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date: 26 January 2020


Abstract and Keywords

In current discourse, the terms “religious diversity”and “religious pluralism”are sometimes used interchangeably in discussions about the variety and multiplicity of religions in the world. At other times, they have very different meanings. For example, religious diversity is often used to refer to the fact that there are significant differences of belief among religious adherents with respect to doctrinal, social, or political matters, as well as differences of religious practice. The presence of religious diversity raises conceptual and practical issues. These issues differ when looking from different academic perspectives, such as those of history, religious studies, philosophy, and sociology; but also from different religious viewpoints, including Hinduism, Buddhism, African religions, Chinese religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Keywords: Islam, religious diversity, religious pluralism, religions, history, religious studies, philosophy, sociology, Christianity, Judaism

There is an abounding plurality and a rich diversity of religions in the world—diversity in both belief and praxis—and globalization is creating a widespread awareness of this fact. While its acceptance and approval are perhaps relatively recent phenomena, religious diversity has been around for a very long time.1 For example, in the Axial Age, the period from roughly 800 BCE to 200 BCE, a widespread revolution in religious and philosophical thought took place in both the East and the West. This revolution, spearheaded by such important religious and philosophical figures as Homer, Socrates, Isaiah, Zoroaster, Siddhartha Gautama, Confucius, and the authors of the Hindu Vedas, ushered in unique ways of thinking about God, the world, and the afterlife, as well as novel practices of burial, marriage, and other religious rites.2 In addition to Axial Age developments, the monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, while sharing certain central beliefs and practices, have fundamental disagreements about such important issues as the meaning of salvation and various religious rites. Beyond traditional monotheism, the last five hundred years have witnessed a host of new religious movements, such as the Falun Gong religion with its five central meditative exercises; Neopaganism with its nature worship; Cao Dai and its Holy See, vegetarianism, and veneration of ancestors; Christian Science and its assertions that humanity and the universe are spiritual rather than material. Religious diversity is indeed ubiquitous.

In current discourse, the terms religious diversity and religious pluralism are sometimes used interchangeably in discussions about the variety and multiplicity of religions in the world. At other times, they have very different meanings. For example, religious diversity is often used to refer to the fact that there are significant differences of belief among religious adherents with respect to doctrinal, social, or (p. 4) political matters, as well as differences of religious practice. Religious pluralism, on the other hand, is often used to denote the acceptance and even encouragement of diversity or (and perhaps because of) the view that salvation/liberation is to be found in all of the great world religions (with the proper qualifications, of course, such as sincerity), that belonging to a particular religion is not essential for the attainment of salvation/liberation, although belonging to one or another might be.3 These terms are used in other ways as well, but this is how they are generally appropriated in this book.

Much of the recent work on religious diversity has been done in isolation from that in other fields. Given the pervasive nature of religious diversity, those in the various fields could benefit by learning from others outside their particular disciplines and areas of expertise in order to build respect, empathy, and perhaps even trust.4 The Oxford Handbook of Religious Diversity attempts to bring together leading voices from different fields and disciplines and from a variety of perspectives and traditions, with the aims of raising awareness of some of the central challenges of religious diversity, creating mutual recognition of religious differences, and fostering authentic, ecumenical dialogue.

The Handbook includes essays addressing both conceptual and practical issues raised by the presence of religious diversity. It is divided into three parts: (I) Contours of Religious Diversity, (II) Key Issues Relevant to Religious Diversity, and (III) Differing Perspectives on Religious Diversity.

Chapters in Part I trace the general features of religious diversity discussions from four different fields: history, religious studies, philosophy, and sociology. Chapter 1 provides a historical overview of religious diversity and offers insightful reflections from history to set the stage for the following interdisciplinary discussion. Chapter 2 describes the religious studies approach as one that begins outside the particular traditions and seeks to understand the traditions on their own terms. Chapter 3 covers four main areas of the philosophical study of religious diversity: the epistemology of religious belief, the production of theories of religion, reflections on the concept of God and Uultimate Rreality, and the relationship between religion and the human good. Chapter 4 outlines a sociological approach to religious diversity, focusing on diversity in the United States and Europe.

