TOP Q: “How Is It Fair To Question Other People’s Identity-Forming Beliefs While Demanding Respect For One’s Own Belief-Formed Identities?”

I always tell my students as they start studying philosophy that it is crucial that they not associate their ideas too closely with themselves.  They need to get used to not taking criticism of their ideas personally. I warn them that if they cannot disassociate from their ideas when they fail, they will never be able to improve their ideas and instead will be discouraged and personally threatened by revealing arguments which should be illuminating and, even, liberating.

By explicitly adopting atheism as a key part of our identities, do we forfeit (on pain of hypocrisy) the right to demand the religious to do what I demand of my students—hold their ideas separate from their senses of self—since we are no longer doing the same ourselves? Or are we actually still able to manage dispassionate distance from our atheism, even as we rally around it, raise consciousness about it, and form community with reference to it? What about religious people, can they dispassionately analyze their own views while forming their own identities based on their beliefs?

These questions arose in me based after I read a striking e-mail I got from an openly gay and atheist friend, whose atheism is matter-of-fact to him but far from central to his life.  Last fall he reacted with a combination of surprise and revulsion to a controversial New York Times article about PZ Myers’s unabashed atheistic confrontationalism, which towards the end referred to a woman’s concern not to be “outed” as an atheist to her employers. He wrote me:

What fascinated me were the comments at the close comparing acknowledgement of atheism to being “out” vs. “in the closet.” I would never have thought to compare non-belief with being gay, and I find it rather irritating, but it does help me to define my own view with regard to speaking up. As you know, I am very open about being gay because to hide it suggests that the condition is shameful and that I should not exist. At the same time I try not to blurt out, “I’m gay!” as a gesture of defiance or crude assertion. That is merely rude and understandably alienates people whom I like and respect. I try to put the word out in humorous ways, so that the point lies unmistakably before us, but the conversation doesn’t momentarily jar to a halt. Of course, when someone makes a homophobic remark, as people often do (often unwittingly), I try quickly to bring it to their attention and let them know (gently but firmly) that it’s not okay. But once they get the point, the sunlight returns and I try to forget it ever happened. People will remain homophobic – they can’t be otherwise in this culture – but at least I am then spared the insult of homophobic remarks made in my presence. Let them keep it to themselves.

That also covers how I respond to assertions of religious belief. When people gush on about God, as they often do in the South, I try tactfully but clearly to indicate that I do not share their views. But I don’t try to argue them down, unless they get on a high horse and tell me I’m wrong. And this is a policy I’m quite comfortable with. But I have no truck with the sort of actions and remarks made by PZ Myers (assuming they were accurately reported) which seem to me childishly crude and stupidly provocative. I will never give my support to people like that, no matter whose side they profess to be on. They sound like Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck, just on the other side.

Without getting into the specifics of the case of PZ Myers (which I did most extensively in a stimulating debate in the comments section of this Butterflies and Wheels post), my friend raises a difficult problem, which is the conflict between simultaneously asking for respect for a belief-based identity (or a lack-of-belief-based identity, if you prefer) while also aggressively attacking the beliefs on which other people have formed their own belief-based identities.

What my friend’s remarks indicate is that even though we activist atheists are adopting “coming out” language from the LGBT pride movement and self-consciously owning atheism as an identity marker, we are not at the same time making peace with other people’s identities. From my friend’s remarks I take him to have a truce-making approach to identity. He wants to be accepted for who he is without judgment and in return he accepts others for who they are without judgment. If atheists are going to ask for acceptance as atheists then they owe it to accept religious people in return as religious people.

And this is the problem, when it comes to religious people, atheists want them to hold their beliefs distinct from their identities and subject them to objective scrutiny so that they can abandon them. Yet, these same, confrontational atheists who want to challenge theism are the same kinds of atheists who want to “come out” and have their atheist identities respected without theists trying to change it. Of course, it is not only atheists who are tempted to hold this double standard. Many of the Christians and Muslims who most form their identity with reference to their faith are similarly the most aggressive proselytizers within their respective religions. In both the cases of the theists and the anti-theists, intensity of personal identification of the self with the belief correlates with intensity of desire that others acknowledge the truth of their belief.

This is a potentially toxic combination. If “identity-atheists” (atheists who form their identity in a significant way with reference to their godlessness) and “identity-theists” (religious people who form their identity in a significant way by reference to their theistic beliefs) were primarily the non-confrontational atheists and religious people then a truce which prohibited all attempts to dissuade or persuade each other would support coexistence between people who had different identities. On the other hand if the “evangelical-atheists” and “evangelical-theists” who want to start public and private debates to dissuade and persuade each other of their positions gave up on being “identity-atheists” and “identity-theists” then they could debate without anyone getting offended that their very identities were being attacked. Both sides could agree that their own beliefs or lack of beliefs were not parts of their very identities but open to vigorous challenge with no threat of personal offense.

