Tag Archives: multiple religious belonging

Christmas: cancelled, inevitable, every day, and/or stolen?

I gave this as a conference paper at the Multiple Religious Belonging conference, run jointly by the Centre for Research in Quaker Studies and the Hyphen Project and held online September-October 2020. I don’t always publish conference papers as such – they get recycled in various ways, as book chapters or sections of other projects – but this one is so specific to time and place, as well as hopefully having wider implications, that it seems appropriate to share it as a blog post. If you’re interested in Multiple Religious Belonging, a group from that conference are going to continue to meet every couple of months for the next year, and we’d welcome other people working on related topics to join us – contact me at rhiannon.grant@woodbrooke.org.uk or Grace Milton directly for details.

Today, I’d like to use discussions about Christmas as an example of a complex religious situation, and look at the issues which arise from Christian, Quaker, Neo-Pagan, and wider social perspectives. It might not be immediately obvious that this complex religious situation involves multiple religious belonging. It does for me – I belong to all four of the communities, or perhaps layers of community, which I’ll be discussing in this paper, but I should start by outlining how I’m treating these four groups.

In this paper, I talk about Quakers – probably the best defined of the four groups, with some internal mechanisms for recording who belongs to a Quaker community or attends Quaker worship, and clearly described in a body of historical and sociological literature. I also talk about Christians, by which I mean people who, more or less loosely, belong to Christian churches – people with an active involvement in Christian practice, including those who might be ‘lapsed’ or otherwise regard it as a matter of culture rather than belief. I talk about Neo-Pagans, a broad term which – like ‘Christian’ – covers a lot of different groups, including Wiccans, Druids, eclectic Pagans, resconstructionists of various kinds, and so on. And I talk about the ‘wider society’ in which we live, the vaguest of the four groups but a significant one in this case – British society can be seen as Christian or secular, depending how you look at it, but I am thinking of people who are participating in British society who, Christian or not, have an involvement in Christmas practices because of their ubiquity. Almost everyone who buys food in British shops is going to see Christmas trees and mince pies, for example. A few people can be members of all four groups. A few more may be members of three – identifying as both Christian and Quaker, or Quaker and Pagan, or Christian and Pagan – and a lot will be both actively Christian or Quaker or Neo-Pagan and a member of wider British society.

I have been prompted in my consideration of Christmas as a complex religious situation initially by three discussions. The first is some recent social media discussions about whether Christmas is ‘cancelled’ or not – as things stand with coronavirus in the UK at the moment, it seems that the usual parties, visits to family homes, and other events traditional around Christmas are likely to be impossible or look very different, while church services are able to carry on in at least some form. For people for whom the social events are the main part of Christmas, it feels like it will be cancelled. For those who want to highlight the role of traditional Christian worship in Christmas, it’s important to say that it’s not cancelled.

The second is a longer-term discussion about the Quaker relationship to Christmas. For those who aren’t familiar with the Quaker tradition, in the early part of the movement – in the seventeenth century, beginning in the north of England and spreading fairly rapidly throughout the country and then internationally – Quakers rejected many things about the Christian church as they knew it at the time. They rejected set liturgy in favour of an open, silent waiting to be moved to preach. They rejected outward, physical rituals of baptism and communion, preferring to focus on inward experiences of the Holy Spirit. And they rejected the Christian liturgical year, saying that Christmas day, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday were days like any other. They had a passionate faith in Jesus, but what mattered to them was Jesus present within people, here and now – every day is Christmas day, and every day is Easter day, in this understanding.

However, by 1994 Janet Scott could write that this idea was “dying of neglect”: she observed that many Quakers in Britain, who are “involved with family and the wider society, keep Christmas” and a lot ignore the message of Easter even as they keep some of the customs involved. (27.42) This is very much the case today, with British Quaker meetings commonly holding extra worship services on Christmas day, Christmas socials, and related activities. This gives rise to a continual tension in Quaker groups: many Quakers are aware that we officially don’t celebrate these things – and some of them will say so whenever Quaker-founded company Cadbury’s run an advertising campaign based on Easter chocolate, which is to say, every year – while at the same time, actually celebrating themselves in ways which are broadly in line with the behaviour of wider British society.

