Religious Identification

Illustration by Majed Bou Ghanem

Why Religious Diversity Matters

Religious identity should not be equated to intentionality.

Dec 11, 2016

Before tackling the topic of religious identity, I want to make it clear that I am not a theologian. I am not informed enough to discuss religion in any detail, nor am I interested in comparing the validity of religious truths or investigating them. My motivation is to show why it’s risky and unreliable for any person, corporation or institution, to infer someone’s intentions from their religious identity. Also, I wish to openly discuss a rising global concern: bigotry. Religious tolerance, of course, is directly related to that issue.
It is inevitable that every person has, at some point in their life, questioned existence, consciousness and their place on earth. For them, curiosity and concern create an ideological gap that needs to be filled. Then, depending largely on circumstances at birth and our upbringing, we get exposed to religious or spiritual principles that do a sufficient job of addressing these existential concerns. With organized religion, our religious and spiritual frameworks expand beyond the individual mental space and are embraced as part of a social identity.
Certain understandings of existence become endogenous to communities. Human geography mixes with religious identification as the social identity of religion brings about new subcultures of people who follow beliefs and cultural values set in a certain area. Egyptian Copts, Omani Ibadis and Ethiopian Jews all serve as examples of these communities where religion mixes with local cultures creating subcultures of nations and religions. Truly, in this classic understanding religion becomes a shorthand for inferring other aspects of certain communities, because some religions grow up in only select parts of the world where other factors are present. The general wisdom tells us then that because Iranians are largely Shi’a, and Iranians are the enemies of Saudi Arabia, Shi’a must be enemies of Saudi Arabia.
Modernity tells us differently. Ideas are no longer physically bound to the communities in which they were conceived. All ideas, including religious ideas, travel as far as people do. They transcend the physical, as books, radios, televisions and computers democratize idea-sharing.
Simply put, in the present day it no longer holds true that two people born into the same religion would share culturally-specific similarities. These two people might now be using a different language, or have access to different foods, or live in a different climate and hence dress differently. A Buddhist could just as easily live in Tibet as in Texas.
As it is no longer possible to determine nonreligious aspects of a person based on their religion, tolerance of religious plurality is necessary. Whether the outcome of a clash between ideas — religious or non-religious — is problematic or beneficial depends on the attitude of the bearers of the two ideas. Some are comfortable with their personal beliefs and don’t mind the process of sharing them, while others might consider the exchange of ideas problematic and discussions aimless.
Religion has become an increasingly sensitive subject, especially when scientific discourse, or even other structurally different belief systems, challenge the foundation of a religion. It might be difficult to accept that someone else who contradicts your structured, coherent and reasonable belief system is not out of their mind.
To avoid stifling discussions and progress, we must avoid isolating anyone who voices their dissatisfaction and concern, even if they happen to support flawed arguments, false narratives or unrealistic goals. The first step in dismantling intolerance is to accept that it is a destructive attitude that could develop in anyone under certain circumstances — it is not a hardwired mentality and it can be unlearned.
Imagine the following example: I listen to metal music, but a lot of people don’t enjoy metal, and similarly I don’t enjoy a lot of other music.
I know that my musical experience is real and valid because I enjoy metal music, but that is not sufficient for me to conclude that other people’s musical experience is not equally as real, and similarly others cannot conclude that my musical experience is invalid. I do recognize the musical value in rap, hip-hop, country and everything else, yet I admit that my repertoire in these genres is not large enough for me to begin to enjoy them as much as I do metal. My friends enjoy other music, and I’m fine with that, and vice versa.
What I would certainly not be okay with is anyone claiming metal is not music, because such a claim directly implies that I am incapable of perceiving and understanding rhythm, melody and dynamics along with every other cognitive skill required to enjoy music.
Similarly, the validity of one’s spiritual experience is not sufficient to discard someone else’s, nor is it acceptable to discredit a coherent belief system, and it is certainly wrong to conclude that the other is irrational on the basis that they subscribe to an alternative view. If this were to happen to anyone, they should point out the insult and make it clear that it perpetuates ignorance, instead of adopting the same attitude towards the other.
In brief, we should realize that it is tempting for anyone to adopt a defensive stance when faced with an alien concept, and to negatively criticize differences. If one ever happens to develop an intolerance towards an idea, they ought to ask themselves if the existence of an alternative experience threatens their own before they create an unwanted conflict.
Let me remind you: we live in the middle of a very rich community in NYU Abu Dhabi and in the UAE, and we have access to many cultures and countries through our study abroad and our acquaintances. We must all be willing to adopt an openness to new ideas and recalibrate our criteria of what is considered taboo or inappropriate — not just religiously, but also culturally and socially — to prevent any intolerance from developing in our community.
Religious and spiritual diversity is of immense educational value — it is comparable to the richness in language variations, regional foods, biodiversity and artistic diversity.
Just like there is richness in having numerous languages spoken around the world, as each has its own package of expressions and ideas, religious diversity gives us access to alternative perceptual viewpoints, narratives, metaphors and values that we would have otherwise ignored or avoided.
Majed Bou Ghanem is a contributing writer. Email him at
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