Ethnicity and Religion
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
In describing and classifying ethnolinguistic peoples, we look at the distinctive elements of culture. In addition to language and social communication, various factors of group solidarity and self-identity are considered. Religion is one important cultural characteristic. How important the religious identity is varies from people to people.
In some lists of databases of ethnic groups, we see names like "Agaria, Hindu" and "Agaria, Muslim" (India). What is the role of religion in ethnicity? Is it the religious aspect of culture that is being designated? When does religion become the determining factor in identity?
My understanding of a list of ethnicities of the world is that it attempts to represent the self-identity of various human societies. We would generally consider a categorization or description of one society based on the stereotypes or prejudices of another society as unjust and at best unrealistic.
To represent self-identity we cannot preclude how a group will choose to identify itself in contrast to similar, neighbouring groups of people. Religion may be a primary factor, conscious or unconscious, for social integration and cohesion for a group. This religious identity may be the main way in which they understand themselves to be different or unique from a neighbouring people.
Natural and intuitive human social identities don't often fit clear, standard categories or nice and tidy descriptive characteristics. Humans are, if anything, creative! We distinguish ourselves from others by noting or even accentuating and developing our differences. We unify a group by emphasizing similarities. Similarities within a group may be heightened in contrast to the differences between that group as a whole and another group.
You would get the impression from looking over some listings of people groups that they came up with the groups and names then tried to make everybody fit into the abstract database categories! This impression is often even stronger when you read the discussion or explanation in text associated with the list of ethnicities.
In many cultures where religion is a primary identifying factor for distinct social or lineage groups, to "change religions" would be seen as a denial or rejection of your family, heritage, history and culture. For many, many cultures of the world, "religion" is not just an optional private personal belief. Nor is it just one social institution among many you can choose from. There is, in fact, no separate, definable category as western society has.
For example, in the Roman Empire, Rome's official religion (cultural religious character) was a Paterfamilias state paganism, with aspects of emperor worship which gained in strength from the late first century of the Christian era. What about Romans who decided not to follow the Paterfamilias state cult which sacrificed to the Emperor? Were they still Romans?
What about Romans citizens who became Christians? There was an identifiable and acknowledged population of Christians, and their churches. However, there was no Christian ethnicity at that time. There was no identifiable Christian "culture" at that time. The "Christians" were a mix of different peoples, with a predominance of Jews that diminished as the first century progressed.
The researcher or data manager does not have the option to decide or direct how the lines of relationships and association follow the lines of religious character in a particular society as contrasted with its neighbour. We can only observe and account for the patterns we discover.
As we evaluate all the various cultural characteristics, we have to discover which of those are most determinative within the self-identity of the particular people themselves. Different cultural characteristics are given different relative value in each ethnic group.
We see some related ethnic groups with two or more divisions, according to religious identity, such as Arain, Muslim; Arain, Sikh; Arain, Hindu (in India). Such a name does not necessarily mean to imply that every member of the group is Hindu, or Muslim, or whatever the case may be. Such a designation in the formal listing of an ethnic group is not meant to preclude the individual options of members of that ethnic group.
Religion in Culture
Rather, the intention is that the religious reference given reflects the distinctive culture of the group. Religion is one of the factors involved in what we call culture. Religion is one of the ethnic "descriptors" — critical factors that may be observed to identify ethnicity.
Religion is one of the factors that help define culture, and thus ethnicity. There are cultures in which the religious identity is a primary defining factor. In many cultures it does not matter.
Thus in such discussions, it is the cultural character of "religion" that is in focus when we identify a people as "Hindu" or "Christian." On the other hand, we don't need to feel compelled to over-generalize. This can lead us to feel we must define some religious aspect in the name or basic identity of the group.
The commonly agreed guiding factor is the extent to which the broad religious identity determines how the people themselves identify themselves.
Accuracy and Interpretation
The researcher wants to truly understand and accurately represent each self-identified human society. But we must understand that every representation is an interpretation. In addition, we find that some self-identities are patently unrealistic when compared with the broader range of claims by other groups and objective facts of the matter. The researcher tries to distinguish myth or legend from discernible, so-called "objective" history or fact.
So a data manager cannot simply put forth all the contradictory and mythical claims we will hear about the origins, history, identities, personages of history, etc. Some discernment and interpretation is required to provide some consistent frame of reference across the whole palette of human cultural variation.
Religion and Identity
Human ethnicities don't very well fit abstract, mathematically regular categories! Because they are people! You cannot just set arbitrary definitions and limiting categories. Sometimes what western databases call "religion" is not just a category among others. Sometimes "religion" is not just a term for a formal adherence to an institutional membership. Sometimes what westerners call "religion" is an integral, even defining characteristic of the unique ethnic identity of some human social group.
