Religious Identity and Character

A quote provided by Sastra that inspired this long, wandering post:

This idea that it’s “intolerant” to say that people are wrong in religion is based on the belief that religion = identity. In a faith-based system, you don’t believe what you believe because you drew an objective conclusion from evidence available to all. Given a fair argument, you’d gladly change your mind. That’s reason, and it puts people on the same ground.

Instead, you believe what you believe — you draw the conclusion you do — because you are NOT being objective. You are being the subjective you, at your best, passionately involved and eagerly “seeking” the spiritual answer that Those-Like-You look for and find … and Those-Who-Are-Not-Like-You do not. You leave off the common ground of inquiry and enter into a mythological narrative in which you are the small and humble hero. By being religious, you are expressing the deepest and most important aspect of who you are on your journey to the purpose of life.

Within this framework, being wrong means that YOU are wrong. Not your conclusion. You, personally. I think that’s why there’s often this tacit or not so tacit pact among the religious to treat criticism like bigotry. As they see it, you’re saying that there’s only one right way to be a human being: they ought to be like you. Trying to change their view is an attack on their right to exist.

That’s a big attitude problem with fundamentalism. I’d say it’s also a big problem in politics, too. Far too many people seem to place group membership as the core of their identity. It doesn’t help that many of these groups reinforce the vice by hinting at or outright saying that the individual is worthless without their support.

For me, deconversion from liberal Christianity to atheism didn’t change much about how I thought about myself or how I acted. Granted, my first dive into the skeptical community taught me more about critical thinking, but that mostly improved my ability to reach rational conclusions and exposed me to new knowledge. My emotional reactions to that information were still largely the same: I still got angry about con artists exploiting people. I still got warm fuzzies from seeing scientific and technological accomplishments. I still felt the need to protect people’s rights out of a sense of fairness as well as knowing that if I condoned a violation, someday it could be turned against me.

Put simply, I’m still the same person I was, and even if something weird happens and I discover good evidence for a god, I don’t think I’d have any sort of identity crisis. I think atheism is factually correct based on all the evidence I’ve seen (or rather, the lack of evidence for theism), but atheism isn’t an inherent part of me. If one of the sky monsters turns out to be real, that’ll just mean one more authoritarian for me to get angry with.

On another point, criticism of religion isn’t anything like bigotry toward a race, sexual orientation, or gender identity. They’re ‘built in’ attributes that aren’t so easily changed, if at all possible. That makes those things part of a person’s identity, but they’re usually irrelevant to character, and thus it’s pointless to fixate on them. On one level, it’s as childish as criticizing someone for their height, eye color, or whatever. Those features aren’t a choice, and they don’t result from character flaws.

Religion and beliefs in general, however, are either a choice, or at least resemble a choice because they can be changed with certain stimuli and/or cognitive processes. How a person thinks and reacts to new information are a part of his character.

There are extreme cases of childhood indoctrination that arm believers with all sorts of rhetorical games, fallacies, and rationalizations that make it extremely difficult to get them to change. I don’t blame such a person for the circumstances of his childhood because children have very little control over such things, and are vulnerable to deception and manipulation because of their ignorance. But when I argue with such a person, I will apply whatever ethical, cultural pressure I can in addition to the cold hard facts and logic. I think being an adult means growing beyond authoritarian modes of thought, rejecting blind faith as a basis for belief, moving past wishful thinking, and so forth. I don’t want an indoctrinated opponent to get approval for bad character traits, even if they were a part of growing up. By the same token, if I detect that he’s giving the subject serious thought and asking questions out of genuine curiosity (instead of loading them), I’ll try to be supportive of those traits.

I guess what I’m getting at is that there are multiple aspects to the typical atheist versus theist arguments I get in that probably need to be untangled for clarity: There’s the criticism of ideas, which should be handled with critical thought, logic, and evidence. There’s criticism of character that usually crops up when someone breaks away from handling the subject like a rational adult. I’m not perfect, since I throw in my share of jabs, but I try to keep rational criticism as the meat of the argument.

Another common aspect is criticism of epistemology, a part I get into a lot, and sometimes it’s hard to separate it from character criticism: For me, asserting faith without evidence or claiming to “just know” has a dangerous overlap with raw arrogance. If one thing did change about me as a result of becoming a skeptic is improve awareness of my flawed human nature, how easily it can lead to self-deception when left unchecked, and how intuitive and obvious it should have been to me. I think it’s understandable that I’d get irritated by someone who claims absolute certainty by effectively denying his flawed nature or the hard work needed to counteract those flaws. Confidence should be earned, not arbitrarily claimed.

