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How Christians view other religions

Views of Protestant, Roman Catholic,
and Eastern Orthodox churches

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Topics in this essay:

bullet Conservative Christians
bullet Roman Catholics
bullet Liberal Christians
bullet Who is right?
bullet Public opinion polls

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Conservative Christians viewing non-Christian religions:

Their beliefs differ:

bullet Many conservative Christians are exclusionists (i.e. they believe that their own denomination and those who agree with them are the only valid faith, while all other groups are in serious error).
bullet Some are inclusionists (i.e. they believe that their group's beliefs are fully true, while all other groups only have part of the truth).

They see their own faith group, as based upon the Word of God as expressed in the Bible. Generally, they believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. Most believe in the traditional Christian belief that an individual will be sent to Hell when she/he dies if she/he has not first repented of their sins and then been "saved" by trusting Jesus as Lord and Savior, while still alive. This would include essentially all members of non-Christian faith groups and many members of Christian denominations.

They may view other world religions as one of the following:

bullet only partially true, or
bullet mostly worthless, or
bullet influenced by Satan or
bullet actually controlled by Satan, or
bullet a variety of Satanism.

In addition, many conservative Christians do not recognize other Christian denominations as being truly Christian. This is seen in their local ministerial associations which are frequently separate from the mainline/liberal Christian ministerial group in the same city. It is also seen in their attacks on more liberal Christian denominations and on new religious movements which teach beliefs that are different from their own, and at variance from historical Christian beliefs.

One of the most common types of complaint mail that we receive demonstrates this exclusion of other Christian faith groups: Letters from Fundamentalist Christians often complain that we include such groups as the Roman Catholic Church, the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Unificationists, etc. in our lists of Christian denominations. They often regard Catholics as Pagans, Mormons as Gnostics, and Jehovah's Witnesses, Unificationists, etc. as an anti-Christian cults.

Some conservative Christians believe that the Gods and Goddesses of other religions are actually demons. Thus, they see little difference among Hinduism, Buddhism, Satanism, Wicca, other forms of Neopaganism, and all other non-Christian religions. They believe that while members of these religions think that they are worshiping deities, they are really interacting with evil spirits or with Satan himself.

They generally recognize the existence of spiritual power in other faith groups'  rituals, services and leaders. But they often attribute that power to demonic spirits, and describe it as a form of counterfeit power which may appear to be of God, but which originates in powers of evil.

They agree with those passages in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) that  state that unsaved people view the Gospel message is nonsense and/or undecipherable. It is only when a person is saved -- i.e. becomes part of the "Body of Christ" -- that the Holy Spirit will intervene in their life, and sanctify them. Only after the person is saved will the Gospel message become clear to them. Those who are not saved cannot be trusted to give wise advice or to teach accurate beliefs, because they are not empowered by the Holy Spirit to understand and speak the truth.

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Roman Catholics viewing non-Christian religions:

On 1965-OCT-28, following the Vatican II meetings of the leaders of the church, the Vatican issued a "Declaration on the Relation of the Church to non-Christian Religions." 1 In this document, the Roman Catholic Church followed the inclusivist path by holding their own faith group to be the only true church, even as they recognized some value and truth in non-Catholic denominations and non-Christian religions. Some important passages of the declaration "Nostra Aetate" are:

bullet "The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions."
bullet "The Church therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions... they recognize, preserve, and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men."
bullet "The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems."
bullet "Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is thus so great, this Sacred Synod wants to foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies as well as fraternal dialogues."

However, an apparent hardening of the church's views since Vatican II resulted in the release of "Dominus Iesus," first published on 2000-AUG-6 by Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. According to the Times News Service, the statement implies that "Churches such as the Church of England, where the apostolic succession of bishops from the time of St. Peter is disputed by Rome, and churches without bishops, are not considered 'proper' churches." They suffer from "defects." Religions other than Christianity are considered to be "gravely deficient." Their rituals can constitute "an obstacle to salvation" for their followers. 2 More details on "Dominus Iesus."

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Liberal Christians viewing non-Christian religions:

Many liberal Christians are pluralists: they view the major religions of the world as different attempts to understand questions related to deity, humanity, and the rest of the universe. They generally view the all-evil quasi-deity, Satan, as being a concept of profound evil, and not as a living entity with supernatural powers. They see the Gods and Goddesses of non-Christian religions as being unrelated to Satan, although some of those deities may have both good and evil aspects. They view all of the major religions as inspiring many of their members to lead more moral and spiritual lives. They welcome religious diversity and view it as making a positive contribution to the country.

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Who is right?

Religious diversity is a given, at least in North America. The U.S. has been called the most religiously diverse nation in the world. 3 About 76% of Americans currently identify themselves as Christians. About 14% do not follow any organized religion. The rest follow an amazing array of non-Christian religions, from Asatru to Zoroastrianism.  In addition, the religious composition of the U.S. is changing rapidly: the percentage of Christians is dropping almost one percentage point a year; those not affiliated with any religion are increasing over one half percentage points a year.

All of these numbers and trends are emphasizing the importance of how each faith group reacts to this increasing religious diversity. The fundamental question is whether a group's understanding of religious truth includes or excludes the validity of other faith groups' beliefs. There are three popular approaches to this question:

bullet Exclusivism: the belief that their faith group is the only completely true religion, and that all others are false, and perhaps Satanic in nature.
bullet Inclusivism: the belief that one's faith group is the only completely true religion. However, truth is also found in other religions.
bullet Pluralism: the belief that all of the tens of thousands of faith groups in the world are valid and true, when viewed from within their particular culture.

