Exclusivism (exclusivity) is a scholastic term which can be applied to any belief system but in this essay we will restrict its use as to how it applies to religion. Exclusivism, in this case, is the belief that one's own religion is absolute and correct, while all others are false. Such religions claim to have exclusive knowledge and the sole means of access to divinity, so they exclude themselves from all other belief-systems and deny them any validity. Exclusivism can have poisonous results, as can be clearly seen in history, when such a religion attains political and military power and prohibits all other religions and philosophies. The suppression of freedom of thought has unfortunate effects on the development of science and philosophy. Because the believer in an exclusivistic religion is certain of the validity of his or her beliefs, there have been instances of forced conversion to the exclusive religion. It is well worth considering that millions of people in the modern world fiercely declare and defend religious beliefs that their ancestors were actually forced to accept.

Exclusive religions tend to swallow up other religions over time. In terms of mathematics, if an individual comes from a tolerant tradition and adopts a new religious tradition which is also tolerant, this does not change the status quo, but if an individual from an inclusive tradition converts to an exclusivistic tradition, mathematics set in and the tolerant group loses one number while the exclusive gains one number, and this tendency of exclusivistic groups to grow in numbers vs inclusive groups, builds momentum over time, with the tolerant group slowly losing numbers.

Exclusivism in Judaism

Generally, it is the monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam, which are associated with the problems of exclusivism, but not Judaism, the religion from which these two arose. There is, however, one recorded incident of forced conversion executed by the Jewish Maccabean military leader, (John) Hyrcanus, during the second century BCE, who imposed Judaism after his conquests of the Idumeans, but this was quite the exception. The Jewish religion is exclusivistic, but they generally are not evangelical or known to force their religion on others; on the contrary, they believe that they enjoy a very private covenant or contract with their one God.

Exclusivism in Christianity

Christianity is another matter entirely, a religion which is clearly evangelical. The insistence on orthodoxy of belief in Christianity, exclusivism within Christianity itself, was solidified with the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, which had the effect of creating heretics. The word for heresy in ancient Greek is airæsis (αἵρεσις), which means "choice," but the word came to denote any belief which deviates from orthodox Christian doctrine...to choose wrong beliefs...meaning that in an exclusive religion, one does not have choice in belief if one is to be among the blessed or saved. If one chooses to accept a "wrong" belief, one is expelled, for which they use the Greek term anáthæma (ἀνάθεμα [1]), cursed by God and excommunicated from the true believers. In the past, heretics were sometimes exterminated in cruel and unusual ways for clinging to these “wrong” beliefs. The exclusivity of Christianity assumed a monstrous and lasting form with the edicts of the Roman emperor Theodosius I, beginning in 381 CE, which forbade, under penalty of death, the practice of the ancient religions. Eventually, Dælphí (Δελφοί), the very center and heart of the ancient Greek religion was closed. Ælefsís (Ἐλευσίς), the principal Mystery cult of the ancient world, was shut down after more than 2,000 years of practice. Indeed, all the sanctuaries and temples of the ancient religions were forcibly closed. Christianity became the official religion under this emperor. The only other religious practice tolerated was that of Judaism, out of respect for the source of the Christian religion, since Jesus himself was a Jew, but even the Jews were marginalized and persecuted. The old religions were restricted to inaccessible areas or forced into secrecy underground. This situation in the West was not alleviated for many centuries and in some areas of the modern world there remains problems for those who are not Christian.

Exclusivity in Islam

Islam has a tradition of tolerance, particularly towards Judaic religions, going back to the prophet Mohammed, who was undoubtedly sincere. In practice, however, his descendants have carried out the opposite. This can be demonstrated in numerous instances, such as in India when Muslim military forces encountered Buddhists, who practiced non-violence. The end result was that Buddhism virtually disappeared from India, with the great teachers fleeing to Tibet, where Indian Buddhism found a home. In addition to forced conversion, the Muslims used a very successful technique of heavily taxing peoples who refused to convert, all of which makes the Muslim "tolerance" not so believable in the end.


While there are indeed some examples of exclusivity in Ællinismόs, they are exceptions, not the rule, and the religion itself condemns it, and even the examples must be examined in context to understand why they occurred.

