Ideas and identity

Ch.1, §2: ‘Undeserved Respect’ (pp.41–50).

Dawkins provides a set of examples of “society’s overweening respect for religion”. The first has to do with pacifism:

By far the easiest grounds for gaining conscientious objector status in wartime are religious. You can be a brilliant moral philosopher with a prize-winning doctoral thesis expounding the evils of war, and still be given a hard time by a draft board evaluating your claim to be a conscientious objector. Yet if you say that one or both of your parents is a Quaker you sail through like a breeze, no matter how inarticulate and illiterate you may be on the theory of pacifism or, indeed, Quakerism itself.

I do not for a moment want to defend the actions of the draft board; the treatment of conscientious objectors of all stripes has often been pretty appalling. I’m interested, however, in the difference between the moral philosopher and the Quaker (or child of Quakers). The former, clearly, has a well thought through personal conviction that has been subjected to various forms of intellectual scrutiny and has emerged as that person’s own, settled, relatively independent position on the matter. Simply as shorthand, let’s say this is a matter of an individual’s (settled, tested, adamant) ideas. That is (to me) clearly something that a draft board should take into account, and ‘respect’ – though I can imagine them somewhat naively thinking that if someone’s views were justified by a set of of public arguments, there was a chance that they might change that person’s mind by entering into the arguments. It is easy to see how ‘rational’ might be read as ‘tractable’ in this context.

What of the other person, though? His or her pacifism is a matter of the way he or she was brought up, the mores of his or her ‘people’, his or her ‘community’ (to use a word that Dawkins is about to grimace at). Simply as another bit of shorthand, let’s say that this is less a matter of of an individual ideas, and more a matter of (communal, inherited, nurtured) identity. And it is easy to understand a draft board thinking that there was not a lot of point in arguing with such a person: argument is, after all, unlikely to change someone’s parentage. They were faced with a fait accompli.

Now, I have no idea whether or not draft boards faced with Quakers or the children of Quakers refused even to ask some basic questions. I don’t know whether they looked for evidence that the person they had in front of them really was defined by his membership of Quaker communities in the way I’ve suggested.

I’m not sure, however, whether that is Dawkins’ problem (i.e., that the aura of ‘respect’ due to religion prevented even some common sense questioning) , or whether his problem is a deeper one. I wonder whether his problem is that what I am calling ‘identity’ should have been accepted as a good reason for conscientious objector status in the first place, amongst those who did not or could not back it up with individual ideas. That is, I’m not sure whether Dawkins objects (as I do not) simply to the fact that ‘identity’ was accorded substantial moral weight.

There are deep waters here, and I’m unwilling to launch into them when I’m not quite sure of the nature of Dawkins’ positions. Suffice it to say that passage is making me think about fundamental differences in anthroplogy (i.e., in answers to the question, ‘What is a human being?’) and in moral vision (i.e., in answers to the question, ‘What is moral weight anyway, and what should be accorded it?).

One Thought on “Ideas and identity

  1. Without having read the book, it’s a very strange comment to make anyway. We haven’t had draft boards in the UK for a while, and a lot has changed since then, not least in relation to the public perception of religion. Why use the present tense? Frankly, if that’s the best example he can come up with, I’m unimpressed before we even get into the argument. (Incidentally, as the stories have come to me, I believe that my Christian pacifist greatgrandfather in WW1 had at least as hard a time with the draft board as did my atheist pacifist grandfather in WW2. Some Quakers I’ve talked to did “sail through”, and some didn’t; respect for pacifists, religious or otherwise, wasn’t exactly in plentiful supply in either war. Presumably Dawkins is also only hearing stories).

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