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Last updated: Aug 25th, 2011

Student vs. Member: Mentalities in Religion

Dimly lit campus photo, with an asphalt walkway, wet from rain, some orange street lights, and a church tower visible in the background
Rainy university campus at night, with a church

Most people seem to think of religions as something that you are a member of. This is in stark contrast to academic subjects, in which one is a student of a particular subject. I personally find the student paradigm more accurate and meaningful for thinking and talking about religion. The distinction between being a student and a member is important for a number of reasons, all of which become apparent when you start looking at the connotation of the two words.

Membership implies a certain base level of knowledge and acceptance of certain beliefs that distinguishes members from non-members in an absolute fashion. With membership, you are either a member or not a member. Membership also entitles that there is some sort of "benefit" associated with belonging to the group, and perhaps a certain cost as well. There can be different categories or levels of membership, but with any sort of membership mentality, there is always an absolute distinction made between members and non-members. The membership mentality is an "us-them" mentality that can potentially be used to exclude people and even justify superiority to non-members. It also does nothing to ensure an ongoing learning process--once you're in you're in.

Being a "student" implies an ongoing process of learning and development. There is no absolute point at which one starts being a student, nor do we need to stop being students--even professors and other teachers or experts often identify themselves or think of themselves as students, both of their field of expertise and others. But in order to continue being a student, we must continue learning.

There is another important connotation that being a student has: being a student of one subject does not exclude one from studying other subjects. When you study Chemistry after studying Physics, you don't reject Physics to embrace Chemistry as a substitute--quite to the contrary, you use your knowledge of Physics to enrich your understanding of Chemistry: most college chemistry curriculums actually require a bit of physics. In religions, this same concept can apply. Different religions often focus on different questions, or approach the same questions from different angles. The student mentality can be very useful when thinking about religions.

I am a student of religion, I practice religion, and religion is an integral part of my life. I may at times be a member of various religious communities or organizations. But I am not a member of any religion as a whole. Regardless of how much I learn about any one religion or belief system, I will always have more to learn about it, and regardless of how many different belief systems I explore, there will always be others I have not yet explored. I can't, and won't ever know everything. I believe that the membership mentality in religion brings out bad qualities in groups of people, creating an "us-them" mentality, promoting an attitude of entitlement, discouraging people from learning about other religions, and allowing people to stagnate in their faith. I believe that the student mentality brings out better qualities in people, encouraging people to understand and respect other religions and making people focus on what really matters--continually growing and learning in their religious experiences.

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