Tag Archives: identity

Fresh eyes on Multiple Religious Belonging

I’ve worked on Multiple Religious Belonging on and off for a long time now (as evidenced by my academic publications on it from 2015, 2017, and 2018, as well as previous blog posts, and perhaps the title of my blog!). Having had a break, I’m thinking about these things again as I prepare to run a Woodbrooke online course about Multiple Religious Belonging next month. There are big questions involved, of course – like what counts as belonging (who has to recognise it? does it require practice, or social connections, or belief, or all of those or none?), and what counts as a religion (do we mean ‘world religions’ or ‘traditions’ or ‘faith communities’?) Those are good questions, but rather than start with them, then rule things in or out of ‘multiple religious belonging’ on that basis, it might be as useful to start by looking at what people call ‘multiple religious belonging’ and use that to reflect on the understandings of religion and belonging which appear.

For example, being a Jewish Buddhist is common enough that there’s a Wikipedia page listing notable people who have this joint identity. The introduction to it, though, points out that this looks different for different people in the list: some might have a Jewish identity through their family (because Judaism functions in this context as both religion and ethnicity) and be mainly Buddhist in terms of religious practice, while others, like Alan Lew, actively practice both religious Judaism and Buddhist meditation. Just in describing that example, I’ve started to uncover ideas about what religion is: it can be inherited or acquired; it can be practised or ignored; both Judaism and Buddhism are seen as religions, or there wouldn’t be the same need to point out and explain people’s dual affiliations; and a specific religion can have characteristic practices, such as meditation.

Other examples might add other ideas. Sometimes people name a specific tradition within a religion (Anglican-Wiccan) but at other times they use broader terms (Christian-Pagan). That might reflect an understanding of their tradition as importantly distinct from other traditions: for example, saying ‘Quaker’ rather than ‘Christian’ because although Quakerism is historically part of the Christian family, that individual doesn’t identify as Christian, or saying ‘Anglican’ rather than ‘Christian’ as part of an understanding that combining Anglicanism with something else is different to combining Roman Catholicism with something else. This might be hard to untangle from a single use, or without asking the speaker for more information. A broader term might be employed to show solidarity or because more specific terms get misunderstand (compare the PaganDash campaign, in which Pagans tried to get greater recognition on the census results by starting their write-in answers with the same, recognisable, word).

In my own life, I tend to speak differently about different communities. I’ll say I’m a member of a Quaker meeting, usually before anything else; if it comes up, I say I’m a member of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD). By contrast, I usually say I have experience of or have participated in the Community of Interbeing, forms of Buddhism, or various kinds of Paganism. That partly represents my level of commitment – although I probably use a Community of Interbeing practice, reciting the Five Mindfulness Trainings, almost as often as I use a formal OBOD practice – but also how I feel about the traditions and the communities. OBOD works mainly through correspondence course, and it’s easy to feel connected without an in-person community; the Community of Interbeing works a lot through local sanghas, and I’ve never joined one; Quakers work through meetings, and I’m both part of a local Quaker meeting and (very!) involved in wider Quaker activities. In this perhaps I’m revealing my own ideas about what it means to belong to a religion – very much about participation, community acceptance, and regular activity. I didn’t mention belief at all, for example, which would be highly important in some other understandings.

How do you talk about multiple religious belonging, whether or not you practise it? What ideas about religion do you have, or have you spotted one in this post which I didn’t mention?

Labels: good or bad?

I was indirectly compared to a Nazi on Facebook the other day. It made me feel a bit sad, a bit nostalgic, and a bit smug. Smug because by Godwin’s Law, that’s a win. Nostalgic because since I started mostly been spending my internet time talking about Quaker stuff, it hasn’t happened often. And sad because someone in my community thinks that friends of mine are worth comparing with Nazis.