The third is another longer-term discussion, sometimes conducted in a scholarly way but more often the preserve of the light-hearted newspaper article or social media post, about the relationship between Christmas customs as we have them now in Britain and both ancient and modern Pagan customs. In December, I often see social media posts about, for example, the relationship between the astronomical event of the winter solstice, the Roman Pagan celebration of Mithras, and the date of Christmas. You may have seen these yourself and I don’t intend to debate the factual accuracy of any of these claims here. For one thing, there are too many – as well as the date of Christmas, the potential Pagan origins of the Christmas tree, of Santa Claus, and numerous other traditions are frequently discussed. What I’m interested in today is not whether these claims are historically true but the relationship created by the framing of the question – the way in which merely asking “is a Christmas tree really a Pagan tradition?” firstly sets up a relationship between two religions, understood as ‘Christianity’ and ‘Paganism’, and secondly suggests that a practice – cutting evergreen plant material to use as a decoration – ‘really’ belongs to only one.

The problem in the first part of the claim, as you probably spotted, is that Christianity and Paganism are not at all unified traditions. Christians of different branches of the church celebrate Christmas differently, not even all on the same date, and Paganism is a complex collection of surviving, revived, and newly invented religious traditions not all of which even mark the solstice. Obviously, the claim that tree-cutting ‘belongs’ to one or other of these complex communities is massively over-simplified.

But a puzzle remains – why does ordinary language about religion allow this sort of claim which is quickly shown to be inaccurate? are there better ways of discussing the moral questions which can be raised by this sort of claim? By the way, I actually don’t think the moral issues are very pressing in the case of Christians and Pagans in Britain today, which is one of the reasons I’ve chosen this example for abstract discussion, over others where the harm is larger, the power relationships much more unequal, and colonial and other damaging histories much more recent. In order to think about how we might talk about these issues better, let me take a brief diversion into questions of analogy. I’ll then return to work back through my three situations with some new terminology in hand.

When people try to understand something complex, we often turn to analogy – think about how we talk about electricity moving through a wire as if it were like water flowing through a pipe, for example. It isn’t exactly how electricity works, but it’s close enough for many everyday conversations. In the same way, we’ve already thought during this conference about some of the ways we talk about religion. ‘Belonging’, ‘spiritual fluidity’, social identities. Sometimes people collapse religion with another category, like race or ethnicity – in Britain, we’ve seen this very clearly in popular understandings of Islam over the last decade or so. Religious communities are compared to other groups, which helps make sense of the ways in which they could ‘own’ something: the Christmas tree debate can sound a bit like two football clubs trading a player – as if the trees used to play for Pagans but signed up with Christians a while ago. 

I think a more productive approach might be to compare religious practices to the philosopher Wittgenstein’s idea of language-games. A language-game isn’t a whole natural language, like English or Welsh; in fact, the examples Wittgenstein gives tend to be very restricted. ‘Telling a joke’ is a language-game, for example, or giving directions using landmarks, or a system in which builders ask for and receive bricks and slabs. If we zoomed in on religious practices to the same level, we might well pick out ‘using evergreen plants for decoration’ or ‘gift giving’ and so on. I’ll call the results of this kind of analysis ‘religion-games’ – not to imply that they are fun or trivial, but to suggest they have many of the same features as language-games. They are rule-guided – we can do the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ depending on whether we follow relevant rules established by our communities. And they are contextual – that is to say, the meaning of the plants or the gifts can vary depending on the religious and social setting, in the same way that telling a joke is a language-game which can perform multiple social functions depending on the context in which it’s done.

What would this approach say about each of my three situations? When we think about religion-games, it doesn’t seem so surprising if more than one religious tradition has the same or similar practices. We have the language-game of joke-telling in lots of different natural languages, and we can have a religion-game like decorating with evergreen plants in lots of different religions. We also have multiple communities which are making and agreeing – and often renegotiating – their rules for participating in religion-games. Actually, I think the rules for Christmas tree decoration aren’t now governed by any of the church groups, and they certainly aren’t governed by Pagans, even if they have a strong claim to tree-themed acts of worship; rather, they are embedded in and negotiated by a historically and culturally Christian society which sees itself mainly as secular. A narrow view of what religion is, often associated with Christianity, in which religion-games involving belief are emphasised at the expense of those which are more obviously about practice, enables this misunderstanding. So about the Christians and the Pagans, I can say: religion-games are sometimes shared between or move between religious traditions. Depending on other factors, such as the power relations between the two traditions, this may or may not be ethically problematic.

What about the Quakers who are trying to both play some religion-games associated with Christmas while also refraining from playing the religion-game of celebrating Christmas? I have two suggestions here. One is that we can build on the previous point – not only are some religion-games shared between traditions, but some individuals can play religion-games from more than one tradition. A thoughtful choosing of which Christmas traditions to engage in may be in line with the Quaker aim, of having your outward behaviour reflect your inward experience rather than letting society determine your actions, without reaching the totally anti-Christmas conclusion of the early Quakers. 

