One of the projects I’ve been working on recently is research into the development of religious identity as a contextual component of overall identity development. I had the opportunity over the summer to work with two of my professors to write a paper that will be published this fall, which is very exciting! I used that project as a springboard to launch me into some new research that I can hopefully continue to pursue after my schooling ends.
I’ll be honest, when I initially set out on my research, I was biased. I was on a mission to prove that religion (and in particular, Christianity) can be dangerous because it is often used to oppress and marginalize people groups who do not fit within the established teachings of the church (or other religious body). Certainly, that is a narrative that exists and needs to be addressed. Denial of a dark history and present problems does not resolution bring (see my post on history). There is plenty of research showing that aspects of religiosity are associated with various forms of mental illness, issues in identity development, engagement in risk behavior, and marked intolerance for “others” that are outside of the religious group. And yet religion has also been established as a positive influence in development, with various measures of religiosity being associated with prosocial behavior, avoidance of risk behaviors, and resiliency in times of stress.
So, the question is, why is religion a positive force in the lives of some individuals and communities and an oppressive force in others?
Perhaps part of the answer lies in the degree to which an individual continually feels accepted by his or her religious group. We all go through different stages in the development of an identity, and we have a basic need to feel accepted and loved for who we are. Perhaps this explains the incredible conversion experience that sometimes happens when an individual who has felt rejected in other facets of life finally finds acceptance in the arms of a loving God. Specific religions, however, such as Christianity, typically draw boundaries at some point to indicate who is “in” and who is “out”; there are certain sacrifices the individual must make in order to be accepted as a member of that community. This happens in every facet of life; whether it be following a dress code at work or keeping your lawn well-groomed as a requirement of the neighborhood in which you live. Certain behaviors are deemed as dangerous, either for spiritual, moral, or physical safety reasons. So what happens when a salient part of one’s identity is deemed as inherently wrong by one’s religion?
Say, for example, that I have been attracted to men for as long as I can remember. I have prayed multiple times for this “desire of the flesh”, to borrow from the Apostle Paul, to be taken away but nothing changes. I still feel deeply connected to my religion and God and finally come to recognize myself as a gay man. If I belong to a religion that accepts this choice, I will likely continue on happily in that religious tradition. But if I belong to a group that tells me the love I feel is sin, and must be dealt with, and perhaps I just have to be alone for the rest of my life, then I have a choice to make. Which part of my identity is more important?
Or, say I grow up asking a lot of questions and always have doubt about what I am taught. If I am growing up in a religion that is okay with a sense of doubt, then I will likely flourish in my development and happily continue on for years. If, however, I receive the message that questioning is bad and I should just “have faith”, then I feel as though a driving part of my identity is bad, so I attempt to repress it in order to continue gaining acceptance in my religious group. As I have written about before, repression does not make anything go away, so two parts of my identity are in conflict.
The question of how this conflict is resolved, or whether it is resolved is of critical importance. If I am able to gain acceptance from my religion, my family, or another positive social reference group then I will be more likely to reach a resolution to the conflict and experience positive outcomes. If, however, I am unable to gain acceptance, then I have a choice. I can either find a group that will accept me as I perceive myself to be (whether this group be a positive or negative influence, we cannot underestimate the power of acceptance and a sense of belonging) or I can attempt to remove or “work through” the part of my identity that is deemed as unacceptable. The latter, unfortunately, has been linked with numerous adverse outcomes.
I have much more research to do, with many more thoughts to come. For now, I think it is an important conversation to start.
Feel free to share your thoughts and reactions by leaving a comment below!