So this week I had several interactions with members of the AS audience that reminded me just how many stress responses get caught up in discussing religious differences. And since I literally teach theories in my university communication classes that explain why this is, I thought it may be helpful to delve deeper into this in today’s blog posts. At a time when polarization is high and there’s a lot of trauma around religious differences, I hope this can help people sort through a bit of why these conversations can be so very loaded and visceral sometimes.
Because yeah, it’s easy to think yeah, sure, we’re just talking about varying interpretations of how to see a written text from 2000ish years ago, right? Surely doing that ought not leave me feeling a knot in my stomach.
But there are good reasons for why this happens. I don’t have time to get into all of it today, as it’s a deep topic—but I’ll do what I can. I think it will be worth it if you hang with me.
How I Hope This Info Will Be Helpful
Hopefully this knowledge will be equally useful whether you identify as an atheist or a Christian or from another faith background, whether you’re looking to advocate against Christian nationalism in the public sphere, try to have a discussion with other people who differ from you on the AS FB page, or in family holiday parties.
My Background and Standpoint
As always, I’m coming at this information from the perspective of someone who grew up as a pastor’s kid in a right-leaning moderate Protestant denomination and went on to become a communication scholar.
Look at Me All Nerding Out Over How Religious Beliefs Get So Bound Up in Our Self-Concepts
Because of that combo platter, I’ve particularly found it useful to note that when I teach what’s lovingly called the “onion model” of self-disclosure, religion is often cast as fairly close to the center of the “self-disclosure onion.”
Ah, The “Onion Model” of Self-Disclosure (Let’s Define That!)
If you haven’t heard about it, the onion model is an model of interpersonal communication (also called the social penetration theory—the theorists are Altman and Taylor—that suggests the reason we feel more vulnerable about some disclosures than others is that some are closer to our self-concepts than others.
Using the metaphor of an onion with layers, the theory usually puts religion only a few layers from the center of most people’s onions–that is, really close to that central core of us where the self-concept lies.
Framing This from What I Know of (Largely) Protestant Christianity
I don’t feel I have the wheelhouse to talk about how this works with other religions, but growing up in right-leaning moderate Christianity, I can absolutely see why this is so for the teachings from my background.
See, both in the more right-leaning and progressive sides of my denomination, but especially on the right-leaning side of the denomination, there were HUGE emphases on your identity being as a child of God regardless of what you said or did. But it WAS still based, for the most part, on what you believed.
(That is, UNLESS, the small print noted, if you stepped over the wrong belief or behavior line. In those cases, well, they would pray for you.)
Sometimes This Is About the Culture Wars—But I’m Not Emphasizing That So Much Here
I’ve talked before (see my previous blog post here) about how this often has been coming down lately to the culture wars in my denomination (as well as others). In other words, how people are seeing you as leaving the Christian identity if you change your views on abortion and/or affirming LGBTQ+ folks.
That said, I see this happen in much more fundamental ways in Christianity across culture wars divisions, and in this post I want to talk about those to broaden it out a bit.
See, at least in the brands of Christianity I and those I know have been exposed to, whether more conservative or more progressive, there was always a huge emphasis on the Protestant view stemming from Martin Luther and others that Christianity wasn’t “just” about right action (that, apologies to my Catholic friends, was what “those Catholics” got up to), but about believing in and/or trusting God.
Now, I’m aware in the more progressive branches of Christianity, this kind of thing isn’t as strong a requirement. “Over there,” (which was how I was raised to see that group—oops!) there’s often more acceptance of more extreme doubting, to the point that Christians who would find themselves more theologically orthodox often find themselves wondering whether these people who have religious differences from them on those kinds of things even “count” as Christians at all.
See how that works? How belief and trust in God becomes the basis of whether someone is considered “in” or “out” of a lot of forms of Christianity? And how easily that what you believe about God and/or theology can become MORE of a basis for forming one’s self-concept than what one does?
