Claiming the Mantle of Victimhood

The Roman Catholic church is the oldest, largest, and very likely the richest denomination of any organized religion on the planet Earth. It has over 1 billion believers worldwide; controls its own sovereign country ruled by the Pope; is the only religious denomination with permanent observer status at the United Nations; has its own radio broadcasting service, its own official newspapers, and numerous TV channels; owns hundreds of millions of dollars in assets and property worldwide; and still exerts tremendous influence in many countries worldwide, including the United States, where five of the nine justices on the Supreme Court are Catholic.

In light of all this wealth and power enjoyed by the Catholic church, as well as many other sects and denominations, claims like the following from this article from the National Catholic Register look especially ridiculous:

Today, believers are the besieged “rebels” whose position has been persecuted and threatened.

Note – not Catholics, nor Christians, but believers. Apparently, atheists have become the majority overnight without anyone noticing, and we are now using our superior power and influence to “persecute” and “besiege” theists. No doubt there are many believers who will nod their heads seriously at this story, never even considering its patent absurdity.

These laughable claims of oppression are another indicator of the way Christianity has grown beyond anything its founders ever envisioned or anticipated, as I wrote earlier this year in “A Religion Not Made for Success“. The first generation of Christians believed that the end of the world was imminent, and that Christianity would remain a small, outcast sect until then. Therefore, one of the things Jesus said is that Christians would be persecuted, and so today’s Christians, unwilling to deny these words despite their obvious falsehood, simply insist in the face of all evidence that they are a persecuted minority. The image of themselves as the victims, rather than the oppressors, is built so deeply into Christian consciousness that many apologists find it irresistible.

Also, I think there’s another reason for believers trying to claim the mantle of victimhood for themselves, one that works in symbiosis with the other. Namely, people like the underdog; we want to root for the underdog. No famous book or movie, for obvious reasons, ever depicted the heroes as prevailing against a much weaker, more cowardly, more poorly armed foe. We tend to feel sympathy for the downtrodden and the oppressed, and we naturally want to rally to their side. And if the persecuted group is one we feel identity with, so much the better. Nothing convinces people to circle the wagons and band together like believing that their group is under attack from outsiders.

This more than anything is why religious groups, Christians in particular, want to depict themselves as the persecuted minority. If anything, the more powerful and influential a religious group is, the quicker they are to cry persecution whenever they meet with opposition. It’s a cheap and dirty tactic for rallying the troops and winning sympathy for their cause, and the fact that it’s a claim with no basis in reality usually matters not at all. And by depicting themselves as the persecuted ones, it diverts attention away from legitimate claims by groups that actually are being oppressed and discriminated against. I suspect many religious leaders fear the consequences of a widespread realization that if any group truly is the underdog today, it is the atheists.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ John P

    In sheer numbers, yes, the believers are certainly in the majority worldwide, by a very large margin.

    But in ideas, in evidence, in sheer intellect, they are clearly the weaker, and I suspect that’s what drives their feelings of persecution. They lose in the war of ideas, every time. The smarter one know that. Surely they must be feeling some heat.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ John P

    In sheer numbers, yes, the believers are certainly in the majority worldwide, by a very large margin.

    But in ideas, in evidence, in sheer intellect, they are clearly the weaker, and I suspect that’s what drives their feelings of persecution. They lose in the war of ideas, every time. The smarter one know that. Surely they must be feeling some heat.

  • http://www.operacast.com G Riggs

    It’s even more than that, IMO, although what’s already described here also happens. There is a distinct vein of distrust of the intellect in certain quarters of the Christian community. They (sometimes) think it’s somehow not the thing to apply to intellect to defend their beliefs. “That’s getting away from faith, which is a ‘no-no’”……….. So when asked to use an argument requiring cerebral cogitation, they can get uneasy (some may also be bad at that, but I’m talking primarily of the “Faith” tradition). They’ll even worry if their mere use of the intellect might be a sign that that their “faith” isn’t “sure”, so they’ll even shy away from doing that at all (see John Donne). Consequently, when voluntarily depriving themselves of the use of the intellect, some can get defensive at being asked to explain their creed in ways that nonbelievers can readily grasp. It’s a small step from being defensive to a sense of victimhood.

