Religious identity

It is collective identity, rather than the self-identity discussed above, that is typically invoked by the term ‘religious identity’. 1 will consider arguments that point in this direction here, too, in order to explore further the notion of religious agency. The concept of collective identity - not the identity of groups but of individuals in regard to existing or imagined groups (in the sense of Anderson 2006) - has been justly criticized wherever it has postulated a permanent, or even exclusive, individual awareness of belonging to (or being excluded from or opposed to) some social group and a likewise permanent self-description as a member on the part of those who are ascribed permanent membership.6 However, given the empirically validated effects on individual communicative behaviour of even vague forms of belonging, as demonstrated by work on social identity theory,7 it would be a loss to fully jettison the concept. In order to develop an empirically rich model of religion, that is, one that covers a wide range of phenomena, it is useful to supplement the perspective on communication implied in the concept of agency with the concept of collective identity, situating such collectives above all on the intermediate level of local groups (see, more generally, Fine 2010). For antiquity, given the widespread lack of individual narratives and written self-reflections, communication about collective identities is the most fruitful way into religious identities. For example, Mary Beard has argued for an interpretation of dedicatory inscriptions, one of the most frequent religious ego-documents from antiquity, as declarations of belonging (Beard 1991, cf. Woolf 2012).

At the same time, it is necessary to employ a differentiated and dynamic concept of such identities. Research in social psychology has made a number of attempts to develop such a concept, for instance by differentiating the three factors of cognitive centrality: for the agent, in-group affect, and in-group obligations (Cameron 2004, 241). Approaches of this sort have recently been used for the analysis of contemporary situations of religious plurality.8

Here, 1 will follow the proposal of three psychologists from New York who argue for a sevenfold scheme of factors that, they suggest, fully, distinctively, and sufficiently grasp the key facets of the phenomenon of an individual’s collective identity. Again, religion is of no importance for their modelling, but their basic approach to identity fits nicely into my individual-biased model. All factors are conceptualized at the level of the individual, not that of a group. Nevertheless, by virtue of its referring to a collectivity, such a collective identity is part of the process of developing an individual Self. The role of religion in the constitution of the self is interesting as a field of historical variation, as noted above in the discussion of Taylor’s concept of agency, but it cannot be a necessary element in a definition of religion.

The elements listed by Ashmore, Deaux, and McLaughlin-Volpe are selfcategorization; the evaluation of the membership (whatever its form) by individuals and their perception of the judgements of others; the importance ascribed to this particular group membership; the attachment, namely the emotional involvement that is felt and the sense of interdependence which potentially leads to a large overlap of personal and collective identity; ’the degree to which a particular collective identity is embedded in the person’s everyday ongoing relationships’ (social embeddedness); the shaping of this person's behaviour by the particular collective identity; and, finally, the whole cognitive dimension of imaginations and narratives about the values, characteristics, and history of the relevant group as known and entertained by the person.9 To just hint at one example of the usefulness of analytical differentiation, in late antiquity the feeling of belonging to a deity like Dionysos and to a group of his venerators might be strong, yet lacking in consequences for one’s daily life; membership might be judged in a highly positive way, yet be rarely invoked (see Massa 2014). Similarly, most ‘Christians' do not act in the role of ‘Christian’ when we find them on city councils or in circuses (Rebillard 2012).

Given common critiques of many concepts of religions, it is important to stress that ‘group’ does not imply any organized association but can be any situational grouping of actors (not only living human beings) or even an ‘imagined society’ to which the individual ascribes him- or herself or from which the observers distance themselves. Of course, this might lead to highly complex collective identities and multiple belongings to, as well as distan-cings from, such imagined groups (Ashmore, Deaux, and McLaughlin-Volpe 2004, 84).

How religion is involved in a particular historical and cultural context, and how this might change over time or in processes of complex exchanges and hybridization, is exactly what must be the object of historical inquiry. Scholars of religion should be concerned with familial identities relating to primary social groups, as well as with secondary groups. They should be concerned with the different roles of local, regional, and trans-regional identities and transfers, and the interferences between them. It is of the utmost importance to avoid any essentializing of these groups and associations even in the face of monumental evidence. Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu, archaeologists focusing on material survivals have warned about directly inferring hardened social relationships from material objects or the mere fact of living in the same place (van Dommelen, Gerritsen, and Knapp 2005, 56). The local and the socially close seem to promise archaic stability, but such a supposition is treacherous. They are likewise just momentary snapshots of movements (Vâsquez 2008, 167, drawing on Appadurai 2000).

Is my model still economical now that it has been complicated by the notion of identity? One might conceptualize religious identities as particular frameworks of situations (cf. Emirbayer and Mische 1998, 992, who point to the frequently rather retrospective character of the concept of identity) and hence integrate them into the theoretical communication model of agency. Likewise, agency might be described as a situational consequence of identities (Ashmore, Deaux, and McLaughlin-Volpe 2004, 1014). However, by distinguishing between identity and agency in the analysis of religion as communication, the dynamics and diachronic structure of the concept of agency can be combined with a rather synchronic analysis of the horizontal structure of social context. Thus, importance is attributed to both poles. Finally, by replacing an essentia-lized concept of religions (plural) with a complex model of collective and individual identities, we are able to analyse processes involved in the formation of (often short-lived) religious groups in their different paths and varying strengths. The latter is crucial for my historical interest in the transformation of religion into religions in the ancient Mediterranean, as sketched in Chapter 1 of this volume (cf. Riipke 2018).

 
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