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Communicating Religious Identities

Summary and Keywords

Religion encompasses many forms of communication: between groups, within groups, and with God (or other deities). Such communication can be especially powerful when group members highly identify with their religious group and the beliefs therein. Equally, it can be divisive, as evidenced by religion-based intergroup conflict and intolerance (which often overlaps along ethnic or political lines). However, not all religious communication is verbal or explicit. Religious individuals also commonly transmit their beliefs, values, and identities through symbols, physical spaces, and music. Likewise, communication with God is often pursued with silent prayer, meditation, or ritual, which also serve to reinforce one’s spirituality alongside religious group boundaries. Taken together, these varying forms of communication have implications not only for religious intergroup relations (e.g., intergroup contact or conflict), but also for intragroup relations (e.g., the strengthening of social ties) and individual health outcomes (e.g., effective communication with health care providers and coping practices). Given the importance of religious identity for many individuals, the benefits for individual well-being and intragroup relations, and yet the intergroup strife that religious group divisions can incite, the ways in which we communicate our religious group identities deserve closer attention.

Keywords: religion, intragroup, intergroup communication, social identity, health


Religion encompasses many forms of communication: between groups, within groups, and with God (or other deities). Moreover, religion itself has been conceptualized as a form of communication—comprising both individual expressions and organized social systems that convey meaning to (and about) the sacred (Pace, 2011). Such communication can be especially powerful when group members highly identify with their religious group and the beliefs therein. Equally, it can be divisive, as evidenced by religion-based intergroup conflict and intolerance. Drawing on a social identity theoretical perspective (Tajfel & Turner, 1979), this chapter examines the ways in which religious group identities are communicated, both explicitly and symbolically. These varying forms of communication have implications not only for religious intergroup relations (e.g., intergroup contact or conflict), but also for intragroup relations (e.g., the strengthening of social ties) and individual health outcomes (e.g., effective communication with health care providers and coping practices). Despite the ongoing debate around secularization (reflecting the decline of religion in some Western societies; Klocek, Novoa, & Moghaddam, 2010; Pace, 2011), renewed religious awakening in many parts of the world (Gibbons, 2016) calls for a greater understanding of the ways in which we communicate our religious identities. Indeed, more effective methods of doing so may serve to enhance individual health and well-being outcomes while attenuating intergroup conflict.

The Importance of Communicating Religious Group Identities

Although a complete history of religion in society—and religion as a form of communication itself—is beyond the scope of this chapter, it is worth noting some of the historical underpinnings of the study of religion. For example, it has been suggested that many of the classic sociological theorists conceptualized religion in either substantive terms (as understood by Émile Durkheim or Max Weber; e.g., religious practice and ritual, communication with the sacred, and the existence of a moral community that facilitated the emergence of capitalism) or functional terms (as understood by Thomas Luckmann or Niklas Luhmann; e.g., religion as a worldview and its role in society; see Cipriani, 2015, for an overview). From a psychosocial perspective, William James also drew from functional definitions of religion, but was more concerned with individual and direct religious experiences (James, 1902; Tarakeshwar, Stanton, & Pargament, 2003).

Of course, many scholars have since built upon and extended these early conceptualizations of religion (i.e., its ideological, ritualistic, experiential, intellectual, and social dimensions; Tarakeshwar et al., 2003) in an effort to understand how it operates within individuals and societies, including a fuller understanding of religious intergroup communication. Indeed, there are also a number of more recently developed social psychological theories that could inform an understanding of religious communication (Klocek et al., 2010; e.g., terror management theory, Vail et al., 2010; system justification theory, Jost & Banaji, 1994; positioning theory, Moghaddam, Harré, & Lee, 2008); however, one that is particularly sensitive to both inter- and intragroup processes and discords is social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). Broadly defined, social identification refers to an individual’s “knowledge of his [or her] membership of a social group (or groups) together with the value and emotional significance attached to that membership” (Tajfel, 1978, p. 63). The self-categorization process inherent to social identification typically involves differentiating the ingroup—those with whom one shares a social identity—from various outgroups—those with whom one does not share an identity (Turner, Oakes, Haslam, & McGarty, 1994).

Importantly, it has been demonstrated that “shared identity is key to effective communication” (Greenaway, Wright, Willingham, Reynolds, & Haslam, 2015, p. 171). For example, using a minimal group paradigm (i.e., in which participants were randomly assigned group membership that had no prior meaning; Tajfel, Billig, Bundy, & Flament, 1971), Greenaway and colleagues (2015) found that both perceptions of communication effectiveness and objective outcomes of communication (i.e., completion of a building task) were enhanced when participants believed that the communication (written or verbal instructions) came from an ingroup rather than an outgroup member.