    It’s ironic that the original Greek word for “faith” in the Gospels is “pistos”, which simply meant “Trust” in the latter half of the 1st cent. C.E. That’s all. It was later academicians and apostolic fathers who concocted this thing called “faith” out of arcane readings of the original texts.

    Cheers,

    G Riggs

  • Dysnomian

    I wonder how the minds of these Christian apologists work. How much of it is subconscious manipulation, maybe working to best position themselves for what they see as persecution on the horizon; how much of it is conscious manipulation; and how much of it is genuine belief due to compartmentalization and willful blindness?

    If you take a sort of clinical fascination with the whole affair, it’s a little easier to take. I mean, if it works for forensic entomologists… ;)

  • Archi Medez

    A major problem in the National Catholic Register article is in the author’s technique of conflating atheism with communism. Even Marx himself denied that there was any necessary connection between Marxism and atheism. Nevertheless, many theist writers continue to attribute the atrocities committed by militant Marxists/communists with atheists. This communism = atheism is a categorical error, but, it seems to me that the error is so obvious that it is unlikely that those who use it are not doing do deliberately in order to mislead people.

    I also am a bit unsure as you mean, Ebonmuse, when you dismiss as absurd the claim that Christians are persecuted. If you mean that there is no significant persecution of Christians by atheists, in the sense that the atheists are persecuting Christians because they refuse to convert to atheism, I would, tentatively, agree, because I know of no such cases today. (Of course there could be some rare exceptions that we don’t know about). The cases in China (today) to which the National Catholic Register author alludes, are not, to my knowledge, caused by atheism but rather by a militantly repressive brand of communist dictatorship practiced by the Chinese government.

    If you are making the more general claim–and I suspect you are not–that no Christians anywhere are persecuted by anyone, I would have to disagree. Christians are persecuted, by Muslims, in Muslim-majority countries such as Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey, Bangladesh, Iraq, etc. The fact that a religion or sect such as the Catholic Church is large and influential does not necessarily, nor even strongly, imply that some Christians somewhere are not persecuted. Although the Catholic Church is large and powerful, it is not large and powerful everywhere. Nor has it, to any significant extent, done much to protect Christian minorities living under sharia-based societies.

  • Alex Weaver

    Note – not Catholics, nor Christians, but believers. Apparently, atheists have become the majority overnight without anyone noticing, and we are now using our superior power and influence to “persecute” and “besiege” theists. No doubt there are many believers who will nod their heads seriously at this story, never even considering its patent absurdity.

    One of the most prevalent and irritating dirty tricks I’ve seen from amateur apologists is equating the general category to which their group belongs (a category which is generally viewed positively) with their specific beliefs: hence absurdities like conservative Protestants and Evangelicals who defend assert that they are opposed to premarital sex or to drinking “because I’m a Christian,” or assert that people should vote for Bush “because he’s a Christian.”

  • rob

    I know a couple of people who actually buy this poppycock of the oppressed American Christian, afraid to show their face in the blue states lest their noses be chopped off and their skin branded – sort of how Christians used to treat people. From what I can tell, though, their attitude seems to be that because Christians are the majority, their beliefs have a right to go unchallenged and uncriticized. This is a Christian country, after all, and if a handful of sinners are unimpressed with their god and say so, then that must constitute a kind of tyranny of the minority. You can see this attitude every yuletide when Bill O’Reilly drags out the tired old War on Christmas and tries to convince us that anybody who says “Happy Holidays” is a disgusting atheist bigot.

