Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Belief does not human identity make

Man it's tough to hold a conversation over Twitter! Sometimes, the 140-character limit just doesn't cut it, particularly when there are multiple folks to include in the discussion. I was in a convoluted discussion with ScienceBlogger Josh Rosenau, philosopher Ophelia Benson, and my friend and fellow NatureBlogger Bob O'Hara. On Twitter. Needless to say, it soon became difficult to keep everything together. So here I am, hoping to make sense of it all.

Well, it all started with a tweet from Josh Rosenau plugging his post, Belief is part of identity, in which he took issue with one of Ophelia Benson's recent posts. Ophelia was expressing her thoughts on an oft-encountered theme in many internet discussions, how many such discussions - even though initiated upon some reasoned enquiry - degenerate into unreasonableness when claims or assumptions, that people belonging to a particular group are inherently inferior, are made. A common example of this is insults - ad hominems, in particular - based on gender, ethnicity and/or sexual orientation, where epithets signifying these characteristics and/or associated genitalia are used as put-downs, in order to dismiss a whole set of argument without addressing... the arguments.

It occurred to me that Ophelia was indicating that it is not reasonable (nor desirable) to invoke the innate characteristics that are part of the human experience, or human identity if you will, with the express idea of using them as tools in arguments. I agreed and so did many of the commenters in the thread that followed. In all this, Ophelia proposed to keep beliefs separate from the said identity. In conjunction, she also mentioned New Age/Alternative beliefs, as well as religious beliefs (all of which, I must say, often juxtapose or overlap); there are a lot many folks subscribing to such belief systems, who often feel outraged by reasoned criticisms of their beliefs. It is as if they have their beliefs built into their identities; without their belief systems to prop them up, they are unable express their basic human conditions. In arguments, Ophelia opined, "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." - and therefore, unlike the innate human identity, beliefs and belief systems should not be held sacrosanct.

And that's what - strangely - seems to have raised Josh Rosenau's hackles.

In his post, Josh begins by disputing Ophelia's opinion about belief not being a part of identity. To illustrate, he draws on the Abrahamic religions, defining Judaism and Islam as examples of orthopraxy, where membership is defined by the practices of the members, and Christianity as an orthodoxy, where membership depends upon the belief in a central doctrine or dogma. He paints a picture of the complexities involved in making such categorizations because of overlaps between beliefs and practices. He goes on to indicate that overt expressions of belief are an essential component of a person's religious identity.

This struck me as particularly naive, and even a bit of a disingenuous misrepresentation of Ophelia's opinion. Let me explain. Ophelia was referring to the human identity, and she sought to exclude - justifiably - religious identity based on beliefs. It's not difficult to see why. Beliefs are not innate; they are a taught construct. Beliefs are malleable. They change, they appear and sometimes disappear, particularly religious belief. Basing something as fundamental as one's identity on a flimsy and frivolous construct as religious belief, therefore, seems counter-intuitive and fraught with inherent dangers.

Even without going into the orthodoxy/orthopraxy divide (which Josh brought into the discussion - somewhat unnecessarily, I thought), those who make their beliefs a central component of their identity are often stuck in a loop between their belief and practices. Let's take the example of Islam. A Muslim-by-culture person is not considered a Muslim unless s/he subscibes to the Islamic theology and belief-based practices. This is the main reason why, when violent incidents occur within Islam or are justified by Islamic precepts, it tends to tar all Muslim folks with a broad brush - which is an unfortunate side-effect of their beliefs. This is also why when a person born to a Muslim household becomes an atheist, one feels compelled to vocally disavow one's connections with the Islamic beliefs. If this doesn't illustrate amply the perils of incorporating belief into identities, what will?

But Josh, in his zeal to contradict Ophelia, zeroed in on the matter of religious identity and stuck himself there. And in doing so, he yet again wilfully mischaracterized the position of the Gnu Atheists. Quoth he:
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.
Atheists don't believe that there is a/one/any god. It is really that simple, however much Josh wants to paint disbelief as a belief. In addition, this disbelief didn't just fall from a tree; it stems from the sheer lack of objective, verifiable evidence in support of the god hypothesis. Gnu Atheists, upon whom Josh spares no effort to heap invectives, are this and much more. It doesn't take much to notice that however contentious, vocal and confrontational, the Gnu Atheists - consistently - condemn actions, and ideas that need to be challenged and tested, rather than individuals. It is not just about the absence of a mythical deity; it is a positive movement that emphasizes the core value of truth - not some absolute diktat to be accepted uncritically as presented by some unquestionable authority (which is the modus operandi of religion), but a truth one has to work at and approach by trial and error, a truth that is supported in reality, by reason and evidence. The stuff that Gnu Atheists stand accused of are consequential. Their views do find expression in specific criticisms of specific faiths and judgements of belief systems, myths and superstitions according to the foolishness of their explanations.

