Vancouver is a wet place. Wet and gray. And often cold. And dark. And full of owlbears.
Except the owlbears are made up.
Or are they?
In my neighbourhood, there’s a very elderly woman who stands at a corner attempting to distribute Watchtower magazines and other Jehovah’s Witness literature to the passers-by. My neighbourhood is largely Chinese and Filipino, and predominantly Buddhist and Catholic as a result, so she is generally ignored.
Over the past couple months, I’ve begun to develop a weird little internal conflict in regards to this woman, triggered mostly by seeing her in the rain on cold and windy days. This occured again this weekend, on a particularly shit day where it was stings-your-fingers cold and there were just enough piles of slush, ice and melting snow strewn about to suck all the colour out of the landscape. I don’t know about you, but generally seeing a frail old lady standing in the cold and wet and being ignored by those around her definitely hits something in my heart.
The first time this happened it triggered a strange little ethical conflict. I found myself in the very uncomfortable position of shouting down my own instincts towards compassion. Something like…
Natalie’s Empathy: “She looks so sad and lonely, and she must be freezing. This is tragic. She’s old, this isn’t safe, she could catch pneumonia. And she’s suffering like this simply because she’s trying to offer what she perceives as salvation and help to those she perceives as in need. It may be misguided and misplaced compassion, but it’s compassion nonetheless”
Natalie’s Atheism and Anger: “Snap out of it, woman! She literally believes that while she ascends to eternal paradise, you deserve to be consigned to oblivion simply for being who you are. She sees you as a lesser being, an immoral sinner, one of those who should be begging her lord for forgiveness simply because of the ‘sinful’ nature of your identity and body. The salvation she offers would certainly demand you detransition and surrender yourself to a miserable, unfulfilled half-existence. Beliefs like hers are a huge part of what has made your life so difficult, have helped make it such that you risk your life every time you go out after dark or go to a bar or whatever, and that have convinced other Canadians to vote against your basic human rights time and time again. It’s something far more monstrous than misplaced compassion. It’s arrogance, judgment and hatred.”
… and then after that whole little process was over I felt this additional level of anger. I was angry that I had been put in the position of having to pit those sides of myself against one another. My compassion and empathy are things that I value, that are amongst of the parts of who I am that I’d most hate to sacrifice, and under most circumstances they cooperate just fine with my atheism and my politics. Fuck that lady for putting me in such an awful situation, and preying upon my emotions and basic human decency to try to get me to forgive her horrible belief system and attempts to spread it to everyone else!
Except… no. Not really. That’s a horrible thing for me to think. There was something very important I was missing.
The problem was not that I was being too empathetic, such that I missed the harmful aspect of what she was doing. The problem was I was not being empathetic enough. I was holding her purely accountable for those beliefs, and not considering how they weren’t quite a product of herself, or something she had simply chosen to proselytize. It was not a simple case of her opting to stand out there in the rain, or deciding I’m a sinner of lesser morals. Her church, her belief system, had placed her there, and had taught her that this was her only path to salvation. She was exactly as much a victim of the belief as anyone else. And was almost certainly more a victim of it than I… at least far more directly. After all, while she may threaten me with being shunned by an imaginary God, her beliefs had led her to stand there in the very real rain and very real cold and very real wind.
Beliefs and religions can be kind of like organisms in some ways. New ones pop up in human consciousness all the time. Some of them turn out to be particularly robust: they’re appealing and find new converts easily, they offer lots of psychological rewards for belief, and lots of psychological costs for rejection, and offer a little something for everyone. These ideas end up spreading and surviving while other ones die out. Also, little variations and tweaks appear in a belief or religion or ideology, and the variations that are better suited to survival and propagation spread while the weaker variations gradually vanish from the mainstream version of that religion, belief or ideology. Over time it evolves to be pretty much perfectly suited to engraining itself in a human mind and sticking there.
Christianity has had thousands of years to so evolve. And the Jehovah’s Witness strain ended up latched onto this women. It offers her a great deal… community, forgiveness, salvation, eternal life, love, a moral center, a sense of purpose, and many many other things. What is a little rain compared to that? She’s cold and wet now, sure, and endangering her health, but she’s doing the work of God, and will have eternal bliss at His side. When looked at in this light, how can we regard this as really having been such a simple choice? That she’s putting herself there? Even when viewed as a choice, would anyone who genuinely believes have chosen differently?
It’s the beliefs that have put her in the rain. What’s more, it’s not her who has caused me any harm. It’s the beliefs that endanger my life. It’s the beliefs that cause people like her to regard me as sinful and less, as abhorent and immoral. It’s the beliefs that deny me my rights and demonize and ridicule me in the eyes of my culture. It’s the beliefs that have harmed both of us. She’s not my adversary. She’s just someone else needlessly suffering because our culture is awash in such systems of belief and thought.
Of course, if I opt to try to convert her, if I start offering the same unasked-for “help” and “salvation” and proselytizing my “superior” viewpoints, I’ve begun to allow myself to engage in the very same systems of thought. At least the same systems of practice, anyway. Insisting to confer help upon those who haven’t asked for or chosen it, to people you regard as incapable of making the right choices for themselves, has been the justification for too many atrocities to name.
But next time I see her, I can invite her in for tea. It’s unlikely I’d ever be able to convert her to atheism anyway, but I can offer her someplace warm for an hour or two. I can offer her some company. And I can demonstrate that forgiveness, empathy, compassion and warmth can exist in this world, and amongst real people, rather than only in an imaginary hereafter.