Ethics in a Multireligious Context

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2007 »Volume 44 2007 Number 3 »Ethics In A Multireligious Context

Michael Amaladoss, SJ


The role of ethics is to offer us guidance about what to do in the different circumstances of our lives. It has to particularize the general principle: "Do good and avoid evil." In a community it governs our relationships with one another. It also helps us in acting together when we are pursuing common goals. There are many situations in life in which it is not easy to specify what is good and evil. One such situation is the multireligious context in which we are living in Tamil Nadu. Each religion has its own way of looking at life and reality. Of course, this situation is not peculiar to us. The world is today pluralistic. Even in countries dominated by one religion, there are small minority groups belonging to other religions. Within the majority religious group itself, there may be people who are secularized, agnostic, or nonbelieving. There may also be differences between personal and public lives. At the level of economic and political life people may be guided by various ideologies. This context is very sensitive, precisely because of the intimate relationship that exists between ethics and religious belief. Religious pluralism therefore involves ethical pluralism.

Generally speaking, two kinds of attitudes are possible in the face of ethical pluralism. The first is to deny it. We cannot, of course, deny the fact of pluralism. But we can simply assert that our own convictions are right and whoever disagrees with us is wrong. So there are no alternatives to choose from. If we have the power, we may try to impose what we consider right on everyone. The second approach is to recognize and accept the pluralism and search for ways of adjusting to each other so that we can still live and act together at least in what concerns the whole community, even when we are faithful to our convictions in our personal life and the group to which we belong. No one would seriously advocate the first way of proceeding. There may, however, be differences in the manner in which the second way is understood and practiced.

In the following pages, I shall start with the Christian tradition. I am not giving a complete history, but will just see how the Second Vatican Council handled it. It did not speak about ethical pluralism, but it did address the question of religious pluralism. But what it said has ethical implications, as I shall try to show. Then I shall move towards a more general theory that may be acceptable to everyone.

Error Has No Rights

Christians did pass through a stage when they denied the existence of pluralism. This was based on the supposition that our religion is the true one, revealed by God. Every other religion is thus false. People who belonged to them were in error. As the popular axiom went: "Error has no rights!" This meant that where and when we have the power, we can impose our truth and morality on others, if necessary, by force. When there emerged a distinction between sacred and secular power, the sacred power demanded the help of the secular arm to impose the truth. Those who refused to accept the truth could be done away with. They were often burnt at the stake in the Middle Ages. They not only missed salvation in the next world, but did not have rights even in this one. Till new areas of the world like sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas, and South and East Asia were "discovered" by the people from Europe and the Mediterranean, they took for granted that the Gospel had been preached everywhere. Those who had not become Christian therefore were guilty of not obeying God’s call. And so they deserved punishment. The Jews were considered guilty of murdering Jesus. So they were marginalized and persecuted in various ways. Crusades were organized against the Muslim infidels. When the people in the Americas and Africa were "discovered", they were considered subhuman. So the colonizers felt free to enslave them, appropriate their land and property, treat them as human commodities, and use them as cheap labor. Many of these poor "natives" would consider themselves lucky to tone down, if not fully escape, such treatment by embracing Christianity.

Many indigenous groups do not enjoy their full rights even today. They live in "reservations." The Australian Aborigines were not citizens in their own land until about 40 years ago. Many Euro-American countries which pride themselves as paragons of human rights and democracy often limit benefits to their citizens. One could live for two generations in Germany, for instance, without having citizenship rights. Migrants in other Euro-American countries are expected to adopt the local culture. The local religion is not imposed on them only because the local people themselves are not very religious. The human rights that they claim in their own countries are not given to people in far-off poor countries. They can be freely exploited by unjust commercial and economic policies. 

Affirmation of Civil Liberties

In this situation, Dignitatis humanae [DH, Declaration on Religious Freedom] of the Second Vatican Council came as a big change in attitudes, though it referred only to the sphere of religion. At the Council, some still held on to the position that "error had no rights." The right to religious freedom was based not on the rightness or wrongness of religions, but on the dignity of the human persons who professed them. The religions themselves were not judged right or wrong. DH only defended the right of people to follow their conscience, right or wrong. What was therefore affirmed was the freedom of people to practice any religion of their choice at the civil level, so that no state can coerce them in religious matters. They can exercise this freedom both individually and collectively. So the religions were accepted as social groups. It will be instructive to look at these texts.1

Religious freedom is a human right.

The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right. (DH, 2.)

