Fugitives from Fundamentalism

The Musings of Adult Missionary Kids (MKs) & Former Born-Again Believers

Empathy, a perspective

Posted by Ann on October 4, 2009

Empathy is basically defined as being able to see life from someone else’s perspective. On an individual level, empathy is present when one person learns to let go of ideas about what’s “positive” for another person, and allows for self-direction by the other person.

For instance, in substance abuse counseling, I think my clients have to want to make a change, to stop shooting heroin for instance, to start working toward that goal. It can be difficult to see people make choices that end in more suffering for themselves or others, incarceration, or even death. But I am not responsible for someone else’s decisions, or their perspective of the world and interpretations of the events in their lives. I think people need to be free to make their own choices, while knowing sometimes people are basing their choices on distorted thinking–something that applies to all of us.

Practitioners in the field of substance abuse generally advocate for abstinence only (theorists don’t necessarily though) and believe this needs to be promoted for clients.  AA/NA groups come to mind. These are actually the majority of people practicing in the field, and most often these people are religious. It puts me on the fringes of my field as a substance abuse therapist. I drink alcohol and don’t have a problem with drinking myself. If I ever got to a place where I thought it had become a problem, I guess I’d try to stop or get help. But that would be up to me. I don’t know that a therapist pushing me in that direction would be helpful. I think it would be a decision I would have to come to on my own.

On a societal level, I think this applies as well, that people need freedom to make decisions. Religion screws around with the decisions people make though. If religion were out of the picture, I think people would make more positive choices, impacting society in a big way. There is a growing body of research that supports this claim.

For me, religion, particularly in its current fundamentalist form, is something to take a stand against, while understanding the perspective of the religious person and responding out of that place. I’m not a vocal activist or taking up the “good fight” of the “Good Word” of atheism with a capital A, or anything like that.  But that doesn’t mean other methods of standing up to oppressive ideology are less valid because I’m from the opinion that empathy is important. Even while many fundamentalists love to hate (or at least strongly dislike) some of the more vocal atheist scientists, politicians, authors, and comedians, people like these are changing the fabric of our society too. Nietzsche, an author I like, had a huge impact on counseling theory, and psychology as a whole, and he was a vocal critic of religion, and society.  And the every man, the one who is an atheist and just living his life, also takes a stand, in a way, every time he or she admits to someone else, “I’m an atheist.” 

In the end, religion is part of the life that exists today. We can fight (or disagree with) religious ideology on an individual level in our own ways, but for better or worse, it is here for a while I’m afraid. Counseling and therapy is not magical. It’s just a couple of people working together toward a goal set by the client–and that goal can change. The counselors who convey empathy and compassion see more positive results for their clients–this has been well documented. I’m not saying this is me all of the time, but it is generally something I work toward.  Counseling theory could actually benefit politics quite a bit, I think. And, maybe, eventually, affect fundamentalist thinking in our world, with the potential to make some big changes. It would be a step in a good direction anyway.

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19 Responses to “Empathy, a perspective”

  1. The Chaplain said

    You make a great point about the positive impact of those who speak out against religion as a heuristic for life and society. As a teacher of argument, I have noticed, with no small amount of exasperation, that those who criticize the “New” atheists (whatever the “new” implies), do so based on technique. They almost never address the merits of their points. That is a VERY important reason for this: personal attacks, or those based on technique and tone are the last resort to attack someone when you have NOTHING to back your claims within the framework of the actual issue being discussed (whether there is evidence to justify believing in the supernatural and specific deities within that realm).

  2. The Chaplain said

    I wanted to add something that Charity already knows: the theories of psychologist Carl Rogers are having a significant impact on Composition theory and the teaching of argument. In fact, almost without exception, my students prefer “Rogerian-style” argument to traditional argument. They immediately recognize the superiority of the empathy-centered approach to arguing and discussing issues. Of course, the superiority of this technique is completely based in the rhetorical situation of the argument. Also, Rogerian argument has its limitations. For instance, although you can practice it when you argue, it has limited success when the other person or people participating in the argument do not rely upon the same method.

