The Thing About Labels

labelsLabels are good on cans, but bad when applied to people. Canned goods are simpler and purer than people. Tomatoes means tomatoes, and beans means beans. You are able to determine what is in the can by its label. When you get home from the grocery store, you can put all of the beans together on one shelf in the your pantry, and all the diced tomatoes on another.

When we apply labels to people, the same thing happens. We put all of the Christians together on one shelf in our mind. Then whatever our impressions are of Christians gets applied to everyone we slapped that label on. Our “mental pantry” of religiously labeled people, might look something like this.

  • Christians: arrogant, conservative in their politics, family people (not gay, not single,) middle class, white, bigots
  • Muslims: terrorists (or strangely silent on the matter,) gas station/convenience store owners and managers
  • Buddhists: bizarre beliefs about reincarnation and karma, weird, lazy, fair game for jokes
  • Atheists: heathen, cold, belligerent, destroying our nation’s Christian foundation

Once the label is applied, a person is put in her appropriate place in our mental pantry. Then we apply all of the adjectives that go along with that group to that person. Now we not longer need to think of the person as an individual, but as a Muslim, Christian, or whatever. It’s stereotyping or religious profiling.

While labeling makes our life simpler, it shrivels our minds and hearts, causing us to deprive ourselves of getting to know people on an individual level.

Labeling also keeps us from finding truth and beauty in people and places that seem unlikely to us to possess any truth or beauty. But, truth and beauty are all over the place, especially in unlikely people and places. So, even very flawed religions (and they all are) can give something to the world. Buddhism has a reverence for life and central value of doing no harm. Islam is a religion that places high value on living out its beliefs through obedience. Even atheism brings a perspective of careful analysis and personal responsibility for one’s beliefs and values.

Erin, a long distance, Internet friend, and the editor of my book, An Irreligious Faith claims to be an atheist. She has returned to college to earn a social work degree and fulfill a passionate desire to do what she can to help disadvantaged people. Erin is kind, encouraging, and a good writer and thinker. She is not militant about her atheism, and I am not militant about my beliefs.

The labeling thing is personal with me. Politically, I lean liberal on some things, and conservative on others, but mostly, I think our political system is terribly broken. I despise listening to people who only repeat political party talking points from either side. It irritates me when people spout off with a knee jerk reaction on an important issue, without giving it careful consideration, or listening to someone who had a different perspective.

I am a person of faith who pretty much hates religion. So, I am hard to label, but I get labeled all the time. I don’t like it, because it’s not fair.

Our “job” is to love people, not to label, categorize, or judge them.

This post is part of a synchroblog exploring what we like about other religions. Here are links to the other contributors.

Mark Votava – How Christianity Can Learn from Buddhism
Justine Steckbauer – Christianity and Other Religions: Many roads or exclusive path?
Clara Ogwuazor-Mbamalu – What I Appreciate about Islam
Bram Bonius – What can Christians learn from neo-pagans and ‘magickal’ traditions?
Mictori – Buddhism Reshaped my Easter
Pastor FedEx – 3 Things Christians Learn from Other Religions
Leah Sophia – Land, Sun, Community, Crops
Kathy Escobar – Why I Love Interfaith Conversations
J. D. Myers – What I Appreciate About Pagans

About Glenn

Glenn Hager is a blogger, former newspaper columnist, and author of two books, An Irreligious Faith and Free Range Faith.
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  1. This is so true….unfortunately. Labeling people is so unfair. Most people do not fit the mold of the label put on them. If you go to a particular denomination in a church, you are all of a sudden everything people think the doctrine of that denomination stands for. I have even become uneasy being called ‘christian’ because of all the different things people think of when they hear the term. For me, being a follower of Jesus, living a life loving God and loving and accepting others as they are, is the only label I would want put on me.

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