Alvin Plantinga

A Defense of Religious Exclusivism


1.       Exclusivism holds that a particular religion is the only way to get in a proper relationship with God (the only way to salvation)

          a.       To use the Christian example: In John 14:6, Jesus declares, “I am the way the truth, and the light; No one comes to the Father but through me”

2.       Pluralism holds that there are many equally good ways to relate to God, and that the major world religions are examples.

          a.       Why be adopt a particular religious faith (e.g. Christianity) if other faiths (Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam) all equally good ways?


3.       (1) Theist: World created by God, almighty, all-knowing, perfectly good, personal being (who has beliefs, plans, and intentions and who acts to accomplish them)

4.       (2) Christian exclusivist: Humans require salvation, God provides unique way to it and that way is through Jesus Christ his incarnated son

          a.       Salvation: deliverance from sin, failure, defeat, ignorance, illusion

5.       Non-Christian theists: Accept (1), but not (2)

          a.       E.g., Judaism

6.       Non-Christian exclusivists

          a.       Believe that some other religious belief (than belief in Jesus) is required for salvation

          b.       Are other religions exclusivist? Hinduism, for example, would seem not to be

7.       Non-theistic religious people: Deny (1) but believe there is something beyond the natural world and that human well-being/salvation depends on standing in right relation to it

8.       Naturalist: Rejects that there is anything beyond the natural world

          a.       Could there be religious naturalists? Natural world is all there is but humans require salvation and getting in right relationship to the natural world is the way to do it.

          b.       On this view, to be religious is to believe that humans require “salvation” and that there is a way to get it


9.       Plantinga holds (1) and (2)

          a.       Yet he’s aware of and has studied world religions

          b.       Admits there is real piety and spirituality in those religions

          c.       Yet doesn’t want to give up his religious belief


10.     Plantinga considers two types of objections to religious exclusivism

          a.       Exclusivism is a vice: wrong or deplorable in some way (either intellectually or morally or both)

11.     Epistemic objections: No intellectual right to be an exclusivist

          a.       Exclusivism is arbitrary, irrational, unjustified, unwarranted

12.     Moral objections: Exclusivists are guilty of moral failures

          a.       Arrogant, elitist, egotistical, unjust, oppressive, and imperialistic

          b.       Are missionaries who try to convert people of other religions arrogant? Intolerant?


13.     Plantinga’s general reply to objections: Religious exclusivism is not necessarily a moral or intellectual failure and, (because?) given the human condition, some exclusivism is inevitable in our lives


14.     Plantinga defends an exclusivism that involves two features

                    i.        Awareness of world religions and, secondly, realization one can’t prove one’s beliefs to others

          b.       First: Seriously consideration of the piety involved in other religions

                    i.        Unlike his grandmother who had no knowledge of other religions and thought of believers in other religions as heathens

                              (1)     She didn’t know any better as ignorant of other religions

                              (2)     Plantinga understands that there is real piety and religion in many religions other than Christianity

          c.       Second: Condition C: Belief that one has no proof that would convince other intellectually thoughtful people who disagree

                    i.        Believes he has no knock down, drag out argument that would convince others (like a math proof)

                    ii.       Condition c is very important to this argument



15.     Not oppressive:

          a.       Those who disagree with Plantinga aren’t oppressing him, even though they don’t believe they have an argument that can convince him

          b.       So if they are not oppressive, why is he oppressive?


16.     Self-serving, arrogant, egotistical?

          a.       Exclusivist believes those who reject his way have false beliefs

          b.       Exclusivists believe they have something of great value that others lack and are ignorant of

          c.       Exclusivists believe that, in this sense, they are privileged

17.     Reply: It is not arrogant or intolerant to believe what others don’t believe, even if you can’t show them you are right: Thus the religious exclusivist is not being arrogant or intolerant.

18.     Moral/political analogy: Not clear it is arrogant to hold onto moral views that you can’t convince others of

          a.       Consider views on abortion, environmentalism, sexual morality, politics

          b.       Are friends, parents being intolerant and arrogant toward you because they hold on to moral beliefs you lack, even though they can’t convince you that you are wrong?

          c.       Are you being intolerant of others when you think they are wrong about a moral issue, even though you can’t convince them?


19.     Whatever moral failures exclusivism has, non-exclusivism has as well

20.     Tar baby argument: Get close enough to use this objection to exclusivism, you get stuck to it too

          a.       Critics of exclusivism reject (1) and (2), believe they are false, and yet they don’t believe they have arguments that would convince those who accept (1) and (2) that their views are false

          b.       Then no advantage with respect to arrogance: Non-exclusivists believe something that others don’t and they can’t convince the others either, yet they continue to believe as they do


21.     Possible criticisms of Plantinga claims:

          a.       There is a moral difference between the religious exclusivist and the religious pluralist (who excludes the religious exclusivists beliefs)

                    i.        Not different in this way: Both believe something that contradicts what someone else believes, and are unable to provide a convincing proof to the other.

                    ii.       But religious exclusivist excludes all religions except his/her own; while religious pluralist, accepts all religions except the exclusivist version of each.

                    iii.      So exclusivist is more tolerant; rejects the views of fewer people

          b.       Also exclusivists deny that others are saved, whereas pluralists do not deny this (though they might deny this of atheists)

EPISTEMIC OBJECTIONS: Exclusivists (or their beliefs) are irrational, arbitrary, unjustified, unwarranted


22.     If you had been born in India, you would be a Hindu (not a Christian)

          a.       Therefore, you don’t have a good reason for being exclusivist

23.     The argument is another philosophical tar baby (applies to exclusivism too):

          a.       “If you had been born in medieval France you probably wouldn’t have been a pluralist”

          b.       Does this show that you shouldn’t be a pluralist, or that you don’t have good reasons for being one?

          c.       Presumably not; so it can’t show this of the exclusivist either

24.     This argument it can be used to claim one doesn’t have a good reason for not being anti-Semitic or anti-racist

          a.       If you had been born in Nazi Germany you would have been Anti-Semitic

          b.       But we believe we do have good reasons for these views


25.     Plantinga allows that great variety of religious beliefs around the world could weaken an exclusivist beliefs in 1 and 2.

26.     From a Christian perspective, the situation of religious pluralism and our awareness of it is itself a manifestation of our miserable human condition

27.     But fact of religious pluralism might also be the occasion where one scrutenizes one’s beliefs and comes to hold them even more stronly