When discussions of identification and labels note the complexity of labels and complicate the “strong cultural associations” that such labels often convey, I feel like cheering. So I was excited when my brother sent me a link to a nuanced NPR blogpost, “What if Atheists Were Defined by Their Actions?” by Tania Lombrozo. A professor of psychology, Lombrozo writes about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s rejection of the label atheist because he does not conform to the image and actions that people, including atheists and theists, associate with that label. Tyson discussed his views in an interview for the Rationally Speaking podcast. At 5:27, for example, Tyson succinctly highlights the problem of cultural associations, asserting, “Labels are intellectually lazy ways of presuming that you know more about someone that you have actually learned.”
In the midst of reading such assertions, I found intriguing the points where each participant pulled back from that complexity. After noting that people who assent to particular beliefs concerning a divine being and people who do not eat meat do not necessarily act and believe in ways that society expects, Lombrozo then compares the labels Jain and vegetarian, asserting, “[the category vegetarian] tells us more than learning that someone likes cookies but less than learning that she is a Jain, and therefore vegetarian but also committed to many additional practices and beliefs.” I am not certain how many Jains Lombrozo has met, but in my conversations I have learned that many Jains are vegetarian but some consume meat (except perhaps on festival days) and have varying degrees of commitment to other practices and beliefs that people commonly associate with being Jain.
While Lombrozo’s assertion about Jains might reflect limited experience with Jains or a caricature of the exoticized other, it also correlates with particular assumptions about religion. Too often, scholars and the media treat religion as something unique, assuming that people who identify with a religion automatically commit to the textbook version of that religion. People easily construct unfamiliar religions as being homogenous and assume that maintaining such a religious identification conveys a clear commitment to the idealized practices some identify as central to that religion.
In a different fashion, Tyson makes an exception to his rejection of identity labels; he will accept the label “scientist.” The podcast hosts further reference Paul Graham’s brief 2009 essay “Keep Your Identity Small” where Graham argues that people should avoid identifying themselves with group labels because identifying with labels, especially those dealing with politics and religion, prevents a person from discussing those elements openly. He asserts, “The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.” However, Graham makes a similar exception (in a footnote) for “scientist” because that label does not involve commitments to particular belief. “A scientist isn’t committed to believing in natural selection in the same way a biblical literalist is committed to rejecting it. All he’s committed to is following the evidence wherever it leads.”
While I appreciate the distinction being made, the exception for a “scientist” ignores ways that scientists often police the boundaries of that label, much as atheists do. Would they accept a religious studies scholar as a scientist? This exception also naturalizes their positions in terms of their conception of evidence, procedure, and reasonable assumptions. While I find their points convincing typically, we are mistaken if we see those points as self-evident, like people who appeal to an “inspired” text as self-evidently important.
Acknowledging the complexity and discipline related to identifications also requires us to uncover where people refrain from acknowledging the complexity. Peeling back additional layers of assumptions, for ourselves and for our analysis of the assertions of others, further reveals the strategic nature of discussions of identification and helps us recognize the world and ourselves in a different way.