The Fundamental Human Need for an Identity (and Religion)

In my Geography class today we had a very interesting discussion on the Israel and Palestine situation. Two of my Jewish friends who are both very involved and spent two months in Israel over the summer said that they would fight for the Israeli army over the American army. This shocked me. They are both very normal American citizens, but feel like their heritage and attachment to the religion supercedes loyalty to their home country.

It raised the larger question about the fundamental human need for an identity.

It is usually in adolescence when we fully develop our sense of self. It is a core human need to feel ownership of our self (our ego), take comfort in a unique identity, AND feel a sense of belonging to a larger something. The identity crisis is the quintessential high school quagmire, and it usually manifests itself with abrupt personality changes. Someone may come in one day and be a real loud-mouth, and a month later try on the introverted hat. Later on, this is called the mid-life crisis.

Religion is a very convenient way to fulfill this need. In many ways it dictates a value system and brings a rich culture and history to which you can feel a part. For me, I prefer to exercise my individuality by grappling with the big questions myself and developing a personal value system. In other words, my sense of belonging is to a worldview I continue to create. I have little interest in finding my roots or tracing my ethnicity. If my parents tried, I would have resisted a formal religious upbringing because it seems too tidy a way to resolve some of the most difficult questions. My approach is not necessarily better than the one of my friends, but it highlights a divergence in life philosophy.

What are your thoughts?

8 Responses to The Fundamental Human Need for an Identity (and Religion)

  1. J. says:

    My little comments (obviously I have many more):

    As D. and I were starting to say in class today, our Jewish identities are by no means products of our parents. Obviously our family has some influence, but so do you and our other friends and teachers and so on. In fact, less than a week ago I had a big conversation with my parents about how distinctly different my Jewish identity is from the rest of my family.

    The one other comment I have is that you write, they “feel like their heritage and attachment to the religion supercedes loyalty to their home country.”

    Be careful with this wording. The concept of Jewish identity is very different from that of other religions, and is very hard for non-Jews to understand. I’ll try to explain briefly. The Jews are a nation, not just a religion. Thus, Israel is my home country. Judaism is both my religion and my nationality. For less religious Jews, they may not think they have a religion, and Judaism is simply their nationality. This is why Jews are strangers whenever they are not in Israel, and is a big reason why there has been so much anti-semitism. Anywhere they are, that country is only a secondary nationality, and therefore the Jew cannot fully assimilate. So when I said I would fight for Israel over America, I wasn’t completely choosing religion over nationality; partly I was choosing between two nationalities. America has been a wonderful “home away from home” for me, and I may spend the rest of my life here. But Israel is my true home.

  2. ben casnocha says:

    You make some important distinctions with respect to religion and nationality.

    Your Jewish identity is and is not a product of your parents. It *is* because it’s your parents’ history and their parents’ history which is the cause for you saying Israel is your true home. It may *not* be because you have *chosen* to embrace the heritage. You could have ignored it and not associated yourself with Israel at all, no? Hypothetically, not pragmatically, your parents could have completely hidden your family history from you and you would have felt no ties to Israel, right? They made a choice. MK’s Iraqi friend has *chosen* to dissociate himself from the place he grew up. He’s an American citizen. He doesn’t think about Iraq at all. Is he still Iraqi deep down even though he is totally severed from Iraq? I don’t think so. I think he’s now American. Because he made a choice. It’s transitory.

    You say you have a true home, and it is Israel. I look at things differently. I was born in San Francisco and live in San Francisco. San Francisco is my home now. I didn’t have a home before I was alive (and I don’t care where my ancestors were), and my home my change. My pride and identity lies in the metaphysical – values I hold and the worldview to which I subscribe. It lies in ideas. To tie my identity inextricably with a piece of land or embrace the burden of cultural history seems odd to me.

    On a related note, see my post from July on “Americanism is an Idea” which excerpts from an Atlantic article:

    link to ben.casnocha.com

  3. Let me ask you this :

    We all want to be significant can you live with just being significant to yourself?

  4. Michael says:

    Ben– It’s funny.. I have just started working in the whole tech start up game. And my collegiate background was included majoring in international studies and political science… I read a lot of your writing geared towards VC and start up, and I makes me smile to see someone with those interests ponder a question that I think about so much (and never talk about working for a Bay area start up… WHO HAS TIME FOR THAT?). ;-)

    From day one, we’re taught … “We are Americans” and we are expected to unite under that disguise. Then, as we get older, we learn that America is made up of all sorts of different people from various other countries… then we learn that America is an idea not neccessairly a place… It’s all quite confusing. Because in the end we have our nationality and then we have our religion. There is a line divided for many which is more important.

    For some.. religion offers that one constant… You look at your fellow church goer and know that you share the same value system and the same God, and for many that supercedes all.

    However, the part that I find the most interesting is that for one part of the world,(the middle east) one’s religion, is one’s governement, and one’s way of life. Including Israel, one’s nationality is surrounded by one’s religion. A fantastic ‘world is ending’ type of author, Samuel Huntington wrote a great book “The Clash of Civilizations” where he said that this is going to be the end of the West. He calls for the West to unite via a religion (christianity) in order to survive.. He says with the west becoming multicultural and split up that it will eventually crumble because religion is so strong in other parts of the world.

    Eeek.. It’s 1:10 AM and have been working like a dog today.. Hopefully I made some sense! I am not rereading my post so here goes nothing.

  5. Chris Yeh says:

    We all need an identity for the simple reason that each person needs to tell a story about who he or she is that makes sense to him or herself.

    Who we are in reality is far too complex and difficult to deal with on a daily basis.

    The problem is that while the desire for identity is constant throughout our lives, our ability to find one is not.

    It took me many years to figure out who I was and what I believed in. The identities I assumed over the years were roles, rather than real, up until relatively recently, maybe 3-4 years ago, and I’m 31 now.

    But if I needed to feel certain about my identity before then, I might have turned to religion, ethnic identity or some other easily articulated story.

    This isn’t to say that religion, patriotism, or ethnic pride is a bad thing. It’s just that those things are only a small part of who you really are. But because they are easier to understand and explain, we tend to mistake these labels for actual identities.

  6. sk says:

    Mr. J.I —

    I have heard the “This is something that others wouldn’t understand” argument before. As Israel was created by the UN about 50 years ago and, of course, can trace a people back to the multi-cultural/religious region to the birth of Christ, it seems justifiable to have a sense of pride about being Jewish and having a heritage traced to the important region.

    But being of Scotish heritage that can be traced back to the same era doesn’t make me claim Scotland ahead of the country that has allowed “my people” to become wealthy and educated. Maybe it is a product of the immigrant experience but my Italian friends feel the way I do. I still don’t understand where your coming from unless I forced to think of myself as a goyishe kap.

  7. dred says:

    Identity is foolish as is religio, including the Jewish religion. Quit thinking you are so special for being Jewish, its just more lies like every other human religion that claims God
    Wake up and evolve and fight for no one because it contradicts peace.

  8. Eoin says:

    An identity is simply having a concept of oneself: “I am X and not Y”. I am a Christian and not a Muslim” “I am a good person and not a bad person”, “I am a stupid person and not cleaver” etc. In this way an identity is just how one defines themselves. The interesting thing is why there is a need to define oneself at all and why people become so attached to a particular definition of themselves. I have no problem changing my definition of a good book. However, I find it a psychological strain to change my definition of myself. I have not found a satisfactory answer to this question yet.

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