Shame & Humanism: Why Our Wounds Matter More Than Our Cosmology

Shame & Humanism: Why Our Wounds Matter More Than Our Cosmology November 4, 2019

Let’s begin with a story. Or, rather, a continuation of one. In my last essay, I told part of a story I have been processing and revisiting over the last few years–about the end of my time in academia and how my atheism played a role in it. But there’s another part of the story that I haven’t shared before, because it’s far more painful. It has to do with what came after that arduous committee meeting.

Right after that meeting, I had to work–so I went into the bookstore with a tear-stained face, and everyone’s sudden, delicate silence made it clear that I looked as haggard as I felt. Everyone was very, very gentle with me that afternoon shift, where I focussed more on shelving than on customer care.

And that was fine, because I really didn’t want to talk to anyone about what had happened. However, there was someone I had to talk to soon: my dearest friend in the city, who had known I was going into a difficult meeting and was anxiously waiting to hear how it had gone.

My dearest friend in that city is an active, church-going Christian, married to another active, church-going Christian. She was raised by two loving parents who happen to be Christian missionaries, and she’s raising two children in the church as well.

And I had just spent two hours being told I was arrogant, angry, and hostile for reasons all imputed to my atheism. Two hours being told that I was writing contemptuously of 19th-century philosophers, scientists, and storytellers for their Christianity.

And after those two hours of angry and hostile statements, I was… terrified that they were right. That maybe I had missed something amid all my passionate and immersive studies of these people’s fully emotional lives. Maybe I was arrogant, and angry, and hostile, and worst of all, a bad humanist. A sham humanist.

But if all that was true, how could I tell my dearest friend what had happened? How could I tell her my academic career was over because my committee had seen the sneering atheism at the core of my research? That I’d been outed as having an utter disdain of Christians as the fundamental drive for my studies into the history of stellar evolution?

What if she believed them? What if the anger and hostility of my committee, when I reported it to my dearest friend, would make her think me two-faced? What if this news made her think that all the time I had been her friend, respected her choices, and celebrated all that she aspired to from her different cosmology, I was simultaneously, gleefully tearing into Christians for my research? That I’d spent the last couple years mocking my dissertation’s subjects for such transgressions as

  • fearing their faith was as empty as the stars after the loss of loved ones (Mary Shelley);
  • interpreting new empirical data through spiritual hopes and fears (William Whewell, David Brewster);
  • gloating at astronomers’ arrogance when the theory of stellar evolution seemed disproved by new telescopic data (Thomas De Quincey, John Pringle Nichol); or even
  • repudiating astronomy entirely after the solidification of stellar evolution theory (Marie Corelli)?

It would be… many, many months before I dared open my dissertation document again, to confirm for myself that I wasn’t crazy (on this accord, at least); that the work wasn’t this seething, sneering, angry anti-theistic screed they’d made it out to be.

And in the meantime, I lived with shame. Shame for having to leave the PhD. Shame for having to explain why there were no alternatives, no way I could stay. And shame, most of all, at the thought that maybe I was living a lie buried so deep within me that even I couldn’t see it. That only these three angry voices had.

Shame, the Bluntest Tool in Our Discursive Toolkits

There’s a common adage in atheist circles, care of the late Christopher Hitchens:

“That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

And sure, fair enough–although the entire point of the spiritual/non-spiritual divide is having different thresholds and categories of evidence, which makes the point pragmatically moot unless you’re already on the empiricist side of things.

But either way, I feel like humanism, or atheism+, or whatever other philosophy you use to springboard from New Atheism’s limitations, requires a corollary. Namely:

“That which can be compelled through shame can be dismissed through shame, too.”

And this one, I know, will get pushback–because plenty of atheists will tell you how effective shame is. No one wants to be the last kid in the room believing in Santa Claus, right? So if you just mock religious folks for their beliefs, if you share enough memes suggesting how stupid it would be to believe in various moral and historical elements of their stories… then at least some religious folks will have to give up their faith, right?

(And do! I know quite a few atheists who came to their atheism after being soundly mocked by peers!)

But there are two problems with using such a negative emotion to win people over.

One: When it backfires, it backfires hard, entrenching people even more intensely into their positions, as persecuted members of their respective faith traditions.

Two: It reinforces aversion to negative emotion as the primary determining factor for any major decisions we might take, and any conclusions we might draw.

And that second problem is one we humanists–religious and secular alike–need to mindful of most of all.

The Wounds We Carry Will Take A Village to Heal

I’ve got wounds, you’ve got wounds, we’ve all got wounds.

And it’s easy to forget, when you’ve lived with your wounds for a while, just how much their presence has shaped your behaviour. Like adapting to using a different body-part when the primary’s been damaged long enough, your decision-making processes alter as a matter of course when certain external variables become status quo.

I’ve got a “poverty mentality”, for instance, that I find difficult to shake even when I have savings. If there’s even a risk of going back to an extreme-debt scenario that made me feel my life wasn’t worth living, my decision-making processes turn panicked and survivalist. This limits my ability to take financial risks and enhances stress over smaller choices, leading to sometimes bizarrely impulsive and counterintuitive economic moves.

Likewise, I’ve got a host of fears from past exposure to violence, which lets me alternate between being extremely risk-averse in seemingly minor situations (one-on-one in private), and almost bonkers-brave in much more dramatic and public scenarios, especially when others’ well-being is on the line.

