I’ve been troubled by the idea that phrases like “person of faith” or “man of God” are supposed to be understood to mean “good person.” Pretty much by definition.
Well, there’s a story in the news that’s turning this irritation into a full-flown outrage. And it’s making me realize what, exactly, it is about this trope that I find so troubling.
From the AP, via PageOneQ (via a comment on Daylight Atheism, where I got this story as well as the idea for this piece), we have the charming story of David Davis. Florida high school principal. Who, when a student told him that she was being harassed by other students for being a lesbian, told her that homosexuality was wrong, told her to stay away from children, and outed her to her parents.
And who, when the girl’s friends expressed their support for her by wearing gay pride T-shirts and buttons, interrogated them about their own sexuality and the sexuality of other students… and in some cases, suspended them.
And we have the story of the community who, when the school district was sued by the ACLU for this behavior, and Principal David was reprimanded and demoted, expressed righteous outrage and anger towards the girl’s family and the ACLU, and backed Davis up… because he was a Christian.
Saying things like:
“David Davis is a fine man and good principal, and we are a gentle, peaceful, Christian, family-oriented community.”
So today, I want to talk about religion as misdirection.
In stage magic, misdirection is a central skill in which the audience’s attention is focused on one thing to distract their attention from something else. You do something that looks big and interesting and important with your right hand; people don’t notice the less flashy but genuinely important thing you’re doing with your left.
I bring this up because I think religion often acts as a form of ethical misdirection. It creates an illusion of good, ethical behavior… which distracts the observer from the question of whether this person’s actions really are, in any useful, real-world way, ethical and good.
Think about the quote above. Think about what it means to look at Principal Davis’s actions, and call them fine and good, gentle and peaceful.
What is gentle and peaceful about responding to a teenage girl who tells you in confidence that she’s being bullied — by bullying her some more? By blaming the victim? By ignoring her complaint, betraying her confidence, and telling her that she’s a bad person who can’t be trusted around children?
And what is gentle and peaceful about using your position of power to silence the girl’s supporters — a.k.a. your detractors — by interrogating them about their own sexuality and kicking them out of school? It’s not even Christian; at least if you take the whole “Turn the other cheek” thing to heart. (And, as Ingrid points out, it’s more than a little sexually creepy as well. In any other context, a high school principal going around asking his underage students about their sexual practices would be fired so fast
it’d make your head spin.)
And yet, the people of this Florida community have been misdirected into thinking that Davis is a gentle, peaceful person. He’s a Christian, after all. And in their mindset, “Christian” means “gentle, peaceful person,” de facto and by definition.
Religion, essentially, is serving here as the big flashy gesture done with the right hand, that distracts from the actual moral behavior that’s being done with the left. It’s the shiny show of fineness and goodness, gentleness and peace, that keeps people from seeing that the actions being done are, in fact, brutal, hurtful, domineering, and evil.
And it creates a misdirection so strong that it can effectively replace the entire notion of right and wrong. When hard-line religious believers slander atheists by saying that we have no morality, insisting that there can be no morality without belief in God… well, what is that but a substitution of religion for ethics? What is that but a replacement of your own moral instincts and perceptions with obedience to somebody else’s code?
This is a point Ingrid keeps making. When religious believers accuse atheists of taking the easy way out, her reply is, “Do you know how hard it is to live the way I do? It would be so much easier to just do what some book says — or to do what some leader tells me about what the book says. And it would be so much easier if I could always convince myself that God wanted me to do what I do. To actually think about my hard moral choices? And take responsibility for them? And live with them for the rest of my life? That’s not the easy way out. That’s harder than you will ever know.”
I’m not saying all religious believers do this. There are certainly believers — usually of the more progressive, less fundamentalist variety — who think that God created them with a moral compass and bloody well expects them to use it themselves. I’m not saying all religion is ethical misdirection. I’m saying that some of it is. Way, way too much of it.
And I’m not saying this misdirection is conscious, either. Most of the time, I think it probably isn’t. I think many religious believers themselves are convinced that they are good people, and that the strength of their religious faith makes them so.
But in a way, that actually makes it more insidious. After all, if someone consciously knows that they’re being deceptive, there’s always a chance that their conscience will catch up with them. But if they’re completely mired in their own rationalization, it becomes a self-perpetuating circle that’s almost impossible to break.
Religion can create an ethical misdirection so powerful, it fools even the magician.
And that scares the crap out of me.
(These ideas were largely inspired by the Imaginary Virtues piece on Daylight Atheism, which everyone has to go and read right this minute.)