A Little More on Identity and Religion.

The German born, American psychologist, Erick Erickson probably was the first to popularise the concept of personal identity and its role in the psychological development of human beings. He posited that the acquisition of a sense of personal identity was generally a feature of the adolescent years (those aged roughly between 13 and 19 years) and was a necessary step leading to psychological competence. At this stage the young person is seeking answers to the questions, “Who am I?” and “What can I be?” At this period of their life the individual becomes unduly concerned with what others may think of him/her. Consequently the peer group becomes hugely influential. It can be a period of identity confusion where the individual tries out different roles in attempt to find those that are comfortable for them.

The Canadian developmental psychologist, James Marcia, expanded on Erikson’s work and created Identity Status Theory. Marcia proposed that there were four states of identity development (he called them identity statuses). He was keen to emphasise that these were not “stages” and did not want to imply that they necessarily occurred sequentially. The Identity Statuses he nominated were:

  • Identity Diffusion – the status in which the adolescent does not have a sense of having choices; he or she has not yet made (nor is attempting to make) a commitment.
  • Identity Foreclosure – the status in which the adolescent seems willing to commit to some relevant roles, values or goals for the future. Adolescents in this stage have not experienced an identity crisis. They tend to conform to the expectations of others regarding their future (eg allowing a parent to determine a career direction). As such these individuals have not explored a range of options.
  • Identity Moratorium – the status in which the adolescent is currently in a crisis, exploring various commitments and is ready to make choices, but has not made a commitment to those choices yet.
  • Identity Achievement – the status in which the adolescent has gone through an identity crisis and has made a commitment to a sense of identity (ie certain role or value) that he or she has chosen.

These “statuses” effectively highlight two characteristics:

  1. The depth of exploration of the individual into a set of values, and
  2. The depth of commitment to those values.

Accordingly the four statuses may be characterised as follows:

  • Identity Diffusion – little exploration, low commitment
  • Identity Foreclosure – little exploration, high commitment
  • Identity Moratorium – high exploration, little commitment
  • Identity Achievement – high exploration, high commitment

Ali A. Rizvi grew up in Libya, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan before moving to Canada. Rizvi is an author, a trained physician and oncologic pathologist (as well as being an accomplished musician). Rizvi is the author of a very thought provoking book, The Atheist Muslim. In this book outlining his own journey from Islam to atheism, Rizvi uses Marcia’s theory to help explain how Muslims are enculturated into their beliefs, and tries to address the issue of why few such people resort to the extremes of fundamentalist Islam.

Rizvi argues that most religious believers fall into Marcia’s Identity Foreclosure status. This is true whether they be Christian or Jew, Hindu or Muslim. As such they have largely adopted the religion of those around them without question.

Rizvi himself relates how he was comfortably embedded in the Muslim culture. This identification helps build the sense of self and creates strong ties with other such believers. It is hard to underestimate the influence on our social needs on our belief systems. Our strong desire to belong drives us to align ourselves with others around us without much consideration as to what we are signing up for.

(Journalist, Paul Maley, who has extensively investigated Australian terrorist, Neil Prakash writes of his transition to Islam: “What we found was a paint sniffing, wannabe rap star, who drifted into extremist Islam in a pathetic attempt at belonging.”)

Consequently, using Marcia’s terminology most of us gravitate to our religious beliefs without a lot of thought about what we are committing to and with little knowledge of the alternatives and thus fall into the category of Identity Foreclosure. Most in this state are committed to a certain belief system without necessarily being personally aligned with it. They have not come to this state as a matter of choice but largely as a matter of circumstances dictated by the culture of their parents and significant others in the early part of their lives. Such people derive such comfort from the identity that they have thus acquired that they are often unwilling to look at alternatives. Islam makes such exploration dangerous by charging those who question their Islamic beliefs with apostasy which in many Muslim communities brings with it a death sentence.

Many Christians who also have come by their religious beliefs through Identity Foreclosure are not threatened with death to ensure their ongoing belief but are threatened with the prospect of not gaining access to an afterlife if they choose to leave the fold.

In the culture of fear in which such beliefs are protected, it takes considerable courage to challenge the conventional wisdom.

Rizvi explained how he was born into a family where both parents were professionals and practiced a form of Islam that was tolerant and enlightened.

In the communities of his youth, the Koran was typically written in Arabic and neither his parents nor other family members were fluent in the language. His parents assumed that they were largely living their lives according to the Koran’s dictates as the revealed Word of Allah brought to the believers by his messenger Muhammad. Not being able to directly access the source, they were reliant on the teaching of the various Imams and the commonly held opinions of the general Muslim populace.

(It is tempting to draw a parallel here with the pre-Reformation Christian Church. In such times all Christian teachings were in Latin which vested enormous powers in the priests because the general population was ignorant of Latin. This of course was a major driver of the Reformation. The translation of Christian teachings into other languages was instrumental in the democratisation of the Christian religion.)

