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Identity crisis

Guest Writers • 3,193 words • submitted by Denis Solomon

As more people define themselves by their spiritual beliefs, there are controversial plans to introduce legislation to curb incitement to religious hatred. Philip Pullman asks if the law will distinguish between a rational analysis of theology and a call for violence, while Monica Ali, Philip Hensher and Salman Rushdie consider the threat to free speech.

Philip Pullman, Monica Ali, Philip Hensher and Salman Rushdie
Guardian (UK) • Saturday November 19, 2005

Is the proposed "religious hatred" bill a bad idea? Of course it is. Of course it should be opposed. That's my instinctive reaction. But in trying to think about why I react like that, I've found myself wondering more and more about the question of "identity", because that seems to be at the heart of the problem. Is our "identity" a function of what we do, or what we are, or both?

It seems to me that:

  1. What we are is not in our control, but what we do is.

  2. On the other hand, and simultaneously, what we do depends on what we are (on what we have to do it with), and what we are can be modified by what we do.

  3. What we do is morally significant. What we are is not.

  4. With respect to the past: it's important to some of us to know that our ancestors came from this or that part of the world, to know a little of the history of our family, to feel a connection with a landscape, or a language, or a climate, or an artistic form of expression, or a religion that our ancestors knew as theirs.

  5. With respect to the present: it's important for each of us to feel that we belong somewhere or with some group that is like ourselves in some way. We need to be free to live in a place and among people where we feel at home, and not in exile, or under threat.

  6. Praise or blame, virtue or guilt, apply to our actions, not to our ancestry or to our membership of this group or that.

  7. Belief or faith is partly the result of temperament. I may be temperamentally inclined to scepticism, you to belief in supernatural forces. As far as the temperamental component of our beliefs is concerned, I am not to be praised or blamed for my scepticism, nor you for your faith.

  8. It's when we act on a belief that praise or blame comes in. That is where the temperamental component of religion ends and the moral component begins.

Britain is still officially a Christian country. The Christian church, or to be more accurate, the Anglican part of it, is closely involved in the great rituals of public life, such as coronations and state funerals; prayers are said before parliamentary sessions; bishops of the Church of England sit by right in the House of Lords; there is a blasphemy law that protects the Christian religion; the heir to the throne is not allowed to marry a Catholic.

For a long time now, the kind of religion the Church of England (or of Scotland, or in Wales, or of Ireland) embodies has been a mild, tolerant, broad-minded sort. There have been zealots, but they have tended to leave and form their own sects, not to occupy the parish pulpits or episcopal thrones. The tendency of the established religion has been liberal, worldly, inclusive. But this involved a certain amount of not-speaking-about-things. For example, there have always been clergy who had homosexual feelings, but while these remained unspoken about ("don't ask, don't tell"), it never became an issue of public discussion, denunciation, exposure, justification, confession, condemnation, punishment, and so on.

That particular matter has become painfully inflamed in recent years, and now looks as if it might split the Anglican communion in two. The zealous faction has been feeling its power, and is beginning to exercise it, and it's partly over this "identity" business: the stress on being, rather than on doing. Canon Jeffrey John was prevented from becoming Bishop of Reading because although he lived a celibate life, it was what he was that mattered, not what he did. If you "are" homosexual, then even if you live an entirely celibate life, you will still be tainted and abominable and unfit to belong to the clergy. In the concise and unambiguous words of a poster brandished by an American preacher in a recent photograph, "God hates fags".

In some ways this attitude is a development of the Reformation emphasis on justification by faith. It didn't matter what good works you did: it was only when you made the commitment of faith that you were able to receive the divine grace of forgiveness and healing that made you righteous, and then you were utterly changed. Hence the modern American phenomenon of being born again: to be born again is not just to change your behaviour. It's to have a new "identity", to leave the old sinful one behind, to be someone different.

At its extreme, it can lead to a sort of cognitive dissonance, when people claim an inner "identity" that has nothing to do with their actions: "Yes, I murdered my wife and children, but I'm a good person." The lawyer of a Texas boy scout leader recently found guilty on a child pornography charge was quoted in the New York Times as saying, "I've got to tell you, this is a good man."

So "being", in the eyes of many people, apparently has its own moral quality, which may be good or bad, but which is resistant to any form of change except the miraculous (being born again). "Being" trumps "doing".

