Forward Thinking: The Ethics of Challenging Each Other’s Identities

Forward Thinking is a values development project run conjointly at the blogs Camels With Hammers and Love, Joy, Feminism. Twice each month we prompt bloggers to write about a topic in applied ethics. If you are a blogger, consider participating! Libby Anne has a round up of responses to June’s first prompt on the ideal social safety net. Below is an essay in which I try to make clear some thorny issues before soliciting bloggers’ feedback on the question of when and how it is ethically legitimate to challenge the beliefs and values that others take to be fundamental to who they are as people.

People’s identities matter to them as much as anything else. There is good reason for this. From a philosophy of personal identity standpoint, for centuries many philosophers have construed a person to be some web of beliefs, attitudes, memories, values, dispositions, habitual behaviors, formative experiences, etc. When people’s beliefs, values, habits drastically change we are tread an unclear line between speaking literally and metaphorically when we say that they have become “a different person”. A lot of philosophers would say that with enough changes in beliefs, behaviors, attitudes, etc., you really are different enough to be technically a different person in at least some morally relevant senses. And many people think that were you to have amnesia to the extent that your beliefs, values, habits, memories, memory of relationships and commitments, etc. were all wiped out you would be gone, effectively dead, and replaced with, effectively, a new person.

And people also actively construct their identities as part of a vital and inevitable process of making sense of their lives. No human can make up their life from scratch. We all are socialized from the time we are tiny and for every area of lives we have a ton of messaging to sift through as we figure it out. Some of us are exposed to wider or narrower ranges of options and opinions. We have varying role models, facts at our disposal, institutional guidance, formal education, abstract thought processes, etc. And we also have quite divergent interests from one another.

But at the end of the day, in each area of our lives we are, whether formally or informally, cued in to a number of reference points to guide our understanding of how to do what we intend to do in each area of our life. And we also gain from others a ton of influence with respect to what we think we should do, what is expected of us, and what is ultimately good for us. And ultimately our process of sifting out the approaches to life and to various parts of life becomes a process of identifying ourselves with certain people, institutions, practices, ideals, beliefs, norms, groups, skills, causes, careers, religions, sexualities, genders, ethnicities, values, commitments, hobbies, etc., and not with others. Ideally we custom fit these things we identify with so that we can express our individuality through them and not be subsumed by them. But these things are all bigger than simply us ourselves and by connecting ourselves to them, to one extent or another, we gain footholds for making sense of ourselves by reference to the better established senses that these things we identify with already have, which they lend to us.

So for all these reasons identities become deep parts of our psyches that we rely upon a great deal for forming ourselves, making sense of ourselves, for making choices, for assessing ourselves, for situating ourselves with respect to others, and for much more.

Because of this attacks on us that aim at parts of our lives that we personally take to be core to our identity can cut close to the bone. When someone is virulently opposed to the existence of your own beliefs, values, and practices, to a non-negligible extent they are opposed to your existence–at least as you presently are. And when they convey that they want you to change your beliefs, values, and practices, etc., they are demanding in a way that you as you are now stop being and that you be replaced by a someone different person instead. All this can sometimes be rightly be phrased and construed as personal attacks.

And this is where serious ethical challenges arise. To a great extent some of the most core parts of people’s identities are often very controversial. For many their religious beliefs or their gender identity or their sexual orientation or their value commitments, etc., become so central to people’s core understanding of who they are that any attempts to abstractly consider the correctness of their views on such matters are construed as inherently demeaning personal attacks.

Many people across the moral-political spectrum think there is something fundamentally off limits about calling into question philosophically the things that someone understands to be the fundamental core of who they are. And thus we get laws in more or less theocratic countries that more or less constrain the right to criticize, satirize, and “blaspheme” against religious beliefs and values because such are construed as egregious attacks on the very bearers of those beliefs and values themselves; those people whose very persons are not insignificantly composed of those very beliefs and values.