When some of the Islamic atrocities were brought to the attention of Rizvi’s parents they confidently asserted that such people were not acting in accordance with Islam. But Rizvi’s curiosity was piqued and he convinced his parents to buy for him an English translation of the Koran to test the thesis for himself. Needless to say that he was appalled to learn a literal interpretation of the Koran provided considerable defence for the violent actions of the extremists.

Rizvi makes a nice distinction between those who have merely adopted the Muslim culture and those who literally believe in the Koran as the Word of God. He explains how he and his family and many more in his community derived solace from participating in the feasts and other religious events that were part of traditional Muslim society.

It is hard not to believe that many Christians and Jews feel the same way. The sense of community and the satisfaction of being part of a long tradition, attract many of them to continue their participation long after devout belief has waned.

Rivki also highlights the way many Muslims “cherry pick” their beliefs. I have outlined in other essays how moderate Muslims tend to emphasise those verses laid down by the Prophet whilst he was in Mecca whereas the militant extremist tend to highlight those from his Medina period which are far less tolerant and more bellicose.

Of course Christians are also prone to cherry pick. Many young Catholics (wisely from my point of view) eschew the Church’s teaching on contraception.

[I have heard Catholics argue that their religion is superior to Islam because they have only one arbiter on scripture, the Pope, whereas Muslims have no single voice of authority which facilitates multiple interpretations. And indeed this is true, (notwithstanding the various other Christian denominations and their unique interpretations), but one would have to admit in a religion inevitably impacted by growing secularism even the Pope’s authority is increasingly questioned.]

A recent article by Sami Shah, a Pakastani born comedian who emigrated to Australia told also of his struggle with Islam. In the end he disavowed Islam and sought refugee status in Australia largely to protect his wife, and especially his daughter from the misogyny of Islam.

Adopting the position of Identity Foreclosure with respect to religious belief has obvious benefits in that it provides a convenient sense of identity and gives the believer the additional comfort of being accepted into a welcoming culture. No doubt this is why the majority of those with religious beliefs come to their beliefs in that way. Unfortunately, however, this requires an unquestioning acceptance of that belief set with little or no knowledge of the alternatives.

Now, as I have stated many times before, it is hugely important for human beings to meet their spiritual needs. Although fewer of us than ever are turning to conventional religion to meet these needs, there is still a sizable number that do. That those who do rely on religious beliefs, adopt those beliefs in such an arbitrary way, whilst understandable, is still concerning.

The world would be a better place, I think, if we made more adult choices in such a significant matter.

Would we allow such curtailment of choices apply in other areas of our lives – I think not!

Let us take a trivial example.

Suppose I need to buy a car.

My parents have a Ford and have always driven Fords. Would that have a bearing on my decision? No doubt I would give that some consideration. And those in my neighbourhood largely favour Fords as well. Perhaps I am beginning to give more favour to the idea of buying a Ford. What’s more all my closest friends drive Fords. Surely Fords must be desirable? I go to the dealership and ask for some brochures, only to find the brochures are written in Chinese. But then the Ford dealership informs me that I live in a designated Ford area and unless I buy a Ford they will come and burn my house down. I am now becoming fearful of exploring other options. It would hardly seem to be the most effective way to select a motor vehicle that best meets my needs. And yet that is the way most of us select our religion!

Moreover, our decision is often made on hearsay and spurious information about the religion without any real knowledge of the basic doctrines that the religion espouses.

And even if we know something about the religion we are willing to put aside our critical faculties and accept such unreasonable propositions that Christ emerged from a virgin birth, Muhammad flew from Mecca to Jerusalem on the heavenly steed Buraq in a single night, Moses parted the waters of the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to escape from Egypt, the world is less than ten thousand years old, and so on.

(Is it then surprising that some believe that the moon landing was faked, the destruction of the Twin Towers was orchestrated by the US Government, and that Elvis is still alive and living in a suburb nearby?)

I know it is a hopeless plea, but I wish that religious believers would come to their beliefs in line with Marcia’s Identity Achievement scenario, where they have explored the alternatives and made a conscious decision based on adequate knowledge of those alternatives. Although I suspect that if people went to the trouble of trying to understand the world’s religions they might find it difficult to subscribe exclusively to any one of them!

2 Replies to “A Little More on Identity and Religion.”

  1. Ted. Interesting that an analysis of the ABS statistics from last years census were released today. One obvious change is the number of people indicating “no religion’ has increased dramatically over the past decade or two. Apparently separate (non ABS) research claims we like to be ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘organised religion’. Hang in there ….. there is hope 🙂

    1. Thanks for sharing that Mark. I am the eternal optimist and would be the last to complain there is no hope!

Comments are closed.