Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Religious Identity: Response Paper 2

Annalise Cameron

October 11, 2019

Response Paper 2

1,309 words

Formulating Religious Identity and Examining it’s Effects

 In my psycho-sociological approach to our discussion of sin and forgiveness within the religious sphere, I ask: How does the formulation of religious identity relate to different methods of understanding and practicing religion within a society in consideration of social, political and cultural factors. The role of the individual versus collective alongside traditional versus ‘progressive’ takes within this framework will also be involved. In this response, I will be drawing my analysis from a variety of sources with emphasis on Merton’s examination of human emotion and response and Powell’s breakdown of ethics and virtue in relation to the individual versus society. The sociological connection exists within the creation and understanding of our conscious reality and the multitude of external factors that adjust our own perceptions of our existence. Finally, I will evaluate the extent in which religious identity applies to real-world occurrences, such as violence and war.

An individual’s religious identity is typically centered around a set of morals, rituals, practices, and behaviors that are categorized under a labelled belief system. This is the typical response to ‘what it means’ to be of a particular faith. Our religious identity is a serious factor in guiding our understanding of right versus wrong and what as deemed as ethically acceptable vs not. What is accepted or rejected within an individual’s religion is often the root of their understanding in this sense. However, religious identity is not homogenous. It is possible for many different individual identities to exist under one religious umbrella, so to say. For example, two individuals who identify as Christian may have polar opposite views on what it means to be Christian. Whereas one Christian might condemn abortion another might support it, both in the name of God. Often these religious views intersect with social, political, and cultural factors in the formulation of and an individual’s self. Individuals who may deviate from a traditional religious structure or hierarchy might face scrutiny from other members within their larger collective religious community. This is just one component of what I mean when I say “traditional” vs “progressive” takes on religion, or how different individual interpretations can lead to different outcomes within the same collective belief system.

Merton’s breakdown of fear, hatred, trust and love in Passion For Peace Reflections on War and Non Violence is especially relevant to the concept of religious identity. The significance of these four emotions in the formulation of identity, broadly speaking, is key to understanding the behavioral outcomes of an individual. In a religious application, human emotion and action are closely linked when we looks at effects such as war and violence against humanity. According to Merton, “at the root of all war is fear, not so much the fear men have of one another as the fear they have of everything.”[1] In this argument, one could say that the root of conflict in general is fear. War is often seen as a means to achieve a desired solution; power or control over others. If we feel in control or powerful, our fear is reduced. Fear directly relates to trust as a lack of trust would cause an individual to fear. If you cannot trust others, surely you cannot trust yourself. Furthermore, for an individual possessing a religious identity, if you cannot trust others nor yourself, it is clear that they are unable to believe or trust in God.[2] It is hard to formulate an understanding of right and wrong without an external force guiding you. The interconnected nature of trust between humans on the physical plane and divine power directly is what links humanity within itself and with external divinity. The third layer of Merton’s analysis is hatred. When we hate ourselves, it is deeply rooted in your conscious and challenging to address emotional and mental needs. When we are discontent with certain aspects of ourselves, it is easy to identify those same traits in others almost subconsciously. Hatred of others stems from hatred of self as we “see our own evil in others and [are] unable to see it in ourselves”[3] because “it is easy to identify the sin with the sinner when he is someone other than our own self.”[4] The final layer of Merton’s analysis is love. Love is a universal amongst humanity and should be applied as so. When applied to an identity framework, the practice of extended love to all in fundamentally rooted. Merton says that an individual must “learn to love man even in their sin as God has loved them.”[5]

            Merton’s analysis directly relates to a sociological interpretation rooted in constructivism. An individual constructs their reality based upon our understanding of perceived collective moral and ethics to understand the self and others. This is how judgement and punishment are decided upon and acted out within a society. For many, this is the basis of a religious identity. Our shared humanity is the basis of our understanding of human existence but it is also the greatest source of conflict as it is easier to act upon our difference rather than find peace and gain strength in the things we share as a collective. Merton says that “we must accept ourselves as good and evil”[6] individually and collectively as no one is perfectly good or evil. Many religious understandings of sin and forgiveness do account for the imperfect nature of humans as individuals and social creatures who simply interact with society and it’s constructs.

            Powell’s use of virtue as a pillar for pondering the relationship between the individual and community is useful when drawing a connection to identity both religiously and sociologically. He states that “individuals can imitate virtues and virtues are ultimately reflected in the community. Just individuals contribute to the creation of a just society.”[7] While this text speaks heavily towards matters of justness and justice, a different interpretation can be found sociologically. One component of collective religious identity are the ethics and virtues that act as behavioral and emotional guides. Virtues are fundamental to identity, which are agreed upon within the religious community and practices on an individual level. Therefore, different understandings of virtues results in different executions of its application to an individuals reality. The process of theological to physical is the expression of religious identity is social, political and cultural environments. Thus forgiveness and punishment operate within this expression of identity.

            Religious identity is a complex concept with no one explanation denoted to its expression in an individual or a community. Human emotion is a serious factor in explaining why humans may act in certain situations regarding religion, opinion, and influence. Religion is often an explanation used to justify violence and murder. Merton’s exploration of war and it’s foundational causes fits well into the framework of religious identity. Across history, violence and colonization has wreaked havoc on humanity. While some claim it is in the name of God or divine command, there is simply no explanation for the killing of innocents or people whom we conflict with. It is interesting that humans are bonded so tightly to our identity, so closely that we find peace in its violence effects. While this is a disturbing thought, it is within our human nature to feel connection, fear, distrust, and love deeply enough to act upon. The avenue to peace and forgiveness is also engrained within religious identity but it is often overshadowed by darker emotions and fears. A sociological perspective may provide insight into how identity can be a driving factor towards violence and peace.


[1] Thomas Merton, Passion For Peace Reflections on War and NonViolence (The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2006), 27

[2] Ibid., 27

[3] Ibid., 27

[4] Ibid., 29

[5] Ibid., 29

[6] Ibid., 32

[7] Russell Powell, Forgiveness in Islamic Ethics and Jurisprudence, (Berkeley Joural of Middle Eastern Islamic Law, 2011), 22

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