The content of identity is also important here (Livingstone & Haslam, 2008). In this regard, as a social identity anchored in a system of guiding and unfalsifiable beliefs (see Ysseldyk, Matheson, & Anisman, 2010, for an overview), religious identification can serve a uniquely powerful function in shaping communication processes. Among ingroup members, communication can be facilitated by the dual resources of (1) highly organized religious support networks (Graham & Haidt, 2010; Putnam & Campbell, 2010), and (2) the collective reliance on faith in a “higher power” (Pargament, 2002). However, across religious outgroups, those same resources might deter effective intergroup communication—for example, by reinforcing ingroup favoritism and outgroup bias (Cairns, Kenworthy, Campbell, & Hewstone, 2006) or upholding revered belief systems that may be incompatible with those of other groups (Neuberg et al., 2014). Thus, far from representing minimal groups that lack meaning, religious identities are often highly salient, defining features of the self-concept, firmly rooted in traditions that date back for generations and instill group members with a sense of “universal community” (Pace, 2011, p. 215). With this history and significance come distinct benefits for communicating within one’s religious group (and with the sacred) and unique challenges for communicating across religious groups.

Religious Intergroup Communication

In a series of articles on intergroup communication, communication between religious groups is an obvious starting point. To date, although much research has been devoted to religious intergroup conflict (see Atran & Ginges, 2012; Neuberg et al., 2014; Seul, 1999; Ysseldyk et al., 2010, for overviews), comparatively little attention has been paid to interreligious communication within those conflicts (cf. Haji & Lalonde, 2012; Klocek et al., 2010). Although intergroup strife is not unique to disputes among religious groups, religion can be seen as a defining form of a cohesive and compelling collective identity. Of course, religious lines are sometimes blurred by language, ethnic, and/or political group divides. For example, although conflict in Northern Ireland has stemmed from disagreements between Unionists and Nationalists regarding the most appropriate constitutional status for the region, self-identification as a Protestant or Catholic often tends to be the most salient basis of identity (Muldoon, Trew, Todd, Rougier, & McLaughlin, 2007). Likewise, tension between the religious right and secularists in the United States often coincides with divisions between (conservative) Republican and (liberal) Democratic political ideologies.

In the case of Judaism, the overlap between religious and cultural identities is especially evident, and young Jewish Canadians who strongly identified as either (1) religious or (2) both religious and cultural Jews (but not cultural alone) were more likely to support right-leaning political attitudes regarding Israel’s foreign policy (Haji, Lalonde, Durbin, & Naveh-Benjamin, 2010). Moreover, there is evidence that support for social policies (e.g., opinion about U.S. foreign intervention) can be influenced by “religious elites [who] prime religious values that activate social identity boundaries that shape citizen attitudes” (Djupe & Calfano, 2013, p. 644). Indeed, although religious conflicts often have political or ethnic undertones, their escalation might sometimes be attributed to the influence of value communication from highly regarded religious leaders, miscommunication between groups holding steadfastly onto distinct belief systems, or even a lack of communication based on seemingly impermeable group boundaries. Of course, such communication challenges can vary with the degree of diversity and acceptance in a given population, ranging from overtly multicultural societies in which religious pluralism is evident (e.g., Canada, Australia) to those advocating assimilationist policies (e.g., United States, France; Adrian, 2016; Bloemraad, 2006; Koopmans, 2013), including some that use religion to support violent ends (e.g., the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS; Cronin, 2015; Venkatraman, 2007). However, even countries within which multiculturalism is highly valued are not immune to religious intergroup conflict. For example, during the writing of this chapter, a deadly shooting at a Canadian mosque in Quebec City stunned the nation; this came only days after an executive order from the newly inaugurated Trump administration banned entry to the United States of people from seven Muslim-majority countries, thereby exacerbating religious intergroup tension across the globe.

