Defined by opposition

Some people seem to be having an identity crisis of late. Far more words than necessary have been spilled over whether or not Britain is a “Christian” country – a debate whose only endpoint seems to be applying an adjective to a collective group of some 63m or so people in the hope of electorally appealing to the proportion of those that identify as such.

The prime minister’s comments, coming after talking about his faith but before calling the police when the bishop of Oxford came to visit, prompted the utterly predictable backlash from the British Humanist Association (BHA). Beyond the futile question as it stands, the debate (if you can call it that) is symptomatic of a wider issue of how we define ourselves either as individuals, communities or societies.

One thing I have begun to notice of late is how we often define ourselves in terms of what we are not. I’ve been known to do it myself sometimes. It seems as though it is easier to express ourselves via some means of negation than it is of affirmation. Or at least, if there is some affirmation is quickly followed by a clarification which is expressed by negation. In other words, saying, “I’m X. But by X, I don’t mean Y” where Y might be confused or conflated with X, or may be thought to be some sort of subgroup of X.

In the case of the BHA it may (rightly) be saying we are not explicitly a christian country but without offering any kind of positive alternative.

I might wonder if there is some kind of Popperian sense of falsification going on in some of our heads. To take the work of one of the signatories, Richard Dawkins, for example, in The Extended Phenotype he was very keen to repeatedly point out that his formulation of evolution was not Lamarckian. Here, he provides good evidence which seems to go some way to falsifying the position he is countering. Though in so doing, one must be careful to fairly and accurately portray what one might be defined against, or else fall prey to the straw man fallacy (not that I am suggesting that Dawkins did this in The Extended Phenotype).

I might guess that our tendency to be drawn to the straw man is because it is easier to look to another and say that we are not like them rather than articulate a positive statement about what it is we believe and stand for. And it is, I would posit, easier to besmirch  a view we disagree with it and be loose in doing so than to put forward a tightly argued proposition of our own.

Apart from intellectual laziness, one of the dangers is potentially to throw the baby out with the bathwater. To take an example, I know a lot of people for whom the term ‘Calvinism’ is one of the greatest evils in the world. By running as far away from any hint of it, much of the good and right things that Calvin wrote (though I wouldn’t agree with everything he wrote and wouldn’t usually call myself a Calvinist) may be left behind.

If we were to move to another area of interest, I sometimes wonder about particular expressions of atheism. One wonders how such an idea might be articulated if there were not such a thing as theism against which it could lean.

I’m not really making a point here, just musing out some thoughts on a Friday lunchtime. Do  you see others (or even yourself) trying express their identity in terms of what they are not?

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One response to “Defined by opposition

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