Conversation Guide #1: Exclusion versus Inclusion – by Bernhard Reitsma

‘I killed God and buried Him.’ That is what Jason Walters said after he was deradicalized. Walters is an ex-Jihadist who was part of the so called ‘Hofstadgroep’, a radical Muslim terrorist group in the Netherlands. Raised in a Christian family he converted to Islam when he was twelve years old and quite rapidly radicalized at the age of 19 through contact with the Hofstadgroep. He was – in his own words – a Jihadi seeking to become a martyr. In the course of his arrest in 2004 he wounded five police-offers with a hand grenade. He spent nine years in prison and during that time, through a process of study and reflection, he became deradicalized. When asked how that was possible, he answered: because ‘I killed God and buried Him.’ According to Walters, the only way to part with extremism was to abandon his faith in one God. For him, believing in one God and being a faithful inclusive citizen of a democratic society simply do not go together; monotheism always leads to exclusion and violence. (Interview with Jason Walters on the ‘De ongelofelijke podcast’, August 9, 2019; and in ‘Argos’, September 29, 2018).

The question is, is that true? Does believing in one God always lead to the religious and social rejection of the religious other, to the extreme extent of religiously inspired violence? That is not a question only to be addressed by Muslims like (previously) Jason Walters, but by all worldviews. If one considers one’s own worldview as true and as the only good for society, it automatically seems to imply that there is no room for other views and opinions in the public space. So, do we have to sacrifice peace for the sake of religious purity or do we have to compromise our faith or worldview for the sake of an inclusive and peaceful society? That is the dilemma that seeks our attention. Is it impossible to be religiously exclusive and at the same socially inclusive and does it matter?

Exclusivism and inclusivism

Exclusivism and inclusivism can refer to three different areas and it is important to understand what these are.

  • They can relate to (eternal) salvation: is there only and exclusively salvation through Jesus Christ, or are Judaism and Islam equal ways of salvation. This points to the classical way of describing the Christian view of other religions as exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism.
  • They concern the question of truth and falsehood. If a certain belief is true, it therefore logically excludes the opposite view. The view of a round earth excludes the belief that it is flat. The prophet Muhammad is either God’s messenger or he is not and Christ is either the divine Son of God or he is not.
  • They describe ways of living together in society and whether all people are and can be equally included, or whether some should be excluded because of certain beliefs or behaviours and if so, how.

All three areas somehow interlock.

When we explore the relationship between religious exclusiveness and social inclusion, it is not simply choosing between the two, but looking at what kind of exclusivity and inclusivity we wish for. Total inclusivity is not possible or desired, at none of the three interpretative levels of exclusivism/inclusivism mentioned above (salvation, truth and social relations), and the same is true for total exclusion.

Monotheistic Dilemma?

All world views or social imaginaries are to a certain extent exclusive in the first and second sense of the meaning. As a perceived expression of truth based on a certain world view or interpretation of good and bad – either in terms of the present time or eternity – they exclude other options. Still, it is sometimes argued that monotheistic religions are particularly problematic You simply don’t compromise with God. This leads to the dilemma of whether believers should follow the divine laws of the religious community or the laws of their country of residence. It is obvious that monotheism in itself cannot be blamed for this problem. Different forms of polytheism can be as intolerant as monotheism, while even radical monotheism knows many peaceful expressions, such as life in monasteries, the Amish communities, and pacifistic Salafi Muslims, among others. Therefore, the core tension is the tension between exclusive truth claims on the one hand and the desire for a peaceful pluralistic society on the other.

That, however, is a challenge of being human, not simply of being religious. According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, people try to overcome the complexity of life by dividing the world into good (us) and evil (the other). He argues precisely that the only way to overcome this dualism is monotheism, for God transcends our particularity. As creator he is universal and not just our God, but the God of all. (Sacks, Not in God’s Name, pp. 194, 195, 205)


One of the most exclusive forms of religious and social exclusion is the required death penalty for apostasy or idolatry. In all three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, it is considered an (almost) unforgivable act should believers decide to leave their faith and their faith community, and is liable to capital punishment. Exploring texts on apostasy, such as Deut 13 and 17 in the Jewish and Christian traditions, and certain ahadith or juridicial texts (fiqh) in Islam, can help to address the difficult issue of exclusion and inclusion. If the death penalty is the response God requires, then inclusion is undesirable in cases like these. But is that really the case? Do these and other exclusive texts show that inclusion is not the ultimate goal, or should we explore other ways of interpreting them? Are we able to engage in dialogue with people of other monotheistic traditions on these difficult situations? And what is the impact of the kind of society we live in? The history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam reveals that at different stages punishment of apostasy has been present in all three religions. How do we approach these challenges?

It might appear that inclusive holy texts are more helpful in this, and to a certain extent that is true. Inclusive texts underline what we have in common and might provide ways of living together. However, if we do not address the difficult questions in exclusive texts, they will always haunt us, since they also somehow represent the inspired voice of God.



  1. Can you give examples of exclusion and inclusion? To what of the three different areas as mentioned above (salvation, truth and social relations) do these relate?
  2. S. O’Grady, a scholar of religion, said in an interview: ‘Monotheistic religions have intolerance built into the system. By definition this one God is a jealous God, whether He is called Jahweh, Allah or Father. There is no room for competitors, tolerance is impossible.’ (Dutch Newspaper Nederlands Dagblad, February 6, 2021, p17.) What would be your response to this and why
  3. What would be necessary if you want to live together with people of other religions in your society? Is that possible and why or why not?
  4. Jonathan Sacks speaks as a Rabbi when he says that believing in God the creator can overcome dualism. How could that help you and your community in relating to people who do not share your faith or worldview?
  5. Christianity emphasizes that God became human in Jesus Christ for the sake of every sinner. What kind of effect does that have on your relationship with people who are not Christian believers?



This summary belongs to a more extensive article of Bernhard Reitsma, which can be found here: Exclusion versus Inclusion; Searching for Religious Inspiration.

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.