But, ironically (but wholly understandably), evangelical-atheism and evangelical-theism are most often inspired by identity-atheism and identity-theism.

And so we both want it both ways–we want to insist you change and want to be respected as we are without any demand we conform to your views. Of course, these positions are consistent in theory. We can both politically and morally respect each other’s identities while philosophically aggressively attacking each other’s views. But, as I noted last week, it is a fine line between saying that someone’s values and beliefs are utterly repulsive or stupid and saying that that person is repulsive and stupid. We only exist and live our lives through our actions and our thoughts. If we are told that the values and beliefs that orient them should not exist it is natural, especially for an identity-atheist or identity-religionist, to interpret this emotionally (and maybe cognitively) to mean that we ourselves should not exist.

And so identity-religionists get outraged when evangelical-atheists call for the end of their religion and their way of life with it and identity-atheists get outraged when evangelical-theists tell us we have no metaethical grounding for our morality or meaning in life and, sometimes irrationally, we identity-atheists take this as a direct assault on our personal morality. Sometimes it is an attack on atheists’ abilities to be moral, but sometimes it is a legitimate philosophical challenge to come up with a coherent account of moral philosophy to rival the long-established and widely-indoctrinated and influential ones theistic religions boast.

So, I open the question to identity/evangelical-atheists and identity/evangelical-theists alike, “How can we non-hypocritically demand of each other open-minded willingness to reconsider a central identity while also demanding for our own identities and respectfully treating each other’s identities?” In short, today’s open philosophical question is, “How is it fair to question other people’s identity-forming beliefs while demanding respect for one’s own belief-formed identities?”

Your Thoughts?

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Before I Deconverted: Christmas Became A Christian Holiday To Me
ISIS’s Iconoclasm, The Bible, and The Problem With Taking Literalism Literally
About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • George W.

    I have to admit that sometimes I get frazzled when a religious person makes a comment that I consider unfair. I have at times taken comments personally, most notably when a theist assumes my humanity to be lacking without God.
    I wonder though, if this isn’t justified given the implications of their comments. I cannot help but take such comments personally, for example when I “have no good reason not to murder babies” or “choose not to be a Christian so that I can live a hedonistic and sinful life”.
    Those are personal attacks.
    I used to run into a specific Christian blogger who maintained regularly that I was unable to love my wife or children because I was an atheist. I would imagine any of us would find it difficult to approach comments like that dispassionately.
    I will cop to sometimes taking more offense than is due, as I think every person does. Yet I have become better at divorcing myself from my personal feelings in debates.
    This has, for me, caused different kinds of problems. When I used to argue more emotionally, I often employed emotional sabotage against my adversary; I would assume that if I “made them cry”, I won. As I nurtured a more dispassionate style, I find that I unintentionally slight people more often. I am not “meeting people where they are”, to borrow a phrase from a friend, I am assuming that my dispassion is mutual.
    I don’t as often care anymore if someone respects my beliefs as much as they respect the logic and reason that inform them. I welcome people who question my beliefs. As you are aware, Dan, I struggled with the question of morality during my debate with Peter. I was forced to hone my logic. I had to abandon some old ideas that I had, more fully form others, and get myself to a place where I could be consistent. Though I don’t view moral choices any differently then I did before, I have a greater appreciation for the process of developing morals from first principals as opposed to tradition and heuristic. I am better for the criticism. Had I just stormed off insulted, I would have missed a defining moment in my life.
    The final word is that I find it fair if my identity-forming beliefs are questioned, so long as my answers are held to proper standards of logic and reason. In short, as long as my right to defend my position is respected.

  • Larry, The Barefoot Bum

    I’m not going to speak on identity politics in general, but I never see specifically atheist “identity” politics as demanding that non-atheists respect our identity without judgment. As an “identity atheist,” I say, bring on the judgment! Lets get it out into the light. Atheists at most insist on exemption only from *legal* judgment, an exemption we are happy to extend equally to theism. Of course denial of legal privilege is the other side of that coin.

    I read Planet Atheism every day. I’ve been an active member of the atheist community (such as it is) for more than a decade; I personally know dozens of atheists (a couple of them somewhat famous) and hundreds more through the Internet. I don’t see *anything* like what you’re talking about. But maybe I’m wrong; it’s been known to happen. Maybe I’m missing something or gravely misinterpreting something. Maybe you point out a real problem.

