The Danger of “-isms”

One of my bigger regrets is publicly declaring myself an atheist.

Not because I’ve made a recent conversion to faith—I’m still confident in my original opinion. Rather, because I believe “-isms” are dangerous, whether it is theism, atheism, vegetarianism, Buddhism or any other philosophy.

When a belief becomes an “-ism” it generally becomes a part of your identity. It’s not simply that I abstain from eating meat; I am a vegetarian. The shift is from merely having a conviction to being a conviction.

Humans are funny creatures when it comes to our identities. Having a belief has little baggage. You will defend the belief when it is reasonable, and abandon it given enough contrary evidence.

Being a belief, or “-ist”, is different. The belief becomes something to defend zealously, the way you would defend a part of your body under attack.

Having Convictions Versus Being Convictions

I’m not suggesting agnosticism towards everything. Your level of certainty in a belief isn’t related to whether it is a part of your identity or not. I have far greater conviction in the force of gravity than atheism or vegetarianism, yet I don’t call myself a gravitist.

The difference, to me, appears to be a more social one. People decide they are an “-ist” as a way of distinguishing themselves from others. Gravitism doesn’t exist because there aren’t agravitists, who deny the existence of gravity.

“Isms” develop as a way to separate people into distinct tribes. The downside is that tribal logic isn’t rational. Instead of trying to decide which belief system is true or most pragmatic, people defend their tribe at all costs.

The damage of “isms” is obvious in politics. Instead of rationally trying to decide on the best way to govern, most effort is spent on partisan battles.

Two Ways of Avoiding “Isms”

To me, there seems to be only two ways to avoid the destructive effects of “isms”, but each has tradeoffs:

  1. Never declare your “isms”, either publicly or to yourself.
  2. Have “isms” but fiercely avoid making them a part of your identity.

The first approach is simply to avoid declaring allegiance to any tribe. The advantage of this approach is that you can have convictions, but they never become an identity-defining “ism”. I know people who, for the most part, don’t eat meat, but refuse to call themselves vegetarians or vegans.

The downside of this approach is that it makes communicating your personality and opinions much more difficult. I reluctantly call myself a “vegetarian” since that makes it easier to communicate to people that I don’t eat meat.

The second approach is to reluctantly accept “isms” but to fiercely avoid letting them define you. The advantage is that it lets you succinctly communicate who you are to the outside world. One word replaces a lengthy philosophical discussion.

The danger of this approach is that it requires a difficult mental stance of both accepting an “ism” for communicative purposes, but avoiding it as part of your identity. Such a distinction is tenuous at best, and it is easy to fall back into the tribe-defending irrationality that “isms” promote.

I’m not sure which approach is right; I tend to use a mix. For my political beliefs, I follow the first approach—I’m far from agnostic on many political issues, but the “ism” irrationality here is simply too great for me to afford the second approach. Yet for vegetarianism and atheism, I’ve reluctantly accepted the labels while internally trying to avoid their grasp on my identity.

Caveat: “Isms” as a Way of Forcing Ideological Commitment

I dislike “isms” because I believe that the proper reason to believe something in almost all cases is because the evidence supports it. Strengthening conviction beyond evidence just doesn’t make sense.

But, a possible benefit of making a belief part of your identity is that it encourages commitment to that belief. While I’m now reluctantly vegetarian (in ideological labeling, not in practice), in the beginning declaring myself a vegetarian left less wiggle room than simply deciding “not to eat meat”.

Perhaps this “ism” benefit means it’s possible to devote yourself zealously to an idea when it hasn’t yet become a habit, and only after taking the first or second option of psychologically distancing yourself from it.

What are your thoughts? Do you actively cultivate or avoid “isms” in your life? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

  • Adam Isom

    I agree so that this post affirmed my thoughts, but at the same time exposed a self-contradiction! Or rather, an uncertainty.
    Mostly by the reasoning you use, I’m careful about what images or labels I let into my life. But at the same time, some smaller part of me thinks that a belief is most useful if it’s strongly held–a “real” belief. Then again, I don’t think I should believe anything, strongly or not, without evidence and wondering how I might be wrong, or if and why I might be wanting to believe something (or not believe it).
    To conclude, I’ll just say good job on making me (and probably other readers) more self-aware!