It's hard to convey the sheer bafflement and distaste I feel for this attitude towards "identity". I feel with some passion that what we truly are is private, and almost infinitely complex, and ambiguous, and both external and internal, and double- or triple- or multiply natured, and largely mysterious even to ourselves; and furthermore that what we are is only part of us, because identity, unlike "identity", must include what we do. And I think that to find oneself and every aspect of this complexity reduced in the public mind to one property that apparently subsumes all the rest ("gay", "black", "Muslim", whatever) is to be the victim of a piece of extraordinary intellectual vulgarity. Literally vulgar: from vulgus. It's crowd-thought.

Of course, someone might choose to wear a single kind of "identity" as a badge - perhaps a badge of difference, perhaps one of solidarity. If you're being discriminated against for one of the multifarious aspects of your complex entirety, then it makes every kind of sense to join with others in the same position, and deliberately and publicly adopt that "identity" ("gay", "black", "Muslim", whatever). But "identity" claims are not free of consequences. They narrow as well as strengthen.

For myself, I like it best when I have no such simple and public "identity". I don't know what I "am", and I don't especially want to. But I know full well that I am free to feel anonymous and invisible, which I like feeling, even if deludedly, only because I am white and male and reasonably affluent. I look like the people who have the power; I don't stand out in a crowd; I have never been stopped by the police. Other people have less of that sort of freedom than I do.

Now: what does it mean to say "I am a Muslim"? Is it the same sort of thing as saying "I am a Jew" or "I am a Sikh"? Not quite, because being a Jew or a Sikh is a matter of race as well as of belief, according to the law as it stands.

Is it the same sort of thing as saying "I am a Catholic"? It might be more like that, because saying you are Muslim or Catholic says nothing about your ethnic origin. But it isn't quite like that, because you can choose to leave the Catholic church without facing a penalty on earth, though you might go to hell when you die. If you choose to stop being a Muslim, you are an apostate and, depending on where you live, liable to severe punishment, which might include the death penalty. So being a Muslim is partly a matter of choice and partly one of coercion. If you are born into a Muslim family and brought up in that faith, you will not be able to leave it as easily as a child born into a Catholic family can leave the Church.

However, the latter child is likely to retain Catholic habits of thought long after they cease to believe in God, especially if the Jesuits had charge of their first seven years.

So it's all very complicated.

Then there's another kind of complication. Apparently more and more British people of Asian descent are choosing nowadays to identify themselves by their faith rather than by their ethnic or geographical origin. I can see why they do - (5), above. But is saying "I am a Muslim" or "I am a Hindu" the same sort of thing as saying "I am British"? Is it the same sort of thing as saying "I am Asian" or "I am black"? Is it saying "This is what I do", or "This is what I am"?

Because one of the consequences of this is that if someone's primary "identity", according to their own definition, consists of what their religion is, then Home Office Minister Fiona Mactaggart's claim about the religious hatred bill doesn't hold up. She has said that the proposed law won't prevent the criticism of religion, because it's merely designed to stop us inciting others to hate particular people.

But to criticise the religion of someone who makes that religion the primary marker of their identity will be, specifically, to criticise them. It will be criticising what they are, not what they do. And if it comes to the courts, will the law be capable of distinguishing between a rational analysis of theology and an incitement to brutal violence? Home Office Minister Hazel Blears doesn't think it will: she has said that she can't predict how the courts will act. Better safe than sorry, is the implication.

The inevitable consequence for literature - as many others have pointed out - will be that publishing decisions will increasingly be made not by editors, as they used to be; nor by accountants, as they now are; but by lawyers. And my learned friends will be throwing the pall of their caution over the theatre as well, to the impoverishment of all of us.

I'd better say why I would like to be free to criticise religion, and think about its effects on society, without fear of prosecution. Religion is something that human beings do. Like art, it's a phenomenon that has characterised every society we know about. Thanks partly to the Enlightenment, it's been possible in the past couple of hundred years or so to consider religions dispassionately, to look at their historical development, to examine their social effects, to appreciate the art they inspire, to question the philosophical implications of their claims to truth, and so on.

It's easier for someone who is not a zealous believer to do this. Those who are passionate adherents of their faith, who are willing to kill and die for it, are less likely to take a wide and considered view of the subject. And the fact that religion makes people willing to do these extreme things is one of the reasons we need to examine it. Something in the nature of religious conviction gives believers the chance to experience sharp and intoxicating tastes; those inclined to it can become addicted to the gamey tang of the absolute, the pungency of righteousness, the furtive sexiness of intolerance. Religion grants us these malign sensations more strongly and more deeply than any other human phenomenon.

