Why Fundamentalists Have No Social Skills

In recent weeks, the online skeptical-thinking community has been knee-deep in controversy. There have been accusations of misogyny within the movement, such as Skepchick’s mentioning that she received an unwelcome approach from a strange man in an elevator. Following this, we have seen some pretty unenlightened responses.

What’s clear from the comments is that there are a large number of men out there who have no idea how to relate to women healthily. I wonder if that’s because atheist conventions have a concentration of ex-fundamentalists like me. Fundamentalism is devastating to the ability to form relationships, and without help, most survivors won’t recover. I really want to weigh in on the Skepchick issue, but it will probably be more helpful if I explain where I’m coming from.

When I left Victory, my ACE school, my social skills were crippled, especially with girls. This is unsurprising. Sixty percent of my working week had been spent in an isolated carrel, working in silence. There was almost no co-operative learning. At break times, the school enforced the standard ACE six-inch rule – this being the minimum distance between members of the opposite sex at all times. And there were only 45 pupils in the entire school, aged 3-18, so I had almost no experience of meeting and interacting with new people – especially teenage girls.

Carrels, or "offices", at a ACE school

More than half the working week at a typical ACE school is spent in silence in carrels like this.

In weekly chapel services, the pastor preached about relationships (he used the expression, “so boys and girls can relate to each other in a healthy, wholesome way,” at least a dozen times per sermon), but all he actually talked about were the evils of fashion, particularly the miniskirt.

One mufti day, a couple of senior girls showed up in short skirts. In retrospect, it was the greatest thing that happened in my tenure at the school. This glorious vision lasted until the first break time, when they were soundly rebuked and made to change into tracksuit bottoms. Girls were not to express their femininity in any way. Here are some highlights from the School of Tomorrow’s dress code for girls at ACE student conventions:

An image of Christian discretion and modesty is to be portrayed. All female sponsors, coaches, and students must wear dresses, skirts (which are no shorter than the bottom of the knee, standing or sitting), or culottes. Slits must be no higher than the bottom of the knee. Dresses and blouses must come to the neckline in front (to the clavicle bone) and back (to the bottom of the neck), without see-through material. TIGHT, FORM-FITTING ATTIRE and fad extremes are inappropriate and will not be allowed.

Female (Athletic Wear)

Loose-fitting culottes and tops are to be worn for competition… Culottes must be full, loose-fitting, and have the appearance of a skirt. When in an upright standing position, culottes must be below the knee. For modesty reasons it is recommended that white athletic clothing, especially culottes, NOT be worn. (A T-shirt must be worn under V-neck athletic shirts.) Sleeves must stay draped over the shoulders at all times.

For the boys’ part, well, we were always reminded that to look at a woman with lust was the same as committing adultery (Matthew 5:28). In our devotions class, we were given the idea that any kind of dating, and especially any kind of physical contact, was in effect cheating on the spouse God would one day give us. We didn’t read this particular book, but a similar idea was popularised by Josh Harris’ million-seller, I Kissed Dating Goodbye (read the first couple of paragraphs of the link; it’s jaw-dropping). I persuaded myself that I wasn’t interested in sex, and the girls at the school seemed to as well. We were all obsessed with the idea of romance, but sexuality was entirely divorced from it. I trained myself not to look at women below the neck, and not to think of myself or them as sexual creatures.

Nancy Friday has written incisively about how this type of thinking leads to the terrible madonna/whore dichotomy. After all, no matter how they might try to deny it, Christian boys do want sex, but they’re trained to see women as these perfect, wonderful beings. It would be disgusting to defile these immaculate creatures with anything so debased as sexual intercourse. Whereas the girls in the magazines – they want sex. You can see it from the way they dress. Sluts.

And Christian girls… Well, they want sex too, of course, although they’re so busy dressing and acting holy there’s no way anyone can tell. It’s hard for a girl to be attracted to boys who place them on a pedestal and won’t ever relate to her as a woman. A friend of mine, a youth pastor in Texas, tells me he’s seen young couples divorce in the first year. After years of telling themselves sex is wrong, they can’t bring themselves to do it.

Once I got off the leash and off to music college, I was terrified of women, and incapable of speaking to them. So I drank. I kept drinking, thinking the next drink would give me the courage to approach a woman. But it didn’t, and so there was another, and another. And then I was the guy slurring over some poor girl, “You’re… so… beautiful. Canibuyyouadrink?” Extraordinarily, this didn’t work.

If I did wind up speaking to a woman, by some miracle, I made it clear that I was not like those nasty other men, who only wanted her for sex. I didn’t want her for sex at all. And then I was mystified when she left with the nasty other man, who did want her for sex. What I didn’t know, because my educators vigorously denied it, is that attraction between men and women is sexual at its core. Which doesn’t mean that you have to have sex all the time, but it does mean you have to acknowledge the reality of physical attraction.

Fundamentalism – and this is not hyperbole – will ruin your life.

So, as a former social retard, I can sort of understand some of the response to Skepchick. Wanting a girl and not knowing how to communicate with her is a profoundly frustrating experience. Of course, that doesn’t legitimise bad behaviour at all. But I have good news for the misogynists of the atheist world. Communicating with women is a skill, and like all skills, it can be learned.

Lesson one: Treat women with some respect, and don’t corner them in elevators when they can’t leave.

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