Religious inclusivism is the doctrine that truth can be found in the plethora of other philosophies and religions across the globe, and it is in direct contrast to religious exclusivism, a doctrine that one’s own religion is the sole, absolute, and correct path to salvation through a claim to exclusive knowledge and the sole means of access to divinity. In this essay I will demonstrate why religious inclusivism is not only necessary to ascribe to theism, but also why religious exclusivism is a form of hubris which turns the existence of all divinity into subjective choice rather than absolute fact. I will also demonstrate why religious syncretism, also called interpretatio graeca or interpretatio romana, is an example of religious inclusivism.
Religious Exclusivism, and why it is dangerous
Because religious exclusivism claims to be the sole path to salvation through an exclusive claim to truth and accessing divinity, it considers all other paths to be merely false and/or delusions. This causes exclusivist religions to isolate themselves from all other religions and deny them, even if they have been long-established traditions which have been ongoing for many millennia.
This invalidation of other religions can alienate exclusivist religions from larger society, but sometimes it can also lead to exclusivist religions swallowing up other religions which it views as “competitors” over time. After all, someone who comes from an inclusivist tradition who then adopts another inclusivist tradition does not necessarily have to abandon their old tradition, as both religions could co-exist; however, an individual from an inclusivist religion who converts to an exclusivist religion does have to abandon their old tradition as there is no “other valid” religious path in the eyes of exclusivist traditions. The intolerant exclusivist religion gains while the tolerant inclusivist tradition only loses. This tendency of exclusivist traditions leads to many long-standing religious traditions to go extinct, especially if religious violence and forced conversion is introduced.
After all, because the adherent of an exclusivist religion is so certain of their religion’s validity it can be fatal when an exclusivist religion gains military and political power over a society, allowing for prohibition against “incorrect” religions and philosophies through draconian laws and effectively producing state-sponsored cultural genocide in an attempt to “save” people via forced conversions. Examples of this can be seen in history with the laws of Constantius II and Theodosius, and more recently Indonesia in 1952 when the Indonesian Ministry of Religion declared that islands with Hindu populations such as Bali required a systematic campaign of proselytization to accept Islam because they were considered orang yang belum beragama, meaning “people without religion,” since they were not considered monotheistic (Ramstedt 2003, 9-12). This suppression of freedom of thought can also have adverse effects on the development of philosophy and science, seen with the words of Tertullian, father of Latin Christianity, who wrote that “heresies are themselves instigated by philosophy” (Tertullian The Prescription against Heretics, Chapter 7), how Byzantine monks would spit on the floor and recite prayers if Plato’s name was uttered (Siniossoglou 2016, 1), and the prolonged stagnation in Europe during the Dark Ages which followed the collapse of the Roman Empire.
Religious Inclusivism, and why it is healthier
In contrast to religious exclusivism is religious inclusivism, which states that there are many paths to the truth in the forms of the various religions and philosophies found across the world. Religious inclusivism was standard in the ancient world and is present in many religions today. The scholar W.K.C. Guthrie tells us in the context of Hellenism what religious inclusivism implies (Guthrie 1993, 7):
“To us the differences between the worship of Olympian Zeus and the mysteries of Demeter may seem as great as those between any two religions of more modern times. Yet not only did they never lead to wars or persecutions, but it was perfectly possible for the same man to be a devout participant in both. More than this, Kore daughter of Demeter, in whose honour as well as her mother’s the mysteries were held, had Zeus himself for father, and Zeus could be addressed as Chthonios [underworld] as well as Olympios [heavenly]. A totally different God in reality, you may say.”
What we can take from this is that while exclusivist religions tend to be deeply intolerant of other religions, inclusive religions acknowledge that truth can be found in the many other philosophies and religions. In Julian Hellenism, this truth is perennialist, with the plurality of approaches being understood through monoeides, meaning “in the form of singularity,” a term that Plato uses for the One. This means that the Gods have a singular divine essence first prior to being individuals, as unity preceeds the existence of multiplicity. This makes the Gods more unitary and emanatory as manifestations of their divine source, functioning as horizontal extensions of the same power which ultimately leads back to that unity. This singular divine essence gives support to the plurality of worship, as it means there are many ways to approach and worship the divine.