Boiling This Down on Purpose to Make a Point
I’m boiling this down a lot, obviously, but I think in a way that helps show a valid point—in a lot of forms of Protestant Christianity, beliefs about God and one’s relationship to God tend to get pitched as something that OUGHT to morally be a part of one’s self-concept.
Where Churchy Exceptionalism Fits In
As I’ve discussed before regarding what I’m calling churchy exceptionalism (see my posts on that here and here), the more you are deeply engaged in church and church concepts, the more this tends to be true, and the more you tend to hear of the rhetoric that this ought to be part of one’s self-concept—in short, to crib an often used Scripture for these purposes, that one’s identity ought to be embedded in Christ and in believing in Christ and the other ways of seeing God within Christianity.
Now, the more progressive you get in the continuum of Protestant Christianity across Christian-related religious differences, the more acceptance there may be for increasingly loose interpretations of this, with more and more emphases on right action toward humans with a bit less emphasis on right belief in God in a particular way.
Why Progressive Christians Get Seen as “Outside the Fold” by Many Other Christians
I believe this sliding scale is why the people I grew up with—and other people who would align with a lot of branches of Protestant Christianity on both sides of the culture wars—tend to find progressive Christians as well as those who would place themselves in places further away from Christian belief may be seen as “outside the fold.”
Which, again, depending on the Christian, may find people holding these religious differences worth listening to or not, but may still mean their stress responses are activated when they bring up ideas that are aligned with beliefs they don’t perceive as part of “the Christian self-concept” as they have internalized it. Whether that’s coming from someone further to the left within Christianity, someone who doesn’t know what they believe about God, or someone from a different faith tradition entirely.
How All of This Ties Back to Discussions about Religion Coming from Differing Perspectives
In short, if something isn’t just a loosely held view to you but has been internalized as part of your self-concept, it’s much harder to maintain an open mind if people are trying to express differences about that thing.
And while I understand this most clearly as it affects people from various strands of Protestant Christianity, I think a lot of these same identity markers can affect people of all sorts of different religious beliefs, including those who have left Christianity and those who don’t identify as part of a religious or faith tradition, if often in different ways because of different faith and spirituality orientations.
Because of that, when people are expressing differences from your deeply embedded perspective, it’s entirely possible you may be viscerally having all sorts of stress reactions within deep discussions about the nature of religion and spirituality. And how we relate to it (For more on stress responses, please see the free guide to trolls that comes with any email newsletter subscription! Instructions on how to get that are at the end of this blog post.)
How This Relates to Religio-Political Discussions in the US—and at Assertive Spirituality
In short, because Protestant Christianity trains most of its Orthodox-identifyingd believers to see their identities as based in beliefs related to God, religious differences and disagreements in this territory, especially those about our relationship to God, can easily seem like threats to people raise in and around these populations. And because Protestant Christianity of various stripes has historically been the most dominating form of religion in the US, I find this dynamic extremely germaine to discussions across faiths in the US, including those that happen on the Assertive Spirituality Facebook page.
How Self-Conceptual Beliefs Around Morality Fit In
In addition, whether or not we believe in original sin, I would argue that at least Protestant Christians of all stripes tend to internalize Christian identity as a question of morality as well.
Now, the interpretation of said morality as relating to caring for the least of these, as on the left-leaning side of Christianity, or based in the purity culture and culture wars beliefs, as on the right side of the aisle, or some odd mix of these in the middle of the continuum where I was raised, may absolutely differ.
But either way, despite me having heard SO MANY sermons about how Christianity ought not be about being a perfect person, blah blah blah, what happens in our brains is that we tend to internalize our various Christian moral codes as part of our self-concepts, whether they are more aligned with specific beliefs or specific behaviors, etc. as the ultimate good thing to defend over and against all comers.
Not Trying to Be Prescriptive Here—Just Descriptive, So Far At Least
Note that in describing this I’m not saying this is necessarily good or bad. What I am saying is that it’s how our brains tend to process this stuff.
In short, because of the ways these things get wrapped up in our self-concepts, it can become extra challenging to have conversations about religious differences, especially different conceptions of God as well as how to treat other people.