    For instance, in my discussions with Angry Calvinist in April 2008, I was limited in how much I could use Rogerian argument. He had no interest in using a conciliatory tone, and I can’t remember him ever trying to create a common ground around which the debate could revolve. There were times when there were breaks in his aggressive facade, and I once again saw the kid I had known, but they were usually when he seemed exhausted or was feeling doubt about his techniques (and he refers to a criticism his wife makes of his argument techniques). For the most part, Angry Calvinist’s whole worldview is an authoritarian one in which there is a black and white right and wrong, and all humans can be blamed when they fall short of that absolute measure. Debate with rhetoric is about establishing probabilities based on evidence, and he was trying to establish the fact of absolute truth — not argue for possibilities (even when he used the word “possible,” he was not being intellectually honest with himself, since he did not mean “possible” in that way. He was using it more as a rhetorical technique).

    Therefore, I could have spent all of my time (and it is more time consuming) focusing on common ground and making arguments rooted in that, but he would not have followed what I was doing, and he would not have respected it. I had to consider my audience when writing. My Christian audience is traditional; their thought is steeped in authoritarianism. In keeping with strategies they immediately recognize and understand, I have almost always relied on traditional styles of argument when debating them. They are concerned about TRUTH. Thus, I deconstruct. I try to show that their belief in absolutes is false. I approach them on their ground, with the authoritarian techniques they respect and understand; “Here is your fact,” I state. I go on, “Here is your evidence,” I continue, “and here are all of the flaws in each and every argument you make.” I then end with, “Your truth is no truth at all–it is unsupported and nothing more than wishful thinking wrapped in the comforting blanket of misinterpreted feelings and seriously flawed (nearly demented) logic.” So, I act as the authority, and Christians get that. I say, “I am the authority, and I assert the following…” Then, I finally move into the realm of establishing probability based on what we can justifiably assert based on the limited info we have to go on.

    Christians will never be convinced by my arguments, and I know this. That is precisely the reason why I stick to the traditional (aggressive or “angry”) style of argument: it is direct, it views the opposition’s views as secondary to the goal of establishing what is most likely true and supportable, and it is more time efficient. If I actually thought that Christians could be convinced of the wrongness of their beliefs, I would definitely take the time to construct a Rogerian argument. It is pointless, though. It makes much more sense to me to point out why a Christian’s views are wrong and unsupported by evidence than to waste time trying to de-convert them.

    Rogerian argument technique has different goals than traditional argument. Although it might still be making a clear assertion, that is not its main focus. It spends much of its time focusing on common ground. For this reason, it is superior to traditional argument, because it allows for action to occur where action would usually not occur as a result of traditional argument. But, when there is no common ground, and no possibility for common ground, there is no empathetic form of argument that can occur. A non-believer might think they are making headway in a Rogerian-style argument with a Christian, but I can assure you that it is nothing more than a happy illusion. Christianity is non-compromising. You are a sinner who can only serve one master; you will burn in hell; there is no empathy for you and no amount of empathy from your part will cause Christians to accept you or your viewpoint as you are. It really is that simple, because the Christian worldview is a simplistic one that rips the complexity out of life and relationships. I’m through lamenting that fact; I chose to see and deal with this reality; this is why I am aggressive and quick with my argument techniques. I am a writer, and I think about my audience, shaping it to fit who it is directed to.

    • Charity said

      I’m not sure “fight” is the best word to use when it comes to taking a stand against fundamentalist religions? Or maybe it depends on your perspective. I’ve never tried to de-convert anyone, or even expect that this would happen for any particular individual (although it does happen). I find I’m always able to find common ground with people. In counseling, or even relating empathetically outside of counseling, having empathy means expectations are out the window. Religion may never go away, but maybe fundamentalism will.

      That said, if someone asks me what I think regarding religion, or tries to push their religious beliefs on me, I’ll tell them what I think.

