Many things affect what we believe about the world, God, ethics, politics, and other valuative topics–how we were raised, the type of education we received or sought, the kinds of people we associate with, the type of work we do, our life experiences. What we do and who we spend time with seem to affect our beliefs as much as the other way around. Those who took Social Psychology know I’m splashing in the shallow end of the pool here.
I thought about this again while reading an article in The Daily Beast, “Half of Atheist Kids Wind Up Believing” (Zavadski, 13 May 2015). The article looks at a few reasons for this trend (even questioning the trend itself), and “reference group” seems to be important here, though it’s not an all-powerful factor as the anecdotes indicate. (That article is based on this Pew Research project–America’s Changing Religious Landscape.)
Do you belong to a faith community? Why did you choose to join this group? Why do you stay? Did mental beliefs about theology or philosophy play a role at the beginning or later? How about the relational aspects of an individual or of the community? Or the group’s moral aspirations or sub-culture? Other factors? (believing, belonging, behaving)
Zavadski’s article spoke about the power of the people we date and marry. Our closest peeps tend to have a significant influence on us. Widening that a bit, who are your reference groups?
I think I have two primary reference groups, though there are many more at various cultural and religious levels. First, there is the social activist community, specifically radical Christian activists whose primary focus is embodying and working for God’s peace and justice in the world. Possibly the most well-known person in this reference group is Shane Claiborne.
My second mental reference group is the dirtbag adventurer–people who want to experience life outside more than anything else. Viva los funhogs, the conquerors of the useless. Get out stay out. Going out is going in. Keep it wild; keep it simple. Yvon Chouinard could be the figurehead of this group.
One of the few commonalities between these is a commitment to simplicity in order to keep the main thing the main thing. Dedication to the core pursuit. There is also an element of activism to both since many dirtbags do work for environmental conservation. The area of conflict is the action to pursue–spend the majority of time on social action or adventure?
What I wear, the books I read, the way I spend my “free” time, the food I eat, and so many other decisions are affected by the reinforcing loops of these two groups, regardless of the tension between them. I was somewhat into those things, had those values, and when I began to connect with those communities, I was further reinforced by both social and intellectual factors (friends and books/films). Positive feedback loops. If I met either Shane or Yvon, what would they think of my life? If they came over for dinner, how would they evaluate our place, our menu? If they saw my bank or credit card statement, what would they think of my priorities?
A professor asked me about this before applying to an Anabaptist seminary. He asked about career goals and personal interests, but I remember he finished our conversation by asking, “Are you sure you want to be shaped by this community?” The social context you choose will become an important reference group, so are you sure this is a group you want to influence you over the next few years?
I think of Jesus eating a meal with Zacchaeus. Jesus (and Jesus’ community) was a new reference group for Z, and he wanted to show he fit in. “You are a man of integrity and compassion, so I’m going to be a man of integrity and compassion. See, I mean it.” (Luke 19)
Christians may think of Jesus in these terms today, but I’m not sure sociologists would consider Jesus part of someone’s reference group now since he doesn’t play a social role. Rather, our reference groups today have some influence over how we think of Jesus and discipleship. Paul gets at this when he says, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1; CF 4:16). In essence, “I’ve seen Jesus and been taught by Jesus [roadside + 3 years training]. I’m living like him, so make me leader of your reference group.” I think essentially this is the “discipleship” model. Christians know to keep one’s eyes on Jesus, but the religious reference group we look to is actually to help us do this very thing, oddly enough.
Who are your primary reference groups? Whose approval matters most to you? Can you clearly name them? A political party, a denomination or religion, a specific congregation, a musical genre, an occupation, classmates, family, etc.? How do these groups affect you? What role do you play in these groups as people look to you? How free are you to act outside of the direct approval of these groups without having negative repercussions?