My second suggestion is that some ways of ‘not doing Christmas’ may be a move within the ‘celebrating Christmas’ religion-game. Let me give you a more specific example which makes this clearer. You might be aware of the tradition of ‘Christmas jumper day’. On Christmas jumper day in a workplace or other community, everyone wears their ugly or funny or otherwise Christmas-themed jumper. When my workplace held one, I considered my options and decided that one possible Quaker choice in the circumstances was to wear a plain grey jumper. At one level, I was participating – I specifically chose grey, because Quaker grey as a form of plain dress has a long history. Although I wear my grey jumper to work throughout the year, I also wear blue and black and other colours – I didn’t pick one at random on Christmas jumper day. I knew the rules and looked for a way to subvert them. The move of ‘not taking a move’ is known in other games, too – skipping a turn, not playing any cards, switching your Scrabble tiles rather than placing a word. A studied refusal to participate in something, whether it’s wearing grey on Christmas jumper day or not sending any Christmas cards or having a strict limit on the cost of presents, requires just as much awareness of the rules of the game as ordinary participation.

And finally, what about the claims that Christmas is cancelled? Some of the practices we associate with Christmas in Britain are certainly going to be heavily limited this year – pubs shut at 10pm and groups limited to six people, and so on. Worship services can continue with some modifications, but for many in what a recent Prime Minister called “a Christian country”, church services are not the most important of the religion-games. Gift-giving, tree-decorating, jumper-wearing, school nativity plays, and similar practices are the religion-games which form the heart of the British Christmas tradition today – and they are not simply associated with one religious tradition: derived from Christianity, influenced by or with the potential to become neo-Pagan, often crossing over into secular and consumerist spaces. An analysis of these practices as religion-games opens new vocabulary to discuss that complexity, but might also help us adjust them to the realities of pandemic life. By focusing on core elements and changing things which are circumstantial, the rules of games can be adjusted to suit different situations – think about wheelchair basketball, co-operative Scrabble, the Great British Bake Off filmed in a self-isolating bubble – and the same is true for our religion-games. 

Remembering Ancestors

The modern Pagan festival of Samhain, celebrated at the same time as Halloween, is often figured as a time of connection with and remembering those who have died – our ancestors, broadly understood. (This is a blog post about my personal modern practice, and I am not going to discuss whether this version is ancient or historically accurate or any of those things – a lot of the language in use now, like ‘veil between worlds’, may be Victorian rather than any older. On the other hand, the Victorians were four generations or more ago now, and eventually everything becomes ancient! This is also not a blogpost about the metaphysics of life after death, but about the experience of the living.)

In the Buddhist practice of Touching the Earth as taught by Thich Nhat Hanh, there are considered to be three categories of ancestors – blood ancestors, those we probably think of first in the context of the English word ‘ancestor’, who are related to our physical form; spiritual ancestors, especially our teachers and those who have guided us in all sorts of ways; and land ancestors, the land itself and the people who have lived on it and worked with it before us. In those ideas, I think there’s something which resonates strongly with Pagan ideas about ancestors – not limited to our physical and legal families, but including people who inspired us, those who went before us in our work and the places we live.

(For those who still have my previous blog post in mind, would the Plum Village community/Community of Interbeing be comfortable with being included in this kind of interfaith thinking? I think so: the text of the Touching the Earth practice mentions Christ as well as Buddha, Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Living Buddha, Living Christ is supportive of multiple religious belonging, and my experience of attending their retreats and sangha meetings in the UK is that I as a Quaker Pagan have been welcome – I took the Five Mindfulness Trainings in 2012, and although my level of involvement has varied over time, maintain some connection with the community.) 

So here are some of the paradoxes of multiple religious belonging in practice: as a Quaker I don’t celebrate specific times and seasons or use specific physical rituals, but aim to remember the key messages all year; as a Pagan I notice the physical changes in the world around me – at this time of year, in England, that means the shortening day length and the leaves changing colour and falling – and tie those to potentially ancient and often universal stories and ideas, like that there are some times when Otherworldly beings are more likely to visit; and as a Buddhist I might use the Five Earth Touchings at any time, to remember all my ancestors and connect with both those I love and those who make me suffer. What to do? I don’t have a neat theory, so I just try and do what I feel led to do at any particular time.

