Religious Identity

Religious identity – like cultural identity – is perceived differently by different people. Some people need to be anchored in a single community, which provides them with a firm direction in life; others live in situations where they see themselves as members of various groups - for example, the way Tim feels in the dialogue. These people then have to deal with how much these individual groups are able to tolerate each other and, at the same time, how much they try to protect their own unique identity. It can be hurtful to encounter this kind of exclusivity, especially if it occurs in very personal areas, which faith and religion on the whole certainly are.

  • What is…?

The ecumenical movement: A movement that strives for greater unity among Christians. It emphasises the common roots of Christian faith in an effort to overcome existing differences. One result of these efforts is the regular organisation of ecumenical church services, involving the participation of members of more than one church.

Exclusivity: The belief that one’s own faith is superior to all other faiths, or that it is the only true faith; for example, the claim that “Christianity is the only path to salvation”.

Ethnocentricity: Elevating the values and standards of one’s own society above the values of standards of other societies, and judging foreign cultures according to the terms of one’s own culture; for example, claiming that “the peoples of the South-Pacific are backward because they don’t use cars or computers”.

Conservatism: A favouring of everything that is old, time tested, and long established in society (a way of life, values, ways of dealing with problems, social roles). It can at times take the form of clinging to the past and an associated resistance to anything new.

Traditionalism: A very positive view of traditions (e.g. religious rituals, traditional liturgy, etc.), and the importance of preserving and promoting them. It is sometimes mistaken for conservatism. Traditionalism need not necessarily be authoritarian, and it does not always relate to social roles and ethical norms.

  • Topic

Fears about losing one’s traditions and values sometimes lead people to disdain foreign religious groups (or other idea currents within their own cultural environment). Foreign religious systems are then described as inferior or even as bad.

Religious identity
Human identity (regardless of whether it is that of people with or without faith) is not merely the sum of individual features. Each individual has numerous characteristic features, but only some of them are constitutive of a person’s identity (i.e. they contribute to forming the person’s identity). The same applies to social roles. Some may be merely an unavoidable part of social communication (e.g. a conference participant behaves like a scientist whether he is regarded as one or not, because social conventions demand such behaviour), others may be of fundamental importance to a person’s identity. A person of faith may also be a father, husband, technician, football fan, enthusiastic cook, chess-player, citizen of some state, someone’s brother, a physically disabled person, etc. However, only some of these roles or characteristics are of such importance for an individual that they shape their identity. Just as a Czech citizen may also regard him/herself as a European, a member of an ethnic minority, or even “a citizen of the world”, a Protestant may, for example, see him/herself as a Christian, a Lutheran, or simply a person of faith.
Religious identity is often associated with a person’s way of life. In many cultures (including European culture) religious rituals are also events in the life of a society. The separation of human interests (or cultural heritage) into religious and secular spheres is to some extent an artificial division – some languages do not even have an exact equivalent for the word “religion” and must use subsequently invented phrases (e.g. Chinese, and indigenous Indian languages).
While in the Euro-American world, emphasis is typically placed on the uniqueness of each person, which gives rise to an interpretation of identity based on the individual, many other cultural regions understand the individual primarily as part of a community. There are advantages and disadvantages to both concepts – neither of them should be described as more advanced. The identity of Christians is complicated by the fact that there have long been conflicts between individual branches of Christianity (in some cases lasting many centuries). It is still the case that there are Christians who, from a very young age, were raised to distrust people of other denominations. The ecumenical movement tries to bridge disputes and differences. However, this process of mutual rapprochement often runs up against the barriers of age-old conflicts. Religious conflicts and prejudices take on a life of their own – like, for example, racial hatred. If a person is immersed in an ecumenical environment from a young age (like Tim) they tend to have to assume a more mature role than others. Such people find themselves surrounded by an inability to understand different opinions, and an inability to express understanding for different lifestyles and different faiths. At the same time, they can find themselves the target of strong expectations from two opposing camps both wanting to be the preferred faith. It can happen that adults put too much pressure on an adolescent by rejecting their own responsibility. A deliberately cultivated incomprehension of people with different convictions is a sign of an unacknowledged infantile longing to return to the role of a child. This attitude can be summed up in a sentence: If I can’t understand other people then they have to try to understand me if we are to communicate. Sometimes this attitude is formulated with a tone of umbrage: Why should I compromise when they can? Religious people who have not been raised within a single religious tradition since childhood (converts or children whose parents are of different religions) have no way of escaping the complexity of living with people who are different. On the contrary, they are thrust into the position of “being wiser”: being the ones who are somehow obliged to understand everyone else. In addition they have to deal with the absence of any single model in terms of a world view, and a lack of contact with peers from a comparable background.

  • Stories and examples

Mehmet lives in Germany and is one of the second generation Turks in the country. He knows that when his parents still lived in Turkey they had been admirers of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, President and founder of the secular Turkish state. They were neither exceptionally religious nor nationalistic. It was in Germany that his mother began to wear a headscarf, as though she were afraid that abroad she would lose her relationship to the traditions of her nation. His sister is even more radical. She criticises the immoral style of European dress and seeks the roots of her culture as influenced by Islam. Mehmet himself likes the German (or Western European) lifestyle, but he also understands his sister. It sometimes strikes him that in Germany Islam is discussed only in negative terms (generally in connection with terrorism). He then has a tendency to defend Islam against prejudices. Other times, his sister irritates him with her one-sided attitudes, and to her he defends the secular way of life and its advantages. It annoys him considerably when people in both of these camps want him to denounce the other side. He would like to maintain his position as a Western European, but one who understands the values and traditions of devout Muslims.

  • Sources


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