Religion as Identity (or why “attack the belief, not the person” often fails)

Religion as Identity (or why “attack the belief, not the person” often fails) September 22, 2016

One of the most often cited concepts in discourse surrounding the topic of religion is that we should “attack the belief, not the believer.” The point there being that we should be talking about ideas instead of making personal attacks. This seems the sensible and rational thing to do. When atheists talk about religion, we’re often talking very strictly in terms of facts. It is either true or not true that a god exists. It is either true or not true that Jesus rose from the dead. And on and on.

Despite the rationality, clarity, kindness, compassion, empathy, and fact centered nature of any argument, we still often find that believers will take it personally. These folks are often dismissed as simply being uninterested in a discussion. They are accused of being simply unwilling to entertain the fact that they’re wrong. I’m proposing that it’s a bit more complicated than that.

When I began doing the activism I do, I had a very surface level view of the connection between LGBTQ and atheist activism. The religious right is the biggest barrier to our equality because: religion, therefore: atheist/LGBTQ activism together. The more I got to know those in the atheist movement, the more I realized the connection goes far deeper. I was shocked to find that very often deconversion stories and coming out stories were shockingly similar. You could easily remove the religious language, replace it with the requisite LGBTQ language and have the same story.

This is when I recognized that often when dealing with believers, we are not simply dealing with people who have wrong (and often hurtful and dangerous) ideas in their head. These are people for whom those beliefs are their very identity. This person’s identity as a Christian, as a Muslim, as a Hindu, etc are as intrinsic to their being as my identity as a transgender person is. From this point of view, it is going to be rather impossible to tell a deeply religious person you think they’re wrong without it becoming a personal attack.

This being the case, how do we engage? I’m actually not claiming to have a hugely shocking or monumental answer to this question. We can’t simply stop challenging bad ideas. We can’t stop fighting against religious ideology and religious privilege. At the end of the day, these questions still do boil down to what is factual and what is not factual. We still have to get there, but I think there are a few layers atheists may be bursting through rather than trying to gently move through.

I don’t actually have a better way of engaging someone than to simply ask questions and be non confrontational. I think what is important here is to simply recognize and be aware of these things when we choose to engage. If the evidence is truly on our side and it can be delivered in a matter of fact way without condescension or passive aggressiveness, we’re still doing the right thing. I do, however, think our side of the discourse may benefit from that additional perspective.

We still need to engage on these issues. We still need to assert the need for evidence of religious belief. We would simply do better to recognize that when it’s met with resistance, we shouldn’t reduce that person simply to an incurious, irrational person who doesn’t care about the facts. As these things often are, its far more complicated than that. It can only help us to realize this and act on it.

(note: I’m writing this article as much for myself as for anyone else, as I’m extremely guilty of all the things I said we shouldn’t be doing when I’m not at my best)


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