July 29, 2020

Identity and Outrage: Implications for Understanding Christians

Bob Dylan - what is identity?

Is there a relationship between how we define ourselves (i.e., our identity) and our experience of outrage? If so, how much responsibility do we have for this, if any? In this post, I will attempt to shed some light on how I think the identity-outrage link might work and suggest some implications for atheists in understanding and interacting with Christians and other religious believers.

Examining Identity

How do you perceive yourself? Who are you, and what most makes you who you are? Take a minute and think about all the different roles you occupy. For example, some of mine (in no particular order) might include things such as:

  • blogger
  • skeptic
  • teacher
  • atheist
  • researcher
  • liberal
  • son
  • freethinker

I am confident that each of us could develop lists of roles. We could even construct various hierarchies in which some terms could be subsumed under others. But for the purpose of this post, the crucial question to ask ourselves involves the relative importance of the roles we fill. That is, when we ask ourselves "Who am I really?" which terms rise to the surface? This gives us a sense not only of our perceived identity but of the components which we perceive as being most central to it.

Identity and Outrage

What does our identity have to do with outrage? I'm getting there. Imagine that you perceive various threats, challenges, or even attacks to various components of your perceived identity. In other words, some people treat you poorly based on certain aspects of your identity. How you rank-order the various components of your identity should tell something about how you are likely to react. If "blogger" falls fairly low on my list while "teacher" is high, we could predict that my reaction to being told I am a bad teacher would be more potent than having my blogging criticized.

This raises some interesting questions about ourselves and others. Where exactly would "atheist" fall on your list? Might this tell us something about how likely you are to embrace atheist activism or to respond to anti-atheist bigotry? It seems reasonable to suggest that it could tell us something about how you would react to criticism of atheism.

Consider Christians for a moment. Might the relative position of "Christian" on someone's list tell us something about the strength of their persecution complex, the intensity of their delusional system, their views of atheists, etc.? Perhaps some Christians seem to be in a constant state of outrage when encountering atheists because "Christian" is way too high on their list at the expense of other things.

Defining Ourselves

To a great extent, the roles we occupy are voluntary. I have little control over the fact that I am someone's son, but I could certainly quit my job and no longer conduct research. I could also reorder my priorities, making one role more important and another less important. So, even where I do not have complete choice over the roles that form my identity, I have considerable choice in how I arrange my priorities.

This choice entails some responsibility. Suppose I make "blogger" so much more important than any other role that this results in my neglecting other areas to the point where it begins to interfere with my happiness. I become hypersensitive to any criticism of my blogging ability and devote so much energy into it that there is little left for the other roles. Observers would be hard-pressed to conclude that my troubles were not my fault, at least to some degree. They would be my fault because this was my constructed identity. Simply put, I would have done this to myself.

Implications

How central a Christian makes "Christian" among their various roles can tell us a great deal about them. If Christians respond excessively to criticism of their religious beliefs, we can bet that it is because they have made Christianity too central a part of their identity. When perceived criticism of a role leads one to issue death threats to others, you better believe that the role has become too central!

Equally important is the issue of responsibility. The religious believer who has made religion too central a part of his or her identity is responsible for doing so. We must never lose sight of this fact. Religious believers are not blameless for making their religious beliefs one of - or perhaps even the - most important parts of their identity. As atheists, we should not shy away from criticizing religion simply because we are afraid of offending the devoutly religious. The priority they place on religion is their choice.

As a final point, I'd like to suggest a link between identity and mental health. It occurs to me that by prioritizing a collection of false beliefs in their identities, religious believers might be placing their mental health in peril. Religious belief itself is not a mental illness, but that doesn't mean that how one approaches it might not lead to poor mental health. Emphasizing reality-based aspects of one's identity seems to be more consistent with positive mental health.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2008. It was revised and expanded in 2020.