Spirituality, Nominalism, and the Complexity of Religious Identity

Alright, maybe it was the man who told me how worried he was about all the Muslims walking around a local mall, then looked at me like I was a naive fool when I told him that none of them were trying to kill him. Maybe it’s the odd conversations about Mitt Romney and Mormonism (which sound incredibly similar to the conversations about Kennedy and Catholicism back in the day). Maybe it’s that a certain Dallas pastor is back in the news again. Whatever it is, I’ve had enough. We’re going to have a talk today, boys and girls, about the complexity of religious identity in America.
Warning: I’m proofreading with my angry eyes today …

Here’s the big takeaway for today (I’m telling you early, so you can quit reading but still sound informed): there is very little you can assume about a person’s beliefs based on how they label themselves. (See, I even made it bold for you.) I’m not saying this is a good or a bad thing, but rather that it seems to be the reality of religious life in our society.

One reason is that on the whole people seem to be moving from being religious (by which I mean someone who converts to an preexisting, established belief system and worldview) to being spiritual (someone who creates their own belief system and worldview by combining what they find attractive from various established systems with their own opinions, feelings, etc).

Even though I’ve clearly defined what I mean by religious and spiritual, someone is going to argue with me in the comment section without realizing they’re defining religious and spiritual differently from me. Just wait for it.

Another reason is the increasing rise of nominalism among adherents of all religious systems. As the name suggests, more and more people possess a nominal devotion or loyalty to the beliefs and doctrines of their religious system. Religious labels come to serve cultural, social, or even political purposes, but don’t necessarily under-gird the way people live. This isn’t to say that nominal believers of any given religion are insincere or just “using” a religion. It simply means that how nominal believers see themselves and their world is largely formed by forces other than religious loyalty or identity.

Pictured: a nominal commitment to good nutrition

I could hazard a few guesses at why this trend is happening (Post-modernism? The underlying value of individualism that defines our society? The rise of consumerism? Global warming? Harry Potter novels?), but it’s very important for us to recognize it. Between the “spirituals” and the “nominals,” it’s pretty difficult to impose what might be even the simplest categories upon religious life in America, like “All Christians believe …” or “Now, your average Muslim …”

Although, obviously every kid who ever watched this movie is now a practicing witch. I’m not saying the labels never work …

So what does all this mean?

You are going to have to actually get to know people. I believe Jesus is divine. I think He literally rose from the dead. Yet, I’ve met people who self-identify as Christian who reject both of those beliefs, beliefs I would consider foundational to being a Christian. I’ve realized more and more over the years that when someone says they are a Christian, I’m often quite a few personal conversations away from that having any meaning to me whatsoever. The same goes for those who claim other labels.

I see you’re wearing a cross around your neck. Thanks, that’s all I needed to know.

Stop forwarding youtube videos that start with: “Their holy book tells them to …” You cannot assume you know how someone approaches sacred literature based on how they label themselves. You will meet people who call themselves Christians because they like Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, but reject the Old Testament as having anything to do with their view of God. I’ve had more than one conversation with a Mormon that started with me saying, “Doesn’t it say in the Book of Mormon” and ending in total confusion on both our parts. And I feel quite certain you can find more Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or Muslims than you might think who have given their sacred texts a cursory reading at best. In addition, people can interpret the same sacred texts very differently, even if they both claim to be devout followers of that sacred text.

For example, the writers at ThinkingThroughChristianity.com and the parents of these children are both groups who self-identify as Christian and consider themselves to be people who take the Bible seriously and try to live as it says people should.

Now I’m certainly not saying there are no more devoutly religious people in America. (Again, by “religious” I mean someone who embraces an established belief system and worldview, rather than cherry picking from it as part of the process of forming their own belief system and worldview). What I am saying is that you can’t assume you know much about a person’s beliefs at first simply based on how they self-label. Studying Mormon theology and history doesn’t mean you will be able to create some sort of template for interacting with and understanding every Mormon you meet or deciding how a Mormon politician will act in office. Conversations about whether or not Islam is a religion of peace or whether or not the 9/11 attacks were a legitimate interpretation of the Koran might have their place, but they aren’t going to get you any closer to understanding your Muslim neighbor or what a Muslim politician might do once in office. You’ll have to actually talk to them.

Stop assuming.

Start talking.

(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)