That’s what she said

Josh Rosenau has tweeted and done a post about how stupid I am to think beliefs aren’t a matter of identity*. Well that would be somewhat stupid if I had just stated it like that, but I didn’t. As is typical of Rosenau, he ignored all the qualifying language that would have made it clear that I wasn’t just stating it like that, and quoted 15 words as if they were all I had said.

Rosenau’s version:

beliefs aren’t actually a matter of identity and shouldn’t be treated as if they were.

With his commentary:

This claim seems so obviously false that I can’t really imagine how she could have written it.

The version I actually wrote:

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. So actually articles about whacked beliefs can draw a lot of heat, and can make people feel very outraged.

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.

That’s one way to make the distinction that Eric asks about, but it won’t be as satisfactory to people who do think of their beliefs as their identity as it may be to us.

Ironically, or something, Rosenau ends the post with a paragraph that says pretty much what I was saying.

What was the point of truncating what I said so drastically, do you suppose? Just a friendly gesture?

*And Chris Stedman agrees with him. Surprise!


  1. says

    I don’t think he accused you of stupidity, and I don’t think you would have said something stupid even if you had roundly endorsed that thesis.

    I mean, something sort of like the thesis that Rosenau attacks is taken for granted in mainstream analytic philosophy of personal identity. As far as I can tell, it’s relatively uncommon for the contents of beliefs to be considered a defining characteristic of personal identity. It seems more common to examine features like the persistence of the body or mind across time.

  2. says

    On Twitter the accusations were more of-stupidity-like.

    Anyway, “identity” is used somewhat differently by different disciplines, I think, and differently again in undisciplined public discourse (like mine). I was using it in an identity politics sense, in which the core identities are non-optional. There’s a trend or tendency or ideological move to make beliefs part of that, but that move is contested. Rosenau seems to be saying at the beginning that it’s not contested but just obvious, but at the end he seems to be saying what I was saying. (I say “seems” because clarity isn’t his best skill.)

  3. says

    ISTM that if your beliefs are the marker for membership in a certain social group (which is certainly the case for much religion, and increasingly, politics), then your belief is very much, if indirectly, a matter of your identity (I’m taking as non-controversial that being embedded in a particular social group is one source of identity). If you criticize my belief, and if your argument is successful, then I will have to leave that group, and with it my identity.

  4. says

    ….not that that should make belief exempt from criticism (he hastened to add).

    If you want to go practice your identity/beliefs over there, I’ll usually be happy to leave you alone. But it you make it a matter of public discussion, then you’ve put it on the table for potential squashing. And if you insist that others must take on characteristics of your identity, then expect some serious blowback.

  5. says

    @Eamon Knight

    If you criticize my belief, and if your argument is successful, then I will have to leave that group, and with it my identity.

    It’s a nice thought, but very much untrue in practice. Otherwise, how do you explain the multitudes of different sects of, say, the Abrahamic religions? No, you don’t have to drop the identity, you can also keep it when your beliefs are a tad different from others in the group, and there are numerous ways to do so.

  6. karmakin says

    Shouldn’t it just being a little more specific between what should be protected identities, things like gender, race, sexual orientation (moving past simple gay and straight classifications), things that are immutable and inherent, and non-protected identities for things like religious beliefs, political beliefs, things which are not inherent?

  7. says

    @5: I was thinking of more radical conversions, eg. cradle fundy to atheist. Moving among groups within the evangelical big tent is fairly non-traumatic, as the identity is tied to commonly-held beliefs like Christ’s Divinity, opposition to abortion, etc, while sectarian issues like modes of baptism or church governance are background details (or such was my experience).

  8. says

    @Eamon Knight

    Sorry for messing up your point.

    On that thought, though, I suppose the closest kind of analog for LGBT people on holding on to ones identity in the way theists/supernaturalists will cling to theirs is the ex-gay movement, but it really doesn’t fit when compared to the fluidity in which one can move through religious beliefs while retaining their core identity as a theist/supernaturalist. For LGBT people, it really is much more like a cradle fundy to atheist awakening when one–because of prior societal suppression–finally realizes one is bi, transgender, or gay. You don’t get to do the whole Genre LGBT thing that, for instance, Genre Christians do with all their cherrypicking from the Bible. It’s really: you thought you were this, now you know you are that.

    Besides, we aren’t asking for the power to tell theists they cannot be theists. We aren’t asking for the power to revoke their personal identification with some group. By all means, keep your religious identity in any way you can. Some atheists haven’t even budged on their Christian identity, FFS! But your religious identity means jack squat for the truth of the claims you and your religion makes, including claims that one’s long-gone, pegasus-riding prophet may not be depicted for fear of punishment by the great Sky Clown.

  9. Kevin says

    Shorter Ophelia: Josh is feeling left out and lonely. When he gets a cookie, he’ll crawl back under his uninformed rock.

  10. Greisha says

    I did before commenting – looks the same. I am not saying you are wrong, but you may need to explain.

  11. says

    Wait, how can an accommodationist have an enemy? Don’t they want to be friends with everyone?

    Not with us dirty Gnus they don’t.

    A common thread with the accommodationists seems to be that they are movers and shakers, real politician-types who know how to schmooze with the best of them. Part of that is reassuring the theists at the cocktail parties and fundraisers that they aren’t that kind of atheists, and the easiest way to do that is to shit on other atheists as much and as often as they can get away with. The accommodationist gets access, and the theists have a pet atheist to give them cover.

    They certainly aren’t our friends or fellow travelers. In fact, they don’t give two fucks about atheism, or skepticism, or much of anything else except for the ways those things can personally enrich them, whether it be in social status, career positioning, or just cold hard cash.

  12. Greisha says

    When I was in graduate school, my adviser told me that, if my writing is clear to me or my close circle, but not to uninitiated reader, I had a problem.

    Served me well, when I was preparing my dissertation.

  13. says

    @Greisha: in practice, beliefs are important to people’s identity, but they arguably shouldn’t be, and shouldn’t be treated as such.

  14. says

    One more thought: Identities may consist of beliefs (at least in part), but that doesn’t make beliefs equivalent to identities.

  15. Steersman says

    [Posted on Josh Rosenau’s site yesterday but not yet out of moderation, maybe not surprisingly]

    Recognizing that belief is part of what shapes identity requires us to be cautious in how we attack beliefs.

    Yes, I can agree with that, although one might reasonably argue that “sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander”: if the religious are going to be in the face of everyone else [9/11 leading the list of a very long and rather odious and egregious bill of particulars] then maybe the non-religious have some right to be somewhat exasperated by an insistence on a very un-level playing field.

    But, more importantly, there is the question of respect. It is all very well for people to insist on various civil rights, but, as far as I know, none of those mandates a respect for people’s beliefs or feelings – if that was the case then our politics, for one activity of many, would be a lot less fractious – and, probably, a lot less productive and equitable and democratic.

    In addition, I think Ophelia Benson’s point about a category error is very reasonable, relevant and cogent. In the one case there is our identity based on being human with various physiological attributes and attendant, related and consequential civil rights, while the other is a case of some ephemeral and contingent identity based on espousing and promoting various beliefs that are, or should be, entirely open for discussion.

    Seems one might argue that one is a case of nature – our genetic inheritance, while the other is a case of nurture – our own responses to our environment, internal and external, and over which we are expected to exhibit some control. Seems to me to be a rather stark difference in categories. Unless you want to argue that our beliefs are genetic or epigenetic and capable of refuting or contradicting the central dogma of molecular biology.

  16. Greisha says


    I agree that people should not be treated as their beliefs are the only think that define their identity. At the other hand, it is up to individual to decide what defines their identity and how their beliefs are important to that.

    However my question to Ophelia was related to the fact that I did not find real difference between long and abbreviated versions of her statement.

    Thanks, Greisha

  17. Joaquin Rael says

    I wouldn’t get too worked up about what J. Rosenau thinks. He also believes that Mohamed was the last and final prophet of the sky daddy. Maybe he can explain the physics behind Mohamed’s magic teleportation device that took him to Jerusalem. Yes, young earther’s are crazy but Mohamed teleportation is o.k. in his book.

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