Conversation Guide #2: A Humble Exclusivism? – by Dirk-Martin Grube

In this article, I develop a humble exclusivism. The guiding motif is to conceptualize an exclusivism that avoids (what I have dubbed) Dawkinsianism (after Richard Dawkins’s unwarranted claims that he and his fellows possesses absolute truth). A ‘humble’ exclusivism pursues its truth claims in an epistemically modest, that is a reflective and self-critical, fashion while still remaining recognizably exclusivist.

The definition of (religious) exclusivism

I distinguish between exclusivism regarding salvation and an exclusivism regarding truth: holding the belief that Jesus is the Christ is the only true description of reality is a form of truth-geared exclusivism, holding the belief that Jesus is the Christ and is the only way to salvation is a form of salvation-geared exclusivism. Both forms are related but need to be distinguished from each other. I focus here solely on the former, on the claim that the home religion is true and other religions are false.

Exclusivism and situations of cognitive ambiguity

Next, I ask what makes religious exclusivism wrong. Is it that it implies truth claims of that sort? Yet, this can hardly be the case since we always make truth claims. For example, we make such a claim when we reject the opinion that the earth is flat. If the criticisms that religious exclusivism is elitist, imperialist, and so on implies this, then they are mistaken. Furthermore, we have to emphasize the right and the importance of making truth claims against postmodernist denigrations of truth and in light of the emergence of conspiracy theorizing.

Exclusivism is thus not wrong because it implies truth claims. Yet, it can become wrong. This is the case when it is applied in the wrong kind of situations. For example, in situations of (cognitive) ambiguity it is wrong to be exclusivist. It is, for example, wrong to be exclusivist about the traffic light being green while not being in a good position to judge it.

What holds for exclusivism in general holds for religious exclusivism as well: It can become wrong when applied in the wrong situations, for instance in situations of cognitive ambiguity. And religious beliefs are formed under a significant amount of cognitive ambiguity. In religion, we do not have the kind of cognitive certainty we have in other domains of inquiry. The reason that religious exclusivism is wrong is thus that it pursued in the wrong kind of situation, in a situation of cognitive ambiguity.

This is a strictly epistemic claim that does not touch, say, the ‘certainty of faith’. The latter implies, for example, a certainty of the heart, of tradition, of (mystic) intuition, or whatever. But those kinds of certainties are different from a strictly cognitive certainty. Given this distinction, it makes sense to suggest that we are certain about our faith although we are cognitively ambiguous about it.

In this strictly epistemic sense we are uncertain about our religious beliefs. This is the same kind of uncertainty that characterizes many important questions in human life, such as the question whether there is meaning to human life and, if so, what it is. Suggesting that religious beliefs are formed under conditions of cognitive ambiguity does not diminish the value of the religious realm.

Dialogical communication and religious exclusivism

In situations of cognitive ambiguity, we should dialogue with the other party. In contrast to situations in which we are certain, for example about the proposition that the earth is round, we should treat the other as a (cognitive) peer, and try to learn from them in situations of uncertainty. Dialoguing provides our best chances to arrive at the truth.

Yet, dialoguing is ruled out by religious exclusivism as defined above: If I consider another religion to be false then I will not learn from it. After all, we do not wish to learn from falsity. If we wish to maintain an exclusivism in religious affairs, we should thus (re-)conceptualize it so as be capable of dialoguing. In order to do that, we need to avoid  considering religions that differ from our own religion to be false.

The way to do that is to abandon the logical principle of bivalence. This principle implies that there are only two truth values, true and false. A declarative sentence is either true or else it is false. This is an exclusive alternative. Thus, religious beliefs that differ from the ones I regard to be true (usually my own) must be false by necessity. Yet, if they are false, I should not dialogue with them. Bivalence thus rules out dialoguing – which, as we have seen, is mandatory in situations of cognitive ambiguity, such as is the case in religion.

A justificationist frame of reference: broken superiority, humble exclusivism

As a solution, I propose to substitute the search for bivalent truth values with that of justification (in a philosophical, not a theological sense). Unlike bivalent truth, justification can be pluralized. It allows me to maintain the conviction that I am justified to hold my Christian beliefs whereas you may be justified to hold your different, say, Buddhist beliefs. Although I disagree with your beliefs, I do not think that they are false in the above sketched sense. Viewing things in such a way opens the way to dialoguing. Since we agreed that exclusivism should be (re-)conceptualized so as to allow for dialoguing, we should re-conceptualize it along justificatory lines.

The difference between a religious exclusivism (re-)conceptualized along justificatory rather than bivalent lines is one of attitude. Whereas the latter attitude believes that it possesses the truth, the former is more modest, thinking that its right to be exclusivist is a relative one (e.g., relative to its context of justification). As a consequence, it will propose its exclusivism in more humble ways than the former: it proposes a humble exclusivism.

The humble exclusivist believes that their religious beliefs are superior to competing ones (otherwise they would not believe in them). Yet, the superiority they claim for them is a broken one. A broken superiority is opposed to a Dawkinsianist, triumphalistic one: the holder does not pretend to possess The Truth and refrains from calling their own tradition ‘the illuminated way’.

A (conservative) religious critic may now retort that we should insist on possessing The Truth. If we fail to do so, we are disloyal to our prime task as believers, namely to witness God as God, absolute as He is in His glory.

This critic confuses theology with epistemology. Although, theologically, we are obliged to witness to God, we should be very careful how we cash in that claim epistemologically. Immediately identifying one’s own truth claims, or that of one’s tradition,  with The Truth can be ‘demonic’ (Paul Tillich). It claims absolute validity for that which by its very nature is not absolute and, by Christian understanding, fallen:

Following Paul, we see through a glass, darkly, and know only in part (after 1 Cor 13:12).



  1. What is a humble exclusivism?
  2. Why is it necessary?
  3. What speaks for it from a Christian point of view?
  4. What makes identifying one’s own religious truth claims with The Truth ‘demonic’?



This summary belongs to a more extensive article of Dirk-Martin Grube, which can be found here: A Humble Exclusivism? Reconstructing Exclusivism under Justificationist Rather than Bivalent Parameters.

Last year, we published the book Religious Exclusivism and Social Inclusion? A Religious Response, which is available Open Access (for free). People asked for an additional discussion guide to bring the outcomes of this research to a wider audience. We agreed to that, and are happy to present a discussion guide which offers you summaries of all contributions, accompanied by questions for discussion. We hope this stimulates people, in all different contexts, to discuss these matters thoroughly and make them actual and relevant for their own situations. Every week we publish another summary of a chapter of the book, and questions for discussion.  If you want to use the whole conversation guide at once, it can be downloaded here: Conversation guide.