Of Radicalism and Spiritual Fatigue: Part II
In my previous post, I wrote a preliminary review of Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion. In that review I expressed my general dislike of Dawkins’ book. However, several people responded to my review by affirming that as atheists, they found his book to be quite edifying, timely, and useful.
I’m not surprised. It would have been weird to have had a slew of atheists agree that one of the most popular atheist publications ever written was a bit too snarky, shoddily written, and lacking in objectivity. I would have pinched myself to see if I was dreaming or perhaps assumed that I am actually living in The Matrix. Alas, The Matrix is a figment of Hollywood’s imagination and here in the real world, I appear to stand in the minority position.
Why is this?
I think this might be a question of timing and perhaps a touch of life experience.
I’m left thinking about my days as a budding feminist, some twenty years ago. I remember reading fiery texts written by a good number of radical authors. It was a bracing experience and spoke to my own travails as a gender variant person. These authors addressed the ways in which the social construction of gender brings forth a variety of nasty consequences that harm anyone at the wrong end of the gender hierarchy. It was quite affirming and I voraciously read these materials while taking college courses which addressed these issues. I even jumped headfirst into feminist political activism. In time, I came to refer to myself as a radical feminist and was proud to do so.
Sadly, after a number of years had passed, I began to notice a problem. While radicalism’s single-mindedness can accomplish great deeds, it can also lead to a place of hatred and ill will. When one’s radicalism is focused upon fighting prejudiced philosophies, deeds, and institutions, what does one do when radicalism brings forth its own form of prejudice? Does this not become self defeating? Does it reproduce the same patterns of social interaction that one seeks to remedy?
Radical feminism appealed to me because it placed the blame for the fucked up ways of patriarchy squarely upon men’s shoulders. No words were minced. No excuses were made. Radical feminism was a fiery, take-no-shit approach to dealing with sexist oppression. It appealed to me because its intensity reflected my own anger and hurt. Finding one’s anger and hurt reflected in a philosophy and a movement can be a beautiful thing. It can provide a space of healing. It places the blame for the crazy messed-up feelings upon the true source of your pain and it makes no apologies. It turns the pain away from your core and aims it outward. It brings relief from self-hatred. It brings relief from the craziness. It’s powerful. It’s wonderful. It allows you to simply grow.
There is a danger, though. If one fails to move forward—beyond the hurt and the brokenness—one can become mired in anger, hatred and fear.
For me, boys and men came to embody everything that was broken in society. They inherited privilege, embraced violence, and reveled in the hate and abuse that they foisted upon women and girls. They came to symbolize the essence of hatred and violence. Deep down, that’s how I felt about them.
Interestingly, this captures how I once felt about most Christians and a good number of people from other religions. As a bisexual trans woman who doesn’t believe in a god, I’ve felt my share of hatred toward the religious. There’s a heaping mound of childhood abuse that I can pin squarely on the shoulders of the religious, just as I can pin that abuse upon males’ shoulders.
Consequently, I’ve spent a fair portion of my adult life dismissing the majority of religious people as evil fucks. So too, I’ve spent a fair portion of my adult life dismissing the majority of men and boys as evil fucks. There’s a pattern here and it’s one I’d rather not indulge. Years of hatred and fear can lead to bad places, even when you feel that your hatred and fear are justified.
You might say that you are free of such emotions, but there’s an important thing to keep in mind: one can lie to oneself about the extent of that hatred and fear. If you’re trying to build a better world by challenging the prejudice you find there, then you can’t be guilty of the same problems, correct? That would be hypocrisy. So, you pretend that these emotions aren’t really there:
I pasted on a kind, understanding face when I interacted with them, but at my core, I didn’t trust them. I saw them as inherently flawed and dangerous creatures.
At the same time, I told myself that it was unjust to hate males simply because they are male. That’s prejudice and it’s bad. So, I pretended that I didn’t really hate them. I wanted to be understanding and open-minded, you see. I tried to tolerate them in spite of myself.
The question is, how does one tolerate a group of people when the lens one sees them through focuses upon their flaws? How does one ward off feelings of ill will toward the people one sees as actively bringing harm into the world:
There is a danger in radicalism. Yes, it places blame for oppression squarely upon the shoulders of those who deserve blame. In many respects, radicalism provides a very clear image of how power works in an oppressive system. I’ve no complaints about that. It’s a strength that has fostered wave upon wave of positive change in society. The problem is that radicalism can sometimes lead to defining responsibility for oppression as the sole characteristic of the group in power. In so doing, this can foster the perception that members of the dominant group are capable of nothing more than violence and abuse. Therein lie the seeds of dehumanization and hatred. Therein lie the seeds of prejudice and violence.
This is why I look for balance in a book about religion and spirituality. I want to remind myself that human beings are more than a composite of their flaws. I want to recognize the good, the bad, and the neutral aspects of the world’s religions. An incomplete picture paints a prejudiced portrait and we human beings have a talent for producing such flawed works. The only means I have available to curb my own hatred and fear of the other, is to recognize the other person’s full humanity and know that we both share the flaws and strengths of humankind.
So, I do understand the appeal of books such as The God Delusion. They bring the flaws of religion—or more precisely, Christianity—to the surface and they hold them to the light, glistening in clear relief. If one has been abused by religion and seeks to escape its tenacious and ubiquitous grasp, these writings will find resonant ears. At the start of one’s journey away from the oppression of one’s relinquished faith, these words are a balm and they sooth wounds inflicted by past injustice.
As one travels further along this journey, however, does a greater complexity come into view? Do the words one found solace in at the start of this process come to reveal their own flaws? What if these flaws map a journey whose terminus is an emotional and intellectual cul-de-sac?
What does one do then?
Where does one turn?