      • The Chaplain said

        I think the word “fight” is appropriate if/when those religions are oppressing you or someone else. For instance, to continue with the war metaphor, if a foreign country attacks the U.S. and tries to limits people’s freedom (by oppressing gays, etc.), then you are at war whether you like it or not. No amount of empathy is going to accomplish your goals of escaping from and overthrowing the oppressor. I think I see your point though: you could interpret what the majority of Christians do as simply rude or annoying. But, if you follow my train of thought for a moment, I hope I can make you see why it is more serious than that. Yes, what someone like Angry Calvinist does, when he calls me a worshipper of Satan who will burn in Hell, is more akin to rudeness than oppression. However, that is just the surface appearance. Angry Calvinist votes. He repeats what he says to other people, who, because he is smart, think it is justifiable to vote for people who use hate speech towards gays (which leads to their murders), etc. Oppression is built into Christianity, whether the person sitting in front of you is trying to personally oppress you or not. So, to me, “fight” is definitely the right word. This is a war. Christianity teaches hatred. It should be exposed for the lie it is at every turn. It is not okay, in my book, to let it stand as a reasonable way to view life. I don’t care who I piss off saying it. If we were living in the Jim Crow South, I would go around telling people they are evil and sick for hating Blacks and oppressing them. I would empathize with the fact that these haters were raised to think those things, and they don’t have as much control over what they think as some of us do, but the oppression is so evil, that suppressing anger to have empathy for the hater is to miss the point. The haters status as a human in solidarity with other humans is not the issue at hand. The issue is whether one is going to be Switzerland or actually contribute to the side you want to win. It is important to note that the Swiss are never as neutral as they like to pretend. They definitely take sides in subtle ways.

        Of course, in a therapy setting empathy has primacy, since the goal in a session is not to remove oppression and injustice from society–not so in life in general when you are dealing with folks who directly or indirectly support those who oppress, cause suffering or kill.

        • Charity said

          For me, I guess I don’t hate the haters. That doesn’t mean I don’t have my values and opinions, or that I support oppression. Or that I don’t get really angry sometimes at how people treat each other, or that I always treat people respectfully. Or that I don’t speak up against oppression and hatred (although I know I haven’t always spoken up as firmly, or as openly, or as clearly, or as often as I could have). Or that it isn’t a war–obviously not literally, but of ideology and how it affects people in real time, in real lives. There is much to be angry about.

          Regarding counseling principles, I think it is a way some people live life. It’s a way to live “the good life”, as Rogers puts it. Learning to let go of anger is part of this good life, and I’m saying this for myself. Since there’s no ultimate meaning to life, I guess this is the one I’ve decided to create for myself. But I stand by my earlier statement that I think empathy has the power to make changes, even on a societal level.

          Of all the “angry” ways people fight oppression, I think art, music, and humor (including satire) are my favorites. Using anger in ways that make people think is not a “bad” thing. I don’t think I always recognized this in the past.

    • Charity said

      “Christians will never be convinced by my arguments, and I know this.”

      Yeah, my point.

  3. Jerry said

    “… people need freedom to make decisions. Religion screws around with the decisions people make though. If religion were out of the picture, I think people would make more positive choices, impacting society in a big way.”

    Religion does have some positive impacts, but there’s always a cost involved. When I visited the Vatican this summer, all I could think about as I looked at all the grandeur of the place was the emotional, spiritual, and financial burdens that the Catholic church has placed on its devotees for centuries in order to create a place and bureaucracy like Vatican City.
    I keep wondering what it would be like if religion were out of the picture. I guess people would invent new religions because so many seem incapable of living without all that magic and superstition. Maybe it serves to relieve anxiety in an uncertain world for many, but that’s just not my style.

    • Charity said

      “Religion does have some positive impacts, but there’s always a cost involved.”

      I think religion has some positive influences, but there are too many negatives to religion, particularly intellectual dishonesty and sin ideology, that aren’t worth the cost, in my mind. Research indicates a biological basis for religious belief, and the discoveries of science and psychology are often counterintuitive, and sometimes difficult to grasp, so most people are unlikely to change their minds about the supernatural being reality.

