Identity politics insults us all

Identity politics insults us all

“This is who I am”

I recently read an article about what it’s like being deaf in New Zealand.  One woman interviewed recalled a camp she attended when she was young.  The experience made a big impression on her, so much so that she came to realise that being deaf was “who I am”.

This got me thinking about other times I’ve heard someone say that such-and-such is “who I am”.  One hears of people saying it about their race, their gender, their sexual orientation, or some other characteristic they consider to be vital to the point of being definitive.

I expect many who say this are very deeply affected by the significance of the characteristic they are describing and this is articulated, with some poetic licence, as “This is who I am”.  In some cases (perhaps many), this poetic licence may be energised by the fact that the person has been made to feel like a social outlier because of the characteristic.  In these cases, the “poetry” becomes quite poignant and very powerful.

However, some proclaim “who I am” with a polemical purpose which, if spelled out, goes something like this: “This characteristic is who I am.  For that reason, your disapproval of it, or disagreement with it, is a rejection of me as a person, a denial of my humanity”.  What seems to follow, in the mind of the speaker, is that the disapproval or disagreement must therefore not be permitted and may even be reasonably described as hate speech and condemned as such.  We see this happening all around us.

This characteristic is who I am.  For that reason, your disapproval of it, or disagreement with it, is a rejection of me as a person, a denial of my humanity.

No matter how the declaration “This is who I am” is used, I suggest that it isn’t actually true.  I cannot interfere with a person’s view of themselves – I’m just an onlooker with no authority – but I can have an opinion about this kind of thought process.  When the woman declared that her deafness is “who I am”, it occurred to me to ask, “What about your ethnicity and gender, are they just peripheral?”

When a person identifies a characteristic and says, “This is who I am”, they are doing themselves a great injustice and selling themselves way short.

Each person consists of an enormous number of characteristics, some innate and others formed by experience and context.  I’ll call each of these a “what” as distinct from the “who”.  There are all sorts of whats – sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender presentation, age, height,  body shape and weight, strength, IQ, EQ, disposition, beauty, physical prowess, physical health, mental health, attitude to heights, enclosed spaces and spiders, place on various spectrums (eg introvert/extrovert, optimist/pessimist, sweetness of tooth, sensitivity to heat and cold), opinions and world-view, life experience, experience of oppression (from one side or another), skills, self-esteem, memory, facility with languages ………..  I’m not sure the list has an end.

I suggest that “who” a person is must be, at the very least, the aggregate of the enormous number of whats that characterise the person.  To be honest, I would go further and suggest that this aggregate is simply “what” the person is, while the “who” of that person is something even more profound and utterly unique.

Who we really are

We Christians believe each human being is made “in the image and likeness” of the creator God.  This is rather grand and gives each person fabulous significance and value, which is the other reason I find limited self-identification so irksome.

But even if the imago Dei is notionally set aside, it is apparent that an individual human being is an unfathomably deep and complex unit.  So, when a person focuses on a single characteristic and says “This is who I am”, they are saying something that is wildly inaccurate.

We should be prepared to go to some trouble to understand why a person identifies themselves in this way, especially if there is real hurt underlying what they say.  However, it doesn’t follow that a poetic understatement, no matter how poignant or tragic, should be taken literally – because then it’s false.

Identity politics

I don’t intend this to be of merely passing interest:  it’s relevant to identity politics.

I’m not quite sure just who is “in charge” of identity politics – I only know they’ve been operating behind the scenes and that no-one voted for them.  They seem to have decided that each person has only a handful of characteristics – or, at least, only a handful of characteristics that matter.

I cannot interfere when a person entertains a false and limiting belief about themselves.  I must feel a little sad and leave them be.  However, I object to being told that I must treat their paltry self-identification as a fact.

It is even more objectionable when someone applies this shabby branding to someone else.

This happens, for example, when I am identified as “just” a pale, stale male or “just” a phobia-laden Christian bigot or “just” a beneficiary of racist colonialism etc.  Once one of these damning labels is attached to me, no interest is taken in my other characteristics, much less in my actual opinions, decisions and actions.

It also happens when a person is encouraged to self-identify in this paltry manner – to see themselves as a person of very few parts.  The perverse thing is, this encouragement comes from people who claim to advocate for that person!

“This is who I am” is bad enough.  “This is who you are” is worse.

This has been going on for a while, but I continue to be astonished by the new elite (academics, media, educators, much of government) who arrogantly presume to define everyone, especially when that definition is insultingly incomplete.  This displays utter contempt for every member of the community – not only those the elite intends to punish for past sins but also those it claims to champion.

Identity politics insults everyone by underestimating them.  That’s just the start, of course:  after rebranding us and dividing us into herds, the elite –

  • decides which herds are good and bad (regardless of what people actually say and do);
  • stage-manages a war between them (women against men, Pakehā against Māori, and so on).