Why It Often Feels So Visceral
These conversations may seem on the surface, especially for those who don’t hold a stake in them, to be simple conversations about differing beliefs and interpretations.
But under the surface, these things can be visceral battlegrounds. When our nervous systems see our beliefs being challenged, we are often literally processing this as a challenge to who we are in relationship to God and/or morality.
Because of that, we can often see these differing opinions as attacks on ourselves as “good people.”
Why Changing Religious Beliefs, Especially Deconstructing from Right-Wing Christianity, Can Feel So Personal
Of course, all of this also has a social as well as an interpersonal context, which means that it’s often a deeply personal thing when someone changes what they and/or the people around them to be core religious beliefs.
And of course if there was abuse and/or other trauma that led to the reasons why whatever beliefs someone previously held as part of their self-concept become suddenly threatening to them, it can be a particularly difficult thing both to them and for others.
I need to stop writing soon in the interests of time and brevity, but having seen people go through heart-wrenching ostracism from families and faith communities for all sorts of heart-wrenching reasons, studying stress, trauma, and conflict communication makes me understand so so deeply why differences of belief can be so deeply personal and wrenching across the religio-political spectrum.
I could go on for awhile, but I hope this brief blog post has been helpful for understanding at least some of the roots of why this is.
Thinking About How This Applies in a Religion-Diverse Society
May this knowledge help us in advocacy toward a healthier environment that makes room for more core policies that show love of neighbor and self, regardless of people’s more specific beliefs regarding God and theology.
After all, in a society that doesn’t just include Christians, and certainly doesn’t include just those with particular beliefs about God, it’s crucial for us to watch that this identity marker for many Christians isn’t forced to be the primary identity marker for everyone.
That said, I don’t think that means that we have to wander around feeling attacked or attacking others every time we discuss religious differences.
Seeking Common Ground in Contexts with Differing Beliefs about God
In the face of these truths, I would argue that the best practice in discussions about differing beliefs is to ground our discussions less around views of God and more about how to behave toward one another—and less about forcing one another to share our views of interpretation, especially in differing beliefs about God, and instead focus more around seeking whatever common ground we can in other areas of spirituality.
After all, some version of the Golden Rule is present across most if not all major religions AND has been shown to be the literally healthiest things for us through various studies across academic disciplines.
This, by the way, is why often I will ask those who are too forceful about their conceptions of God and morality, when commenting at Assertive Spirituality, to frame their interpretations of those views with “I language.” The less we can see differing views about higher powers, unless they are actively being abused to hurt others, as threats, the better off we will all be.
Not Excusing Abuse of Theology at ALL Here….
None of this means that it’s okay for people to abuse people through theology and such, mind you–which tends to be the problem with conservative Christians, more and more of whom are disturbingly working toward Christian nationalism in recent years. None of that is okay. It’s also why these Christians are least likely to be on board with making space for other viewpoints. I’ve found others fall into this category too, mind you, but this is the largest category that gets so problematic.
Not That Fundamentalist Christians Are Likely to Be On Board….
Granted, many fundamentalist Christians, who tend to be the ones who have MOST internalized the idea that beliefs, including increasingly specific culture wars beliefs, must be a part of any Christian identity and that we are to become a Christian nation in those specific terms, will absolutely see such approaches to the topic as a huge threat.
But hopefully the rest of what I’ve just said can at the very least help the rest of us understand why this, and especially what each of us believes about any sort of relationship to a higher power, is such fraught territory, and why it’s so important to try to take care in how we approach it, and ask others to do the same wherever possible, for the sake of inclusivity.
Why That “I Language” Around Beliefs Around God Is SO Crucial to a Truly Civil Society
Because yeah, if we’re looking for the kind of common ground that helps us show care and respect to the widest variety of people in a civil society, figuring out how to look for common beliefs about how to treat others is a much wiser course of action than digging into the more deeply personal beliefs people may have around their relationship to a higher power.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! May we do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all, whatever our religious differences. We can do this thing.
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