Subsection 6.2.7 Language Toward Religious Inclusivity
The majority of people in the world identify with a religion, and most religions spans huge swaths of the globe and encompass very diverse groups of people. Additionally, religions are often interpreted and practiced very differently depending on the cultural context, and people may identify with a religion religiously, culturally and/or ethnically. All of these factors make it complicated to write about religion inclusively and without over-generalization.
Despite this complexity, it is important to take the time to learn about the nuances of religion in order to avoid perpetuating stereotypes and spreading misinformation that contributes to religious discrimination or persecution. Both religious discrimination (the treatment of a person or group differently because of their religion) and religious persecution (the systematic mistreatment or discrimination of an individual or group because of their religion) have long and persisting histories. From the forced conversion of Native Americans to Christianity by European Americans in the late 19th century, to the murder of millions of Jewish people during the Holocaust, to modern U.S. immigration policies that disproportionately affect Muslim people, the histories of systematic religious oppression are extensive. More subtle forms of discrimination are also ongoing: Jewish Student Union members described in an interview how campus members continue to make assumptions about them, such as that they eat kosher, speak Hebrew, attend a synagogue, or are good with money, because of their Jewish identity. As writers and people, we all have a sphere of influence in which we can bring awareness about the complexity of religious identity in order to foster a culture of religious inclusivity. Writing about a religion without being informed about it can unknowingly fuel religious discrimination. Therefore, although complex, it’s is vital to take the steps to learn about the nuances of religion before writing about it.
A common misconception about religious communities is that there is a single experience shared by everyone in the community, and that there is agreement about how the religion should be practiced or interpreted. In reality, there is a lot of disagreement within most faith communities about religious beliefs, practices, interpretations, and even about who belongs to the community. For example, as a member of the Jewish Student Union emphasizes, there is not a united stance on Israel that is shared by all Jewish people. Individuals within a religious community have experiences, beliefs, and practices as diverse as the individuals themselves. Individuals’ and groups’ religious practices are informed by their cultural context as well as their other identities (for more on how identities interact see Subsection 6.2.1
). For instance, as a member of the University of Puget Sound Muslim Student Union points out, a Sunni Muslim, upper-middle class, merchant family from Damascus, Syria will likely have very different perspectives and practices than a Muslim farmer from Sinai, Egypt, despite their shared Muslim identity. For this reason, it is important not to oversimplify the experiences, beliefs and practices of individuals and religious communities. When writing about a religion, take care to be precise about what specific sects you are referencing, and don’t generalize one group or individual’s experience as representative of others just because they fall under the same umbrella religious term.
Another intricacy about religious identity is that people don’t always identify with a religion religiously; they may also identify with it culturally and/or ethnically. For example, someone who is raised Catholic but identifies as atheist may identify as culturally Catholic. While they may not share the same religious beliefs and practices as the Catholic community they were raised in, their worldview was nevertheless shaped by growing up in a Catholic community. For instance, their familiarity with the practice of celebrating Christmas and Easter and participating in Catholic practices such as Confirmation and Lent gives them a different cultural context than would growing up, for example, in a Hindu community.
Each of our fundamental worldviews are as intricate as the various identities, experiences, relationships, and cultural contexts that shape them. Because of this, making comparisons between a worldview you hold and that of a religion you are learning about, although comfortable, may be wildly misleading. A member of the University of Puget Sound Muslim Student Union gives the example of equating Sunnis and Shiites with Catholics and Protestants, the Mosque with the Church, and Muslim forms of prayer with Christian forms. In these cases, although someone who is religiously or culturally Christian may think it is helpful to compare what they are learning about Islam to what they know about Christianity, such associations impose a Christian worldview onto Islam, prohibiting the Christian from accurately understanding these aspects of Islam. Making false equivalencies frequently leads people to make inaccurate interpretations and assumptions about religions. In order to avoid making false equivalencies, be wary of making direct comparisons between your religious perspective and that of one you are less familiar with, and be aware that your worldview may inhibit you from interpreting a religious text, practice, or belief in the same way someone with a different worldview would. Also, when learning about a religion, read sources that are written by people who identify with that religion, rather than texts exclusively by people interpreting it through different religious perspectives.
Please consider this section as a starting point rather than a comprehensive guide, and please continue to grow your awareness in your life and education outside this book! Taking courses in Religious Studies would be a good way to continue learning, as would getting involved in programs and clubs through your school’s student diversity center.