This is illustrated best in one of PZ's old, old posts. As he expressed with eloquence:
One of the most common canards applied to us, and especially to the Gnu Atheists, is that we're negative, that we lack a positive center that we stand for. This is completely false. When you look at the body of work that the prominent leaders of this movement have put together, when you look at the books of people like Dawkins and Harris and Dennett and Coyne and Stenger, you do not find them nattering on for hundreds of pages about how much they hate religion. Quite the contrary. What you find are authors who write about reason and evidence and science, where front and center you find an appreciation for a universe rich with natural phenomena that, with a little honest effort, we can reach out and comprehend. We atheists live a purpose-driven life, to steal a phrase, and that life is dedicated to deepening our understanding and learning about this world. Call us merely negative, or merely angry, or merely anti-religious, and you haven't been paying attention. You haven't been reading our books or articles for comprehension.
New/Gnu Atheism, clearly, is not all about beliefs. But to say the religious belief shapes identity is even more egregious. It may perhaps be true for those that are hopelessly bogged down in the quagmire of irrational beliefs, but that is not - and cannot be - a good thing. Belief should certainly not play a role in molding one's human identity and should not be considered immune to criticisms and ridicule.

In the final paragraph of his post, Josh offers the summary of the accommodationists' position:
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.
Once again, PZ said it best:
What may have confused some people, though, is that we also believe you can't love the truth without detesting lies. That an honest way of dealing with those lies is to confront them openly, head on, and unapologetically, and while some might rationalize accommodating unjustifiable distortions of the truth as a strategic option, there are a number of us who consider that principle to be one on which we will not compromise.

Update: I took the following paragraph out and placed it in the postscript, because it was not directly relevant to the discussion and was kinda distracting. Josh helped me realize that through a Twitter comment about what he called "well poisoning". Harsh, but thanks anyway.

P.S. Josh Rosenau, for those who don't know him, is a veteran defender of evolution and battler of creationism, a skeptic by his own right, involved in science education. Sadly, Josh is also an accommodationist, one of that breed of skeptics who yearns to make nice-nice with the theists and the faithful, to the point of demonstrating signs of cognitive dissonance. He appears, for some strange reason, to fail to realize that creationism stems directly from religious belief, and he dislikes - oh, he detests - the 'New Atheists' (or rather, the Gnu Atheists) for their propensity to scorn the religions, the religious and their beliefs. Over the years, many of prominent figures in the skeptic movement have taken Josh to task for it, including Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers.

P.P.S. After I posted my initial Twitter comment, Josh responded and Bob had chipped in. The conversation went somewhat like:
@kausikdatta22: TOW @JoshRosenau, in his zeal to contradict @OpheliaBenson, forgets that identity is innate, whereas beliefs are taught
@joshrosenau: @kausikdatta22 Identity is innate? Since when?
@bobohara: @kausikdatta22 So if I had been adopted & moved to India just after birth, I would still be English & a statistician? @joshrosenau
To that, Josh offered this absolute gem:
@joshrosenau: @BobOHara @kausikdatta22 And you'd still be Anglican, even if raised in a Hindu family, and later became an atheist.
LOL, what? (Ophelia has commented on this after her post. Josh later tweeted that it was a reductio ad absurdum based on what Bob said, but I think it was just... absurd.)

I soldiered on:
@kausikdatta22: @BobOHara @JoshRosenau Bob, does your identity consist of merely being English & statistician?
@bobohara: @kausikdatta22 It's more than that - scientist, sporter of beard, sports fan etc, but it's difficult to see what parts aren't cultural
@kausikdatta22: @BobOHara the sense of identity as in the sense of one's self -is that not innate? But you can be taught to believe this/that. @JoshRosenau
@bobohara: @kausikdatta22 I don't think it was the sense of having an identity that was being discussed, it was the identity itself.
@kausikdatta22: @BobOHara In @JoshRosenau's example, your identity is Anglican, even if you're raised Hindu & become atheist? Srsly? Do you agree w that?
@bobohara: @kausikdatta22 I don't identify myself as Anglican, but it's still part of my cultural identity. My atheism is also part of who I am.
@kausikdatta22: @BobOHara @JoshRosenau Incorporating belief in identity is fraught w inherent dangers.
And so it went for a little while before I could take it no longer and had to write this post. You understand.


