Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

How much do our '-isms' really matter?

By Andrew Prior - posted Thursday, 12 February 2009

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?

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. All

First published in A church (re)wired on February 3, 2009.

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

26 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Andrew Prior is a Minister of the Word in The Uniting Church in Australia with degrees in Agriculture and Theology. He has worked in Aboriginal communities, on farms, in Uniting Church congregations and in Information Technology.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Andrew Prior

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Article Tools
Comment 26 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy