No matter how much time I spend in Israel or how fully confident of my spiritual identity and beliefs I may be, I don’t know if I’ll ever be sure how to answer this question here. It’s an issue I wish I could resolve, though, because the question seems at times ubiquitous in this country.
A few weeks ago, I was spending some time at the inn next door. My work shift had ended, and I was sitting in the starlit courtyard, chatting with a small group of people gathered around a tiny wicker table and a bottle of wine recently extracted from someone’s backpack. As we got to know each other, the above question was again posed to the group, as it always seems to be when travelers in Israel begin chatting. So, are you guys religious? As I was sitting next to the question-asker, all eyes turned to me to answer first. I glanced at the speaker, quickly assessing everything I’d learned about him so far. He and his girlfriend were traveling together from Germany. Super liberal. Secular. Self-proclaimed atheists. Okay, yeah, I thought. Compared to them, yes. I guess I’m “religious.” I believe in God. I go to church. I pray. They would probably consider that religious. So I mumbled something nondescript, explaining that yeah, I was raised Christian and my faith means a lot to me. The Germans nodded vaguely and shifted their gaze to the next in the circle.
Sitting to my right was Ameer, a 23-year-old Muslim from Nazareth who also works at the inn. His English wasn’t perfect, so we half-translated the question for him. Are you religious? He listened to the translation, cocked his head to the side, and shrugged his shoulders. “Normal,” he said. And the focus of conversation shifted again, rotating another space to the right.
First of all, if you’re coming from the same base concept of religiosity that I am, you’ll understand my question: what the heck could “normal” possibly mean in this context? How could there be such a thing? And, secondly, I was genuinely surprised by Ameer’s response. I’d had a few conversations with him about faith and God and spirituality and had found him meaningfully conversant on subjects like sin, humility before God, seeking His will, etc. He’s thought about these things and what they mean to him as a person who believes in God. So, though I by no means consider my own opinion authoritative or even necessarily relevant, I instinctively would have counted him as “religious” when the Germans asked.
A few hours later, Ameer and I were both sitting in the lobby, drinking coffee and occasionally chatting with Heidi, the Finnish volunteer who was staffing reception for the night. As Heidi became busy with a particularly high-maintenance Argentinian guest whose pillow was just not soft enough, Ameer and I revisited the conversation. He asked me to go over a few parts, explaining in a combination of Hebrew and Arabic the things he had missed in English. We discussed the religion question, and I expressed my surprise at his response. “You know,” I said, trying to explain why I would have expected a different answer, “I kind of feel like religious in English means something different than it does in Hebrew or Arabic.
“How?” he asked.
I thought about it. I thought about Hebrew language school the summer after my sophomore year when, for the first time, I was a minority surrounded by an overwhelmingly Jewish majority. I remembered an oral report one of my classmates gave in which she offhandedly mentioned a Christian atheist living in Israel. I looked around the room, waiting for someone else to contradict her or flinch at the mistake or even look confused. Nothing. A few days later, on a Saturday night, I was relaxing with a friend from the same class. Each of us was draped across an entire couch, our heads hanging limply from the armrests, seemingly weighted down with the week’s vocabulary. She asked what my plans were for the next day, and I told her I was getting up in the morning to go to church. She sat up a little and asked me (in Hebrew, of course), “Oh, are you religious?”
“Oh, yeah, I guess. I thought you knew that!”
“I mean, of course I knew you were Christian. I didn’t know you were religious, though.”
