Belonging to Multiple Religions? Or Owning Them?

On a recent trip I spent three days with my wife’s family. You know that drill. Awakening early (or staying quietly in your bedroom) to accommodate unfamiliar meal-times and meals. Engaging in conversations about topics you don’t know or care about. Generally adapting to life in a home that is and isn’t quite your own. It isn’t easy, because when you belong to a family you are more owned than owner.

That appears to be lost on the increasing number of Americans who profess to having “multiple religious belongings.” Americans who identify themselves as ”Buddhist-Catholics” or “Hindu-Buddhist-Kabbalists” or (in its common short form) “Bu-Jews.”

The problem with multiple religious belongings is that religion isn’t just a set of metaphysical ideas, ritual practices, theological beliefs, and ethical ideals from which individuals may choose. First and foremost a religion is a community of human beings. A person can belong to a religion, just as he or she can belong to a family. But a religion doesn’t belong to a person any more than a family can belong to a person. When I say “my family” I obviously mean something different from “my car” or “my boat.” A family name indicates to whom I belong more than what I own.

Some so-called multiple religious belonging is quite consistent with this social reality of religion. A member of a Catholic community or a Jew might practice Buddhist meditation. Or a Hindu might find that a variety of meditative practices and conceptualizations are useful to his or her religious quest. A Christian may find that some Islamic theological constructs help better conceptualize God’s nature – or that Jewish prayer rituals are deeply meaningful.

But I’ve also met a much more troublesome form of “multiple religious belonging” recently. It occurs when individuals have little commitment to any specific religious community, but put together a personal religion from bits and pieces of other religions and claim to be something like a “Hindu-Buddhist-Methodist.” They take the family names, but without belonging to the families.

This kind of  ”multiple religious ownership” (not really belonging) seems to have two roots. One is in the idea that religion is fundamentally a personal path toward some transcendent goal, and therefore can legitimately be personalized with the religious resources at hand. The second is the idea that at their roots all religions are manifestations of a universal human quest within a universally valid metaphysical framework. So if one is on the quest one has a legitimate claim to kinship with others assumed to be on the same quest.

If one believes these things – and as beliefs they are a respectable part of the contemporary human religious landscape, then of course it seems legitimate for individuals to dine at the religious smorgasbord now readily available through globalization.

But there are also problems.

First it is a problem when you name your religion for a religious community to which you hardly belong, and to which you have little or no commitment. Because to many, indeed the vast majority of Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews, the core of religion is belonging to a community – not just collecting useful religious accessories for one’s personal religious quest.

And it is a problem if you mis-represent a religion through an interpretation of its beliefs and practices that isn’t accountable to the community itself. One should not represent as “Christian” those beliefs that the vast majority of Christians over the ages have never held – at least not without explicitly recognizing that this is the case. Honest heresy is far better for inter-religious dialogue than dishonest orthodoxy.

Belonging to a religion, like belonging to a family, is ultimately a social obligation. Going on a pilgrimage with a people of faith is a very different thing than taking their name while you go it alone. And as Israel learned, the easiest thing to do with the plundered wealth of others is to make an idol and forget about God.


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