Sainati: Coping with religious exclusivism

Leo Sainati, Assistant Opinion Editor

A few weeks ago, I had dinner with a staff member from a prominent campus Christian organization. After an amicable first few minutes, I was told after a few questions that because I was Jewish, I couldn’t have a real connection with God and would be unable to gain entry to heaven, ending up in hell. After dinner, we both went our separate ways and lived our own lives, yet her words still echo in my ears.

Having someone look me in the eyes and tell me that what I have believed all my life, has given me an accepting community and has greatly contributed to who I am today was inauthentic and fallacious undoubtedly made an impact. Regardless of whether I seriously internalized what she said, important concerns were raised about the basis for this woman’s exclusionist rhetoric.

A survey from LifeWay Research found that 84 percent of Evangelicals believe that “hell is a place of eternal judgment, where God sends all people who do not personally trust in Jesus Christ.” Additionally, 54 percent of Americans say that “only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone receive eternal salvation.” Yet a Pew Research Center survey found that “a majority of all American Christians (52%) think that at least some non-Christian faiths can lead to eternal life.” At least within Christianity, there is obvious divide between denominations as to what can lead to salvation.

As a Jew, I was admittedly not too upset by learning I would tragically not gain access to heaven, as I’d never believed that was where I was destined in the first place. What stood out to me, however, was how this woman’s idea of salvation was rooted in religious exclusivism. Religious exclusivism, of course, is not uniquely Evangelical Christian — it’s unfortunately also found in other major religions. Many Buddhists, for example, believe that those who do not follow the teachings of Buddha will be bound to an endless cycle of pain and suffer suffering through reincarnations. Many Jews believe that they are God’s “chosen people,” seeing themselves as points of emulation for others. Perhaps Islam serves as an exemplar of avoiding religious exclusivism, as it confers the status of dhimmi to other monotheistic religions, making sure not to infringe on their practice.

I acknowledge that these are generalizations and fail to account for much of the discrepancies and variances that occur across something as broad as religion. I in no way intend to speak for or about all religions. These views are additionally drawn from these religion’s theoretical, and not necessarily practical, groundings, yet at least certain belief groups are apodictically influenced by exclusivism.

And exclusivism is common to groups beyond religion, whether it’s a musical ensemble, fraternity/sorority or university. Yet, many religions beliefs become concerning when they often lead from exclusivity to incompatibility. Religions don’t stand in contradiction to each other as much as their followers make it seem, and there’s no reason that any should be irreconcilable as different interpretations on the shared belief in a higher power. Religious exclusivism is unproductive, especially for campus religious organizations who seek to provide a home for all denominations and beliefs.

Religion can be incredibly useful and gratifying for many, and the denominations that practice exclusivity and incompatibility don’t necessarily take away from that, but they do pose problematic concerns. What are the implications of exclusivism on our everyday lives and how do we cope with those who believe that the fundamental basis for so many of our morals and values is false and will condemn us to eternal suffering? These are questions I am still grappling with, but after being told I was going to hell, are much more real ones.

Leo Sainati is a SESP freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.