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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About Adam Lee

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

  • ANTLink

    As one of DA’s regular readers who has also greatly enjoyed your recent, wonderfully insightful comments, I think this was an excellent decision on Ebon’s part and I’m looking forward enormously to reading your future posts. I think I’ve said this before, but even if I have, it’s worth saying again: thank you for sharing your wisdom and experience with us.

    By the way, this may be kind of shallow of me, but I often find myself wondering what the age and gender are of other regular commenters, so I’m glad you didn’t mind sharing yours. (And in case you’re at all curious, I’m 28 and male.)

  • kagerato

    It is a fascinating life you’ve lived, Scotlyn. I quite enjoyed reading about it.

    I suspect, though I do not have statistics, that a great many deconversions in the agnostic and atheist communities occur in a similar manner of slow and rolling change — rather than being punctuated by a particular sudden event. Much like the slow awakening from a deep sleep gradually replaces dream with reality.

  • SuperHappyJen

    I enjoyed reading your post and look forward to more. :)

  • Sarah Braasch

    I am thrilled to have you on board and have really enjoyed conversing with you.

    Can’t wait to see more from you.

  • DSimon

    Excellent post, please keep em’ coming. I’m interested in what you’re going to say about the “activist fallacies” you mentioned at the beginning.

  • Lynet

    Lovely to meet you better! I look forward to reading your posts, too.

  • kennypo65

    Thank you for sharing with us Scotlyn, looking forward to more of your posts.

  • Scotlyn

    Well, these are very warming comments – thanks for the welcome. I had better get to work now on stirring things up a bit in the next one. Chat soon.

  • Sharmin

    Hi, Scotlyn! This sounds fascinating, and I look forward to reading your future posts.

  • Adele

    Thanks so much for your post, Scotlyn – as one who also spent some years in Latin America as a child and witnessed the ignorance and apathy of gringo missionaries this hits close to heart.

  • Rollingforest

    Thanks for the post, Scotlyn! It’s always interesting hearing the story of people’s lives. I know you mentioned that your parents weren’t Creationists, but that made me think about the experiences that I had while in high school with people who were Creationists. Since Scotlyn was kind enough to share her story above, I thought I would share mine here too (maybe everyone can share stories from their life on this thread).

    The very first time I ever really felt the effects of Young Earth Creationism was in 7th grade when my biology teacher, who (I assume from the way he taught) accepted evolution, but still felt it necessary to give a disclaimer at the beginning of class that it was important to learn evolution to pass the test, but that it was okay if you didn’t accept it as fact. Perhaps he had dealt with angry parents in the past who had demanded to know why he didn’t teach creationism in the public schools. In any case, the students, though largely Baptist and Conservative, were not interested in these larger philosophical issues.

    But even after this event, I still thought that he was just being extra inclusive. I had heard of Young Earth Creationism, but I was under the impression that only around 5% of Americans actually believed in it. In 8th grade I went with my parents to visit their old college. While I was perusing the bookstore, I chanced upon a book called “After Man: A Zoology of the Future”. Basically the premise of the book is to wonder, if humans destroy the environment and then go extinct, what would the remaining few surviving creatures evolve into? It talks, for example, of the potential for rats to evolve into wolf-like creatures if they had no competition.

    So when I got back to school, I was excited to show it to my teacher (who ironically, in an earlier job, had also been by preschool teacher). She was my English and Physics teacher, so I thought she would appreciate a book on science. Imagine my shock when, after showing her the book, she told me that she didn’t believe in evolution.

    I heard nothing else about it for a while. But then one day, my teacher was reading a few jokes at the beginning of class. One of the “jokes” was “If humans evolved from monkeys, then why are monkeys still around?” She turned to me and said “So what about it?”. I knew enough about evolution to see that the paradox was a false one, but being in 8th grade, I wasn’t able to explain it well when challenged suddenly. The only thing I was able to get out in the few seconds that I had was “That’s not how it works” in a somewhat urgent voice. My teacher quickly responded “Alright. Alright. Don’t get upset.” And she never brought it up again.

    The topic didn’t come up again for two years. By then, I was in a world history course. The teacher had assigned us a project to do a poster on a famous individual in history. I decided to do Darwin. Trying to be witty, I titled my poster “Darwin: the Galileo of Biology” (by this time I was well aware of the persecution of evolution in society). My teacher, misreading the title, said, “Oh, so you’re doing a project on Galileo?” When I explained that I was doing it on Darwin, he proceeded to give me a lecture on how Professor Leakey wasted his time in Africa looking for human ancestors. I made mention of Neanderthals and he went on to say how early humans were perfect. The conversation ended before I could explain to him that Neanderthals certainly wouldn’t look perfect under our human perception of beauty.

    A few days later, his wife, my math teacher, brought me several creationist books. She was very apologetic about it, wanting to witness to me via creationist literature without getting me angry. (I knew them quite well. It was a small rural high school, so I took three math courses from her in high school and two history courses from her husband over the course of three years. They lived down the street from me and their son was friends with my brother. They were Jehovah’s Witnesses, but were treated pretty well by the community despite the fact that the majority of the town probably thought they were going to Hell when they died. It probably helped that, like I said, that while the students were Conservative and Baptist, they were largely unconcerned with anything bigger than what their weekend plans were.)