This year, I am remembering my ancestors, and I’ll probably light some candles. I am remembering my grandmother and my grandfather, and my great-grandparents (some of whom lived until I was old enough to remember them, so I have a tangible connection). I’ve thinking of my friends and loved ones whose blood ancestors are not their family, or whose blood ancestors have caused them pain in lots of ways. So I’m including with my ancestors the people who have stepped in when I needed help – the people who have mentored me, who welcomed me to their homes and encouraged me in my writing and my work and my life in all sorts of ways.

It may be a sign of the strength of the intergenerational communities that I’ve been part of that a significant number of those people influenced me strongly in the last years of their lives. Because of these connections, and the way I have needed to move to study and work, it has been my experience that often, when a very dear friend from a previous part of my life died, I haven’t any more been a member of the same Quaker community, haven’t had the overlapping circles of friends any more, and hence have sometimes felt I was mourning alone. So I’m remembering people who were kind and brave, who modelled ways to hold close to God’s guidance even in the most difficult times, who remembered to ask whether I was still writing, who were supportive and caring – sometimes just present, offering lifts to hospital or a meal and a chat – when my own life was very difficult.

Among my spiritual ancestors, I am remembering those who died in war and those who became conscientious objectors (and occasionally died anyway). Of course, Remembrance Day is coming soon, very closely linked to these themes but sometimes used to exalt military service and action at the expense of other responses to conflict; and people keep comparing the pandemic to a war, when (apart from lots of people dying when governments make bad decisions) I’m not sure that it’s comparable at all. 

I’m remembering going to the National Memorial Arboretum, where many of these people are honoured. It’s a very Druid place, with the dead remembered by living trees – although in some ways secular and in other ways, as British ‘secular’ cultural practices often are, deeply marked by Christian thinking and history. I am remembering the Shot at Dawn memorial there, which names 307 British soldiers who were executed in the complex circumstances of the First World War

I am thinking about what land ancestors might mean here. I live in Bournville, mainly built on green-field sites by a family who wanted to both care for and profit from their workers. I am remembering those who suffered for the chocolate trade and those who benefitted from it – of course, George Cadbury isn’t just a land ancestor to me, but a spiritual ancestor and maybe more something more direct, since he founded the organisation, Woodbrooke, which now employs me. Is there a sub-category needed for employment ancestors? If I made one, I might remember alongside the Cadbury family figures like Joseph Chamberlain and all the others who help with the founding of large and complex organisations like universities. 

As you can probably see from this meandering consideration, one of the things which attracts me to marking Samhain in this way is that it both steers my thoughts, helping me set aside time to remember the many interconnections between lives and the many people who have shaped my life even though history might not remember their names; and that it leaves things open, for me to focus on the issues which matter to me at the moment and able to draw my own conclusions. Who is on your mind at the moment? If you are marking Samhain – or Halloween, or one of the many related festivals – who are you remembering?

Different Moves in the Meeting Game?

Sometimes I use the idea of ‘religion-games’ to help me understand what is happening in complex religious situations – I’ve written before about how this might help to explain what is happening when people belong to more than one religious tradition, and how this might inspire new approaches to Quaker membership, and recently I gave a conference paper in which I talked about how this might apply to bringing a practice from one tradition (my example was Quaker worship) into interreligious settings such as joint worship services. After that paper, Rose Drew asked a really good question: what does this say about cases where someone uses practices from another tradition, like a Buddhist breathing mediation, in Quaker worship? Rose gives a real example like this in her excellent book, Buddhist and Christian?: someone who is both a Buddhist and a Quaker says (page 174) that she “uses Buddhist meditation techniques (focusing on the breath, for example) to assist her at the beginning of each Meeting in the process known as ‘centring down’, in which one quietens ones’ mind in preparation for the silence and openness of the Meeting.” In the religion-games picture, what is happening here?

One of the points about most games is that you can’t play more than one at once – you are either playing football or rugby, either cricket or tennis, either Scrabble or Monopoly, and putting a seven-letter word down on a chess board won’t get you a triple word score or two hundred pounds, just a lot of confused looks from other players! There are cases, perhaps, when you can be playing two games at once if they are of very different kinds or if you have changed your mind about the objectives. For example, when I was a child who was required to participate in PE lessons, I might officially be playing rugby – in the sense of being on a rugby field – but I would set myself other goals, like ‘how long can I go without moving my feet at all?’ In that case, actually, it’s not clear that I’m really playing rugby at all; I’m mostly playing with the boundary between apparent compliance (enough not to get punished) and actual disobedience (because I loathe PE and have no intention of trying to do the things I’m being told to do). If I went into meeting for worship and – even while sitting in silence – ignored the rules about listening and being open to spoken ministry, and instead determinedly did a visualisation throughout, perhaps it would be like this. Unlike my childhood PE lessons, though, meeting for worship is entirely optional in most circumstances, and people who don’t want to even try out Quaker rules usually quickly work out that they’re in the wrong place.