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The complexity and uniqueness of every human being is not the only vital truth ignored – also ignored is a person’s accountability for what they do, not for what they are – but that’s where it starts.

Atheism is not all it’s cracked up to be – part 4

Atheism is not all it’s cracked up to be – part 4

“Who are these atheists, anyway?” is the fourth and final part in the Atheism is not all it’s cracked up to be series by Gavan O’ Farrell, who works as a public sector lawyer.

Part one can be read here: Reason and Evidence
Part two can be read here: Morality and the Human Being
Part three can be read here: I don’t want it, so it isn’t there!

Who are these atheists, anyway?

This final Part on the series on atheism is less concerned with argument and more focused on who we’re talking about (and to).

“Non-theists” vary

I’ve decided now to refer to “non-theists”, as non-belief in God ranges from frank atheism (“There is no God”) to agnosticism (“I don’t know”) with each position having its own spectrum and labels not being applied consistently.  Non-theists sometimes describe themselves as “rationalists”, “realists”, “sceptics”, “humanists” or “secularists”.  However, they all reside in the “empiricist box” (see Part 1).

Needless to say, non-theists vary because they are human beings with myriad characteristics and experiences.  I can mention some.

The most serious non-theists are those atheists who are intellectually attached to the evidence argument: if there were a God, it would have been proved by now.  Their demeanour varies: some triumphalist and rude, some civil.

Ordinarily, atheists are a smallish subset of non-theists but, in this era of maximum self-expression, the number is probably artificially inflated.

The most visible non-theists are those who have a strong dislike of religion, especially Christianity.

This dislike may arise from their understanding of the general and historical conduct of the Church – sometimes a genuine misunderstanding that can be treated with information.

Illumination is not effective when the misunderstanding is deliberate – due to prejudice or even organised enmity.  Socialists, for example, oppose Christianity as a matter of ideology, will contradict and abuse it at every opportunity and intend to bring it down.  This stance can be found in many places, people and discussions:  it doesn’t always call itself Socialism but, on the other hand, the Socialism brand is being laundered and relaunched despite its appallingly murderous history.

Or the dislike may be the result of bad experiences within the Church – a story which needs to be seriously listened to before mentioning “babies and bathwater”.  Many are angry: mere indignation for some, while for others it is real hurt.

This anger is sometimes directed at God, not at religion.  If a believer is angry with God, and doesn’t address the situation properly, the anger can take them far away – eg I might “punish God” by proclaiming that I don’t believe in Him.

Determined personal sovereignty and autonomy is another path to non-theism: “I don’t need a God to feel significant or secure”.  Or, “I’m very clever and educated, I’ll take it from here”.  Or simply, “No-one’s the boss of me!”  More attitude than rationale.

Others were raised as non-theists and, like some Christians, think habitually and speak by rote.

Some non-theists call themselves “sceptics”, but I have found that they are typically half-sceptics – sceptical about God and the supernatural but not about their own claims about rationality and evidence (or the social and moral positions put forward by the Left).

Most non-theists are agnostics.  This position is more understandable than a dogmatic “Ain’t no God”.

On the other hand, “I don’t know” is often a cover for “I don’t care”.  It seems strange not to care that there might be Someone who made the cosmos and is in touch with humanity, but we continue to hear “I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it”.

For some, “I’ll cross that bridge” is another pretext for avoiding a difficult issue.  We should recognise that delaying consideration (and the “risk” of believing) is understandable, just like not wanting God to exist.

Some people prefer agnosticism because they believe it can accommodate spirituality.  (Oddly, even some atheists are into this.)  Of course, this “spirituality” falls short of belief in a God who is a Person – especially, a Person with, shall we say, “strong opinions” (who needs that?!).  I think they’re trying to have their cake and eat it:

  • A yearning for “the spiritual” is extremely common and entirely natural (a hint at the real yearning for God).
  • However, with no connection with God or the supernatural, “spirituality” is just a species of strong emotion.
  • True atheism – “truth is about reason and evidence” – is hard to market. No-one wants to think of themselves as a left hemisphere on a stick, so no wonder non-theist advocates use hard-sell.  Enhancing non-theism with “spirituality” is smart marketing, but that’s all it is.

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At risk of stating the obvious, a conversation with a non-theist is not a conversation with the embodiment of some ideas but with a fabulously complex and unique human being who is in God’s image and likeness, is loved by God, is in humanity’s shared predicament and has an irrefutable claim on everyone’s love.

Atheism and politics

Visiting an atheist site, I once asked “Are there any conservative atheists or are you all Lefties?”.  I was told, “If you’re smart enough to be an atheist, you’re probably smart enough to be progressive”.