The Decree of Diopeithis

According to Ploutarkhos (Πλούταρχος), during the reign of Pæriklís (Περικλῆς), there was a law enacted in Athens known as the Decree of Diopeithis (Διοπείθης) 430 BCE which forbade foreign cults (religious practices) in Athens:

"And Diopithes proposed a decree, that public accusations should be laid against persons who neglected religion, or taught new doctrines about things above, directing suspicion, by means of Anaxagoras, against Pericles himself." [2]

It was under this decree that various of the philósophi (philosophers, φιλόσοφοι) were indicted and some put to death, most famously Sôkrátis (Σωκράτης). The real purpose of this law had everything to do with politics and little with religion.

The Religious Persecution of Jews by Andíokhos IV Æpiphanís

Another incident that some hold up against Ællinismόs is the behavior of the Seleucid king Andíokhos IV Æpiphanís (Ἀντίοχος Δ΄ ὁ Ἐπιφανής), who sacked Jerusalem and made the Jewish religion illegal, demanding the worship of Zefs (Ζεύς), all this somewhere around 160 BCE. These were the actions of this particular ruler, not the responsibility or requirement of our religion, and the incident itself is notable more because of its exceptional character, rather than being typical. As is often said, the Gods live in complete freedom and they desire this freedom for us as well, so the imposition of a belief-system on anyone is abhorrent to the Gods.

The Roman Persecution of Christians

Historically, inclusivistic religions function harmoniously with outside religions, often absorbing features of the religions they encounter. With the arrival of Christianity, an exclusive religion which is evangelical, the inclusive religions in the west now confronted a serious challenge which had never occurred before.

The persecution of Christians began as a spontaneous reaction by local populaces, first Jewish and eventually pagan, as the religion spread out of Israel. The Jews did not accept what the Christians claimed about Jesus, denying that he could be their Messiah, and had a negative reaction their teaching. The Christians, rejected in their homeland, began moving out into the empire, evangelizing to the gentiles (non-Jewish people). Here they were also not well received and the various peoples they encountered became hostile when the Christians declared that their beloved Gods were false. The peoples of the empire had never encountered direct intolerance of religious ideas as such behavior was almost unknown in the ancient world. And there were other issues, but the original persecutions seemed to be spontaneous reactions to the Christian doctrine which denied the validity of all Gods other than their own. Eventually, however, the Roman government got involved. Initially, these persecutions were not enacted because the Romans wished to deny the Christians freedom to believe in Jesus or any of their doctrines; the Romans did not care what the Christians believed. However, it was the traditional ancient conviction that all citizens give sacrifice to the Gods for the general good, deities who were thought to protect the state. Therefore, Christians were required to offer sacrifice to the Gods, not to give up their religion. This requirement was not possible, however, for a believing Christian, one who denied the existence of all Gods but their own one God. Therefore, many Christians were put to death for refusing to sacrifice. The persecution was not systematic until Trajan Decius (ruled 249-251 CE) enacted laws which persisted from 250-251 CE. The emperor Valerian (ruled 253-260 CE) issued another similar edict which lasted from 258-260, but he was captured in battle by the Sassanid king, Shapur I, who henceforth used the emperor as a living footstool to mount his horse, ending the edict. The most notorious systematic attack on Christians by the Roman empire were a series of four edicts which comprised what is known as the Great Persecution, primarily under Diocletian (ruled 284-305 CE), beginning in 303. Diocletian seemed to view the new religion as a pestilence and tried to destroy it before it spread any further. All persecutions of Christians ended in 313 CE with the Edict of Milan, signed by the emperor Constantine I (ruled 306-337) and his co-emperor Licinius I (ruled 308-324).

Exclusivism in the Mystery Cults

There is a type of exclusivism which is characteristic of the Mystíria (Μυστήρια). These are the practices and tutelage related to the teachings of Orphéfs (Ὀρφεύς), the most famous example being the Ælefsínia Mystíria (Ἐλευσίνια Μυστήρια). The Mystery cults were conducted in complete secrecy and those who were not initiated were excluded from any knowledge of what occurred within the circle of those who were. It is in this sense only that the Mystíria were exclusivistic. These cults did not claim to have exclusive access to the truth, but only those deemed appropriate were admitted and they did not condemn those outside of the circle of initiates. Therefore, although this is a kind of exclusivity, it is of a different nature than what has been discussed previously.