Against this backdrop of group-level communication and conflict, religious intergroup communication can also take the form of everyday (and often more peaceful) discourse at the individual level (e.g., the use of idioms such as “Bless you” or “Insha’Allah,” often equally directed at ingroup and outgroup members alike), communication that either intentionally or inadvertently positions the dominant religion in the public sphere (e.g., the ubiquitous greeting of “Merry Christmas” in most Western cultures), or through written texts (sacred, interpretive, and informal) that communicate the group’s religious ideals and identity both within the group and to others (Klocek et al., 2010). As with religious identity itself, however, the content of that communication is of paramount importance, as this can highlight either group similarities or differences, may or may not entail self-disclosure of one’s own religious identity, and is subject to cognitive biases and stereotypes in its delivery and interpretation (Haji & Lalonde, 2012). In this regard, while some religious stereotypes are sweeping (e.g., the media’s negative portrayal of Muslims in Hollywood films; Haji & Lalonde, 2012; Shaheen, 2003), stereotypes can also be targeted at specific individuals—as occurs when they find themselves the victims of discrimination on the basis of their religious group membership and beliefs. Indeed, there is evidence that religious discrimination may be especially damaging or evoke stronger sociopolitical responses than discrimination targeting other valued social groups. For example, findings stemming from a nationwide Canadian sample revealed that participants who reported religious discrimination not only demonstrated stronger religious identification, but also greater ingroup social engagement and civic involvement compared to individuals who reported ethnic discrimination (Ysseldyk, Talebi, Matheson, Bloemraad, & Anisman, 2014). A follow-up study, which experimentally primed participants to make salient a specific incident of religious or ethnic discrimination, also found that although ethnic discrimination elicited greater ingroup support seeking and political consciousness, religious discrimination was perceived as especially threatening and evoked more individual and collective action taking (Ysseldyk et al., 2014). Thus, although ethnic discrimination is far from benign (see Branscombe, Schmitt, & Harvey, 1999), religious discrimination may compel believers to communicate their religious identities more ardently both on the basis of the valued group membership and the accompanying belief system that has been called into question.

Communication With Atheists

One “religious” group not to be overlooked in the discussion of religious intergroup communication is comprised of those who are not religious at all, and yet highly identify with their group. Indeed, there are those who fervently proclaim their rejection of religion (see Ysseldyk et al., 2010), sometimes referred to as “new atheists” (Myers, 2008) or (more imaginatively) “evangelical heathens” (Heiner, 2008). It has been argued that “social and political discourse is full of closed mindedness, dogmatism, and prejudice coming from both religious and non-religious people”—this can be equally true among believers and atheists alike, especially in times of uncertainty (Kossowska, Czernatowicz-Kukuczka, & Sekerdej, 2017, p. 127). Among the most outspoken of the devout unbelievers include Richard Dawkins (2006), Daniel Dennett (2007), Sam Harris (2015), and (the late) Christopher Hitchens (2007), who have provocatively communicated their beliefs through books and the media. However, along with increasing hostility and prejudice against any religious outgroup (Ysseldyk, Haslam, Matheson, & Anisman, 2012), another unanticipated (or perhaps anticipated) outcome of communicating the atheist identity in this way is the nondisclosure of identity among religious adherents. Indeed, as increasingly secular Western cultures welcome the atheistic message, religious individuals become a social minority and may be reluctant to disclose their beliefs for fear of stigma, discrimination, or appearing “non-scientific” in their ideologies (Lessl, 2012). There are some, however, who would argue that science (arguably the “religion” of many atheists) and religion are not incompatible (Gould, 1999; Lessl, 2012), thus opening the door for further dialogue between atheists and religious believers.


Not all interreligious communication, however, is verbal, written, or explicit. Religious individuals also commonly transmit their beliefs, values, and identities through symbols, physical spaces, and music. Religious symbols (which have also been called sacred carriers; Klocek et al., 2010; Moghaddam et al., 2008), such as the Christian cross or the Islamic veil, can communicate in a moment—and without a word—one’s religious identity. Of course, these symbols can sometimes exacerbate religious intergroup tension (e.g., social and political discourse surrounding the hijab; Adrian, 2016). Indeed, the meaning and value of religious symbols is often highly politicized, as has been observed in post-Belfast Agreement Northern Ireland (Brown & MacGinty, 2003). Here, there is evidence that public attachment to partisan symbols, such as attitudes toward flags and memorials to the dead, remains divided along religious (Catholic vs. Protestant) lines.

Religious symbols can also hold great value for the individual and have been associated with the well-being of both ingroup and outgroup members. For example, Christians who were subtly exposed to a Christmas tree reported greater positive affect and self-esteem compared to individuals who did not celebrate Christmas (i.e., Sikhs and Buddhists; Schmitt, Davies, Huang, & Wright, 2010). Similarly, exposure to a crucifix was associated with less negative affect among highly religious Catholics, while the effect of this on less religious Catholics was negligible (Bilewicz & Klebaniuk, 2013). Relatedly, presentation of an image of the Virgin Mary had an analgesic effect during painful stimulation among practicing Catholics, whereas an image with nonreligious content had no such effect (Wiech et al., 2008). Yet, the rationale for, and impacts of, displaying religious symbols can also vary within a religious group depending on the social status of the group in a given context. For example, Muslim women in a Muslim-minority society (India) reported wearing the veil as a way to affirm their cultural and religious identity, whereas women’s reasons for wearing the veil in a Muslim-majority society (Indonesia) were grounded in convenience, fashion, and modesty rather than religion or identity (Wagner, Sen, Permanadeli, & Howarth, 2012). Indeed, even subtle communication through religious symbols can have profound impacts, both in affirming the identities of ingroup members and in communicating those identities to outgroups.

