Made not Born

I’ve been pondering this business of confusing or blurring the boundaries (see this week’s Bad Moves) between a religion and a group of people, between Judaism and Jews, Islam and Muslims, that I touched on in yesterday’s Note and Comment.

It all has to do with Identity Politics, I suppose, which is a large subject, and one we will be exploring in the future. It’s partly a generational matter. All those children of assimilated Jews who turned on their parents with cries of indignation at having been denied their heritage, their background, their identity, and turned into bland inoffensive no ones in particular when they could have been real Jews. It’s an understandable reaction, and yet it has some unfortunate side-effects, at least I think so.

Just for one thing, another boundary it blurs is the one between cognitive matters and genetic ones, between what one chooses and what one is born into, between ideas and circumstances. We are born women or men, human or dog, animal or plant. Up to a point we are born British or Chinese, black or white. But we’re not born Christian or Jewish or Muslim any more than we’re born Marxist or libertarian or Scientologist. We are not born into a set of ideas. We can be and usually are trained up in such sets, but that is not the same thing, and when we come to man’s estate, sometimes we are resilient and strong and autonomous enough to examine the sets of ideas we’ve grown up in and actually decide whether we agree with them or not. I submit that religion is emphatically one of these sets rather than being in the same category as gender or species or order or even nationality or race. If we forget or conceal that fact, and pretend that the religion of our parents is part of our own ‘identity’, we are consenting to our own imprisonment. We are also abdicating our right to make our own cognitive decisions, and making the area of human choice smaller than it needs to be. We are in fact allowing ourselves to be determined, an idea that religious people usually resist. It’s interesting that people are so eager to accuse Darwinian thinkers like Richard Dawkins of being ‘determinists’ when in fact it’s people who conflate religion with identity and nationality who do the really thorough job of that.

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