Religious Pluralism

Topics of inclusivity and exclusivity in Mediterranean religions represent the central focus of this cluster. Participants will investigate, on the one hand, strategies of social, cultural and religious discrimination among worshippers and worshipper groups, and, on the other, mechanisms of forging individual and group identity employed in central and peripheral religious movements and sects. Although early Christian, Greek, Roman and Egyptian religions never create in- and out-groups based on racial criteria, they do employ socio-cultural markers in order to determine what constitutes membership in a religious group, and which conditions have to be fulfilled in order to participate in a group’s religious life. In early Greek and, to an extent, Roman religion, for instance, these markers could include, among others, citizenship status, gender, membership in a religious association, or religious prerequisites (such as completed initiation or various degrees of purity). Membership in a religious group is also often predicated on various degrees of intensity of a worshipper’s commitment—in some cults, it sufficed to make a minimal effort (such as e.g. subjecting oneself to dietary restrictions requesting that the worshipper not eat beans or eggs), while in other cults, a complete commitment, encapsulated in a distinct religious way of life, was expected (e.g. Orphics; Pythagorean way of life etc.).

This cluster will therefore represent a hub in which shifts, balances, and in particular disruptions in the ecosystem of Mediterranean religions will be explored; we will be specifically concerned with the ways in which Mediterranean societies created religious tolerance and a pluralism of religious discourses. We will also dissect critical moments in the history of these societies in which religious discrimination, followed by religious persecution, took place: Why does, for instance, religious persecution in the Roman empire repeatedly happen under bad emperors as part of their red-herring strategy? When Nero targeted and persecuted Christians in order to shift public discourses away from discussions of the disastrous fire in Rome and the harrowing socio- economic problems under his rule, which strategies of victimization did his administration employ? Which cultural, religious and socio-historical factors lead to religious discrimination and persecution? When does, furthermore, race and/or ethnicity become part of the story, and when, how, and why does “whiteness” appear in religious discourses?

A complementary set of questions and research foci will investigate strategies of inclusion, and explore cultural constructs that facilitated religious pluralism in these societies. Here, we will be specifically concerned with differences between religious systems that are based on doctrinal modes of operation, such as most of the present day monotheistic religions, and polytheistic religious systems, which, as a general rule, worked with neither dogma nor a universally prescribed set of expectations laid upon the worshipper. Is the absence of ‘the book’ and the polytheistic nature of religious systems part of the reason why ancient Mediterranean societies could, as a matter of course, adopt foreign divinities (from, for example, Persia, Egypt and Syria) and (re-)interpret them as parts of their own panthea? Which social and religious factors facilitated the interpretatio Graeca and interpretatio Romana of foreign cults, rituals, and divinities? Which factors stood in the way of syncretism? Under which conditions does inclusion of new gods, new sects, or new beliefs in the religious life of a society create ruptures in societal fiber and lead to religious conflict?