Don’t Victim-Blame Believers

“She thinks being gay is bad? No wonder you don’t want to be with her.”

“No, you don’t understand; she’s still a good person! It’s just her religion…”


I realized I was right. She was the kind of person who wouldn’t have anything against being gay unless she had to. Actually, so was I, and I sounded just like her back when I was religious. Honestly, we weren’t bad people, and she’s still not.


Most of the terrible things that some believers say? That’s really not the kind of person they are (usually). They wouldn’t be saying them if it wasn’t for their religion. But, it’s easy to think there’s just something wrong with them, as it is to think about any group that sounds strange and wrong to us.  I sometimes get frustrated hearing the things religious people defend, and the reasons they make up to defend them (actually, atheists are famous for exactly this kind of reaction; try typing “why are atheists so” into Google). Many atheists will attribute the religious’ ideas to their being stupid, or evil, or insane. Often, all three.


(Seriously? All three? Isn’t this sufficiently explained by just one? Are we sure we’re not overstating our case here…?)


But when they reluctantly (or even proudly) confess that, yes, they think you deserve to be set on fire for eternity, even if you’re just a child…Or, well, umm, yeah, they believe that the Earth is a few thousand years old…Or they say that they would probably kill people if they didn’t believe in God…


I have a better explanation, and I try to remember it whenever I get frustrated with the religious for saying things I feel like even they should know, must know, aren’t right. They are victims. These are perfectly normal people, who have had the tremendous misfortune to have had a carefully woven web of memes inserted into their brain (usually) at an early age, complete with fear-based removal-resistant antibodies. Can we really blame them for some of their resultant coping mechanisms?


They are not allowed to think certain thoughts. Eternal torture hangs over their heads. Social alienation and the contempt of their believing peers also. Can we deny that these people deserve pity, not contempt? Are victims, rather than enemies?


Then, rather than victim-blame believers for an accident of their birth or culture, let us rather say to ourselves, “There, but for the grace of God go I.” Personally, I try to see a younger version of myself when I encounter self-satisfied, self-congratulating, answer-for-everything/nothing believers. There was a time when I needed help, when I was suffering myself in the bonds of ill thought. When I remember this, my frustration relaxes, and I try to help however I can, if I can.


It is a delicate work, not unlike talking someone down from the edge of a building. Mental suicide is at stake here, and if we’re not careful, we’ll push a desperate victim a little too hard, and find them wrapped up all the tighter in their misfortune. Victim-blaming has the same predictable result on believers as we can imagine it would have on someone contemplating literal suicide. There’s a reason we decry victim-blaming.


The best tool I know for being able to help someone to think, as I once needed to be helped, is Street Epistemology. Its persuasive ability is impressive, but the absolute most important part of it as far as I’m concerned is how it allows us to discuss sensitive topics, like religious or political differences, without making it feel like a battle, without being confrontational, without eternally cutting off all potential for future conversations.


So, in conjunction with my recommendation to see believers as victims before fools or devils, I recommend Street Epistemology, to make yourself look more like a friend than a demon, even as you carefully talk someone down from mental suicide, an act for which they may see you as an enemy for a time, but in the end, we can hope, as a friend.


2 thoughts on “Don’t Victim-Blame Believers

  1. Wild they are victims, you must accept that they are victims of a personality destroying virus. Like rabies, or certain brain tumors. So however horrible a religion may make a person, that is how horrible they *are*. That does make them bad people. Which is not to say that they are irredeemable. People can change. They can get better. So the most you could say about somebody like that is that “they have the potential to be a good person, if they reject the religion they were raised with.” And that is what you like about them. In much the same way that I’m sure I would enjoy being friends with an axe murderer as soon as they remove the tumor in their brain which presses against the part of the brain that controls their impulse control and aggressive tendencies.

    You are right in that it is not entirely their fault. Most of the blame lies with their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and other ancestors who helped ingrain the dangerous and anti-social religious tendencies in their family culture. But at some point in their life everyone has the option to critically examine the things they are taught and raised with and determine for themselves whether or not those lessons are good ones to live by. Which means every horrible Christian terrorist and apologist and monster choose to be what they are. That choice limits the amount of sympathy I can feel for them.


    • This isn’t all that related, but I try to think in terms of what a thing IS, what qualities it has, and how they work, etc., and then not worry too much about the label.

      To say that this person personally has nothing against gays, but sort of says they do because it’s wrapped in their religion…basically sums up the situation. Whether you call them “bad” or not afterwards won’t change their nature in any way. So, I said they’re not “really” bad, you said they are, but I don’t think we disagree on what their qualities are, which reduces the disagreement to mere labels, which is sometimes still important, but I don’t think it’s as important as disagreeing on the substance of the issue.

      I do grant, of course, that word choice and framing are powerful communicative tools, but however important using the right word in this context is, it’s not as important as it would be if we also added on top of that a disagreement about the actual qualities of the people involved.


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