Setting the Record Straight

Note: On April 24, the Daily Northwestern published an opinion column that included a backhanded and (in my opinion) unfair reference to me and my blog–namely, to my Markwell post. I wrote the following letter to the editor in response.

To the editor:

In his Tuesday column, Peter Larson discussed the response to Cru’s Markwell campaign and mentioned one particular “fire and brimstone” blogger whose “gripes” caused him to roll his eyes. Since Larson used a female pronoun and, to my knowledge, I am the only female writer to have written a blog post critical of the Markwell campaign, I can only assume that he was referring to me. I’d like to set the record straight.

First of all, I disagree that there was anything “fire and brimstone” about my blog post. Although I do have strong opinions, as do many bloggers and newspaper columnists, I believe that my post was reasoned and well thought-out. In fact, while Larson may dismiss my opinion, one Cru member chose to engage with it by writing a public Facebook note in response. Rather than inserting a snarky, oblique reference to me into his note, he referred to me by name.

Second, Larson seems to have conflated writers like me with anonymous commenters who troll North by Northwestern. There is absolutely nothing wrong with respectfully stating your opinion, as I did and as Larson has done in his column. While rolling one’s eyes in a “decaffeinated haze” might well be the best response to trolls, it’s an unfair response to someone who has taken the time to write a coherent blog post. Larson did not offer up any actual criticisms of my post, and, in fact, made it very clear that he didn’t really read it. Perhaps if he reread my post after having drunk his morning coffee, he would be able to actually criticize it.

Finally, the ironic twist here is that, in summarily dismissing a fellow writer with his snarky commentary, Larson has done exactly what he criticized in his column. My blog post led to many engaging discussions–and, yes, plenty of disagreement–among my friends and acquaintances. Our discussion at the University Christian Ministry on Tuesday night lasted for three hours. We’ve dived right in to the difficult issues that the Markwell campaign has raised and have learned a lot about each other in the process. To dismiss those of us who want to think about and comment on issues like these as having a “shortage” of intelligence is absolutely uncalled for.

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Why I Think Proselytism is Wrong

I was so happy to see this outside the psychology department.

The whole controversy on our campus surrounding Cru and their “I Agree with Markwell” campaign has gotten me thinking about proselytism. (Proselytism, in case you don’t know, is just a fancy word for trying to convert people to another religion.)

In my view, proselytism is wrong.

I have two foundations for this view. One of them is my knowledge of psychology. Research in social psychology has confirmed, over and over again, that people are much more susceptible to peer pressure and manipulation than we’d like to believe. (For the sake of time and space, I’m not going to list studies here because I’m assuming most people have taken Psych 101 and have learned about them. But if you’re curious, ask, and I’ll send you a dozen.)

The success of dubious religious ventures like witch hunts and cults suggests that adding a spiritual element makes peer pressure even more potent. If people can be persuaded to do even such ridiculous and terrible things, how hard will it be to persuade them to take a pamphlet, give out their email address, come to church, donate money, gradually abandon the beliefs they’d had before?

This is especially harmful when it comes to non-Christians, who are a minority in the U.S. (and, in fact, in many other places). In many ways, it’s difficult enough as is to maintain your own beliefs and practices when the entire surrounding culture immerses you in another belief system. If you don’t believe me, talk to a Jewish kid at Christmastime. I still remember how indignant I felt when other kids got a big present from each of their extended family members and I got just one.

But in all seriousness, science typically shows that people are very suggestible. Proselytizing groups may claim that the only people who convert are people who really, genuinely, truly want to be Christians, I’m not so sure that you can always tell the difference between really, genuinely, truly wanting something, and being subtly manipulated into wanting that thing. And while I concede that Northwestern’s Cru chapter represents only the mildest, most harmless form of proselytism, I oppose any action that implies that you, the proselytizer, know better than everyone else.

Which brings me right to my next point. The second foundation for my opposition to proselytism is my moral code. I believe that, with a few exceptions, we have no right to try to alter the beliefs of others. I place religion on the same plane as several other areas of human experience, such as sexuality–things that are personal and that have no impact on anyone but ourselves. For instance, would you ever attempt to convince someone to have sex the way you have sex? I would hope not. So why would you attempt to convince them to believe the things you believe?

I obviously don’t think that all forms of persuasion are wrong. Arguing about politics is valuable and important because political decisions affect all of us. Influencing people’s purchasing decisions via marketing is necessary for our economy to work. If done sensitively, talking to someone who seems to be making a harmful decision about their career, relationships, etc. could be very helpful.

But ultimately, a person’s inner life belongs to them alone, and most people value that inner life and resent attempts to intrude upon it. I think intruding upon it is wrong.

