Jessica Ahlquist

The atheist and skeptical blogosphere (which is kinda my thing) has been abuzz these past couple of weeks with the case of Jessica Ahlquist, a young atheist activist who recently won a legal battle in the US to have a religious prayer removed from her school.

My rather irate write-up of this is here, and some of the reaction she’s been getting involves the most startling and disheartening cases of othering and dehumanisation I’ve seen.

Regardless of the validity of her case, numerous religious people have so vilified this 16-year-old girl in their minds that they’ve somehow managed to justify extreme verbal abuse, including threats of physical assault, rape, and murder.

The comments include laughter and mockery at the concern she’s expressed over her family being attacked (after her home address was made public). She’s been called stupid, evil, psycho, garbage, a disgrace, a bitch, a scumbag, a worthless cunt. Even the label “atheist” is used as a term of abuse by many Christians, as a sufficiently effective dehumanising tactic that they no longer need to think of her as a person once they’ve successfully pegged her as part of such a hated out-group.

These people clearly have no understanding of Jessica’s mindset, and I am equally baffled as to theirs.

But I’m under no delusion that their decisions to abuse and bully a young girl are the result of anything other than distinctly human thought processes. The state of mind they’ve arrived at is so alien to me that I don’t know how to speak to it in a way that would establish any meaningful connection. Maybe they’ve each grown up learning to be scared of having their rights taken away, and Jessica’s case has pushed those fear buttons. Perhaps casually joking (as it probably seems to them) about abusing or killing outsiders acts as a useful way to solidify their group, and make them feel safer in their own social stratum. This is vague, pop-culture psychology, but these kinds of processes wouldn’t be unprecedented in explaining how people or groups end up doing terrible things.

And given that their decisions, however unconscionable, were arrived at by thought processes driven by human psychology, rooted in a bunch of drives and fears which have been moulded by millions of years of evolution in competitive environments, I can’t dehumanise them in turn. Nobody in this story is any sort of inhuman monster. There are no “others”. They’re all just people.

But that doesn’t mean their actions can’t be spoken out against. Treating another human being with so little dignity or respect is abhorrent, and is made worse by the facts of their target’s youth and the total lack of significant provocation on her part. I completely reject this behaviour as an iniquity unworthy of a sentient species.

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3 thoughts on “Jessica Ahlquist

  1. It is more than just being “unworthy of a sentient species.” Christians, a label I freely don, are to be held with a much higher standard because of what we teach. We are set apart and teach as such. If the people mentioned in this article are indeed Christians, then they need correction.

  2. Benito Ramirez says:

    Never mind that the city of Cranston was founded by Protestants. Never mind that this “unsightly” prayer that just “had” to be removed was written by a 13 year old, as a gift nonetheless. Never mind that the prayer itself portrays the desire to do your best and grow mentally and physically. Never mind that the prayer challenges an individual to be kind, helpful and honest. Never mind that it implies to teach good sportsmanship and friendship.

    Jessica Ahlquist stopped believing in God at age 10, and we’re to then assume that she is an atheist. She subsequently, sought to remove a prayer sign several years later from the walls of her school. So other than the 100% ostensibly positive nature of the message, she probably gives issue to the specific words “prayer”, “heavenly father” and “amen”; if you read the sign, you’ll see those are the only words with any religious implications. It takes a special type of person to seek to exclude an entirely positive message just because they disagree with less than 5% of the words used.

    The trouble with Jessica’s quest to remove this prayer from public view is that it completely invalidates her “belief” or lack of belief in God. Jessica fails to realize that by increasingly giving voice to her non-belief by removing messages of belief, simply gives others an alternative reason to choose religion.

    Is she worried that others might choose religion because they read this sign? If that is the case then the act is pointless. If there is no God or heaven, then it doesn’t matter what religions other people choose to believe in. Therefore the sign is meaningless from a religious standpoint. Removing it simply accentuates is defining purpose.

    Is she is worried because it conflicts with her direct sensibilities? Then she is simply an obtuse person who refuses to acknowledge or accept that other people may have an alternative viewpoint to her own. Maybe she should seek to display a message on the walls of her school that she created herself that she can put a positive spin on. Rather than putting a negative spin on something somebody originally created to be positive.

    People who are disquieted by positive messages can only be expected to try and cause the same feelings of uneasiness and lack of peace in the people around them. So to all those who are outraged by her persistence, understand that, in hindsight, it was simply a foregone conclusion stemming from personal unrest; not about some words on a wall.

    • writerJames says:

      Hi Benito, thanks for commenting.

      I’m trying to keep the scope of this blog fairly limited – namely, to address only the “othering” and dehumanising treatment that people subject each other to in public discourse. If you want to comment on such tactics as they relate to Jessica Ahlquist, that’d be great. Otherwise, I wrote more about this case on my primary blog, here, which is the place for a more general discussion.

      I notice you left what seems to be an identical comment to the above, below this post on JT Eberhard’s blog. A user called Forbidden Snowflake responded at some length there, if you’re interested.

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