6 Responses to Religious Diversity

by Luke Muehlhauser on October 5, 2009 in General Atheism


The world is teeming with hundreds of religions, all making different claims and demanding different lifestyles. What are we to make of this?

There are six basic responses to religious diversity:1

  1. atheism: all religions are false.
  2. agnosticism: there’s no way to tell which religion, if any, is true.
  3. religious relativism: each religion “works” for its adherents, but there is no truth about religion that transcends tradition.
  4. religious pluralism: all religions are correct, they just offer a different path and have a different perspective on the Ultimate Reality.
  5. religious inclusivism: only one religion is fully correct, but it’s still possible to attain salvation or nirvana through another religion.
  6. religious exclusivism: salvation can be attained only through the one true religion; all others are mistaken.

Let’s examine these, in reverse order.

Religious exclusivism

The dominant view. Most people think that only their religion is correct and provides the way to salvation. Some exclusivists think that other religions are partly true, or even that God is working within all religions. But exclusivists contend that they alone have the worldview that corresponds to reality. One merit of this view is consistency: after all, the world really is one certain way, and not also a contradictory way.

Religious inclusivism

It seems arbitrary and cruel that billions of people would miss out on salvation just because they were born into the wrong religion. One answer to this is religious inclusivism. According to inclusivists, only one religion is fully true, but true religious seekers of all religious traditions will find salvation, at least in the afterlife. One difficulty with this view is that each religion has tended to claim exclusive truth. Why would God send Jesus to claim he was the only path to salvation if he really wasn’t? Or if Islam is the correct religion, why would God send Mohammad to claim that his was the only path to salvation, when it really wasn’t?

One objection to both inclusivism and exclusivism is that there is no neutral way to decide which religion is correct, or privileged. Some have replied that religion is a matter of faith, not rational assessment. This view is called fideism. Others have replied that a particular religion is true because its claims are warranted by evidence and argument, or because believers “just know” their religion to be true.2

Religious pluralism

Religious pluralism (such as that of John Hick) says that God is like an elephant surrounded by blind men. One man touches the elephant’s tail and says “The elephant is like a rope!” Another touches the trunk and says, “No, it is like a snake!” Another touches one of the elephant’s massive legs, and says, “You’ve both got it wrong; it is like a tree!” Another touches the elephant’s side and says “Nay, brothers, it is like a wall!” Just as the blind men experienced the same elephant in different ways, religions experience the same Ultimate Reality in different ways. Some experience it as a personal God, others as Brahman, others as a plurality of deities, and so on. How we experience the Ultimate Reality depends on our culture and education and modes of thought.

duck-rabbitAnother illustration of pluralism is borrowed from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. A society that has rabbits but not ducks will look at the picture on the right and see a rabbit. A society that has ducks but not rabbits will look at the same picture and see a duck.

But then, if Ultimate Reality is experienced in such diverse ways, what can we say of Ultimate Reality itself? Is it personal or impersonal? Is it good or evil or indifferent? Moreover, it is hard to see how a Theravada (atheistic) Buddhist could be experiencing the same Ultimate Reality as a fundamentalist Muslim.

Religious relativism

Another view is that religions are true or false only in relation to the broader worldviews of their adherents. The main defender of this view is Joseph Runzo. Runzo agrees with Hick that religions make mutually incompatible truth claims and that one’s worldview affects how one experiences Ultimate Reality. But, he says, there is no universal truth about religious claims; each religion is “true” only in so far as it fits within the broader worldview to which it belongs.

This has some advantages of pluralism. For example, it offers a stronger account of the beliefs of each tradition, for it says they are each making true claims. But religious relativism conflicts with what religions themselves teach. Muslims do not teach that Allah is the only God with respect to the worldview of Islam.

(If you think relativism is incoherent, you are not alone.)


The agnostic sees a bewildering array of belief systems about undetectable realms and magical beings and despairs that we could ever know which one of them is true, if any. He thinks religious truths, unlike scientific truths, are unknowable.

Believers object that one can know which religion is true by seeing which religion’s claims best fit reality, or which religion has the most impressive miracles, or which religion tells the most hopeful story.


I am an atheist, though not because of religious diversity.3 There is no valid inference from “A great diversity of religions make mutually incompatible claims” to “All religions are false.”

But religious diversity does provide a problem for certain religions, like Christianity. Christianity teaches that God is all-loving and all-powerful, and yet he chose to reveal his saving truth by way of a human sacrifice in a remote corner of the Roman Empire 2000 years ago, and will forever torture everyone who hasn’t heard of this or can’t believe it.

But how could an all-loving God do something so unloving, so unfair? One response is to say that it is possible, however unlikely it may seem, that everyone who hasn’t heard of Jesus would not have believed even if they had heard of him, and God knows this. Another response is to say that “God’s ways are beyond our ways,” and his sense of justice is superior to ours though it seems contemptible to us. A third response is to say that we all deserve eternal torture, and God is welcome to choose, for his own purposes, which of us he will save.4

I fail to see how these responses make the Christian God concept any less monstrous.

