Religious Pluralism and Freedom of Religion

I. Muslim Questions


  • Why are there so many religions if God has endowed all people with the same human nature?
  • Every religion, Christianity above all, claims to be universal. How can different religions be universal? Only one can really be universal. The other religions can thus only be considered as partially or provisionally true.
  • Must one not rather assume the idea of a universal religion, a kind of synthesis of all religions?
  • These days the Church speaks about religious freedom, but it was not always so. In the past, the Church made use of imperialism and colonialism for its own ends. If it has now become an advocate of religious freedom isnt this just because it can no longer get its own way?
  • Religious freedom is good in principle, but can people be allowed to turn their backs on the true religion and convert to another religion? Doesnt the principle of religious freedom constitute a danger, threatening the religions themselves?
  • How can someone read the Quran and not become a Muslim? Such a person must be a hypocrite, like the orientalists.


II. Muslim Perspectives




1. Islam is the one true, perfect and enduring religion. It has absorbed into itself everything of any worth in the other religions. The Muslim who thinks in traditional terms is therefore astonished that there are still Jews and Christians today, for with the advent of Islam these religions essentially became irrelevant. Judaism and Christianity are of a provisional nature and at best only partially true. They were intended for limited human communities. Outside Islam religion is of no genuine value because Islam is the only religion that is truly universal.


2. Wars of religion are a historical reality. In the past, they took place between the Islamic and the Christian worlds, between Catholics and Protestants. Even today there are still conflicts in the name of religion, in, for example, Lebanon, Northern Ireland, the Philippines, Sudan, etc.


3. Many Muslims assume as a certain fact the collaboration between Christianity and imperialism, colonialism and nationalism.


4. There cannot be a right to change religion. A person is born as a member of a given religion and must stay within it as it constitutes an essential element of personal, collective and national identity. Conversion to Islam is of course an exception, because here it is a case of entering a society and a structure which replace all other identities and make them unnecessary.




1. The whole Quran is pervaded by a longing for all people to be united in one single religious community, the Umma, as was Gods will from the beginning. However, people soon divided themselves into different religions, each one claiming to be the one true religion (10:19; 11:118; 21:92; 43:33).


2. Islam is the final religion and is perfect, exclusive and universal. It was proclaimed by Muhammad, the Seal of the Prophets, as the only true way to attain salvation (3:19,73,85,110; 5:3; 9:33; 43:28; 61:9).


It is he who has sent his messenger with guidance and the religion of truth, to proclaim it over all religion, even though the pagans may detest it. (9:33; cf. 61:9)


It is consequently only logical that Islam and its claims apply to the whole of humanity (7:158; 34:28). Other religions are either false (as with idolatry or polytheism) or provisional and only partially true (as with the religions of the book, Judaism and Christianity). This unique religion must spread everywhere, through proclamation (da?wà, calling or inviting to Islam, equivalent to the Christian concept of mission) and, if necessary, through the sword. From a historical perspective, Islam started with peaceful exhortation and steadfastness in the face of persecution (in Mecca); later it also took up the sword (in Medina). After the Prophets death the great conquests opened the way for Islam into many countries. In the following centuries Muslims fought numerous wars, both in aggression and in self-defence, in the name of Islam. In general, the conversion of populations to Islam took place gradually and peacefully, both in areas already conquered by Islam and also outside the world controlled by Islam. In this process an outstanding role was played by Muslim traders and by the religious brotherhoods. The effect of social pressure on non-Muslims should also not be underestimated, however, especially in the context of Muslim-majority societies. Contemporary Muslim apologists emphasize that Islam was proclaimed in an exclusively peaceful manner, but they fail to mention the wars fought under the banner of Islam (f? sab?l All?h, literally in the way of God). According to the apologists, such wars, if it is conceded that they happened at all, were always fought in self-defence.


3. The Quran proclaims the principle that everyone is free either to believe or not to believe (10:40-45; 17:84,89,107), together with the other principle so often repeated today: No compulsion in religion (l? ikr?ha f?l-d?n, 2:256). But the Quran also says clearly that polytheists must believe or be put to death (9:5; 48:16). On the other hand, the People of the Book (Jews and Christians) are offered the status of protected people (dhimma): they may maintain their religion – even though it is faulty and has been superseded by Islam – along with its hierarchy and its rituals, but they must pay a special tax (jizya) and remain small (i.e. inconspicuous and subordinate) (9:29). The Muslim who abandons his religion, either through conversion to another religion or by deeds or words clearly directed against Islam, will be condemned by God (3:85-90; 4:137; 16:108) and must be punished with death (2:217 has consistently been interpreted thus by legal scholars, and this interpretation has been reinforced by numerous hadith).


