M is for Multiple Religious Belonging

Sometimes I wish I had a shorter, neater term for this concept! ‘Polyreligiosity’, perhaps. Anyway,  what I am interested in here is the situation some people find themselves in whereby they belong to more than one religion. This situation raises obvious questions. What does it mean to belong, and how does that vary between traditions? What counts as a ‘religion’ for this purpose? What are you supposed to put on forms where you are asked to tick one box and presented with a list in which you identify with two or more options?

It also raises some less obvious questions, such as: Who can assess whether ‘multiple belonging’ is really taking place? How do other members of the religions involved react? What are the potential advantages and dangers of belonging, or trying to belong, to more than one religious tradition at once? How should sociologists, theologians, and philosophers talk differently about religion if multiple religious belonging is possible? Why are some pairs of traditions apparently more common and/or claiming more scholarly attention than others? Is belonging to more than one religious tradition like speaking more than one language, or like supporting more than one political party, or like supporting more than one football club, or like enjoying both Star Trek  and Star Wars, or like being bisexual, or none of these, or something else?

One intuition some people have about these questions is that being involved in more than one religion is either confusing, or dangerous, in the sense that mixing the belief-claims or practices of two religions might destroy their cohesiveness and/or be a kind of ‘pick-and-mix’ in which only the nice bits are included and the harder parts – to do with death, sin, or changes needed to the believer’s lifestyle – are ignored. Sometimes people also feel that the situation of having more than one religious identity is different depending how you got there: that being raised in a family with more than one tradition (a Christian parent and a Jewish parent, for example) is different to trying to learn a new tradition on top of your old one as an adult. Others suggest that learning a new tradition to the level which would make it possible to experiment with multiple belonging involves a lot of scholarly work – learning a language in which to read ancient scriptures, for example, even if many people who grew up in that tradition do not have this language.

As you may be able to tell, I am at a stage with this issue where I am collecting lots of questions and not yet finding many answers! I think some of the answers might lie in the question about what religion is like – when we think about religion, what do we think are the closest comparisons? In my previous work (and blog posts) I’ve written about religion as like language, drawing on Lindbeck’s work in this direction; and others, notably Kathryn Tanner, have written about religion as like culture. However, there are also other analogies: is religion like gender, or ethnicity, or fandom, for example?

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One response to “M is for Multiple Religious Belonging

  1. I look forward to hearing about the answers, however tentative.

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