Place and Space

In light of the interconnectedness of religion, ethnicity, and politics, geographical features and boundaries can also communicate the importance of identity, and it has been argued that “religion deserves to be acknowledged fully and in like manner alongside race, class, and gender in geographical analysis” (Kong, 2001, p. 212). Much like religious symbols that are displayed or worn as a way of communicating one’s identity, religious groups have also historically constructed highly visible landmarks that serve as physical markers of their shared systems of beliefs (Haslam, Reicher, & Platow, 2010; Kong, 2001; Ysseldyk, Haslam, & Morton, 2016). These sacred built environments often assert the territoriality of the religious group by dominating the physical landscape, encourage spiritual and emotional experiences among believers with their architectural beauty, and promote group conformity and cohesion by physically separating the ingroup from the outgroup (Klocek et al., 2010). Indeed, the manifestation of social identities in space and through landmarks and buildings can serve as a physical affirmation of the importance of one’s social identity. As a result, being in the presence of such places can be experienced as identity affirming. Conversely, finding oneself in places that challenge or threaten a valued religious group may be experienced as undermining identity.

Moreover, religious built environments also provide places within which individuals can interact and connect to others with whom they share a valued identity. For example, Christians have been found to report the greatest social self-esteem and self-perceived physical health while immersed at a cathedral (compared to nonreligious or non-Christian places); incidentally, for atheists, the same was true when they disengaged from this religious space (Ysseldyk et al., 2016). Thus, sacred places can communicate religious values by serving as physical embodiments of social groups, and in so doing can either affirm or negate religious identities. Interestingly, however, rather than reflecting the identity of a particular religious group, other features of the built environment can mark religious (and overlapping political) group divides, such as the “peace walls” in Northern Ireland, built to separate Catholic and Protestant communities (Leonard & McKnight, 2011). Here, even as the peace process continues to inch forward while the history of conflict between these two groups lingers, young people in Belfast report being torn about whether the walls are necessary, effective, and represent an affirmation of their own identity or a distancing from the other (Leonard & McKnight, 2011). In this regard, the politics and personal experiences of religious place, identity, and community can be intertwined and communicated at the global, national, regional, local, and personal levels (Kong, 2001).


Finally, a sometimes-overlooked avenue through which religious group identities are communicated is music (Ysseldyk, Karamally, Kelly, Haslam, & Morton, 2017), which is an important dimension of most religious worship (Vega, 2012). As a result, as with sacred places, being immersed in religious music is likely to be an identity-affirming experience (for believers). In contrast, religious music that does not reflect one’s identity (i.e., for atheists or believers of another religion) may be experienced as identity threatening. Indeed, the meaning that an individual associates with a particular type of music may also impact well-being, especially when it reflects an important group membership (Giles, Denes, Hamilton, & Hajda, 2009).

For example, members of a Pentecostal church reported stronger positive emotional responses to religious music than did members of a nonreligious choir, whereas both groups reported similar emotions after listening to secular music (Miller & Strongman, 2002). Similarly, in a field study in India, individuals’ social identity shaped how they responded to sounds of religious significance (Shankar et al., 2013). In particular, Hindu pilgrims perceived cacophonous “noise” from the Hindu festival Magh Mela positively, because it reflected their religious identity. In contrast, some churchgoers’ emotions can range from indifferent to hostile when listening to music that does not reflect their identity, even when that music is religious (e.g., traditional hymns vs. more contemporary worship songs; Hull, 2009). In this regard, when listening to music that affirms one’s religious identity, that identity may become salient along with the associated feelings of ingroup distinctiveness (and outgroup derogation). In contrast, being exposed to music that challenges or negates a religious (or atheist) identity may be experienced as undermining a valued—even sacred—social group. Moreover, as with religious symbols and spaces, religious music can also overlap along political or ethnic lines, serving to reinforce multiple identities at once, such as the African American “spirituals” borne out of slavery in North America before the American Civil War (Darden, 2004).

