Over the last couple years, I have argued to my fellow atheists that we should do a better job with respect to being civil, empathetic, and rationalistic in debating. Specifically I have written extensively against abusively name calling, hastily personalizing abstract disputes, and exacerbating acrimonious interpersonal feuds.
All of this has regularly been mistaken for an attack on “dirty words” as though they have some magical power (which it is not), or a denunciation of all emotional appeals in discourse (which it is not), or an insistence that we never ever have a hostile tone when making arguments (which it is not), or a dismissal of the value of safe spaces (which it is not). I have also made explicitly clear that I will not automatically ban, or invalidate the feelings of, marginalized people who lash out intemperately when unfairly goaded. To highlight this part of my moderation enforcement policy for those who missed it amidst so much verbiage:
If you lose your cool and just tell the person off, then I will look to see if you have been provoked (if I had not noticed already). If I see clearly that you have been goaded, I will make a point to acknowledge the justification for your anger and request that you try to express it civilly and that you please return your focus to debating the points under contention. If your interlocutor’s provocation was egregious, your interlocutor will either be moderated for an indefinite period of time or banned for everyone’s sake, depending on how severe what they said or did was.
Notice there, so it is clear: I was saying that if a member of a marginalized group was goaded and they responded excessively harshly, the rebuke would go to the one goading them and the one goading them would be placed in moderation. The rightly offended party’s feelings would be validated and the offended party would just be asked to keep the whole thread from melting down further with continued hostility.
I have also argued that we atheists should as much as possible not demonize religious people or call them (or anyone for that matter) stupid, but rather try to love them as best we can and try to have constructive dialogue with them wherever possible. I refuse as false the idea that debating believers is inevitably futile and think that, even were that true, that that would be no justification for Othering and abusing believers.
Now, today a Christian classmate from my college days wrote me to say that she gleaned from my latest installment in my series on my deconversion that the reason I “lost my faith” was that I had legalistically tried to save myself and had put faith in other people rather than simply “relying on [my] relationship with Jesus and [my] love for Him”. My response was severe:
“[Name redacted], with all due respect, fuck you for telling me I didn’t love jesus enough.”
And then I blocked her.
Then without identifying her, I posted the opening portion of her e-mail to me and a slight variation of my response to her on Facebook, and I wrote a blog post fleshing out the reasons for my indignation at her response. I have received both a lot of support and some criticism for the way I handled the situation.
Now, I am the first to admit that I have a temper problem. If I fail to live up to my own ideals for ethical discussion, then that’s my problem, not the problem with my ethical standards. Ethical standards are sometimes hard to live by, but that does not, of itself, invalidate them. I am not sure if in this case I actually have violated them. I do not think I am obligated to debate every single person who wants to engage in discussion with me. I have kept my interlocutor’s name out of this and I have avoided calling her abusive names and am not going to go harass her. In my post replying to her comment, I softened my remark from the potentially offensive “fuck you”. My blog post itself, while sarcastic and angry was within the bounds of angry expression I have all along said was approvable. But was the “fuck you” which I sent directly to her and reposted in my status update morally acceptable? That’s what I am not sure about and would appreciate your feedback on.
People have written saying that she reached out “in love” and meant to care for a friend and so she didn’t deserve such harsh treatment and she wasn’t going to learn anything from me shutting down discourse with her like that.
Let me explain what was so wrong with what she did and why I responded as I did and why I reposted it on Facebook.
First of all, I want to make clear, my response was as an ex-Christian more specifically than as atheist. As at least one Christian and former classmate at my deeply Evangelical alma mater who wrote on my Facebook wall noted, her comment was symptomatic of how Christians treat each other abusively, not just a problem between Christians and atheists. Christians routinely trivialize each other’s problems by answering their excruciating struggles with banal clichés.
Now, this happens among non-believers too. I have learned to be careful about expressing personal frustrations on Facebook (particularly about my love life) because I know that there are a lot of people who think that unsolicited advice in the form of clichés is exactly what hurting people need to solve their complicated problems. Like, “my romantic confidence with women was in shambles until one day someone informed me that all I had to do was be myself and then, wow, were my eyes opened! Thanks, Drive-by Facebook Psychiatrist, where would I be without you!”
Personal advice is a good thing, but it should only be given upon request, humbly, tentatively, and with extraordinary attention and sensitivity to the other person’s specific situation–their needs, temperament, experiences, resources, limits, pressures, etc. Responsibly advising people on personal matters requires actively and empathetically listening to them. It means carefully asking them questions designed to help them clarify things for themselves. It means phrasing your perceptions of a situation as suggestions, rather than pronouncements, and respecting their moral rights to think and value and feel for themselves about their situation. You can make a moral or intellectual or emotional argument to someone who needs such advice, but you need to show some genuine humility and ability to understand and empathize first.
We all botch this sometimes of course. Some of us more egregiously than others. And unfortunately some Christians (and likely other religious believers) tend towards a specific, harmful form of presumptuous, trivializing unsolicited advice giving. They use it towards each other and towards apostates from the faith both. These Christians not only treat all problems, no matter how difficult, as simplistically solvable if only one applies a banal truism, but they regularly reduce all problems to one’s apparent failure to love or trust Jesus enough.
