labels are the problem

My good online friend Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, wrote a post entitled David I’m Trying To Figure You Out!. He quoted a bunch of things I’d said about atheism. His post is fair and playful. The ensuing comments are not so playful. Hey, that’s blogging!

But it does point to an issue I think is fundamentally important. I wrote a comment on Hemant’s post. Here’s what I said:

Well well well. I just noticed this post and the ensuing comments. Sorry for the tardiness in weighing in. After reading the comments, this is the overall impression I get: Why would I leave Christianity and the Church* with all its exclusivist dogmatism simply to run into the arms of another community that is just as exclusive and dogmatic? Don’t we see that THIS is the problem with the human race? I have come to conclude that it is labels that is the problem, so I reject them all. I’m not trying to belong to you guys or atheism any more than I’m trying to belong to the church or Christianity. But I do appreciate being invited to participate in the discussion… when there is one. This is my exploration. I can take no other.

Labels are the problem. Of course we need labels in every day life. I want to know what’s in the can of food. I want to order the right part for my car. There’s a million good reasons for labels. But when it comes to some things, labeling is counterproductive.

The word is not the thing. But our minds would like us to believe it is. The mind relishes categories, labels, names, distinctions and so on. And this is the problem with the world. We label someone so that we can separate them from us or make them a part of our team.

When will we understand that the divisions in the world start with the divisions in our minds? We will never know peace until we do.

*(I want to point out that by saying “Why would I leave Christianity and the Church…”, it doesn’t necessarily mean I have.)


13 Replies to “labels are the problem”

  1. Labels are only a problem insofar as we mistake them for what “really is,” or for having some definite relationship to the truth and to God. As others much brighter than I am have said, all speech about God is in some way idolatrous. But as humans we must speak, and through the Word in Christ God spoke, so we continue in our idolatry because we have no other choice—we must speak and as people of faith we must speak about God. Yet we must also recognize that all of our speech, and indeed all of our thoughts, are not and could never actually define God, who is eternally beyond all of that. (Though I think I remember something you’ve said before about God also being eternally present—I’m not so sure I agree completely, but I’m open to further consideration!)

    Also, good call on the “exclusivist dogmatism” of the angry atheist movement. It’s at least as bad as the Christian Right, and perhaps only a step or two above Salem circa 1692.

  2. Our whole world is made up of divisions. Day and night. Hot and cold. Love and hate. Good and evil.

    Sometime we just need to be honest and make a stand. We can’t please everyone, as much as we’d like to.

  3. It’s about seeing through a lens of both/and. It’s possible to hold two seemingly incongruent beliefs or ideas simultaneously. It might not be *comfortable,* but it is possible.

  4. I think “labels” are just a short-hand way of telling people what you believe or what you have concluded, with regard to a particular subject. I am an atheist. That has no bearing on how I drive my motorcycle, cook my food, or mow my lawn. But it gives a pretty good indication of where I stand with regard to religious beliefs. So, when I go for my annual medical checkup my views on religious beliefs (It hurts right here Doc. Is it because I am an atheist?) have never been solicited or volunteered. But when in a situation where religion is being discussed, I have no problem applying the label “atheist” to myself. If anyone wants or needs more clarification beyond that, I am fine offering. I mean, some accuse “atheists” as “…hating God”, or, “…knowing there is no God”, and neither of those accusations fit me. So for some, labeling myself as an atheist will be very negative.

    I think labels can be useful but often may need clarification:
    ENGENIER (what kind of ENGINEER?)
    CHRISTIAN (what kind of Christian?)
    ATHEIST (what kind of atheist?)

    So, I think some of us, like Hemant Mehta, might like a little clarification from David – what do you believe with regard to the God/Jesus/heaven/hell of the Christian bible? Do you believe the bible stories about them are true or myths? Label yourself or not, it makes no difference to me. But if you believe they are true, then in my mind I would have no problem applying the label “Christian” to you, just for convenience sake. But when you say things like, “Did you know you can be a Christian and an atheist at the same time and be at peace? I’m living proof.” some of us would like clarification. Communication becomes very difficult if words or labels in our language have a certain meaning, and you seem to be changing or ignoring their meaning.