Now, as a disclaimer, I’m not saying that mine is the best moral code in the world and that everyone should adopt it and that people who do not adopt it are Bad. If I thought that, it would make me no better than the Markwell people.

But I do think that we’d have less conflict in our society if people lived by a code such as this one, and it works for me because it helps me feel like I’m treating others with respect.

Is this moral code completely incompatible with evangelical Christianity? Yes. Christians and others who proselytize genuinely believe that others need to be saved/brought to Jesus/what have you, or else they’ll go to hell. However, it’s important to note that this brand of Christianity is incompatible with all other belief systems, including most Christian ones. In this brand of Christianity, only two types of people exist in the world: good Christians and people who haven’t been converted yet.

And before anyone goes all First Amendment on me, note that I would never suggest that proselytism should be illegal. After all, it’s a form of free speech. Laws have nothing to do with my argument.

After all, not everything that’s legal is right. It’s perfectly legal to spread rumors, use the n-word, and cheat on your partner. And yet these are things that we almost universally agree are wrong. Why? Because they hurt others.

Proselytism may not hurt in the same way that getting cheated on does, but it hurts in a more insidious way. It erodes minority traditions and belief systems and destroys trust between different religious groups.

For instance, if you ask Northwestern students whether or not they’d be willing to engage with Cru in any way, many of them will now tell you no. It’s not hard to figure out why: Cru members made their condescension and disrespect for others’ faith blatant when they expressed their wish to convert us all to Christianity. (In fact, this whole episode inspired me to join Northwestern’s chapter of the Secular Student Alliance. Apparently I’m not the only one.)

The various forms of backlash that “I Agree with Markwell” has inspired, much of which has taken on a deeply anti-Christian tone, only proves my point. While I obviously don’t condone insulting people or their religious beliefs and wish that people would be more civil, I’m not surprised that so many Northwestern students are so annoyed and angry at Cru. After all, they basically told us that we’re going to hell. Their proselytism has, in a way, torn this campus apart.

I don’t think that my moral code is one that will ever be adopted by our majority-Christian society. But I do think that the world would be a better place if people learned to leave each other alone. You may disagree.

We’re Not Lost: An Open Letter to Campus Crusade for Christ

Northwestern’s chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ, an evangelical Christian organization otherwise known as Cru, has an edgy new campaign.

It’s called “I Agree with Markwell” and consists of the following: students wearing bright orange shirts that say “I Agree with Markwell,” covering the campus with chalk writing and posters that say “I Agree with Markwell,” and making videos in which they explain why they agree with Markwell.

Who’s Markwell? He’s a senior here at Northwestern who was asked by Cru to be the face, so to speak, of this campaign. His first name is Matthew.

The purpose of the campaign is ostensibly to convince people that, like Markwell, they too can have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And the way to do this is by placing this quizzical phrase all over campus so that people will be compelled to look it up and find out what it’s all about.

Once they find themselves on the campaign’s website, they’ll learn a bit more about Markwell’s beliefs:

I believe in God. Not just any god, but the God who loves us more than we can imagine. I believe all people are sinful, messed up, jacked up, broken, whatever you want to call it. We intentionally rebel against God and choose to do our own thing, separating us from God and leading us toward death.

Well then.

As someone who vacillates between Judaism and agnosticism, I can say that this is definitively against my beliefs and I find it disempowering, depressing, and completely contrary to what I believe human nature to be.

However, that’s just my belief, and both Markwell and I are entitled to our own beliefs. And if that were all there was to it, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post right now.

The reason I am writing this blog post is because our campus magazine interviewed Markwell about this campaign. Here’s what he had to say:

When I see people here at Northwestern who don’t believe in God, I see them as lost, and that’s not probably how they would identify themselves. But from this side looking out, the best thing I can do to care for people is to show them why I believe what I believe. If anybody were to step into our shoes — step into my shoes — and see the people at Northwestern the way that I see them, then I think that the most loving thing you could do in that scenario is tell them about this opportunity to know the God of the Universe.

So, to rephrase: Markwell sees it as his loving duty to help us all find our way to Christ, because otherwise we’re “lost.”

Now, nothing I’m saying here is meant to apply to most Christians, because I’m hoping that most of them don’t see us non-Christians this way. But those Christians who do insist on proselytizing in such intrusive and condescending ways need to realize that, not only are they completely failing at being decent human beings, but they’re also pushing away the very people they’re trying to reach out to.

