Accidental Identities

There is no such thing as a christian child; only a child of christian parents – Richard Dawkins.

A fascinating thought, isn’t it?

It makes us rethink our notions of identities, especially religious identities and traveling further on the same train of thought, national and social identities. Why are these identities which, clearly and entirely, are of artificial origins, so important to us? Why do we go to great lengths to protect, promote, and respect these identities? Why do we treat them as some fait accompli?

Our birth is an accident – a biological one, and so are our religious and national identities. Hence, the title of this post – ‘Accidental Identities’. People have no choice whatsoever in selecting them. Still, these identities have the power to change the political, social, and economic landscapes of our lives. They can create a sense of alienation between otherwise perfectly rational groups of people. Irrational zealots can even go to war in order to protect their religious beliefs and national pride. A case in point – the perpetual Indo-Pak dispute: a perfect mix of religious fundamentalism and radical nationalism (of course, caused by Pakistani elements – says the ‘Indian’ in me).

The ferocity with which people defend their acquired-by-chance religion and nationality is intriguing, to say the least. We have made them a natural part of our identity, not unlike our gender. People use words like ‘faithful’ and ‘patriot’ as positive adjectives and as compliments, although both evidently indicate towards the irrationality in human behavior.

As I see it, it’s preposterous to literally believe in centuries-old religious texts without any evidence supporting them. It is highly unreasonable to hate complete strangers just because they belong to a different country. And there is nothing more ludicrous than two countries going to war over a piece of barren land in the name of ‘national pride’. Irrationality reigns over all such cases.

Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.

Don’t get me wrong. My argument is not against being religious or patriotic. I know that there are valid reasons that these identities exist. Religion and social groups have some genuine psychological origins. Nations and states exist for practical geographic, administrative and economic reasons. Moreover, patriotism, no doubt, is a great motivator in all competitive fields – be it science, arts, economics or even sports. Likewise, religion often appeals to the morality of people thereby making them an agent of positive social change.

But, as they say – every rose has its thorns and one should avoid the thorns while plucking the rose. So, while we focus on the positives of these (artificial) beliefs, why not remove the thorns of fundamentalism and extremism? Afterall, we are the ones cultivating these imaginary roses. We can pick and choose only the roses and leave the thorns. Buddhism and Jainism are few cases where this has already been achieved to a certain extent. The more extremist and fundamentalist you get as a Buddhist or a Jain, the more non-violent you become.

Interestingly, and sadly, the loyalty and aggression, similar to what we have towards our religion and nation, vanishes when it comes to identities which we choose ourselves, somewhat rationally. Our identities as scientists, engineers, doctors, bankers, and economists, among several others, are chosen by us through a sequence of informed decisions. We earn them by acquiring required knowledge and have every right to promote ideas concerning our field of expertise. For me, these are the ideas one should fight over. These are the opinions one should defend. These are the identities that we should flaunt more often in our public life. But Seldom will you see a person defending his identity as a physicist, a cosmologist or an economist. We don’t have any emotional connect with this part of our identity.

Surely, there are closed-door meetings and conferences where ideas are discussed and debated. But, a subliminal sense of connection between individuals, as in the case of religion or nation, is missing in all such cases. You won’t find a group of nuclear scientists passionately, and publicly, debating a group of environmentalists over the issue of nuclear waste disposal.

And so, all such debates, which are much more important than say a ‘Ram-Mandir issue’, are sidelined to give disproportionate space for irrational issues in politics and thereby in the process of policy making. Our fixation with labeling ourselves as Hindus or Muslims, and our pride as Indians  – has made us vulnerable to exploitation by politicians. Our benchmarks for a person to be a good public representative have gotten all muddled up. The result is the pathetic quality of public representatives – in terms of education, merit, and criminal record – in parliament and state assemblies.

I sincerely hope that one day our consciousness will be raised towards using the pragmatically chosen fields of knowledge as a part of our social identity. Redirecting our mental and physical faculties towards these ideas, instead of wasting them on disputes over ambiguous religious claims and pseudo-nationalist pride, would be a welcome change. Wouldn’t it? I hope that one day people will stop taking their religious and national identities so seriously. I hope one day these accidental identities will become incidental to us.


PS: I know that this was a very self-righteous rant. Apologies for that 🙂