Mocking Versus Understanding Religion

Today a friend* posted this on Facebook:

I’m here at the Detroit airport waiting for my flight back to New Jersey. There’s a Jewish fellow here who was just doing his morning prayers, complete with the little boxes strapped to his head and arm, and the strap coiled around his arm, bobbing back and forth and talking to himself.

I’m not trying to make fun of him nor mock him but doesn’t he feel silly? He should. I don’t want to be mean to him but I just want to ask him, “Why are you doing that? What do you think that actually accomplishes? Do you feel silly when you do it in public?” I understand ritual as a part of how humans make sense of their environments, especially in unfamiliar places, it can be comforting. But I have no respect for this type of behavior. It’s so obviously manmade and cultish.

http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Tefillin

This predictably started off a long discussion, in which some people implied that asking the man, “Don’t you feel silly?” is a form of mockery. The OP and others insisted that there’s nothing mocking about such a question, to which I responded:

Some questions aren’t just questions. They carry assumptions within them. Asking someone if they feel silly doing something presumes that there’s a reason for them to feel silly doing that thing. Plenty of people do “odd” things in public, for religious reasons or cultural reasons or mental health reasons or just they feel like it. Why single out an “odd” religious thing for this line of questioning?

Further, what does it matter? Why are you so curious how he feels about this? He almost certainly does not feel silly about it, and I know this because I’ve actually spoken to many Orthodox Jews for reasons other than to mock them in front of my Facebook friends. They are very aware of how others perceive them, but it doesn’t matter to them very much because they’re used to it. In fact, if you approached him and asked about his religious practice, he would probably calmly and politely answer all of your questions, because Jews in this country are so used to being interrogated about our practices, beliefs, and culture all the damn time by random people who don’t know very much about us. I include myself in this “we” because, as a Jewish atheist who grew up in an area where there were almost no Jews, I was always treated as the sole representative of an entire culture to whom all questions could reasonably be directed, and I answered them patiently because the alternative would be to allow these people to continue believing all sorts of stereotyped, bigoted rubbish.

I’m not saying you, personally, believe stereotyped, bigoted rubbish, but your response to this person comes across as ignorant and callous, like you’re gawking at an exotic animal at a zoo. Worse, like you’re doing it in order to score political points on Facebook. If you’re genuinely curious and interested in starting off a discussion about religious practices in public and how people feel about them and why they do them, I would be happy to suggest some language that could’ve started this discussion without alienating so many people (mostly atheists).

I wanted to hash out some of the points I made there because it’s an interesting topic.

About the questions that aren’t just questions: the OP themselves specifically stated that the Jewish man “should” feel silly, which is a judgment. (Right or wrong, it is a judgment.) So there’s no way to ask the man whether or not he feels silly in a vacuum. As I said, asking someone that usually implies that you think the answer ought to be “yes,” and this is no exception.

I’ve met many people who stubbornly insist that everything they say be taken in the most literal manner, without any implicit content. This is facile. The majority of the time, someone who says, “Don’t you feel silly?” or even “Do you feel silly?” is implying that they think there’s a good reason for the person to feel silly. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to assume that a given person who asks such a question is including that implication in it.

Often, questions like these are merely a passive-aggressive way to say, “I think you look silly,” or “You should feel silly.” But these things are very inappropriate to express in our culture, so we’ve developed other ways to express them–ways that have plausible deniability. “I wasn’t saying I think they’re silly! I was just asking a question!” Yeah, right.

Ditto for the OP’s other questions, such as “What do you think that actually accomplishes?” If you really, earnestly have to ask a religious person this, then you don’t know much about religion. If you earnestly ask it, they will probably say, “It helps me feel a connection with god,” or “It helps me feel good,” or “It allows me to ask god to keep me and my family safe.” That’s why I think the question is not earnest, and it’s not really a question. It’s a statement, and the statement is, “Prayer doesn’t accomplish anything, you know.” You should say what you mean.

