I intended to start this post with a short summary of personal identity theory but it’s so damn difficult to understand that I’ll skip that bit completely. Most of it is mathematical theory entwined with psychology and supposition and there are two differing views, that of the metaphysical concept and the psychological concept. Scholars and logicians such as Descartes and John Locke have put forward their own perspectives on personal identity and it is very in-depth.
Both theories agree that personal identity is the understanding of ourselves and what makes us individual. It is the definition of ‘I’ that we hold, our mannerisms and traits that create a unique human being among a global community of billions. Personal identity is our blueprint for personality and behaviour and it is the way in which we regard ourselves inwardly and project ourselves outwardly.
When you describe yourself, you use the first person (no need to address yourself by your name because your group of individual identity contains only one person) and list things that define your character. It is interesting to see the difference between how we perceive our personal identity and how others around us see it. Sometimes, how we regard ourselves can be the polar opposite of how others define us.
One foundation for personal identity is the notion of personal persistence, that we are the same person that we were thirty years ago because of the persistence of our identity and will continue to be the same person until we die. The American psychologist Erik Erikson proposed that:
“…identity consists of individuality or a sense of uniqueness, synthesis or the fusion of all the parts of our ‘selves’, continuity or the sensation of being the same person every day, as well as consistent maintenance of our self-image, and lastly of social acceptance…”(Erikson, 1977).
Freud argues a psychosexual theory for human development whilst Erikson has a psychosocial theory, both very enlightening and much easier to read than John Locke.
Personal identity starts to develop as soon as we have been identified socially, in that we have a name, a unique identifier that makes us part of a group and also sets us apart within that group. Maybe it develops even before that?
If we were all just called ‘man’ or ‘woman’, it would be hard to establish a sense of personal identity between us, difficult to differentiate and know people. Names are technically more useful to others than ourselves as we refer to ourselves in the first person, as ‘I’ or ‘me’. Our names are used by others to identify us specifically within the group. They are also used by us to reaffirm our sense of belonging, to make us feel part of a group. Our names give us a membership t exclusive groups such as family and religious orders.
In olden times, names would be significantly longer to give added description, such as the names of relatives and the place of family origin. Some cultural names are still extremely long due to their specificity and tend to be shortened for the benefit of others outside the family group.
When we give something a name, we generally focus in its properties, henceforth an orange is orange and a dinosaur is a ‘terrible lizard’; a ‘drill’ drills and a waterfall…well, you get the idea. Names give us details about a person or object and the more familiar we are with the name, the more we tend to know about that particular thing. We can draw stereotypes from names and one example is my daughter who will not eat red-pepper capsicum because it is called ‘pepper’ and therefore must be hot. In the same way, if we see a particular name, we can draw inferences about culture and religion.
We do not generally choose our own names, they are provided for us as part of our heritage. When parents choose names, they look for qualities they hope their children will possess and look to the meaning of names, in the practical sense. Sometimes the child is named after an esteemed person or place, an event in history or a thing of remarkable value, named after another name that symbolises an esteemed quality to the parents. they look for such things as assonance and cadence, careful to avoid names which might provoke ridicule and low self-esteem. As well as being a practical identifier, names are also one of the building blocks for our sense of identity. Rarely will a name be given without consideration and deliberation.
Once we are named, we are part of a group, that of the immediate family. Part of our name is usually constant, a direct heritage link to past generations such as our surname. The other parts are unique identifiers that give us individuality among the family group. This is important in any group to identify the constituent parts.
When we are named, we tend to stick with that name until an event occurs such as marriage or otherwise that forces a change of identity. When we enter into institutions, we are sometimes required to change our names as a sign of fealty to the order. Marriage is one example, an archaic institution that sees the woman give away part of her identity as a dowry to the man, forsaking her surname. In other words, she leaves her original identity as part of her original family and adopts that of the husband’s family instead. Her ideals and goals change to what the goals of the newly-wed’s are, maybe to buy a house, start a family do the things that married people are expected to do. Because, like religion marriage groups have their own code of conduct.
Similarly, if we were to be ordained into a religious order it might sometimes be expected that we change our name to something that befits the faith. New inductees are given strong names that resonate with potent figures in the religion. We are expected to leave our original family identity behind and embrace a new identity as part of a new group. This includes adherence to the rules of the group, the rules of the faith. When we adopt a new group or it adopts us, it takes precedent over other groups, in the first instance.
When we enter into any contract, we are bound by the terms of the agreement as is the other party. When we accept faith, we enter into a contract with God in which we dedicate our time and resources to His will and in return, we receive a sense of belonging and purpose plus the added bonus of a place in Paradise. We supplant our own goals and ambitions with that of the religion and strive to be the best practitioner of the faith that we can be.