Please note that the dignity of the human person can be known by reason itself, that is, by everyone. As persons they are free and responsible to seek the truth. Therefore they should be free from any external coercion, for example, by the state. The only condition is that public order is assured. Since humans are social beings, their search for truth can also be social.

Truth, however, is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth. (DH, 3.)

This social right involves many other rights. Religious communities are free to profess, practice, and propagate their religious convictions. They can administer themselves, select and train their leaders, own buildings and property, and control means of communication. They can have "educational, cultural, charitable, and social organizations" (DH, 4). Parents are free to bring up their children in any way they like and send them to a school of their choice. But any freedom also involves responsibility.

In the use of all freedoms the moral principle of personal and social responsibility is to be observed. In the exercise of their rights, individual men and social groups are bound by the moral law to have respect both for the rights of others and for their own duties toward others and for the common welfare of all. Men are to deal with their fellows in justice and civility. (DH, 7.)

Natural – Human-Divine – Law

While trying to root the principle of religious freedom on the dignity of the human person, Dignitatis humanae also enunciates another principle, namely, that of natural-divine law. Let us see how this is spelled out.

Further light is shed on the subject if one considers that the highest norm of human life is the divine law—eternal, objective, and universal—whereby God orders, directs, and governs the entire universe and all the ways of the human community by a plan conceived in wisdom and love. Man has been made by God to participate in this law, with the result that, under the gentle disposition of divine Providence, he can come to perceive ever more fully the truth that is unchanging. (DH, 3.)

Let me draw your attention to the adjectives used in this section to qualify the divine law. Besides being divine, or because of it, it is true, eternal, objective, universal, and unchanging. How do people know this divine law?

On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. (DH, 3.)

Conscience, of course, has to be educated (DH, 8). While the Church does this for Christians (DH, 14), we are not told who is responsible for this for other people. Of course, predictably, the Church offers its services.

The role of conscience is further elaborated in Gaudium et spes [GS, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World]. The following text is interesting because it relates human dignity to conscience.

In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths. (GS, 16.)

The problem, of course, is that conscience can be more or less correct (ibid.).

In its whole discourse, Dignitatis humanae does not use the term "natural law." But the ethical tradition of the Church often uses this concept when it seeks to dialogue with and convince people of other religions and ideologies.

A Commentary on Natural Law

As a matter of fact, Gaudium et spes can be seen as an extended commentary on the "contents" of natural law. On the one hand, the Church claims a deep solidarity with people; on the other, it claims the special light of revelation that throws light on natural law. It is addressed to all peoples. It seems particularly interested in people who consider themselves atheists. So, though it occasionally cites Scripture, it tries to speak a language that is accessible to every one—the language, that is, of reason, but rooted in faith.

Hence under the light of Christ, the image of the unseen God, the firstborn of every creature, the council wishes to speak to all men in order to shed light on the mystery of man and to cooperate in finding the solution to the outstanding problems of our time. (GS, 10.)

The document covers a vast area. It starts with a brief analysis of the "hopes and anxieties" of contemporary society. It is significant that pluralism is not one of these elements. The first chapter speaks of the dignity of the human person. Then themes like interdependence, common good, equality and social justice, responsibility and participation, and finally solidarity are evoked around the theme of community. This is followed by a section on the rightful autonomy of earthly affairs and on human work in the world.

For by the very circumstance of their having been created, all things are endowed with their own stability, truth, goodness, proper laws, and order. Man must respect these as he isolates them by the appropriate methods of the individual sciences or arts. (GS, 36.)

I suppose that this principle would also apply to humans and their natural cultural and religious structures. A section on the dialogue between the Church and the modern world concludes the first part.

The second part talks about some more urgent problems. These include marriage and the family, culture, economic and social life, the political community at national and international levels, and peace. The document concludes with a call to dialogue at all levels: within the Church, with the other churches, with the believers of different religions, and with all people of good will. There is a final affirmation of hope.

Since God the Father is the origin and purpose of all men, we are all called to be brothers. Therefore, if we have been summoned to the same destiny, human and divine, we can and we should work together without violence and deceit in order to build up the world in genuine peace. (GS, 92.)

