Photo by Sanwal Deen
I grew up Catholic. Very Catholic. I thought Jesus was brilliant, and I was suitably terrified of the Devil.
I attended Catholic schools until the age of 12 and spent the better part of my childhood in Malta, a country so Catholic that, at the time, it was one of only three countries in the world that didn’t allow couples to divorce (the other two being the Philippines and Vatican City). Not being Catholic wasn’t really an option.
Fortunately, in the years following my enrolment in a non-religious state secondary school, I saw the light. Which, in my case, involved losing my belief. I also saw the moral and rational confusion in Catholicism and religion generally, and how personally stifling it had all been up to that point. All of this led to my starting to call myself an atheist. Not just as a technical designation as someone who didn’t believe in any god. But also to signal my affinity with the active atheist community who believe that religion has nothing good to offer.
Half a lifetime later and I still believe that religion is, on balance, a bad thing. I remain convinced that the world would be a better place if we could only get past religious tribalism and get over religious bullshit. But I’ve also realised that there are a lot of good things in religion and that we need to be careful not to throw the proverbial baby out with the baptismal font-water. Specifically, for reasons I’d need another essay to go into, I believe that there’s enormous value in the rituals, contemplative practices and sense of community that are usually found most neatly packaged in the world’s religions. Without the theological elements, these things are probably best encapsulated by the word “spirituality”.
Still, to most of us, spirituality and religion seem almost interchangeable. So, it’s hardly surprising that finding a card-carrying atheist who sees any value in spirituality is pretty tough. Since I used to think of myself as such an atheist, was I slower to recognise the benefits of spirituality than I would have been otherwise? Almost certainly, and to my detriment.
I discovered meditation at the tail-end of my 20s, and I honestly believe that it’s the most important thing I’ve ever learned. And yet, for the best part of a decade, I dismissed it as nonsense to be avoided like the plague. I didn’t have any detailed argument against this specific form of spirituality; but then, I didn’t need one. Meditation, like religion, is a spiritual endeavour. And, as an atheist, I believed that spirituality is bullshit. Not that I ever even gave it much thought. It would take hearing someone who believed everything I believed about religion, and whose thinking I had enormous respect for, advocate for spirituality generally and meditation specifically for me to eventually pay attention.
But when I did, it wasn’t long before I started to wish that I’d discovered meditation much, much sooner. I also understood that my identification as an atheist had played a significant part in creating the blind spot that had hidden the value of spirituality from me for so long. And I started to wonder—was there some deeper lesson to be learned from all this?
The fastest way to tell someone what we believe isn’t to tell them what we believe. It’s to tell them what we are. Labels such as atheist, liberal, conservative, feminist, pro-life, Christian or Brexiteer allow us to dump a range of beliefs and opinions into the brain of whoever we’re talking to with a single word. That’s pretty efficient. And it’s comforting to be able to easily identify other people who probably think much as we do. People who are on our “team”. But if the price of that efficiency and comfort was the kind of dulled thinking that made me so slow to discover meditation, was it really worth it?
In 1962, John F. Kennedy said:
“Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”
I think this nicely sums up what so can easily happen when we adopt labels, which come bundled with the opinions of those who create and define them. Humans are a tribal folk. So when we join a tribe by adopting a label, we have a tendency to align our beliefs with others in our tribe without necessarily being aware of it or having any other reason grounded in evidence or argument to do so. This tendency is then reinforced as people make assumptions about what we believe on the basis of those labels. So, the more I thought about it, the more I noticed that identifying with my labels made me less open to new ideas. At least, to ideas that didn’t align with what I, given these identities, ought to think. I was resistant to good evidence and arguments where I wanted to be responsive to them. I was too slow to admit when I was wrong, even to myself. And the slower you are to admit when you’re wrong, the less time you spend being right.
So, after my belated collision with spirituality, I decided to let the labels go and see what happened. No longer would I call myself a liberal, feminist, atheist, LGBTQ ally, humanist or anything else. And, as you might expect, interesting things started to happen.
Not that my views suddenly started to topple like intellectual dominos. The labels I’d chosen were far from arbitrary. But nobody is a perfect fit for any predetermined box. And while it’s always possible to reach out from your box, you’ll always be pushing against its walls. So, in discarding my box entirely, every idea suddenly felt more available to me. I still had my biases, of course. But they were, in a big way, mitigated. I was less tempted, consciously or otherwise, to stake out a position on a topic that I hadn’t thought enough about. And I was more open to arguments from anyone, not just those who were part of a tribe I no longer identified with.
As time went on, I noticed that although my views would still tend to align with my former fellow label-holders, divergence was much more common. I also started to see how often disagreements between people who shared a label would descend into accusations, from both sides, of the other not being a “true” liberal/conservative/feminist/Jeremy Corbyn fan/vegan/whatever. Which just seemed silly. Because surely what matters isn’t being a “true” anything. Surely what matters is the truth.
Perhaps the most significant change came in the way I connected with others. When we talk to someone who uses a label that contrasts with one of our own, we start from a position of disagreement before we’ve even discussed a single idea. We are members of different tribes, trying to bridge a divide we built ourselves. But without labels, I could engage directly with the other person’s ideas without assuming what they were or why they believed them. This allowed for agreements that would previously have gone undiscovered, and for disagreements that would previously have gone undiscussed. And if a disagreement is discussed, it can be understood. In a world where people who disagree so often demonise each other, more understanding of where others are coming from is, I think, a pretty big deal.
Labels are reassuring and, in their own way, useful. But, even if we want to cling to them, it’s worth remembering that they have a downside. In trying to strike a balance between comfort and efficiency on the one hand and open-mindedness and understanding on the other, it’s worth thinking about the role that labels play in our identities, in how we engage with ideas and how we talk to other people. We might even decide that they’re more trouble than they’re worth.
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