Part II—which makes up the bulk of the book—explores key issues relevant to religious diversity and is divided into two sections. The nine chapters of the first section (A) focus on theological and philosophical issues. It seems that philosophical reflection on religious diversity is on the rise. This is not surprising, for as technology has advanced exponentially in recent decades, so have familiarity and contact with religious others. This, coupled with the escalation in the number of religions coexisting in such pluralistic democracies as the United States and the United Kingdom, has ushered in an unprecedented awareness of religious diversity and an attending desire for deeper reflection on what it means for one’s own religious (or irreligious) beliefs. Thus, for religious adherents, one of the greatest challenges today might well be how to understand and live out one’s own faith in relation to the diversity of other faiths.

(p. 5) All of the major world religions make claims—for example, claims about the nature of ultimate reality, about the self, about the need for salvation, restoration, or liberation and how to achieve it. Some of these claims contradict one another, so a central theme that runs through many of the chapters in this section has to do with what to make of the various claims in religion (indeed, the issue of truth in religion comes up time and again in every part of this book). Religious exclusivism, pluralism, and relativism are three approaches to understanding such issues, and Chapters 5, 6, and 7 discuss them. Furthermore, how we engage in dialogue with religious others with whom we disagree, how we treat the religious “alien,” and how we might promote a universal ethic among the religions are also important issues that arise in a global milieu of religious diversity, and they are discussed in Chapters 8, 9, and 10. Chapters 11, 12, and 13 address three major theological topics relevant to diversity: general challenges for theology amid diversity, theodicy and the problem of evil, and the role of revelation in religion.

Section B of Part II presents sociological and public-policy issues. As the world continues to become more unified and globalized, are its different dimensions, including its religious dimensions, becoming more alike? Or is globalization accentuating the differences? Furthermore, is the world becoming more or less religious? Is religion evolving? And how do race and ethnicity affect religious belief, and vice versa? Chapters 14 through 17 tackle these issues of globalization, changing demographics, new religious movements, and race and religion. Chapters 18 and 19 focus on secularization, multiculturalism, postmodernism, and multiple modernities—major themes in the social sciences with respect to religious diversity. Chapters 20, 21, and 22 address the issues of religious violence, public education, and the role of religion with respect to environmental concerns—all important public-policy issues in these early decades of the twenty-first century.

Part III of this book provides differing perspectives on religious diversity and is also divided into two sections. Section A addresses multifaith perspectives and includes seven chapters, 23 through 29, each presented from a different religious viewpoint: Hinduism, Buddhism, African religions, Chinese religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These chapters are not intended to provide “the word” from the various traditions on religious diversity; indeed, there is no such word. Rather, each presents one prominent voice from a recognized authority.

Section B examines gender and world perspectives. Chapter 30 focuses on a feminist perspective of religious diversity and examines gender bias in religions and relevant epistemic issues. Chapter 31 details a Continental perspective on religious diversity and looks at how several quite diverse Continental thinkers—including Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-Luc Marion, Jacques Derrida, and Slavoj Žižek—have uniquely appropriated certain religious themes. Chapter 32 provides a naturalistic perspective on religious diversity and explores some of the ways such diversity has evolved from more primitive forms, noting particular insights from David Hume and Charles Darwin.

Each of the thirty-two chapters in this book is written by a leading scholar in his or her respective field. Each makes an original contribution by surveying essential (p. 6) issues and questions regarding the theme of the chapter, offering a critical analysis of the issues, and guiding the course of future discussions. It is my hope that these pioneering and perspicacious essays will provide readers with a unique and useful reference work on religious diversity that will be beneficial for decades to come.


(1.) For fuller articulation of the recent welcoming of religious diversity in the West (and particularly in the United States), see William R. Hutchison, Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003).

(2.) In The Origin and Goal of History, Michael Bullock, trans. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953), Karl Jaspers argues that during this period, new “axes” were created that influenced philosophical and religious thought for the next two millennia.

(3.) John Hick and Paul Knitter are lucid and ardent defenders of religious pluralism. See, for example, John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent, 2nd ed. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004); and Paul Knitter, One Earth Many Religions: Multifaith Dialogue and Global Responsibility (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1995).

(4.) For more on interreligious harmony and the value of understanding religious others, see Rebecca Kratz Mays, ed., Interfaith Dialogue at the Grass Roots (Philadelphia: Ecumenical Press, 2008); see also Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, Ethics for the New Millennium (New York: Riverhead, 1999), 219–231.