Home > religion > Who are the victims here?

Who are the victims here?

That’s four for four, unless i’m forgetting one. I wouldn’t’ve published this (i really intended it for the Editorial Board themselves), but perhaps there’s value in its publication i just don’t see (or perhaps a publisher is ill-advised to pass up any opportunity to let atheists look silly).

I was disgusted by the editorial “GOP candidate E.W. Jackson doesn’t speak for all Virginians of faith.” (24 May 2013) The editorial downplays as “fair enough” some of the most overt bigotry by any recent candidate for Virginia office, as though Jackson’s faith-which reaps him votes-absolves him of wrongdoing and of any expectation of an apology.

Yet it expects him to apologize to other Christians for speaking in their name! Evidently Christians are the true victims of Christian homophobia.

Atheists are routinely accused of paving the way for Stalinism. That’s an absurd accusation, but i certainly don’t mind condemning church-burnings (not to mention mass executions of Christians) when someone imagines i would support them. Nor do i pretend that these acts victimized me or other atheists.

Every decent Christian has the option of leaving the church and renouncing the label if they are unwilling to defend it from this kind of abuse. It’s on them if they do neither.

I kept my own structure for the blog this time, and decided my own title, since the Roanoke Times provided one perhaps best-suited to helping readers miss the point.

So, where did this vitriol come from? I made two basic points, both of which i think have merit but only one of which was necessary:

  1. Decent people who subscribe to a cultural or ideological identity bear the responsibility for crowding out malicious people who abuse the identity.
  2. Decent people are not victims of such abuse—at least not in any way comparable to the way that the targets of that abuse are.

The second point is, i think, very clearly illustrated for Christians by the analogy to Stalinism. Had the RT published an editorial calling for a public figure who self-identifies as an atheist and calls for Church-burnings (of course, there exist none) to apologize to atheists for misrepresenting them, Christians (and probably other theists) would be in an uproar over the disgusting apologetics on display.

All the RT would have needed to do to avoid conveying this message is adjust the second and third paragraphs of the editorial as follows (edits in boldface):

Now that Jackson is the Republican Party candidate for lieutenant governor of Virginia, he sees no reason to temper his views. They reflect religious beliefs that are dear to him, and people can judge his candidacy accordingly.

His political targets aside, however, he also ought to apologize to people of faith who do not share his intolerance. Even among believers who, like Jackson, call themselves Christian, there are those who do not want their beliefs to be associated with his narrow and often hurtful interpretation of the Good News.

The first point is legitimately contentious; i didn’t buy it for a long time.

Perhaps it is most palatable to atheists as a call for moderate religionists to marginalize the extremists who share their identity label (and ostensibly their faith). The same would apply to political affiliations: Reasonable people who feel that the “libertarian” label best captures their approach to politics bear the responsibility for distancing themselves—and, to the extent that they can, movement libertarianism—from free market ideologues and prejudice denialists who adopt the same name. Perhaps contentiously, i’ve conceded that atheists bear this responsibility as well—a responsibility that was most recently and publicly disavowed by Ron Lindsay.

My error—and it certainly was one—was in suggesting that Christianity was nothing more than an arbitrary personal choice, or preference. While it is certainly every person’s responsibility to question, inform, and amend their religious beliefs, we are not born equally equipped to take on this responsibility. Christians are indoctrinated from birth, they are conned into debt and dependence, they are coerced by intolerant communities. The most devout—and many of the most repugnant—Christians are also victims of Christianity. Jackson is very likely among these.

It is also worth acknowledging that i probably “swayed” no Christians with this letter. It was hardly my intention to. Amidst attempts to be compassionate and diplomatic, especially in a region so immersed in Christian ideology as southwest Virginia—which i concede may be, by and large, the most effective—i also see the need for occasional reminders from fringe rationalism that this ridiculous state of affairs persists for purely contingent reasons, the need to pressure reasonable people away from opportunistic concessions, and the need to act “as if” the reasonable take on things is already mainstream—perhaps to give voice to the suppressed rage of those who can’t out themselves publicly, or even only to reassure future chroniclers that not everyone at this time bought into the lie that a religion deserves respect for having infected most of the population.

Now, i suspect that if the sentiment of this letter gets any (non-bigoted) response that it will be of one of two forms: Either i am placing blame on innocent Christians that belongs with despicable Christians like Jackson, or by declaring Christianity a “choice” i am denying Christians’ innate love of God. The former i covered above. The latter, while likenable to the actual problems of indoctrination and desperation, would still convey a crude (and cruel) irony in light of the ongoing Christian assault on GLBTI people’s right to live.

It would be nice to see the issue deepen, with a response (direct or not) that acknowledges Christians’ responsibility and also their religious cultural dependencies. But that seems unlikely.*

* Read my comment there for my reaction.

  1. July 8, 2013 at 2:40 am

    Thanks, I’ll check them out.