  • Reegan

    You will find it very hard to not make your belief system part of your identity. This is because “religious thinking is more associated with brain regions that govern emotion, self-representation, and cognitive conflict, while thinking about ordinary facts is more reliant upon memory retrieval networks.”
    The study observed this reaction in both its atheist and theist test subjects.

  • Veron

    To be honest, I had never really considered the effects of fully embracing an “ism”…and how that affects ones identity. I think I’ve instinctively, leaned away from self/publicly identifying w/ any “ism”, mostly in part because these things are just nuanced. Many popularly opposing “isms” often seem too narrow.

    Interestingly enough…I recently watched this video on “Possibilianism” (David Eagleman describes it as a philosophy that simultaneously embraces a scientific toolbox while exploring new, unconsidered uncertainties about the world around us.)

    You might find it interesting! (BTW Great post!)

  • Krishnam

    Hi Scott

    Nice post and interesting topic raised by you, I don’t quiet agree with your logic here. Firstly you develop a conviction only when you strongly agree or believe in the benefits of something, this belief comes based on the evidence and facts discovered by you. So once you strongly believe in something why will you not share it with your near and dear ones, and that is what will make my conviction stronger and also help others get the benefit of something that i have benefited from. I don’t need to tell the world but i can declare it to people who are in my circle of influence.

    I should be willing to relook at facts as and when they change and change my beliefs accordingly but i should not be afraid to believe in something or even declare my belief about something and if that is leading to “ism” so be it.

    I have shared your posts with many of my friends and i spread the word around that i am a big fan of yours because i believe that i have found something good and want to share it with all around me.

    So probably being a firm believer is not wrong but getting to the extreme with that philosophy and shutting yourself from any contrary view about our belief is wrong. That’s my view on this topic.


  • Ken Wert

    Very thought-provoking post, Scott. Here’s my take on “isms:”

    If it is an “ism” around anything but values, a philosophy or ideology, I’m, at best, wary of them. Racism, for example, is race-based, not values-based. Sexism is gender-based, not values-based. Religious or other ideologically oriented groups and identities are fine, as I see things, as long as the conviction is to the set of shared values and not to imposing those values on others.

    Another advantage to “isms” includes a community of like-ism-ed people who support each other in their attempts to be true to the values they share. It also facilitates raising children within a culture of similarly believing people. And finally, the identity itself is values-related. To be passionately connected to a set of core principles can be a powerful source of positive identity. “I belong to this group of like-minded people who love me and who I love” is a powerful statement to be able to make. I think it can add a degree of joy to what so often amounts to an otherwise unteathered life.

    Keep those thought-provokers coming!!!

  • Eric

    Normally I enjoy your writing, but this one doesn’t resonate with me.

    “Being a belief, or ‘-ist’, is different. The belief becomes something to defend zealously, the way you would defend a part of your body under attack.”

    Let’s assume most of us lack a belief in leprechauns. Does defining it and applying it to ourselves make us feel the need to defend it zealously? Personally, if I call myself an “aleprechist”, I can assure you that if someone attacked that belief of mine, I would not feel the need to defend my belief (or lack there of). My lack of belief in a leprechaun is strong (I looked into it years ago, and have yet to find a shred of evidence they exist), and I really don’t care what you say about it unless your attack came with overwhelming, scientifically sound evidence.

    So, it seems to me that it’s not just labeling yourself the “ist” that causes you to defend it zealously (although our need to be consistent certainly doesn’t help if there are other issues to deal with). Have you not fully settled the matter in your head? Do you just believe that you believe (or lack a belief)?

  • Zeth Addington

    I had an incredibly interesting, but insanely frustrating discussion with a friend a few months back about what it takes before we change our minds.

    She is very religious whereas I’m pretty science based in my beliefs (although lately I’ve been seeing that science too comes with huge limitations).

    We discussed what each of us needed to be influenced in our opinions. I told her that if asked to complete flip around one of my beliefs, I’d need to see some heavy scientific evidence (and peer reviewed please!)

    She told me that each person has his own truth and that she would stick with whatever belief that *feels* the most right to her. If anyone were to change her mind, it would be by showing that living under this belief made them better capable to handle life’s challenges.

    …and then we argued like mad for three hours.

