Belief is part of identity

Ophelia Benson has an odd idea about how identity is constructed:

beliefs aren’t actually a matter of identity and shouldn’t be treated as if they were.

This claim seems so obviously false that I can’t really imagine how she could have written it.

We can see how this plays out in religion: there are religions know as orthoprax, where membership is defined by your practices, and others are known as orthodox, where membership is defined by your beliefs in central doctrine. Christianity is (generally) an orthodox religion, while Judaism and Islam are (generally) orthoprax. The Torah sets out a bunch of stuff that Jews are supposed to do, and in some sense, if you do all that stuff, you’re Jewish. By contrast, Christians have catechisms and dogmas and creeds, and anyone who believes those things is Christian.

This is obviously complicated. Many of the practices that supposedly define Jewishness are impossible because the Temple doesn’t exist. Some branches of Judaism believe that every place of worship can fulfill the place of a temple, while others believe they have to wait for the restoration of a Temple in Jerusalem. None of them believe animal sacrifice and other Biblically mandated actions are actually good or necessary parts of Jewish identity, but some believe it’s really important to maintain their household according to particular kosher rules, while others don’t worry too much about that. Some believe that Biblical rules separating men from women are worth obeying, others don’t. So even though Orthodox Jewish identity is defined largely by behavior, those behaviors are rooted in beliefs.

And of course, beliefs aren’t all that matter. Anyone who believes everything set forth in the Nicene Creed is technically Christian, but if that person never goes to Church, never publicly affirms that belief and never prays and never gives any overt sign of that belief, it’s likely that some folks will start to question that person’s religious identity.

What’s especially odd about Benson’s claim is that New Atheism is all about belief. The defining difference between New Atheism and other sorts of atheism is that the gnus don’t just want to assert their own belief that there is no god (or their lack of belief that there is a god, depending). They want to assert a belief that other people’s belief in god(s) is dangerous ipso facto. When folks say that belief is only bad if it leads people to do bad things, they reply by emphasizing just how important belief is in shaping personal identity, and arguing that belief matters on its own.

Recognizing that belief is part of what shapes identity requires us to be cautious in how we attack beliefs. There are ways to attack a belief that make it clear that one is hating the sin but loving the sinner, and ways to attack a belief that alienates people who share the belief being attacked. The latter tends to be ineffective at actually changing anyone’s mind, while the former shows the audience respect.

Comments

  1. #1 Physicalist
    January 9, 2012

    “Identity” in this context is a horribly vague and muddled term. It’s not going to bear the weight of any serious moral, tactical, or conceptual argument.

  2. #2 GordonHide
    January 10, 2012

    I guess the idea of “identity” you are trying to peddle here is about associating yourself with some group or groups with whom you share some characteristics and perhaps loyalties.

    I’m afraid as a characteristic classic miserable old unsociable bastard atheist this has never been important to me. I am unaware of any common ground, apart from lack of belief in gods, that I share with other members of this group with which I apparently identify.

  3. #3 Mike from Ottawa
    January 10, 2012

    I read Benson’s post. Amusing that the only reason she gives for believing belief can’t be part of identity is that it would cramp her rhetorical style if it were.

    It would take her about nought point one seconds to spot that fallacy when a creationist says [evolution is true] => [Auschwitz].

  4. #4 rturpin
    January 10, 2012

    Given the prominence of the shahadah, it seems a mistake to pronounce Islam an orthoprax religion. A Jew doesn’t have to believe in a god to be a Jew, not even to be a good Jew. The situation seems quite a bit stickier for Muslims.

  5. #5 Josh Rosenau
    January 10, 2012

    RTurpin: But the essence of the shahadah is that it be stated publicly. A Christian can be a Christian without ever publicly indicating belief in (e.g.) the Nicene Creed. A Muslim must make that affirmation in public. As I said in the post, actions in an orthopraxy are still motivated by belief, but in an orthopraxy, the action is the essence.

  6. #6 IreneD
    January 10, 2012

    @ Josh:

    Did you read the whole of post you link to? Ophelia Benson actually writes:

    “What if there are people whose New Age or “alternative” beliefs feel like commitments and part of their identity?
    Well there are such people, and there are also their cousins who are that way about their religious beliefs. So actually articles about whacked beliefs can draw a lot of heat, and can make people feel very outraged.
    That’s a kind of category mistake, in my view, because beliefs aren’t actually a matter of identity and shouldn’t be treated as if they were.
    That’s one way to make the distinction that Eric asks about, but it won’t be as satisfactory to people who do think of their beliefs as their identity as it may be to us.”

    She explicitly makes the difference between the different kinds of factors that affect identity: beliefs are important to us but they are external and can change (we can even work on changing them if we so decide), so they can’t be put in the same category as gender, age or skin colour.

    If one tried to put them in the same category, it would imply that we should never try to change someone’s mind on any subject, even for the sake of education…

  7. #7 Mike McRae
    January 10, 2012

    Irene, while I don’t think anybody here can state with certainty what it was Ophelia was saying, unless you can point to something else she’s said I think you’re reading a lot into her statement.