4. In recent times many Islamic countries, through their representatives on the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, have declared their agreement with the principle of religious freedom, as it is formulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 18, emphasizing freedom of thought, conscience and religion), but with the restriction that nobody is permitted to turn away from the true religion (i.e. Islam).71


5. Influenced by the contemporary cultural context and ideological pluralism, many Muslims have developed the attitude, widespread in the West today, which holds that all people should be allowed to follow their conscience. Other Muslims say that all religions are of equal value and, furthermore, that Islam and Christianity are very closely related, if not quite identical in terms of content. Although such statements are made, they are generally not to be understood as reflecting syncretism or indifference in religious matters. Rather, they testify to an attitude of brotherliness among those who wish to live on the basis of faith. Some Muslims support the idea of a universal religion, even if in practice this would amount to a form of syncretism. Finally, there are Muslims who believe that the religions – and in the first place Christianity and Islam – should enter into a genuine dialogue, trying to come closer together as brothers and letting God lead us together as far as he will. The overarching aim should be to present a shared witness in our world to faith in God.


III. Christian Perspectives


1. The good news, as proclaimed and lived out by Jesus, consists in the revelation of God as the Father of all people, as all-encompassing, unconditional love, with a particular love for the humiliated, the poor, the sinners, the marginalized and oppressed. It is the will of Jesus to gather together his own people and all peoples in this love of God. All people – and in the first place the poor – are called into the kingdom of God, that is into the dominion of the love of God.


2. In the New Testament, which testifies to the faith of the earliest apostolic Church, Jesus Christ, the Word of God, is the highest, final and definitive revelation of God. In Jesus Christ God turns to all people; Christianity is thus in its very essence universal. History shows that from its earliest days the Church has understood its mission to be universal, knowing itself to be a servant of the universal love of God, who reconciles all things to himself (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:18-21; Ephesians 2:11-12).


3. From a historical perspective, Christianity arose and was spread on the basis of the dynamic faith of the apostles and of the first Christian generations. Their witness and proclamation were effective despite, or even because of, persecution. After the Edict of Milan (313), which guaranteed full religious freedom to the Church, thus leading to the Church soon becoming the official religion of the Empire, Christianity became entangled in various violent conflicts, sharing in responsibility for the persecution of heretics and bringing social pressure to bear on them. These conflicts were essentially political in nature, but were presented as Christian causes in order to gain as much support for them as possible.


The Crusades were a quite different case, for here religious motivation (the liberation of the Holy Sepulchre) was clearly the primary motive. The relationship between colonialism and mission should not be understood in terms of one uniform pattern. In some cases missionaries accompanied or followed the colonialists (e.g. the Portuguese and Spanish in the 15th and 16th centuries); in other cases the missionaries arrived first (in Central Africa, China and Japan); in yet other cases missionaries opposed colonialism (e.g. Las Casas in Latin America; French West Africa).


4. The evaluation of non-Christian religions from the perspective of the Christian faith has undergone a long process of development: from Justin (d. 165), who spoke of spiritual seeds waiting in all people for the Word of God in order to bear fruit; to the position of Augustine of Hippo (354-430), who, deploying rhetoric which we might find over subtle, considered even the virtues of the pagans as vices; and on to the theories which concede to unbelievers good faith (bona fides) and hold that they will not be condemned. More recently, some theologians have taught that there are elements in the faith and in the moral values of the nations and cultures of the world which await their fulfilment and clarification in the light of the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. This leads into the predominant views today.


Among the recent attempts to develop an adequate theology of the non-Christian religions, two deserve particular attention; the second of these has had the wider impact.


