The Liability of Religion Labels

Labels can be great. You can look at can labels and find out whether what you’re getting ready to eat is good for you. You can read labels on machinery and learn that you should really think twice before sticking your hand in there. I am a big fan of those kinds of labels.

Lima beans cans

But, when it comes to labeling people, I’m not a fan at all. A can of beans is pretty much the same as another can of beans with the same label. That just doesn’t work with people. Two “Sally Anns” might be so different as to make us wonder (if we are fond of labeling people) why in the world they have the same name. Each of us is so different, in fact, that “labels” don’t communicate any interesting or useful information about us at all.

I’ll give you an example.

If I said, “I am a Christian,” that doesn’t really tell you much. The details are all missing. Am I a member of a denomination that believes in the Bible literally or as fables that one is supposed to learn from? Do I believe that my route to heaven involves good works or prayer or dancing? Do I drink? Do I not drink? And even more important than any of the above, am I a good person or a complete jerk? I have met Christians who are both. The label “Christian” doesn’t tell me if this person will be a good friend or a bad one.

Similarly, if I said, “I am a Scientologist,” that doesn’t tell you much. It is a label. You have to meet me and talk to me to find out what I am all about.

Years ago, I was at my husband’s 20-year high school reunion. It was right after a particularly slanted article was written about Scientology in a news magazine, which the magazine would later retract, paying damages for its lies.

Christian monk
A painting of a Christian monk by Peter Paul Rubens.

I was sitting there with one of the monks who had taught my husband in Catholic school. He looked at my husband and me and, with a bit of a twinkle in his eye, said, “Boy, you guys are sure getting a shellacking in the press!

I looked at him out of the corner of my eye and said, “Yeah, well at least we’re not getting fed to the lions.” He chuckled and then said, “Oh, that came later. That didn’t start happening until about 100 years later.”

“Oh, great. Something to look forward to!” I replied, and his chuckle graduated to a full-blown laugh.

We then had a great conversation about Scientology. He told me a story about how a Scientologist had come to their rescue when a project they were trying to do became completely stalled. He observed the guy and how he worked. This was the first Scientologist he had met and his Scientologist “label” had attached to it the experiential adjectives “helpful” and “efficient.” At the same time my Catholic Monk label now had attached to it experiential adjectives such as “funny” and “intelligent.”

If you didn’t know what was in a can and you put a label on it based on what someone else told you was inside, you might label it wrong. If you put a label on a human being and thought that would get you anywhere in terms of making sense of him, you’d find you were mistaken. There are no two people in the world who are the same. There are no two people in any religion that are the same. Let’s get out of the habit of labeling people and into the practice of getting to know them. It’s actually much more fun!


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