Cultural Psychology

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On Religious Inclusivism and Exclusivism

John S. Uebersax


Here we make two main points:

  1. Religious inclusivism — the view that “all religions are but different paths to the same goal” — is often presented as a means to promote peace. However, if religions actually are true to varying degrees, then radical inclusivism merely tries to sweep genuine differences under the carpet; that might, in the end, promote more discord than peace.
  2. If different religions each wish to convert the other, the best way to do so to compete on setting an example of love, compassion, tolerance, peace, and good works. Positive examples would then cause members of the other religion to spontaneously convert. If approached in this way, religious competition could be seen as a positive thing.

Recently I did some reading on the subject of religious exclusivism. This issue concerns (a) whether one religion may be said to be true and others false, or (b) whether all the world’s religions are more-or-less co-equal alternatives. (A convenient review of the topic appears in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article titled “Religious Pluralism“, by David Basinger; among the more interesting of opinions expressed are those of Alvin Platinga, 1999.)

We are naturally motivated to study this question in view of the need to improve relations between the Christian and Muslim worlds

One view, which we may call radical inclusivism, is quite popular today. This opinion seeks to end religious conflict by suggesting that all faiths are merely different roads to the same goal.

While based on laudable intentions, this view unfortunately suffers from a subordination of truth to pragmatics. It reasons that, since it would be very convenient if all religions were equal, that this must be true. At least in its most naïve form, then, this view is simply wishful thinking.

If some religions are truer than others, we cannot deny this merely for expedience, nor would it likely achieve peace. Peace is not founded upon falsehoods: while outwardly people might assent to a lie, inwardly they would know it to be false, producing inner, and eventually outer, conflict. Stable and lasting peace must be founded upon truth and honesty. If members of one group really believe their religion is true and another is false, and if they love the others and genuinely wish for their welfare, then they should wish for the conversion of the others.

Therefore, for example, if Christians truly believe their religion is superior to Islam, and if (as Christianity teaches) they love Muslims, then they should wish for the conversion of Muslims. This is not achieved by an “all roads lead to the same place” view. Such radical inclusivism would instead seem to imply either disregard of Christian doctrine, tepidity of faith, or lack of love. This is why I am rather astonished to see legitimate Christian philosophers arguing for radical inclusivism, or at least (as in the case of the eminent philosopher John Hick) promoting it without even remotely addressing the issues raised above.

Now, logically, Christians should be prepared to accept that Muslims may feel the same way towards Christianity. Where, then, does this leave us? What hope is there if two great religions, Christianity and Islam, each lay claim to exclusivity?

We should not give up too easily. Here we have been careful to use words like “wish to see the other converted” rather than, say, “aggressively try to convert the other.” There is a reason for this distinction, and it is the gist of my argument here.

Suppose that members of one faith were compelled by conscience or duty to seek the conversion of another. If so, then since this would have to be seen as God’s work, one ought to pursue it by the most effective means possible. But, by far, the most effective means of changing another is by setting a good example. A good example is efficient — it simply involves acting in the same way that your religion teaches you to act for your own salvation; no additional ‘cost’ is involved. And it is immensely powerful: human beings are instinctively impelled to imitate any good example they see.

If you wish to convert another, then, demonstrate by your kindness and compassion the action of God’s grace upon you. Demonstrate that God works through you. Win the hearts, minds, and souls of others through your good works. Contrarily, if you treat others harshly, if you try to convert them with aggression or violence, you will succeed only in showing that you are not a person of God. You will make your religion seem less, not more attractive. This principle, in fact, is an explicit Scriptural tenet of Christianity, though insufficiently acknowledged or practiced.

This simple logic, something apparent even to a child, shows the way out of the exclusivism–inclusivism impasse. To have two exclusivist religions does not necessitate conflict. Rather, if two exclusivist religions were completely sincere, the stage would be set for a positive and productive competition. To have an ‘opponent’ is not necessarily a bad thing. Is it not true that positive competition spurs on the finest of human achievements? Let us, then, confound the professional philosophers who wish to make this issue more complicated than it really is, and state things simply: let Christians and Muslims engage in a friendly competition to see who can extend greater kindness to the other.

In summary, we have here refuted two popular myths prevalent in the current debate on religious pluralism:

  • That radical inclusivism necessarily breeds peace
  • That exclusivism necessarily breeds conflict

We have further suggested that maintaining some degree of exclusivism is ethical and appropriate if a religion truly considers itself superior. Having two exclusivist religions ought to lead to a positive competition, promoting love and tolerance, leading more directly to peace than an artificial or pretended inclusivism.

We hasten to add, so there is no misunderstanding, that the kind of moderate exclusivism envisaged here is one where a faith considers itself superior, but also allows for the possibility that members of the other faith may be saved without formal conversion. This view, which could as easily be called a position of moderate inclusivism, is or approximates the position of the Catholic Church towards Muslims.


Basinger, David. “Religious Pluralism“. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2007. (Retr. Jan. 18, 2007).

Hick, John. “Islam and Christianity“. Lecture to the Iranian Institute of Philosophy, Tehran, March 2005.

Platinga, Alvin. Pluralism: A Defense of Religious Exclusivism”. In The Philosophical Challenge of Religious Diversity (Philip L. Quinn & Kevin Meeker, eds). Oxford University Press, 1999. Reprinted from The Rationality of Belief and the Plurality of Faith (Thomas D. Senor, ed), Cornell University Press, 1995.


Written by John Uebersax

January 21, 2008 at 3:35 pm

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