And on the other side of the spectrum, some of my gay friends report to me feeling like debates in legislative halls about their rights to marry amount to having their very status as persons insultingly put up as an open question for capricious, ignorant people to have a decisive say about. I have had commenters at my blog suggest that topics like the legitimacy of transgendered people’s understanding of gender or the moral approvability of homosexuality, etc. should be topics as far beyond the pale to debate by moral people as intolerable questions about whether blacks are people that, to our embarrassment, were (outrageously) treated seriously in mainstream white discourse none too long ago.

This is a gravely serious issue. It seems like if we are committed to reasoning about every area of life as rigorously as possible, we need to be able to allow any and all beliefs and values and practices to be subject to open, honest, sincere, evidential, rational scrutiny. But inevitably the most fundamental of these debates will expose many of us, if not all of us, to see some things that we feel are core to our very selves treated with some degree of unsympathetic skepticism that can feel threatening or demeaning by its very nature.

I personally do not see how this is avoidable consistent with a principled commitment to forming all our values through a process of free, honest, and open inquiry. And just as I am appalled that in many countries forthrightly expressing one’s atheism or engaging in homosexual sex is forbidden because deference to religious identities and values is enforced by law against atheist and gay consciences, I do not feel like I can protect my gay friends, whose full moral equality I support utterly and completely, by telling their religious foes in the anglo-forums I travel in that the things which go into gay identities are off limits to criticism but the things that go into religious identity are at the same time fair game.

Were I to say, “well, religious beliefs shouldn’t be part of people’s identities in the first place” that would only beg the question in favor of my anti-religious identity and pro-gay identity viewpoints. Religious people routinely think their religious beliefs absolutely should be a central (or, commonly, the central) component of their identities. And whereas I think obviously sexuality should be treated seriously as a matter of core identity, this is precisely a point of contention with those who want to say homosexual sex is wrong. (Nota bene: I do not mean to imply at all with this contrast that all religious people are anti-homosexuality or that all gays are anti-religious.)

Just as I want the more theocratic countries to honor the consciences of those atheists and gays that the religious majorities have contempt for, I need to allow for religious people to express their dissents to atheism and homosexuality that I have contempt for. I have to accept and advocate for some degree of distancing of ourselves from our most psychologically core beliefs and values and practices and commitments for the sake of argument that we may vindicate them on the honest grounds of reason and evidence.

My rule that guides my moderation judgments on my blog and my behavior in life with respect to these things is the following: I only criticize beliefs, values, behaviors, etc. in the abstract and not by disrespecting the individuals I am dealing with who identify with them. So, for example, if a commenter wanted to query and challenge transgendered people’s understandings of their genders, the commenter could only do that on an abstract level and with no gratuitous mockery or flippancy about the documentable anguish transgendered people suffer. The commenter is not allowed to call transgendered interlocutors by pronouns they reject or say directly to them “you’re really this or that gender”. If a transgendered person is going to have to tolerate for the sake of freedom of conscience others’ rights to doubt or query his or her claims about gender, it has to stay as an abstract exchange and not be aimed as a directly personal attack.

And similarly, I keep to criticizing the content of religious beliefs but try my best to avoid personalizing the criticisms of the religious interlocutors I encounter. I don’t make it about questioning their lives in ways that would become too personal. I don’t refuse to call religious leaders by their titles or treat individuals with interpersonal contempt for their personal theistic religious commitments. I stick to the substance of their claims and values that can be abstractly weighed independently of who they are as individual people.

This is the kind of strict separation that I think is necessary so that necessary, rationally vigorous conversations with hope to persuade people can happen that have any hope at all of not alienating away already marginalized people with a hostile, indifferent, or contemptuously detached environment that makes them feel objectified or depersonalized, with their fundamental identity disrespected. If these conversations cease altogether to protect the feelings of gays or to protect the feelings of religious people, etc., then people who are silenced but not persuaded (be they the critic of religion or the critic of homosexuality) feel imposed upon by a set of beliefs and values so weak and irrational that it shut down the whole arena for competing ideas rather than compete.