This is conversions, entering into an institution voluntarily, aware of the sacrifices and benefits (there’s always a sacrifice; if it isn’t a virgin it’s your damned identity!). What about being born into a faith, being named in the traditional way of the dominant religion?
Well, like any group ethics, we absorb them through exposure and they ultimately affect our identity as we develop as people. We are raised with religious guidelines in place and taught that our needs and wants are secondary to the higher power. You have heard people say ‘she’s living her life through her children, it’s not fair’, I imagine?
What this implies is that a parent has suppressed the free will of their child and given them goals that the parent failed to achieve in childhood. By projecting ambition, the parent molds the child’s identity into that of the parent and their self-esteem becomes intrinsically linked though the common identity. The child seeks to please the parent and by hitting the parent’s goals, this in turn raises the child’s self-esteem. The child’s goals are immaterial, inconsequential to the parent’s ambition. They have had their identity supplanted by something else and only by breaking the bond and finding other peer groups of a diverse nature will the child learn to pay attention to their own desires and not those of the parent.
In a religiously-minded family, all behaviours and actions are sanctioned by God. Everything the family does serves the higher purpose. Children, eager to please their parents follow religious instruction and it shapes their morals and thinking-patterns. In a wider religious community where breaking away from the common religious ideology is difficult, children will grow to become narrow-minded adults with a blinkered view on the diversity of human nature.
Religious people will often say that the religion is ‘in the blood’, somehow meaning they are genetically encoded with faith, as if it has been passed down through the generations. Incorrect, of course; religion is an ideology not a tangible particle. It has no substance and cannot be betrothed through birthright. It is not part of the human DNA.
What they mean is that the faith has been a foundation for the family for many generations and that by birthright alone, the child is expected to live up to the requirements of the religion. Names are important in this aspect as they give the child a sense of strong identity, someone or something to relate to spiritually, maybe a famous avatar of the faith or a connected emotion. As the tenets of religion are taught, questions easily overruled by plausible deniability then the child matures with a set ideology, an unshakeable belief in the irrational that guides their thoughts and actions. Their beliefs are firmly attached to their names, a core part of their identity and depending on how exposed the child is to other groups aside from the religious one decides how sculpted their individual identity will be.
If you are born into a religious ideology, it is much harder to craft a personal identity due to the constraints levied upon the mind and body by the doctrine. Free will is not permitted and the scriptures tell us how to think and react in certain situations. Ultimately, anything we do, irrespective of result is determined by God and we are told that if we follow the scripture to the letter then we can only be doing the right thing according to God. Even if it amounts to murder, if the scriptures sanction it then it must be divinely permissible, exactly what God wants and so long as He is pleased then so are we.
Because God is our parent, we look up to Him and we try to please Him by making his goals our own. Worse still, He tells us that if we don’t do what He says then there will be a terrible price to pay. He tells us that performing His will encourages self-esteem but in the same breath, he warns us that if we don’t comply then our very souls are at stake.
Religious people take this very seriously, the whole business of ‘souls’ and suchlike. Of course they do, it’s the fabric of their faith, their reason for agreeing to the holy contract in the first place, to get into Paradise after death. Because their identities are the collective group’s identity, whatever the group feels the individual also experiences. If I was to cast an aspersion on the Islamic faith, nine out of ten Muslims will be offended because by shedding doubt on the religion, I am also questioning their personal identity and integrity.
To have personal identity challenged is something of a stressful encounter. To be told you are a certain person when you firmly believe the opposite about yourself is never a comfortable feeling and we will normally get defensive. To be told that your identity is fabricated from a lie is very upsetting.
I can’t disprove religion because it really does exist, in a manner of speaking. Not God, I don’t believe in that but I do believe that we need ‘a belief structure’ in order to craft a personal identity. The reason religion sits so comfortably is that it answers the two questions that persist us the most: who am I and what happens after I die?
I’m mentally ill and these two questions don’t really trouble me to the extent that I have to change my identity to find comfort from doubt and uncertainty. I am comfortable with my bizarre identity(s) and the notion of death. What comes afterwards is not for us to know, I regret to say otherwise someone would have received a postcard from the afterlife saying ‘wish you were here’. For many, closure on these two unanswerable questions is a necessity and religion gives us that closure. Moreover, it gives us something to work towards, that famous common-goal, attaining admission to Paradise.