  • Maya DuLac

    I really enjoyed this post, as the issue of how we define ourselves into particular groups has been on my mind. Historically humans have always self-defined into the ‘us vs. them’ mentality – it’s hard to get away from!

    This gave me pause, though:

    “I dislike “isms” because I believe that the proper reason to believe something in almost all cases is because the evidence supports it.”

    The problem is that evidence has to be interpreted – and that very interpretation happens through the lens of whatever strongly held beliefs or worldviews a person holds. It is possible to get around that – but very difficult. It does help to be at least aware and cautious of how our own beliefs influence the way we interpret the world, to try and counteract the effect.

  • Wendy Irene

    I think the tendency to label and put things in a box doesn’t make sense, but yet most of us love to do that. I think people are much, much more than any label you put on them. Great post Scott!

  • Scott Young


    That’s true, but perhaps the reason that religious beliefs are associated with identity is because we use isms. The science doesn’t necessarily refute my point.


    That’s true also–but it’s physically possible to be objective. We are trapped in our perspective, so we have to learn to reason the best we can within it.


    The decision is more than just labeling. You don’t just label yourself an “aleprechist” because that distinction isn’t meaningful (you don’t normally encounter people who fervently believe in leprechauns). The reason atheist is such an identity-creating label is because it *does* create a meaningful distinction with other people and that association builds up over time.


    Well ideally you could develop an identity with a particular idea and then divorce yourself from it as soon as contrary evidence forms. My argument is simply that human psychology doesn’t work that way, so special precautions have to be taken.


  • Eugene

    This is by far the best article you’ve written to-date, Scott, and I applaud your quest and obvious acquisition of wisdom.

    Suppose you’re every “-ism” there is, like a combo pizza that has, well, everything?

    Hear me out… suppose you’re atheist AND theist AND every other human quality, each in its own measure, all rolled into one? For example, you figure that God’s absence might indicate his non-existence, but think maybe he’s just sitting back and letting his creative “evolve” into something great (or not). Perhaps you figure that IF-IF-IF there is a God, of course you’ll embrace him, but realize it’s possible all the supernatural occurrences that seem to suggest God really does exist, are strange laws of physics in a nihilistic universe? As you grow older (like me) perhaps you’re even willing to accept the “impossible” on faith simply because everything deemed impossible at one time in history (or “magic” or “alchemy”) is now fact. Whatever.

    You’re so many “-isms” that you simply roll it into a word “human.” Perhaps in a parallel universe you were a dictator worse than Hitler? Perhaps in another, the leader of a religion that carried the world through a dark age? Possibilities make your “-isms” possible, real, or simply unthinkable.

    Don’t forget the “-ics” as in agnostics — a word I use for myself, but now will rethink since “-ics” are a form of “-isms”! Under that rubric falls all the other unmentionable “-ists” such as “racists,” “sexists,” and a whole list of human ugliness that everyone bears to some extent just like annoying pimples, and a few wear like scars or extend like claws.

    I don’t know why I just thought of this off the wall quote but it seems fitting to conclude my comment with, that “my vices have become verses.” Yes, our “-isms” often become “-ices.”

  • Excited State

    People should not believe in an -ism, they should believe in themselves. I quote John Lennon: “I don’t believe in Beatles, I just believe in me.” Good point, there. After all, he was the Walrus. I could be the Walrus, but I’d still have to bum rides off people.

    –Ferris Bueller

  • Scott Young


    Well the suffixes -ist, -ism, -ic, -ian, etc. are all the same morpheme with the same meaning, indicating a belonging to a particular philosophy, or the noun describing the philosophy itself, the distinction is simply how English roots change depending on the word itself–they’re all “isms”.


  • Sam

    I hate to respond to people for Scott (as I’m sure he’d be more polite, as he should be), but I believe you have missed the point of not only this article but isms in general, Eugene.

    The whole point of accepting an ism is that it differentiates you from people who don’t accept it. You can’t be an atheist and a theist at the same time. Claiming to do so only implies that you have no real beliefs (in which case you would be a follower of agnosticism).

    Also (and this point kind of gets away from the purpose of this article), not everything declared impossible in history has been proven to be possible. For example: a normal human (without external assistance or augmentation) cannot drink the entire contents of the ocean in one gulp.

