Naming Activist Fallacies

Guest post by Scotlyn

[Editor’s Note: Please welcome our newest guest author! Scotlyn is a long-time DA commenter who’s been writing some really superb and well-thought comments lately. I thought it’d be interesting to extend the opportunity to write a guest post and see what else she has to say, and I wasn’t disappointed.]

I am delighted to have been invited by Ebon to submit some guest posts on his blog, which to me has become an enjoyable and friendly sort of place to virtually hang out in from time to time. I sincerely hope I do not disappoint. This first post is by way of introducing myself and my background (at Ebon’s request), and then, in future posts I hope to get into the really interesting stuff. This post, I hope, will explain how I developed an interest in the nature of “groupthink” and various mechanisms by means of which groupthink can become group tyranny. This can be a powerful feature both within religious groups and within various political and social movements I have been involved with. An important aspect of this phenomenon is the recurrence of certain memes I am naming “fallacies.” I have alluded to some of these in recent comments – e.g., what I call the fallacy of the “Righteous Victim,” or the fallacy of the “Separatist Paradise.” I want to play with the word “fallacy” in this way, because I think that the naming of logical fallacies, such as “Argument from Authority,” or “Argument from Incredulity” have been very helpful in the development of sceptical discourse, and have provided us with powerful tools with which to question and improve our own thinking habits. For those of us who share the goal of a more equitable and just society, I hope the identification of such “fallacies” in our framing of the issues will improve the quality of our social, moral and political discourse, so we are not sent down various dead ends instead of travelling the road that will get us where we wish to go.

To introduce myself, having turned 50 years old this year, I find myself in a reflective mood (although, since I boast of a grandmother who reached the age of 101, I am hopeful that this is a mere halfway station…). I was raised in a loving and supportive home, by my evangelical Christian parents, who took the family to live in Costa Rica when I was 4 years. As they saw it, they were called to serve the Lord as missionaries. I was raised there, a bilingual “gringa,” and had little reason to question the faith I was raised in throughout my teenage years – years when, for those who remember the “old days” before email and Facebook – I had to resort to spending hours penning handwritten letters to friends and pen pals exhorting them to greater faith. (Does anyone hand-write letters any more?)

My mother does tell the story of my being “born again” at age three (I have no memory of this). She tells how we had a conversation in which she had explained that I needed to ask Jesus to come into my heart. I was then, as I have remained to this day, fascinated by human anatomy, and I apparently asked the logical question: “Will I have to cut off my head so Jesus can get into my heart?” My mother, of course, reassured me that this would not be necessary, and trusting her word (as one does when one is three), I prayed for Jesus to come into my heart. Of course, I do not remember this episode, although it has often been mentioned as part of our family’s personal historical canon. I only know that I was a Christian from as far back as I can remember, and that the gospel readings, the prayers, the songs, the prayer meetings, the youth groups, the constant attention to my personal “walk with Jesus,” all seemed as natural to me as breathing. It was only later that I realised that my mother (albeit unwittingly) had lied to me. In fact, keeping Jesus in my heart would require me to, at least metaphorically, “cut off my head.”

However, it was initially moral dissonance rather than cognitive dissonance that led me to question my faith. My parents, thankfully, are not young earth creationists, and therefore, I found nothing in any of the standard classes I took at school that caused any cognitive dissonance for me. I was particularly good at the sciences and maths, and I took AP Biology in my last year at high school, without ever seeing any conflict between what I was learning and my faith. In fact, the first time I ever encountered a young earth creationist I just thought he was off his head! I had no idea then that young earth creationism could, or would, sweep through the evangelical community to the extent that it has done – even through my own family, “the next generation”. In fact, during my high school years, the only dissonance I remember experiencing because of my Christian faith was when I became friends at 16, with a girl who, I was aware, was “living in sin” with her boyfriend. She was lovely, and I did become uncomfortable at the idea that her “sin” was particularly egregious and hell-worthy. Even though I had been taught that “all are sinful, and fall short of the Glory of God,” I had still absorbed the sub-text that sexual sins were somehow worse than other sins.

But my version of Christianity, the version I remember best from the years I practiced it as a teenager, was all about “being a light on the hill,” about bearing “fruit” that would demonstrate God’s love for the world, etc. Living in Latin America, this became bound up with current issues of local concern. During the years 1973 to 1978, these were issues like the US-supported coup against Allende, and the gathering popular uprising against Somoza in Nicaragua. Liberation theology was an important emerging thread in Latin American Catholicism, and since I was a member of an ecumenical youth group at that time, I met people strongly influenced by its reading of the bible, focusing on those verses which demonstrate God’s love of and identification with the poor. I was aware, from some of our “furlough” tours of American churches, that many such churchgoers did not see US policies in Latin America as being problematic, but I put that down to poor education and bad quality reporting of the news. But my Latin American Christian friends and I would burn the midnight oil discussing these burning political issues, and trying to figure out what God would wish us to do about it.