If you really want an "accurate" listing of peoples, your approach has to be scientific. You can't determine ahead of time what you will find. Patterns arise from your investigations. Similarities will exist, of course, because there are similarities among all humans. But one major characteristic of humans that we continue to confirm is their diversity!
The Problem of Diversity
Two factors further complicate the matter.
(1) In order to analyze and compare for better understanding, there is a need for standard and comparable categories and characteristics.
(2) Further, societies vary in their diversity and again in the value of diversity.
Some societies put high value on diversity, creativity, variation and innovation. Others see these as negative or destructive values and put high value on conformity and similarity. Some societies give priority to the individual over the group, while others see the group as a whole as primary. The individual derives identity and value from the group.
In the latter type of society, there is no such thing as "religion." There is only the group, which might be identifiable by some objective religious label. The worldview sees that there is that group and there are other groups differently identified, which are alien and external. There is the group. And anything which threatens the integrity of the group and the fabric of relationships among its members is anathema.
Religious values and options do not exist in some societies. So sometimes it is necessary to distinguish between two otherwise identical social entities on the basis of what westerners see as "religion." Then you have the added dimension of the formal or cultural character of the defining "religion" as compared with the actual personal faith adherence that makes some difference as a real spiritual guidance.
See also The Rough Edges of Ethnicity.
A Conceptual Problem
The western concept of "religion" as one descriptive characteristic or category among others is irrelevant or totally alien to many of the world's cultures. Western analytical and individualistic thought isolates what is defined as "religion" from life and culture in general. This is a minority position among world cultures.
While religious identity, in principle, can be the determining and defining factor in ethnic identification and communication, we need to step back and consider the role and level of validity of people group listings. Descriptive listings of peoples are only an attempt to represent a group of ethnicities (regional, global, representative, selective, etc.) in some consistent, abstracted manner that provides a stylized interpretation.
Various descriptive factors are presented for analysis and comparison. Different lists may includes different factors or descriptors, according to their interest or focus. Some might be more qualitative (explanatory, narrative). The factors chosen are arbitrary, in the sense that they are chosen by the researcher, strategist, analyst, data manager or agency to be helpful for particular reasons pertinent to that agency's or researcher's interests, goals and views.
A religious designation will almost always be one of those factors. The religious designations themselves entail some assumptions or concepts that are necessarily limiting. The categories determined for the database will affect, and to a large extent determine what is presented and how it is understood. They will be representative of a people's own self-identity to varying degrees of accuracy. The less aware the researcher, data manager or agency decision-makers are of the cultural dynamics and self-identity of the people themselves, the less representative their list or description will be.
Each list or database, then, provides one view or interpretation of those ethnicities in its list. Even the way related ethnicities are combined or separated entails some assumptions about ethnicity, or that group of ethnicities or the goals envisioned. Each of these views with its own assumptions and purposes will provide some benefit in understanding the entity or entities in view.
For instance, a development or economic agency will have certain factors in mind in their analysis of the ethnicities of a region in studying the possibilities of a product or service. Those factors may not include more detailed local factors important to an educational endeavour or medical campaign. An agency providing oral resources on cassette tape might need to consider more detailed village-to-village information than a linguistic analysis for a literacy project that might cover several spoken forms, which might be able to use one broader standardized written form of language.
Because of these necessarily arbitrary data management limitations and the assumptions of the worldview behind the list or database, these people listings may not be particularly definitive. In regard to religon, one of the factors often left out is the relationship between individuals in that ethnic group, of whatever personal faith commitments, and the broader group "religious" descriptions as a whole.
Normally it is intuitively understood that certain peoples are "Christian," and that they do, indeed, define themselves that way in regard to other similar peoples around them. But we understand that to mean culturally Christian, a separate matter from questions of individual personal faith.
We might consider the religious designation, for those peoples whose cultural ethnic identity seems to be primarily defined by their religion, as a sociological factor. Likewise, it is a valid anthropological designation or distinction. But it may be helpful to keep in mind that sociological categories draw upon a different set of perspectives from anthropology, though they relate and overlap somewhat.
Religion as Culture
The Rough Edges of Ethnicity
What is a People Group
Related on the Internet:
Race, Ethnicity and Religion — Cornell University
Online Library: Ebooks and Links
Folk religion (Ethnic Religion) — Wikipedia
This article is based on an email conference discussion with cultural researchers in various parts of the world in August and September 2003
Finalized as an article and posted on OJTR 24 October 2008
Last edited 27 March 2014
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.