I have been presenting how I view “religion” for the past two weeks. This is the third of four installments on it. While it can get maybe too theoretical, I have tried to make it like the dentist: touch on the essentials (but not essentialism) but as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Religion is at least, though not necessarily reducible to the following, in Lincoln’s thought:
Regarding “community,” Lincoln speaks of a group that defines itself upon certain discourses and practices. He really expands on this in another book of his I’ve already mentioned: Discourse and the Construction of Society with his concepts of affinity and estrangement based on social markers.
Part of my piece last week included a conversation with Russell McCutcheon about the use of rationality and persuasion in public “discussion.” He had remarked how public debates weren’t so much about rationality and persuasion (though they may include those) as gaining control of the rules to your side’s benefit (e.g., getting to define what is “fair”). Sometimes this last piece is not conscious on the group’s part. They have processes and modes of authorization that to them are universal, though in reality, they are contingent. It is not beliefs that make a religion but that things are believed. At least.
For a group to form, they must have an identity based on agreed upon markers. Social borders are maintained on what Lincoln calls affinity and estrangement. The former refers to “feelings of likeness, common belonging, mutual attachment, and solidarity” and the latter entails “feelings of distance, separation, otherness, and alienation.” You can probably easily fill in ways in which people set up markers for belonging or exclusion. He lists some, to which I added some more. The first list is his and those that follow are mine. I have tried to include as many real world religious examples of the following categories, but they can really apply to any sector of society. These are by no means exhaustive, as we humans seem boundless in contrasting and distinguishing from among themselves.
- space: physical or geographical
- work ethic
- access to resources
- body composition
- body alteration
- type of job
- technological prowess
I contend that group identification depends as much on what you aren’t at least as much (sometimes maybe more so) as what you are. Difference is inevitable, but in defined communities, an othering process sometimes starts, particularly among competing religions. Various strategies are available. Within a tradition, you can try to cast your competitors as not as faithful to the discourse (“original teachings”) as your group is. You can say that times have changed and the other group has not handled the change in a way your group sees as ideal. You can say your group is original and established and the other is aberrant or “heretical.” You can say the other is old and irrelevant while yours has its finger on the pulse of humanity.
Othering of groups outside your tradition is where things can really get nasty (though Catholic/Protestant wars in Europe weren’t exactly tame). Consider the treatment of Muslims post 9/11. At the time of this Pew article, 24% of the United States public viewed American Muslims increasingly supporting extremism, while only 4% of Muslims agreed; significantly, 48% of Muslim laity said their leaders had not spoken resolutely enough against terrorism.
If you are religious (or not: this is a rather human thing), think who and what you have affinity with and whom and what you estrange or are estranged from. Are those distinctions natural? Are they contrived? How often are they actively said over and over again as if not saying them would make the distinctions evaporate? Consider someone you usually think as quite different from you.
I’ll be honest: when I see a transgender person at Walmart, my bodily reaction is to stare. I do not mean to do this; I am simply not used to seeing transgender persons, and have unfortunately never had a conversation with one. My somewhat legitimate excuse is that my job and family situation limit who I see in any given day. If I step back and think about what differentiates me from a transgender person, I only notice one thing: they do not appear in the way that I would express my gender. However, like me, they are shopping at Walmart. They are purchasing food, games, clothing, medicine, electronics, decorations, office supplies, and diapers. How different does a difference make us? Are they unworthy of dignity and respect? Do they need to be forced toward assimilation? Does their appearance encapsulate their persons?
Groups are fluid. And yet they persist over time. What makes some elements stick around and others slough off? How often are group members included and excluded? How sharp is the inclusion/exclusion? I will be covering this next week in Part 4: Institutions.
One thought on “My Weird Views on “Religion,” Part 3: Community”
In Edward Said’s book, Orientalism, he said “[N]either the term Orient nor the concept of the West has any ontological stability; each is made up of human effort, partly affirmation, partly identification of the Other[…][T]hese supreme fictions lend themselves easily to manipulation and the organization of collective passion[…]” (xvii). While he said this in the context of nation-states fueling war through propaganda, this idea that social identity is unstable informs my thoughts on boundaries among social groups. Distinctions are set up, the border is patrolled by stabilizing the Other, a rhetorical and practical move that attempts to stabilize one’s own group identity. This dynamic process hardens over time until many accept the group distinctions as natural .