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Religious Inclusion and Exclusion

Religious Inclusion and Exclusion


This lesson provides a brief historical overview of religious toleration, and describes how the original understanding of "toleration" has changed into the contemporary categories of "inclusion" and "exclusion."

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Welcome to this tutorial on religious inclusion and exclusion. In this tutorial, we're going to be taking a look at the ways that traditions relate to one another as they live together in pluralistic societies.

An important philosopher in the study of religious inclusion and exclusion is John Locke, who wrote an essay Concerning Toleration in 1689. This essay forms the basis for religious toleration today in liberal societies. When I say "in liberal societies," I don't mean politically leftist, not in our common parlance, but liberal in the sense of democracies that believe in the worth and dignity of each human being, the basic foundations for democratic societies today.

This essay was one the first to discuss religious toleration. Locke really believed that toleration could be extended to any theistic religious belief system. He didn't necessarily have toleration for atheism, because he felt that an atheist couldn't be trusted because an atheist has no reason not to betray promises, whereas someone who believes in God is going to feel bound by those promises. So his sense of toleration was not, perhaps, as far reaching as we might like it to be today. But he did believe that it was possible for religious people to tolerate one another.

There's a kind of irony in belief. Because believing in one god means that you're almost by definition not going to be believing in another god. This diversity of belief can lead to instability and upheaval in society. The very fact of belief-- if there's differing belief, if there's diversity in society, this leads into a built in tension. And it doesn't have to boil over and into instability. But it does create that potential.

As I said, Locke's essay laid the foundations for today's liberal democracies. The other important part about the essay is that it managed to separate patriotism from particular religious views. That is, it made it possible for one to be loyal to one's country from many different religious angles. That was a pretty important development.

Let's take a look at Great Britain from the perspective of toleration. Great Britain is in an interesting situation, in many ways a tense situation. The country is nominally Christian-- although it has a lot of non-practicing Christians, people who have a background in Christianity but don't necessarily go to church-- and has a very large Muslim population and immigrant groups who oftentimes are very observant. And what this does is it creates a tension. And that tension has led to a growing xenophobia. Xenophobia just means fearing outsiders, fearing immigrant groups.

This has become a nationalist movement where far right wing parties are organizing, attracting members, and in many cases even winning elected office. So this is really stirring up tension in British society.

Religion can serve as a basis for a sensus communis. When we say sensus communis, we just mean a common ethos, a common way of thinking that can unite a society. Without that sensus communis, nations can become unstable. Religion is one of the factors that can unite a society. And when pluralism is there, it can be difficult for a society to hold itself together.

True pluralism requires more than just putting up with others. And yet at the same time, a complete acceptance of contrasting views weakens the bonds within society. So how do you hold the society together in the midst of difference? This is very difficult to do, and I don't think any nation today has really figured this out.

There has to be some kind of balance between bigotry, exclusivity on one hand, and ecumenicalism and inclusivity on the other hand. Ecumenicalism is the belief in the validity of different religious points of view. How can one balance these competing and contrasting forces? There will probably always be those who are going to be biased against other faiths. And yet, how can a tolerant society prevent the bigots from gaining too much power?

On the other hand, how we have an ecumenicalism that at the same time allows for people to hold very strong religious commitments?

Thanks for watching this tutorial on religious inclusion and exclusion. We discussed John Locke's essay Concerning Toleration, which is a foundational text for religious liberty. We said that toleration for John Locke pretty much only extended to monotheists, but that nonetheless, this is an important text for the diverse societies of today.

We talked about the tension in the very nature of belief, that believing in one religion, one god, is necessarily not believing in others, and that really just questions-- questions like who's the creator of the universe-- are going to build tension into society and possibly even political upheaval or revolution. We discussed the challenges faced by Great Britain as it wrestles with a historic connection to Christianity and nonetheless an influx of immigrant groups, which causes a reaction from xenophobic elements of society.

We discussed what is called the sensus communis, the underlying sense of self that religion can foster. And we said that a truly tolerant society will have to be able to fight against bigotry and embrace some kind of ecumenicalosm. Nonetheless, that ecumenicalism will have to be capable of sustaining very strongly held belief systems.

Terms to Know
Religious Ecumenicalism

An attitude toward religion that emphasize commonalities over differences.

Sensus Communis

A shared moral sense that tends to unite a community.


Recognition of the right of others to believe as they choose.