  • Tassia

    Excellent post, Scott.

    I, myself, have just been considering how much we all belittle complexity with our choice of ‘binary’ words and labels. As you say, we tend to call ourselves this OR that, not a little of both with a soupçon of still something else.

    Neither the world, nor the people in it, are either/or, yet far too often we try harder to ignore the vast gray between the endpoles of black and white than we do to understand – and accept – all the variations that abound.

    You’re spot on regarding the words we use, too, and as you point out, we unknowingly give them the power to define us. This post is a good start in how we can begin to move away from the restrictions of these -isms (and variants, as other commenters have mentioned) that we unwittingly impose on ourselves.

    I hope you plan a few more posts developing more on this subject. It’s a vital idea, imo, that we must embrace to grow.

    Words really do have power.

  • Diego

    After reading this, I was more than convinced that the words we use literally affect our approach to anything in our environment. After looking at the definitions of “belief” and “knowledge” in the OED, and keeping in mind that definitions are simply commonly accepted meanings, I conclude that belief is a kind of unsupported hypothesis and knowledge an empirical view. As you say, all the isms and ics seem to be just a convenient way to describe a posture.

  • Anarcoplayba

    I have my isms, I don’t hide them, but I just avoid to show the upo to someone who may not be interested in then. Is just like showing my stamp collection to a blind man.

  • Wall Street Hopeful

    What happened to your studying post on Cal’s blog? The one you used for the finance exam? I am in the same boat (studying for a finance final), and it would be very applicable.

    Many thanks.

  • Jonathan

    Excellent train of thought. I too try to avoid “isms” because they generally promote analytical “pacifism”. The riches of originality should far exceed the comfort of generalities. Yet it is true that the human mind often needs an “ism” to latch onto to bring comfort and fortify change. It’s interesting to note many held beliefs which are false actually improve the lives of the believers. Perception isn’t reality but it can change behavior which does in fact change reality. That’s I suppose the catch of the “ism”: the new identity leads to new behavior which leads to new outcomes which are then attributed to validity of the identity. I am pleased we live an epoch in which crude generalizations, and “magical” thinking can be shown for what they are. Thanks for the post – Jonathan

  • Daniel Brett

    An American must be a leftist or a conservative, an evolutionist or a creationist, a theist or an atheist, an alarmist or a skeptic.

  • ChristianKl

    If you see the Buddha, kill the Buddha.

  • Eric


    “You don’t just label yourself an ‘aleprechist’ because that distinction isn’t meaningful (you don’t normally encounter people who fervently believe in leprechauns).”

    But that’s not the point. My point is that there is nothing inherent in an “ist” or “ism” to make people act the way they do. I can come up with isms that aren’t dangerous, as I demonstrated with aleprechist. There is something deeper going on.

    My best guess is that people associate with the group, and tend to lose their ability to think critically about related subjects. They accept what they’re told. When you fail to think about an issue, and rather just assume a position because you belong to a group, you’ve just created a very vulnerable belief. If you don’t understand why you believe something, you only believe you believe it because you’re part of a group that believes it.

    If your whole worldview is dominated by these poorly constructed beliefs, of course you’re going to get defensive of the “ism”. It’s the only thing that protects your worldview! We’d have the change the way we live, in some cases, drastically if that worldview were to change.

    Perhaps I’m an exception and I’m just projecting my (learned) ability to resist defensiveness on everyone else who has truly learned a subject. For instance, I’m an atheist too. I’ve been struggling with spirituality all my life. I was more defensive in my youth while I was still working everything through. But now I’ve spent enormous amounts of time studying various religions, and feel like I understand a huge number of religious and non-religious positions. Consequently, I really don’t feel defensive about atheism at all. To me, I feel no need to defend my lack of beliefs in a god than I do to defend my lack of beliefs in leprechauns.

  • Scott Young


    The “ism” idea is simply a metaphor for the process by which a belief becomes part of our identity. Of course, if you’re able to call yourself an atheist, but not have that be a core part of your identity, then you’ve successfully exercised the second option I listed in the article, and I’m not sure the “ism” pitfall applies.

    My point is more broadly that when you feel a belief is part of who you are, it takes a lot more evidence to reassess your original opinion.

