Monday, November 26, 2007

Serving Size: One Entry

Humans love labels. It allows us to express things in short hand. I don’t say, "Yesterday I saw a domesticated bird of the genus Serinus from the canary islands that was yellow in color." I say, "I saw a canary" and, while you might not know the genus part, will understand what I’m talking about.

We use other labels to try and identify ourselves in short-hand as well. Generally, when we ask someone about their religion, their politics, or their heritage, we’re looking for areas of commonality as well as trying to avoid areas of conflict. If I’m at a dinner party and I know the person I just met is a Republican, I’ll try to avoid talking politics, unless I’m filled with wine and feeling snarky.

Now, based on a one word label, I’ve made all kinds of assumptions about this person. They’re Christian, they’re pro-war, they think Bush is doing a good job, they think abortion should be illegal, they’re homophobic, etc. All or none of which may be true for this individual. Some Republicans, I would assume, are really social liberals, but feel more strongly about being fiscally conservative (you know, back when the Republicans were the party of LESS government…but I digress.) But based on the Republican Party Platform I’ve formed certain, unfavorable, opinions. Most likely, this person hasn’t read the platform. For them, the ideal of Republican means something completely different and when confronted with certain sections of the platform, they may say, "but that’s not what I believe."

Back when I identified as Catholic, someone could assume a lot about me, incorrectly. That I believed the Virgin Mary remained a virgin the rest of her life, that the Pope is infallible, that I don’t use birth control, that I was molested by a priest as a child (oops, my bad), etc. If I were confronted by someone else wanting to argue a point of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I’d also be forced to say, "but that’s not what I believe." But it is what I was supposed to believe.

Most Christians haven’t read the entire bible. They have in their own minds a definition for Christianity that exists outside of the bible. And if you asked what they believe it would be along the lines of love thy neighbor and being a good person. Because of the fundamentalists and the extremists they’ve had to label themselves liberal or moderate.

I don’t know if any extremist has ever declared herself as such. Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins (I can’t remember which, so forgive me) said there are no moderates only failed fundamentalists. And I can see the appeal in saying so. It gives us a target to debate and it annoys us when people go moving the target by saying, "but that’s not what I believe." Damn it, sit still so I can poke you with my stick of reason!

As an Atheist, Skeptic, Freethinker, Secular Humanist, Anti-theist, and Bright, I sure as hell am not arguing for more labels. Perhaps what we need are less labels, less shorthand, and more dialogue. We shouldn’t accept a one-word answer the question, "who are you, what do you believe?" That might be where Sam Harris was going when he suggested we not self-identify as Atheist.

On the other hand I love the word Atheist. I love the way it feels in my mouth and rolls off the tongue. I admit to loving the in-your-face-ness of the word, because most of the time I’m not really interested in having a dialogue.

I am only human you know.


the chaplain said...

You know, of course, that, in their own eyes, religious extremists are the "true" adherents of their faiths. All the others are heretics, no better (and sometimes even more reprehensible) than atheists.

At the other end of the scale, in their own eyes, the liberals and moderates are the "true" adherents of their faiths. The extremists are misguided, sincere, certainly, but holding onto primitive understandings of faith.

So, tell me - think carefully before you answer: are you a "true" atheist? ;-)

The Exterminator said...

I love the word Atheist. I love the way it feels in my mouth and rolls off the tongue. I admit to loving the in-your-face-ness of the word, because most of the time I’m not really interested in having a dialogue.

Really well put. I'm gonna go say "Atheist" a few times now.

You ask, ironically, So, tell me - think carefully before you answer: are you a "true" atheist?

Well, I thought about it carefully. Let's see: I don't believe in any gods, do I? Hmmmm. Yup, I'm a true atheist. Now, if you want to ask if I'm a "true" atheist with those quotes around the word, I might have to ask you to define your terms. Then, of course, I'd probably disagree with your definition.

You're becoming quite a wise-guy. I like you!

ordinary girl said...

Great post, EnoNomi.

I agree that labels can be bad things, but only if we don't look behind the label. I tend to think of a label as a starting point for dialog.

When someone self-identifies with a label, it is loaded with assumptions, but I don't necessarily assume that person is all of those things. I like to use it as a starting point for a dialog so I can find common ground and meaning of what that person means by that label.

Sometimes it's fun to ask, "What do you mean by X?" As long as I don't make the person feel defensive it's usually the start of a good exchange.

Lifeguard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lifeguard said...

I love this post and agree with you on some of the hazards of labels, although I would extend it to the myriad ways people use them.

"Oh, he's a jerk."

Well, what does that mean? What did he do that makes him a jerk? Did he steal your lunch money? Or does he simply demand you pay him back on a loan he gave you a year ago?

Are we heretics? Or free-thinkers? I'll choose the latter, thanks, but it depends on your point of view, right? I wonder whether Pinker's new book gets into this sort of thing.

PhillyChief said...

It's ridiculous how terms get misused in the US. "Conservative" is a great example:
Do they conserve the environment?
Do they conserve the Constitution?
Do they conserve the Separation of Church and State?
Do they conserve the a women's right to choose?
Do they conserve our economy?
Do they conserve our safety?
Do they conserve Social Security?

I'd say they piss in the eye of all of those, which is pretty "radical". Those engaging in this are "activists" with an "agenda" to "undermine this country" which merely "emboldens the enemy".

Yeah, words are fun. I just wish it wasn't just right-wingnuts who knew how to use and redefine words and labels.

Ute said...

That's exactly it. They don't read the bible, and yet they claim to be "true" Christians. It's confusing to know who is a real Christian anymore. :)

I love the last sentence. I too love the word atheist. I'm almost getting a kick out of saying to people that I'm an atheist and seeing the change of their facial features... from friendly smile to sorry, upset or disgusted grimace.