Inclusivism in ancient religion

Exclusivism is a way of characterizing types of religion. Exclusivism is in direct contrast to religions which are called inclusive. To give the reader a flavor of what inclusive religions are like, consider this quotation from the scholar W.K.C. Guthrie:

"To us the differences between the worship of Olympian Zeus and the mysteries of Demeter may seem as great as those between any two religions of more modern times. Yet not only did they never lead to wars or persecutions, but it was perfectly possible for the same man to be a devout participant in both. More than this, Kore daughter of Demeter, in whose honour as well as her mother's the mysteries were held, had Zeus himself for father, and Zeus could be addressed as Chthonios (ed. of the earth, earthy) as well as Olympios (ed. implying an idea of in the heavens). A totally different God in reality, you may say." [3]

One can surmise from this paragraph that we are talking about a very different approach. Obviously, all religious people view their own religion as superior, otherwise, why would they practice it? They believe their own religion is superior for themselves, but inclusivistic religions are generally tolerant of other religious traditions. Exclusivistic religions, on the other hand, tend to be highly intolerant of other religious traditions. Inclusive religions acknowledge that truth can be found in other religions and philosophies, and that perhaps another religion may even be more appropriate for those who practice it.

Polytheistic religions are generally not exclusivistic, by definition, because worshiping one God does not exclude the worship of other Gods; therefore, polytheism is inclusive of all deity and is generally tolerant. Religions such as Hinduism and Ællinismόs (Ἑλληνισμός), the ancient Greek religion, and the Egyptian religion of antiquity, are inclusivistic traditions, and there is no history of religious wars between these traditions. From the perspective of Ællinismόs, exclusivism is a type of hubris, false pride or insolence, which implies a type of knowledge impossible for mortal beings to possess.

Syncretism in Ællinismόs

There are numerous examples from antiquity of the tolerance of Ællinismόs expressed as syncretism, as, for instance, the belief of Iródotos (Ἡρόδοτος) the historian, that the Egyptian Gods are the same as ours, but known by different names. [4]

Another example comes from Ploutarkhos in his book Περὶ Ἴσιδος καὶ Ὀσίριδος (Isis and Osiris) in which the author beautifully demonstrates the sameness of the Greek and Egyptian religious traditions.

The philosophers also quote the Khaldaian Oracles (Χαλδαϊκός Χρησμός), the content of which was believed to have been derived from Babylonian religion. They incorporate Zoroastrian religious ideas into their philosophy.

Criticism of syncretism

Syncretism (interpretatio graeca) is evidence of inclusivism, not exclusivism, the contrary opinion being a rather convoluted way of seeing something which is very obvious. The argument which criticizes syncretism, the argument which calls it exclusivism, goes something like this: equating Gods from another religion with those of one's own, is simply a confirmation of the superiority of one's own religion. But this argument twists logic and is absurd because syncretism is inclusive of "foreign" Gods, not excluding them. With all due respect, this argument against syncretism seems to express the guilty conscience of exclusive religions for the fault of their own belief system, not ours, or perhaps, an effort of those who have a grudge against religion to find a way to find fault with all religions, for if syncretism is not evidence of inclusivity and tolerance, what would be the qualification for a religion to not be exclusive? From this point of view, all religions are exclusive, and this is simply a deliberate falsehood.

