Beliefs are mutable (with qualifications)

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.


  1. says

    and sniping on his blog,

    I used to think he just enjoyed the sniping and was being intentionally disingenuous. But I’ve come to believe her really is kind of thick. Not milkshake thick, maybe, but like a cream soup.

  2. josefjohann says

    I’m not understanding the fuss, or what’s at stake, or some combination. Does, like, favorite music genre fall into identity 2,whereas biological disposition to be receptive to music fall under identity 1? Or does that make too much of it.

    Besides that, I’m not seeing that any permutation of possible answers to my question would be highly objectionable.

  3. Deepak Shetty says

    and being fucking obnoxious into the bargain
    That’s part of his identity 2.

    Identity 1 is what you can’t change, identity 2 is what you can.
    Interestingly , left upto myself , I always thought identity 2 is what constitutes my “identity” – i.e. what makes me – me.

  4. says

    … but the Gnus are too shrill and rude and what-not. You’re a big meanie being provocative and such, so Josh is just being forced to respond in what you incorrectly perceive to be a “nasty” manner. I’m sure Stedman and/or Grothe will be around shortly to explain exactly why your thoughts and feelings are incorrect.

  5. says

    Deepak – yes. I was thinking that earlier, while planning the post, but didn’t remember it while writing it. It would have led into the bit about salience. For me, too, it’s what I think about and care about thinking about that makes me me…but then again, if I’m in a situation where other parts of my identity are under pressure in some way, they loom larger. I don’t think of myself as “an American” while home, but if I’m out of the country, of course suddenly I do. I don’t normally think of myself as A Woman a lot, but when people start calling me a cunt, well then that changes.

    Part 4 maybe, or is it 5 now.

  6. karmakin says

    The one place where I disagree with this, is that I don’t even think it’s atheism, either New or Gnu or even the Old variety that makes theists dig in. I mean, New Atheism is what..a decade old? Half that, really? My feeling is that the digging in is at least a 2-3 decades old.

    No, it’s plain old secularism/pluralism that makes them dig in. Everything else is simply gravy.

    @Jose: Personally, I think that while it’s a valid identification, I don’t think it’s the most important one. The real distinction is between innocent beliefs and potentially externally harmful beliefs. Of course, then we can fight over which is which. (Is theism automatically an externally harmful belief?, as an example) But at least at that point we’re talking about something that I think is more useful.

    That said, we do need to be much more careful about obviously inherent traits..fortunately, inherent traits are generally speaking never externally harmful on their own. Convenient, isn’t it?

  7. says

    Back in my born-again days, I would have said that was my identity — I “identified” with fellow evangelicals, I saw myself as being in a certain relation w.r.t. the rest of the universe, I interpreted my experience in certain ways. OTOH, not having been raised that way (religion was a teenage folly that took way too long to wear off), and being moreover a geeky NT type, I could stand back and analyze what I believed without immediately getting all threatened and insecure, which is probably why I got over it in the end. (Of course, I keep getting blindsided by the fact that most humans aren’t like that.)

    But sure, religion is (for many) an identity (or part thereof), but it’s a *malleable* part, and it shouldn’t be immune to criticism.

  8. Dunc says

    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.

    I would actually disagree with this. I strongly suspect that a lot (but obviously not all) of the arguing is not actually about changing anybody’s ideas or beliefs at all, but is in fact about asserting one’s own identity, by affirming certain ideas and beliefs or by opposing certain other ideas and beliefs. It’s about using ideas and beliefs as identity markers.

    Personally, I’m trying to cut down, but I have to accept that I’ve spent a lot of time engaged in arguments that were obviously futile and where I had absolutely no expectation of convincing anybody of anything. What was the purpose of this behaviour? To assert my own sense of identity, whether as a leftist, an environmentalist, or an atheist.

  9. Bill Yeager says

    Identity 2, all well-defined and growed-up with it’s baseless ‘woo’ belief, makes ickle identity 1 feel ‘special’. So when you say that theistic identity 2 is a fucking moron who couldn’t rationalise his way out of a paper bag, identity 1 feels that his ‘special’ status is being questioned. The voice in his head tells him he is special, but we, for some reason, have come to the conclusion that, you know what, nobody is special, we are here because we are here, that there is no purpose in life other than what we make.

    *That’s* what enrages them. Being told that they are not special.

    Because, when all is said and done, identity 1 didn’t move past childhood tantrums and sulking.

  10. jolo5309 says

    New atheism probably makes theists feel embattled, and thus probably makes a lot of them dig in just as I dig in.

    I don’t know why you put the “New” in front, atheism itself makes theists dig in. The reason the focus is on new atheists (or gnu if you prefer) is because the gnus are louder right now, and less willing to compromise with the religious moderates when they make statements about a god. This makes news.

  11. Egbert says

    I think being a radical liberal is part of my identity, and part of that identity is to be sympathetic to the freedoms of others. But that doesn’t mean I should be sympathetic to their attempts to gain power and force their beliefs on me or others. That is when secular society has become unbalanced, and that might explain why many atheists have chosen to attack religion, because it is by nature anti-liberal.

  12. says

    I have to respectfully disagree, to a limited extent. There is a category of belief over which I have no choice — those things I believe are factually true. I believe that the Earth is generally spherical, that hydrogen atoms have one proton, and that a*a + b*b = c*c. While in a hypothetical alternate universe I might not, in this one I cannot choose these beliefs, so I don’t consider them part of my identity.