      Cathedrals are beautiful. Makes me wonder what it would be like to grow up Catholic instead of Protestant. Spending all that time around Cathedrals, and the mass ceremonies, organ music, and incense, and all the pomp and costumes, and so on. They’re sorta like tombs for God. I like looking at them and thinking about the time spent (sometimes hundreds of years) and the artistry of the craftspeople who designed and built them, did the stonework, created the statues. One of my favorites: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strasbourg_Cathedral

  4. The Chaplain said

    In case the rest of you missed the subtext in what Charity and I are debating, it’s all about the appropriate tone to take when talking to Christians about their beliefs. You might be able to tell we have a difference of opinion on that front. Really, this is a conversation we should all have in a straight-forward manner, instead of at the sub-textual level. I would be interested to hear what people think at the use of tone. Is pointing out the flaws in Christianity arrogant and counterproductive when done in a certain way? Is it possible to have a completely conciliatory discussion about one’s lack of belief with a Christian? Discuss… 🙂

    • Paulo said

      Well, yeah, I think the way in which you approach a conversation makes a lot of difference. Nothing productive can come out of a conversation when both parties are just yelling at each other without respect, as I did when I was in New Orleans during Mardi Gras 2000, shouting “fuck you, bastards!” to the street evangelists (I had issues) who were yelling at all of us in the crowd telling us we were gonna burn in hell.

      There should be respect in whatever approach you take. Trying to find common ground is good, but you can only go so far with a believer. There comes a point when their firmly-entrenched beliefs will never allow them to agree with you. Nothing wrong with taking a stand and being direct when they insist on imposing their beliefs on you. I wouldn’t recommend yelling and insults, though (I’m not saying anyone here is doing it, I’m just saying from my experience). It only makes you look as big of an ass as the other guy.

    • JN said

      I guess a person has to define a motives for such a discussion. If a person is pointing out the flaws in logic for a extra ego boost, it’s unlikely that anything good will come of it. Usually these ‘discussions’ result in both sides filtering the discussion through their perspective lenses, and each party will go away wondering why they wasted the time (and most likely claiming victory).

      Most discussions start out with two parties with a set mind and a fixed agenda. Perhaps the only way a discussion would work is if everyone sees their ideas as more of a process, rather than a fixed ideology. What I believe now, I may not believe in a few years. To pretend that what I spout off has definitive meaning to my entire life (past, present, and future) is often either an over-glorification of the present or an under-estimation of the future.

      Depending on how you approach these discussions will determine how you read this post. If you approach it as an us versus him (let’s face it, I’m pretty much alone here) kind of discussion you’ll pull a Fox News and skew my words to fit your purposes. If you approach it as just a discussion where there won’t be a defined winner or loser but just an exchange of ideas, maybe some real discussion is in fact taking place.

      • The Chaplain said

        I agree with most of what you said here. I do not point out flaws in logic for an “ego boost,” as you said. My message is usually this: “Don’t tell me I’m wrong for not believing your God exists when your reasons for believing are so horribly bad.” Of course, my discussions with you are not usually like this anyway, since you do more proposing of ideas and less straightforward arguments in the vein of Angry Calvinist.

        I agree about thoughts or positions should be a process. I actually couldn’t agree more. In fact, if you pay close attention to many of my positions (especially when we were all debating things on the ICA forum on Myspace), you will see that they have evolved.

        It is definitely all about tone. I write things in an academic setting and teach writing in an academic setting, so I value the clear assertion and supporting evidence. This does not mean that the assertion is an eternal thing set in stone. That is a conservative Christian concept (Notice the inclusion the the word “conservative” there? That’s evolution, baby! Been meaning to add qualifiers to the label of “Christian” for awhile. Already used “Evangelical” a lot, but sometimes I forget to tag it on there. That doesn’t mean I am trying to conflate all Christian views though. I hope you are aware that I can tell the difference between you and a Pat Robertson.) However, try writing an essay in which you say, “The legal drinking age should be lowered to 18–or, at least, that’s what I think today. Might change my mind tomorrow.”