Like much of academia, the media, the education system,much of government and parts of the Church, popular non-theism seems to have been infiltrated and largely taken over by “progressives” – to be politically allied with third-wave feminism, the LGBTIQ lobby and other “diversity” lobbies, and united with these in protecting Islam from criticism.

It is strange that such independent thinkers (a claim which non-theists often make to distinguish themselves from Christians) should all of a sudden be of one mind about such difficult and complex issues, especially when you consider that –

  • trans activists ignore and often oppose the “factuality” of science, which serious non-theists ordinarily value; and
  • in an Islamic theocracy, non-theists would fare as badly as feminists and LGBTIQ folk.

As far as I can tell, all these groups have in common is a, shall we say, “warm dislike” of Christianity.  I don’t know how else to make sense of this outlandish alliance.

Some non-theists are seriously dedicated to reality and reason and have avoided being ensnared by these movements.  It is possible to have positive ethical and political conversations with these more independent non-theists.  There is likely to be mutual acceptance of the starting proposition that human beings are highly, and equally, valuable – if the non-theists don’t deride our “deluded” reasons for believing this and we don’t berate them for having no reason at all to believe it (see Part 2).  From that starting-point, a lot of positive discussion and common action are possible.

Some very good books

Before closing, I must bring to your attention four excellent myth-busting books that together respond to most charges laid at the door of Christianity:

Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (2014)
– a history of religion and war – wars, past and present, are usually complex

More information about this book

In these times of rising geopolitical chaos, the need for mutual understanding between cultures has never been more urgent. Religious differences are seen as fuel for violence and warfare. In these pages, one of our greatest writers on religion, Karen Armstrong, amasses a sweeping history of humankind to explore the perceived connection between war and the world’s great creeds—and to issue a passionate defense of the peaceful nature of faith.

With unprecedented scope, Armstrong looks at the whole history of each tradition—not only Christianity and Islam, but also Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Judaism. Religions, in their earliest days, endowed every aspect of life with meaning, and warfare became bound up with observances of the sacred. Modernity has ushered in an epoch of spectacular violence, although, as Armstrong shows, little of it can be ascribed directly to religion. Nevertheless, she shows us how and in what measure religions came to absorb modern belligerence—and what hope there might be for peace among believers of different faiths in our time.

Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (2011)
– a very insightful look at the Old Testament generally, but especially those passages that our critics like to highlight

More information about this book

A recent string of popular-level books written by the New Atheists have leveled the accusation that the God of the Old Testament is nothing but a bully, a murderer, and a cosmic child abuser. This viewpoint is even making inroads into the church. How are Christians to respond to such accusations? And how are we to reconcile the seemingly disconnected natures of God portrayed in the two testaments?

In this timely and readable book, apologist Paul Copan takes on some of the most vexing accusations of our time, including:

God is arrogant and jealous
God punishes people too harshly
God is guilty of ethnic cleansing
God oppresses women
God endorses slavery
Christianity causes violence
and more

Copan not only answers God’s critics, he also shows how to read both the Old and New Testaments faithfully, seeing an unchanging, righteous, and loving God in both.

Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity:  How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World (2018)
– Christianity did not spread only because it was adopted by the Emperor Constantine

More information about this book

The “marvelous” (Reza Aslan, bestselling author of Zealot), New York Times bestselling story of how Christianity became the dominant religion in the West.

How did a religion whose first believers were twenty or so illiterate day laborers in a remote part of the empire became the official religion of Rome, converting some thirty million people in just four centuries? In The Triumph of Christianity, early Christian historian Bart D. Ehrman weaves the rigorously-researched answer to this question “into a vivid, nuanced, and enormously readable narrative” (Elaine Pagels, National Book Award-winning author of The Gnostic Gospels), showing how a handful of charismatic characters used a brilliant social strategy and an irresistible message to win over hearts and minds one at a time.

This “humane, thoughtful and intelligent” book (The New York Times Book Review) upends the way we think about the single most important cultural transformation our world has ever seen—one that revolutionized art, music, literature, philosophy, ethics, economics, and law.

David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (2009)
– covers several bases, including Christianity and science, the Spanish Inquisition, witches and slavery.

More information about this book

Among all the great transitions that have marked Western history, only one—the triumph of Christianity—can be called in the fullest sense a “revolution”

In this provocative book one of the most brilliant scholars of religion today dismantles distorted religious “histories” offered up by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and other contemporary critics of religion and advocates of atheism. David Bentley Hart provides a bold correction of the New Atheists’s misrepresentations of the Christian past, countering their polemics with a brilliant account of Christianity and its message of human charity as the most revolutionary movement in all of Western history.

Hart outlines how Christianity transformed the ancient world in ways we may have forgotten: bringing liberation from fatalism, conferring great dignity on human beings, subverting the cruelest aspects of pagan society, and elevating charity above all virtues. He then argues that what we term the “Age of Reason” was in fact the beginning of the eclipse of reason’s authority as a cultural value. Hart closes the book in the present, delineating the ominous consequences of the decline of Christendom in a culture that is built upon its moral and spiritual values.

