Thursday, February 16, 2012

Identity versus evidence

A common theme of those who argue in favor of government establishment of a majority's religion is "religious identity". In her speech against "militant secularists" promoting "totalitarian regimes" and "denying people the right to a religious identity", British Cabinet Minister without Portfolio, Sayeeda Warsi, mentioned identity three times in the first three minutes. "In order to encourage social harmony, people need to feel stronger in their religious identities and more confident in their beliefs", "in a globalized world it is easy to think that, to relate to others, you must water down your religious identity", and "it demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes, denying people the right to a religious identity". What is the relationship between belief and identity and secularism?

Religious conservatives have a tendency to assert that a primary purpose of belief is to define individual and group identity. However, that isn't generally true. We believe that cows exist and dragons do not exist, not as a means to give ourselves an identity, but as a result of the evidence for the existence of cows and against the existence of dragons. What religious conservatives are doing here is inconsistent. They are insisting on two conflicting standards for belief justification, one rational, based on the evidence, and another arational, based on maintaining a self-confident identity.

Maintaining self-confidence isn't an issue with rational beliefs. We are self-confident in our rational beliefs in proportion to the evidence. Because rational beliefs are not about self-identity, there is no need for a preset and never changing self-confidence in our beliefs. As additional evidence is accumulated over time, rational beliefs adjust to fit the available evidence. The past is not the future, and rational beliefs are flexible enough to respect and accommodate future changes. Neither self-identity nor self-confidence are dependent on rational beliefs.

In contrast, the religious belief based self-identity, having thus entangled itself with self-confidence, does not like being confined to individual expression. Because religious belief is insecure and entangled with self-confidence, it seeks support from the nation as a whole. Without active and ongoing governmental expression of the majority's religious practice, the otherwise insecure majority religious beliefs are "sidelined, marginalised and downgraded" in the words of Ms. Warsi. Confidence in religious beliefs merges with self-confidence, religious beliefs merge with self-identity, self-identity merges with national identity, and the government sphere merges with the non-governmental sphere. There is then just one comprehensive and indivisible identity and public sphere, and that identity and public sphere are themselves merged together with, and defined for everyone by, a majority religious belief.

Thus, according to Ms. Warsi, merely forbidding a prayer ritual at the start of government meetings becomes a denial of "the right to a religious identity" for people generally. But of course, it is no such thing. Government meeting prayer rituals are not even a denial of the right to an atheist identity. If not having a prayer ritual were a denial of the right to a religious identity then the right to a religious identity would necessarily be incompatible with the right to an atheist identity, or to any conflicting, unrepresented minority religious identity, since the government meeting cannot simultaneously have an opening ritual affirming all conflicting beliefs. That is nonsense, and that is the real core problem here. The people who are insisting on government establishments of their preferred religions are in effect asserting a right to impose promotion of their insecure and arational religious self-identity, practices, and beliefs on all the citizens of the nation through the common government. There is no such right.

Starting with the false foundations that individual identity is the same identity as national identity, government actions are the same public actions as non-government actions, confidence in a particular set of beliefs is the same confidence as self-confidence in one's self, and the purpose and function of beliefs is to define and maintain an identity, is it any surprise that arguments for establishment of religion go awry, descending into bombast and ending in self-contradiction?

The applicable right here is for individuals to freely form and express their own beliefs and identities without government interference. This requires unbiased government with no religious identity. Practice your religion as you wish, in public or privately, government has nothing to say about which religious beliefs, or identities, or rituals and practices, are preferred or patriotic. People do not need their government to practice their religious beliefs for them, or define a national religious identity for them, and there is no civic right to a government favoring your own religious beliefs or identities over competing beliefs or identities. If Ms. Warsi really thinks that is an intolerant prescription that is reminiscent of totalitarian regimes then she is a very confused lady representing a very confused government.

No comments:

Post a Comment