Greg Sheridan has an op-ed about the value of religion and being religious in The Australian. I don’t want to comment on his argument per se, but rather riff off one of his comments.
I have faith that I am the son of my parents. I have no real empirical evidence for it.
Actually that’s not true. There is plenty of evidence that Greg Sheridan is the son of Mr and Mrs Sheridan. Now before we get into gory detail – I don’t know Greg Sheridan’s parents so I’m actually just generalising. I’m also assuming he is not adopted and was never told and that he is not illegitimate. This is a very simply story: married couple have a baby and how do we establish identity.
In the first instance there is social affirmation. At some point Mrs Sheridan would have been noticeably pregnant. She and her husband would have told people they’re having a baby. People would then observe at some point Mrs Sheridan going to hospital and reappearing with a baby. Family and friends and the community at large would observe a young human being introduced to people as being a specific individual called Greg. Mr and Mrs Sheridan would then, over time, invest resources in Greg’s upbringing while telling the world that he is their son. Economists call this a costly signalling model. Consistent with Greg Sheridan’s broader argument a lot of people at his church would perform the verification – from observing the pregnancy, and actually attending the baptism, and various confirmation, first communion, etc. where people get to observe the (same) child at various ages.
At the hospital the staff would have observed a woman giving birth and then immediately the baby would be labelled “Baby Sheridan” or something similar. A paper trail would be established in the hospital records. A birth notice might have appeared in the Hatched, Matched and dispatched section of the newspaper. Then comes the second mechanism – government records. A birth certificate confirms identity.
So contrary to Greg Sheridan’s claim – there is plenty of evidence he is who his parents claim him to be.
Thinking about identity is actually a lot of fun – how we confirm our identity is a rich mix of social behaviour and government action. That mix is important for economic interaction and the exercise of property rights, not to mention government control over society. The mix also changes over time. I’ve got a PhD student who will be looking at this over the next three years, so watch this space.