The multi-faith society and inter-faith relationships
Edexcel RS IGCSE Section D

This topic deals with the questions raised by a multi-faith society and looks at the different approaches towards way religions and religious people should view one another.

This topic is dealt with at length in the OCR A2 A level so if you wish to do some additional wide reading you could begin with the A2 resources here.  A word of warning though, the terms 'inclusivism' and 'pluralism' are defined slightly differently at A level.

The specification says:

The issues of, religious and non-religious beliefs/teachings about, and the (differing) attitudes of religious and non-religious people to: the responsibilities of religious and non-religious people, living in a multi-faith society, to those of other faiths or none; promoting the development of a multi-faith society, and examples (including local ones) of interfaith relationships in practice; and differing attitudes (and the reasons for them) within religious communities towards relationships with people from other religious traditions and non-religious people, including proselytisationexclusivisminclusivism and pluralism.  

Christian beliefs/teachings about relationships with other religions, and which help to promote the development of a multi-faith society. Examples of interfaith (including interdenominational) relationships, involving Christians, in practice.

Key vocabulary:

Exclusivism: (The belief that) only one religion is true and avoiding people who follow other religions

Inclusivism: (The belief that) there is truth in all religions and welcoming and working with other people, whatever their religion

Multi-faith society: Different religions living together in one society

Pluralism: The belief that a multi-faith/multi-ethnic society is desirable

Living in a multi-faith society:

Historically most people lived in societies in which one faith dominated.  They might occasionally come across members of other faiths but they did not regularly come into contact with other religions.  Often the dominant religion in an area would have been intertwined with with things like laws, marriage customs and education.  

In the last hundred years society has become a lot more varied in many parts of the world.  Migration from one country to another, foreign travel, inter-cultural marriage and increased tolerance of religious diversity have contributed to the growth of the multi-faith society.

Historically Britain had a large Christian majority.  Whilst Christianity is still the biggest religious group in the UK other religious groups are growing in numbers and in some local areas Christians and atheists may find themselves in a minority.

Most people would regard the growing diversification of society as a good thing, but others have their concerns.


There are many advantages to living in a multi-faith society.

  • Increased tolerance/decrease prejudice: People who live in a multi-faith society are likely to know more about religions other than their own.  This is important because often prejudice, discrimination and hatred stem from ignorance and fear.  If people know more about each other's beliefs they are less likely to find their differences threatening.
  • Provides choiceFreedom of religion is one of the human rights set out in the declaration of human rights, but you can only really be free to chose your religion if you have access to a variety.  You need to know about other religions to make a choice and you need to be able to access them (i.e. you need a local faith group) to be able to participate properly.
  • Diversity is exciting:  Different religions have different and festivals and customs.  It would be dull to live in a place where everyone did the same thing and believed the same thing.
  • People can learn from each other:  Religious people might find discussion with followers of a different religion gives them new ideas.  They might discover prayers or practices that they could adapt or use in their own worship or they might come across an analogy or an idea that helps them to understand a difficult theological problem.  Some liberal Christians have used Buddhist styles of meditation in their own worship.

Pluralists regard living in a multi-faith and multi-ethnic society as a good thing!

Potential difficulties:

  • Difficult to meet the needs of all believers (practical problems): For example, schools might need to provide kosher and halal food, schools and businesses would need to manage different holy days and festivals.  A town might need multiple different places of worship.
  • Incompatible customs:  Some religions have practices or customs which are difficult to incorporate into society.  For example, Islam technically allows a man to take up to four wives (though most Muslims don't do this). However, bigamy is illegal in Britain.
  • Loss of identity: Some people might be concerned that increasing variety results in a loss of national identity.  Non-Christian religions might seem alien to UK culture.
  • 'Worshiping false gods':  Christian Exclusivists believe that you must be Christian to go to heaven.  They might be afraid that non-Christian religions could set a bad example.  They might be particularly concerned by the idea that their children might have non-Christian friends or teachers.  There might also be non-Christian exclusivists who believe that they should try to convert others which could cause bad feel in society.
  • Marriage/family life:  It members of different religions fall in love then this might present other difficulties such as what type of wedding service they would have and how they would bring up their children (whether to have them baptised/circumscised etc and whether to send them to a religious school).