I do not want that to happen. I want theistic religious ideas and values to be forced into the arena of free rational debate where they lose over and over again, and where the more they lose the more cultural power they lose. And I want the cause of full gay moral equality to be able to fight in that same arena of public debate where its basic rightness wins again and again, and continuously gains in cultural power the longer the fight goes on.

So that’s my stance. I want to hear yours. So in two weeks I will publish blog posts e-mailed to me at camelswithhammers at gmail dot com that address any of the issues I raised above. To crystalize the topic, it is this: “How should we determine the moral lines with respect to what is right and wrong in challenging the beliefs, values, practices, etc. that contribute to people’s understandings of their identities? Are there differences in the ethics of such challenges that arise when they happen in differing sorts of contexts or when varying degrees of philosophical detachment or interpersonal engagement are employed?”

Your Thoughts?

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.

  • erin.nikla

    I’ll blog a response to the prompt, probably, but I wanted to comment on some aspects of your essay.

    So, for example, if a commenter wanted to query and challenge transgendered people’s understandings of their genders, the commenter could only do that on an abstract level [...] The commenter is not allowed to call transgendered interlocutors by pronouns they reject or say directly to them “you’re really this or that gender”.

    I don’t think this is possible. A commenter who “abstractly” argues that, for example, there is no such gender as genderqueer is telling genderqueer people, concretely, “you’re really this or that gender.” Abstract discussions like these are only abstract to those people whose “understanding of their gender” is not up for question (that is, cis people).

    I also think your general comparison of religious identity with minority sexual orientations and gender identities is off the mark. There’s a distinction, for example, between telling a Christian, “I think Christianity is wrong” and telling a gay person “I think homosexuality is wrong.” That distinction being that being Christian has not (at least in a *very* long time) been illegal, being Christian has not been equated to being subhuman, being Christian has not been an excuse for denying someone basic human rights, etc. etc. There’s a context here that makes questioning the validity of homosexuality different from questioning the validity of Christianity.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Put it in these terms then: there are those who want to make it off limits to say “I think Islam is wrong” because so many others equate Islam with terrorism in a xenophobic way. Does that exempt Muslim’s beliefs from criticism?

    • erin.nikla

      No. But when criticizing Muslim’s beliefs, especially in the US, people need to be aware of the context surrounding Muslim people.

      But I honestly don’t see how this relates to my comment. Did I ever say that homosexual and trans* people’s beliefs are or should be exempt from criticism?

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      I honestly don’t see how this relates to my comment. Did I ever say that homosexual and trans* people’s beliefs are or should be exempt from criticism?.

      In another comment you said,

      You cannot have an abstract debate about the ethics/validity of being trans* (to use one of your examples) with a trans* person. To us, that debate is not abstract.

      That sounds like you are claiming that your beliefs about the ethics and validity of being trans* are exempt from criticism, at least in direct discussion with you. I take you to be saying you cannot treat the issue abstractly and debate it. Am I misunderstanding you?

    • erin.nikla

      Saying that an abstract debate on a certain topic is impossible is not the same thing (to me, anyway) as saying that topic is exempt from criticism.

      What it is saying is that you cannot just, as you propose, talk about such things “in the abstract” and thereby avoid any communicative ethics problems.

      ETA: That is to say, I’m not arguing that certain ideas should be exempt from criticism, I’m saying that your strategy to address them ethically (by addressing them abstractly) won’t work, since a lot of the time that won’t be possible due to the people with whom you are conversing.

    • Slow Learner

      “There’s a distinction, for example, between telling a Christian, “I think Christianity is wrong” and telling a gay person “I think homosexuality is wrong.””
      Yes. Big difference, not least that saying Christianity is wrong is a claim relating to facts – “Christianity’s claims are not correct”, whereas saying homosexuality is wrong is a statement of moral judgement “no-one should be homosexual”.
      Others may see it differently, but I am much less bothered by someone attacking my claims of fact than someone attacking my morality.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Anti-gay Christians consider it an attack on their morality to call their opposition to homosexuality homophobia. Should that be off limits then?