    But from your essay here, I have no way of knowing if I’m wrong or even *why* we disagree. I’m just a freshman in college. What they’re teaching me in college is to support assertions, especially assertions about objective facts, with citations and quotations. I guess philosophy professors have different rules: we are, to judge from this essay, expected to simply take your word for it. I suppose academic ethics is more complicated than I might naively suppose.

    My first plan in finally going to college after all these years was to study philosophy. Contact with doctors and professors of philosophy like yourself quickly caused me to abandon that plan. I’ve just seen no evidence at all that philosophical academia is at all interested in an honest search for the truth.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Well, were this to be an academic paper and not a blog post, the standards of evidence in terms of citations, quotations, etc. would be quite a bit higher. That’s not to say I could not go to the trouble of tracking down examples of what I see that is problematic or to spell out more clearly what I’m talking about for a blog post if requested too.

      But, no, philosophy professors are not uniquely averse to backing up our assertions at all. Every argument however must start from some premises taken for granted, made as assertions, because not to do so would mean always starting at the very first principles and deriving everything else from there and having no time to into details about the actual argument you want to make.

      But, all of that said, I am unclear of what specific accusations I made you think do not apply to atheists. I’m not sure what premises or assertions you think are unwarranted. “Identity-atheists” do much more than just demand legal rights or this would not be such a growing movement (since those are not nearly so threatened in America as to galvanize as large a movement as we are seeing—they’re important issues but no one is stripping us of rights to vote, to assemble, to declare our disbelief, etc. And plenty on the left oppose the theocratic tendencies of the right wing without being atheist or talking about “atheist solidarity” or “coming out of the closet” as irreligious or atheist community or wanting to be respected as atheists, which are all things I see all the time as a matter of course on Planet Atheism and everywhere else in the atheist blogosphere.)

      Atheists need to “come out of the closet” is very much identity language that is disconnected from any great fight over legal rights of atheists. It’s about gaining acceptance from families for what they believe without being demanded to change that. It’s not a matter of JUST “speak up for what you think to your parents and get into a debate with them”, it’s let them know you don’t believe and struggle with owning this Identity as an outsider to the faith and that you can still be a good person, etc. Yes, we want to argue and, yes, we are in principle willing to be persuaded out of our atheism much more than most religious people are. It’s not just identity for us. But a lot of the atheist consciousness stuff is about identifying as an atheist, as admitting to it publicly, accepting it’s not a bad thing.

      And as I mentioned in the article, I see a lot of atheists twisting the demand for a metaethical account of the foundations of morality into a personal assault on their personal character. George, in the comment above you completely resonated with that feeling. It often happens that they are confronted with the question, “how come an atheist does not kill people if there is no fear of punishment from God”, which is a valid philosophical question that has variations going back to ancient days, that gets to the question of whether morality can have either foundations or motivations that are unrelated to external goods, and sometimes I’ve seen atheists answer this in a detached, philosophical manner that grasps the importance in the question. But I have also regularly seen them in a huff, “There are plenty of good people who are atheists!” That’s not the question. There is a desire to be acknowledged as “just as moral as anyone else” as part of why they don’t want religious people trying to fix them or to mistrust them.

      I’ve seen atheists go way over the top in saying we are THE most hated minority in the country just because of that weird poll that shows less people would vote an atheist president than would vote a religious minority, a racial minority, or a gay person president. I’ve seen a lot of atheists get hyperbolic about how much this means we are supposedly mistrusted.

      Maybe they’re just pushing back against the ways that our beliefs and non-beliefs are overly mistrusted by the general mindset of Americans. But using that language of “minority” in making the point moves this from thinking of atheism as “just something I happen to think” and an unpopular belief system to the category “type of person” being discriminated against.

      For example, if this was not wanting atheists to be in power issue was ONLY about belief system, atheist bloggers wouldn’t be batting an eye at that statistic. They would just concede that, “well, of course, atheists reject a key part of people’s worldviews from whence they understand their essential values to come and so they would be uncomfortable with someone with such a different worldview about the most fundamental issues in metaphysics and ethics legislating.” That’s saying, “if I live in a country where there are certain dominant values, including faith and adherence to the specifically Judeo-Christian moral tradition, and I am someone who rejects faith ALTOGETHER and throws into question what people take to be the foundations of the Judeo-Christian moral tradition, of course they would not want me to be the most powerful person in the country.