Taken together, this evidence suggests that, in the same way that people value ideas that affirm their identities (Morton, Haslam, Postmes, & Ryan, 2006), symbols, places, and music that reflect people’s identities might confer value on oneself and one’s group, particularly when those artifacts have sacred meaning (Mazumdar & Mazumdar, 2004; Ouellette, Kaplan, & Kaplan, 2005). However, alongside benefits to ingroup members, even symbolic means of communicating religious identity might intensify intergroup antagonism.

Religious Intragroup Communication

Despite the clear importance of examining communication between religious groups, communication within religious groups can also have significant impacts, both in terms of reinforcing the public position of one’s religious group (Klocek et al., 2010), and in fostering positive intragroup relations and strengthening social ties (Sosis, 2000). Although Tajfel’s (1978) long-standing definition of social identification taps into the cognitive (i.e., knowledge) and affective (i.e., emotional significance) dimensions of social identity, the extent to which such social groups offer a sense of connectedness with other group members—that is, “ingroup ties” (Cameron, 2004; Obst & White, 2005)—may be of particular importance in the case of religious intragroup communication.

Indeed, religious group identification often inherently includes a network of close social ties (e.g., through attendance at worship services; Merino, 2014; Putnam & Campbell, 2010), and may be strongly linked to a variety of coping methods that are supported by the collective (Fischer, Ai, Aydin, Frey, & Haslam, 2010). For example, in a recent Canadian study involving young adults who reflected on the role of their religious identity in helping them cope with a previous traumatic experience, ingroup ties—arguably the facet of social identification most reliant on convivial communication with other ingroup members—was the only dimension of religious identity associated with both fewer symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress as well as less ruminative coping about the event, suggesting that the strength garnered from effectively communicating with one’s religious ingroup members was especially important in protecting mental health (Ysseldyk, McQuaid, McInnis, Matheson, & Anisman, 2017). Moreover, religious ingroup ties may also be reinforced by the aforementioned nonverbal modes of communicating one’s identity. In this regard, as an extension of the roles of symbolic defining group features, being immersed in religious identity-affirming architectural spaces or music often imparts conditions under which “the faithful are moved to undertake reflexive positioning, by engaging in an internal dialogue designed to strengthen their ties to the ingroup” (Klocek et al., 2010, italics in original; Ysseldyk et al., 2016, 2017), and also with their Creator.

Of course, as with other types of group identities, strong religious ingroup ties might also dissolve with the emergence of intragroup conflict. Religious organizations, despite their sacred nature, are nonetheless organizations and thus are subject to many of the same identity processes and leadership failings (Breen & Matusitz, 2012; Haslam et al., 2010; Postmes, 2003). Intragroup conflict, often involving poor (i.e., inadequate or counterproductive) communication, relational difficulties, and authoritarian practices, can surface in religious organizations and sometimes result in the disbanding of congregations or termination of religious leaders; for example, an ethnographic study of Southern Baptist pastors suggested that the church (or at least this particular church or denomination) is not immune to intragroup conflict, including interpersonal conflict among the pastors themselves (Breen & Matusitz, 2012). This should not be completely unanticipated, however, in that—often despite their best efforts to emulate higher ideals—the church is populated by humans. Indeed, even the apostle Paul (one of the leaders of early Christianity) struggled, saying, “. . . the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human . . .” (Romans 7:14, NLT). Thus, although religious organizations are often held to a higher standard (and hold themselves to this standard), intragroup conflict can erupt. Although not surprising, this is important, given the role that religious organizations play in the lives of so many individuals and in society more generally.

Finally, communication within religious groups about outgroups (Haji & Lalonde, 2012) can be a precursor to either cordial or conflictual communication and relations with religious outgroups, again depending on the content of that intragroup discourse. In this regard, labeling (e.g., using derogatory terms vs. the preferred labels of that group) and proliferating negative stereotypes about the outgroup are likely (somewhat obviously) to result in poor religious intergroup relations (Haji & Lalonde, 2012). In extreme cases, biased intragroup communication about outgroups may even result in infrahumanization and genocide (Castano & Giner-Sorolla, 2006). In contrast, finding common ground through shared or superordinate identification (Greenaway et al., 2015; Wohl & Branscombe, 2005) can highlight similarities between religious groups (e.g., faith in a higher power) and help to eliminate hostile intergroup communication and relations. Finding such common ground might even help to reduce social comparison and enhance self-disclosure between religious groups (Haji & Lalonde, 2012). Of course, such similarity finding must also be balanced with threats to group distinctiveness (Brewer, 1991). This may be particularly challenging among religious groups, whose identity is founded not only on an “earthly” group membership but also on an accompanying sacred system of beliefs (Ysseldyk et al., 2010), and whose mission (especially within Christian and Islamic traditions) includes sharing one’s faith to proselytize others (Worchel, 2004). Indeed, although religious pluralism has many benefits to the societies in which it is embedded, it also presents a unique challenge for those who wish to peacefully communicate their faith to outgroup members.

