Diversity, Difference, and Secularism: Pluralism in South Asia and Beyond | James Bergman


“Diversity is not just the differences I like.” I first heard these words at the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto, Canada. The speaker at this session, Eboo Patel, clearly and succinctly summarized one of the main problems of the conference in a few short words. The Parliament was meant to be a meeting point for people of various religious perspectives and traditions to discuss their theologies of religion and create interreligious dialogue. However, even as the Parliament encouraged a multiplicity of religious perspectives, not every viewpoint was represented. Almost every person at the Parliament was representing a religious tradition, which left out the perspectives of atheists and non-religious people. The Parliament also focused on religious pluralism, at the expense of dialogue with people who make exclusivist claims about their own religious tradition. Part of the fabric of the Parliament is the view that all the world’s religions are one universal religion, one of the central perspectives within the realm of religious pluralism. I will examine below why this viewpoint is detrimental to religious pluralism, how pluralism fits in to a South Asian context, and how pluralism can be a useful concept for non-religious and nominally religious people. I argue that the paradigm of pluralism can effectively bring about the peaceful coexistence of people of different morals, ethics, religious backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, etc.

What is Religious Pluralism?

In general, religious pluralism is the belief that the world religions are true and equally valid in their communication of the truth about God, the world, and salvation. However, there is a great amount of diversity even within pluralism. At its core, it is the understanding that one’s own religion is not held to be the sole and exclusive source of truth and acknowledgement that at least some truths exist in other religions. For me, the most useful understanding of pluralism is that it promotes some level of unity, co-operation, and improved understanding between different religions or different denominations within a single religion.

Religious pluralism stands markedly opposed to the idea of exclusivism. Exclusivist religions teach that theirs is the only way to salvation and religious truth. Although Christianity has often been viewed as the exclusivist religion, most of the world’s religions have branches that fall within the exclusivist category. Taken to the extreme, exclusivists argue that their theology not only reveals the truth, but also suppresses the calumnies and falsehoods propagated by other religions. Between these two ends of the spectrum is inclusivism, which asserts that while one set of beliefs is categorically true, other sets of beliefs are at least partially true. It stands in contrast to exclusivism since it does not assert that only one way is true, while all others are in error.

For many religious individuals, myself included, it seems natural to consider the other religions as untruthful while our own tradition is factual. Growing up, I lived in a very religiously diverse area that gave me the opportunity to interact with members of other religious traditions. I would have considered myself an inclusivist, though, based on the teachings of the church I attended. However, when I came to a less religiously diverse area in the south of the United States, where most religious people are exclusivist Christians, I felt the need to embrace religious pluralism in such a way that I can freely acknowledge the truth in other religions. I saw that it is easy to think that one’s religious background must be the only one based in truth. I also saw that this is a dangerous theology, as it can lead to prejudice, discrimination, and violence. On my first day of university in the south, I spoke with someone who told me “my pastor told me I can’t be friends with people of other religions unless I am trying to convert them.” Although this is not a violent consequence of their exclusivist theology, it is a harmful repercussion that breeds distrust among people of different faiths and religious traditions. The fact that many people of different religions believe that they alone are correct shows a fundamental lack of religious empathy. As I’ve come to believe through my interactions with people of other religions, there are universal truths in each religious tradition if one uses their sense of empathy to find them.

Pluralism in South Asia

There is incredible religious diversity in South Asia. Although this seems obvious, it is important to acknowledge both the number of traditions but also the number of adherents of each religion. Because of this, the South Asian slice of the world has become synonymous with religious devotion and often considered through the lens of religion as an all-important social fact. This idea began during the British colonial period, when British officials and observers began to promulgate the notion of South Asia as an “overly religious” state, compared to “rational” Britain (Hirst and Zavos, 2011, pgs. 172-173). The British felt that they were helping South Asia progress into modernity by sharing their science and knowledge. Likewise, Orientalist scholars created negative stereotypes about South Asians and their religions. The British ethnocentrism created an oversimplified approach that allows scholars and outside observers to objectify people as simply adherents of their religion (Hirst and Zavos, 2011, pg. 173). This model assumes that every member of a religion follows the same practices and observes the same tenets- that individuals always act according to their own religious tradition as the sole guide in their decision-making and daily lives but exclude other facets of identity. This is an ignorant and even dangerous philosophy.

I am not South Asian, but it rings true to me that religious pluralism has always implicitly been a part of South Asian cultures and traditions. I would argue that religious pluralism was fostered by the diversity of religions in South Asia: “[t]he common people of India, irrespective of individual religious identity, have long been comfortable with religious plurality. They acknowledge religious difference as the experienced reality: they do not consider it good or bad. In other words, social harmony, or agreement, is built on the basis of difference.” (Madan, 2003, pg. 798) The religious diversity in South Asia makes the population much more attuned to matters of religious pluralism, because they have daily interactions with people of other religions. In South Asia, it does not seem that there are such fixed boundaries between religions- even as religious nationalists attempt to divide people through identity politics. There are several examples of this dangerous religious nationalism that inspired me to write this essay: in the past, a central example was the destruction of the Babri Masjid, but in recent times Modi and the BJP’s policies have created a state of fear for Muslims in India. The bombings in Sri Lanka on Easter Sundayhighlighted the vulnerability of Christians in Asia, where religious minorities of many faiths have been battered by this surge of nationalism and sectarian politics.

