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.