On the flip side, more common among newagers, but it still occurs in fundamentalists, is a profound loss of confidence in any knowledge because of human failings, which somehow leads to them latching onto an absolute ideology that supposedly overcomes their failings. Humans are flawed, thus they put their blind faith into a perfect god or guru who they somehow recognize as superior despite previously admitting to being hopelessly flawed in recognizing truth. Alternatively, they argue that we should be defeatists, just give up on truth, and believe whatever makes us happy for the moment. The former raises red flags for me because it’s a power imbalance, ripe for abuse. Priests, gurus, and other figures endowed with this sort of authority have done all sorts of horrible things with it. If someone can make you believe absurdities, they can make you commit atrocities. The latter version strikes me as a form of apathy mixed with short-sightedness. Knowledge is power because it gives us an accurate set of possible choices, their costs, risks, and likely outcomes. It’s better to make an informed decision than an uninformed one. Even if you want to gamble on an unlikely outcome, being informed about the risks is still helpful for dealing with them. Being ignorant means that you aren’t aware of all the available choices, or even if a choice exists. Being resigned to ignorance means that bad conditions can persist because you don’t know that they can be improved. That’s why informed consent is a big deal with me on a lot of issues.

A person’s confidence should be in proportion to available knowledge and evidence, not artificially restricted to absolute certainty and absolute confusion. There’s another character flaw I often see entangled in the issue with the extreme positions: Black-and-white thinking. To extend the analogy, our world is dominated primarily by grays and colors, not the absolutes of black and white. There are a lot of brightly colored ideas out there, like gravity, the heliocentric model of the solar system, and so forth. They’re likely to be true and hold under most circumstances. There are a lot of dark ideas like your typical alien conspiracy theories that are highly unlikely. There are ideas that are in between, like which team is going to win a sporting event, which could be changed with different circumstances. Acknowledging that there is a spectrum of probability is a part of dealing with reality and our limitations. Restricting yourself to claiming ideas are either black or white sounds like retreating into an empowerment fantasy. Pretending that all ideas about reality are equal and subject to personal preference sounds like retreating from conflict and the labor of thought.

We can’t be hyper-logical machines. We all carry emotional baggage, but a mature person makes an effort to keep it in check, and corrects himself if he’s called out on a slip. I felt the need to explain the dynamics I see in many of the arguments I’ve gone through as a denizen of the internet, clarify what I feel during those arguments, and why the mix of emotion and reason leads me to think certain things about the opponents I’ve argued with. Thanks for reading.

2 responses to “Religious Identity and Character

  1. We can’t be hyper-logical machines. We all carry emotional baggage, but a mature person makes an effort to keep it in check, and corrects himself if he’s called out on a slip. I felt the need to explain the dynamics I see in many of the arguments I’ve gone through as a denizen of the internet, clarify what I feel during those arguments, and why the mix of emotion and reason leads me to think certain things about the opponents I’ve argued with. Thanks for reading.

    Thanks for writing. You found a lot of meat on the bare bones I provided, and there’s a lot to think about here.

    I agree that so many of the God/No God arguments have a lot of layers to unpack. That’s the problem when motivated reasoning (faith) is suddenly considered necessary in order to humble one’s own arrogance. That’s the exact opposite of how we ought to go about being humble, of course — but they’re telling a story with a known endpoint and describing it as if it was a journey of exploration. As you say, it’s hard to keep in mind that their fuzzy thinking here isn’t a character flaw, but human tendencies encouraged through culture. It’s particularly hard because they usually seem to see the problem when they’re looking at something other than religion — or at religions other than their own.

    When it comes to religion = identity, I haven’t seen a lot of difference between new agers, liberal theists, traditional theists, and fundamentalists. But that’s probably because I’m mostly considering people who are really committed to being a “person of faith.” The more important you think this is, the more you’re going to fear and despise atheism … and, eventually, atheists.

    • Glad you liked it. I tend to think of irrational thought as a character flaw, but that makes it worth criticizing: A person can grow out of character flaws with the right motivation and information. But, as I said, I don’t blame those brought up in fundamentalist homes. It’s not like they made an informed decision during their childhood. It’s also very had to admit you were wrong until you’ve had “practice” at being wrong. When I speak to them as an adult, part of the point is to break up the routine that rewards them for faith over reason. I want to inform them of what they missed as a child so that they can make better decisions.

      I think one of the intended enthymemes of trying to focus them on the logic and evidence is the message, “You’re smart enough to figure this out. Just put two and two together. If I’m the one who’s wrong, be precise in telling me how I’m wrong.” Labeling ad hominem fallacies, straw men, and so forth as immature or deceitful adds the message of “You should be better than this. You should hold yourself to higher standards. If I didn’t think you could, I would have already banned you.”

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