December 31, 2014

Religious schisms as ethnic segregation

Since Christmas, I've been thinking about the religious version of the transplant phenomenon — conversion from one church to another. I've got some posts coming up on that topic in the American context using data from the General Social Survey.

But first it's worth looking at the bigger picture of church identities being part of regional ethnic identities. This will highlight the off-base nature of trying to hop from one church to another, especially across large distances of belief and practice. That is akin to trying to switch your ethnic identity from Irish to Lebanese.

At the same time, it also clarifies how church identity provides a grounding throughout time for an ethnic group's identity, and guards against a disorienting feeling of flux and chaos: what they believe and practice, regarding the sacred, is one of those core components that has existed since the old times, that exists today, and that will continue to exist into the future. And what they believe and practice distinguishes them from other ethnic groups, whose religious identities may be similar if they are ethnically similar, or religiously quite different if they are ethnically quite different.

The best way to study this is to look at a world religion that spans diverse ethnic groups and has existed for a long time.

Universal religions ought to push for similarity in beliefs and practices, no matter the ethnic group that adopts them. To the extent that the apparent cohesion at the highest level actually fractures along ethnic lines, we see just how powerful of a force ethnic solidarity can be. It is not necessarily hostile chauvinism, but at least the felt need to carve out a comfortably familiar niche within the vast universal religion, in which to gather with folks who are ethnically similar enough that much of the character of belief and practice can go unspoken and implicitly assumed, with only fine distinctive details to be explicitly discussed and worn outwardly as membership badges.

The more ethnically dissimilar the folks are, the more difficulty they will have with sharing a background foundation — what language to speak, what cultural allusions can be made, what set of moral norms and methods of norm enforcement are already in effect, what the expectations for ordinary behavior are (emotive vs. restrained, intuitive vs. rational, etc.), and so on and so forth. Although diverse groups may agree on some aspects of doctrine, they will not be able to easily coordinate on the ways in which they ought to manifest them through practice.

As it turns out, though, the superficial causes of the schisms that allow ethnic groups to self-segregate are primarily over doctrine rather than practice. I think this boils down to the difficulty of having to justify why your group does things the way it does — given all the cultural foundations and frameworks of your group, how could the practice of religion turn out in a radically different way? Yet the background or foundation is too unspoken for members of the in-group to even articulate it to an out-group, let alone try to justify it.

By contrast, the reasons that your group believes the doctrine it does can be easily stated. Whether or not those reasons are convincing to the out-group, rational arguments are easy to construct and give the appearance of approaching the matter objectively, rather than appealing to subjective impulses that "given our cultural background, this is simply the way we feel that things ought to be."

That naturally invites the response of "What do you mean, 'our cultural background' and 'the way we feel'?" and all the difficulty of having to articulate the unspoken. Just say that it's over some conceptual matter, state your reasons, and either the out-group agrees with you or it doesn't. At least you've stated your case and appeared respectable, rather than closing off debate by appealing to subjective and implicit matters.

In the next post I'll review the history of schisms within Christianity and show how they proceeded more or less along ethnic lines, although I won't speculate so much on how religious character has been adapted to ethnic character across all the different groups that have adopted Christianity over the past 2000 years.

The main point will be to note the correlation between religious and ethnic identity, and not so much to explain the mechanism underlying this link, in order to caution against the assumption that people can just shift from one religious group to another willy-nilly. Where you fit in will be constrained by your ethnic and cultural background, and not so much by superficial yet easy-to-articulate matters of doctrine.


  1. I sometimes wonder if uncovering and speaking about the unspoken parts of a shared identity undermines that shared identity.

    Would a community be stronger if the mutual assumptions were explicitly recognized, or implicitly recognized? I strongly believe the latter, which is why I try to keep quiet on what bonds me to the things I care about and to not look too carefully.

    However, there's a place for higher IQ adults to try to explicitly recognize and defend the things that matter, as with no recognition of what's really sacred things get torn apart by "rational" "progressive" "discourse".

  2. Most people are incurious about what bonds them to others at the implicit level, and wave it away as boring if someone tries to bring it up. So in most cases, I wouldn't worry -- only the intellectual and reflective type is bound to "go there" in the first place.

    Now if those things are under attack, they become receptive to hearing about what they are, and why they're necessary. That may heighten their awareness long enough to preserve what had been taken for granted, but a generation or so after that, and they'll have no experience and memory of the "under siege" episode, and will go back to putting them in the implicit category.

  3. The Roman Catholic church is the only Christian sect that sees itself as universal. All other Christian sects are self-consciously self-segregated either by ethnicity or social class.

  4. Evangelicals see themselves as universal, and so do the Mormons. Add in the Roman Catholics, and you have the three main sources of missionary activity outside of the historically Christian lands, and of trying to bring those folks physically into the First World to join their spiritual brethren.

  5. The Catholic Church in the United States was pretty segregated by ethnicity for quite some time. You can usually tell the original ethnicity of a parish by which saint it's named for - St. Kevin (!) is not in a formerly Polish neighborhood.


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