Josh Rosenau keeps bombarding me with Tweets demanding I explain my views on identity (on Twitter ffs!) and sniping on his blog, so I’ll explain what he professes to find so perverse. I think there is a difference between aspects of identity that are not optional and those that are.
Wo, super twisted and weird, huh? Nobody ever had a thought like that before.
That’s what I had in mind when I said (slightly abridged)
What if there are people whose New Age or “alternative” beliefs feel like commitments and part of their identity?
Well there are such people, and there are also their cousins who are that way about their religious beliefs…
That’s a kind of category mistake, in my view, because beliefs aren’t actually a matter of identity and shouldn’t be treated as if they were.
Maybe I put that too loosely (but it was a blog post, not a scholarly article, so Josh’s outrage is a tad overblown). I realize that people may think of some of their beliefs as central to their identity (that is, after all, what the post was about). My point put more carefully is that we all ought to be (at least) cautious about that, because in fact beliefs are optional or mutable. Yes I know that can be so difficult that that becomes just a theoretical possibility, but still – we can change our beliefs in a way we can’t change our histories.
But it’s complicated. Identities become more or less salient depending on circumstances. Josh is right that atheism is salient that way to gnu atheists and that that’s what makes them gnu. (He didn’t put it that way, so he’s not as right as he could be, but he gestured in its direction, so I’ll count it.) It’s true that the backlash (including the bit of it that Josh manages) makes my atheism more salient. I keep being irritated (as predictably as a clock) that people are frothing at the mouth just because people are being outspoken instead of apologetic about their atheism, so I become all the more atheist. I dig in.
This is where Chris Mooney is right. Embattled identities become more salient. (Cf Sartre on anti-semitism.) New atheism probably makes theists feel embattled, and thus probably makes a lot of them dig in just as I dig in.
But that’s not all there is to it. It’s still the case that ideas and beliefs can change. We all think that, or we wouldn’t bother with all this endless ARGUING, would we.
Call it identity 1 and identity 2 if you like. Identity 1 is what you can’t change, identity 2 is what you can. (And if you choose to be precise and insist that identity means not changing, then identity 2 isn’t actually identity. But whatever – I don’t mind if what feels like identity is called identity. Though I may change my mind about that tomorrow. It’s not part of my identity or anything.)
Addendum: FTB was down, as you may have noticed, so I had to wait to post this; in the interim Rosenau has been yammering at me at Twitter, demanding I give him a yes or no answer to a complicated question, and being fucking obnoxious into the bargain. Remind me never again to engage with his provocations.