Asking Richard Wade About Atheism and Religions As Bases For Identities

Asking Richard Wade About Atheism and Religions As Bases For Identities July 3, 2011

In two previous posts, I have discussed with Friendly Atheist’sadvice columnist Richard Wade the origins of his “Ask Richard” column and the nature of family conflicts over atheism. In what follows we discuss the intersection of belief and identity.

Daniel Fincke: Part of the problem when families fight due to someone in the family becoming an atheist is that fundamental identities are at stake.  Many religious people who watch their children or spouses defecting from their faith are not just seeing this as a change of mind but a rejection of their shared identities.  And atheists who come at religion with a morally heated critique are making that rejection explicit.  Both of these identities, the theistic and the atheistic, understand themselves at least in part through their explicit rejection of the opposite identity.

And we see with the botched attempts of religious people to “hate the sin but love the sinner” in the case of gays that when you do not accept a particular kind of identity, in a certain sense, you wish that people with that identity and that set of behaviors and beliefs just did not exist. Saying I love you but not what you do (or believe) does not cut it when, to a large extent, you are what you do and when what you do is flowing from something as basic to your self-conception as your identity is.

So the challenge becomes, how can we love religious people and how can religious people love atheists while both sides want the others’ entire belief structures and values to go extinct and each side responds to that desire coming from the other side as the desire for them themselves (or people like them) to just not exist at all?

Richard Wade: Yes. This is why all the shouting in the families that I just described is not about anger, it’s really about hurt. People confuse their beliefs and ideas with their being, with their sense of self. I think that is a major mistake.

Daniel Fincke: Right.

Richard Wade: I often say that “You are what you do, not what you think and not what you think you are.  The most valid characterization of you is the pattern of behaviors, the doings that you consistently do. So for example, if you say you’re an honest man, but you lie and lie very often, then no, you’re not an honest man. You are what you do.

The same goes for our cherished beliefs and opinions. They’re stuff. They’re like the clothes we wear and the stuff we get so attached to. I get atheists mad at me when I say that their atheism is just another thing in their heads like coins are things in their pockets. They feel existentially threatened just as vividly as a Christian who has fully attached his sense of self to his beliefs. This is a mistake. Our beliefs and views can be very important to us, can guide us and benefit us, but they are not us. They are our prized possessions. We should hold them lightly in our hands and not squeeze them in a death grip.

This is one idea that remains from my Zen Buddhist days. Avoid being attached to anything. It causes you problems, it causes you suffering.  We attach to a person or a prized object, or to an idea. Yes, yes, they are important to us, but to think of our ideas as one of our internal vital organs is going to twist our thinking, give us blind spots, and make us immediately react with a live-or-die, I-must-kill-this-or-be-killed sense of threat whenever someone challenges our ideas. It really spoils many opportunities for gaining understanding of others and of ourselves.

Daniel Fincke: But what if a conservative were to turn that around and say, “Gays are making a mistake by thinking that their same sex attraction is a matter of their being and not open to critique.”  Of course, attraction is much less mutable than beliefs (and certainly less amenable to persuasion through argument), but beliefs still naturally play major roles in people’s self-understanding.  How can we form a self, if not in reference to major, orienting beliefs?  Isn’t it natural to think this is a major identity issue?  Or is this Buddhist again—rejecting the idea of a self too? Isn’t, in fact, the increased atheist consciousness we’re experiencing, replete with calls to “come out of the closet”, really about precisely understanding atheism as a positive identity and not just an empty void of religion?  Doesn’t this movement encourage people to identify their atheism as a core part of themselves that can theoretically be refuted with rational arguments but otherwise cannot be compromised without violating their conscience?  Are you critical of the movement on this or do you think I mischaracterize what it’s doing?

Richard Wade: I think beliefs can be separated from identity, but it’s very hard to do, and very few people think so, and almost everybody is emotionally attached to their ideas, even those ideas arrived at in the most rational way. I saw this more than once as a kid, when some scientist at the museum could get livid at a challenge to some opinion of his that to me seemed quite abstract.  To me, it seemed like just a coin in his pocket. Maybe it was a favorite coin of his, but the scientist reacted like someone was trying to cut out his liver.

By the way, I’m not implying that I’m not just as emotionally attached to my opinions and ideas. Of course I am. I just think I know why I get so livid when somebody challenges what I ought to think of as just a coin in my pocket. Realizing what’s happening only helps me to calm down a little sooner and to loosen up my death grip on yet another attachment.  The things themselves don’t cause us unnecessary suffering as much as our desperate clinging to them as if we’ll drown without them does.

You ask about the movement encouraging atheists to think in “identity terms.” If that means what terms we use to call ourselves, well, the debate seems to be a long-winded loop tape. We seem to argue as endlessly with each other over our category label as we argue with theists over questions of the supernatural.  Some atheists are identifying their selves with not just a term, but what seems to be becoming an ideology.  Lately, I see atheists asking themselves questions about how would a “good atheist” handle some decision, or will they be a “bad atheist” if they do such-in-such. They also wonder about what conduct of theirs will help the “movement.”