But I can imagine a case where someone was genuinely playing rugby, wants to play rugby, but also played another game at the same time, perhaps ‘count how often the PE teacher says ‘try harder!”. If your PE teacher has a distracting verbal habit like using the same phrase over and over, you could be playing rugby and phrase-counting games at the same time. This could be what’s happening when someone uses a Buddhist meditation technique in a Quaker meeting for worship – they are playing two religion-games at once. However, I don’t think this fits all the facts in this case. In particular, counting how often your PE teacher yells “try harder!” isn’t likely to make you play better rugby, and it might have the opposite effect. But when Quakers who find a breathing meditation technique useful in general bring it into meeting for worship with them, at least some of them find that it is actively helpful: that it helps them settle into the silence, focus on worship, and so on. In that case, they aren’t just playing two games at once – the two games are interacting in some way, despite having different rules.

There are also cases with ordinary games where you can cross-train – where being good at one games tends to help you with another game. Long ago comedian Tony Hawks challenged the members of a football team to games of tennis. As I remember it, one of his findings was that, even if they never usually play tennis, practice at playing football makes footballers into better tennis players than he had expected. I think this might be closer to what is happening with the meditating meeting attendees. Practising one game – mediation – outside meeting for worship helps them to develop skills which are relevant, even if not directly, to participating well in meeting for worship. 

When we look at things from this point of view, we can also see some other practices which are well-established as ‘things people sometimes do in Quaker meeting’ as also separable, capable of being played as games on their own. For example, reading a passage from the Bible is an acceptable move within the meeting for worship game, and reading Biblical passages is also something we can do outside meeting for worship – indeed, reading and studying the Bible in different ways probably makes up several different games (some more religious, like devotional reading; some more secular, like academic study). In this account, bringing into a particular practice skills and techniques – and knowledge and experience and feelings and lots of other aspects of life – from elsewhere doesn’t stop you playing by the rules relevant to the current practice: the footballers play tennis according to the rules of tennis. It might, done with sensitivity to the origins of the practice you are borrowing from and the ethics of transporting ideas and practices across cultural and religious boundaries, be actively helpful.

Converting to Christianity

Converting to Christianity has been on my mind lately – not for me personally; I’m culturally Christian and happy in a complex and theologically inclusive faith community – but because I’m writing a story set in a time and place when we don’t know how many people had or hadn’t converted. Conversion in historical settings is often described as if it were of a whole community at once – and perhaps sometimes it is. Conversion in historical settings is also often measured by the recorded actions of the ruling class. This has two problems. One is that the people doing the recording, later on, were themselves almost always Christians. The other is that just because the leader of your community has converted, it doesn’t mean that everyone has. (Even if the leader has converted in terms of actions, there’s still the issue of what they actually believe, but we have even less access to that.)

In the case of Europe – my story is set in Wales – we can put down some markers for the groups of people surrounding the right time and place. We know a fair amount about the Roman Empire’s conversion to Christianity, with Constantine accepting it in 312 and Theodosius 1 making (Nicene) Christianity the state religion in 380. We know a little bit about missions to the British Isles, with Ireland converted around 430 and the first Christian king of the English, Ethelbert, converting in 597. What isn’t clear is to what extent the British people in Wales had converted to Christianity, and what their beliefs were in the gap between the Romans leaving (around 383) and the Saxons arriving (from 446, but starting on the eastern side of England). Some of them would have been Christian (and those who were would mainly have been Pelagians – followers of the ideas of Pelegius, who was excommunicated in 418). Some would have followed the Roman religion, especially if they arrived through the extensive movement of Roman soldiers around the empire. And some might still be following a local religion, now mixed with Roman elements but also retaining Celtic ones.

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A stone Celtic cross, a symbol which emerged from this period of religious complexity. Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

This ambiguity is attractive to me as a writer, because it gives me space to explore. I’m able to take a range of elements from the evidence – things which might have survived from the Roman period and things which might have begun by this time and be recorded later – to create a fictional society in which these multiple religious currents are meeting and mixing. Of course, historical fiction is always only partly about the past, and quite a lot about now. Finding a time in the past when multiple religions which interest me today where interacting in ways which were obviously complex and aren’t fully know also opens up a space for me to pose, in the past, the questions which I’m thinking about now.