  2. July 3, 2013 at 4:52 pm

    In my opinion, the modern church often falls victim to both False Consensus and Pluralistic Ignorance; the result being that it’s often difficult for people like me to see their responsibilities when their own cultural dependencies aren’t clear to them as culture, instead of something theologically inherent. I also think the fragmented nature of the church often makes Christians feel the need to assert their own culture, but as if they were defending the whole church. This double confusion gets further complicated by evangelicalism, which is based on the attempt to persuade people to join, and thus increases anxiety over being perceived positively. This isn’t an excuse by any means, but it may partially explain the commonplace nature of defensive reactions instead of practical efforts to aid the oppressed. I would agree that by any ethical standard, primary responsibility in these cases is always to the abused, not the privileged. I would also agree that it would be much more helpful if the church took responsibility for the extremists using our label, instead of pretending they exist in a vacuum. The fact that it’s uncomfortable doesn’t excuse us from pretending the problem doesn’t exist.

    I know it doesn’t fix anything, but I’m sorry that that editorial was so dismissive and self-righteous. The author’s preoccupation with their own reputation is inexcusable. Their failure to acknowledge the true victims, and the part Christianity has played in their suffering is an insult to every victim of intolerance, past and present. I’m sorry that our culture condones hatred in the context of religion. I’m especially sorry that I spent years contributing to this problem myself, and that I’m still blind to many of it’s ramifications. I’d like to try and undo some of the damage if possible, and I would appreciate advice on how to go about that.

    • July 3, 2013 at 9:36 pm

      [I]t’s often difficult for people like me to see their responsibilities when their own cultural dependencies aren’t clear to them as culture, instead of something theologically inherent.

      Hm. Could you clarify this a bit?

      I think i can resonate with the need you sense many Christians feel to assert a decent culture for themselves amidst that promoted by their reactionary counterparts. I still get the urge to react with scorn when some Christian onlooker characterizes movement atheism as sexist and racist. The urges are probably analogous, even if the circumstances aren’t. (Essentially everyone knows that Christians are not monolithic, but i and many others are surrounded by demographics who believe that atheists are. In this sense the editorial is refuting a strawman.)

      Much of the clamor within movement atheism lately has been to get people in leadership roles (we tend not to characterize them as “our leaders”) to renounce prejudice when they are confronted with it, however much or little responsibility they may feel for it. “If you can’t bring yourself to fight shit, you will be seen as approving it.” How do you think the leaders and organizers of decent Churches or congregations could be convinced to take on this kind of responsibility? That’s where i see some of the greatest potential benefit.

      • July 7, 2013 at 3:56 am

        What I meant by the block quote is that it often happens that individual church communities mistake the particular quirks of their community for commonplace attitudes in the whole of the Church. They can also mistake these quirks for obvious and unquestionable applications of their beliefs, even when only a minority holds them. because of this, when they find another christian person or group being very vocal about an oppositional viewpoint, their first reaction is often shock. It usually takes some work to connect the dots on how their group is tied to the other, and how each impacts the culture at large.

        I think a step towards encouraging congregations and leaders to take responsibility is a better understanding of what’s going on with other christian groups, and the negative ways they can impact people. Making the harm that extremists can cause visible and personal would likely do more to motivate them than arguing about situations they are removed from. As far as that goes, I’d encourage my fellow Christians to seek out secular social groups or community organizations to participate in. That would allow them to form friendships and work towards mutual goals. Doing so could go a long way towards dispelling stereotypes and creating a community investment in the well-being of all parties.
        The next step, which will be much harder, is getting them past certain cultural tendencies. Apart from the defensive reaction, there’s a strong tendency in the church to appeal to an authority; to find a single answer to a problem instead of allowing for multiple approaches. This is why many groups tend to splinter into smaller groups when there are disagreements. I’m not sure what the best way of addressing those issues are. I’m open to suggestions.

      • July 8, 2013 at 1:31 am

        Interesting. Perhaps awareness of Christian diversity even (especially) among Christians is something not to be taken for granted. I wonder if this pluralistic ignorance is better understood through cultural dominance (“most people are Christian, therefore most people think like we do”), local cohesion/density (in contrast to niche non-Christian (ir)religious communities), or something else.

        Transfaith participation is a frequent suggestion, and i think it’s a great thing for any individual to take the initiative to do, but for reasons i haven’t articulated yet i’ve grown suspicious of its usefulness as a broad prescription. (Part of it is that, being an individual mandate, it reminds me of environmental campaigns that begin with “If every household in the United States did X…”.)

        I haven’t read much about communicating across cultural gulfs and have little to recommend…but i can say that the themes i’ve been getting from a few sources lately are (a) that cognitive ability, science literacy, and religiosity are not especially important factors in whether someone is able to receive and incorporate information; (b) that we are prone to contaminating even our ostensibly apolitical messages with worldview-threatening cultural signals; and (c) that flexible and tailored framing can facilitate communication without resorting to dilution or spin. Two of my sources are Dan Kahan (blog) and Matthew Nisbet (blog).

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