Cru is pretty well-known for their invasive tactics. As soon as I posted about this on Facebook, several Christian friends pointed out that they disagree with Cru. One said:

I remember last year they were handing out surveys and if you filled it out they gave you Play-Doh. And being a naive freshman, I was like “Yay! Play-Doh!” Little did I know they would use the information I gave them to show up at my door unannounced and harass me. While I was slightly creeped out, I actually kind of liked what they had to say and I was exploring my religious beliefs so I agreed to go out to coffee with this girl and talk some more. But after I did that she just kept calling me and texting me and emailing me and I tried to be polite by just telling her I was busy but she wouldn’t take the hint. If they really want to spread their message, this is not the way to do it. And they need to accept that not everyone is going to share their beliefs and that that’s okay.

Cru also realizes that people wouldn’t actually check out this campaign if they knew off the bat that it was about Christianity. From the NBN article:

The Christian faith is pretty well-known…[s]o if people just see a bunch of people wearing shirts that say ‘I Agree with Jesus’ then we probably won’t get as many conversations as ‘I Agree with Markwell’ and ‘Who is Markwell and why do you agree with him?’

Does anyone know why that is? It’s because people tend to already know whether they’re interested in Christianity or not. So tricking them into going to this website to learn more about it seems a bit disingenuous to me.

Supporters of the Markwell campaign attest that it’s their right to express their beliefs, just as I’m expressing mine right now. They say that their belief that we’re “lost” is equivalent to our belief that we’re not.

But it’s not the same at all. Because our beliefs about not being lost concern only us, whereas Markwell’s beliefs about us being lost concern someone else. Someone else who may want absolutely nothing to do with Jesus.

These supporters also pull out the argument that we’re just getting offended because they’re expressing those beliefs, which they have the right to do. But this campaign isn’t offensive to us because it’s religious. It’s offensive to us because it’s telling us that we don’t have the capability to choose our own beliefs, for ourselves. It’s offensive because it refuses to acknowledge that not everyone must believe in Jesus.

It’s telling that the organization sponsoring this campaign has the word “crusade” in its name. (Granted, it’s tried to rebrand itself as “Cru” to escape that.) I’m not suggesting that Cru is in any way equivalent to the actual Crusades, but I don’t think the use of that word was arbitrary. I think it says something about how much–or rather, how little–the members of this organization understand the fact different people choose different beliefs for a reason.

And no, that reason is not because we’re “rebelling against God.”

I don’t agree with Markwell. We’re not lost. We’re not “sinful, messed up, jacked up, broken” either. We just don’t believe in Jesus Christ. Can Markwell please get over that?

Edit 4/18: Here is a response to this post from a Cru member, and here is a post from an awesome friend of mine.

Depressed on Shabbos

[TMI Warning]

This past weekend, I participated in an overnight retreat with a Jewish education program I’m involved in called the Maimonides Leaders Fellowship. In Jewish parlance, the trip is called a shabbaton as it takes place over the weekly holiday of Shabbat (“Shabbos” is the Ashkenazi variant of the word, in case you’re confused).

On shabbatons, the custom is generally to observe Shabbat in accordance with Jewish law. Although this is commonly interpreted as not doing any “work,” our rabbi pointed out that the actual rule is that you cannot “act” on the physical world. For observant Jews, sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday is a time when writing, using electricity, driving a car, tearing paper, cooking, exchanging money, and tons of other activities are all forbidden.

Anyway, I won’t go too far into the religious significance of Shabbat, since I’m sure you can read about that elsewhere and I’m not really the best authority on it anyway. But from the discussions we had as a group, I gathered this much about Shabbat, which I didn’t know before: it’s not only a time of rest, but of reflection. The idea is that you don’t do much of anything except be with your friends and family, eat good food, and think about how your life is going.

All of this sounds awesome in theory. Everyone could probably use some time to just think.

However, for people who struggle with depression, as I do, there is literally nothing worse than to have to spend a day doing nothing but eating, socializing, and thinking.

In fact, Shabbat is tragically full of the very things that depressives should generally try to avoid. For instance, like most Jewish holidays, it revolves around eating and drinking. The amount of food that it’s customary to consume at a Shabbat lunch or dinner could probably feed a family for a week. While this does theoretically sound awesome, overeating takes a huge toll on my mental state.

A similar issue is the compulsory socializing. Although not all depressives are introverts, many are, and the disorder sort of turns everyone into a bit of a loner. I wish I could spend hours with people and feel good about that, but I just can’t. After an hour or two, I start to sink into a funk and desperately want to escape. Unfortunately for me, Shabbat meals last for hours.

The prohibition on writing hits me hard, too, because writing is the main outlet I have for channeling my emotions in a positive way. It’s one of the few things that helps when I’m very upset. Reading is an okay substitute, but it’s just not the same.

Thinking, however, is the worst. Depressives can’t really “think,” they can only ruminate–which means endless, circular thoughts about why they’re terrible people unworthy of love. If I had to sit down for a while and think about how my life is going, I would probably become very, very miserable, and that’s exactly why I vastly prefer doing things to sitting around and thinking about them.

And indeed, on Saturday night when Shabbat was over, I didn’t feel refreshed and at ease like I was told I would feel. I didn’t feel stressed, either, but then I rarely do. Rather, I felt vaguely overwhelmed, like my mental capacity had been drained. Later that evening, I burst into tears for literally no discernible reason, and that’s not something that happens to me often anymore.

Unlike certain other religions, Judaism does not want its adherents to suffer or put their health at risk. That’s why, for instance, those who are sick or pregnant are not obligated to fast on the Jewish fast days. That’s why Jews are not only allowed, but obligated to break Shabbat in order to save a life.

However, the entire concept of mental health has only really been around for the past century, whereas the laws of Judaism were written thousands of years ago. I can no more expect Judaism to make allowances for people with clinical depression than I can expect it to, say, condone same-sex marriage.

Religion in general isn’t particularly kind to the mentally ill. When it’s not telling us that we’ve brought this upon ourselves and it’s God’s punishment, it’s telling us that we ought to be able to drag ourselves out of it on our own by praying, repenting, being good wives and husbands, or just sheer willpower. One of my favorite bloggers refers to depression as “spiritually incorrect,” capturing perfectly the way I feel about the intersection between my faith and my mental disorder.

I hope that as I learn more about Judaism, I’ll discover ways to make it work with the person that I am. That person will probably never be able to enjoy a full day of eating and being with people; I’m just not built that way. But I know that Judaism does have much to tell me about living well.

However, I doubt that I will ever be willing to observe Shabbat the “right” way. Spending one-seventh of my life without the ability to do the one thing that always makes me feel good seems like a waste. Ultimately, I don’t believe in God and I don’t believe in an afterlife, so this is the only one I’ve got.

Islamophobia Does Not “Cause” Riots

So I was reading the current issue of Utne Reader (great magazine, by the way) and came across an article about Islamophobia, reprinted from Intelligence Report.

At was a good article, at least up until the third paragraph. There, I saw something that made my eyes want to pop out of my head, migrate to the author’s place of residence, and slap him in the face:

Recent news reports strongly suggest a spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes. In May 2010, for example, a bomb exploded at an Islamic center in Jacksonville, Florida. In August, a man slashed the neck and face of a New York taxi driver after finding out he was a Muslim. Four days later, someone set fire to construction equipment at the future site of an Islamic center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. In March 2011, a radical Christian pastor burned a Koran in Gainesville, Florida, leading to deadly riots in Afghanistan that left at least 20 people dead. [emphasis mine]

No. No no no. First of all, unlike the first three incidents, burning a Koran is not an “anti-Muslim hate crime.” Last I checked, in America that counts as free speech, heinous as it may be. Second, Islamophobia may have caused the first three incidents, but it did not cause the fourth one. That one was caused by morons who chose to respond to a provocation in a violent way.

One of my biggest issues with liberal discourse on societal problems is its proclivity to diminish or erase entirely the concept of human agency. (Some) liberals talk as though society just makes people do things without them actually processing information and deciding how to act on it.

(Among more radical liberals, this lends itself to the belief that violent response to injustice is not only inevitable, but morally justified, even if innocent people are injured or killed in the process. See: Hamas apologists.)

Leaving aside the morality of the rioters’ actions, it nevertheless takes quite a few conceptual steps to get from American Islamophobia to Muslims killing people in Afghanistan. While one could reasonably assume that Islamophobia (along with a number of other factors, such as having a violent disposition) caused people to do things like bomb mosques, stab Muslim taxi drivers, and burn Korans, one cannot then jump from that to “Islamophobia causes people in Afghanistan to riot and kill people.” Just, no.

I should hope that it’s quite clear that moderating variables must be at play here. (Case in point: Jews have been subject to as much [if not more] racism and discrimination throughout history as Muslims have, but if we rioted and killed each other every time somebody did something anti-Semitic, there’d be none of us left. Do a Google search on “burning Israeli flag” and you’ll see how common this is, and don’t tell me nobody ever burns Bibles, either.) For whatever reason, the rioters in question chose not to respond to this incident by starting an initiative to educate Westerners about Islam, by simply ranting about it to family and friends, or by shrugging and moving on.

Instead, they chose to respond to a no-name dipshit burning a Koran thousands of miles away by killing 20 innocent people.

Clearly, the vast, vast majority of Muslims in the world did not react this way, just like most teenagers who happen to come into possession of a loaded gun do not immediately go shoot up a school. The few who do go shoot up schools have serious issues that go way beyond the fact that they have access to a gun.

Islamophobia is a serious problem and should not be swept under the rug. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. All humans have agency, and we should assign the same level of responsibility to the Muslims who rioted as to the Americans who provoked them.