      And are you saying we can’t have any abstract debates about ethics, lest they risk chafing against a given person’s moral choices?

    • Slow Learner

      It should be employed with care. If you are in reasonable dialogue with such an individual on the subject of homosexuality, then that’s probably not the time for it.
      At other times, homophobia is the aptest word for a common phenomenon, and diplomatic circumlocution is often no substitute for calling a spade a spade (obviously it’s generally counter-productive to call it a f***ing shovel…)

    • erin.nikla

      And are you saying we can’t have any abstract debates about ethics, lest they risk chafing against a given person’s moral choices?

      You cannot have an abstract debate about the ethics/validity of being trans* (to use one of your examples) with a trans* person. To us, that debate is not abstract.

    • 3lemenope

      I am an atheist.

      I can discuss atheism, atheists, and the incidents thereof, and evaluate abstract ethical statements about atheists without recourse to my own experience.

      So, I don’t buy this.

    • erin.nikla

      None of this is relevant to the claim I made in the comment you responded to.

      But perhaps you were responding to someone else.

    • 3lemenope

      Look at your claim re: trans* people debating trans* issues. Now read my comment, and replace atheist with trans*. Are you still sure it doesn’t address your claim? Or are you now arguing that trans* status is unlike atheism in its limitations upon people possessing the status on abstract debate because _______?

    • erin.nikla

      Yes, I’m saying that being an atheist is not analogous to being trans*, especially given that the rest of our statements are also incompatiable (debating the ethics/validity of being trans* is not the same as “discuss[ing] atheism, atheists, and incidents thereof and evaluat[ing] ethical statements about being an atheist[.]” even if you do substitute the words.) You had to alter my statement considerably for your analogy; the onus is on you to demonstrate that your analogy is nonetheless valid.

      But, fine, I’ll play. So if someone in a discussion with you were to say, “atheists do not exist”, you would argue that that is not a concrete statement regarding your existence? If someone in a discussion with you were to say, “all atheists are immoral”, you would not consider that a concrete statement regarding whether or not you are a moral person?

    • 3lemenope

      You had to alter my statement considerably for your analogy.

      If you think they’re wildly different (I don’t), then just work off the simple substituted version.

      As an atheist, I think that:

      “You cannot have an abstract debate about the ethics/validity of being an atheist with an atheist. To us, that debate is not abstract.”

      …is clearly in error.

      But, fine, I’ll play. So if someone in a discussion with you were to say, “atheists do not exist”, you would argue that that is not a concrete statement regarding your existence?

      My existence? No. Since I’m standing there, talking with them. I assume, for the sake of discourse, that my interlocutor is neither hallucinating nor intoxicated nor insane. They are making a claim about a category, that it is a null set. If I were to interrupt that assertion with “…but I’m an atheist!”, I will likely destroy any possibility of learning why that person believes the category is a null set, because I will have rooted the conversation in terms that absolutely preclude the exploration of such an explanation.

      Being an atheist, I’m not speaking to others to reassure myself that atheism does in fact have members. I already know that at the start of the conversation. My interlocutor’s assertion is no threat to that belief, and so the beginning and end of its interest, for my purposes, is its ability to reveal, upon exploration, the substructure of the person’s thought that it would produce a conclusion that “atheists do not exist”. By answering that question, they’re letting me know how they tick.

      If someone in a discussion with you were to say, “all atheists are immoral”, you would not consider that a concrete statement regarding whether or not you are a moral person?

      Sure it is. Which I then ignore for the purposes of having the discussion, which would otherwise at that exact point be derailed by my (entirely fictional and posited for this conversation) desire to be “respected” by my interlocutor. What is with this (rather recent recurring) requirement that everyone like and accept a person before that person can discuss matters of import with them?

