Religious exclusivism

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Last Judgment, a painting by Jacob de Backer, ca. 1580: Believers ascend into Heaven while sinners and those who reject the faith are doomed to Hell.

Religious exclusivism is the doctrine or belief that only one particular religion or belief system is true.[1] In its normative form it is simply the belief in one's own religion and non-belief in religions other than one's own. Linked with a doctrine of salvation, religious exclusivism teaches that only the members of one religion or sect will reach Heaven or any given soteriological aim, while others will be doomed to eternal damnation or exclusion from a paradisiacal afterlife.

Exclusivism is most prevalent in Abrahamic religions. In the Jewish tradition, it manifests in certain interpretations of the concept of the "chosen people", in which anyone who does not accept the teachings of Jewish monotheism is excluded from the messianic "world to come", though this is not a mainstream tenet of Jewish theology. In Christianity, religious exclusivism is seen in the teachings of the many Protestant Evangelical denominations that only those who adhere to their version or understanding of the faith will reach Heaven, while those outside of the true church will go to Hell. A number of verses in the Qu'ran say that only Muslims will go to Heaven while other verses say that virtuous Christians and Jews will go to Heaven as well.

Historically, some followers of religions with a doctrine of exclusivism have used this to justify religious wars, forced conversions of those outside the faith, bans against inter-religious fellowship and marriage, and the persecution of religious minorities. However, it is also possible to practice an exclusivist faith while generally respecting the rights of unbelievers, and this is often the case today. Many religions practice a modified form of exclusivism, in which other faiths are recognized as legitimate to a degree, but not as holy as the true faith.


The Moabite Stone, also called the Mesha Stele, shows that the king of Moab believed his country had been conquered by Israel because the Moabites had not acted in accordance with the will of their god, Chemosh.

Historically, religious exclusivism is related to the tendency of clans and tribal societies to view outsiders as inferiors, as enemies, and even as less than truly human. Tribes who make war on other tribes need to justify killing their enemies. Competition over land and resources may be the root cause of such conflicts, but tribal priests and shamans would certainly be likely to support such battles by invoking the god of one tribe against the other.

In such a situation, the god of one tribal or national group would be proven superior in battle. Often a military defeat would be seen by the victorious side[citation needed] as evidence of the superiority of their god, while the defeated side would see the result as evidence of the deity's displeasure with his people. In the Bible, an example of this is seen in the cursing of the Philistine champion Goliath by David, who invoked the name of his deity, Yahweh against his physically superior foe (1 Samuel 17). The Israelites celebrated David's victory over Goliath as a triumph of Yahweh; but a few years earlier, when the Israelites' Ark of the Covenant had been captured by the Philistines and placed in the temple of their god Dagon (1 Samuel 4), this was seen as a result of the Israelites own sin (1 Samuel 2:12-17). Similarly, in the inscription known as the Moabite Stone, King Mesha of Moab admits that the Moabite god Chemosh had grown angry with his people and allowed the king of Israel, Omri, to conquer Moab until Mesha restored Moabite sovereignty by making sacrifices pleasing to Chemosh.

Ancient Greece[edit]

The Decree of Diopithes in 430 BCE forbade the worship of gods other than those of the Olympian pantheon recognised by the Athenian Polis. The introduction of other gods was treated as asebeia or impiety and was punishable by death. The philosophers Anaxagoras, Protagoras, Socrates, Stilpo, Theodorus of Cyrene, Aristotle, and Theophrastus were accused of impiety under this decree. Socrates was found guilty of the charge of introducing new gods and condemned to death by drinking hemlock.

A blessed afterlife in the realm of Elysium was afforded only to those who had been initiated into the sacred mysteries. Those who were not initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries were doomed to an eternity in Hades, or worse Tartarus.

Happy is he among men upon earth who has seen these mysteries; but he who is uninitiate and who has no part in them, never has lot of like good things once he is dead, down in the darkness and gloom. Homeric Hymn 2 to Demeter

Antiochus IV Epiphanes Selucid ruler of Israel born c. 215; died 164 BCE. Antiochus decided to Hellenize the Jews by ordering the worship of Zeus, when they refused Antiochus sent an army to enforce his decree.

According to Herodotus the Caunians, a Greek people who claimed to have originated in Crete and settled in Asia Minor, worshipped the Olympian gods exclusively. "They determined that they would no longer make use of the foreign temples which had been established among them, but would worship their own old ancestral gods alone. Then their whole youth took arms, and striking the air with their spears, marched to the Calyndic frontier, declaring that they were driving out the foreign gods."[citation needed]

Plato in his Laws advocates that the state should punish those who deny the existence of the Olympian gods or believe that the gods exist but think they are indifferent to mankind or can be easily bought by bribes.

