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Fr. 646

June 25, 2015

In a recent article and television appearances, Reza Aslan has been keen to maintain that religion entertains a closer relation to the believer’s identity than the nominal believer’s beliefs. He elaborates:

What both the believers and the critics often miss is that religion is often far more a matter of identity than it is a matter of beliefs and practices. The phrase “I am a Muslim,” “I am a Christian,” “I am a Jew” and the like is, often, not so much a description of what a person believes or what rituals he or she follows, as a simple statement of identity, of how the speaker views her or his place in the world.

In short, religion and beliefs, which are most often bundled with it, come apart upon scrutiny insofar as the average believer, as it were, expresses via such phrases not commitments to metaphysical or moral truth values but, rather, a sort of positioning as regards others and objects, between part and whole.

This statement initially comes as a something of a shock, both to believers and scholars, albeit for different reasons. For the believer, how does one divorce the substantive content of beliefs from the collective label which gathers them? For the scholar, the question turns on whether, epistemologically speaking, anything remains of religion qua network of beliefs without the constitutive beliefs and truth claims.

In anticipation of such criticisms, Aslan seeks to highlight the relevance of other identity factors to belief:

As a form of identity, religion is inextricable from all the other factors that make up a person’s self-understanding, like culture, ethnicity, nationality, gender and sexual orientation. What a member of a suburban megachurch in Texas calls Christianity may be radically different from what an impoverished coffee picker in the hills of Guatemala calls Christianity. The cultural practices of a Saudi Muslim, when it comes to the role of women in society, are largely irrelevant to a Muslim in a more secular society like Turkey or Indonesia. The differences between Tibetan Buddhists living in exile in India and militant Buddhist monks persecuting the Muslim minority known as the Rohingya, in neighboring Myanmar, has everything to do with the political cultures of those countries and almost nothing to do with Buddhism itself.

Aslan’s point consists largely in the observation that the presence of different identity factors effectively alter people’s experience of one and the same religion, to the point that members of a single religion might not recognize the practices of the other as authentically “x” or “y”. This applies particularly as regards the “cultural baggage” that a person is likely to bring to the exercise and interpretation of a given religion or set of beliefs. What the authors here appeals to amounts to a species of relativism, specifically environmental relativism: the make-up of a given set of practices varies in relation with changes in the environment and available social and natural resources.

Yet what proves distressing or, at least, shortsighted on Aslan’s part is precisely this vague notion of identity. For if identity is nominally independent of beliefs and changes in beliefs and identity and beliefs come apart in the way illustrated above, then it is unclear what the interest of identity is. Are not those professing a certain identity also thereby expressing a certain worldview qua collection of beliefs about the world? Indeed, from where would the tension between religions or secular perspectives derive if not from the difference in beliefs about the world and the putting forward of truth claims? Stout illustrates this point more fully when discussing reason-giving as the presentation of beliefs and justification in light of the interlocutor’s background of beliefs. Epistemological contextualism makes a similar link between truth, justification and the network of beliefs.

In the end, Aslan suggests an intriguing way forward for making sense of modern forms of belief which nonetheless fails to make sense of the full scope of religious experience.

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