In the fall of 1978, I became a freshman at Vassar College. And, like most college students, I was as much concerned to figure out which groups I should join as I was with which classes to enroll in. The groups I was attracted to in my first year were the Christian Fellowship, the college’s chapter of Oxfam, and the Divest from South Africa group. And this was where the dissonance began to set in. In the Oxfam group we worked to educate other students about the politics of world hunger and raised funds for Oxfam’s work. In the South Africa group, we campaigned to raise awareness among the student body of the nature of apartheid, and we canvassed the college trustees to divest any college endowment funds from companies which supported the South African apartheid government. And both these groups were filled (from my then point of view), with godless and happily “sinning” (drinking, smoking, being openly sexual) people who were yet highly morally concerned with the issues of social justice that I was.

The Christian Fellowship group, on the other hand, consisted of people who were not only ignorant of the plight of the poor, but utterly uninterested. They thought taking the gospel to the poor and needy was a sufficient moral duty of a Christian, that people’s spiritual needs were far greater than their physical or material needs. (My own parents had never espoused such a view – they both were and are involved in activities that have merit in their own right, not only from the proselytising point of view). They rejected the idea that we had any responsibility to “this world” of Satan’s, and they were also concerned about keeping their virginity to a degree which came to me to seem obsessive, in view of what I considered to be more pressing moral issues of social justice. It did not take the full of my first year to decide that the “godless” people I had met in the more activist groups had much higher moral aspirations than the Christians I was supposed to share a worldview with.

I began to read the Bible in a new way, fervently seeking to retain the roots of a moral worldview that would work for me, and became increasingly convinced that the Bible was anything but a moral book. Stories like the one where Abraham says, “Ok whatever you say,” when God tells him to kill his son, like the one where God keeps hardening Pharoah’s heart, therefore bringing about the conditions which justify the killings of the Egyptian first born, the one where God promises a new land for his people, but it so happens there are people already living there who need to be exterminated, the idea of eternal punishment for temporal sin, etc. began to convince me that wherever my own moral values came from, it couldn’t be the Bible.

For me, it followed that I no longer had any particular reason to keep myself “pure” in the Christian sense, so at age 19-20 I began some of the tentative experimentations that many of my fellow students had begun years ago…and found that life was good… I also joined the women’s group – which kept a “women’s space” in one of the rooms in the student building, and I became acquainted with the campaign for lesbian and gay rights, which by now seemed completely reasonable to me. At this point, I began to find my trips home full of argument and incident – naturally enough, I was finding my own wings, discovering the shape of the space that would become natural for me to inhabit for my adult life, and all of this was a great shock and disappointment to my parents. To be fair, they have argued with me and prayed for me, but at no point (even when I became more than theoretically involved with another woman) did they ever show the least inclination to disown me – and nor could I ever consider disowning them. I suspect that in their hearts they fear and believe that the sequence of events I outline above occurred in the opposite direction – that I discovered how much fun it was to “sin,” and that I then concocted an intellectual opposition to God and my childhood faith in order to justify myself.

To be truthful, I actually understand that their faith makes it almost impossible for them to take a completely neutral interest in what brought me to where I am, and how I could leave my faith, in the end, so easily behind me. They don’t actually know how to just ask how things are with me, without another shadow question hovering in the air – “how is your spiritual life, and when are you going to return to your walk with Jesus.” Ordinary, nonreligious people, when they ask how things are with you, are reasonably interested in what answer you might give, without prior expectations. They don’t have a pre-set right answer (which to the end of my days I will never be able to give). It’s sad. And that may be why, when I left college, I found it so easy to travel and end up living in a country at some distance from them. (After a few “gypsy” years, I met and settled down with my partner, in rural Ireland, where we are raising our two sons.) Nevertheless, I always enjoy my visits home, and I still think I am lucky to have come from a fundamentally loving and supportive family, albeit somewhat skewed by the suppression of true curiosity necessitated by faith. (I don’t argue as much these days, either – I no longer need to convince myself of anything much).

Nevertheless, despite leaving my faith behind, I remain in many ways the product of my upbringing. For one, I have never lost the urge to give sermons (a long line of clergymen and missionaries testifies to the fact that I did not lick that up off the floor). Also, I think my “moral radar” owes a great deal to the teaching of my parents, who did put forward a broad view of morality, not the narrow focus on sexuality that many of their co-faithful would espouse. Finally, I think I owe a sense of being a “perennial outsider” to our somewhat wandering lifestyle when I was young. I changed schools at least 8 times prior to going to college. I kept having to leave old friends and make new ones (which was why I had so many pen pals). In one way, this has led to an ability to see everyone else’s point of view almost too clearly – this is not always a good thing! At the same time, I have found that whenever I find a group of congenial people, there will always be some way in which I will differ, some bit of the groupthink with which I cannot acquiesce. And this fascinates me, and is the territory I hope to start exploring in upcoming posts.


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