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

TOP Q: “How Is It Fair To Question Other People’s Identity-Forming Beliefs While Demanding Respect For One’s Own Belief-Formed Identities?” February 23, 2011

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?”

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