In order to discuss this properly, I want to begin with a philosopher’s move, and lay out the strongest version I can concoct of the opposing argument (‘argument’ in the philosopher’s sense, too: the case someone is putting forward). This isn’t exactly what was said, but represents what I take to be the points involved. The arguments begin with something which everyone can agree on: people these days are, as a matter of fact, using more categories than just ‘male’ and ‘female’ to describe gender. Terms such as transgender, non-binary, and genderqueer have been invented and are in use. So far so good. We also all agree that some Quaker meetings have noted this fact and decided to take steps to make sure they are inclusive of people who identify as something other than simply ‘male’ or ‘female’. Recently, a national Quaker body noted this – which was the occasion for the discussion.

For some people, the proliferation of identity labels looks like a problem. There are, I think, two subtly different forms of the case they put from here on. In the first one, labels are a problem in relationships. For example, if I am trying to get to know someone, and I have been told that they are a woman, I might be inclined to make assumptions about them: that they are likely to be smaller and weaker, that they are likely to be interested in fashion, or whatever. Probably in a real situation the examples are more subtle than this – but they are real and pervasive. The cure for this is not to create and use more labels, but to get to know people as individuals. As the saying goes, if you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism – the label ‘autism’ may tell you very little.

In the second version of the argument, labels are a social problem. For example, if I am trying to describe society, and I pick out a group such as ‘immigrants’, I can then say certain things about them. I have, by the way, chosen this example as a case which seems to me to be a real, current case of the pattern which worries people who put this argument. However, I think it’s a group label used much more by people outside the group than people inside the group, and that might make a significant different to the ethics of using it at all. That, though, isn’t the line of argument which is pursued here – and proponents of it might well say that all labels can be used in similarly bad ways regardless of who applies them first. Anyway: having identified the group ‘immigrants’, I might say positive things, such as ‘immigrants make a huge contribution to the nation’s economy’, but I might just as easily say negative things, such as ‘we’d all be better off without immigrants’. This is where people like to mention Nazis. In particular, the Nazi practice of picking out individuals and forcing them to make their group membership visible – the imposition of yellow stars, pink triangles, and so on – makes the mere act of labelling, rather than saying horrible things about groups of people, seem like the problem.

I hope that these are fair representations of the positions involved. (If not, my comments section is open to you.) I think that both of these views catch something useful, but that ultimately both are mistaken about the value of terms such as ‘genderqueer’.

I can recall holding a view much like the first one myself. I remember expressing it in an online conversation with a non-white friend, who had posted to say that she was feeling a need to take her racial identity much more seriously. This made me uncomfortably aware of the ways in which my whiteness separated me from someone I liked to think I was close to, and I commented to say that I thought it didn’t matter much and we had lots of other things in common. Her reaction quickly let me know that in trying to bring us back together in this way, I’d actually made a much worse gap between us, by downplaying the significance of something which I had the privilege to ignore and she, in our racist society, had to acknowledge every day.

Nothing about that negates the need to get to know people as individuals – my friend is as different from others of her ethnicity as I am from other white people – but it does point to an uncomfortable truth. By focusing on individuals, we can miss two things. We can miss the effects of systems on them – while I focus on my friend as an individual, I might assume that her experiences of racism are somehow just about her and not examples of a system problem. And we can miss how different we really are by paying more attention to what we have in common. However much we have in common, we’ll always be different (another white middle-class cissexual woman from the south of England and I can be very different indeed, as a survey of my school friends will tell you). If in our personal relationships we try and ignore the labels which pick out our differences, we might fool ourselves into thinking we have more in common than we really do – especially because it’s a common human error to fill in the blanks with more of the same. If I don’t hear about (or listen to) how your experiences are different to mine, I’m liable to assume that your experiences are the same as mine, in the same way that as a child I assumed all families ate supper at 6pm because that’s what my family did.