    Going on her article alone, she only says it is her view that associating beliefs with identity is a categorical mistake. She says nothing of identity being defined as gender, age or skin colour.

    Of course it is her view. It is an odd view to have, however, that seems to have a rather limited and select definition of identity. sadly it isn’t an overly surprising one – in Australia, for instance, it’s not uncommon for people to be upset when somebody who looks white claims to be Indigenous. Identity is so wrapped up in physical characteristics for them that they can’t comprehend beliefs or cultural values to be part of it.

    As far as I know, nobody is claiming beliefs to be the same as gender or skin colour. The fact they are part of one’s identity is, however, an important thing to consider when it comes to challenging them.

  8. #8 Josh Rosenau
    January 11, 2012

    Irene: I did read the whole post, and you don’t have to requote a bunch of stuff that adds nothing. Yes, I know that she asserted that beliefs are extrinsic to identity, but nothing she said – nothing you quoted – has anything to do with limiting identity to gender, age, or skin color.

    Beliefs are not external to an individual, and I don’t quite know what you mean by that. A belief is part of the mind, and the mind is certainly part of an individual’s identity.

    Nor, as I think about it, are gender, (apparent) age, or skin color immutable, and people often regard certain beliefs (religious, political, even sports-related) as at least as immutable as those traits.

  9. #9 TB
    January 11, 2012

    I wonder if the point in denying belief as a part of identity is a way to excempt it from a determinist world view.
    After all, if there is no selection basis for belief, then it can be considered a mere error that can be corrected.
    That’s a pretty tricky path to follow, for what limits do we set on correcting that error?

  10. #10 David Gerard
    January 11, 2012

    I refer the honourable gentleman to DC’s famous post on dealing with homeopathy, religion, etc:

    http://www.dcscience.net/?p=4813

    Being polite doesn’t actually work. I am not in fact surprised that the targets keep advocating things that don’t actually work.

    “One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is not only more effective; it is also vastly more intelligent.” – H. L. Mencken.

  11. #11 Ant Allan
    January 11, 2012

    I agree, belief is part of identity. But why on earth does that make it exempt from robust criticism?

    ”Recognizing that political views are part of what shapes identity requires us to be cautious in how we attack political views.”

    “Recognizing that being a [insert name of sports team here] fan is part of what shapes identity requires us to be cautious in how we attack being a [insert name of sports team here] fan.”

    ”Recognizing that paedophilia is part of what shapes identity requires us to be cautious in how we attack paedophilia.”

    Ludicrous!

    /@

  12. #12 jermox
    January 11, 2012

    The problem is that people think that cautious and robust are mutually exclusive. You can have a robust criticism without attacking someone’s identity (but that takes some caution in what you say).

  13. #13 J. J. Ramsey
    January 11, 2012

    David Gerard: “Being polite doesn’t actually work.”

    And your proof of this consists of a guy finding that it didn’t work to write letters to university officials to get them to stop teaching homeopathy in their schools.

    Ant Allan: “Recognizing that political views are part of what shapes identity requires us to be cautious in how we attack political views.”

    If this is supposed to be an example of absurdity, it fails badly, especially if you are talking about trying to convince someone out of certain political views, rather than just forcing the hands of someone with political power (e.g. a congressman).

    Your other examples aren’t too helpful. Attacking someone for being a fan of a sports team is rather silly, since that is an arational preference in the first place. (Note that I wrote arational, not irrational. There’s a big difference.) As for pedophilia, it’s an as yet incurable psychiatric disorder, and “attacking” someone for having it is rather like attacking someone for being schizophrenia. Of course, if someone with either disease is a threat to others, he/she will need to be somehow restrained or even locked up. That, though, has nothing to do with harshness of discourse.

  14. #14 J. J. Ramsey
    January 11, 2012

    Oops, that last remark should read “having schizophrenia” not “being schizophrenia.”

  15. #15 Anthony McCarthy
    January 11, 2012

    Surely, it’s an individual person’s business to construct their own identity out of what they feel and think is important. If someone considers their belief a part of their identity, that’s their business. I certainly don’t second guess the new atheists’ right to let that belief rule their public personas. Only a bully tries to control how someone else thinks about their own persona.

    There’s a certain kind of scribbler in the humanities, and in this case in the outer suburbs of the humanities, who takes it on themselves to write these kinds of prescriptions about how we are all to think, the real-right way to think, how one is to think about things. They remind me of when Harold Roseberg called Hilton Kramer “the tireless meter maid of the arts”.

    It’s really annoying in the arts, it’s flaming ridiculous when they escape confinement and start doing it about the general culture. They are ridiculous when they do it and should be considered ridiculous.

