I’m a farmer. Some people consider this a useful piece of information, although why they do escapes me. “Farmer” conveys about as much information about me to the average person – especially, to the average urban person – as “Free Mason” does to the uninitiated. Some of us may have our suspicions and prejudices respecting what a Free Mason is, but only Free Masons know if those suspicions and prejudices are correct and/or comprehensive. In fact, the notion inspired by the label, “Free Mason” – or, “Farmer” – may be wildly off the mark.
The need to characterize and catalog is apparently intrinsic to people. We need to do this in order to recollect, cognate and hypothesize associations – to “make sense” of our world – but the folders to which we attach our labels rarely contain very much information on the subject, and much of the information those folders do contain is often simply wrong: I do not wear overalls, chew idly on stalks of straw and spend my time leaning on a pitchfork.
As actually useless as it is for me to tell people that I’m a farmer, more useless still are the labels people attach to me – and to other people and things. Having learned I’m a farmer, for example, some people might take a leap of prejudice and suppose that I’m also a “red-neck,” freighting me with an entire paragraph of descriptive assumptions that are neither more correct nor comprehensive than what is brought to their minds by the revelation that I am a farmer.
Make no mistake: the observations, above, have not been offered with any regret. I am a farmer, I am proud to be a farmer and I am proud to be known as a farmer. The point in offering the observations, above, is that the label is meaningful to me, the farmer, but of no necessity in any way meaningful to you, who are not farmers. I might have begun this rumination with the declaration that I am an attorney to exactly the same conclusions I have offered having declared to be a farmer: you would have no more useful notion of what I am as an attorney than your prejudices of just what an attorney is are comprehensive and true – which, in many (if not most) cases, isn’t very comprehensive or true at all.
“Farmer” is what I do and, as such, to the extent that what I do can be observed, one can at least glean as much about what it is to be a farmer as one can glean about being an NFL quarterback, diamond cutter or police officer by observing me, or any of those, as I go about my work, or they, about theirs. One may not be able to glean much that is true or comprehensive by such observations, but something true might be learned thus.
Suppose, however, I were also a theist. Knowing, by that label, that I believe in God, one really knows nothing at all about what I believe. Who is God? Who is my God (or is that, “god,” or, perhaps, “gods”)? What is the God in which (Whom?) I believe? If assigning labels to occupations is fraught with booby-traps of cognition, labeling beliefs and belief systems is many times more so. If I pray, one may deduce and declare that I am a theist because the act implies an addressee to my prayers who/that/which, by the nature of the word, “pray,” must agree with some construction of the notion, “God”/”god”(s). Except that I believe in some manner of existence for some manner of addressee of my prayers, however, the notion that I am a theist affords little, if any, illumination on what I actually believe at all. Even if we were to add the specificity that I am Jewish, or Zoroastrian, we would add little in the way of information respecting my actual beliefs: “Jewish” and “Zoroastrian,” if they imply some orthodox beliefs, by no means denies free will to make my own beliefs within those orthodoxies unique to myself: God having spoken to Moses, I might believe that God is a tenor.
The whole of the preceding has been offered to prepare the reader for this: I am a conservative. By now, I should have made a fairly good case for the proposition that, having been told by me that I am a conservative, you still know almost nothing true or comprehensive about my beliefs at all. As time goes by, you will have the opportunity to observe me, here, as a conservative, much as you would have the opportunity to observe me as a farmer on my farm. Your prejudices respecting conservatives and conservatism will be as meaningless against the empirical presentations as your prejudices respecting farmers would be meaningless against the observation of my going about my work farming.