Looking back, I think this was the first time my perception of the word religious was challenged. I grew up in rural, small-town, homogenous, white America. More or less. This homogeneity meant that religion was primarily a matter associated with personal belief; if you believed in the God of Christianity, you claimed for yourself the label Christian. If not, you chose another adjective to categorize your religion-based identity: atheist. Agnostic. Buddhist. Your religion wasn’t necessarily attached to any other fundamental part of your background, heritage, or identity; it didn’t contribute to any complex us/them dichotomy that was crucial to your processing of the world around you. I’m not saying religion was simpler or more pure against this backdrop; factors like family history and societal expectation definitely still influenced the way each one of us saw and evaluated our own beliefs. But we weren’t born into a community where you could walk down the streets and identify exactly how the people around you were born as inherently different from you and your family; on the contrary, most people in our town were born into the same basic circumstances and broad demographic categories. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve come to really value diversity and to understand that we missed a lot of richness in this homogeneity; at the same time, because of it, we weren’t taught to think of religion – or, really, anything else – as something you were born with that inevitably defined who you were or what societal group you belonged to; rather, we saw it as a decision – an identity you could choose to claim for yourself.
In Israel, until just a few years ago, the ID card issued to every citizen included two identity categories: citizenship (אזרחות) and nationality (לאום). Citizenship was listed as Israeli. Possible categories for nationality included, among others, Jew, Christian, and Muslim. Nationality. There’s actually a broad genetic formula for the way this “nationality” is transmitted; whatever your mother is, you are. I was reading a few articles to check my facts before writing this blog post and discovered some online Q&A forums for people filling out paperwork to receive their IDs. One young adult preparing to receive his ID explained, “My father is Jewish, but my mother isn’t; she considers herself completely atheist. On my mom’s side of the family, there are a few Christians; previous generations were also mostly Christian.” He went on to ask what nationality would appear on his ID. The first response: “If your mother is Christian, you’re Christian.” The author of the original post then added, “But I think my mom sort of converted to Judaism.” The next response: “What do you mean, sort of? Ask her what’s written on her ID. If it says Jewish, you’re Jewish; if it says Christian, you’re Christian. If she converted, you’re apparently Jewish. If she converted after you were born, then it’s complicated and I have no idea how it works.”
These labels that I have always associated with a personal decision are here as much a result of one’s birth as the family name. So saying I’m a Christian reveals as little about my religiosity as saying I’m a Stork does about my flight capabilities. For this reason, it seems, “Are you religious?” doesn’t mean “Would you describe yourself as Muslim/Christian/Jewish?” Of course you are one of those things. Everyone is. Regardless of personal belief. Atheists aren’t just atheists; they are Christian atheists and Jewish atheists and Muslim atheists.
What does the question mean here, then? As I tried to formulate an answer for Ameer, I thought back to the mud-spattered Israel National Trail hikers that had wandered into our inn one night. After dropping their bags on the dorm beds, the group of recently released soldiers in their early twenties started in on an evening of relaxation and beer. As they wandered around, sipping from their bottles of Goldstar, they began to chat with me. Once we got past the “You speak Hebrew?!” and the “Are you sure you aren’t Russian?” parts of the conversation, we moved on to the logical next question. Drumming his fingers against the reception counter as he watched me ring up another beer, one of the guys asked, “So. Are you religious?”
It was late and I didn’t feel like guessing games, so I just asked. “What do you mean?”
“You know. Keep kosher. Observe Shabbat. That stuff.”
Ah. A quick “Oh, I’m not Jewish” resolved the question in this particular context. But his definition of religious was telling.
If you do a quick image search of the word religious in Hebrew, you get dozens of pictures of men with prayer shawls, side curls, and tefillin at the Western Wall. The word carries with it the idea of strict observance of certain traditions and rituals, hinting strongly at some kind of proximity to orthodoxy. I tried to summarize this difference for Ameer. “When tourists ask each other in English if they’re religious, I think the word means that you believe in God more or less as He is presented by a particular religion and that that belief affects how you live and see the world. Something like that.”
“Ah. Then yes, I am religious.”
“But in Hebrew, it means…you know. Orthodox. Tradition. Right? And it’s…kind of similar in Arabic?”
“Yeah. I would not say in Arabic that I am a religious Muslim. For us, it means going to the mosque to pray all the time…never drinking alcohol…not sleeping with girls…”
Sly grin. “I’m not crazy, you know?”