(i) Emphasis on the distinction between faith and religion: this theory was chiefly expounded by the Protestant theologians Karl Barth (1886-1968) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), and later, with modifications, taken over by Catholic thinkers such as Jean Daniélou (1905-1974). Religion is understood here as a natural movement of the human creature towards God. The religions are the collective manifestation of religion, translating it into rituals, forms of piety and so on. In the view of at least the early Barth the religions are seen as mere human products and are set negatively over against faith in the revealed Word. Daniélou evaluates them more positively: every human group, every civilization, has its own religion, so that one can speak of Celtic, Germanic, Mediterranean, African and Indian religion, and also in the Christian religion one can find characteristics shared with these religions.

On the other hand, faith is the human response to Gods Word, to God, who takes the initiative to encounter his creation and to question it. If religion is the movement of the human soul towards God, then faith is the answer that human beings give to the Word of God that reaches them through revelation. For Daniélou, faith in Jesus Christ must incarnate itself in each religion. Since faith is bound up in a contextually relevant manner with the religions and the cultures formed by them, it transforms these and bestows new meaning on their rituals, laws and traditions. Daniélous conclusion is that by accepting the Christian faith human beings do not move from one religion to another, but rather that their own religion is reshaped and transformed.


(ii) Distinction between general and special revelation: this new approach was chiefly developed by Karl Rahner (1904-1984) and then, in its essential aspects, taken over by several other authors. Since the beginning of human life on earth, God has never ceased to communicate with all people. This general revelation is attested in the Bible, in the stories of Adam and Noah, the Book of Wisdom and Pauls Letter to the Romans (1:19ff.). The great non-Christian religions are the higher manifestations of this general revelation. But then the word of God appeared in a special way in the history of the people of God, beginning with Abraham, through the patriarchs and prophets, and finally, in these last days, through Jesus Christ, the Word of God become flesh and the fullness of revelation. In this special revelation Gods self-communication, which also takes place in general revelation, can be contemplated in history, so to speak; it has a human face: Jesus of Nazareth. Whoever has seen me has seen the Father (John 14:9). In the light of this revelation the presence of God in all religions is illuminated.

But even the revelation of God in Jesus Christ will only be unveiled in its full significance at the Parousia, or coming of Christ, at the end of time. Christian proclamation and the dialogue of the Church with the other religions look towards this goal. During the intervening period the history of religions, including the existence of the non-Christian religions, contributes to the unveiling of the meaning of revelation. If understood in this way, the acknowledgement of Jesus Christ as the fullness of revelation, as the revelation of God in a human person, does not at all necessitate that the other religions should be disparaged or that it should be denied that they have some relation to God and that they offer true worship. Rather, it should be understood as an invitation to acknowledge the other religions as varied contributions to the unveiling of the full meaning of revelation. Christians can thus be enriched in dialogue with the religions.


5. Christianity can only be faithful to the Gospel if it is understood as a message of peace and reconciliation. Jesus clearly and decisively refused to be the political Messiah for whom his own people were waiting. He decided to die rather than engage in political revolution; to forgive, rather than to seek power and to retaliate. Later, as a result of the support given to it by the Emperor Constantine the Great (reigned 306-337), the Church entered into so close a relationship to the state that it at times called for wars, blessed them and justified them. Over recent decades, however, the Church and the Popes have endeavoured to use all possible opportunities to promote peace and justice. Certainly the Church recognizes the right to self-defence, both of individuals and of nations, and also the right, on occasions even the duty, to oppose political regimes which are clearly unjust. However, whenever and wherever possible, Christians should prefer nonviolent action (which is very far from being ineffective) and should make their contribution to the overcoming of the narrowness of theocratic, nationalistic and fanatical religious ideologies with their potential for violence.


6. Faith is a free gift from God, to be freely received or rejected by people. History, however, knows of conversions which came about through compulsion or duress (e.g. Charlemagnes coercion of the Saxons) or of cases where conversions came about because of purely human motives and social factors, or were at least strongly influenced by them.


For a long time the predominant view in the Church was that the best system of church-state relations was that in which Christianity is declared the state religion and in which, therefore, error has no rights. It is true that from its beginnings the Church always demanded the freedom for everyone to be able to accept the Christian faith without being disadvantaged thereby; the Church was of course much more reserved about recognizing the freedom of a Christian to interpret the Christian faith independently, or to give the faith up, or to change over to another religion (cf. the Inquisition). If we are aware of the long and painful development of the idea of religious freedom within Christianity, this can help us achieve a better understanding of certain attitudes, reactions and difficulties on the Muslim side.


