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Religious exclusivism, pluralism & inclusivism

The diversity of meanings of
the term "religious pluralism"

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Quotes showing different meanings of "religious pluralism"

bullet It means religious inclusivism: "... 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." 18
bullet It means religious tolerance: "... the condition of harmonious co-existence between adherents of different religions or religious denominations. 18
bullet It means religious ecumenism."... the promotion of some level of unity, co-operation, and improved understanding between different religions or different denominations within a single religion. 18
bullet It means religious diversity: "... the fact that in a given society there exist a multiplicity of religions together." 19

Is it any surprise that sincere folks from different religions -- or from different denominations within a single religion -- have communication difficulties when attempting dialogue?


Single words with multiple definitions are found throughout the English language. This problem may be found most frequently in the field of religion. Such terms as Witch, Paganism and cult have up to 17 meanings that we have been able to identify. Some are related; others very different.

The result can be chaotic. A person reading an essay or a listening to a speech often must struggle to understand which of many definitions an author or speaker is using. Often the speaker does not pre-define the terms, leaving the listeners having to guess the meaning from the context of her or his speech. Sadly, too many readers and listeners will use their own preferred definition a word or phrase, which differs from that of the writer or speaker.

A description of some of the meanings of "religious pluralism" follows:

Meaning 1: Religious pluralism equals religious diversity:

Some consider religious pluralism and religious diversity to be synonyms; That is, pluralism is a simple recognition of the fact that there are many different faith groups active in the country. Using this definition, religious pluralism is a statistical fact according to data collected by census offices and public opinion pollsters.

Examples using religious pluralism as a synonym for religious diversity are:

bullet "The Pluralism Project was developed by Diana L. Eck at Harvard University to study and document the growing religious diversity of the United States..." From the mission of the Pluralism Project. 18
bullet "I want you to just let a wave of intolerance wash over you. I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good...Our goal is a Christian nation. We have a Biblical duty, we are called by God, to conquer this country. We don't want equal time. We don't want pluralism."  Randall Terry 2
bullet "...the new religious pluralism [in Brazil was] created mainly by the rapid growth of Protestant Pentecostalism." 3 Kenneth P. Serbin, discussing the loss of dominance by the Roman Catholic Church in Brazil.
bullet "Definition [of pluralism]: A condition of society in which numerous distinct ethnic, religious, or cultural groups coexist within one nation." 4 A definition from a US Navy lecture.
bullet "Religious pluralism: Effectively, the same as religious diversity." 5 A definition from CSA Illumina's "Religious discovery guides," at:

Meaning 2: Religious pluralism involves inter-religious dialogue:

Another definition relates to the most basic form of ecumenism, where individuals of different religions dialogue and learn from each other without attempting to convince each other of the correctness of their individual set of beliefs. For example:

bullet "...pluralism is not the sheer fact of this plurality alone, but is active engagement with plurality. Pluralism and plurality are sometimes used as if they were synonymous. But plurality is just diversity, plain and simple -- splendid, colorful, maybe even threatening. Such diversity does not, however, have to affect me. I can observe diversity. I can even celebrate diversity, as the clich?goes. But I have to participate in pluralism....Pluralism requires the cultivation of public space where we all encounter one another." 1 Diana Eck
bullet "Pluralism...holds to one's own faith, and at the same time, engages other faiths in learning about their path and how they want to be understood.... Pluralism and dialogue are the means for building bridges and relationships that create harmony and peace on our planet home." 6 M. Basye Holland-Shuey
bullet "Fundamental to the philosophical acceptance of pluralism is the conviction that we have no self-evident, incorrigible means of establishing the truth of our assertions. This is not to say that we have no means available; however, the means at our disposal will not necessarily convince those with whom we disagree. Consequently, we must hold open the possibility that those who disagree with us do so rationally. This position implies neither relativism nor indifferentism to truth. It simply suggests that we cannot coerce others into believing as we do. We can offer our reasons for so believing, but these reasons, even if sufficient to support our claims, will not compel others to accept our beliefs." 7 Ronald Thiemann

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Meaning 3: Religious pluralism means accepting other religions' validity:

Another definition of religious pluralism involves accepting the beliefs taught by religions other that your own as valid, but not necessarily true. Some citations with slightly different meanings are listed below:

bullet Religions are all legitimate and valid:
bullet "The belief that multiple religions or secular world views are legitimate and valid. Each is true when viewed from within its own culture."  Glossary of religious terms in this web site.
bullet "...through a cynical intellectual sleight of hand, some critics have linked pluralism with a valueless relativism -- an undiscriminating twilight in which 'all cats are gray,' all perspectives equally viable, and as a result, equally uncompelling." Diana Eck 1
bullet Religions teach multiple truths -- all valid:
bullet "The theory that there are more than one...[kind]...of ultimate reality and/or truth - and that therefore more than one religion can be said to have the truth (way to God, salvation, etcetera)." Anton Hein, Webmaster of Apologetics Index, a counter-cult web site. 8
bullet Religions are equally valid:
bullet "Pluralism is an affirmation of the validity of every religion, and the refusal to choose between them, and the rejection of world evangelism...." John Stott, Anglican theologian. 9
bullet "I think that the current notion of religious pluralism is stupid....The stupid concept is the idea that all religions are basically equally true. That is just flat out stupid." Gregory Koukl,  10
bullet "Many people today confuse traditional Western religious tolerance with religious pluralism....the latter assumes all religions are equally valid, resulting in  moral relativism and ethical chaos..." Robert E. Regier & Timothy J. Dailey 11
bullet Religions converge on a single truth:
bullet "...all spiritual paths are finally leading to the same sacred ground." Susan Laemmle, Rabbi and Dean of Religious Live at USC. 12
bullet "By definition, religious pluralism is the notion that all religions constitute varying conceptions of the Ultimate Reality." Sukidi 13 
bullet "Religious Pluralism is the view that all religions are equally valid as ways to God. Pluralists often refer to the fact that, just as there are many paths up Mt. Fuji, so there are many paths to God. Differences among the religions are superficial; they all lead to the same goal. This is the epitome of tolerance and relativism." Rick Rood. 14
bullet Religious truths are relative:
bullet "Pluralism holds that distinct cultural beliefs are true for that culture--but not for cultures that operate out of a different 'paradigm.' Pluralists say that [religious] truth is a 'social construction.' It is created through social consensus and tradition, not discovered in reality that exists independently of our beliefs." Jim Leffel, Xenos Fellowship, a Fundamentalist Christian group. 15
bullet Religious truths are different responses to the divine:
bullet "...religious pluralism is the theory that the great world religions constitute varying conceptions of, and responses to, the one ultimate, mysterious divine reality." Seena Fazel, member of the Baha'i Faith. 16
bullet "There can be no doubt whatever that the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, derive their inspiration from one heavenly Source, and are the subjects of one God." Baha'u'llah, founder of the Baha'i Faith 17
bullet Religious diversity is to be valued:
bullet "...affirmation of a set of values beyond [one's] traditional allegiances." Rhys H. Williams 10

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Diana L. Eck., "The challenge of pluralism," The Pluralism Project, Harvard University, at:
  2. Randall Terry, Founder of Operation Rescue. Reported by the News-Sentinel, Fort Wayne, IN, 1993-AUG-16:
  3. Kenneth Serbin, "The Catholic Church, religious pluralism, and democracy in Brazil," The Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies," at: **
  4. "Religious Pluralism in the US Navy," at: This file requires MicroSoft PowerPoint software to read.
  5. "Religious discovery guides," CSA Illumina, at:
  6. M. Basye Holland-Shuey, "Religious Pluralism and Interfaith Dialogue," a speech given to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Florence, AL, 2002-JAN-13.
  7. Quoted in: Michael Ing, "Toward a Confucian Pluralism: Globalization in Dialogue," Confucian Studies, at: **
  8. The Apologetics Index discusses religious pluralism at:
  9. "Interview with Dr. John Stott," Orange County Register, 1998-OCT-3. Online at:
  10. Gregory Koukl, "Religious Pluralism," Stand to Reason radio program, at:
  11. "Religious 'Pluralism' or Tolerance?", Q&A section, Culture Facts, Family Research Council website. It was accessible to subscribers at, but has since been deleted from the FRC web site. More details.
  12. Diana Eck, "Education as transformation: From religious diversity to religious pluralism," at:
  13. Sukidi, "Islamic foundations amid pluralism," at:
  14. Rick Rood, "Is Jesus the only Savior?," Mind Games, at:
  15. Jim Lefell, "Christian witness in a pluralistic age," Xenos Fellowship, at:
  16. Seena Fazel, "Religious Pluralism," at:
  17. Baha'u'llah, "Gleanings," Page 217.
  18. "Religious Pluralism," Wikipedia, at:
  19. "Religious pluralism and its definition,", 2006-JUL-18, at:

** These are PDF files; y>ou may need software to view them. It can be obtained free from:

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Copyright 2003 to 2014 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2003-JAN-22
Latest update: 2014-AUG-07
Author: B.A. Robinson

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