I can also see the appeal of the second position. When people pick out groups they don’t belong to, they almost always at least simplify and generalise, and often make crass mistakes, or, as in the examples above, blame the group for whatever social problem worries them. However, I also think something must have gone wrong with this argument: despite the actions of the Nazis, I still see the six-pointed star outside synagogues, so putting up a label must have some uses for the Jewish community. (I also see security fences, so I’m not claiming that it doesn’t have drawbacks as well.) The gender-identity terms which were immediately under discussion are labels which people claim for themselves.

The uses of labels seem to me to fall into two forms. One is self-knowledge. Especially if the label you need wasn’t readily available to you, there can be a huge relief – and sometimes straightforward practical advantages – in finding the right one. Someone who discovers the word ‘asexual’, for example, when their partner has been calling them ‘frigid’, suddenly has a different perspective on their own desires. They also have a way to explain their preferences to others, and this is the second use of labels: to give others some idea. Any term will need extra clarification in a deeper relationship, but often a label that gets you into the right area helps to decide whether or not you want to develop the relationship further, and how to go about it if you do. The clearest cases are sexual relationships (woman to man: “No thank you, I’m a lesbian” – three labels in the space of nine words, and you’ve got the picture) and community formation (we’re here, we’re queer, we could have a Pride march). I think it applies in lots of other circumstances too, though, even if the decision isn’t so clear cut: having just met someone who identifies as a Christian, I might ask different questions to if I meet someone who identifies as a Pagan. Neither label tells me what the person believes, but both give me a nudge away from putting my foot in my mouth – and will help me explain Quakerism in terms they are likely to recognise.

Using a label will always carry risks. People will make assumptions – because that’s how labels work. People might try and attach negative ideas to your label. People might attack you because of your label. However, what I am hearing from many people who use labels like non-binary, trans*, or genderqueer is that the advantages outweigh the risks.

In particular, the risks of a new label which is correct are much easier to bear than the pains of an old or accidental label which is wrong. I’m a cissexual woman and I can laugh it off when someone calls me ‘sir’ when they ask for my train ticket – but it’s still an awkward moment for both of us. If I wasn’t cissexual, I imagine that would be a moment of real fear – am I being ‘found out’, will they be angry with me when they realise – and if I was non-binary, identifying neither as a woman or a man, it might take a lot longer to sort out. Indeed, in that kind of very short interaction, I suspect complex genders are often not understood at all. To me, that makes it even more important to name and accept them in communities where we have longer and hence more time to explain. Similarly, I am queer – I could easily let that slide, I’ve dated people of several genders and I could let you assume I was straight – but I don’t want to. Politically, I want to be visible, and personally, I don’t want you to be surprised when my in-depth analysis of The Night Manager includes a hotness rating for Olivia Colman as well as Tom Hiddleston.

The biggest risks of not using the label, though, are the gaps in knowledge. You can just about have a label and not use it, gaining the self-knowledge without sharing it, but humans are social and we want to connect with people. Authentic connection involves sharing that self-knowledge and recognising, not only what we have in common, but what is genuinely different. If we deny those differences in an attempt to create the illusion of unity, we actually slip back into another oppressive pattern: the desire for everyone to be like me.

We’re not alike. As humans, we’re immensely different, and hugely creative, and people bring new labels into being and repurpose old ones in order to communicate as well as they can. That process of communication absolutely has risks – but those risks are often worth taking. This blog post, for example, risks re-opening conversations which quickly turned unproductive – but I hope it helps us understand one another better.

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 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!

Book collections

I’ve been rearranging my books again – I had to unshelve a lot of them to wash some mould off the wall, and I took the opportunity to start sorting them out a bit. This was also much needed due to the seven+ years of comings, goings, and general muddle.

Although there are overlaps and grey-area cases, my books do roughly break into a series of collections.

Fiction. Novels and short stories, all of which I only keep in the long-term collection if I’m likely to read them again – these are mainly the exceptionally good (e.g. Lord of the Rings, Good Omens), the fannishly relevant (e.g. novelisations of Star Wars, Harry Potter), the somehow distinctive (including a few which are hilariously bad – e.g. Druid’s Blood), and fantasy epics so long and/or complicated that you need to re-read the previous parts before the new one comes out (e.g. Katherine Kerr’s Dverry cycle).

