Don’t Judge a Group by Its Worst Followers

Dale McGowan tells this story of a conversation his family had in their car a while back:

CONNOR (then 13): Well it was Muslims who flew the planes into…

DAD and MOM, simultaneously: AAAAAAHHHH!! AAAAAHHH! WAIT WAIT WAIT WAIT!!!

CONNOR, miffed: What??

DAD: Well…when somebody’s first learning about a big group of people, you don’t start with the worst things.

CONNOR: But she asked what was wrong with being a Muslim.

DAD: That’s not the same as, “What are some bad things some Muslims have done?”

CONNOR: Yes it is!

I love Dale’s response to that last comment, which you can read here. It’s such a simple way to correct misguided thinking…

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Patterrssonn

    That is freakin great!

    What’s so bad about being an American? a Brit? a Belgian? a Canadian? An australIan? a South African? a vegetarian artist?

  • ortcutt

    Teenagers didn’t shoot up Columbine because they had absorbed the tenets of Teenagerism.  The 9/11 terrorists crashed into the WTC because they believed the tenets of Islam.  Ideas matter.  Teaching kids that they don’t doesn’t correct misguided thinking, it furthers it.

    • Niveker14

      Yes, ortcutt, but the question of “what’s wrong with Islam?” Isn’t answered by “Some of them decided to blow up the twin towers,” that would also be a faulty way of thinking to teach your kids. What’s wrong with Islam is that it’s a set of ideas passed down from a 6th century cave-dweller with absolutely no basis in reality and no supporting evidence.

      • ortcutt

        Sure.  I agree that Islam has no basis in reality or supporting evidence, but Islam also encourages people to do really evil things, like fly planes into buildings.  We’re not talking about a handful of extremists either.  A Pew poll a few years ago found that 84% of Egyptian Muslims support the death penalty for apostasy.  84%.  That’s crazy.   What makes otherwise decent people support truly evil policies?  Religion, in this case, Islam.

        • Niveker14

          Ok. I can go along with that. You just have to be careful your teaching kids the correct reasons to disagree with someone or some group. I child can take away completely the wrong lesson if you’re not careful with your wording.

    • Patterrssonn

      Not that religious nuttery isn’t also involved but Islamic terrorists are often motivated by nationalism. The Taliban was a response to the occupation of Afghanistan by the USSR, and Al Qaeda’s main stated aim was the removal of American military presence from Saudi Arabia. The original PLO was a secular Marxist-lennanist group, as was I believe Al Fatah, and carried out terrorist attacks in the cause of a secular Palestinian state.

      What I’m getting at is that it’s quite likely that no matter the religion, terrorism would have very likely been the middle east response to perceived Arab impotence in the face of Western incursion and control of the middle east.

      It’s like the old joke about the journalist in a pub in Northern Ireland who when asked if he’s Catholic or Protestant answers that he’s an atheist  “Ah” comes the reply “but are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant Atheist”.

    • GPC

      Of course, many Muslims would say that terrorism goes against the tenets of Islam. People do interpret their religions differently. It’s important to teach kids that groups are not homogenous. The idea that they are creates a lot of prejudice.

    • Coyotenose

       The tenets of Islam are vile, but those terrorists, and in fact pretty much all Islamic terrorists, are not following those tenets. Islam has specific proscriptions against suicide attacks and attacks upon noncombatants.

      Of course, since believers have managed to cede the perception of Islam entirely to their violent fringe, and even to cheer when that fringe carries out murder, the religion might as well say that it’s okay to blow up people who just happen to live inside borders you don’t like. Come to think of it, that “might as well” applies equally well to Christianity.

  • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    I think the response to the kids’ discussion in this particular case was a very good one. But so much depends on the exact way the question is formed, and the answer presented. “What’s so bad about being a Muslim?” is a perfectly reasonable question. The answer, “Muslims flew the planes…” is a bad one, because it’s wrong, not because it happens to emphasize the worst possible behavior. It would have been reasonable to answer that being a Muslim, like being a Christian, encourages people to blindly take direction from others rather than looking inside themselves, and therefore makes it easier for people to make bad moral choices. I think that’s something that both a 10-year old and a 13-year old can understand.

    • GPC

      While you are right that religion “encourages people to blindly take direction from others rather than looking inside themselves” it is also important to point out to kids that many religious people do think for themselves. You just have to look at the fact that most American Catholics use birth control to find proof of that. Many people blindly follow dumb secular ideas as well. The anti-vax, anti-flouride and anti-global warming movements are examples. Blind following isn’t exclusive to religion unfortunately.