  1. I have a feeling that people are meaning different things by "identity". So, what do you mean by it?

    In 140 characters or more.

  2. Josh has written on Twitter that "it's clear from context that (he) meant identity in much the way Bob does. What other relevant meaning exists?" I disagree. Josh, as I said in the post, focused exclusively on religious identity and its basis in beliefs. Ophelia, on the other hand, seemed to indicate a much broader and more fundamental definition of identity, to which I agree. This definition would incorporate the innate, immutable characteristics that all human beings have. One's identity can, of course, be fine-tuned through knowledge and experience, but basing it entirely on as flimsy a foundation as religious belief doesn't work.

    Besides, if you read Ophelia's post where her comments started it all, she speaks in a very specific context. The problem arises mostly when someone like Josh conflates belief and identity, thereby implying that beliefs should be immune to criticism. IOW, since criticizing someone's identity as a point in an argument makes no sense, beliefs - in association - should be equally sacrosanct. I don't buy that.

    A lot more than 140 characters, eh?

  3. It's still not clear to me what you mean by "identity". What characteristics would you say are part of your identity? Being Indian, for example?

  4. Part of my identity? First, human. Being Indian, also yes, not because I was born in India, but I grew up there imbibing the culture. Male, because I am biologically and psychologically male. Straight, by sexual orientation. Researcher/scientist, which I am by professional training. Skeptic/Atheist, which I am by disposition.

    All these characteristics are fact-based. When challenged on any of them, I can argue with evidence to prove my identity as one.

    Now, in a given discussion, if someone were to dismiss my arguments - summarily and/or automatically - not for their lack of merit, but simply because, say, I am a short, fat, brown-skinned Indian, that would not be fair, wouldn't you think?

    This is the point Ophelia raised. See, there is no belief system that forms a part of my identity - at least not any more. Whatever religious beliefs I may have had when I used to consider myself Hindu - having been born in a practising Hindu family - all those and more, myths and superstitions are fair game in a discussion; I'd mock and ridicule them - I do - whenever the situation demands. Belief, religious belief, belief in fact-free, evidence-free, irrational alternative medicine and so forth - these are not, and should not be, afforded any special protection.

    Is that clearer now?

  5. Aren't science and skepticism also things that are learned, and not innate? So you accept that identity is not innate?

    I'm not sure why a belief shouldn't be a part of identity: indeed you indicate it is when you write "Atheists don't believe that there is a/one/any god.", and then say that "Skeptic/Atheist" is a part of your identity.

    I'm sure being Indian also involves a lot of belief, and other attitudes that aren't fact-based (e.g. that cricket is the greatest sport known to man. One must allow some consideration for the poor souls who don't agree).

    1. I was hoping you'd pick on this, Bob. I still say identity is innate. Yes, science and skepticism are partly learned responses. As I said above (my first comment to you), one's identity can, of course, be fine-tuned through knowledge and experience. Point to note is that neither science, nor skepticism, is belief-based. Therefore, my original position stands - that beliefs shouldn't be made a part of identity. I hope you don't subscribe to the common canard that disbelief/lack of belief is also a belief system, do you, Bob?

      My being Indian - no, I should put it more precisely - my identity as an Indian (defined as above) has nothing to do with a/any belief.

      Of course, cricket is the Greatest Sport known to humankind, and the sport where people kick a ball with their feet is the ONLY sport that deserves to be called Football. So there. But see, Bob, if you or anyone challenges this thesis during an argument, I'd argue for it to the end of the world - knowing that it is a belief and it can/will not be protected. That's the point Ophelia was making, too.

  6. I wonder about this a lot. I self identify as an atheist, but that doesn't define me, it merely describes me. I am no more attached to that appellation than I am to my weight; it's just a useful shorthand to convey some idea of what and how I think. So really when I say I am an atheist I am saying that I value evidence over revelation, that I value personal conscience over codified ethics, that I value individual motivation over watchdogs, and a bevy of other things that all get rolled up in that small word. So other terms are effective descriptors as well: humanist, skeptic, empiricist, materialist, etc. All of these share a common theme though, they describe, they don't define.

