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Friday, 29 August 2008


L. L. Barkat doesn't usually post about political happenings. She's more interested in personal growth and morality and how to live well; in spirituality, I guess I may freely say, since LL is a Christian blogger.

"I don't claim to understand it." In a recent post on Senator John Edwards' recently-revealed affair, LL quotes this response and then looks more deeply at the matter at hand. Do we really not understand how an illicit love affair could start? LL is willing to try, and I say brava!

"I don't claim to understand it" is the easiest response to an action or a viewpoint that you disagree with. It stops you from having to confront your own fallibility. To 'understand' in this sense is to identify the impulses that you, too, have which could in other circumstances prompt you to act that way. Claiming not to understand how someone could, say, have an extramarital affair is a way of claiming that you are innocent of all such deplorable impulses.

Having established that whatever prompted this action could not have been anything that you feel leaves you free to make the imagined motives as unpleasant as you like. LL herself notes that the picture she can imagine "is a radically different frame than that of the 'lurid affair' that the media loves to paint". Yes, it is. Similarly, the motivations of most atheists are radically different to the picture sometimes painted by apologists of people who simply don't want to obey God, being an anti-abortion activist doesn't actually mean that you hate women, and some "family" activists really need to learn that the sexual feelings of homosexuals do not consist entirely of 'lurid affairs' either.

Atheists are as guilty as anyone of painting an unrealistic picture of their opponents. I wince, sometimes, at the swiftness with which certain sections of the online atheist community will give up the attempt to explain religion in terms of anything that we feel and instead impute it to stupidity and smallmindedness, to greed and fear. Stupidity, smallmindedness, greed and fear are real phenomena, it's true, but if you choose to see those motives at the expense of others, you are showing a smallmindedness of your own.

The truth is, there are reasons to show compassion to others that even extend beyond the way it can help us to get along. If you truly want to understand the world, and if you truly want to understand yourself, then showing humility about your own motives and compassion about the motives of others is the only way to reach a semblance of truth.


L.L. Barkat said...

Lynet, thanks for the links. In a way, you draw out the truth that indeed I DO understand something of it. In other words, to even propose scenarios of how something could happen, one needs to dig deep and consider. Even as I wrote that ... "I don't claim to understand it," I meant more that I could not judge what happened in that particular situation. Who knows?

Anyway, I love how you reason through these kinds of things. And I particularly love the center of this post. It actually gave me shivers. Maybe because I've been thinking along the same lines... how we put people in categories then write them off, when the world is surely much more nuanced. It is the down side of labels, useful as they can be for preliminary categorization.

Brava to you too, for making me shiver. : )

John Evo said...

Lynet - great points. I'm certainly guilty at times, though I think I try to "get" what others are thinking or feeling. Ultimately I usually find it a somewhat fruitless effort.

You say that online atheist community will give up the attempt to explain religion in terms of anything that we feel and instead impute it to stupidity and smallmindedness

Honestly, I don't think there is anything that the deeply religious feel, that I also feel. In a sense, I do say, "I don't understand". Well, not entirely. But I can't relate.

There are times and people that require the harshness of being written off as simpleminded, deluded or ignorant. With many other people, this route isn't necessary. When I write a particularly scathing blog post, I'm not talking about every theist. But I don't have the time or inclination to point that out with each entry. If it applies, take it. If not, don't get butt-hurt. That's the way I have to see it. Still, if someone it doesn't really apply to gets insulted, I attempt to clarify the post for them.

The Exterminator said...

Perhaps over there in your part of the world, you can afford for yourself the luxury of "compassion" and "understanding."

Here, in America, the farthest I'm willing to go is "tolerance," but only in the legal sense. Every person has a right to believe whatever nonsense he or she chooses, and I defend that right regardless of a person's beliefs.

But you do realize, don't you, that Christians are trying to hijack our government? Both major parties are ramming god and faith down our throats at every opportunity. Many of our citizens are eager to deprive some groups (women, gays, Muslims, atheists) of their Constitutional rights merely because the members of those groups don't follow the tenets of a ridiculous anthology of sand-covered tribal books collected as "the Bible." At every opportunity, these ubiquitous theocrats thwart science, rewrite history, and censor art that doesn't conform to their idiotic worldview.

So, no, fuck them. I have zero compassion for people who are working actively to deprive me of my rights. Zero. Did I mention: Fuck them.

Lynet said...

LL, thanks for the kind response! I am proud to have given you shivers.

I get what you're saying about the different tone of your second 'I don't claim to understand it'. Perhaps sometimes it's better not to claim to understand!


There are times and people that require the harshness of being written off as simpleminded, deluded or ignorant.

Really? Does that need to be done verbally? I mean, sure, some people aren't worth arguing with, but do you achieve anything by telling them that?

I'm almost always of the opinion that it's better to simply make your case as clearly and logically as you can, and leave people to decide for themselves if one side or the other is simpleminded, deluded or ignorant. (Well, okay, sometimes that last one really does require a response along the lines of "No, actually you're just wrong there", but the other two . . .)

Show, don't tell, you know?

