Tag Archives: belonging

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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C is for Community

‘Community’ is another word I use a lot. I talk about ‘community contexts‘, for example, and ‘belonging to a community’. I don’t, I think, use it in any very technical way. In fact, the reverse: I assume that everyone knows what a community is and that I therefore don’t need to explain anything about the general concept. Instead, I focus on exploring specific examples from real communities (as opposed to generalising about them too much – not that I can always avoid it).

It’s possible, though, that this tends to elide or disguise the differences between different communities and different forms of community. People form communities around all kinds of things, some more central to their identities and ways of life than others: religious belief and practice, locality, sexuality, disability, culture, ethnicity, employment, looking at pictures of cats that look like Hitler. For example, if you’re a professional folk musician you might belong to a specific folk music group or community, or to the folk music community in general, and your experience of those communities will be different to the experiences of folk music fans who also belong but don’t themselves play folk music, or who only play as amateurs. If you’re a lesbian you might belong to a specific group, in person or online, and you might consider yourself part of a worldwide community of lesbians, or LGBT people more broadly, but in some cases you might not participate in these communities in any visible way – choosing to be celibate or in the closet, for example. There could be invisible participation in a community, if you donate to a charity in secret or feel like you belong, although it’s obviously hard to say what this would look like. (Sorry!)

In some cases, it’s obvious that one person can belong to more than one community. Buddhist folk musicians who support Liverpool are not a category problem – although there are issues about the relationships between categories at times, such as if your religion and your hobbies (or, classically, sexuality) are thought to conflict, having both a religion and a hobby and thus belonging to two communities isn’t puzzling to anyone. In some categories, too, you can have multiple affiliations: you can be a fan of a TV show and collect souvenir pencil sharpeners. In others, though, there’s often a challenge: people who claim more than one religious identity are not so immediately comprehensible. You can’t tick multiple religion boxes in most survey questions about religion; you have to pick one.

Some of our attitude to this will depend on the community concerned. If you belong to more than one model railway building society, nobody usually minds unless they meet at the same time and you can’t attend both meetings. If you support two football clubs, you might get asked which one you prefer or ‘really’ support, and you might get into trouble when they play each other, but you might get away with it in they’re in completely different leagues. If you identify as bisexual, often understood as ‘being both straight and gay’, you’re likely to encounter stereotypes of being greedy, immature, unfaithful, and/or a liar. If you try and join two political parties – especially in a two party system! – you’re likely to be considered incoherent. The question about religion could be framed as: what kind of community is a religious community? Is it more like a model railway society or more like a political party? What does it mean when some people are members of more than one religious community and other people are, at the same time, claiming that to do this or do it properly is impossible?

B is for Belonging

What does it mean to belong to a religious community?

In 2014, my most popular post was about Quaker understandings of belonging, and our struggles with them. (If you didn’t read it, it was: Yearly Meeting considerations of membership.) In my post this Wednesday, I talked about the boundaries of religions, relating this to issues around appropriation and belonging. In this post, I want to make some general observations about two groups with which I am familiar: Quakers and Pagans.

Quakers in Britain have two official levels of belonging: attenders and members. There are also a number of visible variations on these: the very-long term attender who calls themselves a Quaker but is not in membership (sometimes even having resigned from membership) is one, and another is the member who almost never attends (sometimes for practical reasons, sometimes because they no longer wish to, but nevertheless feel part of the Quaker community – if they grew up in a Quaker family, for example). Being born into Quakerism is unusual (14% of the community in Britain, according to a recent survey). Being an ‘attender’ or a ‘member’ says little about how often you attend Quaker events, or whether other people in your life know you are a Quaker. Not being in membership does hold people back from serving in certain roles (except when someone finds a work-around for this or an appointing meeting decides to ignore it). There are thus many less formal ways of belonging to the Quaker community.

Pagans in Britain are a much more diverse and less organised group. No one organisation is in a position to administer membership for all Pagans, although some groups such as the Pagan Federation try to encourage all Pagans to support them. Where groups do have tightly controlled membership arrangements, it is often related to esoteric material – many Wiccan groups will have oath-bound material, for example, and OBOD has the correspondence course which is members-only. That said, OBOD don’t, to the best of my knowledge, have a procedure for removing members from their list, although they do stop sending the magazine if you stop paying. Here, a distinction between a ‘member’ and a ‘subscriber’ comes into play – while paying, you are both. Before paying, you are neither. After ceasing to pay, you may be a member (allowed to read the correspondence course material for which, after all, you have paid) but you are no longer a subscriber.

Quakers ask for money from their members, but don’t make payment a condition of membership in the first place, so there isn’t the same level of ‘subscription’. They might ask you to subscribe to certain claims – not theological ones but ethical ones, such as ‘war is wrong’. (They might. It’s not clear to what extent these questions are actually asked directly when someone is applying for membership.)

For myself, Quaker belonging is mainly about the community; about participating in waiting, listening worship with others, and working on issues which matter to the community. There are other aspects as well – the principle of listening worship, for example – but my belonging is focused on the community. On the other hand, my Pagan identity and my Druid membership are more focused on solitary spiritual development – on having a framework in which to practice (in the sense of play with, work on, get better at) things which help me to be grounded and connected. I like going to Pagan rituals and Druid gatherings sometimes, but if I never went again I’d still be very much a Druid. If I couldn’t go to a Quaker meeting at all, I’m not sure I’d still think of myself as a Quaker.

One of my ongoing interests in multiple religious belonging: cases where people are fully members of more than one religion at once. This can be by birth (where the parents are of two different faiths – for a detailed discussion of this see Susan Katz Miller’s book Being Both), or a position, like mine, evolved in adulthood – sometimes one religion is from childhood, sometimes a childhood position is abandoned and multiple new religions are adopted. I think that it’s especially interesting that some religious groups seem to be very open to this; Quakers, for example, who already have a large number of ‘seekers’ among them, people who have explored a variety of religious traditions in their lives, are generally (not always – remember that for any claim about Quakers, some Quaker will be trying to disprove it!) generally more supportive of those trying to practice multiple religious belonging than some other groups would be.

B is for Boundaries

A question raised by the issue of appropriation (previous blog post) is about the boundaries between cultures, religions, or other groups. How do you know whether something – a word, practice, or object – has moved from one tradition to another if you don’t know where the boundaries between the traditions are? It often seems obvious that this movement has occurred, but articulating the details of when we say that is has happened and when we say that it hasn’t is much more difficult than establishing that some clear cases exist.

Another issue which raises related questions is the existence of multiple religious belonging – people who are (or claim to be, I suppose we don’t have to agree with them although it seems rude to discount their description of their lived experience) members of more than one religion at once. Some of these people might choose to hyphenate their religious identities – Buddhist-Christian – and others just think of themselves as both at once, Jewish and Pagan. Here, the question is: don’t some religions have boundaries which prevent a person from simultaneously belonging to another religion? Generally, we assume that a religious identity is singular – it might change through time, but one person only has one at once. This is reflected in, for example, the ‘tick one box’ approach used for religion on the census. (For much more about religion on the census, explore Abby Day’s work.) If it is possible to belong to more than one religion at once, we might need to rethink our ways of talking about religion. Why is it ‘weirder’ to be both a Christian and a Pagan than to be both a Christian and a Friend of the Earth?

I am at the stage of articulating these as research questions, rather than having any clear answers. However, I do have some directions in which I hope to look. One place I hope to look is other work on identity; in particular, I’m interested to know whether it’s useful to think of religiosity as performance, of religion as something that one does rather than something which one has – an analogy here to the work that Judith Butler and others have done on gender. Are the questions about multiple religious belonging in any way comparable, or in any useful was comparable, to the questions which have been asked about bisexuality or non-binary genders, for example? That many authors start from a question about whether these positions ‘really exist’ suggests to me that there might be points of commonality, but any comparison will need careful exploration.

Overall, because religious traditions are communities consisting of people, their boundaries seem to be closely related to issues around membership: who belongs to, or in, the faith. This in turn raises a whole new set of questions: how do you know who is a member of which religion? Some religions have very explicit positions on this, while others don’t seem to be very sure themselves about who counts as a member. This doesn’t just apply to people, of course; we often ask this question about practices (did you read an article this winter about whether putting up and decorating a tree is ‘Christian’ or ‘Pagan’? There always seem to be a few). Practices, though, are practised by people, and so we come round again to the same issue. Boundaries are tied up with belonging – to be the subject of a future post!