Religion and the Question of Conformity

A rock band, a priest and a psychologist.

No, this isn't the beginning to a joke that has these characters walking into a bar. Rather, each of these has an interesting statement about the importance of celebrating our uniqueness and the corresponding dangers of conformity.

A few months ago I attended a concert of my favorite band from high school, who I last saw sometime in the mid-1980s: the progressive rock group Rush. As I was singing along (with a bunch of other middle-age white guys) to the song "Subdivisions," I was struck by the following lyrics: "Nowhere is the dreamer or misfit so alone. Subdivisions -- in the high school halls, in the shopping malls. Conform or be cast out. Subdivisions -- in the basement bars, in the backs of cars. Be cool or be cast out." The song is about the pressures we experience in our society to conform, from the peer pressure we face in school to the suburbs we live in as adults.

Listening to this song, I was immediately reminded of a talk I had attended the previous week by Bishop John Shelby Spong. Bishop Spong described how anthropologists explain religious intolerance as resulting from our human tendency to live in tribes. From an evolutionary standpoint, by sticking close together with those who are most like us genetically (especially our family members, but this extends to our tribe as well), we can better protect our genes from outsiders -- i.e. those not like us, those from other tribes. When I studied religion at Oxford, I read Emile Durkheim, the father of modern sociology, who examined the religious practices of aborigines in Australia. He noted that each tribe had their own deity (often represented by an animal in totemic form), and that these tribal deities came to represent the tribes themselves. He extrapolated this research to the larger world religions and equated God with society. In other words, our religious identities are tied to our societal (or tribal) identities and vice versa.

In religion, we use the word orthodoxy to describe what is the traditional view or doctrine of a religion. It's interesting to look closer at this word: orthos is the Greek word for "right, straight, or true," while doxa means "opinion." In other words, orthodoxy means the right or true opinion. For centuries the church has defined what this right opinion is, but depending on what church you go to will determine the specifics of what is orthodox. I often use the expression "Country Club Christianity" to describe the "us versus them" mentality we often see in our religion. We can clearly hear this mentality when people start to talk about who is "saved" and who isn't. In other words, to be in the club you must conform to a particular doctrine.

Throughout history, those who had the audacity to propose ideas that conflicted with the church's teachings (like Galileo who was condemned by the Catholic Church for his scientific theories) were referred to as heretics. I find it ironic that the word heretic is derived from the Greek hairetikos, which means "one who is able to choose." Thus, choosing to think for oneself in many religious contexts is a dangerous path that can lead to censorship, derision, expulsion or, tragically, even death.

We often think of the U.S. as the country that embraces individualism more than others. Our cultural icon of the "self-made person" who embraces "the American dream" is part of the mythos of our society. Yet the pressure in our individualistic society to conform is still immense. Just ask any teenager about the politics of middle or high school, and you're sure to get an earful about the pressures to act, dress and talk like the others. Former Yale psychologist Irving Janis used the term groupthink to describe the phenomenon of the conformity of group decision making. Groups of people naturally stress cohesiveness rather than individuality in their discussions. Groupthink, Janis said, often results in poor decision making because the most creative and unique (and thus non-conforming) people and ideas are excluded or silenced from the group. Much of this silencing comes from self-censorship. Most of us censor ourselves when we sense that the group we are part of is moving in another direction.

Who are your heroes? MLK? Gandhi? Mother Theresa? A former teacher or coach? A grandparent? My guess is that, whoever these people are, they were not conformists. Greatness does not arise from towing the popular line. I'm not calling for open rebellion here, but rather for us to embrace differences both within ourselves and those around us. I hesitate to even bring up the word diversity because it is not only overused, but it also conjures up images of political correctness that can be just as silencing as the conformity of the majority. Instead, why can't we encourage those aspects of ourselves and others that are unique? Can we find fascination and beauty in these differences? What can we learn from them? In the global and multicultural world we live in today, can we truly live by the words of Jesus (an extreme non-conformist!) to love our neighbors, especially when they do not look or think like us? How do you feel pressure in your own life to conform, to suppress your ideas or your true sense of who you are? What lessons can we take from the rock band, the priest and the psychologist?