Ext, I'm not one to try to silence other atheists, so if that's the noise you want to make, by all means make it.

However, I'm not precisely suggesting that you attempt to understand the other side as a favour to them, you know. Understanding your opponent has far too many advantages of its own for that, to say nothing of the fact that, well, people you disagree with are part of the world too, so if you want to understand the world (and I do) then trying to understand people you disagree with is kind of part of the deal.

Moreover, I hate to point this out, but you're outnumbered. Not even having the constitution on your side will save you if none of the religious folks are willing to stop and think and show compassion to you. Someone's gotta go out there and show compassion to them if that's going to happen.

Mind you, sometimes compassion is worth more if somebody else has gone out there and been uncompromising, first.

Still, I'd like to point out that as concessions go, understanding and compassion really isn't one! It doesn't require you to give in to their demands, or to stop arguing for your position. Sometimes I think that's part of the genius of Daylight Atheism. It's possible to be compassionate and uncompromising at the same time.

The Exterminator said...


Oh, you're correct, of course. Compassion and understanding are fantastic. The American colonists needed to show more compassion to the domineering British. The slaves who were forcibly kidnapped and brought over to America needed to have more compassion for their masters. The freedom-fighting Hungarians and Czechs needed to have more understanding of the Communists who murdered them. And of course, the Jews and the gypsies and the gays and the French and the Russians and ... everybody needed to have more compassion and understanding of the Nazis. (Sorry, Godwin.)

So let's all get in a big happy circle and sing Kumbaya, while those theocrats for whom I have great compassion and understanding slowly but surely deprive me of my rights.

Lynet said...


Oh, you're correct, of course. Defiance and violence are fantastic. And all the examples you've given involve the latter as well as the former. Unless you're intending to resort to force here, think up another comparison.

(Besides, after the fact, we do need to have understanding of the Nazis and those who followed them, so that it doesn't happen again. The only reason such understanding wasn't important at the time was because it really was too late to resort to anything but violence.)

The Exterminator said...


Well, now I see we've gotten ourselves into a semantic quagmire because you're playing with the meaning of "understand." There's a big connotative difference between "understand" (the way you originally used it, as a synonym for "have compassion for") and "understand" (as you're using it in the comment above, as a synonym for "have knowledge about" or "grasp the significance of.") Of course, everyone should strive to understand -- in the second sense -- as much as possible about as many things as possible. But I'm not willing to understand -- that is, show compassion to, or feel empathy for, or sympathize with -- people who would do anything in their power to eviscerate all other world views but their own.

I assume you'll understand my point.

Lynet said...

Nice point. I guess I consider the two meanings of 'understand' to be connected. Part of what I'm arguing against here is a failure to understand religion in both senses as a result of preferring to think that the other side is just stupid.

Trying to get inside the head of someone you disagree with, to feel what they feel and see if you could feel it too, is a great way of gaining knowledge. And yeah, I think you have to go right next door to compassion to do that, and maybe even open the door to compassion, hold your breath, and see if anything comes though. I don't think there's any danger in doing so, unless you allow yourself in the same moment to have less compassion for those affected by the actions of people who would deny the rights of others.

In short, let in as much information as possible and then make up your mind.

John Evo said...

Lynet - (your comment to me) Yes, I do agree. And my comment wasn't meant to indicate that I felt they needed to be derided to their faces (especially as individuals). On the other hand, I'm finding more and more that when dealing with superstition, the one great tool we have is mockery. No one, as you point out, enjoys being mocked. If you are part of GROUP that is being mocked (as opposed to mocking an individual to his/her face) it MIGHT make you reassess your beliefs.

Isn't it funny that theists are so quick to claim they are being attacked by people like me, yet my "attack" is nothing more than the "attack" most of them will direct at a tarot card reader, an astrologist or a spiritual medium? What they don't like is the notion that their god beliefs are precisely like those other supernatural beliefs. There is absolutely no difference other than the fact that their superstition is more commonly accepted.

PhillyChief said...

Well I certainly try to make an effort to understand the religious, as in "If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles" - Sun Tzu.

I would say that in Ex's examples, understanding does play a huge part for how better to overcome your oppressor than to understand them? Indeed as a minority, it's brains, not brawn, that will win the day.

Compassion? No, I don't have any of that just for them. They get the same compassion I have for everyone. We all have the same rights, at least we're supposed to, and I'm compassionate to other's exercises of those rights provided such exercises don't infringe on other's rights.

As for mockery and derision, so what?

Quixote said...

Hey Lynet,

I get it. Thanks for this post, eloquent as always and every time I have encountered you on a blog I have felt this sentiment coming through loud and clear. Makes a huge difference.

Understanding is important in both the intellectual and human aspects. Understanding intellectually with your opponent is important because otherwise you will only be right in your own opinion by a fluke, if you follow JS Mill.

Understanding with compassion is important because we all have to share this world, and if we can do it without butchering each other...

As for evo and the exterminator, they must be blind to the fact that we theists have no shortage of certain atheist types that require both senses of understanding. :)

Love your posts as usual.