Sunday, September 15, 2013


For all that we don't like to think of ourselves that way, the United States is often a nation of bullies. "You're different, and that's bad," become sufficient excuse for us to take out our own lack of comfort with ourselves on people who have made different choices than we have or are just plain not like us. And just like any group large enough to be on the public's radar is too large to not have any jackasses in it, it's also too large to not be seen as a target.

So here we have another article on how atheists feel bullied by Christians. It turns out to be Christians because the overwhelming majority of Americans who claim some religious identity are, not surprisingly, Christians. Therefore, there are some jackasses in the group. But there's something more to it than that. Whenever an article like this appears, and has a comment section attached, you can pretty much rest easy that someone's going to make a blanket statement about how Christians are a bunch of meanies. And that, invariably, leads to someone else making a statement about how true Christians are loving and tolerant, and it goes from there.

Leaving aside the common One True Scotsman fallacy that any invocation of "true Christians" often entails, I often find myself suggesting that maybe we shouldn't expect Christians to be unconditionally accepting of their more (or completely) secular brethren. Something to which people respond as if it were the lowest form of slander. I don't view Christians as necessarily being bigoted haters. But I recognize that the somewhat Manichean outlook that many denominations espouse creates conditions that are ripe for conflict.

There are a fair number of Christian sects that understand themselves to have a monopoly on spiritual truth, and have an understanding that only through knowing and accepting the truth can one be spiritually healthy (and perhaps that there is active danger in believing falsehoods). It's unsurprising that they might take exception to people promoting an alternative viewpoint. I have no more expectation that my doctor to be tolerant of what he considers quackery. It doesn't mean that he's actively intolerant; he feels that he has a job to do, and I understand when he resents people coming along and making that job harder by spouting what he sees as harmful falsehoods. There's a difference in him being okay with people who distrust modern pharmaceuticals, and him being okay with someone attempting to get me to stop taking my blood pressure medications in favor of some untested snake oil, or whatever. While I think he would be a bit saddened by the first, I think he'd be actively put out by the second, perhaps to the point of hostility. (Just as there are people who fervently believe that modern medicines are all about promoting illness and dependence and are hostile to those who purvey them.)

And this is often the dynamic that I see at work between American Christians and Secularists. Each accuses the other of leading the unsuspecting astray - either away from God into the clutches of the Devil or into superstition and ignorance. And so even if both sides understand that it's perfectly acceptable to believe whatever you chose, they tend to see evangelizing as dangerous. And from there it's a short step to see bullying one another as less about persecution of people who are different than it is about protecting the unsuspecting. Which is often, ironically, an easy way to tell ourselves that it isn't bullying.

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