Promoting good inter-faith relationships

Individual actions:

Individuals could promote good interfaith relationships by setting a good example themselves and by encouraging their friends to do likewise.  They might go out of their way to make friends with people from other religions and they might show and active interest in their beliefs by discussing theological and ethical issues with them. Parents could teach their children to be tolerant and respectful which would help ensure better interfaith relationships in years to come.  They could also participate in national and local interfaith organisations.

Government initiatives:

In 2008 the UK government published the document Face to Face and Side by Side  which outlined ways to promote multi-faith harmony. The Inter-faith network for the UK  (which had been founded in 1987) organised the UK's first 'Multi-faith week' in 2009.  Since then Multi-faith week has run every year. During the week religious communities across the country take part in a huge range of activities.  Read about the complete list of 2011 events here.  

The government could ensure that schools teach comparative religion in Relicious Studies so that children grow up knowing about the beliefs of other people.  The government could also provide funding for interfaith initiatives and establish national events such as inter-faith week.  

In addition to positive measure to encourage good interfaith relationships those in government can ensure that prejudice and discrimination are not tolerated.  In the UK the Racial and Religious hatred Act of 2006 made it illegal to do anything with might be perceive to be inciting religious hatred.  Under the 2010 Equality Act (which unified previous anti-discrimination legislation) it is illegal discriminate on the basis of religion.

Religious leaders:

In Scotland, one Anglican minister allowed the local Muslim congregation to use the parish church  for daily prayers.  The Reverend Isaac Poobalan said  ''Jesus taught his disciples to love your neighbour as yourself and this is something I cannot just preach to my congregation, I had to put it into practice...I felt very distressed when I saw my neighbours praying out in the cold and I knew I needed to do something to help.'I know I cannot solve the world's problems, but when there is a problem I can solve, I will.'

Read the bbc report here.

The Church of England is involved in various different interfaith initiatives.  They participate in the Council of Christians and Jews, The Inter Faith Network for the UK and the Christian Muslim forum.  

The Roman Catholic Church has also been increasingly involved in promoting interfaith dialogue.  In 1986 Pope John Paul II organised an day of prayer for world peace which faith leaders from many different world religion attended.

Individual religious leaders in local areas could make sure that they preach and teach tolerance to their congregations.  They might establish links with a different faith community in their own parish.  They could then use this partnership to organise discussions and talks so that people can learn about each others' faith which would help to promote good relationships because if people would be able to see the shared values and understand their differences.  They might organise social events like shared meals or trips to encourage people to make friends with each other.  The UKs national Interfaith Week relies on local leaders getting involved and organising or participating in activities.

Interfaith week activities:

Lists taken from 2011 Interfaith week brochure

  • culture events, such as concerts, gallery dialogue events such as panel debates, discussions and ‘living libraries’
  • social action events such as tree planting, neighbourhood clean-up operations and visiting the house-bound installations and ‘faiths festivals’
  • events focused on learning and religious literacy, such as school classroom events, ‘open door days’ and academic conferences and seminars exhibitions, ‘faiths fairs’ and inter faith engagement in places such as further education colleges, town centres and workplace chapels walks and pilgrimages between different places of worship or other religiously significant sites
  • events focusing on faith and food, such as ‘dine at mine’, charity fundraising dinners and multi faith menus in university and workplace canteens
  • film screenings where the film acted as a catalyst for discussion.

Christian teachings about non-Christian religions:


Christian exclusivists argue that Christianity is the one true religion and all non-Christians are condemned to hell.  They would say that Christianity alone is based on God's self-revelation because when God became man in Jesus (the incarnation) he revealed himself to the world in a unique and special way.  This means that Christianity is superior to other religions because it is based on a genuine revelation of God. Furthermore, if Jesus genuinely was God then his preaching must have been the word of God.  This means that no other religion can possibly have anything useful to add to the Christian message.  Furthermore, exclusivists generally claim that humans cannot by their own efforts be good enough to deserve heaven.  Human beings are sinful, it is only through Jesus' actions as saviour that salvation is possible.

Exclusivists generally believe that it is an important Christian duty to proselytise. This is because Jesus taught people to love their fellow man.  If you love someone you care what happens to them therefore you should do everything in your power to ensure that they do not end up in Hell.  Exclusivists are also very keen to make sure that they bring their children up within the Christian faith to accept Jesus as Lord.