Some people are too weak to forge their own identity, perhaps subdued by being born into religion and some merely prefer to be part of the collective, to have their ethereal questions answered in a manner that reduces stress and raises esteem. They can’t live with the questions unanswered as they find they have no purpose other than to exist. There is nothing wrong with this behaviour, it is up to the individual how they choose to identify to themselves and others but religion should never be about identification, about fitting in with a group because it seems fashionable at the time. Religion is a whole personality and identity overhaul, being born into it lays the framework for how we interact and react, how we think and feel. We are told what is right and wrong from the perspective of God, what pleases and displeases Him. We are told that His wishes are above our own and for us to raise the self-esteem of the group (and our own) we must follow the rules to the letter.
Religion makes no allowances for the development of an organic identity, one that evolves through a process of exposure to all elements of life, all ideologies and cultures. You can’t tell me that people choose to be homosexual or choose to be mentally ill yet when these factors are discovered in the religious context, it collapses the identity and causes confusion and stress.
Religion tells us who to be angry at and why, despite this being none of our concern directly. It tells us who and how to love. It tells us how to raise children and treat our wives. It highlights how other religions should be treated in respect of the group. It tells us what we can and cannot do and whilst we may need some of these morals to exist as a civilised society, the rest of them are outmoded and irrelevant and need serious reworking.
I cannot knock religion. it forges civilisations and countries, makes laws and adjudicates over civil matters. Every country, near-enough lives by the model of civility in that we do not kill and eat our own and we try to abide by a set of rules that ensure stability and routine. As a species, we need control be it self-control or structural control from social groups. If we had no control, we would be completely at the mercy of the id and this is where Freud’s concept of the ‘superego’ comes into force, the regulator of the psyche that sets boundaries and limitations. Religion becomes our superego, our moral compass and referee and by the stories and testaments in the scripture, we take example and try to mirror our lives accordingly.
In conclusion, if there even is one:
Names are important in recognising who we are. We attribute behaviours to names, including ourselves and we create a model that we project outwardly as well as an introspective model, an assessment of the ‘I’ facet. We try to live up to the expectations of our identity, our personal goals. Even of your goal is to get high every day and play CoD, it’s still a goal and you still have an identity, even if it is categorised under ‘jobless addict’.
Religion supplants our superego, making our rationale the same as the group’s mandate. We are told religious scripture is the word of God and therefore infallible and incontestable. Our superego regulates our sense of morality, what is acceptable and otherwise, our code of conduct in any given situation. Religion tells the superego how to behave and conditions it accordingly.
Religion legislates behaviour and even if we suspect it might be ethically wrong, the supplanted superego permits the behaviour in line with religious doctrine. The hive-mentality of religion means that personal feelings are suppressed in accordance to how the scripture tells us to feel and the general overriding feelings of the group. Our hijacked superego overrides the ego and we will take pride in the excitement of the group as a man is tossed from a rooftop for his beliefs.
We will usually seek to stay part of a group so long as it fulfils our needs. If we are told what we need since birth then we will undoubtedly grow up needing it in maturity, even though we may not need it at all. Group ethics will usually not be challenged due to the individual not wanting to be expelled from the group. It takes a strong reversal of thinking to permit such dissent such as personal feelings of persecution or a need no longer fulfilled by the group.
People change their identities through institutions such as marriage and religion. Even prison used to change an identity as the names were taken away and numbers were assigned instead, dehumanizing the convict and making them a number recognised only by their crimes and not their other personal qualities. If an identity is willingly changed then the transition is easier than if it is forced.
Inherent qualities in a person sometimes invalidate them from a group, such as sexual preference. Libido is a powerful facet and something heavily controlled in religion as it seeks to repress the animal facet of humanity, the essential id. Or not, as the case may be in some religions that seem to go into sexual conduct in intricate detail. Remember, a religion is a contract and we have to be getting at least something out of it to keep us focused and loyal. In the times of Mohammed, discontented soldiers were given sex as a reward as opposed to letting them get mullahed on alcohol and therefore become liabilities. Given the options of satisfying the overwrought troops, letting them fuck was better than letting them get addicted to alcohol or giving away wealth. Slavery was actively practised and no doubt gives rise to the polygamous marriage laws of Islam.
When a person faces a schism in their faith due to their own personal identity creeping in, they seek to suppress it rather than face eviction from the group (or worse!). In this way, religion becomes a prison not a facilitator of self-esteem and the joy of faith is removed as the individual struggles with their conflicting identities. When the code specifically prohibits a thought or action, a way of life then the individual is left isolated, especially if they have been raised into a religious ideology from birth.
I think that’s it. I might edit this document so check back to see the revisions. I hope this article was helpful in some way, even if it filled a gap whilst you were busting out a shit or waiting for a train. Glad to have helped.
If you want to read what the really clever people saty about identity control and how it affects personal identity development then please follow this link