What do we mean by saying “we need to respect other religions?”

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Very often, we usually get defensive when we encounter disputes concerning religious matters. That is our usual response, especially to those whom we disagree the most. In result of having those kind of conversations, we usually hear someone pulling out the defensive one-liner: “We need to respect other religions!”

But we have to admit it. For someone interested in discussing about some deeper issues of life and faith, hearing a sort of line turns out to be a conversation stopper for sure. It severs religious conversations. Since living in this age of feelings, giving an offense is the last thing we want to tolerate, let alone showing how people got it wrong. That is, we just want to be affirmed of what we believe.

However, finding oneself in that kind of atmosphere is at most unavoidable, since the majority of the people we encounter everyday consider themselves to be religiously inclined. That is, they hold their religions (or their set of beliefs about a spiritual reality) as an intrinsic part of their lives, which in turn determines their views of the world and their behavior in it. And whenever they find their fundamental beliefs being challenged, they tend to be defensive, if not shaken. This however is not surprising, because they hold their beliefs dearly in their hearts, in which an assault of it may also be an assault of who they are. In result, people demand a respect for their and other people’s religion.

But what does respecting other religions really mean?

Unfortunately, that is not an easy task to define. People differ on how they understand the word respect. That is, the term is equivocal. In result, the question runs with a lot of answers. The task, more likely than not, will concern itself with the (1) truth-value of the fundamental beliefs of a religion, and (2) the attitude of a person towards disagreements concerning religious matters. This written piece however will navigate more on the former, that is, on the theoretical level, although it doesn’t shy away in addressing the latter (towards the end) on the application level.

Three popular views

Concerning the truth-value of the fundamental beliefs of religions, three popular views stand out: religious pluralism, religious relativism, and religious exclusivism.

Religious pluralism is the view in which all religions are considered to be equally true. Pluralists hold that all religions lead to the same God or ultimate reality. This view was championed by the philosopher and theologian John Hick, who argued that each religion, although having an incomplete view of the divine, but nonetheless valid. The same is true for the Hindu’s Lord Krishna (ca. 3200-3100 BC), who said in the Bhagavad Gita: “In whatever way men approach me, I am gracious to them; men everywhere follow my path” (4:11). The same view was also expressed by the pop-culture guru Oprah Winfrey, who boldly claimed that it is going to be huge mistake to think that there is just one path to salvation, by saying that “there are millions of ways to be a human being and many paths to what you call ‘God’…there couldn’t possibly just one way.“[1]

Pluralists also observe that people generally adhere to the religion of their geography and culture. For the Arabs, they are most likely to be Muslims, for the Indians to be Hindus, for the Israelis to practice Judaism, and so and so. And since we can recognize the “accidentality” of our religious inclination based on our geography and culture, pluralists claim that we ought to give up claiming that there is only one true religion or path. In result, the pluralists claim for a respect for the different religions in the world, because all of them are valid. Christianity is just as valid as Islam and any other religions. And of course, they claim that it is a sign of bigotry and narrow-mindedness, let alone love, to think that only one religion or path is true.

Religious relativism, on the other hand, is the view that considers truth to be a matter one’s personal preference. The following phrases capture the said view: “If it works for you, then that’s true for you.” “That’s true for you, but not for me.” “Who are you to say it’s false, when it perfectly works for me?” In short, the view claims that there are no objective truths. It is all but pragmatism. If person A experiences X, while person B experiences Y, it is also a sign of bigotry and narrow-mindedness to think that experience Y is an illegitimate experience when it works perfectly for person B ,although not with person A – and of course the otherwise is also true. This view was championed by the pragmatic philosopher William James, in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience,

why in the name of common sense need we assume that only one…system of ideas can be true? The obvious outcome of our total experience is that the world can be handled according to many systems of ideas,…[2]

Although there is a connotation of pluralism from James’ statement (for one can be a pluralist and a relativist at the same time), nevertheless his book focuses on the experiences of a person as validation for his views and beliefs.

Lastly, religious exclusivism, contrary to the former two, is the view that only one religion is true. This is the view held by the major monotheistic religions like Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. However, that doesn’t mean that everything taught in the contrary religions are automatically dismissed as false. Far from it! In fact, there are truths that a Christian can agree with a Muslim and a Jew[3]. For instance, that an all-powerful God created the world, although Muslims identify that God as Allah, while the Jews and Christians identify that God as Yahweh or Jesus. And this is also the view that teaches that there is only one way for salvation. In Christianity, that way is identified as Christ. That is, salvation is in Christ alone (c.f., Jn. 14:6; Acts 4:12). And to believe that there is another way is to err.