      But identity-atheists are offended that this should matter. And NOT just on separation of church and state grounds. It’s not just the places where it’s illegal for us to run for office that they’re upset about. They’re upset that anyone would ever hold it against them at all in voting. They are upset that they are being assumed to have inferior values “just because they are atheists” whereas instead, quite logically, people who (wrongly) think that their core values really need these religious beliefs to be grounded just see the atheists as not having a reliable enough intellectual or motivational basis for ethics possible.

      And atheists take this personally, consider themselves an unfairly mistrusted minority, instead of shrugging and going, “Look, I get it, I don’t trust someone with a belief system that explicitly bases values on religion, so I get that they do not trust me when mine explicitly attacks basing values on religion”. They don’t see it as, we have different belief systems and methods of belief formation that make it understandable that there’s some misunderstanding and mistrust. Instead, they see it as that they are a hated, unfairly mistrusted minority.

      And, again, that’s not just a legal matter or a separation of church and state issue. It’s not that all religious people by any stretch want the government to legislate their specifically religious values, but they DO want government officials to be basically moral, they DO (erroneously) think morality basically comes from and is reinforced with religious sources and they DO think that without that component in someone’s belief and value system they would be potentially untethered from this kind of grounding. They’re “tolerant” enough to no longer demand any specific religion, but still want someone of faith most likely because they equate that with someone of a coherent moral tradition.

      Instead of looking at that and saying, “okay, I get that since even though we atheists are moral, without a coherent explicit well understood tradition of values formation, people might not get how that is so in terms of our beliefs and wonder if we would vote their values as their representatives”, some atheists I have seen have treated it as “we are a minority whose personal character is assumed totally untrustworthy”.

      Yes, sometimes we are being attacked on exactly those grounds and do need to push back against a prejudice that we’re bad people who live empty lives. But that’s not always the case and I have seen atheists get outraged in a way that essentially says to specifically metaethical challenges, “don’t tell me I have to be immoral just because I’m an atheist.”

      I am not saying that atheists are not open to arguments or see their atheism as “immutable” parts of their identities, but there is a lot of emphasis on being accepted as we are, as atheists, without demanding we explicitly answer questions about our beliefs and values before we be trusted or assumed to be moral. And that, to me, is a push towards saying, “we are just another identity group that should not have to give an account of its beliefs and values to be socially accepted” and away from saying, “we are adherents to an unpopular way of thinking about core beliefs and values and we get it that we will have to make coherent and defend our beliefs and values to a great extent before people understand our positions”.

      Finally, by making being an atheist a big personal deal, something worth having your blog wear a “scarlet A” over, something worth coming out over, something worth organizing communities around, etc., inevitably psychologically means encouraging people to treat it as having an important role in constructing their sense of self—their core values, their priorities with respect to time, their first principles in beliefs, their social identification on a key social question, etc. This is not unique to religion/anti-religion either. Being a conscious and deliberate vegetarian, environmentalist, Republican, libertarian, Democrat, socialist, feminist, etc. could all psychologically be expected to have effects on self-understanding and identity in similar ways.

  • George W.

    I can’t be more adamant that Larry’s experience has not been mine. Atheists can be and are emotionally attached to their beliefs. If you are looking for a citation, look no further than this comment. I am emotionally attached to my beliefs. That does not make them poorly reasoned, that does not mean they are static; it means that they are informed by and part of who I am as a person. Even though I have taken pains to create a detachment between the two, I am still a slave to my nature.
    Too often when someone takes a criticism personally, they brush off as an attack that which is just a challenge to their thinking. We marginalize valid arguments as being strictly stereotypical or ignorant a priori assumption.
    But from the view of the observer, perception is reality. If someone has never taken the time to question why they don’t murder people, outside of the Ten Commandments, then they will perceive that the atheist has no objective reason not to murder. That perception is their reality until something better informs it. Most Christians do not think that atheists are psychopaths or sociopaths, yet those very definitions imply why they are wary of atheist ethics. They assume that our aversion to murder is informed by religious tradition, by our religiously informed culture; if you can take away the religion, you can reason away the rule.
    If I just wave that aside, I am not addressing their perception- I am feeding their misinformed reality.

    As I said earlier, I don’t care if my beliefs are respected in some PC sense. I care that the process by which I inform those beliefs are respected, because I take great pains to be consistent. I value my reason and logic.

    I can find traditional philosophy as frustrating as the next guy. I can bicker over the proper use of terms and defend words instead of ideas. I can occasionally become annoyed at the arrogance with which people hold to subtle differences or inferential opinions.