Which theory better explains vast religious diversity?

  1. An all-loving God wishes to clearly reveal his means of salvation to the world.
  2. People evolved to see agency where it is not (because mistaking wind in the grass for a lion is better for your genes than mistaking a lion for wind in the grass), and this manifests itself differently from culture to culture.

The latter, I think. Religious diversity does not make (1) impossible, but it does make it very unlikely.

  1. This list is taken from Chad Meister’s Introducing Philosophy of Religion. Meister himself derived his list from the works of Joseph Runzo and Harold Netland. []
  2. This latter view is defended by Alvin Plantinga, who argues that for Christians, belief in the Christian God is properly basic, as is our belief in other minds or the external world. []
  3. I’m an atheist because no religion has provided good evidence to show that its fantastical claims are true. See My Story. []
  4. For example, see Ronald Nash’s Is Jesus the Only Savior? []

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Haukur October 5, 2009 at 6:48 am

Good post. I can think of one more variety, let’s call it “Tit for tat inclusivism”. The basic idea is, “anyone who acknowledges the truth of my religion very probably has a true religion himself”. This saves us from the incoherence of considering (e.g.) Islam a true religion while knowing that a basic tenet of Islam is that other religions are false.

I think this view is fairly common among neopagans and I think it is also held by some Hindus (Ram Swarup, at least, seems to have thought along these lines though I’m not sure if he ever formulated it explicitly).


Haukur October 5, 2009 at 7:00 am

Slight correction: In your terminology this would be Tit for tat pluralism


Steven October 5, 2009 at 7:40 am

It seems to me that many people who are pluralists believe that there is the POSSIBILITY of accessing goodness, truth, the divine, etc. through all religions or a lack of religion. It doesn’t mean they think the truth claims of each religion (or lack of) are all true. Rather it’s an acknowledgement that any name, word, mental picture we use is a symbol for our deepest feelings.


Reginald Selkirk October 5, 2009 at 9:03 am

One merit of this view is consistency:

Not really. People who believe only their religion is true generally accept arguments for it (revelation, inner experience, miracle tales, etc.) which they do not accept for other religions.


Reginald Selkirk October 5, 2009 at 9:11 am

Which theory better explains vast religious diversity?

False dichotomy! Another option is that God causes people to believe false things. There is much Biblical support for this, such as

11 And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie:
12 That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.


Edward Brock October 5, 2009 at 11:57 am

Wonderful observation. Religion/Mythology seems to be an inherent part of the human experience. Of course, experience does not mean “true”, nor “factual”. I am an agnostic, not because of religious diversity, but because I simply “do not know”.

I am reminded of a quote by Robert Anton Wilson that I think is relevant to both extremes — “Only the madman is absolutely sure.”


Taranu October 5, 2009 at 12:08 pm

Luke, is blogging your way through ‘Warranted Christian Belief’ still in your plans for future posts? Because I was wondering when will you start reviewing Plantinga’s book. I love what you’re doing with Carrier’s book.


matt h October 5, 2009 at 3:20 pm

this was a really great post, another category, or perhaps just subcategory of agnosticism might be indifference or nontheism, “i dont know” with added emphasis on “it is not important”, this seems to be the view of some buddhists, and some people who would consider themselves nonreligious

i am stuck towards the center of the list leaning towards agnosticismn, i imagine it might be nicer to be certain of something and be at the top or bottom, but i seem incapable of either


lukeprog October 5, 2009 at 4:14 pm


I have tons of posts like that just sitting around – the thing is, I don’t want to be doing too many posts at once. I’d like to finish Carrier’s book before starting Plantinga’s book.


J Wahler October 5, 2009 at 4:19 pm

Luke, Enjoyed the post. I find it a bit lacking though that you mentioned nothing resembling a descriptive definition that differentiates atheism from agnosticism as it concerns religious diversity. You mention several quasi-definitions for each of the other ‘responses’ to religious diversity, but not explicitly for atheism. I’m assuming your definition might be: that atheism holds that an objective test for the truth value of a supernatural worldview could and does exist, but that its inverse hypothesis (atheism) fits better to the evidence we observer. (via Dawes, Draper, etc.) Contra agnosticism, that as you say, “despairs that we could ever know which one of them is true, if any.” Would this be a correct functional definition (as it concerns religious diversity anyway) of atheism for you?


lukeprog October 5, 2009 at 5:12 pm

J Wahler,

The “definitions” of atheism and agnosticism deserve a post of their own. Like “art” and “love,” these words have been used with many, many different meanings.


James Chalmers October 5, 2009 at 5:35 pm

“The dominant view. Most people think that only their religion is correct and provides the way to salvation.”