    I think John P. is right. They may have the numbers, but they have absolutely no way of defending those ideas. That’s why they have to retreat behind these useless diversions. I disagree that the smartest among them come up with these arguments because they feel heat. The smartest among the believers chock up their religion to a leap of faith and move on with their lives. It’s the most stupid, close-minded, uninformed and uninterested who are so threatened by even a hint of reasonable investigation that they have to cry oppression to avoid it.

    Incidentally, I followed his suggestion and looked up the Inquisition on Catholic.com – and of course it was the same old tepid apologetics “Just because that’s what some Christians did in the name of Christianity with the backing of the Christian power structure doesn’t mean that’s what Christianity stands for.” “Just because we strive to be holy doesn’t we don’t occasionally sin, and then use our religion to justify the horrible atrocities that are really just minor slip-ups on the road to salvation.”

  • Alex Weaver

    Heh…maybe I’ve been hanging around Pharyngula too long, but the “mantle of victimhood” makes me think of martyred cephalopods. O.o

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ John P

    I finally read the original article. It helps to see the source. A couple of things:

    One was the literally militant atheism that took hold in communist regimes in the middle of the 20th century.

    This was addressed above, but I really think it needs to be said that communism really set back atheism 100 years. Atheism was credible in the 19th century, and had a chance to progress, if communism hadn’t appeared to appropriate it.

    Back then, thinkers spoke a common language, based on rules of reason and logic that were widely shared. Ironically, the language of reason that Catholic scholastics perfected allowed these atheists to make their cases.

    The word circumlocution comes to mind. Theology is so convoluted and dense, not to mention circular and bootstrapped dependent, it gives logic a bad name.

    Cal Thomas recently cited the numbers:

    Now there’s a respected authority. I wrote about him recently.

  • Adviser Moppet

    I’ve always thought that Christians in America claiming persecution was the most arrogant thing in the world. Whenever I heard a Christian claim that they are being persecuted in America I always thought, “What would Christians living in Islamic dominated countries suffering from real persection think about the Christians in America that claim this?” I’m thinking……..They’d be pissed.

  • my view

    I usually feel encouraged about the the advancement of our view whenever I visit this site, however after attending a wedding this past weekend I am not sure the atheist viewpoint is making any advances.
    Although both the bride and the groom to my knowledge never attend church, nor do their parents, they still felt compelled to have the ceremony officiated by a minister with the usual prayers and bible passages. It seems to me we are preaching almost exclusively to our fellow atheists here and other sites like this.

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    Have you see Zeno’s fisking of David Carlin of the Community College of Rhode Island who wrote an article in Homiletic & Pastoral Review (June 2007) lamenting the passing of the good old days? Carlin says:

    The sociologically interesting thing about these anti-Christian, pro-atheism best-sellers is that they violate what has been, for most of the 20th century, an unwritten rule of American cultural good manners, namely, that you are not supposed to attack the religious beliefs of a fellow American in a public and conspicuous way….

    It followed from this rule of good manners that atheists and agnostics were not allowed to attack theism in general or Christianity in particular. There was of course no law against such attacks, but for an unbeliever to attack Christianity was regarded as a great breach of courtesy.

    One notable and rather inconsistent feature of this speak-no-evil taboo was that it did not require reciprocity between theists and atheists. Atheists were expected to abstain from criticizing religion, yes, but religious believers were not expected to abstain from criticizing atheism.

    … Those days are gone-and probably gone forever, despite the wishes of some cultural conservatives who would like once again to define the United States as a Christian nation, or at least as a Judeo-Christian nation. There are now too many atheists in America for the US to return to that old self-definition of itself.

    Yes, poor babies. Those atheists aren’t taking it quietly any longer; that makes the Catholics the victims, all right.

  • Alex Weaver

    I usually feel encouraged about the the advancement of our view whenever I visit this site, however after attending a wedding this past weekend I am not sure the atheist viewpoint is making any advances.
    Although both the bride and the groom to my knowledge never attend church, nor do their parents, they still felt compelled to have the ceremony officiated by a minister with the usual prayers and bible passages. It seems to me we are preaching almost exclusively to our fellow atheists here and other sites like this

    While the obvious lack of connection between your example and your conclusion, the minimal relevance of this comment to the thread topic, and your lack of suggestions for what to do about the state of affairs you assert to obtain, puts your sincerity very much in doubt, I will indulge you for the moment: are you actually under the impression that atheists as a whole expect the mistletoe of religious ritual and tradition to extract its roots from the tree of culture, wither up, and fall off overnight on the basis of our outreach? That expectation is the only reason one could conclude that the persistence of religious rituals as cultural tradition less than two decades into the mainstream proliferation of weblogging and website outreach indicates that we are failing to meet our goal.

  • Alex Weaver

    (A minor clarification: by “puts your sincerity very much in doubt” I mean the above comment closely matches the general pattern of “concern trolling.” If you are in earnest, I apologize).

  • KShep

    I was flipping channels one day—probably a Sunday—-and caught a few minutes of a TV preacher (can’t remember his name, he isn’t one of the more famous ones) whining about how “the pulpit is the only place in America where free speech isn’t allowed.” He was referring to laws which prevented him from endorsing a candidate for president (wonder who he wanted to endorse?). His complaint, of course, was loudly cheered by the gathered believers, who undoubtedly identify themselves as victims as well.

    Too bad they haven’t figured out that if they’re really victims, they’re victims OF religion.

  • KShep

    I was flipping channels one day—probably a Sunday—-and caught a few minutes of a TV preacher (can’t remember his name, he isn’t one of the more famous ones) whining about how “the pulpit is the only place in America where free speech isn’t allowed.” He was referring to laws which prevented him from endorsing a candidate for president (wonder who he wanted to endorse?). His complaint, of course, was loudly cheered by the gathered believers, who undoubtedly identify themselves as victims as well.

    Too bad they haven’t figured out that if they’re really victims, they’re victims OF religion.

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    Even Richard Dawkins keeps Christmas!

  • uhclem

    Being married to a genuinely sincere right-wing fundamentalist, I can say that the time she felt most threatened, persecuted if you will, was the last (and I mean last) time I attempted to persuade her that there might be something fishy with this holy book she worships. There is a real emotional barrier there that, when approached, results in a pretty frantic response. This deception is very insidious and there is a real perception of persecution in the minds of believers. It isn’t hard to see why this type of thing is reinforced from the pulpit, after all, any number of bible verses can be used to support this point of view. The patent absurdity is somehow completely lost on otherwise very intelligent people. Makes for an interesting home life, the invisible pink unicorn in the corner. GD

  • uhclem

    Being married to a genuinely sincere right-wing fundamentalist, I can say that the time she felt most threatened, persecuted if you will, was the last (and I mean last) time I attempted to persuade her that there might be something fishy with this holy book she worships. There is a real emotional barrier there that, when approached, results in a pretty frantic response. This deception is very insidious and there is a real perception of persecution in the minds of believers. It isn’t hard to see why this type of thing is reinforced from the pulpit, after all, any number of bible verses can be used to support this point of view. The patent absurdity is somehow completely lost on otherwise very intelligent people. Makes for an interesting home life, the invisible pink unicorn in the corner. GD

  • http://www.dangerousintersection.org Erich Vieth

    Believers as a “minority”? In the U.S., there is good reason to think this is true, if one carefully considers who should qualify as a believer. Many of the believers I know (many of them highly educated and successful people) give very little thought to their religion. They march off to church but they are dumbfounded when asked why they do this. They don’t know squat about the origin of the biblical writings. With glazed eyes, they chant that a virgin had a baby, but only on Sunday. Are they really “believers”? Not in my eyes.

    Consider, also, Daniel Dennett’s suggestion that many believers don’t really believe in God. Rather, they believe in “belief in God.” They think they are supposed to SAY that they believe in God, but their belief is skin deep, a shallow parroting of what they’ve been taught.

    I know that most Americans SAY that they believe in God, angels and heaven. They say these things for a wide variety of reasons, however, only one of which is that they actually believe these religious claims they make. Based on their un-extraordinary behavior and their utter lack of concern with the outrageous, oxymoronic and sensational things they say in the name of religion, however, I’d say that there are very few peolple (my guess is 15%) who actually qualify as “believers.” Most alleged believers don’t examine their claims enough to be believers. I think that the majority “religion” in America is “I don’t care enough about the religious claims I make to examine them skeptically. In the meantime, I’ll SAY I believe in God to keep some of my family, friends and co-workers from hassling me.”

  • http://www.dangerousintersection.org Erich Vieth

    Believers as a “minority”? In the U.S., there is good reason to think this is true, if one carefully considers who should qualify as a believer. Many of the believers I know (many of them highly educated and successful people) give very little thought to their religion. They march off to church but they are dumbfounded when asked why they do this. They don’t know squat about the origin of the biblical writings. With glazed eyes, they chant that a virgin had a baby, but only on Sunday. Are they really “believers”? Not in my eyes.

    Consider, also, Daniel Dennett’s suggestion that many believers don’t really believe in God. Rather, they believe in “belief in God.” They think they are supposed to SAY that they believe in God, but their belief is skin deep, a shallow parroting of what they’ve been taught.

    I know that most Americans SAY that they believe in God, angels and heaven. They say these things for a wide variety of reasons, however, only one of which is that they actually believe these religious claims they make. Based on their un-extraordinary behavior and their utter lack of concern with the outrageous, oxymoronic and sensational things they say in the name of religion, however, I’d say that there are very few peolple (my guess is 15%) who actually qualify as “believers.” Most alleged believers don’t examine their claims enough to be believers. I think that the majority “religion” in America is “I don’t care enough about the religious claims I make to examine them skeptically. In the meantime, I’ll SAY I believe in God to keep some of my family, friends and co-workers from hassling me.”

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Majority or not, I suspect that conservative religions are aware that they’re losing a war. Culturally, the trend is mostly away from religion rather than towards. That probably makes them feel threatened all by itself.

  • Nurse Ingrid

    Reminds me of the way straight people whine that gay people want “special rights” when what we are really asking for is the exact same rights that they have. When very privileged people are facing the prospect of having just the tiniest amount of their privilege taken away, they have the nerve to act like they are being unjustly persecuted.
    Tom Tomorrow did a great cartoon about anti-public-smoking laws, in which smokers complained (really!! they said this!!) that “being a smoker in America is like being a Jew in Nazi Germany.” This…shall we say…lack of perspective is everywhere. Somehow rich, white, Christian, straight, property-owning American men, probably the most privileged group in human history, have the delusion that they are oppressed.

  • Nurse Ingrid

    Reminds me of the way straight people whine that gay people want “special rights” when what we are really asking for is the exact same rights that they have. When very privileged people are facing the prospect of having just the tiniest amount of their privilege taken away, they have the nerve to act like they are being unjustly persecuted.
    Tom Tomorrow did a great cartoon about anti-public-smoking laws, in which smokers complained (really!! they said this!!) that “being a smoker in America is like being a Jew in Nazi Germany.” This…shall we say…lack of perspective is everywhere. Somehow rich, white, Christian, straight, property-owning American men, probably the most privileged group in human history, have the delusion that they are oppressed.

  • lpetrich

    And given the political inclinations that these people tend to have, I would not be surprised if they whine at great length about people who supposedly refuse to take responsibility for their actions and instead make a big fuss about what great victims they are.

    Right-wingers are fond of doing that, even as they wail about what victims they are.

  • OMGF

    uhclem,
    My last gf before the current one was also pretty devout, and she felt the same way. Of course, it was all right for her to try and get me to go to church all the time.

    Nurse Ingrid,
    “Reminds me of the way straight people whine that gay people want “special rights” when what we are really asking for is the exact same rights that they have. When very privileged people are facing the prospect of having just the tiniest amount of their privilege taken away, they have the nerve to act like they are being unjustly persecuted.”

    I would amend your second sentence to say that they only perceive they are losing their privileges, which is doubly stupid, because what does it do their marriages? People like that are driven by nothing but hatred.

  • OMGF

    uhclem,
    My last gf before the current one was also pretty devout, and she felt the same way. Of course, it was all right for her to try and get me to go to church all the time.

    Nurse Ingrid,
    “Reminds me of the way straight people whine that gay people want “special rights” when what we are really asking for is the exact same rights that they have. When very privileged people are facing the prospect of having just the tiniest amount of their privilege taken away, they have the nerve to act like they are being unjustly persecuted.”

    I would amend your second sentence to say that they only perceive they are losing their privileges, which is doubly stupid, because what does it do their marriages? People like that are driven by nothing but hatred.

  • OMGF

    I should clarify that the people who claim that they are losing their privileges by letting gays marry are the ones who are doubly stupid and driven by hatred.

  • OMGF

    I should clarify that the people who claim that they are losing their privileges by letting gays marry are the ones who are doubly stupid and driven by hatred.

  • andrew

    Thank you! This is something I have heard many times from christians of all denomenations. I totally agree with that they use “underdog” mentality and agree that the mantle of victimhood is used falsely as a unifyng tactic. It, like many other things I have had shoved down my throat, is utter BS. Keep up the good work!!!!

    Andrew

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    It’s like when some Christian on a college campus in Georgia, I think her name was Ruth Malhotra, decried some campus regulation that prohibited telling gays they were sinners and an abomination. “I’m being persecuted for my religious beliefs” Malhotra whined. In the warped mental universe of people like her, allowing gays to walk about in public without being harrassed is giving them special privileges, and not allowing her to tell them they are going to burn in hell unless they abandon homosexuality and embrace Christ is persecution.

  • Mrnaglfar

    Sounds like the believers are confusing ‘oppression’ with ‘having bad (read: unjustifiable and/or harmful) ideas’. Just because they’re constantly losing the intellectual battle and cannot back up what they say does not mean they’re being oppressed. Ideas and beliefs, like most things, shouldn’t get undeserved respect; that should be earned.

  • Martin07

    I really enjoy your blog. Keep up the good work!

  • andrea

    I’m inclined to think that ‘believers’ think they are persecuted because they are so fragmented that only a few at any time actually believe the same thing. They think even other supposed believers are “persecuting” them by daring to not believe exactly the same.

  • http://www.operacast.com G Riggs

    And, Andrea, that split can sometimes play right into the pronounced differences among certain Christians that I previously alluded to, concerning whether or not any application of the cerebral to any aspect of doctrine is automatically suspect of one’s “faith”. Some are convinced that it is indeed suspect, and some believers even construe straightforward scholarship as an attempt to undermine/persecute other believers!

    Cheers,

    G Riggs

  • Billf

    uhclem, I too am married to a woman who was raised a right wing fundamentalist. It makes for an interesting marriage. She does have an open mind though, to a point. Although she still sees herself as a Christian, she no longer follows any particular doctrine. I think she agrees with the famous Gandhi quote “I like your Christ, but not your Christians.” or something along those lines.

    I pointed out to her some of the lovely lines in the bible that address how women should be treated. I don’t know what ticked her off more: The fact that the these lines existed in the bible, or that I brought them to her attention.

  • James Bradbury

    I know it’s been posted in response to a previous article, but you really should see this. It’s fab!

    Christian Pie-Chart

  • Polly

    @James Bradbury:
    Apropos to the discussion, now that I look at it(again) it looks like a purple Pac-Man EATING the minority sections of the pie. :)

  • James Bradbury

    @Polly,

    Someone else obviously agreed with you. I remember someone else mentioning it being chased by ghosts would be a good addition.

  • James Bradbury

    @Polly,

    Someone else obviously agreed with you. I remember someone else mentioning it being chased by ghosts would be a good addition.