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Why Not Define Student Religious Identity According to Beliefs Alone? Critical Conversations #14

Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice
July 11, 2018 Sachi Edwards

JCC's Focus Author for August 2018 is Sachi Edwards, lecturer in the colleges of education at the University of Hawaiʻi, Mānoa and the University of Maryland, College Park. (To learn more about Sachi Edwards see the August 2018 Connexions newsletter and Focus Authors page).

In her JCC article “Distinguishing Between Belief and Culture: A Critical Perspective on Religious Identity” (August 2018, Vol. 19, No. 3), Sachi argues 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, she discusses implications of this over-emphasis on belief for religious minorities and explains how focusing instead on religious culture can help make campus-based interfaith initiatives more social justice oriented.

Below are their responses to questions posed by Jon Dalton, JCC co-editor:

1. What are some problems with defining student religious identity according to beliefs alone?

When it comes to research about student experiences and campus climate, it means that we don’t get an accurate picture of the diversity of religious cultures present among our students. Traditionally aged college students are primed for religious skepticism and are likely to re-adopt the religious beliefs and/or practices they grew up with later in life (Pew, 2009). Moreover, many “non-religious” people continue to participate in the cultural elements of their religious tradition because that is what they know as normal. So, when college students report that they are atheist or agnostic, we don’t actually know what religious traditions undoubtedly still influence their worldview or behaviors unless we ask for information about their religious culture and upbringing. 

What is most problematic, from a critical perspective, is that it makes it more difficult to recognize some manifestations of Christian privilege. Culturally Christian atheists/agnostics are still privileged in a number of notable ways. So, if we only document these students’ self-reported theistic beliefs, we miss the opportunity to examine how they may be contributing to the culture of Christian hegemony on our campuses.

2. Are religious beliefs a primary determinant of religious identity?

Current higher education literature seems to suggest so. But, many scholars of religion have long argued that this is not the case (Clack & Clack, 2008; Eliade, 1959), as have critical identity scholars (Adams & Joshi, 2010; Harro, 2010). So, my assertion would be that, no, they are not, especially if you adopt a critical social justice paradigm.

3. Are students really free to choose their beliefs if religious identity is primarily a social construction?

All people are free to choose what they believe about spiritual or theistic matters. However, we can’t deny that we are deeply influenced by the religious cultural socialization we are raised with, and that there are many factors working against us if attempting to adopt a new set of beliefs – particularly if those new beliefs are also theistic (as opposed to atheistic). The beliefs you were taught since birth were presented from an emic (insider) perspective. Opportunities to learn about other belief systems, especially those that also present an emic perspective, can be hard to come by. An etic (outsider) perspective, which many books or classes offer, may make a set of beliefs sound much less plausible or attractive than an emic perspective. Moreover, embracing a new belief system can take a long time. Without an extended period to grapple with our feelings and a community of people to support our inquiry, it is unlikely that we can fully make such a transition. Then, even if we do have the appropriate time and support, our family and friends can attempt to discourage us. Maintaining the belief system we are socialized into from birth is, indeed, the path of least resistance.


Adams, M., & Joshi, K. Y. (2010). Religious oppression.  In M. Adams, W. J. Blumenfeld, R. Castaneda, H. W. Hackman, M. L. Peters, & X. Zuniga (Eds.), Readings for diversity and social justice (2nd ed.) (pp. 227-234). Abingdon: Routledge.

Clack, B. & Clack, B. R. (2008). The philosophy of religion: A critical introduction. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Eliade, M (1959). The sacred and the profane: The nature of religion. (W.R. Trask, Trans.) Orlando: Harcourt, Inc. (Original work published 1957)

Harro, B. (2010). The cycle of socialization.  In M. Adams, W. J. Blumenfeld, R. Castaneda, H. W. Hackman, M. L. Peters, & X. Zuniga (Eds.), Readings for diversity and social justice (2nd ed.) (pp. 45-51).  Abingdon: Routledge.

Pew Research Center. (2009, April). Faith in flux: Changes in religious affiliation in the U.S. Retrieved from http://www.pewforum.org/2009/04/27/faith-in-flux/