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Distinguishing Between Belief and Culture: A Critical Perspective on Religious Identity

Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Assessment, Evaluation, and Research Spirituality and Religion in Higher Education
November 9, 2018 Sachi Edwards

THE FOLLOWING BLOG POST IS AN EXCERPT FROM "Distinguishing Between Belief and Culture: A Critical Perspective on Religious Identity" ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE JOURNAL OF COLLEGE AND CHARACTER, VOLUME 19, ISSUE 3. 


Current literature about religion in higher education typically emphasizes belief as a central component of religious identity. Through framing this discourse with a critical social justice lens, I argue that there needs to be a purposeful distinction between religious/spiritual belief and religious identity/culture in order to acknowledge the socio-cultural nature of religion and to more clearly understand the privilege/oppression dynamic associated with it. By describing the way Christian privilege and religious oppression are often independent of individuals’ religious or spiritual beliefs, I discuss implications of this over-emphasis on belief for religious minorities and explain how focusing instead on religious culture can help make campus-based interfaith initiatives more social justice oriented.

Since 2001, there has been a substantial increase in the amount of research and discourse on religion, religious identity, interfaith dialogue, and religious diversity initiatives in the realm of higher education (Astin, 2004; Clark, Brimhall-Vargas, Schlosser, & Alimo, 2002; Rockenbach, Mayhew, & Bowman, 2015). As religious tension has risen (and continues to rise) both domestically and abroad, so too have campus-based initiatives aimed at reducing this tension by promoting respect for religious diversity and social justice for religious minorities. The current body of scholarship related to this phenomenon typically relies on an interpretation of religion and religious identity that emphasizes belief as a central (if not the only) component defining this aspect of students’ identities (Astin, Astin, & Lindholm, 2011). This widely accepted and unchallenged perspective downplays (or overlooks entirely) the socio-cultural nature of religion, contradicting literature in both religious studies and critical identity studies that explains how persons’ religious cultures are largely unrelated to their personal beliefs. In this article, I reflect on the concept of religious identity using a critical social justice lens and argue that there needs to be a purposeful distinction between religious/spiritual belief and religious identity/culture in order to more clearly under- stand privilege and oppression as they pertain to religion. Making this distinction can shed light on the ways culturally Christian agnostics/atheists may benefit from Christian privilege and how oppression of religious minorities stems from their religious culture in addition to their beliefs, perhaps even more so. Based on this critical analysis, I discuss the possible implications of belief-centric definitions of religious identity on religious minorities and explain how focusing instead on religious culture can help make campus-based religious diversity initiatives more social justice oriented.

Current Interpretations of Religious Identity in Higher Education Scholarship

While literature about religion, religious identity, interfaith dialogue, and religious diversity initiatives has increased in recent years among higher education scholars and practitioners, theoretical analyses of these concepts from a critical social justice perspective are still lacking. Current scholarship in this area typically relies on an assumed definition of religion (i.e., many authors do not define what they mean by religion in their work) that suggests one’s beliefs are the primary determinant of their religion and thereby their religious identity. For example, in their report on the Higher Education Research Institute’s nationwide study, Spirituality in Higher Education,1 Astin and colleagues (2011) explained that “religiousness ... is seen as involving adherence to a set of faith-based beliefs (and related practices) concerning both the origins of the world and the nature of the entity(ies) or being(s) that created and/or govern the world” (p. 40). This definition exemplifies the perspective on religion that most higher education scholars seem to take, which, when examined from a critical social justice perspective, is problematic for two reasons: (a) It contradicts explanations of religion and religious practice as articulated by critical religious studies scholars, and (b) it is incongruous with the way critical education scholars talk about other forms of identity (discussed further in the next section).

Moreover, higher education research related to religion tends to report students’ religious identities based on participants’ self-chosen labels, where again persons’ personal beliefs seem to be an assumed determinant of this aspect of their identity. This approach to assessing students’ religious identities may lead to the large numbers of students opting to give themselves non-religious labels. For instance, reports on various iterations of the Campus Religious and Spiritual Climate Survey2 noted that many student respondents chose “atheist” or “agnostic” as self-descriptors: 39% in one report (Rockenbach et al., 2015), 37% in another (Rockenbach & Mayhew, 2014), and 25% in a third (Rockenbach, Mayhew, Kinarsky, & Interfaith Youth Core, 2014). Of course, students (or anyone for that matter) can make the personal choice to be atheist or agnostic; both are valid labels that individuals should be free to use for themselves. Relying on belief-centric labels, however, does not provide an accurate picture of diversity in terms of religious culture, especially when data on upbringing and family life are not also collected and meaningfully considered. Whereas individuals’ religious/spiritual beliefs can, and do, frequently change (Pew Research Center, 2009), religious culture is more engrained and can shape persons’ worldviews even if they no longer hold the beliefs associated with that religion (Brimhall-Vargas, 2011; Eliade, 1959). Thus, if the aim of higher education scholars and practitioners is simply to examine what students believe (with regard to spiritual or theistic matters), then perhaps such labels are adequate. On the other hand, if the aim is to examine the way religion and religious identity shape cultural diversity, students’ experiences and interactions, campus climate, and/or socio-cultural power dynamics (as critical research should), labels that merely give a snapshot of a students’ beliefs during data collection are clearly not sufficient.

In this article, I offer a critical perspective on religious identity and focus my analysis on explaining why this perspective is important to consider in higher education research and programming that aim to explore and/or address social injustice. Indeed, the perspective I share in the following may be seen as a bit of a challenge to the dominant perspective on religion and religious identity among higher education scholars currently, which to be sure is shaped by the pervasive, and often unacknowledged, nature of Christian hegemony (Adams & Joshi, 2010). However, like critical perspectives on other forms of identity (critical race theory, feminist theory, queer theory, and others), critical scholarly discourse on religious identity is much needed in order to dismantle Christian supremacy, combat religious oppression, and achieve equity for religious minorities. While a full-fledged sub-field of critical identity studies that specifically examines religious identity has yet to emerge, perhaps this article can contribute to the development of one.

A Critical Perspective on Religious Identity

Due to the current lack of a specialized field of critical religious identity studies, I develop this critical perspective on religious identity by combining literature from the academic field of religious studies with literature from scholars who discuss identity relations in higher education. Merging these two fields of study in this way can help to bring a more thorough and researched understanding of religion and religious identity into our religious diversity initiatives in higher education, something we sorely need. My own background, with graduate degrees in both comparative religion and comparative education, over 10 years of professional and research experience in student affairs, and a lifetime of lived experience as a religious minority, has shown me just how important it is to uplift this critical perspective in both our theoretical discourse and our practical work. After all, “when theories are created through a critical lens, the possibilities for healing, liberation, and radical social change are revealed” (Jones & Stewart, 2016, p. 17). It is with this in mind, and with a genuine desire to contribute to an ongoing conversation about improving our social justice efforts, that I proceed here.

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