    I guess it seems that a good agreeable working definition of “Christian” and “Atheist” is in need. Without that, your July 8th blog post “christian or atheist?” is entirely meaningless – for I have no idea how you define those words.

  5. But, bob, the July 8th post is meaningful for exactly that reason: because it seeks to have people reevaluate the meaning of those labels and provide some further elaboration and invite conversation on the meaning of the terms.

    And that is much more useful than David simply providing a new definition for two reasons: he’s seeking not necessarily to redefine, but to challenge already existing inconsistencies between our use of the words and how people actually function, AND because such terms are given their meaning collectively so redefining it alone would be meaningless because it wouldn’t draw on people’s real experience with their beliefs and views of the labels.

  6. Yes, Steve, take a stand. But not a stand for justice or goodness, right? Because we aren’t going to bother with that anyways, is that it?

    So what are you proposing taking a stand for? Why call a spade a spade if you can’t or won’t try to do anything about anything? And if not that, you’re just using labels to judge and divide.

  7. Tana – That is called cognitive dissonance.

    I’m all for eliminating the false dichotomies and for acknowledging the world is more complicated than we’re comfortable with – and that some things that at first seem incongruent actually aren’t. If the world is a formula, it’s much more than simply “A or B”.

    But there’s a trend going around, one that encourages people to view their cognitive dissonance – that defense mechanism that helps to keep us from being able to live with certain biases and prejudices when they conflict with reality – as a badge of honour, like they are better because they realize that they are feel to reject logic, fact, reason. it isn’t that they are saying the incongruence is real, it’s the incongruence they hold proudly. And once you accept that, there isn’t anything you can’t believe.

  8. If your message is “I don’t want to be labelled” why use labels at all? To call oneself an atheist and a Christian denies what being an atheist is. Atheism is the complete rejection of the idea of deities. I know no version of Christianity that exists without a deity.

    I’m an atheist when it comes to Christianity, but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand the golden rule or other ideas presented by Jesus as a human philosopher, but even if I agreed with Jesus on a number of philosophical issues, in no way would I be a Christian.

    I appreciate the idea of inclusiveness, but I think clarity of thought makes it much easier to engage in meaningful dialog. I understand the technique of holding two ideas in tension, but clear definitions make it much easier to understand each other.

  9. Richard I am a Christian and for what its worth I agree with your post completely. I totally accept that we have many commonalities between us. I also reject the common Christian notion that it is not required for one to be a Christian in order to have a moral compass or be a good person. (I actually believe this Christian notion is rather self defeating.) I even accept that the doubt we may or may not have comes from the same thought processes.

    But the fact remains that Christianity is based upon a belief in a deity…and Atheism is based upon a “complete rejection of the idea of deities”. If you should someday become convinced that God is real and become a person of faith, or I should one day become convinced that there is no God and renounce my faith…it would in no way blend these two opposing points of view.

    I truly don’t understand all this attempting to deny our differences merely to find common ground. We have plenty of common ground. I guess if some want to pretend there is no difference in our beliefs then fine…but I don’t see how such an illusion will help either of us in our journey.

  10. Correction…I also reject the common Christian notion that it IS required for one to be a Christian in order to have a moral compass or be a good person.

  11. I like labels, sometimes. Labeling a bottle poison is nice, for example.

    But I get the point and I agree as well, hard to be labelled when it comes to philosophy and the meaning of life as we see it. I think I am a Christian, but I know I also am not based on normal religious affiliation and the institutional dogma.

    As for what we believe, I like that topic. I like to find out what people believe and why they do…what’s really at the heart of a persons beliefs about life and the world around them. It intrigues me.

  12. I see the ambiguous talk as more of a challenge to people in church, one that would spark some thought about why they believe what they believe rather than an
    attempt to frustrate athiests.

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