    If you were an ‘aleprechist’, but that belief held no rooting in your identity, then it doesn’t matter (as per alternative 2). However, *if* you were a fervent aleprechist, and that belief was part of how you held your identity both to yourself and others, then you would need a lot of evidence to sway your opinion in the existence of leprechauns.

    So to respond to your debate, I’m not sure whether you’re critiquing my idea because you personally disavow the connection between “isms” and identity-rooted beliefs, or because you believe that changing your mind is just as easily done with an identity-rooted belief as it is with a normal one.

    If it’s the first case, I’d agree with you. “Isms” are only sometimes dangerous, as they are only sometimes associated with an identity-rooted belief. If it’s the second case, I’d have to say we simply disagree. Identity-rooted beliefs are irrationally fixed, and require far more evidence to change than normal convictions.

    As for “defending” a belief, I’m not interested in trying to sway other people. What I mean by “danger” is the inability to sway yourself. Whether I’m complacent or defensive about my atheism to others isn’t a concern for me, what matters more is my own internal ability to update my convictions in the face of new evidence.

    Take vegetarianism, for example. I rarely try to argue vegetarianism to anyone. But whether I was a militant vegan or completely nonchalant veggie is beside the point. What matters more to me is whether I’m able to update my beliefs as I get new information about the philosophy of vegetarianism–being able to see flaws in my own reasoning and evidence. This article is about that danger, fuzzy thinking, not inter-personal conflict.

    Wall Street Hopeful,

    The link is here:


  • Julia

    The biggest pitfalls of -isms is allowing them to rule your identity. It’s very easy to allow an -ism to take over your identity until the -ism is all that’s left. This probably gives the fanatic us vs. them mentality you sometimes encounter. I could give myself several -isms, after all, I’m bisexual, pagan, a Tolkien fan and a whole bunch of other things. None of these rule my life however; they are all a part of my identity but at the core I’m just ME. I’m bi because I was born that way but I honestly couldn’t care less and it’s not something I really pay attention to. I’m pagan because that’s a religion I’m comfortable with, partly because it’s not exactly organized so I can worship my deities in a way that feels right to me.

    Those things, among others, are all a part of who I am but they are all tailored to who I am at the core. I will not allow them to define my complete personality. I’m even less inclined to do so when someone else thinks I should because that is the way most people in that ‘group ‘are. And even my core is not identifiable; it’s sort of like three different people(no, I don’t have a personality disorder LOL). All of them are part of me but none is the complete me, sometimes this side is being dominant, at other times it’s another. Basically, I’m just myself, with all my sides and quirks and I don’t allow other peoples opinions about my sides define me.

    But I also don’t get all defensive when people attack a group I’m “associated” with (perhaps that is the best term for how I see my -isms). I have a “OK, that’s your opinion. You’re entitled to it (even if they’re rude), have a nice day”. It may make me a little uncertain about a certain side and even help me figure out what one of my “-isms” specifically is to me but it’s not as though my whole world has just come crashing down on me. By being my whole self I’m not very vulnerable because there will always be more to me than just that one trait. It also effectively wipes out the whole us vs. them, which is a positive effect in my opinion.

    Maybe this is just because I was bullied as a child for being different which gave me a very strong sense of self and led to a lot of self-exploration. If that’s true, I’m kind of glad I was.

  • Eric


    Thanks for helping realign me here. I just reread the article and I missed a few of the more particulars that you described in your reply.

    That said, I’m still not sure I agree. What part of defining yourself as a vegetarian makes it more difficult to assess your beliefs when new facts are presented? Again, I’m not sure that it’s defining or “tribalizing” yourself.

    When you say “Have ‘isms’ but fiercely avoid making them a part of your identity,” you may be saying the same thing I’m saying, just in a different way that I’m not comfortable with. When you say making it a part of your identity, do you mean something like beginning to accept other beliefs as your own merely because you now belong to the group?

    If you fully understood and defined the belief set that made you a vegetarian, would you no longer need to worry about “making it a part of your identity”? If individual evidence were to appear contradicting portions of “your identity”, you’d know exactly what beliefs you’d need to change to align your views with the facts. If you didn’t have that broad understanding, doesn’t it make sense that you’d feel your entire worldview is being challenged?

