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Exclusivism is the practice of being exclusive; mentality characterized by the disregard for opinions and ideas other than one's own, or the practice of organizing entities into groups by excluding those entities which possess certain traits. (for an opposite example, see essentialism).

Religious exclusivism

Religious exclusivism asserts that one religion is true and that all others are in error. Alvin Plantinga describes relativism as, "being rather fully aware of other religions, knowing that there is much that at least looks like genuine piety and devoutness in them, believing that you know of no arguments that would convince all or most honest and intelligent dissenters of your own religious allegiances"

It has two forms:

  • Absolute exclusivism asserts that one must be born into the religion to be a true adherent. Historical examples are the religion of Athens during the golden age
  • Relative exclusivism asserts that conversion is mandatory. Christianity and Islam are some such examples. Cf Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus.

In Ancient Greece

The Decree of Diopithes (430 BCE) forbade the worship of and belief in gods other than those of the Olympian pantheon recognised by the Athenian polis. The introduction of other gods was treated as asebeia, or impiety, and was punishable by death. The philosophers Anaxagoras, Protagoras, Socrates, Stilpo, Theodorus of Cyrene, Aristotle, and Theophrastus were accused of impiety under this decree. Socrates was found guilty of the charge of introducing new gods and condemned to death by drinking hemlock.

Antiochus IV Epiphanes, Selucid ruler of Israel, decided to Hellenize the Jews by ordering the worship of Zeus; when they refused, Antiochus sent an army to enforce his decree.

According to Herodotus the Caunians, a Greek people who claimed to have originated in Crete and settled in Asia Minor, worshiped the Olympian Gods exclusively. "They determined that they would no longer make use of the foreign temples which had been established among them, but would worship their own old ancestral Gods alone. Then their whole youth took arms, and striking the air with their spears, marched to the Calyndic frontier, declaring that they were driving out the foreign Gods."

Plato, in his Laws, advocates that the state should punish those who deny the existence of the Olympian Gods or believe that the gods exist but think they are indifferent to mankind or can be easily bought by bribes.

Interpretatio graeca, the common tendency of ancient Greek writers to identify foreign divinities with members of their own pantheon, can be seen as a kind of exclusivism. The syncretism of the Hellenistic period whereby aspects of the cults of foreign Gods such as iconography and epithets, can also be seen as a kind of exclusivism.


Wilfred Cantwell Smith states that "except at the cost of insensitivity or delinquency, it is morally not possible actually to go out into the world and say to devout, intelligent, fellow human beings".

Alternate views

John Hick states that all religions are "Phenomenal accounts of the Real" and all are "equally appropriate"


  • Plantinga, A. (1995) A Defence of Religious Exclusivism. In: Meister, C. Eds. (2008) The Philosophy of Religion Reader. Oxon: Routledge, p. 44
  • Hick, J. (2004) Religious Pluralism and the Pluralistic Hypothesis. In: Meister, C. Eds. (2008) The Philosophy of Religion Reader. Oxon: Routledge, p. 19

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