Community Magazine

Got More Than One Religion? What Do We Call That?

By Susan Katz Miller @beingboth

The first three episodes in my new educational video series "Got More Than One Religion?" each run less than two minutes by design, in order to stay short and snappy. But brevity is often at odds with complexity. So I wanted to expand on some of the terms listed in episode one, " Got More Than One Religion? What Do We Call That? "

Note that people don't tend to use academic terms to describe their own identities. Most people who practice more than one religion will give very specific and personal descriptive labels, such as "I'm a Quaker who also practices Buddhism," or "I'm a Catholic exploring the African religious heritage of my ancestors," or "I'm from an interfaith Hindu and Jewish family, and we celebrate both."

Nevertheless, academics and theologians, who often are working in separate academic silos, have created a rather confusing profusion of terms in order to study and describe us, and I thought it would be good to gather them here, and provide context for which terms are used by whom, and why.

  1. Multiple religious belonging (MRB), or double-belonging. The MRB term was developed by Catholic theologians, and later adopted by Protestant theologians. It is still used by some academics. One problem with MRB is that some theologians who use the term continue to express doubts about whether people can or should practice more than one religion. This term is also problematic because it is a reminder that religious institutions are the gatekeepers for who will "belong" and be accepted as a member. So for many of us, this term is linked to the exclusion (including rejection from religious education programs, and the investigation or expulsion of clergy) that has occurred when people claim, or defend, practicing more than one religion.
  2. Multiple religious practice or participation (MRP), religious multiplicity. These terms acknowledge that people sometimes do participate in or practice more than one religion, whether or not religious institutions condone it. Pew Research uses MRP, and internally, I am told, even pronounces the acronym "merp." I find these terms to be relatively neutral, accurate, and useful, and frequently use them myself. However, these terms are also a real mouthful, and will sound like academic jargon to the casual listener.
  3. Mixed, mixedness, mixité. In Europe and some other parts of the globe, sociologists and anthropologists have done a lot of important work on Christian and Muslim interfaith families in particular, including on the religious practices of the interfaith children. The couples they study are often made up of immigrants (from Africa, the Middle East, or Asia) marrying into established or colonizing white Christian populations. As a result, these couples are often intercultural and interracial as well as interfaith. Because of this context, the simple term "mixed" is often used by European academics to describe these couples. But this term doesn't really work in the US context, where "mixed" is usually interpreted to refer exclusively to racially mixed couples or people, who are not necessarily interfaith.
  4. Bricolage, liminal, syncretic, borderland, hybrid, hyphenated. These are various terms also used by sociologists, anthropologists, and religious studies professors. Syncretism has been vilified by some religious authorities as "forbidden," but has been resuscitated by some academics. The issue I have with "hyphenated" is that when two identities are hyphenated, the first term because a modifier and the second term becomes a noun and gets more weight. So, Jewish-Buddhist sounds like a Buddhist who still has some lingering Jewish identity, whereas Buddhist-Jew sounds like someone who still has a strong Jewish identity but who has taken on some Buddhist practices. The hyphen does not give the two religions equal weight. So while some individuals may choose to describe themselves accurately with a hyphenated identity, I don't think hyphenation works very well in describing the overall phenomenon.
  5. Bi-religious, non-binary religious identity, spiritual fluidity. These terms may sound like they are being borrowed or appropriated from the evolving language used to describe gender and sexuality, and in some cases, they are. However, in some cases they have been used for many years by multiple religious practitioners to refer to themselves. The synergy between spiritual fluidity, and fluidity of gender and sexuality, is reenforced by the fact that interfaith couples are more likely to be LGBTQ couples, and vice versa. So in many cases it is LGBTQ people who are noting the synergies, and using this language to describe their own religious or spiritual identities. (Note that Duane Bidwell makes the case for using "spiritual fluidity" in his important book, When One Religion is Not Enough).
  6. Interfaith. Interfaith is the term many (most?) people use to describe their own families formed by people of two or more religions. And it is used by some children who grow up in "doing both" interfaith families to describe their identities. Some people object to the "faith" part of "interfaith" because it prioritizes the Christian (or Muslim) emphasis on belief as a synonym for religion (see below). But "interfaith" remains the best search term to find resources and support. This is why it continues to be the most common term I use in writing about both interfaith families, and interfaith identities.
  7. Intermarried. This term is used by traditional Jewish institutions, particularly in the Conservative movement. I've written a whole piece on why I try to avoid this term, for the Forward. But the most obvious reason is that not every interfaith family centers on a marriage-couples have children without marriage, and a family could consist of a single parent with a child.
  8. Interreligious. Substituting "interreligious" for "interfaith" appeals to people who want to avoid the "faith" in interfaith, as a synonym for religion. Some religions are faith-centered, notably Christianity and Islam, while others could be said to center more on practice than on faith (Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism). The two terms (interfaith and interreligious) share another issue, in that they are both often used to describe interfaith/interreligious conversation, engagement, or programming, all of which may actually exclude interfaith families (read more on this here). So the fact that these word can have two separate and potentially exclusive meanings is problematic.
  9. Interspiritual. This term is often used to describe practices that draw on many spiritual traditions, not just the ones in your heritage.
  10. Multifaith. Both interfaith and multifaith sometimes refer to programming or engagement that brings people together for a panel, a meal, a course, or community service. I have seen people argue strenuously that multifaith should refer to families, and interfaith should refer to programming. But others have argued that it should be the other way around. To me, interfaith works better for families, since so far, most of them still only include two religions (though that is changing). And multifaith works better for programming, since at this point in US history, we should be including more than two religions in what used to be called "interfaith dialogue." But I have made my peace with the fact that people will go on using them interchangeably, and that not everyone agrees about which should be which.
  11. Being Both, Doing Both. These are the terms I described at length my book , to refer to interfaith families who practice both religions represented in their families. It is gratifying that others now refer to "doing both families" or "being both families" when discussing interfaith family practices. But these terms only make sense within a conversation about religion, not as stand-alone phrases.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, coach, educator and activist. She's the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019).

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