Compassion for the Religious

“These people bring it on themselves.”
“Their hijinks should be held up as an example.”
“We can’t be soft on these people.”

These are some of the reactions I got when I posted a piece of news on my Facebook page and wrote my commentary about it. The piece of news: someone got stuck in a consensual but dangerous situation involving an unconventional sexual activity, called 9-1-1 for help, and then saw the story spread all over the Internet, including lurid details, their name, and the recording of the emergency call.

The reactions to my post came, as far as I can tell, from atheists. Given the context, they were almost certainly atheists. But their anger and contempt wasn’t directed at the people who had exposed the 9-1-1 caller’s identity. It wasn’t directed at all the people ridiculing him online. It didn’t come from a humanist embrace of consensual human sexuality, and it wasn’t directed at those who were dragging this person’s private sex life all over the Internet and taking gleeful pleasure in mocking it.

It was directed at the person who had placed the 9-1-1 call. Why? Because the person who made the call was a Catholic priest.

That’s right, he was a priest. And therefore, according to these atheists on my Facebook page, he had abdicated any right to call 9-1-1 for help when he was in danger without having his sex life go viral. He was a hypocrite. Actually, we don’t know that for sure—we don’t know much about this priest other than what he said in the emergency call, and we don’t know whether he was in a conservative church that practiced a lot of sexual shaming, or a more inclusive one that cherry-picked out the nasty pits of Catholic sexual shame. But he had perpetuated an institution—the Catholic Church—that’s created pointless sexual guilt for exactly the kinds of activities he was engaging in. So, on at least some level, he was a hypocrite. And the punishment for religious hypocrisy—according to these people on my Facebook page—should be the public shaming of his private sexuality and his call for help, even if the result is that other people with unconventional sexual tendencies are now more afraid to call 9-1-1 for fear that they’ll be exposed and humiliated. That’s a price these folks are willing to pay, if it means we can expose yet another religious sexual hypocrite.

If you think I’m exaggerating, here are some other comments from the same discussion: “I am glad he was humiliated”; “You deserve whatever embarrassment is heaped upon you when your hypocrisy is revealed… I am glad that I live in a world where that dbag was forced to own up to his hypocrisy”; “Priests are terrorists and con men”; and “It’s his and his fellow clergy’s fault that ‘unconventional’ sex is taboo. Fuck him.”

I find this profoundly upsetting.

As anyone who’s at all familiar with my work knows, I am a passionate defender of atheist anger. I literally wrote the book on atheist anger (Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless). I think anger can be a powerful tool in a social change movement. In fact, I think it’s a necessary tool, one that no successful social change movement I know of has been able to do without. I think anger motivates us to correct injustice, to alleviate harm, to make the world a better place. And I absolutely understand the anger at the sexual hypocrisy of some leaders in the Catholic Church, who shame their followers for the exact sexual practices they themselves partake in. Hell, I share it. But there’s a difference between anger and hatred.

Here’s the thing: religion, and the harm that so often comes from it, creates a complex moral paradox. The people who perpetrate the harmful things about religion are also, for the most part, its victims. And vice versa. Which means—among other things—that we need to have at least some degree of compassion for the people we’re angry at.

The people who traumatize their young children with vivid and horrific images of hell were, themselves, traumatized by those horrors. The religious leaders who fill their flocks with close-minded ignorance and hateful bigotry were, themselves, taught that ignorance and bigotry are divine virtues, dearly treasured by God. The people who warp the sexuality of their children and teenagers, who fill them with guilt and shame over normal, healthy feelings, were themselves warped in this same way. The perpetrators of religion are also its victims. And as humanists and atheist activists, we’re supposed to have compassion for the victims of religion.

A priest who felt he had to be secretive about his unconventional sexuality because it was forbidden by the teachings of his church? That is a perfect example of this principle in action. Sure, if someone is an immensely powerful, truly horrible perpetrator of religion or commits heinous acts under its veil—like Osama bin Laden, Jerry Falwell, or the pope—I could see the anger/compassion balance tilting pretty strongly in the direction of anger. But a kinky priest who was giving himself pleasure that his Church preaches against? Is that really an appropriate target for our unbridled, contemptuous, take-no-prisoners rage? Talk to the folks at the Clergy Project, the support organization for clergy members who have become atheists. Ask them what it’s like to be a member of the clergy who no longer believes in the teachings of their religion—whether those teachings are “kinky sex is bad” or “God exists.” Talk to them about how trapped they feel—how isolated, how ashamed, how afraid. And then tell me that they’re terrorists and con men, that you have no sympathy for them. Tell me that their hijinks should be held up as an example, that they deserve whatever embarrassment is heaped upon them, that you’re glad for their humiliation.

Our anger about religion is supposed to come from a place of compassion. We’re supposed to be angry because we see so much dreadful harm committed in the name of religion, and we desperately want to see it end. When this anger turns into hatred—and when it becomes so hateful that it gets uncompromisingly aimed at the very people our compassion should be motivated by, simply because they’re part of the toxic system—it has gone seriously wrong.

I don’t want an atheist movement where anger at religion is so blind that we lose all compassion for anyone who’s involved in it. I don’t want a movement where we reflexively hate all priests so much—without knowing anything about them—that we think it’s okay that they should risk their safety and their lives rather than call for help. I don’t want a movement where the public humiliation of religious sexual hypocrites is so important to us that we don’t even care that other people, people who aren’t priests but who share this one’s sexual proclivities, are now being made even more afraid to call 9-1-1 when they need help.

Reading those Facebook responses was like a caricature of atheism, drawn by someone who hates atheists. But in truth those atheists were drawing the caricature themselves. A self-portrait. And it’s not a portrait I want any part of.