Of course there is more to us than just a passive lack of belief in gods. We do stand for things. We have positive and assertive opinions about many things that are the root of our atheism rather than coming from our atheism. Many of us value critical thinking, open-minded skepticism, science, reason-based policies, and social justice (to name a few values that are very common among us). Those things we value can and seem to be congealing into an ideology, but it will be very unfortunate if we start judging each other by such a thing as “good atheists” or “bad atheists” or “not true” atheists. We find Christians and Muslims who do that to each other to be absurd and bizarre. I hope we can avoid that.

Daniel Fincke: So, if you’re saying all people should take a non-attachment approach to beliefs, including to their atheism, then how can we rationalists ever fill the void many people seem to feel for beliefs that orient themselves in the world and help them construct a coherent sense of self?  Skeptics and atheists are often accused of offering nothing constructive to meet the needs people turn to religion for.  Can we build solid institutions on the shifting sands of doubt?

Richard Wade: Well, first let me back up if I did say that “all” people should take such an approach. I’m saying that I think attachments carry a lot of disadvantages and can lead to problems that can be avoided if we at least reduce or minimize our attachments in both number and intensity. These choices always have pluses and minuses.  The things to which we often become attached also can bring great pleasure or advantage too. I just think it’s better if we’re going to embrace them, that we do it with our eyes open. Falling in love is a good example. It’s amazing and wonderful, and it can last either a short time or a lifetime. But eventually it does somehow end, and we have to accept the grief that is part of the package.  That’s why I say that love is for brave people.

As far as rationalism  and atheism not filling the void that religion is supposed to fill, I first think we should step back and look at the assumption that the “void” is intrinsic to people, and not created by the “void filler” of religion itself.  There is some validity to the old saying that religion is the opiate of the masses.

Imagine that you came upon an entire isolated civilization where every person was addicted to heroin. No one ever experienced life without it, and no one remembered any time in their history that it wasn’t there.  No one thought of it as a bad thing, because it seemed so necessary.  Every person would feel the “void” that their heroin would fill, and they might not ever stop to consider that the need they think is inborn in them is actually caused by the heroin itself.

We don’t have good examples of large cultures that do not have religion, or at least magical belief systems that soothe their childlike fears. So we have little to compare with to see if people would not actually have that “void” if they grew up in a culture without the “filler, or fulfiller.”

I think that people do have built-in important social needs, interpersonal needs, aesthetic, sensual, sexual, emotional, and intellectual needs, and we as skeptics or rationalists do need to consider those if we want to attract people to our viewpoint. But we should try to sort out in what ways those needs are truly built-in to human beings, or in what ways those are like “withdrawal symptoms” from the “opiate of the masses.”

Also, I think it’s unfortunate that those needs I listed above are often lumped together and labeled “spiritual.” I think that causes a lot of confusion, since that label has so much religious connotation.  It perpetuates the assumption that religion is filling a void that is already there, rather than possibly making its own “hole” for itself in which to live. I hear people toss around the term “spiritual” for want of a better term, and some even say “for want of a better term” when they use it. We ought to come up with a better term, possibly based on psychological and sociological thinking, even if we have to coin an entirely new word.  Don’t ask me to come up with one right now, that might take many years of consideration.  Maybe somebody a lot smarter than me already has one.

Dan you used an interesting phrase, “to build solid institutions on the shifting sands of doubt.”  It seems to assume that the solidity of “certainty” is preferable or necessary. It also seems to see doubt as a basically bad thing, or something that can’t be included as a positive part of a philosophy, or a culture. I think it can.

To use the analogy of building a structure, perhaps a bedouin tent might work just fine on a foundation of shifting sands of doubt. We first have to get an entire generation to grow up being comfortable with doubt, to accept it as an important part of a healthy thinking mind.

As Jacob Bronowski said, if I remember correctly, “We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge…” He implored us to see that the worst crimes in history have been perpetrated by people who were convinced that they possessed absolute truth, (often spelled with a divine capital “T”) people who were incapable of doubt.

To avoid more of these atrocities, it’ s essential that we stop seeing doubt as only a painful or unattractive thing, and accept it as an important part of a healthy thinking mind. Let doubt be like a constant friend who helps us stay honest and humble. If you find doubt so uncomfortable, perhaps you’ re just experiencing the withdrawal symptoms from your addiction to absolute certainty. Doubt is always necessary for innovative or revolutionary ideas to be born. Nothing ever was done better or seen more intelligently until somebody said, “Hey, wait a minute, this might not be the way things really are, or the way things have to be.” Doubt is the prerequisite to improvement.

Read the other 7 parts of the interview, in which I ask Richard about:

The Origins of the “Ask Richard” Column

Anger In Families Divided Over Religion

How Atheists Should Respond to Alcoholics Anonymous, and How Personal Values Influence Professional Therapy

The Ethics of Lying To Stay In A Protective Closet

How Atheists Should Confront And Replace Religions

Whether Believers and Non-Believers Should Avoid Marrying Each Other

Whether Believers Are Literally Deluded

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