Polytheistic religious traditions are not exclusivist, because by definition, worshiping one deity does not exclude the worship of other divinities, which makes polytheism tolerant and inclusive of all divinity by default. Religions such as Hinduism, Heathenry, Kemeticisim, and Hellenism are all inclusivist traditions, with no history of religious wars waged by followers of these religions. Religious exclusivism can be understood as a sin, hubris, meaning insolence, arrogance, or false pride, which implies “a type of knowledge which is impossible for mortal beings to possess” (HellenicGods.org 2010, EXCLUSIVISM, INCLUSIVISM, AND HELLENISMOS).
Religious Inclusivism, and why it is more proper
Religious inclusivim can be further understood in the words of my friend Edward Butler: a degree of pragmatism is necessary for polytheism. After all, the ancients didn’t deny the existence of other peoples Gods, but instead, they accepted the existence of all divinities— because not only is it proper to do so, but it is more effective than the attempt to discount religious experiences by monotheists.
The positivity of experience means no experience can invalidate another. You can experience but only one God and one God alone, even a God who is all things, but you cannot infer from this experience that there is no other God and that this is “the only truth,” as monotheism does, because your religious experience cannot negate another’s, or even your own on a different occasion. In doing so, you’ve created problems by invalidating the experiences of others and producing a negative inference. The negativity of the inference makes it ontologically inferior to the positive experience of myself or another; you can’t discount someone else’s religious experience while still putting forth a claim that your own is real arbitrarily. If this negative inference of disqualifying an experience is followed through, it results in atheism via a process of reasoning such as Hegelian absolute idealism.
After all, when you deny the existence of other people’s Gods, you weaken the case for your own. If you suddenly decide to call another person’s religious experience fake, especially if from a set of long-standing religions, then what value are your own? The existence of your own Gods is reduced to subjective choice, merely based on your own experience as if it were the only experience, instead of affirmation over the existence of Gods. Theism, properly understood, is just polytheism. In the words of Butler, “deny any divinity, and you deny all divinity.” Monotheists do have religious experience, but not “monotheistic” religious experience, as religious experience is something which is purely positive. Hence, their positive component is something which can be accepted, but not their attempted negation.
Because polytheists can believe in a potentially infinite amount of Gods, they can thus use the theory of pragmatic truth and accept all religious experience as true. That is not to say “worship every God,” as you can ignore Gods (and polytheists do it all the time), but rather proper theists must accept the existence of all divinity.
Due to that, a pragmatic approach can be taken when tackling monotheism, as monotheism needs special bargaining since it just invalidates all other religious experience as “false” but puts forth a claim that its own religious experience is true. This, funny enough, shows doctrines such as monotheism, which is the worship of one God which involves a distinct denial of all other Gods, can be deemed a form of atheism that merely flirts with religious experience based on its denial of all divinity except one based on religious experience that is only with that particular.
Syncretism (interpretatio graeca or interpretatio romana) is a comparative methodology in Hellenism used to interpret the mythology and religious traditions of other cultures by seeking equivalences and shared characteristics. Syncretism is evidence of inclusivism. Not all Gods would undergo religious syncretism and sometimes would be truly understood as specific to peoples, nations, communities and so on (Flavius Claudius Iulianus I, 345) (Flavius Claudius Iulianus, I 359), but simultaneously there were often universal deities that other cultures might also worship, even if under different names with unique myths, imagery, iconography, and sometimes even activities than the God they have traditionally always known in their own context. An example of this is present in Gaius Iulius Caesar’s Gallic Wars (6.17, tr. BNP 1998, 2.2.9a):
“[The Gauls] worship Mercury(1) in particular. There are numerous images of Him; they claim that He is the inventor of all crafts, guide for all roads and journeys; they consider that He has especial power over money-making and trade. After Him, they worship Apollo(2) and Mars(3) and Jupiter(4) and Minerva(5), On these deities they have roughly the same views as the other nations: that Apollo dispels sickness, that Minerva bestows the principles of art and crafts, that Jupiter holds sway in heaven, that Mars controls wars. It is to Mars that, after deciding to enter battle, they normally vow whatever spoils they may take in conflict.”