        For me, it is a given that views change and evolve–that is built into the secular worldview, where self-correcting science is constantly modifying or fine-tuning explanations. So you actually share a view of the world and positions on issues that is decidedly not a typical Evangelical one. Most Conservative Christians I know do not view their ideas as a process. They know their black from white, and no amount of evidence to the contrary will make white stop being white.

        • Charity said

          “They know their black from white, and no amount of evidence to the contrary will make white stop being white.”

          I think I’ve gotten to a place where I accept this about Evangelical Christians. Their religious beliefs color everything in their world. And no evidence will change their beliefs. For me this is intellectual dishonesty, but to them, their beliefs are rational and reality.

          Now that I’ve accepted this, I realize they are valuable humans, with differences of personality and even perspective on an individual level. After being with Evangelical Christians as they cry over the deaths of loved ones, or holding their hands as they express feeling excrutiating physical or mental pain, or talking with them through feelings of alienation and loneliness and even suicidality–the list of suffering experiences can go on, and on, and on–I don’t view Evangelical Christians as much different from me.

          Even people like Rush Limbaugh experience pain. His ideology doesn’t protect him from his human experience. So I just can’t work up enough anger any more to call someone a fucker (even when in a sense they are :)), since a big part of me identifies with their pain.

          So I’m not supressing anger. I generally just don’t experience it toward individuals. When I talk to an Evangelical Christian on a personal, relevatory level, I find anger colors their perspective. People are angry because their anger is empowering to them (as my not feeling anger empowers me), often from a sense of helplessness to change things. For a Christian, the anger is at secularism and secular people–those idiots. For the secularist, the anger is at religion and religious people-those idiots.

          What I have anger for are life circumstances, the way humans’ general inability to empathize (we are all human) influences ideas and decisions that cause more suffering in the world, wars, and deaths and limit freedom. But I can choose not to color my perspective too much by focusing on this stuff. And by learning to be more selfish and take care of myself so I don’t get angry at humans who really don’t know how to help themselves.

        • The Chaplain said

          Well, for once, I am speechless. It is impossible to disagree with this, since it is pretty clear that anger at Christians or Christian dogma — regardless of the real destruction and suffering it is responsible for — is, in and of itself, impotent (at best) or destructive (at worst).

          I can’t help but hope, though, that this blog, stemming as it does from anger (that is one of many sources it flows from, but one nonetheless), succeeds in moving a step past that wheel-spinning. Or, at least, I try to make it do somewhat more than that. This statement from the “About” page is my sincere goal for this site:

          It is intended as a resource for fence-sitting Christians looking for alternate frameworks for viewing the world, recovering non-believers who need a place to share ideas, and Christians who might care to understand their friends who left the faith. Since it is common for Christian family and friends to have questions upon discovering that a loved one has left the faith, this blog attempts to answer those questions. It also seeks to compile the various thoughts, feelings, and assertions of us former believers concerning our former faith and current paradigms for viewing the world.

          The site falls short of this purpose on many occasions, but, to be fair, I don’t really know what I am doing; I’m making it up as I go, and it is definitely a process with a lot of missteps and errors.

          I realize that I am using your message as a starting point to discuss some concerns about the site that are on my mind, so don’t be surprised that my current comment has deviated from your ideas quite a bit! 🙂

        • Charity said

          I like the site. It presents perspectives of life based on evidence versus circular logic. Other perspectives may be valid as perspectives, but obviously not equal when it comes to being logical and based on evidence. If anything, it’s about not dissembling. I think there are some people who recognize the irrationality of their beliefs once they start thinking things through–although maybe not evangelicals. Reading stuff on this site may start some people thinking. Hopefully we can get some more contributors to this site, angry or otherwise, who can add their fugitives from fundamentalism perspectives.

  5. JN said

    …excuse the typing mistakes and redundancies (discuss discussions discussfully). I should have proof-read the post before submitting it.

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