How much do our "isms" matter?

Peoples' stated philosophical and religious adherence may bear little relationship to their ability to work together, or their common hopes for society.This article is written partly in response to online debates around religion vs atheism, which are often depressingly sterile. It often feels like little real communication occurs. Traditional labeling of our religious/philosophy/meaning of life choices contribute to this sterility.

I find people who seem entirely at loggerheads, discover much commonality during mediation work. I suspect this would often be true of online opponents. How much are our relationships and communications ruled by our "-isms," rather than our common humanity and aspirations?

A focus on aspirations and our common humanity can lead to a significant change of alliances, and considerable re-energising of community relationships. Free of traditional boundaries, we are able to see the relationships that really matter.

Prejudice against catholics, although breaking down, was in the air we breathed during my childhood. But as a student, I found I had more in common with many catholics, than members of my own denomination. Differences of understanding, and areas of complete puzzlement remained, but we discovered we had many areas in common. Also held in common was a separation from members of our own traditions. Later, in inter-faith conversations, I found the same thing.

Some see this new ecumenism as a desperate response to secularism and falling numbers. Although true in some cases, there has also been recognition of common goals and aspirations that are more important than old differences.

This is not confined to religion. In peace marches, in HEROC submissions, in visiting detention centres and so on, new relationships and alliances cut across traditional alignments of denomination, religion, political party, and philosophy.

This begs a question. In an online forum, or elsewhere, can we assume that because we are "christian," or "atheist," or "muslim," that this means we will have much in common with another using the same label? Conversely, if I label myself "christian," does that mean I have any real understanding of what you mean when if call yourself "atheist?" Am I assuming some nonexistent disagreements?

David Myers explains "out-group homogeneity bias;" that is, we differ, they are all the same.

Perhaps you've noticed ... people on the outside over generalise about the groups you are part of. They just don't understand how varied are the people in your group... But as a member ..., you understand how diverse you all are. Thus believers may have caricaturised images of the prototypical atheist (perhaps lumping Stalin with today's humane scientific secularists ... atheists sometimes return the favour, equating religion with its irrational aberrations. (A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists JosseyBass 2008 pp14)

If we make assumptions about someone whose label is different from ours, and converse or criticize on that basis, what happens? Could it be that we fight old arguments that no longer apply? Might we be defined by our histories, rather than who we are, and what we aspire to?

And, most importantly, how much do we forfeit when we look at each other through the lens of those labels? What potential for meaningful political action, for real progress on issues of poverty, or justice, or ecology, or even simple friendship, is lost? Are we not better to look for what we hold in common, and start there?

In our household there are christian clergy, agnostics, and atheists. The atheist has a passion for social justice that puts many christians to shame. I am inspired by his commitment to caring for other people. He's often closer to the Jesus of the gospels than some christians, although not regarding himself as a disciple.

I don't like the label "christian," and I think he's sometimes uncomfortable with "atheist." Each label is too diverse in its possible interpretations, and does not describe the subtlety and nuance of our philosophies. I suspect this is another indicator some of our old labels are passing their "use by" dates.

I'm not being romantic; we often shake our heads at each other's theology/philosophy. But the shared commitment to human dignity and justice greatly lessens the difficulties.

How do we come by our labels?

Few, if any, people consistently adhere to a world view, and rationally follow its implications. Most of us are simply trying to find a way in life, trying to make sense of what's going on, and find some point and purpose in what we are doing. It's hard to be consistent and logical.

We adopt a theology/philosophy rather ready-made, and work from there. We rarely work out our own original position. Had I grown up in rural India, instead of rural South Australia, I doubt I would be a Christian. But the church in my town looked after me, and made my life bearable. So their tradition had a huge influence on me. My children, abused by the church, have taken different directions. This inherited ready-made tendency also applies to non religious belief systems.

Growing in self consciousness and self confidence, we may become aware of our underpinning theologies and philosophies and challenge and refine them. We may change to another position. But even then, few of us are particularly original.

We hold our beliefs because they make sense of our experiences, and provide frameworks for organising them. They help us make decisions.

We also hold them because they make us feel good, and justify/deal with particular issues in our life. Hence cosy religious panadols such as "life after death," and "science explains everything..."

We are excellent at abandoning or ignoring them when it suits, or wearing a label "in name only." Often we hold them nominally. Churches have practical atheists, who say they believe in God, but show no change in behaviour. I've been asked by atheists to do christian funerals, ‘life after death" included.

Both my theology lecturers, and my marxist philosophy lecturers, emphasised how often we do not rationally "work up" from first principles and evidence, to more general theses. We work from insights and hunches, and emotional responses to incidents, and set out to develop, critique and refine, and sometimes simply justify these feelings, using more or less rational tools.

To greater or lesser extent we become conscious of these things, and able to critique ourselves. But we are growing, transitioning, developing beings. We are often indelibly coloured by earlier experiences, either positively or in reaction. Our philosophizing or theologizing of these experiences is compromised by the accidents of our history. As deeply passionate creatures, why would we argue and align ourselves on the basis of labels? Perhaps our passions and aspirations, our deeply felt values, are more truly us than the labels we wear.

We only have to talk a little more openly to people outside our normal group to find many of these values we hold are common human aspirations and passions. We find natural allies, and deep human sympathies, in unexpected places.

Labels are not entirely useless. We need to commit to a path in life, if we are to do more than drift. We need to describe ourselves to others and ourselves, and sometimes the shorthand of the label helps with that. But the labels hide as much as they enlighten. In the end, I find that aspiration and adherence to values like respect, patience, compassion, justice, gentleness, and openness are much more accurate predictors of the person. I need to begin with our common humanity, not our labels.

Andrew Prior 2009


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