In general, too, folks who grew up in more authoritarian homes, religious and otherwise, experience more fear and shame over making mistakes–which can be particularly counterintuitive when seeking to improve. This last is an extremely difficult wound to overcome, because by its very nature it blocks us from being able to see the value of vulnerability. Vulnerability is weakness, this wound suggests–and weakness will always be exploited: so don’t you ever, ever, ever give anyone the chance.

As such, the wounds created by shame can’t be healed on their own. Rather, they require that we relearn how to trust other people, and to become worthy of their trust in turn. They also require that we break the habit of, say, mocking individuals for their beliefs to get a given point across–even if it’s effective for a given issue–because what it teaches in the process, about the consequences of openness and vulnerability, has a lasting impact. It lets us settle more easily for the behaviour set that says “mock first lest ye be mocked.” It teaches us, too, to distrust sincerity as a prime target for someone else’s ridicule.

And for what? A scorched-earth approach to religious-vs-atheist divisions?

Out of the extremely ill-evidenced belief that if not for religion human beings would be perfectly rational creatures?

Humanism is trickier. Humanism is harder. Because to build a world that carries forward none of the prejudice so often ascribed to tribal divisions (including but not exclusively religious), we need to rise above fear and shame with other people, wherever their cosmology might find them.

Villages Come in Many Forms

As you’ve no doubt guessed, one thing my dear friend and I share is our commitment to vulnerability. We both grieve, hurt, make mistakes, falter, and most of all look out from our missteps to see what kind of path they’re suggesting for future growth.

But still, even with so wonderful a friend in my life, every time someone triggers fear and shame as motivators for change, it’s just a little harder for even that healthy and nurturing connection to feel safe.

I had dinner at my friend’s house very soon after that terrible meeting–either the same night, or the next: soon enough, in any case, that we only first discussed what had happened at her door, while I was hanging up my things. Then her lovely children showed up and all became focussed on play. Then I had dinner with her family, including her visiting parents, who inquired as well about how my PhD process was faring.

And I wish we had a secular word as good as “grace” for what was on offer at the table that evening–because everyone was kind, everyone was supportive, and my dearest friend was even quick to point out all the sexist crap that had also gone into the overall process. Plus, the children were restorative presences, as children ever so often are, because children don’t give a hoot about your dissertation drama. They’re just thrilled to see you.

But the wound persisted. I still carried shame from that meeting for a long, long time: that fear of being a bad friend, a friend without integrity, and a terrible excuse of a humanist to boot. I clung, too, to the fear that my dearest friend was just being kind, but did in fact believe the committee’s imputations–because how could she not? Their articulated sentiment had been so intense, while the gentleness on offer around that table was… the opposite. How could it be “truer” than the anger?

And yes, of course, partly this is “just” me–just my wounds, especially from a childhood and adulthood in which family fought in the ugliest ways, latching onto weaknesses precisely because they’d elicit the most shame. (Like I said, this is one of those stories I’ve never tried to tell before, and they do come out a little rough on first go, don’t they?)

But in our species “shame” is also one of our most readily applied discursive tools:

  • online, where a group of social-media strangers can pile onto everyday transgressions in a dizzying heartbeat;
  • in politics, where digging up dirt on an opponent is often even better than outgunning them on policy;
  • in entitlement culture, where we police each other’s performances of specific norms (gendered, racialized, class-structural) to an excruciating, sometimes fatal, always dehumanizing degree;
  • in the small-c conservative behaviours that manifest across the philosophical spectrum–right- and leftwing alike; and of course,
  • in relation to spiritual/atheistic cosmologies.

Which… has a powerful behavioural impact, because the sheer pervasiveness of shame lends a veneer of discursive validity to its use.

And I mean, why wouldn’t it? Shame “works”, doesn’t it? (At least for those of us who have the capacity for empathy to begin with!) The offending Tweeter (sometimes) loses their job for their racist/sexist comments. The politician with lousy bedroom ethics–at bare minimum–(sometimes) vacates their seat. A person thinks twice before stepping out from local social mores, after seeing what happened to the last person who tried the same. People in any given political movement adopt the new jargon whether or not they fully agree with it. And theists become atheists, or atheists become theists, because they’ve been made to feel very, very badly about their cosmology to date.

How could shame “work” if there was no truth to the accusations that fueled it?

The Take-Away

Because I felt shame, I believed the accusations that had caused me to feel shame.

And that’s entirely the wrong way to go about ascertaining the truth of anything.

But, oh, it is also a common one. Probably, each of you can think of a time in which shame (or fear of shame) has guided your behaviour in ways that do not fully accord with your calmer, more detached decision-making processes. In your relationships. In your workplaces. With your articulation of core values to friends and on the internet.

Shame is a wound we by and large take for granted as necessary: something that can and should be foisted onto people to exert our truth over their own. And so like anything that seems ubiquitous, it’s going to take a collective effort–in all the aforementioned spheres where shame is so rigorously applied–to transition secular culture out of the non-ideal behaviours that this gaping wound creates.

This means, though, that we can’t wait until, say, everyone’s cosmologies are on the same page–by which we tend to mean, on our page, to boot. No, the work of moving toward a better, more compassionate world starts right now, right from our current subject-positions… and alongside whomever we have the privilege of trying to improve our capacity for openness, compassion, and integrity every day.

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