      Whether an atheist, or trans*, or gay, or female, or possessed of a different-than-locally-predominant skin tone, if you find yourself in a situation where some element of your identity is rejected by a majority if not a strong majority of the surrounding society’s members or otherwise denigrated in a socially approved way, chances are extremely good that any given interlocutor, especially one that wishes to explore eliminationist or slanderous hypotheses, is going to be hostile ex ante to any desire by you to be respected unless the debate happens in abstract terms. It’s bilateral disarmament, which is manifestly unfair to the people who don’t enjoy the presumption of privilege in the discussion, but nobody said belonging to a hated minority was easy or fun. Sometimes, it is appropriate to fight even from a disadvantage, so as to take advantage of, for example, an increased ability to reach members of a less-committed audience, as in this instance; an argument of general applicability is superior to one rooted in the facts of a particular individual if one means to have the argument have efficacy beyond the context of its initial use.

    • erin.nikla

      I make a distinction between a debate occurring in abstract terms and an abstract debate. Perhaps you and others do not.

    • 3lemenope

      Could you articulate the distinction?

    • erin.nikla

      I’m thinking my interpretation is uncommon (or incorrect), so I’ve probably just been talking past everyone. I think of an abstract debate as a debate about abstract things, where a debate in abstract terms can be a debate about concrete things, just not specifically referencing them.

      Like I said, this is probably not typical usage.

    • 3lemenope

      Ah. I think I get where you’re coming from. It is an interesting distinction to make. It’s framing the conversation “atheism does not exist” as opposed to “atheists do not exist”, or “trans* is an invalid sex category” as opposed to “trans* people are pretending to be a sex they aren’t”. The concept itself instead of any possible members of a category created by the concept?

  • John Kruger

    I have found the line between civil discourse and open inquiry to be a very tricky one to navigate. On one extreme, people will hold their emotions ransom against any questioning of cherished beliefs and make discourse impossible, and on the other extreme abandoning all consideration of other people’s feelings for the sake of an argument usually degenerates into abusive emotional manipulation that alienates people enough to also make constructive discourse impossible. It really is a moral dilemma between respecting the feelings of others and the pursuit of truth through dialogue, and how much each one can override the other.

    Using impersonal abstracts is a decent start. I find that acknowledging tender sensibilities that may be hurt can also be helpful in demonstrating you are not just out to bully your way into a winning argument. Still, people have a tendency to identify with the beliefs despite our best efforts. I have gotten myself in trouble by trying to do abstract thought experiments about women’s experiences, for example, and ended up being really offensive primarily due to my extreme naivety and privilege. I did learn from that, but I did damage feelings along the way and I wish I hadn’t.

  • Slow Learner

    Interesting thoughts Dan, I’ll be chewing over this one for a while.
    I think that I come down differently in terms of referring to religious leaders by their titles, because someone like the Archbishop of Canterbury is in a position of immense power and privilege. Referring to him as Justin or Mr Welby instead of The Most Reverend and Right Honourable Justin Welby, Lord Archbishop of Canterbury, brings him down to a level where my criticisms can stick.
    Likewise, he is highly unlikely to ever know if I criticise or mock him, and still less likely to care, so I am not doing him any personal harm.

    Whereas disputing their pronoun with a transgender person is directly insulting, to their face, someone who is likely to have less social power and privilege than you. These are therefore quite distinct propositions, and it is by no means inconsistent to do both.

    More power to you for being unfailingly courteous even as you rhetorically eviscerate them, but I think it’s worth pointing out why I don’t think all of us are required to be so polite.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      The local parish priest is not the Archbishop of Canterbury.

      But even so, by this logic were there a powerful and famous transgendered person would it be okay for a resentful everyday transphobe to refer to them by the gender they were assigned at birth? I would find it very upsetting.

      The everyday people in a group identify with the powerful and famous in their group as their avatars and their leaders and their representatives in the public discussion. I am less comfortable assuming people will take my contemptuous treatment of a bishop as an assault on their undeserved power and not as an assault on the identities of Catholics everywhere. It’s a tougher line to work out than you’re implying.