Atheism is not all it’s cracked up to be – part 3

Atheism is not all it’s cracked up to be – part 3

“I don’t want it, so it isn’t there!” is the third part in the Atheism is not all it’s cracked up to be series by Gavan O’ Farrell, who works as a public sector lawyer.

Part one can be read here: Reason and Evidence
Part two can be read here: Morality and the Human Being

“I don’t want it, so it isn’t there!”

So far, this series on atheism has discussed whether we theists are “irrational” (Part 1) and whether morality is viable without God (Part 2).

I’ll now briefly canvas some of the other things atheists often say.

Two seemingly peripheral arguments

1“Which religion?”:  A common reason for rejecting God seems to be: “There are thousands of religions, most of them mutually incompatible, they can’t all be true.”

You’d have to look hard to find “thousands”.  Anyway, however many there are, my response is “If you are curious, you will do the work of inquiring, just as a serious scientist does when faced with a difficult and complex natural question. If you are not curious, or not willing to do the work, just say so”.

This atheist assertion insinuates, “Religions can’t all be true, so none of them are”, which is clearly illogical: one of them could be true, the atheist just doesn’t know which one.  The pervasiveness of theistic belief (globally and throughout history) should really make a genuine sceptic curious.

2The “onus of proof”:  You will often hear atheists say it is up to theists to prove God’s existence.  This made better sense when Christians were doing the talking while the atheists just appraised the arguments.

This has changed, atheists now make a positive assertion “You may not claim a fact unless there is empirical/scientific proof of that fact”.  They are now on the front foot, pushing their [limited and limiting] theory of knowledge.

We do wish to persuade about God, but it’s not a matter of “proof” (see Part 1).  As I understand the dynamics, we Christians commend our faith to others.  I haven’t noticed any Christians insisting on belief in God – not recently, anyway.  By contrast, atheists insist that it is only permissible to talk facts (including facts about God) if those facts are proved empirically/scientifically.  This insistence swings the onus of proof onto them: they may no longer assume this view and impose it, they must establish it.

It is worth remarking that the location of the onus of proof has no bearing on the issue of whether or not God exists: it’s just a discussion protocol.

I mention these arguments, not because they are intrinsically important but because they come up so frequently.  They have negligible logical value as arguments.  Really, they seem to me to be excuses rather than arguments – attempted justification for not believing and for not being inquisitive.  Another refuge, like the “empiricist box” (Part 1).

It won’t hurt us to acknowledge that not wanting God to exist is entirely understandable.  We all value our autonomy and we’re all at least half-inclined to resent authority.  Even faith (a shifting, moody thing) is not a 24-7, airtight defence against this.

I wouldn’t be surprised if simply not wanting God to exist turned out to be the central point.  And, to the extent that we Christians can empathise, a meeting-point.

“Christianity is not ‘good news’ but bad news”

Atheists often say Christianity is evil and offer a bundle of “proofs” which have become familiar – war, forced conversion, the Spanish Inquisition, witch-hunting, tolerance of slavery, the oppression of women and gays, the suppression of science and, more recently, protected paedophilia.  To this list might be added Old Testament violence and the “immoral” nature of Redemption by Christ’s death.

Sometimes, atheists add that they would refuse to worship a God who is behind all of this – a strange assertion that wants to sound heroic but can’t possibly be if there is no God.

Atheists should hesitate before offering moral judgements (see Part 2) but, on the other hand, we Christians should not rely on this to avoid discussion of wrongs we know the Church has done.  After all, the Church consists largely of human beings and has wielded enormous power – a notoriously dangerous combination.  For the most part, though, the proofs rely on the hasty acceptance of information that is skewed or incomplete.

Christianiy’s track record is critical to the plausibility of Christianity because it is difficult to recommend Christ if history shows that accepting this recommendation is a bad idea.  In Part 4, I’ll mention some books that help set our track record straight.

The dark side of this track record is also another excuse for not being inquisitive, this time about Christianity.  After all, atheists don’t seem to consider the possibility that God might also be appalled at some things the Church has done.

The attack on Redemption is a separate matter, and is entirely misconceived.  Our critics liken it to the ancient ritual of “scapegoating”, where a village would seize a goat, load it up with paraphernalia representing the village’s sins and drive it into the desert so that the sins (and the goat) are never seen again.

We believe Christ volunteered to, so to speak, “carry our sins into the desert”, that He did this long ago without any urging from you or me, that He returned in excellent condition and that He now asks us whether the sins He bore included ours.  We say Yes, not to be cruel, but out of common sense and awe-struck gratitude.  It would be unspeakably stupid to say No.