It is something that people in the Middle East have to deal with every day. It probably still is quite important in Northern Ireland though it doesn’t make the papers as often anymore. In these places, and many others around the world, it does not matter if one is particularly “religious” per se. He or she may even consider themselves an atheist, but still be associated with a particular religious group, culturally.
I have lived and visited many places around these United States, and never before have I experienced this phenomenon. My general impression is that people really couldn’t care less what I thought or did as long as I didn’t burn anything down or torture animals. They couldn’t care less whether I was a Christian, believed in astrology, or simply acted like I was the center of the universe (excepting the burning things down or hurting animals mentioned above).
However, in the community that I live right now, they do care. Well, they probably still don’t care what I really believe. Yet, they do care what faith tradition I’m associated with or my family has been associated with, even if I’m not connected to anything in particular.
What does that mean? The lines are very clear between the different groups. There’s very little in the way of “grey area.” Here the pie is pretty much split in three ways: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), all other faith traditions, and atheists (or secular humanists). Now, don’t worry. It’s not as if I expect violence to break out between any of the groups.
Do you notice a group that’s missing there? People who are generally agnostic or have no strong opinion about religion at all, the irreligious as it were. This group was always a large segment of all the other communities that I've lived in. Much of my life, I was a part of it.
Why has this played out here? Because the LDS church feels that it must be set apart from general society, and they encourage community within their group. Therefore, they make a point to socialize together (while avoiding other groups), frequent each others’ businesses, support each other in politics, and so on. They are certainly not the only group in the world (or even in the United States) to do so. Yet, since here they have a strong majority, the other groups feel persecuted. These other groups also congregate and provide similar kinds of support for each other in response.
This causes an interesting dynamic. I participate in a couple of community groups that have a large participation by Christian pastors and church staff, an anti-bullying group and the local interfaith council. They are from many different denominations and all parts of the “political” spectrum from very conservative to very liberal. In other parts of the country, these different denominations would be at each others’ throats, but not here. It really is a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” I’ve never seen such ecumenical cooperation. Naturally, the secular-humanists feel especially isolated in this dynamic.
What was especially disturbing is when I was hearing snide and demeaning comments about the LDS church in general and the LDS representative to the anti-bullying committee specifically when he wasn’t there. This was by people who consider themselves very tolerant and open-minded. I was hearing so much negative talk about the LDS church from the people around me that I found myself being sucked into the general attitude. That is no way to have a productive relationship with the LDS church, even if I have to agree to disagree with them in many aspects..
However, there is no middle ground here. You’re on one side or another. You can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist. Even if you are irreligious, you have to self-identify as part of one of the three groups.
When I started thinking about it, I suddenly had greater understanding of and empathy for the people living in the Middle East. That’s how they have to live every day. Yet they aren’t just worrying whether their business will fail because it’s in the wrong part of town. They have to be concerned whether their bus or their place of worship will be the target of a bomber or other form of violence.
And that’s what I mean by having your life defined by religion. It’s not just “over there.” It might be closer than you think. It’s not that I did not have an understanding of this before, but now I understand better.
Last week, in the comments, a couple of you were interested in how I decided to become a Christian after a lifetime of agnosticism. I think that next week I’ll start sharing how my life came to be defined by religion, in a different way, a way of my choosing.
See you tomorrow with my Five on Friday, which I actually completed Tuesday night. :)