“So they feel as scared and hurt as I do”

Discussion of the appropriate use of mockery has twisted back into the ongoing discussion about vengeance and radical forgiveness thanks to a recent comment from Kogo:

Honestly, I don’t really care if mockery is effective because I have no hope of religion ever going away. Mostly I just want to hurt religious people so they feel as scared and hurt as I do being forced to live on a planet dominated by them. Nothing ever works to convince conservatives and religious people. They’re immune to facts. So since I have no hope of ever living in a more reasonable world, so at least I can comfort myself by letting religious people know what I really think of their insane, evil, shit-beliefs.

Kogo’s point, and the examples given by March Hare farther up the thread, about the pain/damage Christians inflict on atheists deserve consideration.  We needn’t look further back than a few weeks to see an example in the case of Damien Fowler.  Damien, a high school senior, pointed out that his school’s prayer at graduation explicitly violated court precedent protecting children from religious pressure in public school and asked that it be cut this year.  Since he stood up, he’s been attacked by his teachers and his school administrators, he’s received death threats, and he’s been disowned and kicked out of his house by his parents.

Although I enjoy all the interesting philosophical conversations with theologically-sophisticated Christians I get to have in my safe position at a Northeast college, I can’t forget that many American Christians despise me and some would harm me if they could.  They’d like to prevent me from adopting children and would prefer I not serve in public office.  If I discuss my beliefs in public and encourage my peers to ask me questions, they call it harassment and intimidation.

And I’m still extra-bonus lucky, because I grew up on Long Island, in a high school full of secular Jews, so, although I was unlikeable in high school, my religious beliefs were never a source of tension; I was spared the harassment and sniping Jen Fulwiler of Conversion Diary went through in her atheistic childhood.

But, although I recognize and am grieved by the situations of atheists in this country and through the world, I still reject the retributive tack endorsed by Kogo.   No person is entitled to the suffering of another as compensation for what she herself has undergone.  If we recognize the painfulness of our position and decry it as inhumane, we can’t turn around and wish it on someone else.

Kogo’s comment reminds me of a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence advice column on Slate.  One mother wrote in to say:

I enrolled my two boys into an exclusive private school in our new hometown. At a school event I bumped into an attractive woman whom I didn’t recognize. She came by and asked if I remember her. It turns out that she was someone I bullied in high school. After that day I noticed other moms slowly avoiding me. I think she must have told them about how I used to bully her. Eventually my boys started coming home, crying and upset that other kids wouldn’t play with them. My younger son was not allowed to join a game of hockey during recess because another boy told him, “My mom says your mom is a b***h.” They are now openly being ridiculed and ostracized at school by their peers. I asked to meet my former classmate and apologized for bullying her as I was young and stupid, although I don’t much remember what I did. She smiled at me in a creepy way and said she went through therapy for what I put her through. I haven’t told my husband about this woman because I’m a little ashamed at how I used to treat her. Putting my boys into another school is not a feasible option, but I just don’t know what to do.

The former bully behaved terribly, but it’s hard to feel a sense of satisfaction when we see her vicious childhood behavior rebounding on her and her family.  The isolation she experiences now will not undo the considerable harm she did to her victim, and it may make it more difficult for her to be better than she was.

And, of course, the vengeance sought by the long-ago victim is already rebounding onto the innocent children of the former bully.  In an effort to create justice, the victimized mother is subjecting the sons of her tormentor to the very treatment that left her scarred.  I doubt very much that most of us would be any good at designing a revenge that can avoid this kind of friendly fire.  If you want someone to suffer horribly, you are also wishing pain onto every single person who loves him or her, unless your opponent is an orphaned hermit.

[This has been a critique of one way to respond to anti-atheist sentiment.  Later today, I'll post an outline of how I do try to handle this]

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Iota

    @ Leahpain/damage Christians inflict on ChristiansErm, I suspect you wanted to write "Christians inflict on Atheists" given your example?

    • Ted Seeber

      The original is true also.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16496144988509668275 Leah

    Thanks for the catch, Iota!

  • Anonymous

    Mockery is not quite bullying but anyway. I don't mock but there can be situations where mockery is justified. If somebody engages you with silly beliefs mockery is justified. Secondly if the beliefs are just too ridiculous. If somebody thinks the earth is 6,000 to 10,000 years old mockery is nearly mandatory. Otherwise engaging in a public discussion would yield to much recognition to that position.

  • Anonymous

    I think it's funny that you posted Fulwiler's post when she is one of the smuggest Catholic voices around these days. Anyone else remember that disgusting NCRegister blog she posted about talking to Atheists?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Thanks for this, Leah. I understand that abuse and harassment makes people angry and often gives them a desire to lash out, but hurting people for the sake of hurting is morally horrendous and absolutely unacceptable, regardless of who does it. Sometimes we do have to inflict pain on other people, but at minimum, it has to be done with a good end in mind.Corrosive cynicism like Kogo's is the mirror image of the smug contempt we atheists all too often encounter among religious fundamentalists. This behavior fuels an endless cycle of pointless sadism, no matter who started it.

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com/ Brian Green

    This reminds me of the Greek philosophers (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle) who said it was always better to suffer evil than to inflict it, because in inflicting evil one makes oneself a worse person. In their view suffering evil did not make you worse, it was the perpetrator who was really suffering harm by acting as they did. We now know that things are not so ideal, the victim can be seriously psychologically/morally harmed as well. Translated into Christian virtue ethics, these ideas turn into something like trying to stop evil from happening not only to protect the victim, but also to protect the perpetrator from his/her own actions, to prevent them from becoming a worse person and incurring guilt. It's weird to think about ethics that way, but I think it makes sense. Harry Potter definitely picks that up with Voldemort too! His evil actions harm not only others, but also himself. Evil is always self-destructive.Thanks for posting on this. You understand some aspects of Christianity better than many Christians do. When will we all figure out that we are all in this life together and that tearing each other down also hurts ourselves? And, of course and unfortunately, easier said than done.

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