are completely wrong. Exclusivism is found within most of humankind’s religions. The following statement from Evangelical Affirmations provides a good example:
Without Christ and the biblical gospel, sinful humanity is without salvation…. Any “gospel” without the Christ of the Bible cannot be the saving gospel, and leaves sinners estranged from God…. We affirm that only through the work of Christ can any person be saved and resurrected to live with God forever. Unbelievers will be separated eternally from God.2
Although exclusivism is a prominent response within the three monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, it is not wholly confined to them. Buddhism, for example, exhibits a great deal of openness toward other faiths, but followers of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism regard it as the only correct interpretation of Buddhism and the only way that people can achieve the Buddhist promise of release from the suffering that affects all of humankind.3
Relativism is at the opposite end of the response spectrum. There are different forms of relativism, but all of them share the premise that all perspectives are limited, even those that lay claim to absolute truth. There is no unlimited viewpoint from which a truth that is relevant for all times, places, and persons could ever be known or expressed. This perception may lead the relativist in one of two directions: One approach is to maintain that, because religions claim absolute truth and absolute truth cannot be known, no religion is worthy of one’s commitment. This approach leads to secularism or irreligiousness. Another kind of relativism, however, holds that, in the absence of knowable absolute truth, it is simply up to individuals to pick the religion that feels right for them.
Inclusivism is a third approach. The inclusivist holds that there is one true or best religion, one that holds within itself the fullness of religious truth and human salvation. However, inclusivists believe there is something of this truth in some other religions, as well. Most Muslims believe, for example, that the revelation of God to the Jews and the Christians was true and brought salvation to its followers but that it had been distorted by Muhammad’s time. God’s revelation to Muhammad is believed to confirm the truth of earlier revelations, while eliminating the distortions. The Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church also affirmed an inclusivist view:
From ancient times down to the present, there has existed among diverse peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human life; at times, indeed, recognition can be found of a Supreme Divinity and of a Supreme Father too. Such a perception and such a recognition instills the lives of these peoples with a profound religious sense…. The Catholic church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these [non-Christian] religions…. Yet she proclaims and is in duty bound to proclaim without fail, Christ who is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). In him, in whom God reconciled all things to himself (2 Corinthians 5:18–19), men find the fullness of their religious life.4
The fourth viewpoint may be called synthesis. This view holds that all religions are essentially the same beneath a veneer of cultural particularity. Synthesis downplays the differences among religions in favor of the similarities among them. Thus, all will—or should—come together in a unity.
Hindu theologian and former president of India Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan takes this position, believing that what he calls Sanatana Dharma
(the “eternal religion,” a name often used by Hindus to describe their faith) is the one religious reality that encompasses all others and toward which all others will eventually evolve. As human beings collectively mature religiously, the various manifestations of religion will converge on “the One Spirit which takes us beyond the historical formulations,” which are only “imperfect halting expressions.”5
The relatively recent world faith of Baha’i also holds a view that humankind is evolving toward one world religion. For Baha’is, one world religion is a central aspect of a larger belief in a global civilization that will include a worldwide government, judicatory system, and currency. The authors of The Baha’i Faith: The Emerging Global Religion
state that “in reality, there is only one religion, the religion of God.”6
Baha’u’llah, the founder of Baha’i, is quoted as saying that “all nations should become one in faith and all men as brothers; that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened; that diversity of religion should cease, and differences of race be annulled.”7
(See Figure I.1
We can describe the fifth response as the affirmation of religious diversity. This view holds that the different religions are simply different, not headed toward a synthesis and not subsumable under the big umbrella of inclusivism. At the same time, each is ultimately true and must be honored as such. Affirmation makes for both commitment and openness. Describing this perspective, religious studies scholar Harold Coward writes:
It is a recognition that deep religious commitment is necessarily felt as absolute and, as such, functions as the validating criteria for all of one’s personal experience. This, however, does not impose it on others or rule out the recognition that in other persons there is a similar absolute commitment to a particular experience, which…will be different from one’s own…. Thus, one is able to honor one’s own commitment as absolute for oneself and at the same time respect the different absolute commitments of others…. In a dialogue this would mean the preservation of our differences in dignity and mutual respect.8
In discussing how such dialogue could go forward, Coward notes that it requires people to have accurate information about one another’s religions. In light of the fact that many persons are not well informed about their own religion, let alone those of others, the academic study of religion has an important role to play. It facilitates dialogue informed throughout by accurate information and animated by a spirit of inquiry and respect for the experience of others without compromising one’s own commitments.
In her thorough discussion of this stance, which she labels “pluralism,” Diana Eck, Director of Harvard University’s Pluralism Project, notes these five points that help to clarify what an affirming stance is, as well as how it differs from some of the other views I have described:9
- It is not just the fact of religious diversity but “active positive engagement with it.”
- It is not simply tolerance and a commitment to insure the rights of the followers of all faith traditions but “the active effort to understand difference and commonality through dialogue.”
- Although relativism does not allow for commitment, affirmation assumes that members of the different communities of faith are deeply committed to their chosen paths while practicing openness toward the chosen paths of others.
- It does not expect all religions to fuse together but looks for “ways to be distinctively ourselves and yet to be in relation to one another.”
- The foundation of affirmation is interreligious dialogue based on understanding rather than on agreement, holding that the understanding of difference is as important as agreement.
The attitude we hold toward those whose religion differs from our own has pragmatic ramifications as well as philosophical ones. For example, it influences our willingness to grant freedom of religious expression to them. A Christian pluralist, for example, would be more likely to willingly give a Muslim employee time off from work during Ramadan, Islam’s holy month, than would a Christian exclusivist. A college student whose approach was pluralistic would respond differently to a roommate of another faith than would a student who was an exclusivist. Our attitude toward religions other than our own also helps determine whether we try to “convert” others to our own viewpoint.
- What two features make religious diversity in the United States an especially interesting issue for reflective thought?
- Describe each of the five responses to religious diversity.
- Describe the affirmative response in greater detail.
- Write an essay in which you describe your own attitude toward religious diversity. Be sure that you include any ideas you may have about why you feel as you do.
- With several classmates, role-play different ways that members of one religion might approach members of another.
- Visit the Ontario Consultants for Religious Tolerance website (www.religioustolerance.org), and read one of the essays. Write a response to what you have read. Be certain to include the title of the essay that you read.
In this book, we look at world religions as they are found in the United States. The following four books provide additional information on world religions.
Eck, Diana L., A New Religious America: How A “Christian Country” Has Now Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. Notable for its accounts of specific congregations...