This piece was originally published in The Humanist.
“These people bring it on themselves.”
“Their hijinks should be held up as an example.”
“We can’t be soft on these people.”
These are some of the reactions I got when I posted a piece of news on my Facebook page, and wrote my commentary about it. The piece of news: A person had gotten stuck in a consensual but dangerous situation involving unconventional sexuality, had called 911 for help… and then had their story spread all over the Internet, with all the lurid details including the person’s name, when the recording of the 911 call was made public.
These reactions came, as far as I can tell, from atheists. Given the context, they were almost certainly atheists. But their anger and contempt wasn’t directed at the people who had exposed the 911 caller. It wasn’t directed at the people all over the Internet who were ridiculing him. It didn’t come from a humanist embrace of consensual human sexuality, and it wasn’t directed at the people who were dragging this person’s private sex life all over the Internet and taking gleeful pleasure in mocking it.
It was directed at the person who had placed the 911 call. And it was sharing in the Internet’s gleeful pleasure.
Because the person who made the 911 call was a priest.
He was a priest. And therefore, according to these atheists on my Facebook page, he had abdicated any right to call 911 for help when he was in danger, without having his sex life dragged all over the Internet. He was a hypocrite. Actually, we don’t know that for sure — we don’t know anything about this priest other than what he said in the 911 call, and we don’t know whether he was in a conservative church that practiced a lot of sexual shaming, or a more inclusive one that cherry-picked out the nasty pits of Catholic sexual shame. But he had perpetuated an institution — the Catholic Church — that’s created pointless sexual guilt for exactly the kinds of activities he was engaging in. So on at least some level, he was a hypocrite. And the punishment for religious hypocrisy — according to these people on my Facebook page — should be the public shaming of his private sexuality, and of his call for help. Even if the result is that other people with unconventional sexualities are now more afraid to call 911 if they need help, for fear that they’ll be exposed and humiliated… that’s okay. That’s a price these folks are willing to pay, if it means we can expose a religious sexual hypocrite. Another one. This week.
If you think I’m exaggerating, here are some other comments from the same discussion: “I am glad he was humiliated.” “You deserve whatever embarrassment is heaped upon you when your hypocrisy is revealed… I am glad that I live in a world where that dbag was forced to own up to his hypocrisy.” “It is his and his fellow clergy’s fault that ‘unconventional’ sex is taboo. Fuck him.” “Priests are terrorists and con-men.” “When you know the history of these institutions, you have no sympathy for these people…. Fuck this wrinkled old sack of hypocritical horseshit.”
I found this profoundly upsetting.
I am, as anyone knows who’s at all familiar with my work, a passionate defender of atheist anger. I literally wrote the book on atheist anger (“Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless”). I think anger can be a powerful tool in a social change movement: in fact, I think it’s a necessary one, one that no social change movement I know of has ever been able to do without. I think anger motivates us to correct injustice, to alleviate harm, to make the world a better place. And I can absolutely understand the anger at the sexual hypocrisy of some leaders in the Catholic Church, who shame their followers for the exact sexual practices they themselves partake in. Hell, I share it.
But there’s a difference between anger and hatred.
Here’s the thing. Religion, and the harm that so often comes from it, creates a complex moral paradox: The people who are perpetrating the harmful things about religion are, for the most part, also its victims. And vice versa. Which means — among other things — that we need to have at least some degree of compassion for the people we’re angry at.
The people who traumatize their young children with vivid and horrific images of hell were, themselves, traumatized by those horrors. The religious leaders who fill their flocks with close-minded ignorance and hateful bigotry were, themselves, taught that ignorance and bigotry are divine virtues, dearly treasured by God. The people who are warping the sexuality of their kids and teenagers, filling them with guilt and shame over normal healthy feelings, were, themselves, warped in this same way. The perpetrators of religion are also its victims. And as humanists and atheist activists, we’re supposed to have compassion for the victims of religion.
And a priest who felt he had to be secretive about his unconventional sexuality because it was forbidden by the teachings of his church… that is a perfect example of this principle in action. Sure, if someone is an immensely powerful, truly horrible perpetrator of religion — Osama Bin Laden, Jerry Falwell, the Pope — I could see the anger/ compassion balance tilting pretty strongly in the direction of anger. But a kinky priest who was giving himself pleasure that his Church preaches against? Is that really an appropriate target for our unbridled, contemptuous, take-no-prisoners rage? Talk to the folks at the Clergy Project, the support organization for clergy members who have become atheists. Ask them what it’s like to be a member of the clergy who no longer believes in the teachings of their religion… whether those teachings are, “Kinky sex is bad,” or, “God exists.” Talk to them about how trapped they feel, how isolated, how ashamed, how afraid. And then tell me that they’re terrorists and con-men, that you have no sympathy for them, that their hijinks should be held up as an example, that they deserve whatever embarrassment is heaped upon them, that you are glad for their humiliation.
Our anger about religion is supposed to come from a place of compassion. It’s supposed to come because we see so much dreadful harm committed by religion, and we desperately want to see it end. When anger at religion turns into hatred — and when it becomes so hateful that it gets uncompromisingly aimed at the very people our compassion should be motivated by, simply because they’re part of the toxic system — it has gone seriously wrong.
I do not want an atheist movement where anger at religion is so blind that we lose all compassion for anyone who’s involved in it. I do not want a movement where we reflexively hate all priests so much — without knowing anything about them — that we think it’s okay that they should risk their safety and their life rather than call for help. I do not want a movement where the public humiliation of religious sexual hypocrites is so important to us that we don’t even care that other people, people who aren’t priests but who share this one’s sexual proclivities, are now being made even more afraid to call 911 when they need help.
Reading these Facebook responses… it was like a caricature of atheism, drawn by someone who hates atheists. But it was atheists drawing the caricature themselves. A self-portrait. And it’s not a portrait I want any part of.