Is This a Bad Time to Critique a Religious Belief?

Is This a Bad Time to Critique a Religious Belief? May 2, 2014

After I posted my thoughts about “praising God in the storm” one reader wrote to complain that my remarks were insensitive, especially so close on the heels of a tragedy.  Here is what she said:

I am a Christian, and I have read both the article and many of the comments. I’m a student at the University of Arkansas. My family lives 20 minutes from Vilonia, Arkansas where one of the tornadoes went through and I have many friends who live there. My first comment (and main issue with this article) is simply this; if someone goes through such a tragedy, and they are able to find hope or peace in something, then why are you trying to tear that hope apart? I understand that to you it is false hope, but to those people it Is not. Whatever religion you belong to, you should have the right to take comfort in it after a tragedy without being criticized. I’m extremely lucky because everyone who I know in Vilonia was safe and were not injured in the storm. I have no problem with everyone criticizing Christianity, because that happens every day. However, I do think that it is horrible that you are taking a tragedy and using it as a way to debunk Christianity less than a week after this has happened. Let these people grieve the loss of their loved ones and their homes in peace for at least a little while before you begin to criticize them. I have no idea how close any of you are to the situation in Arkansas, but from someone who spent Sunday night and all day Monday and Tuesday calling people to make sure that they were even alive, all of these comments are extremely insensitive.

Shame on you, atheist!

Her words touch a nerve, as well they should.  Real human loss is devastating, and the pain of it is nothing to flippantly dismiss.  I would never want to hurt someone by callously ignoring their pain and using their loss as an opportunity to trumpet my own opinions. So as with most criticism I received, I stopped and tried to examine what’s happening here.  And I see the potential for hurt there.  But I also see something else going on here, and I think it’s worth pointing out.

From your perspective what I have done here is capitalize on people’s moment of weakness and loss, using it to advance an agenda. May I submit to you that this is precisely what all the preachers and Sunday School teachers and deacons and elders will be doing as well? Why is it okay for them to use a significant moment to do this but it’s not okay for me?

You say it’s because I am removing a sense of hope and comfort (one which you acknowledge I believe is a fiction). But am I even doing that? Do you as a Christian even agree with anything I have said above? If not, then what have I even taken from you, or them? It appears that I have taken nothing.

I happen to believe that religion can be a harmful thing in people’s lives, but that it harms them in ways that they learn to see as beneficial rather than detrimental. That means I am in the awkward position of trying to tell people things they don’t want to hear, attempting to help them by doing things they see as hateful instead of loving (the very same reaction most of us have when our loved ones threaten us with hell). From my perspective, now is as good a time as any to talk about this. If it’s okay for preachers to swoop in at this moment and interpret these events their way, it’s only fair that I can share mine as well. My intention is not to harm but to help. And as a parent and a teacher, I am quite used to hearing that something I am doing for their own good is “mean.” If that fazed me, I’d be terrible at both those jobs.

There were other responses, as you might expect.  A handful of commenters dutifully parroted the fundamentalist belief that storms happen because of what people have done.  Rather than claiming that the individuals who lost homes and lives were responsible, they opined that storms in general are the result of mankind sinning, somehow.  Evidently people doing bad things affects meteorology.  That’s highly ironic, since as most climatologists will tell you, what people do really does affect the environment…just not in the way in which these people are suggesting.  What’s so ironic is that fundamentalists scoff at threats of global warming, as if that whole topic were just a hoax perpetrated by tree-huggers and socialists looking for yet another way to force government oversight into the free market.  But then they turn around and say tornadoes and hurricanes are the result of a guy eating a forbidden fruit in roughly 4004 BC.  SMH

Another commenter, repeating the first commenter’s sentiments, offered this critique:

At what point do some become just as bad as AFA or Westboro Baptist church. You are shrinking to the level of those fanatics with this an other comments I’m seeing. Some of them are not backing down because they think the have God on their side, so tell me why you are not respecting of their beliefs. I’m a gay man that lives in Tupelo MS that wants respect but I first know to receive or even get close to receiving it, I must respect others. I may not agree with them but as long as they respect me as most true southern Christians do, I will respect them. Only the fanatics need to be overlooked, cause no matter how much respect you give them they will still trample you.

I’ve said before and will be happy to say again:  People deserve respect; ideas do not.  Ideas deserve scrutiny, because ideas have consequences and bad ideas have bad consequences.  Religious beliefs, as Greta Christina has persuasively argued, do not get a free pass simply because people feel them really strongly.  But disagreeing with someone’s beliefs isn’t disrespecting them.  And besides, there is a terrible double standard at work here which privileges the religious perspective and attempts to silence the secular one.  Here is my brief response to this second comment:

I see writing a perspective on a blog as a far cry from showing up to the scene of devastation and waving signs in their faces. If people in my neighborhood were suffering losses of that magnitude, I’d be helping pick up the pieces, too (at least I would TRY to. I work an awful lot and don’t get the luxury of time off). So would the Christians around me. The main difference is: I offer my interpretation of these things a few steps removed from the situation. The church folks will not be so restrained. They will offer their interpretation of these things immediately and on the spot. Again I ask, why is it okay for them to tell what all this means and it’s not okay for me to?

What do you think about this?  Is it wrong to speak up at a moment like this and criticize the faith that gives comfort to those who are dealing with tragedy?  Have I even spoken to them directly?  Are they even reading anything I write?  I’m sincerely asking for your thoughts.  What do you think?

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