“What's in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”

6/6/2010 10:39:00 PM

A play between the families Conservatism and Modernism in God’s Theatre. The recent incident of a priest in the Syriac Orthodox church encouraging two parents not to baptize their new born child with an ancient Assyrian name can either be interpreted as an isolated phenomenon, or, which I will stress here, a form of religious conservatism positioning itself against modernism. In order to do demonstrate my thesis, I will first start with describing the role of religion in the Swedish societal context and the practice of religiosity among Assyrians, continuing with the process of modernisation, and end with how religious conservatism reacts to modernisation through specific strategies.

Religion in a societal context

We cannot scientifically understand religiosity without considering the specific societal context in which it takes place. Thus, we need to describe the societal context in which the Assyrians in the diaspora live today, as this context has influence on Assyrian values and practices. In this case our analysis will be limited to the Swedish society.

Statistical data from the internationally based World Values Survey has repeatedly demonstrated that Swedish culture deviates from the cultures of most other societies. The characteristics of the Swedish culture are apparent through the unparalleled high scores Sweden has on what has been called the index for Emancipative freedom values. The Swedish culture is also marked by its unusually high scores on the index of Secular-rational and non-traditional values. This end of the value orientation index entails a low appreciation of the value authorities of “God”, “Family” and “Nation” and can consequently be seen as a result of globalization and postmodernization (also called late modernisation) in a general sense. (Pettersson & Esmer, 2007)

In my own dissertation among Assyrian youth in Sweden (Cetrez, 2005), the results showed that religious participation is low, compared to for example Assyrian-American youth (see Oshana, 2003). Among the reasons limiting involvement in church going, the Assyrian youth in Sweden expressed problems of trust towards the priesthood, a lack of a sense of community at church, and the political schism within the community.

Thus, the decreasing religiosity among Assyrian youth needs to be understood against the background of the Swedish society, which is a strong secular society. Lets us now look closer at the secular modern society, in which the Assyrian diaspora is to be found.

The process of modernisation

The Western societies are highly influenced by the values of modernism, which is based on the Enlightenment notion of human beings as rational creatures in charge of their own destiny. Modernism is characterised by societal pluralism, personal individualism, moral relativism, and political liberalism (Herriot, 2007).

The Assyrian sociologist Fuat Deniz (1999) described in his dissertation that the secular development among Assyrians started with the modernisation process before our emigration from the Middle East, however, increasing in the Western countries. Deniz implied that the Assyrian ideology, which is based on the Enlightenment philosophy, aims at liberalism and pluralism in society. It also sees religion as a private matter, not to be mixed up with political matters.

However, whether the modernisation process among Assyrians has reached as far as described here is a matter for discussion. There is, I believe, among Assyrians still a strong tendency to view the sacred ideology of religion superior to that of secular Assyrian ideology. Instead of the values of modernism, including societal pluralism, moral relativism, and political liberalism, I see a tendency towards a religious conservatism.

The strategies of religious conservatism

Now, what is this tendency towards religious conservatism in the Assyrian society? To understand this, we need to acquaint ourselves with the term dualism, which implies the oppositional position of terms such as: sacred – profane, believers – non believers, us – them, etc. Or, to take examples at close hand, heathen Assyrian rituals, symbols, and names versus Christian rituals, symbols, and names; our ethnic/religious group versus other ethnic/religious groups. The dualistic opposition of terms is used to construct the conservative view of a “pure” identity, that “our” culture can only include a specific kind of people and a specific set of values and practices. Or to use an example from the recent incident, that only Christian names are suitable in the ritual baptism. The assumption here is that our history starts with Christianity and no culture before Christianity is acceptable for our identity construction. In such a situation, a static and conservative Assyrian culture is being formed instead of a dynamic and adaptive culture. Rituals are very central in this kind of dualism, so let us look more closely at their function.

Ritual practices are the most efficient way of exercising power relations, since they use dualistic oppositions very strongly. And religion has understood this inherent power in rituals for a very long time. These religious rituals are being performed by a specific authoritarian group, the priesthood; holding a special position within the community. However, the problem lies not within the religious rituals themselves, but in the process of giving religious rituals legitimacy in the secular world. Instead of seeing the function of religious rituals, such as baptism, as a symbol of entrance into a community, no matter which name to be given to the child, it is instead used as a mean of control and a way of conserving certain values. Thus, a ritual which could have had a positive and strengthening effect, is instead resulting in a negative effect, where the parents are accused for bad judgment and left with bad consciousness, feelings of guilt and accusations (based on the discussion taking place after the incident).

As long as religious rituals are kept in the religious sphere and secular rituals are kept in the secular sphere, there is a positive cultural balance in each society. However, when the religious rituals claim domination also in the secular sphere, we see an unjust exercise of power. In a theocratic rule, or in a world governed by priests, this order is possible. However, not in a modern secular society.

But, why is a single ancient Assyrian name seen as dangerous from a religious conservative perspective? The answer is simple, ancient rituals, myths, and symbols, including ancient names, speak to human beings deepest spiritual and psychological needs. The case is that religion views itself as that institution which has monopoly in giving answers to the deepest human needs. Thus, even a single ancient Assyrian name[i] is dangerous for the religious conservative worldview, as it reminds us of alternative answers and interpretations to our identity. Our own history is full of examples, where Assyrian names were replaced by names from the dominating society, for the purposes of assimilation.

It is this religious conservatism[ii] that I find dangerous and counter productive in a modern secular society as the ones we live in. Paradoxically, the development of a religious conservatism takes place at the same time as Assyrian youth in Sweden practice religious activities less often.

Önver Cetrez, Ph.D.
Senior Lecturer, Psychology of Religion and Cultural Psychology
Uppsala University


[i] ”What’s in a name,” is a question raised by Juliet to Romeo in one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. Juliet and Romeo who are in love belong to two rival families, Capulet and Montague. The rhetoric question by Juliet to Romeo is that no matter what her lover calls himself her love for him is as strong. This is a good metaphor for the name-conflict among our people. It reminds of the rivalry between the families Capulet and Montague, with a tragic end for all those involved.

[ii] Shakespeare also used the metaphor “smell,” which I find suiting in this context. The story goes that Shakespeare by “by any other name would smell” refers to the “Rose Theatre,” which was a rival to his own “Globe Theatre” and which was famous for its less sanitary conditions. In a similar way, there is a bad smell in our own case of the use of names in baptism. A child being refused an Assyrian name in the house of God due to its so called heretic connection contradicts both the core and message in Christianity, which is love between human beings and to God. Or, perhaps it is about a single priest who shouldn’t play theatre in “God’s Theatre.”