For example, I’m interested in multiple religious belonging – why and how an individual might be part of more than one faith community – and in what it takes to be identified as part of a religion. When it is something the individual can identify for themselves, simply by stating it? When does it require community involvement, and what form does that take? Some religions have clear prescriptions about this, at least for some cases, but there are typically also cases of uncertainty as well. What are the actions which are considered characteristic of a faith in a particular time and place, and when does performing them mean you have joined or at least become associated with that religion? In this early period, baptism hadn’t yet taken up the role which it is given by later Christian communities, of acting as an entry ritual, determining who is and who is not part of the community. In exploring this complexity in fiction, characters can move in and out of different categories, with those around them – and perhaps even the characters themselves – unsure about where they fit.

Converting a person – and so even more a group of people – to Christianity can never have been simple. I’m not going to pass judgement on whether it was a good thing or a bad thing to convert Britain to Christianity. There are later cases where it seems to me to be clearly bad, especially where Christianity was forced on people, used as an excuse to suppress local culture, and put to work to maintain oppressive social structures. There are other cases where people convert because they have found their right spiritual path, and that is, in general, obviously good. And there are lots of situations in between – where people convert because they think it will give them a better life, or because everyone around is converting, or because they are not so much moving from one faith to another as adding something to their religious lives. The extent to which pre-Christian British religion survived in Christianised forms is up for debate, but I think there’s enough evidence to say on the one hand that some pre-Christian British practises were adapted into Christian ones, and that this didn’t result in a long-standing, multi-generational Pagan tradition running alongside the public Christian religion.

One of the reasons I think the conversion of Britain isn’t directly comparable to some more recent cases of countries being converted is that Christianity didn’t arrive in Britain with an oppressive ruling class. It arrived through the Romans – who had invaded long ago by time they adopted Christianity, and who gave up trying to rule Britain soon afterwards. And it may also have arrived through independent routes; if Christianity came to some parts of Scotland, Wales, and England via Ireland, for example, that separates it from Roman involvement. It did pick up some Roman ways of structuring administration, and we have some evidence of bishops in Britain in the 300s (if Restitutus was indeed Bishop of London, for example). Instead, it seems that, in this period when few records were produced, that there would have been multiple religious traditions all common in the community, and people perhaps moving between them, combining them, and trying to work out what the relationships between them should be.

Fun times for writers who want also want to explore those things!

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?

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?

J is for Jumble

If a job is like an outfit, at the moment I have clothes but I bought them at the jumble sale. I’ve got one long-term part-time job; a part-time short-term project I’m trying to finish off; a part-time short term project I’ve just been asked to start; a part-time short-term project I’m trying to get off the ground; long-term and short-term voluntary work which needs varying amounts of attention; and several things I ought to be doing for the sake of my CV and future prospects which are both difficult and don’t pay anything (some of them actually cost me money). Trying to prioritise this lot and make sure everything gets done – at least a bit done! – feels like a constant jigsaw puzzle, or trying to find a whole outfit in a single charity shop.

The jumble can be very creative. Sometimes it just looks like a mess. I keep telling myself that if I keep going, sorting it out one piece at a time, eventually I’ll be able to make it into a coherent picture.

I think this kind of jumble is one of the things people worry about when the issue of multiple religious belonging comes up. It’s one thing to have a jumbled set of tasks for your paid work, or a jumbled knitting box (how many non-jumbled knitting boxes are there, anyway?). It seems like another to have a jumbled set of religious beliefs and practices. One issue here is that we may over-estimate how un-jumbled the religious beliefs and practices of a so-called single tradition actually are: as Jeffrey Carlson has argued from a Zen Buddhist perspective, religions as we know them now contain elements of the other religions they have descended from and come into contact with over the years. The other thing is to ask when and how the potential jumble arises, and when it’s creative: if you create a jumble by stealing, even if it’s useful it seems morally wrong, while a jumble created carefully and in love may be morally fine but neither beautiful nor helpful. (I’m sure you’ve seen assemblage art which seems to have this property.)

The jumble is at the hard of much of my way of thinking and working, and I’m committed to keeping trying with it: doing this work and that work so that I see how they relate, holding this fabric next to that and the other until I see which combination works best, and watching the ways different practices and beliefs come together to see what effects they have for people and communities. Sometimes I just want to sort things out neatly, though, even if I know that my wool won’t stay untangled and my timetable will be disrupted!