- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

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 [1]. 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 [2]!