Orientation vs. identity: some thoughts on belief

When sexologists talk about sexual orientation, we often use some variation of the Orientation-Behavior-Identity model (OBI). The idea is that sexual orientation can be understood and discussed in three distinct aspects: a person’s identity, what they define themselves as, both publicly and privately; a person’s behavior, their actual sexual acts with different genders; and a person’s orientation, the natural bent of their attractions (which may or may not be innate or changeable, but which is much less subject to power of choice than the other two aspects.) It’s a helpful distinction, and clears up a lot of miscommunications about what it means to be “really” gay, het, or bi.

I wonder if a similar model would be useful for discussing religious belief. Is belief or unbelief in a deity (pick your favorite!) a choice? I would argue that at any given moment, a person does or does not believe in a particular deity. Analogous to the “orientation” piece of the OBI model, this is just a program that is running in your brain: you cannot choose to switch it on or off, although various paths you take in life may contribute to its running or shut it down. But it’s not subject to conscious, volitional will.

Then there is the “identity” component: whether you think of yourself as a theist, and usually a member of a particular religion, or not. This may or may not have anything to do with your belief orientation. There was a time in my life where I identified as a Christian although I no longer had the belief in God that I had in my earlier years. Similarly, anyone who identifies as an “atheist” because they are mad at God is not an atheist in the orientational sense: people who genuinely lack belief in a deity have nothing to be angry at.

Finally, there is the behavior component, which is independent of both orientation and identity. Attending church does not make you a Christian believer, nor do you have to call yourself a Christian to attend. And many people identify as members of a religion without engaging in any of the behaviors prescribed by that religion. Whether there are any behaviors that could be categorized as “atheistic” is an interesting question… I can’t think of any off the top of my head, although I can think of many that could be described as humanistic or skeptical.

What do you think? Useful categories for discussions of belief and unbelief?

4 thoughts on “Orientation vs. identity: some thoughts on belief

  1. Without any mulling yet under my belt, I do think those categories have some use. And I agree that in my experience, I didn’t have religious choice: first I believed, and I couldn’t have NOT believed even if I’d wanted to; and then I DIDN’T believe, and it was like realizing Santa Claus didn’t exist (i.e., no going back to belief “by choice,” even if I wanted to).


  2. I definitely think all three aspects come into play when it comes to spiritual beliefs. What someone believes is not consciously changeable, IMO – one either believes in something or they don’t. How they identify themselves spiritually is totally a matter of conscious choice, on the other hand (“I am an x”), because it isn’t a matter of what one believes in, but the label one puts on their belief.

    And the behavior aspect is a whole nother ball of wax, because it’s totally possibly to believe in something, and yet act according to a totally different set of beliefs that one doesn’t even hold. This latter bit comes down to how consciously one acts – whether they act according to cultural programming (determined outside themselves), or according to their own inner dictates. Basically whether one is a zombie – shuffling throughout life without awareness – or not.


  3. Oh, and it’s also possible to consciously act in a way contrary to one’s beliefs, for whatever reason. Unfortunately, the lack of freedom we have forces people to do this all the time, or face the consequences.


  4. I think that’s a very useful way to look at it. It seems especially apt to the recent revelation that a nontrivial number of clergy no longer believe in the things they’re teaching, and the rising number of secular Jews.


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