- The Gallic God Teutates
- The Gallic God Belen
- The Gallic God Esus
- The Gallic God Taranis
- The Gallic equivalent is uncertain
Hellenism is inclusive of all true divinity. It is said that the true names of the Gods are not known to mortals, and that it was in ancient times the priests gave the Gods names. The true names of the Gods, the barbare onomata, are foreign and unknown to us mortals and are only known to the Gods themselves. As the divine Plato tells us in the Cratylus (Plato Cratylus, 400d-401a):
“Yes, indeed, Hermogenes; and there is one excellent principle which, as men of sense, we must acknowledge, — that of the Gods we know nothing, either of their natures or of the names which they give themselves; but we are sure that the names by which they call themselves, whatever they may be, are true. And this is the best of all principles; and the next best is to say, as in prayers, that we will call them by any sort or kind of names or patronymics which they like, because we do not know of any other. That also, I think, is a very good custom, and one which I should much wish to observe. Let us, then, if you please, in the first place announce to them that we are not enquiring about them; we do not presume that we are able to do so; but we are enquiring about the meaning of men in giving them these names, — in this there can be small blame.”
Since the Gods hold cosmic functions, such as dominion over natural laws, and if the divinities of other religions hold the same activities, it is credible to suspect that their deities are the same as ours, merely known by other names which mortals have given them which are not necessarily names which the Gods refer to themselves as. Thus, this type of thinking is both “tolerant and inclusive and is in the spirit of the deeper understandings of the teachings” of Hellenism (HellenicGods.org 2010, EXCLUSIVISM, INCLUSIVISM, AND HELLENISMOS). We do not see our religion as superior to other inclusive religions such as, for instance, Kemeticism, but rather we perceive the worship of the Gods as “having variety which expresses the natural beauty of different cultures, and can perceive a “sameness” in various religions” (HellenicGods.org 2010, EXCLUSIVISM, INCLUSIVISM, AND HELLENISMOS). As Plutarch writes in his work Isis and Osiris (Plutarch, Isis and Osiris 67):
“Nor do we think of the Gods as different Gods among different peoples, nor as barbarian Gods and Greek Gods, nor as southern and northern Gods; but, just as the sun and the moon and the heavens and the earth and the sea are common to all, but are called by different names by different peoples, so… there have arisen among different peoples, in accordance with their customs, different honours and appellations.”
Some might criticize syncretism because of how it equates the Gods from other religions with those of one’s own, and hence supposedly acts as a confirmation of the superiority of one’s own religion. This argument does not hold up because syncretism is inclusive of “foreign” divinities, rather than excluding of them (HellenicGods.org 2010, EXCLUSIVISM, INCLUSIVISM, AND HELLENISMOS).
Butler, Edward P., Dr. Essays on a Polytheistic Philosophy of Religion. New York: Phaidra Editions, 2014.
Butler, Edward P., Dr. “Monotheism is Atheism, and some thoughts on Vedanta.” Dreamwidth. Accessed June 28, 2018. https://endymions-bower.dreamwidth.org/54896.html
Butler, Edward P., Dr. “Polytheism is Theism, Monotheism is Atheism.” Dreamwidth. Accessed June 28, 2018. https://endymions-bower.dreamwidth.org/54656.html
“EXCLUSIVISM AND HELLENISMOS.” http://Www.HellenicGods.org. 2010. Accessed June 26, 2018. http://www.hellenicgods.org/exclusivism-and-hellenismos.
Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus, and Wilmer Cave (France) Wright. The works of the Emperor Julian. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.
Guthrie, W.K.C. Orpheus and Greek Religion by W. K. C. Guthrie. Princeton Univ. Press (Princeton, NJ USA), 1993.
James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature: Being the Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion Delivered at Edinburgh in 1901-1902. United States: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016.
James, William. Pluralistic Universe. Sligo: Hardpress Publishing, 2012.
Kupperman, Jeffrey S. Living Theurgy: A Course in Iamblichus’ Philosophy, Theology and Theurgy. London: Avalonia, 2014.
Plutarchus, and John Gwyn Griffiths. Plutarchs De Iside et Osiride. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1970.
Siniossoglou, Niketas. Radical Platonism in Byzantium: Illumination and Utopia in Gemistos Plethon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
Tertullian. The Prescription against Heretics. Hanover College History Department. Accessed April 30, 2018. https://history.hanover.edu/courses/excerpts/344tert.html.