Three Points

Charting Your Three Points

Before examining the main chart—or any charts built around the Core—it is important to understand that it depicts a representative reality. The churches, philosophies and faith traditions included in the main chart are situated in relation to one another, and in relation to the Core, based on what we might call an idealized or conceptualized form. In other words, the religions on the chart are situated depending on what professed followers are “expected” or “supposed” to believe. In many ways, you are seeing the institutionalized form of the religion represented¬—that is, in cases where an organized institution exists. The placement of these faiths on the main chart reflects how insider officials or outsider scholars would generally categorize these traditions.

Thus, it is important to note that the placement of religions on the chart does not mean belief is rigid or polarized. In fact, the chart is meant to display how various faiths are related, and in no way intended to suggest that a person who identifies with a faith on the right side of the chart could have no commonality of belief with a faith tradition on the left side of the chart. The chart is by no means intended to pigeonhole believers. We have attempted to show that traditions on opposite ends of the chart might indeed have important points of commonality by adding further dimension to the main chart (see, for example, our Connections Chart) in various ways.

However, those items we include on the chart, or additions we make later, are also necessarily “institutionalized” in some form. There has to be at least some agreement among officials, scholars or members to any religious tradition that ends up on one of our charts, because building charts based on anything else would be impossible. Certainly, we don’t intend to ignore points of disagreement. We endeavor to show minority opinions through alternative charts (see, for example, our Devil’s Advocate Chart of the Big Five). But there is a limit to how well we can represent the true diversity of real belief in textual or pictorial form.

Consider, for example, Gavin Langmuir’s [1] concept of a dual-tiered reality of religion. In attempting to come up with a definition of religion, he realized that in every faith tradition with any sort of institutional organization, there is a level of faith, doctrine, practice, etc. prescribed by appointed institutional authorities (called “religion” by Langmuir [pg. 136]), but at the same time, there is what happens in reality, what each individual person actually believes and actually does (called individual “religiosity” by Langmuir [pg. 160]). So, while many people may profess to belong to the same “religion,” their individual “religiosity” may vary widely from one person to the next.

Due to a variety of factors, the character of any particular person’s faith might sample from traditions all over the chart. Take the following example, which we hope you will agree is entirely realistic for the modern American context:

Imagine a Muslim high school student. She has grown up in America belonging to a self-identified Muslim family. She has celebrated traditional Muslim holidays like Ramadan, in addition to holidays from mainstream American culture. Growing up she celebrated Christmas with her family, not thinking it had anything to do with religion, only finding out later when she started going to the local Catholic school that Christmas is declared by Christians as a religious holiday. Her family is politically and culturally liberal, and she has always left her head uncovered; as she gets to the age where she is approaching college, thinking about her goals in life and her beliefs, it turns out that her personal philosophy is to be an atheist, but that doesn’t stop her from continuing to celebrate either her Muslim family traditions or Christmas.

Clearly, the girl in the above scenario could not be located on the chart with a single point. Nor could her precise blend of religious beliefs and affiliations be represented on the chart—after all, if we made a special slot for her, we’d have to make one for everybody, and that would be a truly impossible enterprise.

While we cannot make enough branches or subsets to represent with razor accuracy the precise make-up of every person’s religious beliefs, we can use the chart in a multi-dimensional way so to understand the diversity of human belief.

When looking at the chart, consider first that its branches and subsets represent a form of “religion” in its conceptual form. To understand how religion as an institution or concept works for individual believers, we ask that you look at it through the lens of individual “religiosity”—in other words, a particular person’s belief system may not be located in the same place on the chart as the “religion” they belong to.

At this juncture, you may have come to the same realization that P.K. did—no individual’s beliefs can be accurately represented with a single locus on the chart. Early in the formation of Charting Pluralism, he decided to try out an idea for a new feature on the site. He asked one of the Charting Pluralism staffers to locate herself on the chart. “Where do your personal beliefs fall?” he asked. She was hesitant to answer. This was not at all unexpected for P.K. He knew it would be difficult for most people to summon the personal honestly to pinpoint their location accurately on the chart. But the staffer’s hesitance turned out to be for a different reason. “I can’t pick just one place,” she told him. While she was not hesitant to identify her personal beliefs as agnostic, she still had a strong cultural identification with her Catholic upbringing. Could this staffer truly be both Catholic and Agnostic? And if so, what would the chart mean for her? Would she find it as useful or meaningful as a devout, dyed-in-the-wool Catholic? What good would the chart be if it only represented the religious reality for the most devout within any tradition?

Pondering this turn of events, P.K. realized that in order to use the chart to understand the beliefs and experience of individuals (i.e. what Langmuir would call “religiosity”) then people would have to locate themselves on the chart using more than just one point. Considering further, P.K. came to the conclusion that in fact three points would be necessary to capture the complexity of human belief.

True to form, P.K. sought a visual conception of this new mode for understanding the chart. He pictured these three dimensions of religious belief as the sides of a triangle, which in turn would encompass the chart as a guiding principle:

These three aspects of individual religious experience capture a fuller picture of how each person fits into the chart. For each of these three dimensions of faith, a particular person might locate him-/herself in three different places, in two or in one. The devout Catholic might place her three points in one single location while the Muslim high school girl would be quite literally “all over the map.” Let’s take a moment to look at each of the three dimensions individually:

AFTERLIFE: Whether you believe that you’ll be greeted by a choir of angels when you die, or that it will be the end of all experience, your personal belief in what happens after death is in many ways a microcosm of what you believe the spiritual nature of the universe to be. Is there a God waiting for you? Is there a nirvana or unity with nature? Will there be a ceasing of all consciousness? Or do you feel like it’s impossible to know? Life after death might seem like just one doctrine in the larger construct of religion, but understanding your belief in the afterlife is a gateway to many other aspects of belief, including the nature of the universe, the existence of the supernatural, the number, role and reality of deities. By pinpointing your afterlife belief on the chart, you are effectively locating your take on the Ultimate Reality of nature, and in many cases you will be identifying the religion whose cosmological assertions you agree with.

LIFESTYLE: Regardless of what you believe the hereafter might hold, the way you live your daily life says something important and something different about you than simply what deities or transcendental realities you believe in. Your lifestyle is essentially how you enact the code you live by. On the one hand, your lifestyle includes traditionally religious questions such as whether you pray, and how often, whether you attend religious services or gatherings and how regularly, whether you wear emblems of your faith, display them around your house or car, whether you embark on any sort of pilgrimage big or small. On the other hand, lifestyle includes the ethical and moral choices you make in your daily life, and even which choices you consider questions of ethics and morals. What does the sum of these items amount to? This is in many ways a more interpretive decision process than pinpointing where you stand on Afterlife questions. Do you live a “Christian life” even if you’re an atheist? Do you practice yoga or other meditation regularly for the purpose of spiritual enrichment without necessarily believing in reincarnation, nirvana or Buddha-hood? In order to locate your second point on the chart, ask yourself which tradition best exemplifies how you live your daily life.

HERITAGE: Our beliefs about the nature of the universe and the daily life we lead share the commonality of being more or less within our power to choose. Ethical decisions and ritual practice are the results of decisions big and small that we make every day. Grand cosmological beliefs—while they might sometimes seem like a forgone conclusion, rather than a choice—are ultimately the result of weighing one’s options and conceding to the solution that feels most valid. Unless you live in such a closed community that you have never been exposed to any alternative belief system (in which case, we doubt you’re reading this website), you have made a choice to believe in whatever afterlife you believe in. Our religious heritage, on the other hand, is not within our realm to choose. Consider, for example, this colloquial terminology used by many American heritage Catholics—when asked “What religion are you?” some of them may answer, “I’m a recovering Catholic.” Likewise, consider the example of the Muslim high school girl whose heritage is not chosen, but is nonetheless an important part over her overall “religious” identity. The extent to which any believer follows his/her heritage tradition varies—some might rebel or reject it entirely, others may keep select traditions while dispensing with others (e.g. going to church only on Easter or Christmas), while others may follow their heritage tradition to the letter such that it coincides precisely with their Lifestyle and Afterlife traditions. It is, after all, important to note that these three points aren’t strictly autonomous. There are many ways in which they may overlap. Heritage may affect the other two in a number of ways, but for the third and final point, look to the faith tradition in which you were raised.

So, go ahead and make an attempt to plot yourself on the chart. Find the three locations on the chart that best exemplify these three aspects of religion in your life. Indicate your Afterlife belief with a “1,” your Lifestyle with a “2” and your Heritage with a “3.” You may have an easy time of it—if all the points land in the same location then your “religion” and “religiosity” match up pretty closely. For many people, two points may coincide while the third lands elsewhere; for example, converts to a particular faith tradition might locate their afterlife belief and lifestyle in the same place while placing their heritage mark in the area of the religion from which they converted. The atheist or agnostic might put the first two points together while locating the third in the religion where they grew up.

We acknowledge that this exercise may be uncomfortable for a lot of people. After all, many hierarchies of traditional religions would have us believe that all members ought to follow what the religion’s authorities say to the letter. Likewise, many atheists might frown on those who profess an atheist philosophy and yet continue to participate in rituals from their heritage faith. If your three marks (or even your first two) don’t fall in the same place, does that mean there’s something wrong?

Look around… we think you’ll find that individuals holding a plurality of beliefs is the norm, not some sort of aberration. And furthermore, it’s nothing new. Throughout history, the majority of people have held unique and pluralistic individual “religiosities”—from commoners to kings and even clergy—whereas the adherent bent on singularity of belief is more often the exceptional case.

In order truly to embrace the pluralism of culture and religion in the modern world, ought we not first to understand the plurality of our own beliefs? If we use this chart to re-imagine our own religious faith, to go beyond the concept of “I’m this and you’re that…”, we can better understand religious faiths with which we are not yet familiar.

[1] Langmuir, Gavin I. History, Religion, and Anti-Semitism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

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