Humanity is heir to many religions. Since ancient times, every culture and people has had its religious visions. Through the ages, the major religions split into different sects and subsects, often competing with one another in the matter of their doctrinal truths. When people of one religion encountered those of another, conflicts and controversies often ensued, occasionally even bloodshed. The history of interreligious wars is among the sad pages of human history.
There were (and still are) societies where all members belong to the same sect or faith while those of other religions were persecuted or expelled. But there are also societies where people of different faiths live together in peace. One of the hallmarks of modern nations is that they ensure that this can be the case. In the modern world the notion of diversity and tolerance of different ideas was propagated by thinkers of the European Enlightenment in the 18th century. According to the Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology (HarperCollins, 1988, p. 578), in the 19th century the word pluralism was used to refer to "the holding of two or more church benefices at one time." Today we use the term religious pluralism to denote a state of affairs within a society in which a variety of religious beliefs and practices are allowed and where efforts are made to understand and appreciate one another. In 1893, the first Parliament of World Religions was held in Chicago. It was perhaps the first time in modern history that people of different religions came together under a single roof and spoke to one another about their respective faiths. And it was the first major step toward what today we call religious pluralism. It was an eyeopener for some in the Christian world when they came to realize that there is mature religious wisdom in cultural settings that were foreign to them. Understanding and sympathy for religions to which one is not attuned are both a consequence of and a requirement for religious pluralism. Indeed, one who is committed to the principle of religious freedom can gain a deeper understanding of one's religion even while appreciating that which is good in the religion of others.
TWENTIETH CENTURY AND LATER
In the spirit of the 1893 Parliament there have been efforts to establish understanding among the religions of humankind in the century since the Chicago meeting. The International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) was founded in 1900; a Religions of the Empire Conference was held in London in 1924, and the World Congress of Faiths (WCF) was held in 1936. The WCF expresses the conviction that "understanding between people of different religions is important for good community relations, for moral and spiritual renewal and for world peace." This organization publishes the journal Interreligious Insight. It also served as an inspiration for the establishment of the International Interfaith Centre at Oxford in 1993. More recently, the concept of religious pluralism has been given further boost in the context of an America where immigrants of different denominations build places of worship in accordance with their own traditions. Though each group could preach and follow its own religious system, all of them remained relatively isolated. In due course, some thinkers began to feel that all the religions represented in a community must be recognized in public, and so arose a movement to recognize the existence of other religions and understand the various religions that are represented in the country. An expression of this growing awareness is the emergence of numerous interfaith groups in many Western countries, which organize meetings, symposia, and other events in which scholars and practitioners representing various religious traditions expound and exchange their respective religious traditions.
TWO APPROACHES TO RELIGIONS
There are two radically different views of looking upon religious beliefs. According to the first, religious beliefs are inculcated convictions about God and related matters. They have historical, cultural, and psychological origins. They are appealing and meaningful to people, but they have only relative validity; that is to say, their relevance is to specific groups. Therefore, in so far as they do no harm to others, all the religions of the world are essentially equivalent. This view is held generally by people who do not subscribe to any particular religion. This does not mean that they do not attach any value to religions or that they do not respect any religion. We may call this the secularist view of religion. It is easier to accept the notion of religious pluralism from this perspective, because it attaches only relative truth value to any religious tradition. Indeed, most people who subscribe wholeheartedly to religious pluralism tend not to take any religion seriously.
According to the second view, religions embody profound truths with long-range implications. The sources of religion are superhuman, and the truths enunciated by them are revelations of the Absolute. From this perspective again, though there are many religious systems in the world, there is only one right religion. All the others, however well-intentioned and ethically commendable they may be, are flawed in their doctrines. In other words, they are essentially mistaken in their understanding of God and the hereafter. As this view is generally held by people who take their own religion very seriously, we may call it the religionist view. From this point of view, practicing religious pluralism may seem tantamount to rejecting the absolute validity of one's own religion, for it concedes implicitly that the other religion might be just as true in its doctrines as one's own.