So. What does it mean when people ask me, “Are you religious?” I’m still working on figuring it out. There’s obviously a lot of contextual guesswork involved: what does the word mean to the ones doing the asking? What connotations have their background and culture infused into the concept? How does my level of religiosity measure against their preconceived standards?
And, in all this – what does the word mean to me? Another thing I’m still trying to figure out. A few months ago, while working at my summer job on a Christmas tree farm, I caught myself asking the very same question that has been for me the source of so much consternation. While swinging my long and very dull knife at the unruly spruce branches in front of me, I listened as Lisa in the next row over recounted some small incident that had occurred while at church with Lucy, another member of our tree-shearing crew over the weekend. Having never heard Lucy mention anything faith-related before, I asked Lisa: “Oh, is she religious?” (I don’t think I would ever have asked that question before having lived in Israel.)
Lisa pursed her lips. “We don’t really use the R-word,” she explained. Continuing, she recited a familiar line: “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.”
Despite my resounding hatred of these types of cheesy, trite, often alliterative Christian cliches, I’ve spent most of my life upholding this perspective. I remember going to youth group when I was 13 or 14 years old and being told, “It isn’t about religion. You can be religious about brushing your teeth! Following Jesus is more than just mindlessly doing the same thing every day.” And something about that stuck with me, somehow, and continued to make sense as I grew in my faith. Yes, my connection to the person of Jesus and to the Christian faith is relational. It’s something I feel and interact with on a spiritual, emotional level. As a result of this relational faith, however, I do choose to observe certain traditional behaviors; I pray, read the Bible, go to church, participate in communion. I do these things to be closer to God, not because they have some value in and of themselves as repetitive actions that are an integral part of my identity. I realize, though, that those actions, by some standards, are sufficient to categorize me as “religious,” despite any valiant Christian attempts to dissociate the faith from that word.
Ultimately, though, in my experience, the religion question, when posed in the United States, is an invitation to a conversation. It’s asking you to place yourself somewhere on a very fluid continuum and is usually accompanied by follow-up questions. What do you believe? Why? How does that manifest itself in your life? How did you come to this state? I’m not naively claiming that every American is dying to know their friends’ answers to all these questions; but I do think that these elements are understood to be factors that comprise each individual’s unique religious identity. Again, the idea of a nuanced continuum seems really relevant: just because you religiously define yourself one way doesn’t mean that any other person is religious in the same way or to the same degree as you.
Maybe this is the source of my problem. Israel is an incredibly polarizing place. Us vs. Them is inevitable. In nearly every system of categorization and self-identification, you have to be either one thing or another. There’s very little place for “other” or “check as many boxes as apply.” Religious identity unquestionably falls under the influence of this mindset. Either you are religious and adhere to some specific set of traditional behaviors and value their centrality in your identity as a Jew/Christian/Muslim/whatever, or you aren’t religious. You might be something…you might believe in God, and that may be an important part of how you view the world…but you aren’t religious. Two categories: religious or not religious. That’s it. There’s no continuum. There’s no category for “spiritual” or “person of faith” or “I just want to love God and love the people around me and that’s all that matters.” In my head, I can call myself any of these things if I like; and when asked about my religiosity, I can equivocate and argue these semantical issues for a while, trying to avoid a committal answer by explaining what I specifically believe. But usually, either people’s eyes glaze over and they give an indifferent nod before quickly changing the subject or they assume you’re trying to convert them and hastily say something vague to clarify that they aren’t interested. I’ve witnessed both responses numbers of times when observing conversations between well-intentioned Christian tourists and locals. There may be room for a valuable discussion of faith somewhere down the road; but that’s not what most Israelis are looking for when they ask you if you’re religious. They’re looking for a simple, black-and-white, unequivocal claiming of a category of identity that helps them to define you. They’re asking you to say yes or no. And I don’t know how.