This whole post is weirdly presumptive. Why should a random person care that the OP thinks they “should” feel silly, or that they “have no respect for this type of behavior”? Plenty of people think I “should” feel silly because I like games, and even more people “have no respect” for the fact that I dress the way I do, have sex the way I do, and interact with people the way I do. If you’re hoping to change people’s behavior, expressing an opinion about it that they aren’t likely to care about isn’t going to do it. (Neither is attacking the extremely low-hanging fruit of “silly”-looking public prayer, but that’s a separate issue.) Jewish people in particular are very accustomed to non-Jews expressing judgmental, ignorant, and rude opinions about their practices, religious and otherwise. This has been happening for millennia. If ridicule hasn’t deconverted them yet, it’s not going to.

Some atheists think of religion and religious privilege in very stark terms: religious people are privileged, atheists are oppressed. Even if this is true in the strictest sense, Jews do not command religious privilege comparable to that of Christians. I don’t think I need to try to provide a catalog of the ways in which Jews have been oppressed, including in the United States, including today. I have personally experienced anti-Semitism, despite being an atheist.

In fact, a number of people in the thread said that they would be scared to fly in an airplane with someone that they had just noticed openly wearing tefillin and praying. I’m not sure how this is anything other than a grossly bigoted thing to say. While the OP did not themselves say such things, neither did they call out in any way the people who said it. That’s how discussions like these allow anti-Semitism and other bigoted attitudes to flourish. I’m sure the OP did not cause the people who said these things to have those opinions, as they probably had them before, but their unremarked upon presence in the thread normalizes the idea of presuming a religious person to be dangerous simply because they prayed in public. While this is a type of bigotry more dangerous to Muslims (and people perceived as Muslims), I’m not exactly happy to see it spreading to Jews.

I mentioned that I’d be happy to offer some language for asking people about their beliefs and practices (religious or otherwise) that is less likely to be pointlessly hurtful. The OP has not taken me up on that offer, but I will include it here:

  • “I noticed you praying in public. I’m curious about it. Do you mind telling me about why you do that?”
  • “What’s it like being a member of a minority religious group in such a visible way?”
  • “Do you ever feel self-conscious when you pray in public? How do you deal with that?”

Notice how all of these questions get at the issues that the OP claimed to be curious about, but in a way that communicates interest and curiosity rather than judgment and scorn. And maybe the OP really does feel judgment and scorn (at least, that is the impression I got from the post), but most people understand that there are times judgment and scorn can get in the way of learning and understanding. Even if you’re looking to ultimately change their mind, you’re going to be more successful if you don’t make them feel shamed and judged from the get-go. Shaming is actually not a good motivator.

Of course, if your actual goal is to mock religion, that’s different. That doesn’t interest me at all, but some people do it for personal reasons or political ones or some combination. Whatever, I’m not interested in telling people what to do so much as in telling people when their stated goals are not compatible with their actions. The OP said they wanted to understand, not mock. To me, it seemed like a bunch of statements with plausible deniability, and very little attempt at understanding.

But I suppose the real source of disagreement here is that I can’t bring myself to care about the mere fact that some person is religious and prays. If that’s all the information I have, I don’t care. I care about the ways organized religion harms its adherents, other people, and society. This is why I argue with people about things like abortion, sex education, separation of church and state, coerced prayer, science education, homophobia, and so on. If a religious person has views on these things that I disagree with, then I will argue with those views. The religious belief itself is something I also disagree with, but doesn’t harm me, so I don’t care about it. I don’t believe that religious belief somehow necessitates sexism, homophobia, or anything else, and I don’t believe that sexism, homophobia, or those other bad things can be fought simply by fighting religious belief, and I do believe that people will continue to believe in supernatural entities until we find a way to provide what they’re looking for without religion. We haven’t done that yet.

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*I intentionally left this person’s name out of this thread even though the post was public. That’s because I want this to be a discussion about these ideas (and my ideas), not about this person and what else they may have said before and who they are as a person. There’s nothing wrong with discussing that, but I’m not interested in hosting that discussion here. I will delete or edit comments that name this person, or go off-topic. If the OP wants to identify themselves in the comments, they are welcome to.