    I took the books (plural, with a few editions of Awake! Magazine thrown it), figuring the creationists deserved their shot at convincing me. What I found was an interesting assortment of misrepresentations about evolution. It said such things as “most mutations are harmful, so evolution can’t work” and “natural selection only subtracts and never adds, so evolution can’t work.” This just made me shake my head in sadness. You have to be decently smart to write a book. I didn’t understand why they couldn’t see that if you put the concepts of mutation and natural selection together, it made evolution work perfectly. I guess the whole point is that they didn’t want to understand. I politely gave the books back after reading them and that was basically the end of that. I got an A on my poster even though my teacher was still as ardent a Creationist as ever. I guess you can at least give him credit for being a fair grader.

    So that’s my story of the Creationists I dealt with in High School. Does anyone else have any interesting stories about religious people in their lives that they haven’t shared yet?

  • Scotlyn

    Thanks for that story, Rollingforest. I should clarify that while my parents weren’t YEC’s when I was growing up, my father has come under the influence of Phillip Johnson in recent years – for those who aren’t aware, he is one of the founding members of the Discovery Institute, and one of the writers of the famous “Wedge” document. His name is not so well known in non-Christian circles as, say, Michael Behe, because he is not a scientist. Instead he writes books that are mainly for a Christian audience showing how evolution = materialism = atheism = chaos and a breakdown of society. This seems to provide the background to the reasons why creationism has become such an urgent mission for evangelicals.

    I do remember a conversation with my dad when I was around 13 asking him who Bishop Ussher was, and he explained that the Bishop was some guy who took the crazy notion that if you added up the geneologies in the Bible, you could get the starting date for the whole project. At the time he seemed to put no credence in that idea, but he is now a firm Old Earth Creationist, and has fully absorbed the Johnson message that evolution teaching is a threat to society. (Cue several of our more interesting and heated arguments over the years…)

    But I have to say that I don’t ever recall the subject of evolution coming up at all in any church talk, sermon or discussion throughout my childhood or teenage years.

  • Scotlyn

    @ Adele. I know there were all kinds out on the “mission” field. But I think it is important to acknowledge that some of the protestant missionaries, during the time of my childhood, were also strongly influenced by “liberation theology” and even (a very few) by the marxist-inspired idealism that characterised the 60′s and 70′s. (Such issues frequently divided missionary boards and church communities).

    Anyone younger than 40 will probably not be able to remember a time when Marxism was not viewed with absolute horror by all serious-minded people. But, believe it or not, there was a time when the thought that “the Revolution” was just around the corner was a huge source of optimism throughout the third world, and to a lesser extent, also in the US and in Europe.

    Two very good books about missions are:
    1) Poisonwood Bible, a novel by Barbara Kingsolver, relating the story of the slow dissolution of a family brought to the missionfield in Africa by their iron-willed father.
    2) Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes, a true story by Daniel Everett, which is partly the story of a linguist working at the cutting edge of research in the field, and partly an autobiography of a missionary losing his faith by slowly coming to appreciate that the people he wishes to convert completely lack the “god-shaped-hole” he had been taught they must have.

  • jack


    Thanks for this fascinating introduction. This part about your parents was especially moving for 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.

    I have been through something very much like this with my parents, who were also loving and supportive, and to whom I am grateful for many things. My religious divergence from them came when I was not quite 16 years old, and was painful at the time. In the decades since, we patched things up really well, but there was always that little wedge of religion — which we mostly avoided in conversation — that left me feeling that they never really accepted me as I am, and never even fully understood why I ceased to believe in God. I didn’t really want that much to discuss it either, because such conversations in the past had not gone well.

    When my father was near death two years ago, I wrote him a letter in which I tried to express some of that longing for acceptance I still felt, and in which I tried to assure him that he need not worry about being in heaven for eternity while I roasted in hell. I told him that I did my best to be a good and moral person, and that I had learned to be that way largely from his example.

    He was probably too senile at the time to comprehend the letter, and he died a few months later. My mother was also in mental decline then, and is essentially gone now, although her body lives on.

    I guess the point of all this is to suggest that, if you also feel that longing for acceptance, and if your parents still have their minds, you might want to try having that conversation with them — not to debate the reality of god, but only to point out that they have missed out on knowing and appreciating an important part of their daughter. I now wish I had tried that about 15 or 20 years ago.

  • Scotlyn

    Jack, thanks so much for your poignant story. I think the longing for acceptance you mention is very commonly felt, and very seldom fulfilled. I certainly believe that, inasmuch as they are able, my own parents accept and love me (and they seem destined to live quite healthily for many years yet, so all going well, we have many conversations in our future). I feel absolutely no sense of rejection from them, rather a kind of puzzlement now and again. They know they have shown me the key to the treasure chamber, as it were, and I strangely remain uninterested.

    What I lack from them is their understanding, or possibly even a curiosity sufficient for them to wish to understand. (Although my mother would perhaps show a greater capacity here than my father.) But, at this stage of my life, I don’t feel unfulfilled by this. I know that I can live with it if it never happens. That’s life. It’s just one of those sad things.

  • Wednesday

    As someone who’s largely stayed within the same type of society I grew up in and is only starting to unpack all the unconscious assumptions that’s given me, I’m definitely looking forward to hearing what kinds of groupthink you tend to encounter!