    It seems to me that for a lot of religious people they have mis-labeled something that they are: whether it is seeking understanding, desiring to improve themselves, hoping to improve the lot of others, or what have you as their religious affiliation. Once that has been done they fear losing the definition because they see it as losing the values they have, a blindness that rears up and fights against any and all contemplation let alone alteration.

    1. Well said, Bill. I don't disagree. But the original question - that motivated this post - was slightly different. I am sure you'd agree that we should not automatically bring certain aspects of one's identity, such as gender and sexual orientation, into discussion when debating some issue. Ophelia was wondering whether one's beliefs should be accorded such automatic protection or not. She concluded that beliefs are not protected, because they are not a part of one's identity. I concurred with her from the position that belief, religious belief or belief in, say, alternative medicine, should not form a part of anyone's identity.

    2. I have done poorly then. I was trying to say that religion and other belief systems are not beyond discussion because they are abstractions removed from identity. I would add that I think there are situations in which gender or sexual orientation are also appropriate to address during a discussion.

      There are many aspects of gender, especially when people are being essentialist about it, that are appropriate topics of discussion. When someone says that they are X and that fact works to reinforce limited interpretations of gender then I would argue it is often necessary to pick at their notion of self in that regard. This must of course be weighed against the potential for damage that exists from other sexist structures. In such a case, one where caution dictates avoidance of the topic, it's not at a personal identity level that I think the caution exists, but at a cultural or social level.

      I think a similar argument also applies to sexual orientation, too many see it as a straight/gay divide, while others only manage to add a third bisexual option (can I get the pan option please?) and when people identify based along such narrow ideas I think it can often be appropriate to challenge them on that. Likewise, there is necessary caution, but again it is based on homophobic or anti-bi social pressures, not because of the sacrosanct nature of individual identity.

      Maybe I am missing something that you are saying, it is certain that more people find my own notions of identity odd than find them familiar. I will pick at this some more.

    3. No, Bill, it is perhaps my fault that I am not being clearer. What I want to say is simply this: gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation have all been invoked from time to time to put a person down or dismiss his/her arguments summarily without going into the merits therein. I am saying, and I am sure you agree, that this is wrong. Ophelia framed this question as one of identity, and indicated all of the above form a part of a person's identity, and therefore, should not be used in such manner. Belief of various types, on the hand, doesn't/shouldn't get to enjoy the same protection, in that beliefs should be examined, eviscerated, critiqued, analyzed, and if necessary, discarded.

      As you have correctly said, when the argument IS specifically about gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation, it is appropriate to broach those issues. But I would expect a certain amount of reasoned arguments, and not, say, gendered insults and so forth.

      Is this any clearer now? :(

    4. I would never consider gendered insults, nor religious ones, particularly effective at making a reasoned argument. They are rhetorical markers that may make an argument appear won, but all they do effectively is stifle discourse. If I told someone they were stupid because they were Christian I would think I had lost my way, but if I told someone that they were missing something about an argument because of their Christian perspective I would be more comfortable. In either event, I am perfectly willing to call a religion appalling, ignorant, or otherwise failed and to support that with examples because as I said, I don't consider religious belief systems part of identity.

  7. +1 to Bill. I think the distinction between "define" and "describe" is very helpful here (much more so than the distinction between "learned" and "innate", which I think is a bit of a dead end).

    What you're describing here also corresponds well with many of the atheist "deconversion" stories I've read. Many describe how their sense for curiosity, or sense for truth or fairness lead them to radically change their beliefs - sometimes deeper into religion at first - but that their core values stayed pretty much the same.

  8. To bind belief to identity is to portray criticism of belief as torment. It requires the holders of the belief to defend it, even when it is an unmistakably harmful belief. It is the binding of belief to identity which enables religion to drive good people to commit evil acts.

    And yet, we are all subject to the sunk cost fallacy to one degree or another; the more we invest into a belief, whether in seeking to understand it, or in seeking to support it, the less willing we are to abandon all we have invested in it.

    More, most of us wish to feel proud of what we understand, and what we have fought for. Thus belief comes to underlie achievement, to support self-assessment, to undergird our own views of who we are.

    Humanity would be better off by far if we did not bind belief to identity; we are subject to many horrible ideas which require criticism. There is much suffering that will not end until the beliefs that drive it are destroyed. But correcting fallacies that seem built into the basic architecture of how humans think will be no easy task.

    Daniel Dennett wrote Breaking The Spell which clearly illustrates how religious belief is insulated from criticism.

    1. Humanity would be better off by far if we did not bind belief to identity.
      Amen to that.