  • Scott Young


    As an example from my own experience–if I had read a book that argued against the health benefits of vegetarianism, I would have been much more receptive to consider those ideas on their face had I not been a vegetarian, than now.

    Again being tolerant of others’ beliefs isn’t what worries me. It’s the relative rigidity to your own convictions, and the inability to update them in the face of evidence.


  • Eric


    “…if I had read a book that argued against the health benefits of vegetarianism, I would have been much more receptive to consider those ideas on their face had I not been a vegetarian, than now.”

    But the question is: why? There’s nothing about the act of calling oneself a vegetarian that diminishes your receptivity to those ideas. It’s silly to think that it does. However, calling yourself a vegetarian must trigger some underlying cognitive bias which does diminish your receptivity.

    It may be the case that labeling yourself is the only trigger which results in that cognitive bias, but it’s certainly possible that there are other things we do which can trigger that bias as well, so it’s useful to understand the root cause, and not just high level things we can do to avoid it.

  • Scott Young


    The “why” to that question is, in my opinion, because the opinion gets tangled up with identity, hence the entire point of my post. The “root cause” as you call it is this identity-entanglement, with “isms” serving as a convenient starting point for the discussion.


  • Eric


    Newton’s law of universal gravitation is a decent metaphor for this situation. Newtons law is incredibly useful, and predicts many useful piece of information. Unfortunately, it’s not quite right. It is, however, still taught to engineering and physics majors to this day because it is mostly correct and useful in day to day applications.

    With any theory, it should be able to apply under any circumstance. You shouldn’t need to explain “well, it’s useful except under conditions X, Y, and Z”.

    I think why this post was so unsatisfying was because it’s so easy to come up with examples of where it doesn’t hold, which then needs to be explained away with explanations like “People decide they are an ‘-ist’ as a way of distinguishing themselves from others. Gravitism doesn’t exist because there aren’t agravitists, who deny the existence of gravity.” Your concept is only useful when there’s some antagonist or someone hasn’t fiercely avoided letting it define themselves. It seems like we’re missing the distilled meaning. It may be practical, but it doesn’t convey a true understanding of the problem.

    Similarly, the explanation of identity entanglement seems borderline tautological. When does a label become entangled with your identity? Is that when you’ve decided you’re an “-ist”?

    It just feels incomplete to me, but I haven’t really tried to put the pieces together or study the science.

  • Jeroen Hendrickx

    What I find annoying about -isms is not that they define you, but that people will ask you to defend your labels.

    My answer to “Why are you vegetarian?” has become a “Oh, well, many reasons,” accompanied by a these-are-not-the-droids-you’re-looking-for gesture.

    The question is great when it’s genuine, because you have to re-evaluate your ideas, but often this type of question seems to put you on the defensive.

    The problem with being on the defensive is that you start rationalizing and (as a consequence) oversimplifying things. If you retell the simplified story often enough, you start believing it yourself. That’s when you become your -ism.

    My point is: keep your opinions fuzzy and complicated. Which, I guess, is pretty much what Scott is saying.

  • Scott Young


    Fair enough. My goal in writing is to encourage thinking and discussion, not to convince everyone.


  • Genius Pioneer

    Hi Scott,

    Thought-provoking article as always. I couldn’t read all the comments. Here is my opinion:

    A true believer should be a mirror, not a cover. If you don’t have the ability to pose and play the role of that faith, then don’t label yourself as being in their tribe.

    For example: If you are a Muslim, when needed you can label yourself. But if you are not a ‘good’ Muslim, then fear to be label as a Muslim. Why? Because this time you are a cover against Islam, not a mirror showing Islam. You see many examples around the world. Fake Muslims play real Muslim roles and real Muslims and Islam is being harmed because of those black cover fake guys.

    You can apply the example to other faiths as well.

    The point I can put differently about the article is this: Fear about labels will put a distance between you and your faith. For example, if I fear from being known as a Muslim, I will not be able to live Islam everywhere and anytime. This is a problem with many believers and many labels.

    The right thing is living a good life, promoting your belief -behaviorally and verbally- in a gentle way and waiting for the other world to see the success rate of your faith.

    (And not to worry about labels too much.)

    Thanks again Scott, I wish you endless success.