Evaluate:  Why might it be theologically problematic to say that you cannot go to heaven unless you believe in Jesus?  Do all people have the chance to believe in Jesus?  Consider whether there is anything in the Bible which contradicts the exclusivist position.

Biblical teachings supporting exclusivism:

  • In Mark 6:16 Jesus says 'Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned'.
  • At the end of Matthew's gospel Jesus tells the disciples to proselytise 'Go make disciples of all nations' (Matthew 29:19)
  • John 1:18-19 specified both that Jesus was genuinely God (the basis for exclusivists to claim that Christianity is superior) and also that active belief is necessary for salvation 'For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.'  Exclusivists also use John 14:6 and John 11:25-26 to support their beliefs.


Inclusivists believe that there is more than one route to God.  Christian inclusivists would say that you do not necessarily need to believe in Jesus in order to be saved.  

Some Christian inclusivists believe that Christianity has more truth than other religions and other religions are therefore subordinate.  However, they still contain genuine elements of revelation and God will save non-Christians (in spite of their errors) because he is loving.

Other inclusivists (sometimes called pluralists) believe that it is impossible to know which religion (if any) is most right and therefore we should treat them all as equally valid forms of revelation.

Two useful inclusivists to mention are John Hick and Karl Rahner.  Hick is a 'all religions are genuinely equal' type inclusivist and Rahner is a 'Christianity is more true' type.

The Elephant analogy

Hick borrowed what was originally a Buddhist parable.   

Imagine three blind men and an elephant.  Each man describes how the elephant feels to them. The one who has touched the elephants leg says an elephant is like a tree, the one with the trunk says no, an elephant is like a snake. The one by the tail says it is like a rope.

They are all right to an extent but not one has the complete picture.

Religions are like this when talking about God. Religious language is all about describing how God appears to you.  If you discuss the different points of view you can learn from each other's experiences.

John Hick argued that Christian beliefs about God lead naturally to the inclusivist position.  

  1. God is omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent, transcendent and eternal. This means he is beyond our understanding.  If God is beyond our understanding then no one religion can possibly know all there is to know about God.  Furthermore, whatever doctrines religions teach are probably approximations of the truth rather than actual truth.  In short, no religion can claim to be completely right and all religious people can learn from one another.
  2. God is loving and wants everyone to be saved.  If God genuinely loves everyone then it must be at least possible for everyone to be saved.  Not everyone has had the opportunity to find out about Jesus - many people lived and died before him - so this cannot be the only way to achieve salvation.

Going Further

Hick used a distinction (which he borrowed from the philosopher Immanuel Kant) between the noumenon and the phenomena.  The noumenon is the thing in itself.  The phenomena is the way people experience it.  People hearing the same piece of music might experience different emotions and to a certain extent they 'hear' it in different ways.  Hick said that there is 'the Real' and then the different religious traditions result from the different ways people have experienced the Real over the centuries.

Hick rejects the idea that Jesus was genuinely God incarnate.  He believes that the term was a metaphor which was intended to sum up the fact that Jesus behaved in a way which reflected God's love.  If Jesus was not really God then Christianity loses its claim to superiority.

Karl Rahner takes a different approach.  He says that many non-Christians behave in a way which seems to reflect Jesus' teaching.  He argues that such people are 'anonymous Christians'.  They do not actively claim to be Christian but their actions mean that they count as Christian in God's eyes and do not need to deliberately follow Jesus (or even believe in God) to be saved.

Biblical teachings supporting inclusivism:

  • The parable of the sheep and the goats (see page on death and life after death) implies that people are judged on how they treat others rather than on what they believe.
  • In Matthew 7 Jesus begins by telling his listeners 'do not judge others or you too will be judged'(verse 1) and then goes on to use the analogy of a tree and its fruit to say that good people are those who do good things.  Jesus says 'By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them'. (Verses 16-20).  Finally Jesus says 'Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven' (verse 21).  This could be used to support Rahner's 'anonymous Christian' argument. 

Evaluate: What happens when religions teach contradictory things (e.g. polytheism vs monotheism or resurrection vs reincarnation)?  Could these really be seen as both coming from the same 'God'?  How do Christian inclusivists deal with the Biblical teachings that seem to state very clearly that belief in Jesus is a necessary prerequisite for salvation?

Link back to Edexcel RS IGCSE Section D page.

Further reading:

Background on interfaith week and links to other interfaith week resources here.