The Present Situation

Taking these two documents together, I have the impression that the Church is jockeying, knowingly or unknowingly, for its position and role in the modern world. On the one hand it recognizes the prevalent religious and ideological pluralism as a fact, especially in the postrevolutionary and postcolonial world. It realizes that it is no longer a dominant force in society even in countries where the majority still profess to be Christian. It is very clear about the ethical principles that its own members have to follow. Where the Christians are in a majority, it still tries to promote among them faithfulness to its moral principles. Where the Christians are not in a majority, it claims to be a spokesperson for basic human and social ethics. So it takes refuge in the traditional idea of natural law, based on reason, which applies to everyone, since each one’s conscience witnesses to it. Since conscience needs occasional enlightenment, the Church offers the light of its revelation, of course in a dialogical manner. It is significant that in recent years, the Church frequently claims to be a "specialist" in what concerns the human—also because God became human in Jesus. Since (because of historical reasons) the Pope and the Vatican City State have international status, the Pope makes use of this to enunciate what he considers universal moral principles.

Two further changes in the awareness of the situation must be mentioned, though they have not affected basically the Church’s official position. Still, they have given matter for serious reflection by some Christians. First of all, the Church’s attitude to other religions has been changing. As we have seen above, Dignitatis humanae affirmed the freedom of people to follow any religion of their choice according to their conscience, but it did not say anything about the status of these religions. Nostra aetate [NA, Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions] finds in them "true and holy elements," and encourages dialogue with them (NA, 2), but they are considered no more than human and natural. As Paul VI’s encyclical Evangelii nuntiandi [EN, On Evangelization in the Modern World] says:

In other words, our religion effectively establishes with God an authentic and living relationship which the other religions do not succeed in doing, even though they have, as it were, their arms stretched out towards heaven. (EN, 53.)

John Paul II’s encyclical Redemptoris missio [RM, On the Permanent Validity of the Church's Missionary Mandate] is the first official document which recognizes the presence and action of the Spirit of God in other religions and cultures (RM, 28-29). Even then, however, they are set in a framework of "preparation-fulfillment" in relation to the Church. Asian bishops and theologians, however, accept the other religions as significant elements in the plan of God. They regard them as co-pilgrims towards the Kingdom. The Bishops of India, in their preparatory document for the Synod of Bishops of Asia, say:

As God’s Spirit called the Churches of the East to conversion and mission witness (see Rev 2-3), we too hear this same Spirit bidding us to be truly catholic, open, and collaborating with the Word who is actively present in the great religious traditions of Asia today. Confident trust and discernment, not anxiety and overcaution, must regulate our relations with these many brothers and sisters. For together with them we form one community, stemming from the one stock which God created to people the entire earth. We share with them a common destiny and providence. Walking together we are called to travel the same paschal pilgrimage with Christ to the one Father of us all.2 (See Lk 24:13ff.; NA, 1; and GS, 22.)

If the other religions are taken seriously in this way, then their moral positions, even if they are different from those of the Church, cannot simply be dismissed out of hand. We have to dialogue with them, although this is not yet the official position of the central authority in the Church.

Secondly, the claim of the Church to be teaching an unchanging moral law is also being questioned increasingly. On the one hand, historians have shown that the Church’s moral teaching has been changing in the course of history (Fagan 1997). On the other hand, there is no consensus in the Church today on every aspect of moral law. The Church’s teaching about contraception is one example. This situation has made us aware that, while God and Truth are absolute, the Church’s understanding of that Truth may be conditioned by historicocultural circumstances and human limitations. This is also true of other religions (Amaladoss 2003:91-116). Even if the Church claims to be teaching what it considers "natural" and unchangeable, the believers of other religions may refuse to accept it. The light that the Church offers is being questioned by the lights that are projected by resurgent other religions and revolutionary ideologies. The question then is whether the Church should be open to dialogue in such matters.

To add to the complexity of this situation, cultural and religious pluralism have become increasingly conflictual (Juergensmeyer 2000; Kakar 1995). Postmodernism has challenged the certainties of reason and its dominant metanarratives (Lakeland 1997). It is not my intention here to go into the reasons for this development. I am just acknowledging it and asking what its implications for ethics are in a multireligious society. As far as the official Church is concerned, it can continue to offer its moral directives to its members and to the world. Its own members will have to consider them seriously and educate their moral conscience accordingly. But it cannot impose it on other people. Similarly, every other religious and cultural group should be free to follow its moral principles, without imposing on others.

What happens when different religious groups live together as a community, locally, nationally, and internationally? What moral principles govern their interrelationships and their common action?

Moral and Legal

At the practical level, a distinction is usually made between what is moral and what is legal. The moral is seen more as inspirational and ideal; the legal, as more practical and governing public behavior in a particular country or region. At the universal level, for instance, we have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Most countries have accepted this. But it is also criticized for being too individualistic and liberal. There have been efforts to supplement it with aCharter of Social and Economic Rights. But this has not been ratified by many countries. United Nations conventions on Women and Ecology have also come up with non-binding declarations. Such documents have inspirational value. They are not, however, accepted by every country or religion. They may also be differently interpreted by different groups.

