In general, I'm a live and let live kind of guy. Aggressively so. I don't have a lot of time or patience for people who are unwilling to cut others slack - particularly when it comes to relatively harmless foibles. Individual people are the moving parts of society, and biting your tongue around harmless idiots is part of the lubrication that keeps everything from grinding to a halt.
I'm still mostly on board with that overall view, but I spent some time today reconsidering my views on harmlessness, foibles, and idiots, and particularly on the application of those views toward displays of well-meaning religiosity directed toward complete strangers.
This reconsideration was sparked by an experience that Christina Stephens reported on earlier today. For those of you who aren't familiar with Christina's recent experiences, she had a little bit of a problem recently when her left foot wound up between the brake rotor on her falling car and the floor of the garage. The good news is that it's absolutely certain that there will not be an exact repeat of that particular incident, but the bad news is that this is certain more because of the absence of biological left foot than because of a suspension of gravity. (Levity aside, Christina has been dealing with things with amazing grace, and her Youtube chronicles of her experiences are a must-watch.)
Here's Christina's description of events earlier tonight:
I was wheeling past a lady when she met my eyes and said, “good evening!” I said, “Well, good evening to you, fancy night, isn’t it?”
She proceeded to preach at me for about ten minutes. My neighbor friend who works there in the cosmetics department (man, he always has the best eyeshadows on) even stopped to say hi and practically handed me a get-out-of-conversation card, but I actually enjoyed all of the many things she told me. Here’s a quick summary:
1. She was cured of muscular dystrophy as an adult because of her belief in Jesus.
2. Jesus has the power to grow my foot back, and since she has seen so many miracles like that happen, she believes he will grow my foot back too.
I told her I’d be glad to believe in some kind of higher deity if my leg grew back. Trouble is, which one? I’d have to make sure it wasn’t Allah or Zeus who grew it back. I assume they are probably all in a race to have me hang out with them in the afterlife.
When I read that, I laughed. Then I started to wonder why a verbally tweaking - even mildly - a well-intentioned believer struck me as funny. The lady was spouting rank nonsense, but harmless nonsense. Why get in her face? Why not take the get-out-of-conversation card and move on? Who is she hurting with her belief? She's trying to be nice, so why insult her?
My Torts professor this semester, Mari Matsuda, is an advocate for restrictions on hate speech. (See, for example, this video of a 2006 debate that she participated in with Christopher Hitchens.) I remain unwilling to go as far as Professor Matsuda does. I am still convinced that the First Amendment must embrace the right to offend, and that we will lose too much if it does not. But Professor Matsuda is right to say that words have consequences, and that careless words can wound. Your right to offend does not make you right to offend.
But, on reflection, it turns out that a lot of what I've been dismissing as harmless crankery really isn't all that harmless. What if you pray as hard and sincerely as possible, and the foot doesn't grow back. There are no gods is one possible reason, but, based on the logic of the offered advice, it's more likely that your foot has not returned because you haven't prayed hard enough. Or because your belief is not real enough. Or because god just doesn't love you enough.
Fortunately, the obdurate religiosity in this case was directed at Christina, who easily dismissed it as the nonsense it is. But the woman delivering the "advice" had no way to know that, and the recipient could very easily have been someone struggling with the combination of the sudden, permanent change in circumstances, resulting depression, and an acute crisis of faith. In that case, the well meaning advice might have resulted in quite a bit of pain. There is nothing about religious proselytizing that makes it an innately harmless activity, even if it is absolutely true that religion is pointless.
I started out wondering why Christina felt the need to needle the well-meaning-but-ignorant stranger. I wound up, if anything, wishing she'd been more direct and outspoken in chastising this stranger for intruding in a manner that might harm people.
Live and let live is nice, but it has to be the starting point. As a response, it's probably more harmful than not. When the well-meaning-but-offensive stranger walks away feeling good about the potentially harmful advice they administered, the events will likely repeat. Given human nature, there's a good chance that this will happen even if the offense is pointed out, but even if it only makes the offender think twice the next time it's worthwhile.
And there's definitely something damn funny about the image of Zeus, Allah, and Jesus in a cage match over who gets to give Christina her foot back.