The survey evidence, at Pew and elsewhere, shows that this view is by no means dominant. Much more common is the view that there’s more than one road to salvation. The Christian Century reported the 2008 Pew results as follows:
A recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that Americans are quite accepting of religions other than their own. Seventy percent of those with a religious affiliation agreed that “many religions can lead to eternal life.” Among mainline Protestants that figure jumped to 83 percent, and among Catholics, to 79 percent. As would be expected, the response among evangelical Protestants was lower; still, well over half of evangelicals–57 percent–agreed that “many religions can lead to eternal life.” More than 80 percent of Jews, Hindus and Buddhists agreed with the statement, and more than half of Muslims did.


oliver October 5, 2009 at 9:36 pm

Fantastic post Luke!

As you have stated, the atheism-agnosticism issue DOES deserve a post of its own, and indeed I am looking forward to the day you tackle it.

Agnostics tend to get offended when you tell them that by virtue of them not having belief in a god they are also atheists (regardless of the degree of certainty with which they hold/lack belief ). You either believe or you don’t. To me there doesn’t seem to be a middle ground on ‘belief’. Am I wrong?


Chuck October 6, 2009 at 8:16 am

The middle ground does exist. It’s called a ‘crisis of faith’.


Rob R October 10, 2009 at 11:10 am

Inclusivists don’t have the problems you say they do. They read the bible as much as exclusivists and have dealt with the control texts for exclusivism and they have their own control texts such as and far from limited to the last half of acts chapter 17.

Jesus said he is the only way because he is. He wasn’t thus condemning all the Jews born before he came into the world. He identifies himself with Yahweh and Yahweh’s grace has been provided throughout the world as evidenced for example by Paul’s recognition that the law of God is written on the hearts of the gentiles. Again, there are other examples. Outside of Christianity, while inclusivists wouldn’t say they can have certainty about who has appropriately responded to that grace, they could site hopeful examples such as Gautama Buddha who had compassion for the poor and challenged the caste system in India or certain practices in Bhakti Yoga which emphasizes the path to God through love.

Those outside of the scope of where the gospel is preached are judged according to how they respond to that grace that is available to them.

What you posted was just one version of inclusivism and not a very Christian one. Between the two extremes of exclusivism and pluralism, there is wide range of possible beliefs. It is not the “true” seekers of other religions who will be saved, but those who respond to God’s grace appropriately and that could be matched with a wide range of religious devotion in that person’s native religion. Furthermore, there is a recognition in inclusivism, similar to exclusivism that other religions have deceptions within them even though inclusivism emphasizes that God’s truth may also be present.

That there is no neutral path to inclusivism I find an odd criticism. This claim which is true of religions belongs to epistemology as a whole, that there is no neutral path to knowledge. Those who think this is a problem are the kind of deconstructive post modernist who’ve given up on the normal idea of truth, and those who don’t are involved in a constructive post modernism that bites the bullet and embraces that the search for truth cannot be a neutral activity but can be done nevertheless. At any rate, the response to religious pluralism is a different issue from the epistemic one. They both deserve to be dealt with on their own terms.

There is of course one more problem with inclusivism which wasn’t mentioned here which is why we should bother with the scriptural mandate to preach the gospel and carry out missions at all if people can obtain salvation without hearing of Jesus. There are several answers to this. 1) we are called to obey God. 2)while everyone has a chance to gain eternal life, the gospel isn’t just about what happens when we die but our picture is about a relationship. The greatest relationship with God can only come through Jesus, but relationships come in degrees and those who have responded positively to God’s grace may escape judgement even though their relationship is not what it could and should be that the gospel makes possible. 3)we are called to love the lost and want the best for them and from the Christian perspective, this means bringing the presence of Christ into the whole world that is made possible through the church. From our perspective, life is better with Christ and we should want that for everyone. 4) preaching the gospel may result that people who are not responding to God’s grace appropriately may be more likely to be saved when hearing the gospel. And similarly, some people may have lived terrible depraved lives and they have rejected the grace of God that is available to them and yet the gospel offers them conviction of their need to change and redemption to bring that change that would not otherwise be possible.


Omgredxface December 3, 2009 at 2:31 pm

Chuck: The middle ground does exist. It’s called a ‘crisis of faith’.  

aka Recovering Christian…er, would Recovering Atheist be the proper term? I just put myself in a paradox…


rcreative1 December 13, 2009 at 2:47 pm

In defense of both religious pluralism and relativism, I think human experience as well as poll data (such as the Pew Forum study quoted above) show that coherence is a fine standard for creating truth tables, but is irrelevant to daily life. Most people — even atheists — hold incoherent beliefs, and often competing or mutually exclusive ones — usually for emotional reasons. Actual experience and practice of religion does not fit into a logical framework, but neither do political ideology, artistic sensibility, parenting or love. So another response to religious diversity is to say, “That’s just what you can expect from we flawed humans.”


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