Drawing Distinctions

edgereligionsDid you see this graphic making the rounds on the internet? As a scholar of religion I tend to think of the term “a religion” as naming — whether one agrees with classifying the world in this way or not — the members of a family often called “the world’s religions.” So, while Christianity is “a religion,” Methodism is not, for it is but a type of Christianity, as are Southern Baptists. But that’s not how this graphic works, for it concludes that there are 31 religions represented in the US House of Representatives (with the most dominant each getting their own color on the map), “including 26 different sects of Christianity.”

It’s a fascinating map for a variety of reasons. First off, not much has changed since an earlier era when scholars had no trouble introducing nuanced levels of distinction when it came to understanding the familiar but no distinction whatsoever when it came to the other. (For example, see the table of contents for this once classic textbook.) After all, should we wish to work with the world religions rubric, we could easily begin subdividing Jews or Buddhists into their own internal divisions and debates, of which there are a number. But not so with this map. So the degree to which distinction is (or is not) drawn makes evident who is drawing (because they do or do not see) distinctions.

But what I find even more interesting is that classifying all of these denominations as separate religions, and thereby affording each their own bright color, lends the impression of tremendous diversity in the U.S. Federal government — just look at it: it’s a colorful, crazy quilt of difference, after all — whereas, should we not drill down to the level of difference presupposed by the map, then there is actually utter uniformity. For if all of the Christian denominations (what the website quaintly calls “sects”) were just one color, you could imagine what the map would look like then. But does that look fit our (or at least some of our) sense of the U.S. as a pluralistic, 21st century nation?

Which brings to mind the student freshly arrived in the U.S. from India who was enrolled in one of my early classes at the University of Tennessee (where I started my career in 1993) and who came to my office after class one day. We had been discussing the history of Christianity in class and he was utterly (and sincerely, so far as I could tell) puzzled by the heated debate that had arisen among his classmates concerning differences among various Reformation-era denominations. His trouble, of course, was that from where he sat they all looked the same: “They all believe in Jesus and one God, and heaven and hell, and go to church on Sunday…,” he started to say, making evident that what for others constituted difference was for him unrecognizable given the overpowering sameness that he saw.

2 Replies to “Drawing Distinctions”

    1. The viewpoint of the student I referenced, I guess. There were differences of no consequence to him and thus he did not see them. But I’m guessing that many scholars of religion in the U.S., at least, probably can’t see the material in that way since we all know (sarcasm intended) what a startling difference there is between, say, Catholics and Southern Baptists…. That is, seeing some distinctions as differences that matter (or not) is how we reproduce identities that we come to take for granted.

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