This is the same view that holds that there is an objective truth, regardless of its acceptance and of the majority’s opinion. This is also the view that holds that some statements are true, while some are false. And that contradictory statements cannot both be true, that is, one must be false. For instance, whether 1+1=2, whether Abraham Lincoln died by assassination, or whether Jesus is God or not. That is, Jesus cannot both be God and not God at the same time. God cannot both exist and not exist at the same time. It is either or.

The pluralists and the relativists, far from treating all ideas equally true or valid for its own adherence, criticize the exclusivists for holding their beliefs. That is, in the name of diversity, exclusivists are viewed as guilty of showing a sign of bigotry and narrow-mindedness for being intolerant.


So which from the three views makes sense?

Surely it cannot be religious pluralism. Pluralism treats all ideas equal, that is, betraying logic and consistency. If one favors pluralism and thinks that my evaluation is false, then he is proving my point, while betraying his own foundation. For ideas are not created equal. Contradictory statements are not reconcilable. The view that one can just take any path he prefers, for eventually he will find himself with the same destination called the divine or the ultimate reality, betrays the fact that there are non-theistic religions who do not share the same kind of general destination.

When a Muslim says that Jesus is only a prophet and that by worshiping him one is committing an outrageous sin (i.e., shirk) against Allah, in the face of Christian who says that Jesus is God and by worshiping him one is aligning himself to the creator – both of them cannot be equally right! That is, whenever one checks reality, he will find out that every statement is exclusive, for it negates its opposite.

Religious relativism, on the other hand, does not also make sense. Personal preference or pragmatism was never, is never, and can never be a criteria for truth. It may work for a while, but doesn’t mean it is true. For it will, inevitably, result in conflicts, because one’s personal preference may clash with others’ preferences. The view is also self-contradictory, for when someone claims that there are no objective or universal truths, since it is just a matter of personal preferences, he is actually making an objective and universal statement, a statement he thinks applies to all.

In short, we are now left with the third view, that is, religious exclusivism, the only coherent view among the three. The view that there are objective and universal truths. For the former two views are illogical and unlivable.


But we haven’t really answered the question: What does respecting other religions really mean? 

Clearly it cannot mean the pluralist view for it betrays logic. Neither the relativist view, for it betrays consistent living. Therefore, it must be the exclusivist view, recognizing false claims to be false and the true ones to be true, regardless of the majority’s opinion. For instance, we cannot respect a religion who commands child sacrifice, pederasty, or the abuse of women, for to do so is to resort into savagery.

On the other hand, since we are dealing with people who have their deep-seated beliefs – beliefs that are so dear into their hearts and their view of the world – we need to approach our differences and disagreements with grace and kindness, without doing away with the truth.

We need to regain the classical notion of tolerance. For the present generation does away its traditional definition by arguing that the only way to tolerate, love, and respect people is to accept their diverse beliefs and lifestyles. But as shown above, ideas, beliefs, even lifestyles are not created equal. In fact, we cannot even tolerate if we don’t have disagreements and differences in the first place!

The classical notion of tolerance, however, treats people equally. Identifying them as people with dignity and intrinsic worth, regardless of their disagreeable beliefs and unpalatable lifestyles. This notion of tolerance tolerates people, but criticizes particular lifestyles and beliefs. And by clarifying disagreements and differences, enters into dialogue with civility, in hope to recognize where agreement lies. And it is not bigotry and narrow-mindedness, let alone an unloving thing to do.

Lastly, I don’t think this is going to be easy, especially in this age of feeling. That is why we need to approach it with humility and prayer, in hope that our fundamental differences will be resolved, and that the eyes of their hearts will be opened to the exclusive character and claims of Jesus. Yes, this will never happen without God’s intervening grace.

[1] The Oprah Winfrey Show (Harpo Productions): Thursday, 2/15/07.

[2] See Louis P. Pojman, Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, 6th Ed, 672. Originally from Joseph Runzo, Faith and Philosophy Vol. 5:4, October 1988.

[3] By “Jew” here, I do not mean the person in a racial descent, rather someone who practices Judaism.