In a recent discussion with some devout Mormon family members, I framed the Noah and the Ark myth as just that, a myth. Immediately they took offense and claimed I was attacking them. I proceeded to explain that I do think it is perfectly reasonable – actually, more than that, obligatory – to educate people and disabuse them of patently false beliefs. In response, they called me intolerant, disrespectful, strident, and fundamentalist in my thinking and went so far as to suggest that I want to rid the world of anyone who disagrees with me. They insisted that it is an issue of respect that I not denigrate their beliefs. They also suggested that, by calling their beliefs false, I was insinuating that they were stupid. I disagree.
To clarify what I mean, let me illustrate. I, and many others, have heard the Muslim belief that martyrs will receive 72 virgins when they die and go to paradise. For a long time I believed that to be specifically stated in the Quran, but it is not. The idea of pure beings – insinuated to be women, but may not be – is in the Quran. They are called “Houri” and are kind of like angels. The Quran specifically states that they have “pure” characteristics, but it does not specify that the purity is tied to their virginity. It also does not specifically state that martyrs will be given 72 Houri as companions in paradise, though it is insinuated that Houri will be the companions of those who go to heaven and there are a number of Hadith (commentaries) that suggest 2 Houri will be given to men as wives. Even so, those are Hadith and not the Quran. The specific reference to 72 virgins is not in the Quran but in a narration by a Muslim commentator. In short, while some Muslims may believe that 72 virgins await martyrs in paradise, it is not accurate to say that the Quran specifies this as a reward. It does not. This was explained to me in detail by a friend.
Based on the reasoning of my family members, the guy who informed me that the Quran does not specifically mention 72 virgins should have respected my belief that it does just because it was my belief. He was intolerant and disrespectful to correct me. He should not have eradicated my false belief. How dare he!!!
This leads to my first question: Is it wrong to ridicule patently false beliefs?
The second issue that struck me in this discussion was that my family members consistently said I was intolerant and attacking them, despite me never attacking them. I said what they believed was ridiculous and clearly false, but I never said they were stupid or ignorant or anything else directly targeting them. While I know it is not true of all Mormons and is obviously true of other people, I’m wondering why so many Mormons are unable to separate the beliefs of the religion from their own identity. If you criticize the church for its sexist and homophobic policies and doctrines – which are valid grounds for criticism at the moment – you are immediately accused of attacking the members as being sexist and homophobic. And if you criticize Mormon beliefs as absurd or unsupported by science, they take that as a personal attack as well.
Why is it that some people cannot separate their group identity from their personal identity? And why can’t some people separate their beliefs from their personal identity?
I get that both of those – group identities and beliefs – are part of our identity (I’m drawing on social identity theory here). But it seems as though some people cannot have a discussion about the possibly negative aspects of one of their groups without feeling personally attacked.
Another example may help. The US engages in a lot of sketchy activities. We’ve deposed or attempted to depose leaders of countries we don’t like. We’ve assassinated people. We’ve engaged in wars that are probably based on nothing more than wanting to help some of our corporations become richer. I fully accept that about the US. Yet I’m a United States citizen. By criticizing a group to which I belong, I don’t feel like it makes me a terrible person. In fact, I think it’s indicative of a more complex way of thinking about the world: I’m part of a group, but I’m not responsible for everything the group does and the group identity is not my identity.
Maybe someone has already explored this phenomenon in detail. I just spent a couple hours reading about social identity theory and cognitive biases to see if they address this. The closest I found were: depersonalization (as part of self-categorization theory, which is related to social identity theory), collective narcissism, and the Semmelweis reflex, with collective narcissism coming closest (and it is noted to apply to religions). But none of these talk specifically about the conflation of self-identity and social identity.
If there isn’t any prior research on this, doesn’t it seem like there should be a name for this? If this is a distinct phenomenon, giving it a name would be nice (e.g., social/personal-self conflation is the one that comes to mind). Once it’s named, and the name becomes widely used, then when people do this you could simply send them to a Wikipedia page that describes the phenomenon and hopefully it would help them realize that they are conflating criticism of either an institution or a belief with criticism of them. It probably wouldn’t change anything, but it may help us to at least begin to understand this behavior.
Also, I don’t think this is unique to Mormonism, of course. Members of many religions do it. And some people seem to do it with politics as well.