A religion is not a race, it’s an idea?

It’s a common claim in some form, in many a situation, where were are in danger of confusing or conflating prejudice based on race with prejudice based on some other social construct. It works on the assumption that race is a naturally objective class about which an individual has no choice, whereas religion is a matter of individual choice in a cultural context.

Of course the form “a religion is not a race it’s an idea?” is invoked when it’s the religious (cultural) identity that is the main topic at issue – to put some clear water between that and other issues of race. Particularly in the case where the religion is Islam, where there are strong associations with ethnic and cultural identities, it somehow seems important to maintain the distinction between different issues.

But if our topic were a racial or ethnic identity in the first place, we might have “ethnicity is not race” and “neither is race a meaningful biological thing”. In fact if we get deeper into biology we also find that even species are definable only by convention and the appropriate conventions vary enormously with context and purpose. How many scientists are keen to emphasise how flimsy are the actual differences at the mental and cultural levels between humans and our kindred species.

Down with this sort of thing. We humans ain’t so special. This is very much about identity. And, for thinking beings, identity is very much about personal identity politics, and our conformity or reaction to our cultural context.

If we add the religious angle to this, we find that which binds people is only in very small part specific ideas and beliefs that are held in common. So much did Kwame Anthony Appiah remind us in the Credo part of this year’s Reith Lectures. In fact this take on Mistaken Identities was so underwhelming, that he was seen by many (in my twitter feed anyway) to be merely stating the obvious and missing the opportunity for any important insight [Refs].

When talking race and attempting to get a grip on what we really mean, any measure we choose – skin colour – is as good and imperfect as any other [Refs]. Even when talking genetics, as scientifically rigorously as you like, it’s ultimately about statistical distributions of many possible combinations and patterns, whose own boundaries are scarcely definitive.

Some conventions are deeper in accepted science, but pretty much all the objects we are talking about and the classes to which we assign them, depend for their identity on social constructs and our (pragmatic) acceptance of these.

This is not an excuse for an anything goes – w’evs – cultural relativism. Quite the opposite. Simply a reminder that we’re not going to solve any complex issue by being precious about a specific choice of words having hard and fast objective definitions. Islamism in its political and violent extremes, has a wide range of religious and racial, extrinsic and behavioural aspects, each themselves involving cultural patterns of identity over and above anything intrinsically objective in our individual biology.

You might be tempted to the easy conclusion that biology is our racial marker, distinct from religion. Sure an individual may generally have no choice about their biological make up, but how that particular biological entity is assigned to a class – even a biological one – is a cultural choice.

We’re always ultimately dealing with individuals. Prejudice against the freedoms and free-thought of individuals is still prejudice whatever class of race or religion we’ve assigned it to. From the individual’s immediate perspective it matters little whether the constraints on their freedoms are biological (genetic) or cultural (memetic), they’re still constraints, and at the individual level both are intertwined with each other and with collective group effects.


[Post Note: Reference for social constructs and political theory around race in particular. Falguni Sheth – book and blog. Hat tip @contronline.]

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