Sacred Communication

Alongside the functions that effective religious intergroup and intragroup communication can facilitate, an important aspect of religious communication (and one that is particular to religious groups) is communicating with the sacred. Unlike the primarily public types of communication between religious groups, communication with the sacred is often private in nature, including facets such as prayer, scripture reading, or meditation (Ross & Small, 2012). Interestingly, however, many of these activities can also be (and are) performed alongside ingroup members (e.g., communion, shared or “corporate prayer”; Croucher, Zeng, Rahmani, & Sommier, 2017; Klocek et al., 2010)—especially within places of worship or as part of religious festivals. For example, many Muslims gather together annually to undertake the pilgrimage to Mecca, while members of the Hindu faith participate together in the Diwali festival of lights—meant to signify the triumph of inner light over spiritual darkness. Of course, communication with the sacred (e.g., prayer, studying religious texts) is also often done in private settings among ingroup members with whom one feels strong enough ties to do so.

The frequency, importance, and perceived effectiveness of religious communication rituals can vary, across religious groups or even among adherents to a particular religion. For example, a study that explored Christians’ participation in, perceived importance, and perceived efficacy of 12 religious rituals included worship, prayer, service, study, meditation, celebration, guidance, confession, submission, solitude, simplicity, and fasting (Ross & Small, 2012). Not surprisingly, prayer was among the most frequently practiced rituals (along with worship) and had the highest reported efficacy, perhaps because “prayer is a direct means of communication” (p. 47). Moreover, prayer, worship, and service were each also positively associated with the degree of closeness to God felt by participants (with the latter deemed to be most important). In this way, religious rituals may serve a dual purpose (perhaps by design)—communal practices of service, prayer, and worship often bring ingroup members closer together alongside the spiritual bolstering that can come from such collective activities. Importantly, however, such spiritual bolstering can also occur in the solitary moments that entail communication with one’s God, which also reinforce one’s religious identity.

Prayer, in particular, has been defined as “(1) a form of communication and (2) the exchange of communication [that] takes place between the self and the transcendent, immanent, and numinous forces that represent human notions of the sacred” (Burdzy & Pargament, 2013, p. 1526). Indeed, this type of private communication is one of the avenues (along with some other religious rituals such as scripture reading) though which it is believed that God can “speak” to us (Pace, 2011). It is, essentially, communication with God. Interestingly, while some religious adherents often pray through a mediator (e.g., confession through a Catholic priest), others (e.g., Protestant Christians) believe they have a direct link with God for such absolution (demonstrated avidly in the Reformation from the Catholic Church; Cameron, 2012). However, prayer is not restricted to monotheistic religious traditions (e.g., Christianity, Judaism, Islam), but also occurs in polytheistic (e.g., Hinduism) and even non-theistic religions (e.g., Zen, Taoism, Indigenous belief systems; Burdzy & Pargament, 2013).

To simply denote prayer as a communication ritual does not paint an accurate picture of the multifaceted nature of prayer as a mode of communication with the sacred. While ritual prayer is considered to involve reciting specific religious texts from memory, other types of prayer have also been recognized (Poloma & Pendleton, 1991). Petitionary prayer involves asking for the fulfillment of spiritual (e.g. guidance, forgiveness) or material needs (e.g., physical health), whereas meditative prayer involves “thinking about the divine” or “merely being in the presence of the sacred” (Burdzy & Pargament, 2013, pp. 1526–1527); colloquial prayer—essentially a conversation with God—is considered to be some combination of these two (Burdzy & Pargament, 2013; Poloma & Pendleton, 1991). Whatever the type, prayer is, for many people, their primary mode of communication with the sacred.

Health Communication

Finally, throughout the discussion of religious intergroup, intragroup, and sacred communication, there has consistently emerged the notion of health and well-being. For example, there are the negative impacts of religious discrimination and intergroup conflict, the health benefits of having strong ingroup ties, and in relying on the sacred elements of religion (such as prayer) to cope with stressors or to request divine intervention on one’s health directly. Indeed, much research has demonstrated a link between religion and both psychological and physical health. In addition to the benefits derived from religious group identity itself (Hayward & Krause, 2014; Ysseldyk et al., 2013), such effects are routinely attributed to a range of factors, including health-enhancing behaviors; social capital and support; and an increased sense of purpose, meaning, and self-efficacy (George, Ellison, & Larson, 2002; Seybold & Hill, 2001). Although a review of the research linking religion and health is beyond the scope of this chapter (see Koenig, King, & Carson, 2012, for a comprehensive review), a substantial body of literature has been devoted to the intersection of religion and health communication in recent years. Indeed, it has been suggested that “religious communication is necessarily related to identity and health” (Harris & Worley, 2012, p. 134).

