Arguing Identity: Race, Religion, and Beyond

Buried in the typical bile on the comment board of my last column is an interesting thread about the nature of identity.

To summarize, I stated that Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris had gone beyond the pale in their sweeping demonization of religious people, and wondered aloud whether their approach could potentially qualify as hate speech. To illustrate, I suggested substituting racial or ethnic categories for the religion references in their writing, and pointed out that we would never let anybody get away with making broad negative generalizations about blacks or Native Americans, so why is it okay to do it about Muslims, Christians, or Jews?

The thread on the comment board is that racial and ethnic identity are qualitatively different than religious identity because race and ethnicity are inherited whereas religion is chosen.

I’m not sure it’s that simple.

Consider Horace Kallen’s famous statement about identity from the early 20th Century: “Men may change their clothes, their politics, their wives, their religions, their philosophies…they cannot change their grandfathers.”

It seems at first blush to support the point that my critics make. Religion is like clothes or politics, and unlike race or ethnicity, easily changeable.

But then Kallen goes on: “Jews or Poles or Anglo-Saxons, in order to cease being Jews or Poles or Anglo-Saxons, would have to cease to be.”

Why does Kallen suggest in one sentence that it is easy to change your religion (Judaism), and in the next sentence that being a Jew is a matter of ancestry and heritage, no matter what your spiritual beliefs may be?

The people who say that religious identity is different from other identities because it is based on a choice are making two mistakes: they are suggesting that other identities are not based on some degree of choice (or “social construction”, as sociologists like to say), and they are reducing religious identity only to a belief system (and beliefs, they claim, are chosen).

The truth is that all identities are hugely complex. Just because race has a physical dimension does not make it simpler to understand, and it does not mean there is no choice involved. Barack Obama and Tiger Woods have similar skin color. But Obama, son of a black Kenyan father and white Kansas mother, chooses to call himself an African American. Woods—whose mother is Thai, Chinese and Dutch, and whose late father (a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army) was African American, Chinese, and Native American—highlights his mixed ancestry, calling himself a “Cablinasian.”

Or consider the main character in Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain, a white classics professor forced to leave his post because of a perceived racist slur. Except that it turns out that he is actually black and has chosen to pass for white his whole life.

The term “race” has at least as much to do with how an individual with a particular skin color chooses to engage the community and history of people with a similar skin color as it has to do with the physical fact of that skin color itself.

Religious identity is equally if not more complex than race. But, as Kallen suggests, it is certainly about far more than a belief system. The Jew that Kallen describes may well have become an atheist. He may also have rejected the matrilineal notion of Jewish identity. But if his grandfather was a Jew, than he will likely understand himself as a Jew also, and his fellow citizens will most probably see him the same way.

My favorite thinker in the area of religious identity is the great scholar and theologian Wilfred Cantwell Smith. Smith suggested that we view what we commonly call religions as “cumulative historical traditions” that have multiple dimensions. These include certainly beliefs and dogmas, but also philosophy, art, heroes, community, etc.—aspects that religion shares with identity groups defined by race or ethnicity. Christianity is not just the Bible, but also the architecture of European Cathedrals and the social justice movement of Martin Luther King Jr.

What we call “religious identity” is really the relationship between the individual who calls herself “Christian” and the various aspects of the cumulative historical tradition that we call “religion.” Some people will emphasize the beliefs, others the community. There are secular Jews, cultural Muslims, and nominal Catholics who are strong supporters of causes associated with their religious community (Israel, the Palestinians, etc.), but not particularly devout or ritualistic. The reverse is true as well—highly devout believers who think little about the others in their identity group.

To call oneself a Jew, a Muslim, or a Catholic simply means that you have chosen to enter a big tent with millions of other people who call themselves the same. It says nothing about which circle you stand in inside that tent.

There are raging debates happening between different circles within every “identity tent”—race, religion, ethnicity, etc—arguments between people who emphasize community versus those who emphasize creed, between people with orthodox views on central texts and those with new interpretations.

Religious communities around the world are going through a profound transformation. Their tents are full of heated debate, not least between the pluralists and the totalitarians within each community.

It’s a shame, considering the complexity and importance of these debates and the fact that they involve billions of people, that the only goal that the aggressive atheists have for the tent of religion is to burn it down.

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