      As an atheist, I don’t want to raise my child to be biased against religious people. I teach them to judge people by their actions as individuals rather than making blanket statements about whole groups of people. If people are using religion as an excuse to do horrible things, then they deserve to be disliked for it. But I don’t want my kids to prejudge all religious people because some are bad.

      • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

        Movements, however, aren’t the same as religions. Religions are structured organizations that people belong to and which tell them what is right or wrong, usually in no uncertain terms. Because of this, religion is particularly well suited to leading people into making poor moral choices.

        Certainly, people can do that on their own. And there are other organizations that can do that. But in response to “what’s wrong with religion?”, my first and foremost answer always remains the same: it makes it more difficult to be an ethical person.

        I would teach a child that while a religious person may be ethical, they should also be viewed with skepticism. They have chosen an irrational belief system, and therefore many of their other life choices are suspect. It is, of course, always good advice to judge people by their actions. But we’re fools not to consider who they associate with, as well.

        • GPC

          I do agree that is the purpose of religion. I agreed with you on that point. I’m saying you have to be careful how you phrase things with children. Many religious people do think for themselves rather than being told how to think. I wouldn’t use words like irrational with children either. It makes kids prejudiced against whole groups of people rather than judging people as individuals. I simply teach my kids that this isn’t what we believe. Personally, I think we should raise kids to be open-minded. It’s hard to do that with blanket statements.

          • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

            I believe “irrational” is precisely the word to use in describing any theists (which pretty much includes the religious, wouldn’t you say?) It is not possible for a theist to be completely rational. At best, they must compartmentalize to a significant degree. There’s nothing wrong with teaching children that distinction.

            • Pedro Lemos

              Of course it´s possible for a theist to be completely rational. Why wouldn´t it? Many of the scientists who created the base of what we know today were theists. My girlfriend is a theist and she´s quite rational – except when she´s jealous about me, but then, nobody acts rationally all the time.
              Being a theist is not the same as being religious, wich is also not the same as following a religion blindly. You´re just being as prejudiced as the people who say atheists are all baby-killers heathens.

              • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

                Being an atheist does not automatically mean a person is primarily rational. But being a theist does mean that a person is primarily irrational.

                I’m not talking about religion. I’m talking about theism. Believing in a god or gods is absolutely irrational.

      • T-Rex

        “The anti-vax, anti-flouride and anti-global warming movements are examples.”

         They may be ignorant positions but why do you label them secular?

        • Thalfon

          It’s an unusual spot to see the term in, but it’s not really incorrect. Keep in mind that secular simply means that it isn’t really related to religion (for or against). M-W defines it as “not overtly or specifically religious.”

          And for the most part, they aren’t.  Anti-vax, for instance, started out as fraudulent research and just spread through the rumour-mill until it spun out of control. Anti-global warming tends to come from conservative sentiments like anti-taxation, anti-regulation, etc.; they don’t want those things, so they disagree with truths that might require them. (Wizard’s First Rule: People are stupid. They will believe something because they want it to be true, or because they’re afraid it might be true.)

          While it’s likely true that most of the individuals are religious, or that atheists (most or at least many of whom became such due to skepticism) are less likely to buy into such silliness, the concepts themselves are still quite secular in the world today.

        • GPC

          Secular and atheistic don’t mean the same thing. There is no religious element to these movements, so they are secular. Isn’t Bill Maher an anti-vaxer?

      • Patterrssonn

        Not sure Catholics are a good choice as an example what with the history of the IRA. It wasn’t that long ago that American Catholics would hold fundraisers for the IRA while they were blowing up supermarkets.

        • GPC

          Was the church telling people to support the IRA? I was raised as an Irish Catholic. There was very little support for the IRA. Terrible example.

          • Patterrssonn

            It’s a wonderful example of members of a religion supporting a terrorist group of the same religion. We see this as different from islamic terrorism because it happened in the west.

            I don’t know how much of the church was involved, if local American priests condemned or supported the fundraising, with the history of the catholic church it wouldn’t surprise me if they did.

            What it means re the OP is that if you’re using the argument that mid-east terrorism is the result of Islam then IRA terrorism is the result of catholicism. And if someone were to ask what’s wrong with American Catholics you could answer that they bought bombs for terrorists to blow up women ane children with.


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