As with religion as a social identity, religious communities may share distinctive features with regard to health communication, including vast social networks and leadership who encourage moral norms that coincide with adaptive health behaviors (e.g., less use of alcohol, tobacco, risky sexual behaviors; Miller & Teel, 2011), and may actively promote health information sharing (Southwell, 2011). At the individual and intragroup level, religious coping practices such as praying for oneself or another person who is facing a worrisome health diagnosis are common and often provide comfort (Harris & Worley, 2012; Rafferty, Billig, & Mosack, 2015), especially (but not exclusively) among ingroup members.

However, religious communication with health care providers is less straightforward and may be perceived as transgressing professional or personal boundaries (Canzona, Peterson, Villagran, & Seehusen, 2015; Post, Puchalski, & Larson, 2000); such interactions can be complicated further at the intergroup level—that is, when the patient and provider do not share a common religious identity. Physicians and therapists have routinely reported patient requests for disclosure of the health care provider’s religious identity (Canzona et al., 2015; Magaldi & Trub, 2016) and attention to religious and/or spiritual matters (Post et al., 2000). Although this might be perceived as crossing professional boundaries, it should not be particularly unexpected given the attention awarded to end-of-life matters within most (if not all) religious belief systems. However, many health care providers may feel ill-equipped to handle requests for spiritual or religious communication. For example, a study that examined self-assessed competence regarding skills such as discussing do-not-resuscitate status, maintaining hope, and addressing fears about end of life, concluded that in the context of health care (and palliative care, in particular), “discussing religion and spirituality is an advanced communication skill” (Ford, Downey, Engelberg, Back, & Curtis, 2012, p. 63). Educational interventions aimed at helping physicians manage religious communication within the complex patient-provider relationship have been suggested (Canzona et al., 2015). However, balancing the desire for maintaining the provider’s comfort and boundaries within a model of patient-centered care that also involves psychosocial elements and trust (Canzona et al., 2015) is a challenge. Indeed, from the patient’s perspective, religious communication with health care providers can affirm one’s spiritual identity along with enhancing the practitioner’s ability to provide relief while diminishing the perceived power of disease and injury (Kline, 2011).

Overall, the appropriateness of integrating religious communication within health care remains a highly divisive topic (Burdzy & Pargament, 2013). In order to achieve an inclusive and culturally-competent health care system, increased attention must be paid to equipping health care providers with the skills needed to navigate religious communication with their patients, while balancing the expectations of the patients themselves in terms of what their provider might be willing to communicate.

Conclusion and Future Directions

Clearly, communicating one’s religious identity can be a source of both comfort and conflict. Despite calls by some secular proponents to do away with religion altogether, that seems unlikely and—in light of the benefits borne out of strong social groups tied together by sacred belief systems—unwise. Instead, a more constructive strategy may be to focus on effective means of communicating our religious identities. Haji and Lalonde (2012) have highlighted a number of interventions for improving interreligious communication, based in part on research drawing from theoretical perspectives related to intergroup contact (Pettigrew, 1998; Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006), communication accommodation (Giles, 2008), and social identity (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). These have included media approaches (e.g., radio, television, and print media that deconstruct religious stereotypes), educational interventions (e.g., training in positive interreligious communication itself or education in mixed-faith settings), promoting interfaith dialogue among religious leadership (e.g., community-based social justice efforts), and facilitating day-to-day events such as uniting people of diverse faiths (e.g., using the musical arts). Indeed, Harwood and colleagues (2016) have demonstrated that “harmonious contact” (e.g., perceived closeness, liking, honesty, etc.) can be achieved across ethnically diverse groups even through vicarious musical contact (e.g., watching ingroup and outgroup members collaborate musically). Similarly, Klocek et al. (2010) have suggested that the attractiveness of some religious celebration rituals (e.g., Diwali’s festival of lights, Christmas concerts) may draw people together, regardless of faith.

