Different Skins: Three Perspectives on Empathy

Different Skins: Three Perspectives on Empathy May 22, 2015

Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) and Scout (Mary Badham) in the iconic 1962 film
Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) and Scout (Mary Badham) in the iconic 1962 film

One of my favorite American novels is Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel which is rich with insights (some of which can be easily missed if you’re not paying close attention). I’ve read the book several times, having taught it to high school sophomores, and while I can pick out a handful of lessons from the book that I think are significant, the one that is a clear focus of the book (and thus perfect for high schoolers to read) is empathy.

The novel uses a, um, novel metaphor for the process of empathizing: “to climb into someone else’s skin and walk around in it.” Aside from the visceral, Buffalo Bill-esque nature of that metaphor, I think that the events of that novel to some degree are a testament to how difficult, if not outright impossible, it is to accomplish that kind of deep identification with someone different from yourself.

I think this has some pretty serious implications for how religious and secular people interact, so I’d like to address three groups and how they can best empathize with other groups.

To The Religious

Hi, religious person! I used to be one of you – not that long ago, in fact. Most of the people I interact with on a daily basis are religious. Heck, I’m married to one of you. Like you probably were, I was raised to be one of you, except it didn’t stick. I was pretty serious about it for a long time, though.

Unless you fit into the minority of religious people who was raised secular, let me say this: Don’t try to pretend that you understand what it’s like to be non-religious.

I know this because I used to do just that.

Fortunately for me, when I did it to atheists, they slapped me down (rhetorically, of course) for it. After all, I had lived my whole life in the relative privilege of being not only religious but a member of the dominant religion – the gap was wide enough that I couldn’t just intuit what it would be like. As such, I often got it wrong.

So if you care about non-believers as you say you do – and I hear plenty of you saying that – you need to listen to what we are telling you from our own experiences and not simply invent what you imagine our experiences to be like based on your own.

No one’s blaming you for this. It’s the limitations of your situation, nothing more.

Let me illustrate my point a different way: When I taught, I occasionally had to field odd questions like “If you had lived in Germany in the 1930s-1940s, would you have supported Hitler?” The easy way to interpret that question, of course, is “Do you think you’re a good person?” and the answer is supposed to then be, “No, I wouldn’t have supported him.” But I never did that. My answer was always, “I don’t know,” simply because I don’t know what it was like to be a non-Jewish German in the Third Reich. I can’t answer such a sharp counterfactual on the basis of my experience. And I don’t think anyone would judge me on that basis.

So it is with you. You don’t know, and that’s okay. Just don’t presume to understand when you don’t.

So just listen. I have many religious friends that I respect greatly in large part because they listen. They try to understand even while they can’t intuitively grasp the situation, having never worn our skin. And as a result, they learn.

Go thou and do likewise.

(Of course, if you’re part of that aforementioned minority that was raised secular, I hope I don’t have to tell you this. You might read on to my words to the formerly religious, though, for some helpful thoughts.)

To The Formerly Religious

Hi, apostate! I’ve been one of you for the past few years now, and I can understand to some degree the struggles of having left behind religion for more secular waters (although my story has had a better outcome than many of the tales I’ve heard, and worse than others).

We’ve had the experiences of religious people, having been insiders ourselves at one point, and so we should be in a great place to bridge the gap between religion and secularity.

Except…it often doesn’t work out that way.

I hesitate to make the analogy because I absolutely resist its assumption of linearity, but what I see with many formerly religious people is akin to what happens to many adults and their attitudes toward teenagers: You move on from something, and you forget the feeling of those experiences. And that is a recipe for malfunctioning empathy.

So your mission is to do the only thing you can do: Remember. Think back to those religious experiences and what held you there. Maybe it was the comfort of community. The ecstasy of religious fervor. The beauty of art or music or the spoken word. Remember what place religion had in your life.

And because virtually no one can have experienced the gamut of religious experience, remember that your experiences still only represent a part of what other religious people might have gone through. My Baptist background is good for understanding some experiences, but probably not so much those of Muslims or Catholics or Jews or Hindus (and so on). I was involved in ministry, but I wasn’t involved like a member of the clergy. I have my own limitations, and the more specific I try to make my empathy, the less likely it is that I’m going to approximate the experiences of another person. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

Remember where you came from, and remember that it isn’t where everyone else is.

To The Never-Religious

Hi, never-religious person! (Is there a better way to refer to you? Let me know if so. [Edit: A friend reminds me of the term “cradle atheist,” which is probably as good as any.]) As previously mentioned, I was raised in religion, and while I’m a pretty secular person now, I don’t have a point of reference for where you are. So this is going to be an exercise in my own ability to empathize, and I welcome comments telling me where I get it wrong.

In my interactions with secular people as a group leader, I’ve found that you folks definitely have a different vantage point than I do – indeed, I almost always expect the secular people I meet to be formerly religious because the numbers (as well as my own geographic location) tend to favor that.

But regardless, I do work with and meet people in such a situation, and there are often conversations where the difference becomes clear. During one recent discussion centered around Greta Christina’s book Coming Out Atheist where we were discussing coming out to family members, a member of the discussion who had never been religious expressed rather intense incredulity that there would be negative consequences to saying that you’re an atheist because they had never experienced it. Those of us who are formerly religious had to insist that yes, there are in fact consequences, and we shared our stories.

It was a bit of a wake-up call to me, I confess, that I needed to be listening to the experiences of the never-religious. Still, I think that it’s true that anyone who hasn’t seen religion from the inside should also be paying close attention.

Above all, be cautious about being too dismissive. It’s easy to write off experiences as silly if you haven’t had the deep lessons that accompany religion. After all, isn’t it silly to think that bread and wine could be literal flesh and blood? That a deity cares if you use an elevator on a specific day? That a former Christian might still be haunted by the fear of hell or the Rapture?

But these are real and completely serious. Writing them off as so much silliness is a failure of empathy. You are of course welcome to your opinion (and I mean that sincerely – think whatever you like about whatever religious thing), but if you want to understand, you have to take these things at face value. They do mean something to others.

Don’t let your blank slate on religion preventing you from engaging with the stories of those who had religion inscribed on us early on. The stories might not always be pretty, but they are us. In return, we’ll try to see your story, free from religion as it is, as something equally worth entertaining.

To All, in Closing

None of this is easy. Empathy, like so many of the best mental habits, is a difficult practice to employ consistency. Like the children of Lee’s fictional Maycomb, who could so easily recognize the inhumanity of “Old Hitler” while being completely oblivious to the discrimination and bigotry in their own town, we often give lip service to empathy and then fail to do it.

Maybe we can’t get fully inside the skin of someone with a drastically different perspective, but it’s worth the time to listen and, where necessary, to make our voices heard and experiences known.

And maybe, just maybe, we’ll have a shot at doing more than just talking past each other.

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