If you listen

Look, what you see is not all there is, aka the availability heuristic, comes up again, this time at Alex’s, in a post about the fact that some people have every reason to be passionately angry at and about religion, and the related fact that others shouldn’t be telling such people to tone down their anger.

People like us are infamous for words like ‘privilege’, ‘splaining’, ‘problematic’; part of the power of concepts like these is that when transferred between activist contexts they expose parallels. I’m deeply aware there can be only limited analogy between atheism and the concerns of more marginalised groups, and would hate to devalue their language. But I’m convinced of the following:

It is a form of privilege to be an atheist who’s never experienced religious abuse, as many of us have who are antagonistic.

It is privilege blindness to expect — without a clue what we’ve experienced or what it means to us — that we give up our self-expression so that you can form alliances with faith communities that deeply injured us.

It is tone-policing if when you’re not telling us to shut up about it, you’re telling us how to talk about it. How dare you tell us to be more respectful.

It is splaining if your answer when we detail histories of religious abuse is ‘Yes, but’ — or if you tell us we can’t blame religion for it since not all believers do the same. We know the details. You don’t.

Commenter smhll made a very apposite comparison:

I agree very strongly. I’m truly fortunate that my parents barely even bothered to fake any religious faith (even decades ago; I’m oldish). My sibling and I got taken to a liberal church maybe twice a year. My parents were even fairly sex positive.

There’s a parallel to be drawn between people who’ve only had mild, okay experiences with police and people who’ve only had mild, okay experiences with clergy and churchgoers. (But I don’t want to oversell the similarity since police brutality is extra painful this week.) Just because some people get acceptable treatment from police (when they rarely are confronted) doesn’t mean that that behavior is a constant.

See? That’s what you see is not all there is. I haven’t had bad experiences with the police; I don’t get to conclude from that fact that there are no bad experiences with the police to be had. I don’t get to generalize from my experience in cases where I have good reason to know that my experience is not typical. Some kinds of experience it’s ok to extrapolate from, and it’s part of empathy to do so. Other kinds, it really isn’t.

HjHornbeck also made the analogy.

I’ve been finding myself gradually slipping towards the “faitheist” side. Liberal believers seem gloriously liberal, a refreshing break from the angry fights I’ve gotten into with semi-liberal or conservative atheists.

But as Benson recently pointed out, what you see is not all there is. Just because I’ve had no experience with religion, let alone been effected by it, doesn’t mean others have experienced the same nor that they are unjustified in being angry about their experiences. To each their area of expertise, and thanks to your history yours is the subtle corrosion of liberal belief.

I’d be wise to listen, rather than argue over tone or strategic alliances.

If you listen, you might learn more about what there is.




  1. Blanche Quizno says

    What you find on the abusive side of the religious spectrum is the cult phenomenon. Those of us who have experienced cult indoctrination, who were raised from birth within a cultic indoctrinating milieu, steeped, even, in a psyche-corrosive environment, will probably, predictably, have far stronger negative perspectives and experiences once we escape than those who were raised in a more secular milieu. Not all cults feature shaved heads, orange robes, child brides, compounds bristling with guns and ordnance, or mass suicides. All cults feature authoritarian control, a marked emphasis on obedience and blind faith, the subsuming of one’s own personality and individuality to service to and belonging to the cult, and separation from society at large (the cult becomes one’s sole social circle, shunning any who leave), among other details. A great many of the mainstream religions qualify, and the “collateral damage” they produce is pronounced. Religion is far from benign; it is actively harmful in many, if not most, of its manifestations. The fact that it promotes supernatural beliefs and magical thinking is proof enough of that, and that’s just scratching the surface.

    As for the parallel with law enforcement – this is part of a letter to the editor published in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune newspaper a few days ago:

    Have you been pulled over for a traffic stop lately? I have, as has my wife.

    Both times at 8 a.m. on bright sunny days. Both times for alleged violations of a tinted-window law — an unconstitutional law on our state’s books. But that’s not the point here. The demeanor of the trooper in the first case was abusive. His attitude and harsh language and secretiveness as to why we were being stopped was unbelievable.

    We were mentally shaken for a couple of days after the encounter. Now the hook: My wife and I are both white and in our late 50s, and we drive a Volvo station wagon. I can only imagine what it would be like for a young man or woman of color to have been stopped by this same trooper. For the record, we were very respectful to the trooper but did ask why he pulled us over. Yes, we “questioned his authority,” if you want to spin it that way.

    …The root problem lies in how law enforcement is interacting with citizens. All citizens. If a mild-mannered white couple can be treated with unprovoked aggressive disrespect, think of what is in store for those not white, not middle age, not driving a station wagon. I’m sure you get the picture. If not, look at how the citizens of Ferguson were treated. Does the fellow standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square strike a chord, America? Read more at http://www.startribune.com/opinion/commentaries/271463841.html

    I, a white woman, have had similar experiences with hostile, aggressive law enforcement personnel. In the wake of the grotesque miscarriage of justice that was the Michael Crowe case (re: his sister Stephanie Crowe’s murder) + the heinous Kids for Kash scandal, where law officers merrily rounded up children as young as 8 so that a corrupt, bribed judge could sentence them to long incarceration in the private prisons whose officials were paying him off, my children and their friends all know that, until they’re 16, the ONLY thing they are allowed to say to a police officer is “I want my mom.” If they are 16 or 17, they may say, “I want a lawyer” AND “I want my mom.” At age 18, “I want a lawyer.” And they can ask for their moms, too, if they like 🙂

  2. says

    Maybe I should’ve posted over on Alex’ post, but I’m mostly thinking of it now after Alex got criticism.

    I grew up with a liberalish religion (RLDS, the liberal version of Mormonism, since renamed themselves Community of Christ). And I’m still bitter about it, even though it was fairly mild. I don’t think I really bought in to it as a kid, but Christianity was everywhere and all that. Mostly I’m bitter about the wasted time, being forced to go to church and church camps I hated, but especially about being kept pretty sheltered which, combined with being in this teensy weird minority religion, rather retarded my development of social skills.

    Basically, that was enough for me to find it easy to sympathize with the confrontational atheists and get really irked at the accomodationalist/fatheist sorts. I don’t believe there’s such a thing as religion that is more good than bad. The more liberal versions just seem to be better at pretending to accept reality.

  3. Hj Hornbeck says

    Woo hoo, I’m flattered by the quote!

    Listening is a key part of how I argue. If I don’t think I can fairly and accurately summarize the other side, I don’t bother. How else can I be sure I’m arguing against their actual arguments? Likewise, you should always argue from the totality of evidence; if not, you can wind up in a situation where both sides’ arguments are well supported by the portions of evidence they know of, but not by the evidence known by the other side. If you don’t listen, there’s a good chance you’ll be missing out on evidence that could change your mind.

    It’s kinda Daoist. To change someone’s else mind, you should be willing to change your own. To argue your side, you should know the arguments for the other.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *