Why the Religious Right Fears Empathy

In the days before Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation, we witnessed a strange spectacle: religious-right Christian after religious-right Christian spoke out against her nomination on the grounds that she valued empathy, and that this was an undesirable quality for a judge to have.

Coming from a religion whose founder supposedly said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me,” this is laughably absurd. Empathy is one of the founding moral teachings of Christianity, and here we see prominent Christians viciously attacking it. But in a deeper sense, I think this tells us something important. I don’t believe attacks on empathy are a temporary position employed by the religious right for political advantage. I think that they’re sincere when they claim to detest empathy, and that their abhorrence for it is an essential part of their worldview.

Let me refer again to Dave Schmelzer’s Confessions of a Turncoat Atheist. Although Schmelzer’s more willing than most to credit atheism for the good it’s brought about, he still seems unable to avoid the atheists-are-angry-misanthropes invective that’s ubiquitous in Christian apologetics books:

“[T]he tone… in the case of the ‘nastiest’ atheist writers, at least – does tend toward arrogance and sanctimony. I mean, do these authors seem happy to you? Is that worth noting?” [p.38]

and then there’s this classic bit of propaganda, an exchange which he claims happened while he was speaking to an atheist students’ club at a local university:

“In my presentation, I had told some inspiring (to me) stories about heroic, faith-driven responses to Hurricane Katrina, so I hazarded, ‘To you, then, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina is not so much that so many people were killed or driven away from their homes, families, and community. You’re saying that that’s no more tragic than, say, whatever damage was done to the coastline.’ He agreed with that and pressed his point by saying, ‘A person’s death and a tree’s death should have the same value in the big picture.'” [p.111]

Atheists think humans are no more valuable than trees! (Insert gasp of horror from Christian readers here.)

Call me a skeptic, but I just can’t take this story seriously. I think I can say that I’m pretty familiar with what atheists tend to believe, and I’ve never met or heard of an atheist who believes anything remotely like this. I’m all but certain that Schmelzer has misreported this conversation. It may not have been intentional: knowing what we know about the fallibility of memory, he may have misremembered it in a way that fits with his conception of how atheists think.

What does this have to do with empathy? I’m coming around to that.

Having read countless deconversion stories, I’ve seen one element that reappears in many of them: the moment when a person, on the brink of losing their faith, begins to see atheism as a genuine possibility, as a live option, and is exhilarated by the thought:

For a few seconds, I was not a religious mind, viewing atheism from behind a plexiglass shield and handling it with industrial gloves, but a neutral mind, considering what the world looked like through both religious and atheistic eyes. For an ephemeral moment, I saw that the anomalies present in my religious perspective dissolved in the light of atheism. (source)

The more time that I spent reading essays by atheists, agnostics and freethinkers/humanists, the more I began to realize with a mixture of both fear and joy that I was thinking more like an unbeliever, similar to before I actually became a Christian approximately seventeen years earlier. I felt a certain kind of excitement building inside of me that was a very freeing experience. (source)

Perhaps more than any strictly intellectual argument, this is the factor that makes you most likely to convert to a given worldview: whether you truly empathize with the people who hold it, whether you can put yourself in their place and understand their reasoning.

The religious right, of course, has no interest in people coming to think this way about any worldview other than their own, which is why they disparage empathy in general. But they’re especially terrified of people coming to think this way about atheism. This is why every presentation of atheism in their writing is carefully tailored to horrify ordinary Christians – to depict atheists as evil, immoral misanthropes (people no more important than trees!) whose views are so obviously beyond the pale that they can be dismissed without further reflection.

This is why, if you ask a theist why they think people become atheists, you rarely get an answer other than cartoonish stereotypes like, “They hate God and want to rebel against him.” They can’t give good answers to this question because they’ve never thought about it themselves. By design, they specifically steer away from thinking about it.

This is also why proselytizers so often spread the lie that atheists have no basis for morality, and try to blame us for every evil under the sun. I’ve attacked this falsehood often, but I’ve come to realize that it’s more than a merely factual confusion. We can’t just point out that apologists are wrong about this and expect them to stop saying it. They say it because they need to say it – because it’s a crucial part of their worldview that atheism be blamed for everything bad that happens, in order to keep their followers safely away from it.

Although we need to keep speaking out against this tactic, it isn’t a battle we can win by words alone. As I said, the religious right says this because they need to, because instilling fear of different viewpoints is a vital part of their strategy, and no correction we offer will convince them otherwise. What we need to do is to be visible – be outspoken, be loud and proud, and don’t be afraid to introduce ourselves as atheists. The more people get to know us, the more they’ll see that religious stereotypes about us have no basis in reality, and the more isolated and ineffectual the people who insist on pushing those stereotypes will become.

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About Adam Lee

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