Syncretism and the Names of the Gods

Ællinismόs is inclusive of all true deity. It is said that in very ancient times there were no names for the Gods, or rather, that their names were not known to mortals. In a later period, perhaps around the time of Isíodos (Ἡσίοδος), the priests gave them names. It is also said that the names we use to designate the various divinities are not the same names which they use to call themselves. This is sometimes called várvari onómata (βάρβαρη ονόματα), the barbarous or foreign names of the Gods; they are unknown or foreign to us and are only known to the Gods themselves. As Plátôn (Πλάτων) says in the Κρατύλος (Cratylus):

"Yes, indeed, Hermogenes; and there is one excellent principle which, as men of sense, we must acknowledge, --- that of the Gods we know nothing, either of their natures or of the names which they give themselves; but we are sure that the names by which they call themselves, whatever they may be, are true. And this is the best of all principles; and the next best is to say, as in prayers, that we will call them by any sort or kind of names or patronymics which they like, because we do not know of any other. That also, I think, is a very good custom, and one which I should much wish to observe. Let us, then, if you please, in the first place announce to them that we are not enquiring about them; we do not presume that we are able to do so; but we are enquiring about the meaning of men in giving them these names, --- in this there can be small blame." [5]

Now if deities in our religion have Kozmic functions, such as dominion over Natural Laws...and they do have such dominion...and if the deities of other religions hold the same functions, it is naturally plausible that their deities are the same as ours, but are known by other names, names which mortals have given them, but not necessarily the names by which the Gods themselves know each other. This type of thinking is tolerant and inclusive and is in the spirit of the deeper understandings of the teachings of Ællinismόs. Our religion has its pantheon, we do things in particular ways, we have our customs, but we are capable of vast thinking, and this thinking requires logic, openness, and tolerance, qualities which are some of our highest virtues. Therefore, we do not necessarily see Ællinismόs as superior to, for instance, Hinduism; rather, we perceive the worship of Gods as having variety which expresses the natural beauty of different cultures, and can perceive a 'sameness' in various religions.

"Nor do we think of the Gods as different Gods among different peoples, nor as barbarian Gods and Greek Gods, nor as southern and northern Gods; but, just as the sun and the moon and the heavens and the earth and the sea are common to all, but are called by different names by different peoples, so for that one rationality which keeps all these things in order and the one Providence which watches over them and the ancillary powers that are set over all, there have arisen among different peoples, in accordance with their customs, different honours and appellations." [6]

See also: Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy in Hellenismos


[1] This word ἀνάθεμα originally meant "votive offering," a gift for a God. Such items were separated out as sacred and were not to be used for profane purposes. These offerings were often burnt on the altar, and, hence, destroyed. In the Christian era, the word came to denote something cursed by God, since votive offerings were set up for the pagan Gods and the Christians declared them to be false, or worse still, to be evil spirits, and thus the ἀνάθεμα became something devoted to evil. As the term acquired this new definition, some of the original meaning of the word took on a new significance; since votive offerings were eventually destroyed, the one who was declared to be anathema, was viewed as a destroyed soul, hated by God.

[2] Βίοι Παράλληλοι Πλουτάρχου· Βίος τοῦ Περικλέους, 32.1, trans. John Dryden, 1683.

[3] Orpheus and Greek Religion by W. K. C. Guthrie, 1935. We are using the 1993 reprint by Princeton Univ. Press (Princeton, NJ USA), where this quotation may be found on p. 7.

[4] Ἱστορίαι Ἡροδότου: See Book 2 Eὐτέρπη in which Iródotos describes the religion of the Egyptians.

[5] Κρατύλος Πλάτωνος 400d-401a, trans. Benjamin Jowett, 1892.

[6] Ἠθικὰ Πλουτάρχου· 26. Περὶ Ἴσιδος καὶ Ὀσίριδος Section 67 (377f). Trans. Frank Cole Babbitt, 1936, in the volume entitled Plutarch's Moralia in Sixteen Volumes, Vol. V, published by William Heinemann (London, England UK) and Harvard Univ. Press (Cambridge, MA USA). We are using the 1969 edition where this quotation may be found on pp. 155-157.

The story of the birth of the Gods: Orphic Theogony.

We know the various qualities and characteristics of the Gods based on metaphorical stories: Mythology.

Dictionary of terms related to ancient Greek mythology: Glossary of Hellenic Mythology.

Introduction to the Thæí (the Gods): The Nature of the Gods.

How do we know there are Gods? Experiencing Gods.

What has survived from Orphic texts? The Orphic Fragments of Otto Kern.

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We know the various qualities and characteristics of the Gods based on metaphorical stories: Mythology.

Dictionary of terms related to ancient Greek mythology: Glossary of Hellenic Mythology.

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