Interpretatio graeca, the common tendency of ancient Greek writers to identify foreign divinities with members of their own pantheon, can be seen as a kind of exclusivism. The syncretism of the Hellenistic period whereby aspects of the cults of foreign gods such as iconography and epithets were assimilated, can also be seen as a kind of exclusivism.

Israelite and Jewish exclusivism[edit]

Early in Israel's history, Yahweh was seen as the god of the Israelites, but other gods were recognised as existing for their particular people.[citation needed] The prophet Michah (4:5) states, for example: "All the nations may walk in the name of their gods; we will walk in the name of Yahweh our god for ever and ever." The Israelites were chosen by Yahweh to occupy Canaan and establish a special tradition as "a kingdom of priests and holy nation." Other deities belonged to other peoples', but the Israelites were to worship Yahweh alone. Yahweh was not simply the only God for the Israelites, He was also the greatest of all the gods as far as the Israelites were concerned:

Who among the gods is like you, O Yahweh? Who is like you—majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?" (Exod. 15:11)

This sense of superiority of a person's national deity may well have been the attitude of most of the Canaanite peoples toward their gods.[citation needed] However, in Israel's case, Yahweh was unique, in that He could not be represented by any image, icon, or idol. The prophetic campaign against idolatry also translated into the idea that the deities of other peoples were not true gods at all; thus Yahweh alone is God. By the time of the prophet Jeremiah in the late seventh century BCE, we find: "Your children have forsaken me and sworn by gods that are not gods" (Jeremiah 5) and, "Do men make their own gods? Yes, but they are not gods!" (Jeremiah 16:20).

The fusion of monotheism with the concept of the Chosen People brought the development of an intolerant form of exclusivism to its logical conclusion.[citation needed] Not only was one people chosen by a deity, and not only was this deity superior to all other gods, but he was in reality the only God which exists. Although He is the creator of all people, those who do not recognise and obey him in a certain way are excluded from His blessings.[citation needed]

This exclusivist tendency was softened in later Jewish tradition by teachings such as those found in the Book of Isaiah, in which Israel will become a "light to the nations," so that not only Jews but Gentiles too would participate in the future messianic kingdom. This universalizing trend, however, implied a doctrine related to exclusivism, namely triumphalism. In this teaching, those normally excluded are granted a degree of inclusion through their acceptance of the true faith, or acceptance of minimal conditions associated with the faith.[citation needed]

Christian exclusivism[edit]

Christianity has taught from the time of its earliest writings that Jesus is the only way to Jehovah the God of Israel. In John 14:6, he is recorded as saying "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, but by me." It may seem from these particularist statements that the authors wanted to imply that Jesus intended to describe himself as the exclusive path to God. Paul, the first Christian writer, taught that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23) and "there is none righteous, not even one" (Romans 3:10). For Paul, salvation lay in faith in Jesus' death and resurrection alone; and not even diligent obedience to the Law of Moses or other good works of charity and morality could bring about Christian salvation. In 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9 Paul taught that when Christ returns, he will mete out "retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power."

Acts 4:12 quotes Peter, Jesus' chief disciple, as declaring: "There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under Heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved." Such statements, as with John 14:6, can be made to imply an exclusivistic message if taken in an absolute sense.

While biblical quotations may be cited giving a more inclusivistic and universalistic perspective on salvation, the fact remains that throughout most of Church history, the state religion of the later Roman Empire, which experienced a split CE 1054, resulting in the estrangement of the Eastern Orthodox churches in the East from the Roman Catholic Church in the west, taught that only through membership of the state church could one be saved. This has been formulated as 'Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus' outside the church there is no salvation. Church Fathers such as Origen were marginalised and usually considered heretical in teaching a universal salvation, in which everyone would ultimately come to God. The official view was that orthodox Christians alone would be saved, and any who failed to come to the church while they were alive on earth would be doomed to eternal damnation.

John Locke taught the principle of religious tolerance.

Such teachings have led people in the Church at times to justify violence or civil punishments against heretics, pagans, and even Jews with the objective of either bringing them to God or preventing the spread of false teachings among Christians. The Protestant Reformation did not stop the basic attitude of Christian exclusivism, as Protestants declared that Catholics were bound for Hell and the Catholic Church taught that the Protestants were heretics and thus had lost the true faith. Among Protestants, even sometimes toward fellow Protestants, an exclusivistic attitude was often adopted, and specific Protestant doctrines were deemed essential by some and heretical by others.