    • Slow Learner

      But trans-gender people as a group have much less social power than Anglicans(/Catholics/Evangelicals) as a group. They are less numerous, less visible, and less respected by society at large and the media.
      Yes, there are going to be edge-cases, and yes, at the edges it is always better to err on the side of courtesy. However, there are a range of people, be they politicians, religious leaders, CEOs, who wield sufficient power and have enough deference granted to them that it seems “natural” to respect their every pronouncement. When disagreeing with someone in that exalted category, mockery and snark is fully justified and indeed useful.
      As it was said by whomever, “afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted”.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      So then in America, you would be unfailingly deferent to a Muslim clergy because they have far less social power but were you to go to a Muslim country you would flout their titles and be sure to show them maximum disrespect. Do I have this right?

    • Slow Learner

      Argh. Typed a long response, my browser ate it.
      The short version is: Not quite, on two grounds.
      1) I consider it morally acceptable and sometimes useful to show contempt to the powerful, not morally obligatory.
      2) scope is an issue. Imam preaching in the mosque down the road, powerful position. Imam on national news in country where Muslims are small minority, not in a powerful position.
      Also occurs to me that deferent is not the most appropriate word – I would be respectful, but not a doormat.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Deference to titles in the first place is merely respectfulness, not doormatness.

    • Slow Learner

      Ah, you are using the word deference in a way I hadn’t expected. To me there is a clear distinction between respectful and deferential, in that respect can be a relationship between equals, and deference is a relationship between a superior and inferior.

  • Kate Wilgruber

    I agree with you on nearly all counts here, but one thing stuck out at me. In the future, I think it would serve you to research the language you use a bit more thoroughly. If you’re interested in being viewed as “abstract” when discussing trans* issues, make an effort not to use terms that a lot of trans* people would find offensive.

  • 3lemenope

    I am reminded of Nietzsche’s admonishment on faith and doubt: strong faith allows the luxury of doubt. Weak faith cannot endure it.

    Likewise, I think that we overdraw the circle of ‘identity’ when we include aspects of self that are so fragile they can be thrown into doubt or damaged by a simple intemperate criticism from a social peer. If I were to say to a Christian acquaintance “Christianity is wrong” I have a prior expectation that he or she already believes “Christianity is right” and that that belief is not so fragile that me merely asserting the negative will throw their religious identity into chaos. If it does, it seems doubtful to me that “Christian” was a correct identity label for them in the first place.

    The concept of identity, to me, has implications of persistence; that which persists through the incidental shuffling of material. Persistence, if it is meaningful, has to include a factor of resilience; else, what persists is merely an accident of conditions, instead of prevailing against them. Homosexuality, as an identity marker, is persistent and resilient primarily because it is rooted in a person’s biological incidence; the mental experiences that follow (attraction to a given sex) are supervenient on something more properly basic. Christianity has a hard time pointing to similar facts, and so while a person’s Christianity *can* be persistent and resilient, it’s not nearly as common a status.

  • Jerry Lynch

    Great thoughts but I daresay not enough life experience.

    • David Simon

      Well, so you disagree with the OP, but you haven’t said why or what about. Would you mind going into specifics?

  • 3lemenope


    • Sofia Kafir

      I would say that if the “validity” of being trans* is questioned, the trans* person’s identity is being challenged in a unique way. Being trans* is a fact about a person in a way that being Christian isn’t. E.g., being trans* doesn’t per se involve propositional beliefs. Propositional beliefs may be part of being a Christian, but there is more to Christian identity than just propositional beliefs. Questioning those beliefs isn’t questioning the validity of Christian identity in the same way or to the same degree.

  • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

    Hi Hilary. I just caught 42 missing remarks I hadn’t known were in the moderation queue. Even your complaints about your comments not showing up were not showing up. So sorry. You my resume posting as normal!

    • Hilary

      Thanks. I thought it was Disqus, not you personally. But what do you think about my question – when do you challenge other people’s identities? Is there any sort of litmus test or critical tipping point that has to be met before the benefit of confrontation on such a deeply held issue as identity and belief outweigh the costs?