Poetry. Individual authors and anthologies. In the recent weeding, I decided to only keep these if they were one of the following three things: a) something I’d studied, 2) something I really liked, or 3) something I found intriguing.

Archaeology. The majority of this collection is about British prehistory, with a particular focus on stone circles and other monuments. There are a few forays into other areas – cathedrals, for example – and a steadily growing range of specific guidebooks, both thematic (bog bodies, fogous, religion) and geographic (Lewis and Harris, the Llyn Peninsula, Cornwall).

Miscellaneous fact. I suspect this is actually two collections, one of the sort of fact books I read from cover to cover (Table-Rappers, anything by Jon Ronson), and one of the sort of fact books I dip into sometimes (the dictionary of place names, Mythic Woods). This division is somewhat blurred by books which are not quite either – Seals, Peter Sellers: A Celebration). At the moment I haven’t decided on an order in which to put them, except by size. Maybe I’ll do it strictly by size, then at least they’ll look neat.

Plays and scripts. Unsure what to do with my Greek tragedies, set of Bernard Shaw plays, Two Ronnies scripts, and Richard Curtis screenplays, I have put them all together. The logic of this is a little dubious but perhaps I’ll sort them chronologically so they are easier to find.

Humour. These are the sorts of books which I used to read in odd moments where I now do Facebook quizzes and browse Tumblr tags. I have sent a lot to the charity shops but some old favourites remain (Max Headroom, The Deeper Meaning of Liff, The Unadulterated Cat, etc.).

Children’s books. This is a mixture of classics from my own childhood (Thomas the Tank Engine belongs to my parents and I don’t know what became of Ben Goes to Hospital, but there’s still The House at Pooh Corner and some others of that sort), together with recent acquisitions aimed at doing ‘religion stuff’ with my Brownies. The latter probably needs weeding now I’ve tried some of them out and have a better idea what goes down well.

Spike Milligan. I hunt all over for these when they’re spread out in fiction/poetry/scripts/(auto)biography/children’s books/humour/something else again, so I decided to give them their own space. I have more than I thought I did, although I’m a long way short of a complete collection.

Religion. Mainly academic books, mainly on subjects I have studied in the past or needed as background but not pursued further – when I have, they tend to be in one of the categories below. There’s also the kind of ‘religion’ book I pick up as general reading – Why I am a Muslim, Principles: Zen, that kind of thing.

Quakerism. We might be quiet in Meeting, but we are very willing to talk, and publish, the rest of the time. I’ve been collecting recent Quaker literature for over three years, and the shelf – and the box of pamphlets – have extended rapidly.

Gender studies and sexuality. I haven’t added much to this collection since I finished my MA, but it’s a useful core to which I refer from time to time. It also complements another specific collection:

Jewish feminism. Very much at the overlap of gender studies and religious studies, I bought all kinds of fascinating books in the course of my theology undergraduate dissertation and my MA dissertation, and have been pleased to use and extend my collection in teaching about this as well.

Philosophy. Again, a background collection of a) things I studied and might want to go back to one day, and b) those pop culture and philosophy books (I can’t recall ever buying one for myself, but I can see why they appeal when people are trying to buy presents for me).

Theology. Post-PhD, this collection is heavily focused on George Lindbeck, John Hick, and Don Cupitt, although it does also contain a lot of feminist stuff and bits of this and that.

Wittgenstein. Both primary and secondary texts, things I just ended up consulting so often – or didn’t find in the library – that I bought them.

Paganism. More a practitioner’s collection than an academic one, this has been formed by periods (perhaps I should say spells) of buying everything relevant I could find, or could find second-hand, and then times of weeding as it became clearer what my real interests are. It’s now so large I think it’s about to need splitting into a series of smaller collections, probably including mythology, Wicca, Druidry, the Northern Traditions, hilarious 101 books, herbals, and a small shrine to Ronald Hutton.

