Belief is part of identity
Ophelia Benson has an odd idea about how identity is constructed:
beliefs arenât actually a matter of identity and shouldnât be treated as if they were.
This claim seems so obviously false that I can’t really imagine how she could have written it.
We can see how this plays out in religion: there are religions know as orthoprax, where membership is defined by your practices, and others are known as orthodox, where membership is defined by your beliefs in central doctrine. Christianity is (generally) an orthodox religion, while Judaism and Islam are (generally) orthoprax. The Torah sets out a bunch of stuff that Jews are supposed to do, and in some sense, if you do all that stuff, you’re Jewish. By contrast, Christians have catechisms and dogmas and creeds, and anyone who believes those things is Christian.
This is obviously complicated. Many of the practices that supposedly define Jewishness are impossible because the Temple doesn’t exist. Some branches of Judaism believe that every place of worship can fulfill the place of a temple, while others believe they have to wait for the restoration of a Temple in Jerusalem. None of them believe animal sacrifice and other Biblically mandated actions are actually good or necessary parts of Jewish identity, but some believe it’s really important to maintain their household according to particular kosher rules, while others don’t worry too much about that. Some believe that Biblical rules separating men from women are worth obeying, others don’t. So even though Orthodox Jewish identity is defined largely by behavior, those behaviors are rooted in beliefs.
And of course, beliefs aren’t all that matter. Anyone who believes everything set forth in the Nicene Creed is technically Christian, but if that person never goes to Church, never publicly affirms that belief and never prays and never gives any overt sign of that belief, it’s likely that some folks will start to question that person’s religious identity.
What’s especially odd about Benson’s claim is that New Atheism is all about belief. The defining difference between New Atheism and other sorts of atheism is that the gnus don’t just want to assert their own belief that there is no god (or their lack of belief that there is a god, depending). They want to assert a belief that other people’s belief in god(s) is dangerous ipso facto. When folks say that belief is only bad if it leads people to do bad things, they reply by emphasizing just how important belief is in shaping personal identity, and arguing that belief matters on its own.
Recognizing that belief is part of what shapes identity requires us to be cautious in how we attack beliefs. There are ways to attack a belief that make it clear that one is hating the sin but loving the sinner, and ways to attack a belief that alienates people who share the belief being attacked. The latter tends to be ineffective at actually changing anyone’s mind, while the former shows the audience respect.