By Steven Ramey
My last post generated an extended exchange with a colleague who has rightly pushed me concerning my disavowal of judging identity claims. My colleague suggested, for example, that someone who believes that Jesus is the Son of God does not fit with atheists, a reasonable statement. While many within communities (and scholars) add more stipulations than my colleague’s very basic criteria, his point raised for me another dynamic related to religious identities.
Such definitions assume that one’s chosen religious identification (as opposed to an ascribed identification) correlates with belief and/or practice. This position ignores the social and political motivations for choosing a particular identification and community. For example, consider two hypothetical individuals who hold the same basic beliefs. They acknowledge the existence of a divine power that created the cosmos, but they reject suggestions that this divine power interacts with humans, a position historically labeled as deist. One of these two, having rejected religious practices as unnecessary, identifies as an atheist, thus protesting the prevalence of religious language and practice surrounding her. I can imagine communities of atheists willing to accept her into their community because their social and political interests correlate, even if their beliefs vary. Some Christian communities might similarly accept the second hypothetical person, if he wanted to participate in their community, possibly even labeling his beliefs as acceptable “doubt” within the mystery of Christian theology. Participation in the Christian community for him can provide particularly important social and political benefits that outweigh any qualms he may have with some beliefs and practices that the community promotes.
Rather than suggesting that these individuals or these communities are insincere or corrupted, these hypotheticals illustrate the diverse motivations for claiming an identification and accepting members into a community. Even the most basic definitions overlook these motivations. A self-identified atheist could easily believe that God exists.