After more than a century of religious war, by the late seventeenth century, an attitude of political toleration began to emerge, notably through the experience of the Thirty Years' War and, in England, the writings of John Locke, who taught that civil authorities should not interfere in matters of religious conscience. This political attitude also spread to some—though by no means all— religious institutions. By the nineteenth centuries, several denominations relaxed their attitudes of exclusivism and some began expressing a more universalistic theology of salvation. In the twentieth century, the Ecumenical Movement promoted cooperation and mutual understanding within Christianity, based on the ideal of mutual acceptance and inter-communion. Several major denominations lowered barriers and welcomed members of other Christian faiths to share the sacraments with them.

Some even extended this universalism to include adherents of non-Christian religions into the ranks of those who could be accepted by God.

With regard to the Catholic doctrine of Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus, especially as restated by the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church recognises some circumstances in which people who are not visibly united to the Church may be saved, but maintains the Church is still the means of their salvation and that "divine and Catholic faith" is necessary for salvation- although this teaching has been a matter of controversy due to various differing interpretations of the conciliar texts of the Second Vatican Council. (see the Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus article.)

Islamic exclusivism[edit]

Muslims believe that Islam is the original and primordial faith, or fitrah, that was revealed by the prophet Muhammad.[2] Muslims maintain that previous messages and revelations have been partially changed or corrupted over time[3] and consider the Quran to be the unaltered and the final revelation from Allah. Religious concepts and practices include the five pillars of Islam, which are basic concepts and obligatory acts of worship, and following Islamic law, which touches on virtually every aspect of life and society, encompassing everything from banking and welfare, to warfare and the environment.[4][5][6]

Islam began its history with an exclusivist attitude toward polytheist religions, but an inclusivist attitude toward Christians and Jews. As people "of the Book," believers in the oneness of God were given the status of dimmi, conferring on them certain rights, including the right to practice their religions openly and not to be pressured to accept Islam.

In practice, however, neither the inclusion of Jews and Christians nor militant exclusivism toward "pagans" was always practiced. Trinitarian Christians were accused of idolatry because of their veneration of icons and were also sometimes treated as polytheists because of the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. As strict monotheists, Jews generally fared better than Christians under Islamic rule. Jews and Christians are viewed largely favorably as compared to any other religion.

The basic attitude of Islam toward other religions remains unchanged today, but it should be noted that certain Islamic nations, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, are more exclusivistic toward other religions than are others, such as Indonesia and Egypt.

Islam does accept sincere Jews, Christians, and Sabians as people "of the Book" along with Muslims.


Jews believe that the God of Abraham is the one true God. The Jews believe the God of Abraham entered into a covenant with the ancient Israelites, marking them as his Chosen People, giving them a mission to spread the concept of monotheism. Jews do not consider their chosenness to be a mark of superiority to other nations, but a responsibility to be an example of behavior for other nations to emulate.[7]

Other forms[edit]

Buddhist religious exclusivism may be seen in the implication that those who do not accept the teachings of the Buddha, such as the Eightfold Path, are destined to repeat the cycle of suffering through endless reincarnations; while those who practice the true way can reach enlightenment. Neo-Buddhist groups sometimes consider their tradition the true path to enlightenment and engage in strong evangelical efforts to influence those they consider to be in darkness. Several sects associated with[clarification needed] Nichiren Buddhism may be included in this category.

However, many followers of Eastern religions are not exclusivist. For example, there are millions of Buddhists who would also consider themselves to follow Confucianism or Taoism.[8]


  1. ^ William J. Wainwright (2005). The Oxford handbook of philosophy of religion. Oxford University Press. p. 345. ISBN 978-0-19-513809-2. 
  2. ^ [Encyclopædia Britannica "Islam"] Accessed July 2013
  3. ^ Accad (2003): According to Ibn Taymiya, although only some Muslims accept the textual veracity of the entire Bible, most Muslims will grant the veracity of most of it.
  4. ^ Esposito (2002b), p.17
  5. ^ Esposito (2002b), pp.111, 112, 118
  6. ^ "Shari'ah". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 
  7. ^ "What Does It Mean For Jews to Be the Chosen People?" Pelaia, Ariela.
  8. ^ Gerald R. McDermott (2005), Testing Stark's Thesis:Is Mormonism the First New World Religion since Islam?, BYU Studies