Said Simon

My thoughts as a Secular Humanist and student of politics

We are what we believe – but let’s pretend otherwise.

A common – and laudable – theme of secularist discourse is the separation of belief and the believer. In short, that ‘we are not our ideas‘. A  sharp little discussion of it I recently read has moved me to contribute my own thoughts here, but the controversy over the Jesus and Mo’ cartoons in London, and the subsequent passing by the LSE’s student union of what amounts to a law against blasphemy, are highly related. The argument goes something like this:

A person’s beliefs can be criticised and even ridiculed without violating their right to hold that belief, or their basic rights to dignity and safety. A person’s ‘self’ is separate from any set of propositions they hold to be true. Thus attacking such propositions as wrong or absurd should not be construed as insulting or degrading.

To quote:

Hating ‘the belief’ that someone holds is to hate something that can be discarded by the person in question….Thus hating ‘the belief’ is entirely seperate from hating ‘the believer.

This argument is based on highly problematic ontological grounds. Basically, it presumes that a self exists independent of the ideas about the world that collectively comprise one’s understand of meaning and value. While it’s true that my self image and the foundations upon which I measure mine and others’ worth are unlikely to to be affected by my investment in, say, the existence of the Higgs-Boson (though this may not be true for some physicists), it is not true that there is anything more to my sense of self than beliefs.

The origins of identity are contentious, and there is robust debate over the priority of differentiation (cf. Stuart Hall, Charles Taylor, Judith Butler), the validity of a group/individual dichotomy (cf. Tajfel and Turner, Barth, Bourdieu), and of the primacy of some identities over others (eg developmental psychology). However, one conclusion occupies a point of near-consensus amongst scholars, researchers, and philosophers of identity: it is socially determined.

If identity is socially determined, then we gain our sense of self by testing our ideas about ourselves against what other people seem to think about us, and by seeking to confirm or affirm particular beliefs within a social or intersubjective context (cf. Grossman).

There are some beliefs which almost everyone is likely to want to hold about themselves. Most people want to believe that they are smart enough, perceptive enough, or aware enough not to form horribly wrong conclusions about their world. Most people, even if they’re willing to admit being wrong about important parts of their ideological or cultural systems – and that requires a significant existing level of security and underlying affirmation – want to believe that they aren’t stupid or deserving of derision and contempt for having held wrong beliefs.

In other words, there is a direct relationship between the way we treat a person’s beliefs and the way they build and sustain their self-image as an individual both worthy of and in possession of respect and dignity. It is an unsustainable naivety to believe that you can hate some beliefs without hating those who hold them. It is undeniable that public expressions of bigotry will make the targets of their vitriol feel bad. It is also undeniable that public mockery or sustained attacks upon certain sets of beliefs – ‘religious beliefs’ let’s call them, solely for their particularly important role in explaining the world and selfhood to those who hold them – will also make people feel bad.

But it’s a good naivety, at least institutionally. If we want to have a society in which people feel free to express themselves, and in which people are universally subject to the same standards of recognition, then public reason must be secular reason, and public expression must be as close to unlimited as is possible (exceptions could be made for direct incitements to violence).  By ensuring that every idea is open to critical analysis, we ensure that society as an entity has its own self-awareness, and the people who comprise it are able to subscribe to a standard which, at least potentially, is blind to class, race, age, gender, or any other particular identity: reason.

In other words, separating belief from the believer is specious. But useful. Because Enlightenment.

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2 responses to “We are what we believe – but let’s pretend otherwise.

  1. Brian Lynchehaun January 31, 2012 at 2:08 am

    It is an unsustainable naivety to believe that you can hate some beliefs without hating those who hold them.

    I agree.

    It is an unsustainable naivety to believe that you can hate apples without hating fruit.

    Hating one element of a set entails hating the set. Right? If not, your whole argument falls apart.

    • Said Simon January 31, 2012 at 3:33 am

      That’s not really my argument though. It would be more accurate to say that you cannot hate apples without hating some fruit, if we’re trying to stretch that analogy to fit here. But ultimately I don’t think that it’s analogous in that there is more to a person’s sense of self than a simple set of beliefs. There is nothing more to it BUT beliefs, but the relationship between the beliefs that comprise the self, and the effect of encountering hatred – a powerful concept – of any single one of those beliefs, is such that simple talk of sets doesn’t go far in capturing the dynamics of identity.

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