    Yet philosophy has made me a better person. It has made me consider things that I would otherwise have blindly accepted or rejected. It has challenged me to object to my own reasoning and anticipate my own contradictions. I consider it to be the greatest gift ever given to me, and I owe an infinite debt to those thinkers who have helped to give definition to the blurry fog of heuristic and tradition, I owe that debt to the man who lit that fire inside me, and I owe it to myself to follow that fire to every crevice it exposes with it’s gentile glow. Philosophy has made me more human, for what is more human than curiosity- what is more fundamental to humanity than reason?

  • Mary Young

    I find this question hard to answer because I am very attached to my Catholicism. In fact, in Christianity your faith is supposed to be the center of your life so I would most definitely say that I am an identity-theist. Not only on the personal level, but having been raised and educated Catholic my whole life, I am culturally Catholic as well.

    That being said, I often find, and I can only speak to my own experience, that I am more sympathetic to the atheist movement than most identity-atheists are to me. I respect the long, often agonizing process of discernment, fear, etc. that goes into renouncing theistic beliefs. I respect that process much the same way that I respect people who convert from one religion to another and alienate family and friends – something I can’t imagine myself ever being compelled to do, let alone having the courage to do it. So I don’t like to make jokes about how atheists are going to hell (which is a *HILARIOUS* joke that some of my religious friends have made) and I refuse, on evidence alone, to posit that atheists can’t be happy, moral, loving etc. There are too many examples of evil religious people and good atheists ever to back up such an absurd assertion.

    Yet I think most identity-atheists are not as charitable toward my beliefs as I am toward theirs. Firstly, the assumption is made by most atheists that I know, and I’m thinking of one in particular, that because I was raised Catholic that I’ve never seriously questioned my beliefs or even questioned that God might exist. In other words, though this person finds me very intelligent, he thinks that I have completely blindly accepted my faith. Which is absurd. Wrestling with the question of whether or not God exists is something I’ve been doing since childhood. Or, he assumes that since his own spiritual journey led him to atheism and my spiritual journey led me to remain Catholic, that his spiritual journey was done somehow with more purpose or seriousness. I resent that and it’s attitudes like that toward my theism that often make me feel like I have to suit up in a bullet-proof outfit to engage in conversation with atheists that has to do with religion.

    Secondly, some of the potently offensive statements that atheists make are ones that I would NEVER make about atheists. Ricky Gervais’ crucifixion photo shoot being one of the most patently offensive ones that comes to mind. When I see something like that, I think “Is this about freedom to express yourself or is it about making people angry?” I, for one, would never do a photoshoot showing atheists dying and burning in hell – however much of a laugh some sick people might find that. I also think of the statement made by the atheists protesting the cross at the 9/11 memorial (which is a fair criticism on some levels because it is the ONLY religious symbol and I believe it should be there with OTHER religious symbols including, and especially, Muslim ones ALONG with secular images of peace and tranquility). This man said “Where was your God on September 11th when people fighting supposedly in his name killed 3,000 of our people?” That is a horrifyingly offensive statement and again I ask, “Does this person care about the 9/11 memorial as a place of healing for the victims of this tragedy and their families or does he care about starting a fight?” I would never say, and am appalled when people say things like, “Norway is one of the most atheist countries in the world, that’s why God didn’t stop that shooter from killing all of those children.”

    Which is all to say that I know there are many, too many, religious people who WOULD say and do things like talk about atheists going to hell or about God punishing places for being too secular, but I find direct parallels to offensive statements made by identity atheists and I wonder what is the point of being an identity atheist whose goal to break down the cultural hegemony of religion if you (collective) are only going to be as offensive and oppressive as the religious movements you so despise?

    Those are my thoughts. Not a solution but I figured a religious person’s perspective would be helpful in this thread.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Mary, all the criticisms of regularly discoverable atheist behavior you list here are legitimate ones, I think.

  • Carlos Cabanita

    There are two questions.
    First. ethically, I want to think people are more important than ideas. As a man that changed ideas about fundamental issues several times along my life, I come to think that what counts is me, the subject that lives and thinks. That enables me to have friends (and sometimes loves) o different religious and political persuasions without problem, also without fear of discussing ideas when the occasion arrives. Perhaps that makes me not an identity atheist.
    Second, there is the question of privilege. That happy state where equal citizens respect each other and duel with ideas when they are up to it excludes the situation where one persuasion has privilege and the other is oppressed. There all calm dialogue goes away and raw feeling erupts — the feeling of privilege threatened on one side, of being shut down and oppressed on the other.