Unfortunately, excluding other religions can lead to misunderstandings and conflict. Some Christians can view other religions as anti-Christian whereas others see them as un-Christian. Kerr Cuhulain, a respected Neopagan, wrote about the attitudes of some Christians towards his religion of Wicca: "This is exclusivism: the idea that there can only be one true faith. The same individuals who make this suggestion usually accuse any faith or Christian denomination other than their own of being anti-Christian or Satanic...We [Wiccans] are not anti-Christian. We are simply different." Problems can occur when individuals convert their beliefs into practice. Religious minorities in Canada and the United States have been heavily discriminated against. Anti-Semitism is believed to be responsible for the largest number of serious religious attacks in these two countries. However, those Wiccans who are open with their faith have probably suffered the greatest on a per-capita basis. There have been incidents of lynching, attempted mass murder by stoning, shooting, assaults, firebombing, and other criminal acts against Wiccans and other Neopagans. More details.

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Public opinion polls:

Barna Research Ltd. is the most active religious polling organization in the United States. They conduct telephone polls about a variety of topics -- mainly involving Christianity. 4

George Barna, president of Barna Research commented: "While many Americans are not practicing Christians, they retain some identity with the Christian faith and remain protective of it. They are suspicious of other faith groups because they are unknown but different—and we are generally uncomfortable with those who are not just like us..." Barna asked a random selection of American adults in 1995-JUL whether they thought that various religions had a positive or negative effect on U.S. society. The margin of error is ~+mn~3 percentage points. Responses were only counted from those subjects who were familiar with the religion in question. 5

American adults, Christians and non-Christians alike, regard Christianity and Judaism as having a positive influence on society. The remaining five religions included in the survey (Islam, Buddhism, Mormonism, Scientology and Atheism) received mixed reviews. (Barna Research apparently does not consider The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons, to be a Christian denomination. This is a common stance taken by many conservative Christians who consider the Mormons to be either a non-Christian religion or a cult. Mormons consider their faith to be a reconstruction of the beliefs and practices of the early Christian movement; they regard other Christian denominations as having deviated from true Christianity which they represent).

Partial results of the survey are:

Religion % of born-again Christians who view the religion's impact as negative  % of non-Christians who view the religion's impact as negative
Islam 71% 24%
Buddhism 76% 22%
Scientology 81% 30%
Atheism 92% 50%

We suspect that mainline and liberal Christians have opinions that are intermediate between the above two groups. The percentage of American adults who are "born-again" is about 35%. The percentage of non-Christians is about 15%.

These beliefs do not bode well for the future of religious tolerance in the U.S. Large minorities of citizens view other religions very negatively. If similar results were found in a survey about other races, other genders, other sexual orientations, or other nationalities, then one could attribute the response to simple racism, sexism, homophobia or xenophobia. But the above survey is in a different class. Many born-again Christians believe that the normal destination for people after death is Hell; only those who are born-again will attain heaven. Thus, any religion that does not motivate people to be "saved" would, in their view, have a negative impact on its members, and thus on society as a whole. So, it may be positive concern for followers of other religions that is causing the born-again Christians to have extremely low opinion of those religions.

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The most mistrusted religion: Atheism:

There are probably hundreds of definitions of the term "religion" that people have proposed -- all different. We use a very inclusive definition: "Religion is any specific system of belief about deity, often involving rituals, a code of ethics, a philosophy of life, and a worldview." Atheism qualifies under this definition because Atheists either believe that God does not exist, or they have no belief in the existence of God.

In the Barna survey cited above, 92% of born-again Christians view Atheism's impact on society as negative; this is a higher percentage than for any other religion. Even 50% of non-Christians view Atheism's impact as negative -- again a higher percentage than any other religion.

University of Minnesota researchers conducted a telephone survey of over 2,000 households in early 2006. 7 They found that:

"...Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in 'sharing their vision of American society.' Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry."

Lead researcher, Penny Edgell, noted that Atheists:

"...offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years....It seems most Americans believe that diversity is fine, as long as every one shares a common 'core' of values that make them trustworthy—and in America, that 'core' has historically been religious'....Americans believe they share more than rules and procedures with their fellow citizens—they share an understanding of right and wrong. Our findings seem to rest on a view of atheists as self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good'." 7,8

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  1. Pope John Paul, "Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate)," 1965-OCT-28. Available at:
  2. Joseph Cardinal Retzinger, "Dominus Iesus on the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and the church," Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. See:
  3. Diana Eck, "A New Religious America: How a 'Christian Country' Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation," HarperSanFrancisco, (2001). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  4. Barna Research has a home page at:
  5. "Christianity has a strong positive image despite fewer active participants," Barna Research, 1996-FEB-5, at:
  6. The term "pluralism" is ambiguous. It is sometimes used to refer to the belief that all religions are true. Other times, it refers to religious diversity.
  7. "Atheists identified as America’s most distrusted minority, according to new U of M study," University of Minnesota, 2006-MAR-20, at:
  8. The study will appear in the 2006-April issue of the American Sociology Review.

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Copyright © 1997 to 2007, by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2007-SEP-07
Author: B.A. Robinson

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