At the legal level, most countries are guided by written constitutions. They spell out fundamental rights and obligations. They are subject to interpretation by the courts. The lawmakers enact laws within the framework of the constitutions. It is inevitable that the constitutions conform to the perspectives of the majority. Some Muslim countries enshrine the Sharia law in their constitutions. In such situations the expectation today is that it is not to be imposed on minorities. India allows different religious groups to follow their own laws and practices, although the overall aim is to move towards a common civil law. The concern is that the common civil law will really be common and not the imposition of the law of the majority. Relationships between countries are governed by international law. But not all countries accept this. Many are often guided by self-interest. The USA, for instance, has refused to accept the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice. Recently, it has even been flouting international laws regarding the conduct of war. The European Union is trying to work out a uniform law code that will govern all the people who belong to it.

People who observe a law normally consider it as corresponding to moral principle. But they do not translate every moral principle into a legal obligation. Therefore, what is moral need not necessarily be legal. What is legal is usually moral. But a kind of behavior which is accepted as moral by one group may be considered immoral by another. What happens then when different groups of people living together in a community subscribe to different moral codes that are dictated by their various cultures and religions?3 Because the moral code is based on religious faith,4 it acquires an objective, universal character. So we have a clash of different moral absolutes, corresponding to different religious absolutes. There is no problem if each religious group follows its own moral law within its own ambit. They have the freedom and the right to do this, following their conscience. Even in this case, however, they should not harm public order. Every group is also welcome to persuade and convince others that its own moral code is the true or perfect one. But it cannot impose it on others. It has to respect the religious conviction and commitment of others. It is on this problem that I wish to focus here.

What does moral principle mean in a context of dialogue between different religions and ideologies? We can explore this dialogue at two levels.

Ethics in a Multireligious Context

First of all, an attitude of and openness to dialogue suppose that we recognize that our perspective may be limited. This is not easy. Every religious and moral commitment tends to be absolute. But a certain consciousness of historical evolution will teach us that convictions that were absolute at one time are open to reinterpretation and change under different circumstances. Or to put it in another way, while a broad principle like "do good and avoid evil" is absolute, decisions about what is concretely good or evil in a particular situation is open to interpretation and discernment. We do this constantly (Dean 1995). Every religion has different schools of interpretation. What needs interpretation is not relative. But not the concrete application of an absolute principle. So, we should rather not speak here of the absolute and the relative, but of the general and the particular, the abstract and the concrete, the ideal and the possible. At the level of the concrete and the possible, there may even be many options to choose from. If we are aware of this tension between the ideal and the possible, the general and the particular, we will be open to other groups who think differently from us. Their choices need not be ours. But we can respect them and try to understand their reasonableness.

Such openness to others may eventually be a source of challenge and conversion. It makes us look at situations from a new perspective. We may look more critically at our own choices. Intercultural and interreligious interaction has been constant in history. Even religions have undergone change. Elite Hinduism abandoned animal sacrifices and became nonviolent under the influence of Buddhism. Sikhism emerged out of an interaction between Hinduism and Islam. Islam was inculturated in many parts of Asia under the impact of Sufi saints, who were in turn influenced by the Bhaktitraditions of Hinduism and other popular religions. The Christian theological and legal tradition owes more to Greek philosophy and Roman law than to its Jewish roots. The Wisdom tradition in the Bible is indebted to the wisdom of the peoples in the Middle East. The social teaching of the Church owes much to the challenge of Marxist and socialist ideologies. The human rights tradition has been developed less by the Church than by various fringe groups in Christianity that drew their inspiration from the humanism of the Greek tradition. The struggle to abolish the practice of slavery was led by the Quakers. Many of the movements for human, feminist, migrant, and ecological rights are lead today by various NGOs rather than by official religious groups, although a certain religious inspiration need not be ruled out.

Thirdly, when different religious groups are living together in a community, they have to collaborate for the promotion of the common good. The ideal way for this to happen is not to search for some common perspective based on reason, but for each religious group to look for inspiration and motivation from its own resources. But through ongoing dialogue, consensus can be reached regarding common goals and plans of action in which all can collaborate (Amaladoss 1991:4-33). Actually, a survey of liberation theologies in various Asian religions has shown that this is possible (Amaladoss 1997).