What’s that? You’re grieving your lost child? Well, you don’t love Jesus enough to just let her go and trust that you will be reuinited happier than ever in heaven.
What’s that? You lost your job and are afraid of losing your house? You know what you need to do now? Get on your knees and start trusting God! He always provides.
What’s that? You are struggling with clinical depression? You know you need to start letting go and letting God and start appreciating His gracious blessings to you instead of dwelling on the downside and trying to make yourself happy.
What’s that? You have doubts about the truth of Christianity? That’s because sin has become between you and God!—-Oh wait. What’s that? You just poured out your heart and revealed intimate personal and psychosexual details, all in an effort to make clear that you did everything you could to remove barriers of “sin” from between you and God so that he would reveal himself to you, and yet you intellectually and morally still couldn’t believe? That’s because you’re a legalist who tried to earn your way into heaven rather than love Jesus enough!
I didn’t ask for my friend’s advice about how to become a Christian again. I know many Christians find this unfathomable, but I’m a whole lot happier and healthier without Christianity arresting my emotional, intellectual, psychological, social, and sexual development than I was with it doing all of that.
But even if I had wanted her advice she could have actually read and treated seriously the 20+ posts where I discussed in detail the numerous intellectual and personal stages of my deconversion. She could have shown some respect for the fact that I cope with the reality that I came close to accidentally pushing my best friend to suicide out of the same anti-homosexuality Christian attitudes and beliefs that I know her church denomination specifically still holds to this day. She could have acknowledged that I have a PhD in philosophy and studied up on the copious explanations of my philosophical views that have come from 16 years of intensely personal and rigorously academic engagement with the reasons for belief or non-belief.
But, you see, she brushed all of that aside. Because there was an easy solution that fit her preconceived narrative about how people fall away for
not trying hard enough not loving Jesus enough.
And that was not loving on her part. Let’s not abuse the word “love” by granting it to her for her lazy know-it-all self-righteous attempt to give advice to someone she took a whopping ten minutes to try to understand. It was arrogant, self-absorbed, and emotionally reckless. Because like many Christians, she is callous about how much it hurts many Christians and ex-Christians alike to tell them that their problem was that they didn’t either try hard enough, commit sincerely enough, look for God carefully enough, or love Jesus enough. When you are dealing with people as emotionally and spiritually scrupulous as the devout and those apostates who left after a soul-wrenching process of desperately trying to salvage their faith, you must take seriously that the present or former sincerity of their religious commitments is often a core part of their personal integrity.
Many of us who conscientiously reject our religious faiths do so out of an intense and personally costly ethical commitment to honesty. It takes incredible amounts of emotional and spiritual resolve to counter the enormous emotional manipulation that we suffer from other believers. When you personally invalidate our feelings, or doubt the sincerity of our former beliefs, the strength of our former love for Jesus or our ethical sense of integrity on account of our leaving the faith, you not only misrepresent and malign one of the psychologically bravest and most ethical parts of us, but, worse, you try to manipulate that very part of us, our conscientiousness, in order to blame us and try to control our future beliefs and behavior.
My “fuck you” today didn’t come out of nowhere. It happens when someone tries to manipulate me in this specific way right after I have just scrupulously made clear the depths of my philosophical, religious, and ethical commitments to investigate the truth of Christianity and to give it every reasonable benefit of the faith before rejecting it. These blow ups are rare. I do not condone blowing up over abstractly phrased challenges to my atheism (even if I might, by accident do so on occasion). Christians may defend their views civilly and I will do the same.
But where I get personal and unapologetically defensive is at those times at which I have just made every possible effort to make clear the logic of my disbelief and the excruciatingly difficult personal processes that were involved in abandoning it, only to have a smarmy, contemptuous, un-self-aware Christian, who likely has never dared a whit of legitimate doubt in her entire life, thoughtlessly disparage my ethical integrity and intellectual seriousness with a bunch of manipulative boiler plate clichés.
Every idea and every identity is open to as vigorous criticism as you can bring, even if it is unpleasant. As long as your criticism is basically civil, rational, honest, sincere, and/or funny it’s fair game. But when Christians try to manipulate me personally by carelessly calling into question my personal integrity and ignoring all the complexities of my personal journey to doubt, we are no longer in the realm of ideas, but in the personal realm. And you are not calling into question my ideas, but my character. And you are not trying to reason with me but rather to manipulate me. And at that point, I am not going to call you names or declare a personal vendetta or harass you, but I am going to warn you that you’d better knock it the fuck off or we will not be able to be friends. I am going to assert my own boundaries against being personally attacked and manipulated by someone of insipidly shallow psychological understanding and respect for me. Whatever words need to be said to get that assertion across, manipulative people need to be confronted with them. I chose the phrase “fuck you” to convey that message.
But maybe I should have gone with a less personally malicious phrase for retaliation. If any more temperate phrase would have done the trick, it probably would have been preferable.
Okay. I’m sorry. I’ll try to do better while conveying the same points next time.
A further explanation of what was wrong with choosing this mode of expressing my just indignation is in my post on The Abuser’s Dialectic.