In this regard, one frequently cited strategy for ameliorating intergroup relations and communication involves capitalizing on sources of shared or superordinate identity (e.g., Giles et al., 2009; Greenaway et al., 2015; Stone & Crisp, 2007; Wohl & Branscombe, 2005). Indeed, Greenaway and colleagues (2015) have posited, “it is shared identity, rather than the content of the identity, that is the critical ingredient of successful communication” (p. 179; italics in original). And yet how, among religious groups—in which the content of the identity is perceived to be so important and so deeply ingrained for many—can this be accomplished? As previously noted, highlighting a shared reliance on a “higher power” is one strategy; however, distinct and divergent belief systems will remain within this framework (to say the least, of atheists), and thus the threat of further miscommunication and conflict remains.

Peaceful intergroup contact will, most likely, facilitate a shared identity, but remains challenging as many of the “optimal” conditions for contact (e.g., equal status, common goals, no intergroup competition, and authority sanction; Pettigrew, Tropp, Wagner, & Christ, 2011) can rarely be achieved among religious groups, even in the most multicultural societies. Nonetheless, in a series of studies conducted in Toronto, Canada, having close friendships (as opposed to acquaintances) with members of a religious outgroup was associated with more favorable responses toward those outgroups (Haji & Lalonde, 2016), indicating that mere contact alone is not enough to bring religious groups together but that (perhaps not surprisingly), the depth and quality of the relationship also matters. Intergroup contact might also facilitate self-disclosure of religious identity content across members of divergent groups (Haji & Lalonde, 2012). In this regard, although the norm is to avoid discussing sensitive topics with members of another group (e.g., the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland; Haji & Lalonde, 2012), an emphasis on similarities or shared experiences (e.g., music; Harwood et al., 2016) may be avenues through which self-disclosure can promote a shared identity and positive interreligious communication. Of course, self-disclosure may be less effective with respect to some groups (e.g., devoted atheists) and when professional boundaries also exist (e.g., health care provider-patient relationships). Still, finding ways to facilitate an inclusive identity among religious groups without threatening group distinctiveness—including threats to the belief systems on which those groups are founded—is an admirable goal and one worthy of further efforts.

Alternatively, conveying courtesy and respect to religious outgroups through accommodating communication styles (Giles, 2008; Haji & Lalonde, 2012) can help to facilitate more effective religious intergroup communication. In this regard, of particular importance may be the adage to “seek first to understand, before you seek to be understood” (i.e., effective listening; Covey, 1989), especially in terms of the aforementioned religious intragroup communication about outgroups. Certainly, promoting more amicable attitudes toward religious outgroups may have the intended impact, thereby reducing outgroup derogation and increasing tolerance (entailing respect of outgroup members while not necessarily mandating endorsement of their beliefs; McDowell & Hostetler, 1998). Moreover, when those attitudes are communicated more broadly, it may have the added benefit of fostering greater public collective self-esteem (i.e., perceptions of how others view one’s group; Luhtanen & Crocker, 1992) among religious outgroup members. Importantly, it has been demonstrated that hostile intergroup feelings across religious groups (and atheists) can be attenuated under conditions of higher public collective self-esteem (Ysseldyk et al., 2012). In effect, when an individual believes that their (ir)religious group is well-regarded in the public sphere, they are also more likely to be accepting (e.g., less hostile) of other religious groups.

Previous research on interreligious communication (and religious intergroup relations) often centers on conflicts between groups with opposing belief systems, in part because such conflicts more easily come to mind compared to peaceful interreligious interactions (Klocek et al., 2010). However, there is some evidence that positive interreligious communication can be achieved—but additional strategies that build on these successes are needed. Here, even in an era of cultural globalization (Croucher et al., 2017), polarization between religious (and other) groups appears to be increasing on many fronts; appealing to the ideals of respect, dignity, and love for one another—ideals that are common across many religious groups—may be a starting point toward fostering healthy communication. Indeed, balancing the benefits of effectively communicating our religious identities for both individual health and ingroup ties, while avoiding the proliferation of intergroup tension and identity threat through damaging forms of interreligious communication, remains a pressing challenge in our current sociopolitical climate.


The author would like to thank Dr. Alex Haslam, Pr. Ryan Dawson, and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this chapter.

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Ysseldyk, R., Matheson, K., & Anisman, H. (2010). Religiosity as identity: Toward an understanding of religion from a social identity perspective. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14, 60–71.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Ysseldyk, R., McQuaid, R., McInnis, O., Matheson, K., & Anisman, H. (2017). The ties that bind: Ingroup ties are linked with diminished inflammatory immune responses and fewer mental health symptoms through less rumination. Manuscript under review.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Ysseldyk, R., Talebi, M., Matheson, K., Bloemraad, I., & Anisman, H. (2014). Religious and ethnic discrimination: Differential implications for social support engagement, civic involvement, and political consciousness. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 2, 347–376.Find this resource: