Do People Need Religious Labels?

The human mind has a knack for categorizing and labeling everything it encounters. When we meet new people, our brains begin slapping on labels based on physical appearance, before moving on to personality traits and life experiences. Delving into hobbies, politics and religion can be a shortcut for answering the evolving question of "just who is this other person?"

But what do our political and religious labels really say about us? And what does it say when your religious label is "none"?

What's your sign?

In relationships, we can certainly have close ties to people who come from different backgrounds and have different beliefs. Yet, when given the choice, studies support the idea that we are drawn to friends who are similar to ourselves. Which may be why we look for clues to help define the people we meet.

Are you a democrat, a republican or an independent? Are you conservative or liberal? Do you know your Myers-Briggs type? Where are you from? What's your religion?

All these self-identifying labels begin to build an outline of who other people may be and how we might (or might not) want to interact with them. Of course, in reality, these labels barely scratch the surface and can hold multiple meanings--especially when it comes to religion.

What's in a name?

If we think of labels as getting-to-know-you shortcuts, what does the question of religion really seek to answer? Is it asked to find out about your community (church) involvement? Is it meant to show your character or societal views? Is it supposed to illustrate the life you lead?

It's probably a little of all of these things, yet a religious label alone doesn't necessarily answer these questions. For one thing, many Americans do not know much about world religions, which makes a label other than their own religion rather meaningless. For another, people may use the same religious label to describe very different outlooks and lifestyles.

For atheists, the "no religion" answer may mean being pegged with some very negative traits. Perhaps that's because some people imagine all the positive traits of religion (morality, charity, kindness, etc.) and assume atheists must be the opposite--without realizing that religion is not the only path to those qualities.

What non-belief doesn't say

While religious labels have their limitations, they at least attempt to say what a person believes. The atheist label, however, only says what someone does not believe.

Now, I like the atheist label. I think it's a useful term and one that we shouldn't be afraid to embrace. But it doesn't fully answer the intention of the getting-to-know-you religion question. For that reason, it may be useful for atheists to follow up their "none" with a brief answer about their ethical system or life philosophy. Or use the opportunity to share a personal passion.

In addition to not being religious, I also identify as a secular humanist. But how you answer the question is entirely up to you. Maybe your "religion" is the driving force in your life. Maybe it's fitness, music, photography or whatever shapes your life and gives it a deeper meaning.

People are more complex than the sum of their labels, but that doesn't stop us from using those labels to form opinions about each other. While we may not need religious labels, we also don't have to be defined by our lack of religion alone.

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