Mahatma Gandhi had an interreligious ashram where he trained people belonging to different religions as volunteers for his programs of satyagraha and civil disobedience. Even today feminist and ecological programs are interreligious in character. Campaigns for Dalit liberation cross religious boundaries. Transcending religious boundaries actually brings about new perspectives and adds richness and dynamism to these programs. Techniques like the "ideal speech situation" of Jürgen Habermas (1984; also 1987) and the "fusion of horizons" of Hans-Georg Gadamer (1975), developed under different circumstances, can be employed usefully to facilitate interreligious dialogue focused on common praxis. The ideal speech situation supposes that we are honest in discussion, that we do not try to deceive the other, that there is a possibility of free speech, and that all questions are answered to the widest extent possible. The fusion of horizons supposes that everyone makes an effort to look at the situation from the point of view of others. Such a discussion will help us to reach a consensus on what is desirable, possible, and achievable in a given situation, without hurting the sensibilities of anyone. It will also show the limits that cannot be crossed.

A final question is the kind of criteria that have to be used in discerning the correct choice. Reason is no longer useful. No one religion or ideology can be used as the ultimate criterion in a pluralist society. In such a situation the criteria could be: whatever protects life of all kinds (including the Earth), whatever respects the dignity of human persons, and whatever promotes community and solidarity. These are practical, not theoretical, criteria.


A common interreligious project of this kind is possible only under certain conditions. I shall mention some of them, without claiming to give an exhaustive list.

First of all, we must avoid any form of individualistic liberalism. Our context is the community and our goal is the promotion of the common good, that is, the good of each one and of the community as a whole.

Secondly, every effort must be made to avoid fundamentalism of any kind in religion. Fundamentalists are beyond argument. Fundamentalism closes shut any conversation. While our convictions may be rooted in our religious beliefs, we should be able to show their reasonableness to others. This does not mean rational and logical proof. But it may be based on arguments of fittingness, probability, proportionality, and possibility.

Where there has been conflict, every effort must be taken towards promoting forgiveness and reconciliation, aiming at restorative rather than retributive justice (Tutu 1999). Our desire must be to build community, in spite of the difficulties, than to settle scores. This supposes that we are ready to overlook some tensions and difficulties in the interest of the common good.

There must be a general atmosphere of friendliness and dialogue between the various religious groups. This means that every effort is made to clarify misunderstandings and prejudices through the informal contacts of common life that avoid ghetto formation. Occasional common celebrations of festivals at a social level and common prayer services on the occasion of catastrophes may promote community integration. Recent studies have also shown that the roots of interreligious community and understanding lie in the bonds of economic collaboration (Varshney 2002). When people’s productive lives are interlinked they tend to defend them.


1. Cf. Pavlischek 1994. John Courtney Murray was one of the chief architects of Dignitatis humanae. The book throws light on DH from his point of view.

2. See Phan 2002: 21.

3. Cf. Parekh 2000. He discusses issues like female circumcision among African peoples.

4. At the level of cosmic religiosity there is no difference between culture and religion.



Amaladoss, Michael

2003 Making Harmony: Living in a Pluralist World (Chenai: IDCR).

1997 Life in Freedom: Liberation Theologies from Asia (Maryknoll: Orbis).

1991 "Liberation: An Interreligious Project," East Asian Pastoral Review 28 (Quezon City, Philippines: East Asian Pastoral Institute).

Dean, Thomas (ed.)

1995 Religious Pluralism and Truth (Albany: State University of New York).

Fagan, Sean

1997 Does Morality Change? (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan).

Gadamer, Hans-Georg

1975 Truth and Method (London: Sheed and Ward).

Habermas, Jurgen

1987 The Theory of Communicative Action, Vols. 1 and 2(Boston: Beacon Press, also 1984).

Juergensmeyer, Mark

2000 Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (Berkeley: California University Press).

Kakar, Sudhir

1995 The Colours of Violence (New Delhi: Viking).

Lakeland, Paul

1997 Postmodernity: Christian Identity in a Fragmented Age (Minneapolis: Fortress Press).

Parekh, Bhikku

2000 Rethinking Multiculturalism (London: Macmillan).

Pavlischek, Keith J.

1994 John Courtney Murray and the Dilemma of Religious Tradition (Kirksville: Thomas Jefferson University Press).

Phan, Peter C. (ed.)

2002 The Asian Synod: Text and Commentaries (Maryknoll: Orbis).

Tutu, Desmond Mpilo

1999 No Future Without Forgiveness (New York: Doubleday).

Varshney, Ashutosh

2002 Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India (Delhi: Oxford).

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