Since the 2nd Vatican Council and its Declaration on Religious Freedom, however, the attitude of the Church to this question has been unmistakeably clear, at least at the official level: religious freedom is one of the basic and absolute rights of human beings as such. The way in which mission is carried out must be marked by respect for the worth and the outlook of the other. Mission should be a matter of witness in and through dialogical relationships. Of its very essence, faith can only be presented as an invitation (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:20); faith is always to be proposed not imposed. Every single person remains free and responsible to choose for himself or herself, in the light of conscience and before God.


IV. Christian Responses


1. Religious Pluralism


Religious pluralism is a mystery. It has something to do, on the one hand, with Gods respect for human freedom, and, on the other hand, with the natural conditions of human religious and cultural development. For thousands of years the main human groups lived in isolation from each other, in Europe, in Asia and in America. Today, in contrast, the world is characterized by a diversity of interconnections and by a consciousness of mutual dependence. Of course there are still today various tensions and violent conflicts between human groups. The religions have an important role to play here; they share in responsibility for the achievement of greater justice and harmony in relations between the nations, the economic blocs and the cultural groupings of our world. All conflict between religions – such as polemics and insensitive proselytism – should be avoided, as should syncretism, which destroys the originality and authenticity of religion. Only dialogue, along with the process of mutual learning which it involves, can open the religions up to each other so that people can learn to live together in diversity and get to know and understand each other better. This is not a matter of denying differences but rather of grasping what these differences really amount to. Neither does dialogue in any way exclude witnessing at times to ones own faith and inviting others to recognize what one has oneself come to know as true and valuable. Believers of different religions should try to identify those issues on which a shared, believing witness is possible, together with a genuine search for unity, in humble submission to Gods will.


2. The Plurality of Universal Religions


It is a fact that Islam and Christianity both claim to be universally valid. There is no reason why either should give up this claim. Everything depends on the methods used as the two religions seek to express and live out their universal claims. Today there should be no place for methods which rest chiefly on individual or collective ambition: violence; war; coercion in all its forms and manifestations, whether subtle or otherwise. The only way that is acceptable and worthy before both God and humanity to obtain universal recognition for the values which one holds to be true and valid is through the witness of a living faith and through frank dialogue, along with the necessary respect for the free decision of the human conscience.


3. Religions and Responsibility for War


It must be admitted that in the past religions have been responsible for wars, or have at least shared in responsibility for them, and that we cannot say that this is no longer the case today. The wider picture contains both light and shadows. On more than one occasion in the course of history the religious factor has prevented or moderated violence. One thinks, for example, of the truce of God during the Christian Middle Ages, or of the strict conditions which Islamic Law attached to a just war; or of the care for prisoners of war and innocent victims called for by the religions. Furthermore, the main reason for the so-called wars of religion was not so much hostility between the religions themselves, but much more the pursuit of power on the part of individuals and of human groups (empires, dynasties and nations), in the course of which religion was used in the service of personal or collective ambition. Finally, as regards contemporary conflicts, it is important to examine information critically before alleging simple religious motivation. It would, for example, be simplistic to designate as merely religious the conflicts in Lebanon, Northern Ireland, the Balkans, the Philippines and Afghanistan. The reality is that in most of these cases the religious authorities, far from having incited these conflicts, have on the contrary always been passionately committed to peace and reconciliation.


4. Religious Freedom72


Religious freedom is one of the inalienable rights of every human person. To suppress it, or even just to limit it, is to mock both God and humanity. It is the union between religion and the state (or, even today, the union between nationalism and the state or between practical atheism of a capitalist or socialist kind with the state apparatus) which has been primarily responsible for significant abuses in this area, both in the past and still today. All religions have the right to liberate themselves from such systems and totally to overcome the resistance of these systems to the effective implementation of religious freedom.


All people, whether Christian or Muslim, are committed to living in solidarity with their own religious community or group and to seeking its peace and prosperity, whether this is the Umma, the Church or other groups. At the same time it is important to show full respect for free decisions made in good conscience in regard to faith and religious adherence. The one binding principle in this sphere is to follow the voice of ones own conscience, that is, the conscience which is genuinely seeking the truth. The testing and setting right of hearts is a matter for God alone. Faith and religion can only be genuine if people are totally free to choose or to reject them. We are thus all challenged to continue to seek Gods will.

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