      I have a good friend who is an atheist, conspiracy theorist, and survivalist. There are a lot of things we enjoy about each other’s company, but to her it is an absolute, non-negotiable fact that 9/11 was an inside job, and some of the mass shootings that occur are also pre-arranged by some secret agency to stir public opinion to favor restrictions on gun ownership. These beliefs are as integral to her identity as being a black, pagan, atheist lesbian. Is this worth losing our friendship to challenge her over this?

      Another friend uses homeopathy. I know what people think of it – total quack science and sugar pills – but she uses it well and it seems to work for her. I’ve physically watched her get relief from them, when all conventional painkillers either don’t work at all or give her a bad allergic reaction. She’s offered it to me, I tried a few, nothing happened, and after that she has graciously accepted my “no thanks.” So – do I hand her a stack of conventional scientific papers debunking this as quack science, or respect her understanding of how to care for her body the most successful way she can?
      I am a liberal Jewish theist. I fall squarely in the ‘live and let live’ camp, with an emphasis on ‘how can we best live together and work together to fix the problems in front of us, here in this world in the here and now.’ I enjoy Friday night Shabbat services and Saturday morning Torah study. This is something I freely choose, and I fully respect the rights of other people to make other choices. All I ask of the rest of the world is the time and space to worship with my community. In the public sandbox I play by secular rules, ie whatever I do has to be ethically verifiable without resorting solely to ‘because Adonai said so’ when it impacts another persons life.
      Given that my religious beliefs bring me joy, connection, and community, *AND* I respect other people’s choices about belief, including not believing in anything supernatural, does this warrant trying to challenge my identity with the direct intention of breaking or changing it? I’m talking about Reform Judaism, not Orthodox or Haredi (fundamentalist) Judaism. Reform in general respects the rights of our neighbors to worship and believe, or not, as they choose so long as the respect is mutual.
      Your thoughts?

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Forgive a quick reply as I’m tired but I’d like to acknowledge your question. I don’t think it would make any sense to make it a rule that we segregated ourselves from everyone who had a major irrational blind spot. That only isolates people further and further and makes people’s irrational beliefs potentially more dangerous as they can only associate with those confused or biased as they are. We need to learn to get along. Part of that is realizing that while we are to a large extent our beliefs, we are far more than any one set and far more than just beliefs.

    • Hilary

      Thanks Dan. For the record, I think this forward thinking project is a good idea, and very interesting. I have another point to make, about challenging people on identity: what do we really need to confront, people’s belief, or the actions inspired by belief? Which can bring us further down the philosophical rabbit hole of considering the interplay between belief and action, how one reinforces and influences the other.
      For example, a person may have strong beliefs that are very critical of conventional medicine and science. When do we challenge that belief: when they go to a chiropractor for back pain, try to treat pneumonia with home remedies, or refuse to vaccinate their children for mumps, measles, and rubella? I have no problem with going to a chiropractor, but failing to vaccinate has far larger communal consequences, so that action does deserve to be challenged. Pneumonia is trickier – I’ve used home remedies and alternative medicine for really bad colds effectively, but pneumonia probably does need a combination of antibiotics and/or anti-viral medicine, as well as ginger, garlic, cloves, and eucalyptus steam for treatment.
      When there needs to be a confrontation, I think it is better to start in the realm of actions, because it is a lot easier to give direct proof of the harm actions can take. However, beliefs need to be challenged when they repeatedly inspire harmful actions. The other question to consider is, what exactly do we mean by ‘challenge’? Is such a challenge needed on a personal level, public/social level, or political level? Because it is one thing for a person to directly challenge another person to the core of their identity, but something else for a government to enforce “that belief is wrong” with all the power of the law.
      This is at the heart of legally protected religious freedom in the US. A conservative Christian is free to believe whatever they like, but they can not be allowed to use the force of law to enforce their social beliefs onto GLBT people, atheists, Jews, Pagans, or anybody else. Not without first proving the value of their belief with secular, non-religious talking points.