xavea’s note: This is a guest post written by my friend Erin. Since I do not claim all identities worth exploring, I have invited a number of people to write guest posts about aspects that make up their identity which I do not share. Please note that while some minor editing has been done by me (to fix typos, formatting), any other edits to content have been done by the guest author, but pictures and captions were done by me. The opinions expressed are strictly those of the guest author. I may or may not agree with the opinions expressed, but it is not my right to police how someone else crafts their identity.
Erin can be found on Twitter @e103084
Hey there, my name is Erin, and I have been kindly asked to contribute to this blog on the theme of religion as identity, as part of the larger theme of identity politics in general.
There are many ways people approach religion. As a balm in times of great distress, as a national culture, as a place of belonging, as a way to answer hard questions about existence and the afterlife, as moral compass, and so on.
Then there are those for whom, religion is identity. Those of us who wouldn’t know who we were if we weren’t Pagan, Muslim, Jew, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. I am not just talking about extremism, the rage filled ones out spitting division and hate filled slogans. We who are not on those particular fringes can still lose ourselves so completely in our faith, and gain a new self through it, that it is our main source not only of all the things I said earlier, but of social and familial needs, income, schooling, everything. Not just because of culture or nationality (although that is a large part for some I’m sure) but because we saw what we needed, and saw that religion could deliver it in a way that made sense to them.
I have observed that in adolescence, people begin the quest of peeling back the layers and finding a self that fits properly, and for many that means a shedding of the faith and accepted wisdoms of the parents to some degree or other. For others, it means gaining a new religion or owning one’s religion finally.
When we go that route, the stepping into religion as identity, it doesn’t feel limiting as one might expect. It feels like we have arrived, like we don’t have to worry about fitting in or who we are, or what we are expected to do. A burden has been lifted and the path shown to us. It becomes the thing we say after our name when we introduce ourselves, and it makes its way into every conversation.
I am most familiar with the Bible, so I will use it as an example here. There are several places in the Bible where it speaks of dying to ones’ old self (Romans 6:6, Colossians 3:9) and being made new (Ephesians 4: 22-24). I am fairly certain Christianity’s not the only religion to do so. There’s nirvana and detachment in Buddhism, and a giving over of oneself in Islam and Judaism, as well.
This is more than just a culture, a moral compass or an answer to “what happens when we die”. This is the chisel by which we are sculpted. It is the air we breathe, it is the end goal and the game. The journey and the destination, it is their preoccupation every waking hour. And we embody it strongly. Or strive to. It is where we find more than just sense and meaning and community, but it is where we find ourselves. It is an exchange, we give up any other identity, and we gain connectedness to the divine, to the author, to the creator of this orderly chaos.
Now, it is true that it is very difficult to find a person with only one facet. Even the most one dimensional have at least couple sides to them. When religion is identity, we are taught that it is our most important angle, the part of the prism that turns light to rainbow, the only side with real substance that all other corners are seen through. When that is the case, all other things feel irrelevant, all other preferences fall to the wayside if it impedes our quest to be more like God, or like what we think an ideal servant of God should be.
Full confession, I was raised a protestant evangelical Christian. It was my full identity for my life growing up. In more recent years that has changed. My faith has become more complex and pluralistic. At the risk of sounding drippingly, cloyingly, awfully clichéd, I now call myself spiritual. I have a faith that finds it hard to fit a label, although Christianity is the one I know best. I don’t think this takes away from it’s importance in my life.
In conclusion; Whether finding a connection to the divine creator of the universe is important to us or not, whether we personally follow a set religious tradition in a conventional or unconventional way, or not there are people around us who do. Not only that, but it means a lot to them, perhaps their whole selves. Regardless of the objective good or bad of it, people identify as mere vessels of divine love, wrath, joy, peace and justice, and it is important to acknowledge the full complexity and nuance of that in ourselves and/or in others around us.