Tag Archives: religion

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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Israeli extremists harass children

Here’s a saddening example to start us off: An eight-year-old girl is among those being mocked and assaulted by religious extremists in Israel.

She is being treated as less than human, and undeserving of decency and dignity, and this is wrong.

Naama herself is Jewish, and goes to a religious school, but she is not part of the ultra-Orthodox community. These Haredi Jews hold to the strictest, most conservative interpretation of Jewish law, and object to Naama’s “immodest” form of dress – which includes “long sleeves and a skirt”.

Regardless of the nature of their objection to what seems (to me) entirely reasonable behaviour and unremarkable attire, these extremists’ methods of expressing themselves include calling an eight-year-old child a whore, spitting on her, and throwing rocks at journalists who come to report on the case.

The othering techniques being used by the religious extremists in this case are clear. The children attending this school are probably not even making their own decisions about how to dress; expecting them to already adhere to your own set of principles is unreasonable, and abusing them for this difference is unconscionably cruel. But they’re part of an out-group, and so these zealots have conveniently labelled them all in their minds as undeserving of decent, humane treatment. Because they’re of a different religion, it’s easy to dismiss their autonomy, and rationalise any suffering laid upon them as merited.

Unsurprisingly, this rationalisation is easily extended to anyone connected to these young people, regardless of their motivations or diversity of views. Children, parents, journalists: they’re all the enemy, a big homogeneous mass of other.

Looking in the other direction, I disagree with the Israeli cabinet minister who described the religious extremists in question as “psychopaths“. I suspect (from an admittedly uninformed standpoint) that it’s unlikely that most of them possess that particular personality disorder. They’re human beings too, who’ve arrived at what seems to us a bizarre set of priorities, and who have successfully dehumanised these children in their minds to an extent that enables them to commit extreme cruelty, while distancing themselves from any feelings of guilt. This, sadly, is all too natural a set of human behaviours, and by no means requires any abnormal mental health condition.

Nobody in this story is a monster. There are no “others”. They’re all just people.

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