In the Indian constitution, the motto of sarva dharma samabhava,  or equal respect for all religions, is presented as a South Asian notion of secularism (Madan, 2003, pg. 797). Secularism in India means equal treatment of all religions by the state. Unlike the Western concept of secularism which envisions a separation of religion and state, the concept of secularism in India envisions acceptance of religious laws as binding on the state, and equal participation of state in different religions. While Western secularism tries to exclude religion as an entity in government and presupposes that religion is a private affair, the South Asian approach differs in its respect toward each religion in its intersectionality with other forms of identity (Madan, 2003, pg. 797). While this approach to secularism can be a progressive and useful one for South Asians, it does not necessitate the acceptance of other religious views. Although this variety of pluralism can lead one to finding common ground with people of other religious perspectives, it can also be used to marginalize the perspectives of other religious and non-religious people. All paths may lead to God, and no one can affirm surely that their way is correct. We must all learn from one another and resist making any absolute claims about spiritual matters. One of the main issues of pluralism is that its proponents often see no distinction between the right to believe and respect for any and all beliefs.

In recent years, this emphasis on pluralism in South Asia seems to be fading. Although a country may have a certain religious majority, this does not mean that the country should be governed through religion as the identitarian focal point. When a country is founded as a religious state, any minority groups will be disregarded or even discarded. In recent years, the rise of Hindu Nationalism has furthered the politics of difference present in South Asia. Perhaps the influence of the West on South Asia created this marked change in how religious pluralism is perceived: as the needs and desires of religious communities have become more similar in the West and in South Asia, so too have the appeals to identity politics (Malik and Reifield, 2005, pg. 7). As discussed earlier, the West was instrumental in the creation of South Asian identity and left an indelible mark on the region; as a result, both regions have allowed their religions to be based in mutually exclusive traditions that marginalize alternative options (Malik and Reifield, 2005, pg. 8).

Pluralism in a Non-Religious Context

Although religious pluralism is often discussed with religious communities, I think it is a useful concept for non-religious and nominally religious people. Pluralism can appeal to non-religious people because one can still focus on the relationality of religion without having a belief in god. Likewise, secular people can still affirm the right to believe in any religion and find truth in them without believing in those religions, just as they should be treated with respect for their beliefs. Every religious as well as non-religious group should have the same goal of creating a self-conscious community that adjusts to and interacts with other traditions and cultures. A self-conscious community can allow very diverse lifestyles and behaviors to co-exist within the same community and refrain from imposing uniform, exceptionless legal norms across every person or institution. Members of that community can do what they believe is right while permitting others to be free to do what they are sure is right. Despite this, religious groups often create a policy platform that only represents people from that religious context or tradition. This practice marginalizes all other groups, religious or otherwise. It is important for political groups to recognize that there are shared values and interests among members of different religious traditions as well as those outside the context of religion in order to create a more widely agreeable policy platform.

In my opinion, the final goal of pluralism exists outside the confines of the context of religion, as it can be viewed as pure pluralism rather than religious pluralism. Instead of simply an affirmation of diversity of religious traditions, the lens of civic pluralism recognizes this diversity within a political body. Through this appreciation of diversity, pluralism permits the peaceful coexistence of different interests, convictions, and lifestyles- a paradigm that the world desperately needs right now. In the last few months, there have been multiple terrorist attacks on religious groups- the Christchurch Mosque shootings, Sri Lanka Easter bombings, and the shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue. Considering this, it is obvious that the shift toward pluralism is much easier said than done. So, to further quote Eboo Patel, “don’t be a critic, be an architect. If you see something that needs to be done, go and build it.” I think this is an important reminder to be the change we wish to see in the world.


James Bergman is a recent Furman University graduate who hopes to make a difference in the world. He plans to work in policy research or philanthropy.




Hirst, Jacqueline Suthren, and John Zavos. Religious Traditions in Modern South Asia. Taylor and Francis, 2013.

Madan, T. N. “Religions of India: Plurality and Pluralism.” The Oxford India Companion to Sociology and Social Anthropology,  2003, pp. 775–801.

Malik, Jamal, and Helmut Reifeld. Religious Pluralism in South Asia and Europe.  Oxford University Press, 2005.

Silk, Mark. “Defining Religious Pluralism in America: A Regional Analysis.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science,  vol. 612, no. 1, July 2007, pp. 62–81.






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