  16. #16 Anthony McCarthy
    January 11, 2012

    Yes, I know that she asserted that beliefs are extrinsic to identity, but nothing she said – nothing you quoted – has anything to do with limiting identity to gender, age, or skin color. Josh

    I have a sister-in-law who was shocked when she moved here from the Dominican Republic where she was considered and always had considered herself to be white to here where she is usually considered black. My brother’s son with her considers himself to be black. She also considers herself to be Latina though she speaks fluent English. Does her identity change when she’s speaking English? Who gets to decide that if not her?

  17. #17 David Gerard
    January 12, 2012

    Josh – but why is religious belief in particular specially protected, when other beliefs that people treat as part of their identity (particularly when relating to others) are not?

    You want to change the behaviour of the new atheists, but you haven’t made a convincing case at all that they should change their behavior.

  18. #18 Anthony McCarthy
    January 12, 2012

    After having engaged in arguments with new atheists for five and a half years, I don’t want them to change their behavior because I’m convinced they’re making themselves so obnoxious to the majority of people that it will lead to the new atheist fad becoming more unpopular and I’m hoping they help bring down the scientistic materialism that has been being pushed in pop culture since the mid-70s, the origin of the new atheism, with it.

    If scientists want science to go down with it is their decision. Though I think it would be a huge tragedy of the oldest kind, the defeat of virtue by hubris.

  19. #19 TB
    January 12, 2012

    “Josh – but why is religious belief in particular specially protected, when other beliefs that people treat as part of their identity (particularly when relating to others) are not?”

    At least in the U.S., the protection extends to atheism. But protection against the kind of historic violence visited against various religious groups is one thing – inoculating them against legitimate criticism is another.

    Are you conflating the two?

  20. #20 Laurent Weppe
    January 12, 2012

    There are ways to attack a belief that make it clear that one is hating the sin but loving the sinner

    Please dont’ use that line: “hating the sin but loving the sinner” is a rhetorical trick used by homophobes who do not have the guts to openly admit their hatred. It’s a coded message meaning “We want to kill them all, but we’ll have to refrain our murderous impulse because we lack the firepower to succesfully pull that slaughter”: if atheists started to sing that “love the sinner” song, I for one would start to be very alarmed.

  21. #21 Pseudonym
    January 12, 2012

    @Laurent Weppe: The phrase “hating the sin but loving the sinner” was not invented by homophobes, and if you took all of the times the phrase has been historically uttered, it probably didn’t refer to sexual orientation the majority of the time.

    I do agree that homophobes have tarnished the phrase. Do you have an alternative which expresses the same sentiment?

  22. #22 Steffanee Maguire
    January 14, 2012

    When people pull words out of context and quote them into an argument to be ‘clever’, they more often than not, end up looking foolish, like David Gerard above. What Mencken wrote in Prejudices, was “The liberation of the human mind has never been furthered by such learned dunderheads [priests and pedants]; it has been furthered by gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe — that the god in the sanctuary was finite in his power, and hence a fraud. One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is not only more effective; it is also vastly more intelligent.” Mencken’s ‘priests and pedants’ were using syllogisms. Joshua was not syllogising nor was he proposing to use syllogisms in dialogue. So David Gerard, your use of Hencken’s fragment, is skewed. The laugh, if any, is at you. :-)

  23. #23 Anthony McCarthy
    January 14, 2012

    “The liberation of the human mind has never been furthered by such learned dunderheads [priests and pedants]; it has been furthered by gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries….

    Fr. William of Ockham, Fr. Nicholas Copernicus, Marin Mersenne (can’t remember if he was ordained or not), Bishop Nicolas Steno, Fr. Gregor Mendel, Fr. Joseph Lemaitre, Fr. Stanley Jaki Fr. John Polkinghorne, just off the top of my head.

    How many “gay fellows who swung cats” can you name who topped their contribution to science and civilization. And the list could be a lot longer, considering who started the universities in Europe, not to mention hospitals and other institutions. Mencken was an overrated bigot.

    You do know that that line about “horselaughs” was said by Martin Gardner, who wasn’t an atheist, though he wasn’t exactly an important figure in science or learning and who had a rather dodgy relationship to accurate reporting at times.

  24. #24 Steffanee Maguire
    January 15, 2012

    Well yes, probably so. Most of the names tossed around delightedly are overrated, undereducated bigots and sloths. I wasn’t impressed with the fragment, and impressed even less with the fuller quotation. I wouldn’t have appealed to him to support my argument. He was a critic of anti-intellectualism though, and that would seem to weaken Gerard’s use of such rhetorical nonsense even more.

  25. #25 Greg Laden
    January 23, 2012

    My immediate reaction to all of this is that the word “belief” does too much work.

    By the way, Josh, it was treat to see you in NC. And, for all of Josh’s Loyal Readers: There was a handful of spontaneous applause produced by people or things said at the Science Online 2012 conference, and one of the more heartfelt and totally spontaneous ones was for Josh and the NCSE. I know, it’s OT, but I just thought I’d mention it.

  26. #26 Sesli Chat
    February 13, 2012

    He was a critic of anti-intellectualism though, and that would seem to weaken Gerard’s use of such rhetorical nonsense even more.