Practical reference books. Distinct from mere factual books in virtue of being useful, these include craft books (cross stitch patterns, bead jewellery), recipe books (The Bean Book, Nanny Ogg), and Girlguiding publications (four or five generations of Brownie handbooks, among other things).

Graphic novels. Some of Sandman, some Hellblazer, a variety of superheroes, a few serious ones like How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, and of course some Wolverine, because he gets everywhere.

Books I haven’t read yet. These have now run to two shelves and are threatening to start a third, so I think I’d better stop writing blog posts and get some reading done!

Mission Statement

At a careers training a few weeks ago, someone suggested that it might be helpful to write a mission statement for your life. I’m not at all sure that this is what they had in mind (I think they were thinking of an ‘in a five years I will have…’ business-plan type thing), but I did find it a useful exercise.

Rhiannon’s Life Mission Statement, 2014

I aim to listen and to be heard.

I put the Still Small Voice at the centre of my life, and rejoice to hear Her through trees, books, websites, animals, silences, and all people.

Language and dialogue are important to me. I am good at writing and at facilitating conversation. The thoughts and feelings of others matter to me, and I try to support people, especially marginalised people, to speak out for themselves.

I am proactive and self-motivated – a go-getter – but I do not
aspire to be rich. I want to live a balanced life which includes discussion, learning, sharing, time alone and space for fantasy.

What does a committed life look like?

On Twitter recently there’s been some discussion of what a committed Christian life should look like – raised initially by the suggestion that especially in liberal churches, some people who don’t belong in seminaries may end up there because they can’t see a way to express their commitment and engage with their religion in depth without ending up on a track to ordination.

I can relate to this in some ways. Although there’s no danger of a Quaker ending up on a path to ordination, and ordination for Pagans and Buddhists looks very different (for the former, it’s much less structured and unlikely to provide a whole livelihood; for the latter, it’s often more about joining a monastic community – another thing liberal Christians often can’t do), I relate strongly to the situation: wanting to live a committed life in which your religion and religious values are central, but not seeing how to put that together.

I suspect that for those for whom a paid religious role isn’t an option, this is going to require a kind of portfolio life – a reasonable job, a friendship circle, and a religious community outside both of those (perhaps itself built from several elements: a online discussion group, an in-person worship service, a once-a-year camp or festival with the like-minded). Careers centres are encouraging people to consider ‘portfolio working’ (which means having more than one job at once and hoping the lean times in one line of work balance out the busy times in another). I am strongly opposed to the mode of thinking which says that a job is just something you struggle through in order to have money to spend at the weekends – for one thing, the people I know who’ve lived like that often don’t have the energy to enjoy their weekends as much as they’d like. However, bills have to be paid and in the current market you only get a certain amount of choice about what you do.

One of the issues here might be summed up in the Buddhist concept of finding a ‘Right Livelihood’ – a way to make a living which does not conflict with your ethical values or religious practices. How far am I willing to bend my ethical considerations? Am I willing to sell products that I wouldn’t buy, for example? Am I more worried about the ethics of the organisation for which I work, or the opportunities they give me to use the skills I have to good effect? Is it better to neglect my skills and abilities and do something menial for a good cause, or better to be happier in my work for a more morally ambiguous employer? How do you even judge the morality of employers, especially when they are large organisations?

Although at the moment I’m applying for academic jobs, I went to a training recently about making the transfer from academia to the non-academic world. Since only a small number of people with PhDs get academic jobs (between one in five and one in ten depending who you ask and which subject areas they are considering), this is something I need to have considered. I was somewhat dismayed when I asked a question about working in the charities/non-profit sector and the only answer the speaker really had was ‘well, remember that the pay is worse’. I don’t want to be rich. I want to be a Quaker-Pagan who brings their religious values into the whole of life.