  • Paul

    I think it’s ok to admit to yourself and to others that you’re an “-ist” and/or believe in an “-ism” as long as you’re willing to admit to yourself and to others that you just don’t know for sure and may not be right.

    Most of the heat in religious/philosophical arguments is fueled by the fear of being wrong.

    Admit that you’re not 100% sure that you have every thing right and you take away the fear; you take away the fear and you take away the fuel for the fire; you take away the fire and you end up with people with different beliefs that can actually get along

  • Scott Young


    I’m not sure I agree agnosticism is the correct answer. Of course there is uncertainty in life, but disavowing informed convictions in the name of tolerance seems just as cowardly to me as the closed-minded irrationality I’m trying to avoid.

    For me, separating your identity from convictions allows you to hold strong beliefs, but creates more room for finding disconfirming evidence.


  • RJ

    I generally do try to follow this concept, it’s similar to what I have often said – “Politics is the anti-science.” Because of all the things mentioned here, about things becoming about your “tribe” and defending it, your loyalty to it, etc., as opposed to rational thought and going on evidence. Paradoxically, this has caused me more and more to become identified with people who think very similarly — people who are resistent to ideological “-ism” identities; scientists and anyone else who generally is skeptical when it comes to evidence and information; those who are highly individualist, etc. Of course, these last two in themselves have become -ism”s–skepticism and individualism. Same thing with rationalism! Is it even possible to avoid “in-group” ideology completely? Well..
    >>You will find it very hard to not make your belief system part of your identity. This is because “religious thinking is more associated with brain regions that govern emotion, self-representation, and cognitive conflict, while thinking about ordinary facts is more reliant upon memory retrieval networks.”< <
    Perhaps it comes down to maintaining sufficient control over emotion? It seems that when that happens, is when it becomes irrational, takes over your identity; almost as though without that, you&#039d be empty, lacking in self-identity, so your only option becomes to never consider change in belief to be an option..What kinds of ideologies would you associate with the term “zealous” or “zealot”? Likely the ones characterized by passionate irrational dogma…the beliefs most prone to falling into the one-way hole to the irrational mind, are probably the strongest ones, and/or most emotionally-convicted (and don&#039t those usually go together?)
    I doubt I will ever be swayed to believe that it&#039s better to look at society as a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Does that mean it&#039s irrational, or just that there are different ways of viewing things? It&#039s hard to say without knowing if there is only one right way of doing something — which by definition means any other way is wrong — or whether there is more than one “right” way to achieve the same end…
    but then again this becomes a moral issue, because what exactly is “right” and what is “wrong” (for instance, is redistribution of wealth via an income tax moral? Or is it theft? Keynesianism, Marxism, socialism, capitalism, communism….helluva lot of “-ism”s come into play just if one were to begin attempting to answer that one question!)

  • Evan Sendra

    I think this post is really insightful Scott, and it agrees with something I’ve thought about but never organized into words or argument as you have.

    I’ve seen the main problem in almost any debatable topic is that tying to a certain side of the debate (to a “tribe”) causes him not to consider new evidence any longer. Declaring oneself an “-ist” almost certainly guarantees that one will stay an “-ist” as long as he ties to the definition.

  • Jeffy B

    I say follow whatever ism helps you sleep at night, but once you’re out of your house and on the streets, don’t try promoting it, don’t kill or blow yourself up in the name of it, don’t try forcing it on others, don’t indoctrinate easy to manipulate youth who are “lost” and looking for a group to follow. Shut the fuck up!….If any One ism was the right one, we’d all be following the same path if it was so fucking awesome. It’s hard enough to live these days without religious fundamentalists, Neo nazis, anti fascists, Vegans, Freegans invading the streets with signs and protests or the internet with blogs and videos preaching to us about how their view is best. I have no clue how to solve the worlds problems, but I admit to my ignorance instead of promoting it.

  • Tom

    I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve always thought this, and hadn’t realised anyone else thought it also. Nice to see.

  • Tom

    I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve always thought this, and hadn’t realised anyone else thought it also. Nice to see.

  • Ken

    Thanks. Interesting post. Reminds me a great deal of Frederick Buechner’s ideas in Whistling in the Dark.

  • Ken

    Thanks. Interesting post. Reminds me a great deal of Frederick Buechner’s ideas in Whistling in the Dark.