The Worst of Your Tradition: Own It!

I remember having a back-and-forth with a Christian about the violence historically committed by Christians: the early persecution of heretics, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the European “Wars of Religion,” slavery in the Americas, up to the bombings of abortion clinics and the killing of doctors who perform abortions.  His response, which has stuck with me to this day, was “don’t compare the best of your tradition with the worst of mine.”  This comment really made me think.  He was not exempting “Christianity” from its cruel past.  He did not say, “well, they were not actual Christians,” or “that was not Christianity, it was culture and politics.”

What his statement reveals (regardless of how you view the word “tradition”) is a willingness to look at one’s social group and not try to sanitize it with excuses.  It’s a courageous acceptance of the evils that can, and do, exist in every social group.  And for all of our personal investments in making the groups we are a part of look moral and healthy, this ownership and admission was surprisingly disarming.

No True Scotsman

Usually, when someone brings up an evil enacted by a member of group x, self-identifying members of group x will say “he was not really a member of our group, which is obvious, because no member of our group could do such a thing.”  This escapism, justified under the fear of caricature, is a way of avoiding the fact that maybe, just maybe, someone can be motivated by your views to do evil.  There certainly is a place to say “that is not what I think my group is about”–but to assume some lofty and essential view of your tradition that always escapes indictment, is to miss the fact that our groups and ideas are, as Nietzsche might say, “human, all too human.”

“In the Name of”

Many self-identified members of one of my social groups, atheists, like to bring up the fact that Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, may have been atheists, but they did not enact their evils “in the name of” atheism.  This is supposed to be juxtaposed with religious persons who do these evils “in the name of” their religion.  Although I think there is something to this–insofar as I think it would be easier to justify sacrificing your child by pointing to Genesis 22 than by pointing to Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am Not a Christian”–I cannot help but recoil at the notion that there are clearly delineated, almost perspicuous, groups, to commit something “in the name of.”  There are hodge-podges and clusters of similar and related groups, connected closely enough to be discernible, but not monolithic by any means.  Just as there are multiple competing atheisms, there are also multiple competing Christianities, Islams, and Judaisms.  Similarly, one member of a group does not represent what the group does.  Sam Harris does not represent all atheists, Pope Benedict XVI did not represent all Catholics, and the Dalai Lama does not represent all Buddhists.

Generalizing and the Problem of Induction 

Since there are many varieties and forms which ideologies can take, we know the importance of not generalizing and committing the inductive fallacy.  Hume rightly pointed out the unease by which people go from particulars to generals.  For instance, not all Irishmen are drunkards, not all Hindus are violent, not all Christians are irrational, and not all atheists are pretentious.  Even though some Irishmen are drunkards, some Hindus are violent, some Christians are irrational, and some atheists are pretentious, it does not follow that “most” or “all” of them are.  This is why it is always important to qualify and particularize your criticisms.  Such as, this person, at this time, identifying as this, committed x.  How we want to extrapolate or interpret this particular involves a lot of nuance and sophistication.  This does not, however, exempt every person or ideology from critique.

So while it is important to be watchful and diligent in our critiques, it does not follow that our groups are always exempt from criticism.  Let’s not let our investments in our groups create an idol of our group.  We can admit that some people do horrible things with our beliefs and that there is such a thing as “the worst of our tradition.”  


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