Peoples’ stated philosophical and religious adherence may bear little relationship to their ability to work together, or their common hopes for society.
This article is written partly in response to On Line Opinion debates around religion v atheism, which are depressingly sterile. It often feels like little real communication occurs. Traditional labeling of our religious/philosophy/meaning of life choices contribute to this sterility.
I find people, who seem entirely at loggerheads, discover much commonality during mediation work. I suspect this would often be true of online opponents. How much are our relationships and communications ruled by our "-isms", rather than our common humanity and aspirations?
A focus on aspirations and our common humanity can lead to a significant change of alliances, and considerable re-energising of community relationships. Free of traditional boundaries, we are able to see the relationships that really matter.
Prejudice against Catholics, although breaking down, was in the air we breathed during my childhood. But as a student, I found I had more in common with many Catholics, than members of my own denomination. Differences of understanding, and areas of complete puzzlement remained, but we discovered we had many areas in common. Also held in common was a separation from members of our own traditions. Later, in inter-faith conversations, I found the same thing.
Some see this new ecumenism as a desperate response to secularism and falling numbers. Although true in some cases, there has also been recognition of common goals and aspirations that are more important than old differences.
This is not confined to religion. In peace marches, in HEROC submissions, in visiting detention centres and so on, new relationships and alliances cut across traditional alignments of denomination, religion, political party, and philosophy.
This begs a question. In an online forum, or elsewhere, can we assume that because we are "Christian," or “Atheist,” or “Muslim,” that this means we will have much in common with another using the same label? Conversely, if I label myself “Christian,” does that mean I have any real understanding of what you mean if you call yourself “atheist?” Am I assuming some nonexistent disagreements?
David Myers explains “out-group homogeneity bias”; that is, we differ, they are all the same:
Perhaps you’ve noticed … people on the outside over generalise about the groups you are part of. They just don’t understand how varied are the people in your group … But as a member …, you understand how diverse you all are. Thus believers may have caricaturised images of the prototypical atheist (perhaps lumping Stalin with today’s humane scientific secularists … atheists sometimes return the favour, equating religion with its irrational aberrations. (A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists Jossey Bass 2008 pp14)
If we make assumptions about someone whose label is different from ours, and converse or criticise on that basis, what happens? Could it be that we fight old arguments that no longer apply? Might we be defined by our histories, rather than who we are, and what we aspire to?
And, most importantly, how much do we forfeit when we look at each other through the lens of those labels? What potential for meaningful political action, for real progress on issues of poverty, or justice, or ecology, or even simple friendship, is lost? Are we not better to look for what we hold in common, and start there?
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