And it's religion that allows otherwise intelligent people to discard the fundamental methods of science and to teach "creationism" to schoolchildren. It's in the name of religious law that vile and grotesque punishments (mutilations and stonings) are carried out in parts of Africa and the Middle East today, as they were in Europe (torture, burning at the stake) only a few hundred years ago. And in the US especially, it's religion that's called in to justify the rapacity of the giant corporations that despoil the environment, by saying that there is no shortage of resources in God's earth, and in any case it doesn't matter if the earth is ravaged beyond repair, because all the good people are going to be whisked up to heaven in the Rapture. That sort of religion is aesthetically nauseating, intellectually toxic, and ethically squalid, and I can think of few activities more valuable than saying so loudly and clearly.

Fiona Mactaggart claims that nothing in the Bill would prevent us from doing that. I think she's wrong, because the tide of religion is coming in again. This government, led by a weak man who is attracted to power, has sensed a gathering strength in the religious lobby, and is anxious to appease it. The way they use the word "faith" is interesting, and typical of this mood: it used to be a noun. Now it's an adjective ("faith schools", "faith communities") and it carries the implication "good, admirable, worthy of approval". Everything in the temper of the times suggests that religion is getting stronger and more influential, and that those who are most zealous about it will want more and more privileges, and that this government will give in to them.

Well, I think we should resist this tendency stoutly. I think that to make things fair and level we should begin by abolishing the special protection the blasphemy law now gives to the Church of England - and I don't mean extending it to other religions: I mean abolishing it altogether. We might usefully continue with disestablishment, even if this deprives our future King Charles of the title "Defender of the Faith"; but since he's said that in any case he would rather be known as "Defender of faith", he would be free to call himself that, though he'd have to do it as a private individual rather than as head of state. We might go on to consider the place of religion in the House of Lords. I'm not against giving some sort of representation to special interest groups, but if the Christians are going to be there, so should the Jews and Sikhs and Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists and Zoroastrians and pagans and humanists.

But I think there must be something genuine behind this idea of identity, even if "identity" is a coarse and inaccurate parody encumbered with half-examined baggage, and with misunderstanding, resentment and hostility trailing behind it.

True identity is surely a matter both of what we are and of what we do. It must include everything we inherit from our remotest ancestors in the way of our physical body and our animal instincts: the ones we know about and the ones that operate too deeply for us to be conscious of. It must include our physical appearance, the colour of our skin, the shape of our eyes, and so on. It must include everything we know about the history of our family and our nation, though I don't see how it can include the things of this sort of which we are not aware. It must include the language we speak and our consciousness of belonging to a group that speaks the same language, and the same variety of that language, and if we can use more than one variety (standard English as well as a regional dialect) then it must include that fact as well. It must include our own educational history, and our place in the economic life of the community around us; it must take account of the amount of choice we have in the matter of spending money. Can we afford a bowl of rice? Can we afford a new car? They are matters of identity. Unless we use cash, we can't buy anything without proving who we are. Our tastes in food, and entertainment, and fashion are matters of identity too; so are our talents and our interests and our opinions on politics.

Furthermore, to some extent we can shape our identity by the way we behave. Trustworthiness, kindness, industriousness and the like are acquired characteristics: we can make ourselves trustworthy, kindly, and hard-working by being so. It takes time and effort, of course, not a miracle. But identity is what we do as well as what we are.

And identity, as opposed to "identity", will of course include religion. But a religious identity will be a matter of almost infinite subtlety - a matter of different degrees of belief in different aspects of a creed; or believing something passionately when young, but less urgently when old - or the opposite; or assenting to the moral teaching while withholding full credence in the supernatural - or cleaving to both; or responding with delight and warmth to the aesthetic elements of religious ritual while being ignorant of the theological, or being indifferent to the aesthetic and fiercely doctrinaire about the theological - or neither; or finding more comfort in the memory of childhood worship than in the prospect of a life after death, or vice versa; or being more conscious of the threat of hell than of the promise of heaven, or being more concerned with doing good on earth than either; and so on, in a dynamic complexity of influence and inclination, of knowledge and emotion that would be impossible to describe in full, and that is constantly changing and evolving - because of what we do as well as what we are. That is more like what I think a religious identity might be, and it would still be only part of the whole. The pity of religious identity-claims, like any other, is that they mutilate this wholeness so brutally.

So I think we should be free to examine the matter of religion, and criticise it, in both senses of "criticise" - to examine it as a literary critic examines a book, evaluating its merits and strengths as well as its weaknesses, tracing influences, seeing patterns of imagery and rhetoric; and to condemn its propensity for liberating, empowering, and justifying the worst qualities of human nature.

In the course of doing that we need to distinguish between (7) and (8) above, and we need to remind those who claim that their "identity" is primarily religious that no identity-claim comes free of consequences. The consequence of this one for those who make it of themselves is that they must put up with the criticism of religion.


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