Should I keep my identity small, avoiding statements like "I am a __", or should I embrace and share those pieces of myself?
Take, for example, my perspective on faith. Should I identify as an atheist? Last year, my dad punched my arm and said, "Why do you always say you're an atheist? If you don't believe in God, what do you believe in?" He has a point: saying I'm an atheist doesn't tell my whole story. To my credit, that's a point I made myself:
[T]hough it does not say anything about what I do find important . . . the fact that I am an atheist says much about what I do not believe in. I view the world's religions with the same skepticism that I apply to any idea; under that standard, I've found them wanting in their most important aspects.
What I wrote is both wrong and right. Strictly speaking, my atheism doesn't reveal anything additive about who I am because it doesn't implicate a particular philosophy of living. It'd be more accurate to say "I'm a secular humanist." However, people don't really know much about secular humanism; "atheist," on the other hand, falls squarely within our vernacular, often absorbing other meanings. In an important way, I'm caged by commonplace language.
Identifying as an atheist in this more permeable sense implies that I think there is a way to live a spiritual, ethical, and fulfilling life without faith. Like every other fellow human, I am a seeker of meaning and value. Nothing about my lack of faith detracts from that quest.
As a result, there's value in sharing my identity as an atheist. If more nonbelievers talk about their atheism with a sense of public curiosity and kindness, we can do two things. First, we can find community: there's no place in which nonbelievers gather and discuss how to navigate life, though the work of Alain de Botton is heartening. Second, we can shape the conversation about a life of nonbelief. Nonbelievers are a minority, often a much-maligned, seemingly amoral one. Perhaps publicly identifying as an atheist can present counter-narrative.
So, I should loudly proclaim "I'm an atheist", right? It communicates something about me and contributes to changing the perception of living without faith. Not so fast. There might be danger in so clearly identifying as an atheist -- or anything else. Paul Graham makes the case for keeping your identity small. The crux of his thought process:
[P]eople can never have a fruitful argument about something that's part of their identity. By definition they're partisan. . . . The most intriguing thing about this theory, if it's right, is that it explains not merely which kinds of discussions to avoid, but how to have better ideas. If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.
Graham is on to something. Identities can cloud our judgement, forcing cognitive errors like confirmation bias. Graham focuses in particular on identities in religion and politics. Maintaining a small identity could have two, interrelated benefits. We might have the intellectual freedom to explore all positions on any particular issue. At the same time, we can stay wrong no longer than we have to by changing our mind in light of new evidence or lines of thought. Each of these benefits flow from a mind unchained by stated identities.
On the other hand, Graham doesn't adequately explore the value of identities. There might be value in communicating an identity to others, as I explore with atheism above.
Identities can also serve as personal guideposts for our lives. Rather than taking every moment to decide how we want to act, certain identities can serve as heuristics. Guideposts identities flow from a collection of "isms." For me, my current set might be humanism, progressivism, minimalism, Stoicism, and Buddhism. I've picked up each of these "isms" thoughtfully, thinking about how this meta selection for behavior and living can play out. Undoubtedly, dogma can creep into these perspectives, as "isms" are wont to do. But they have some utility. We don't need to decide how to live every single moment.
Given all this, how should I navigate identity? I don't have a clear-cut answer. Identities vary and that fact may require differential treatment. I gravitate towards allowing myself to identify as something but building in aggressive self-doubt and frequent reflection, particularly in the subjects of religion and politics. Other identities need not be so carefully observed. If I find myself falling off this tightrope too often, I must revaluate my position.
What about you? What, if anything, are you? I welcome your perspective.