    It’s the other beliefs that constitute identity in that I consider them important but mutable. That people should be kind, that my family loves me, that Tom Cruse is a terrible actor.

    My atheism is like the first kind of belief. I could imagine a universe where atheism is wrong, or where 1+1 = 5, but that’s not the one we live in.

  13. Laurence says

    Rosenau is interesting because he talks about how people are deserving of inherent respect, but he doesn’t seem to afford that respect to New Atheist bloggers. I find that very strange and hypocritical.

  14. fastlane says

    JR hasn’t really changed much in the few years since I stopped reading his blog (and that didn’t last long, for reasons articulated here, already).

    Good to know I haven’t missed anything. He’s never seemed to handle disagreement well, and when the whole ‘split’ happened with Mooney, et. al., he chose his side and dug in as stubbornly as any religious fanatic.

  15. says

    I think some of the confusion could be cleared up by saying that in practice, beliefs are often an important part of people’s identities, but that ideally, they shouldn’t be.

    Alternatively, one could argue that beliefs originate in facts, but which facts we seek out and choose to trust is determined by character traits such as curiosity, gullibility, resistance to change, respect for authority, etc. In a way, these character traits define who we are much more than our beliefs do. Our beliefs will change, but these character traits tend to be much more invariant – and in fact can be what drives us to change our beliefs. For example, take the many atheist “deconverison” stories, where the person was driven by their sense of truth or fairness to change their beliefs, sometimes rather radically – but their sense of truth and fairness remained unchanged.

    In the end, though, beliefs should be judged on their merits. Whether or not someone decided to make certain beliefs part of their core identity shouldn’t stop anyone from criticizing beliefs when they have reason to think those beliefs are wrong or harmful. If other people decide that this means their identity is being attacked, well, what am I supposed to do about it? I can’t really convince them that I think it’s just fine to make a belief that I think is wrong or unsupported a center piece of their identity, because that’s not what I believe.

  16. Sastra says

    How many people have changed their mind about something when they discovered or realized they were wrong — and now consider themselves less of a person for it?

    Should they? Should they instead have stuck to their guns and ignored the problem and remained “themselves?”

    Those are important questions I think because they get to the heart of the ‘beliefs as identity’ problem. If what you believe has become what you are — then you’ve pretty much abandoned any honest quest for truth or curiosity about the world. You’ve also left humility far behind, along with the possibility of self-improvement.

    My ‘identity’ as a gnu atheist is, I hope, firmly grounded in the recognition that I have to change my mind and start believing in God, religion, the value of faith, and/or the merit of accomodationism if the arguments eventually persuade or the evidence finally accumulates that way. My ‘identity’ as an honorable human being not only takes precedence, it ought to take precedence.

    And, in my limited experience, when this choice is put to them plainly, the religious agree. Or, perhaps, they are reluctantly forced to concede, if only for the moment. They believe in Jesus/Spirit/HigherConsciousness because they think it’s true — not because they are playing some sort of dress-up game and wearing their “beliefs” like costumes. If you think the atheist ought to change their mind, then you share the same obligation. Revising views in the light of new evidence is not a loss: it’s always an improvement. Older, but wiser.

    In Letting God of God Julia Sweeney says something like “I looked back and realized that every time I changed and grew as a person it was because I accepted something I didn’t want to be true. And I am the better for it.”

    The problem with ‘faith’ is that it exchanges the primary commitment to be honest for a commitment to be loyal to an idea as if you’re joining a tribe.

  17. Kevin says

    I think Josh should watch Julia Sweeney’s “Letting Go of God” program.

    She was a Catholic. Identified herself as a Catholic. Her family identified her as Catholic.

    Now, she’s an atheist. Identifies herself as an atheist.

    Our identities change all the time — at least the plastic nonbiological descriptions.

    I’ll never identify myself as a woman — because I’m a man. Other than skin color, that’s about the only part of my identity that won’t change.

    My identity as a young man changed some time ago. I’m still not an “old” man, but I’m creeping up on it. Thin man, fat man, bald man, hairy man. It’s all mutable.

    I don’t see what the challenge is about. If our identities were set in stone, I’d be a thin, hairy, young, Republican (I voted for Nixon — EEEEK!!!), married, Episcopalian newspaper reporter. I’m none of those things now.

  18. says

    Thanks Sastra, I think I see now. For atheists the existence of god is a truth question, but our core belief is that truth is important. For the theist the existence of god is itself a core belief. More about values than belief, really.

    All the shouting is about getting them to see that they can value truth, or they can value god, but not both.

  19. Dan says

    “Identity” is another one of those slippery words, isn’t it?

    It’s used to mean “this is who I am”, in some kind of existential sense, or to mean “this is what is most important to me” in terms of values.

    It seems to me that beliefs can indeed be part of someone’s “identity” in either sense, and I don’t think the theoretically mutable nature of belief makes that impossible or an implausible claim.

    But if you do make that claim, then there’s a danger, which is that of dogmatism. If a particular belief is so important to you that it becomes such an important part of “who you are”, or so bound up in your sense of self-worth, that it becomes hard to think rationally about it, then that is a big social and intellectual problem.

    I have no problem recognising the importance to “identity” of religious belief.

    But along with that recognition goes a warning about nevertheless submitting beliefs to the test.

    That’s the point, to me. Bearing in mind that I’ve thought about it for about 5 minutes. 🙂


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