This post first appeared on Dani Does Lots of Things on October 5, 2015. It has been republished below.
Last week, I went to my first therapy session since I was a teenager. (For those remembering my summer post about starting therapy, I was wrong — that was seeing a psychiatrist, not a psychologist.)
My primary care practitioner recommended the counselor who volunteers at the clinic. I’d known that the clinic had a pastoral care counselor, so I told her I was apprehensive about going to such counseling as an atheist, particularly an atheist whose mental health has been so damaged by Christianity. She assured me that despite his work on his Master of Divinity, he would be respectful and objective.
From these assurances, I assumed he must not be a biblical counselor like those I saw as a teenager, but closer to the many liberal Christian friends I have who merely want to make the world a better place through compassionate social justice work, much like my PCP is.
I also assumed that if he wasn’t licensed yet, he was working on it.
Ohhh, how wrong I was, on both counts.
While I don’t want to get distracted by the details of this session, a few things strike me as particularly notable about it. They’re themes I’ve noticed emerging from my more fundamentalist and evangelical friends alike, and it’s troubling.
On the one hand, he claimed that his office was a safe space free of judgment, much like you’d expect from a counselor.
On the other hand, he kept reiterating that he wasn’t going to stop talking about God.
Despite my repeated insistence that approaching my care with God as the focus (especially knowing that I’m an atheist) was disrespectful and made me very uncomfortable.
He disagreed, even managing to work a “God’s Plan for Salvation” speech in, all the while assuring me that’s not what he was going to do.
Don’t get me wrong. As I’ve said multiple times before, I tend to not police Christians’ talk about their faith. I accept that it’s a significant driving force in their lives, and realize if I want a relationship with them, it’s unfair for me to expect them to keep quiet about it (much like it’s unfair for them to expect me to remain silent about my beliefs, but we’re still working on that one).
This particular situation, of course, was starkly different. This counselor was not acting or talking to me as a peer. I was in his care, and he was abusing the position of power that care afforded him.
This experience highlights a couple of the many reasons I have this on-going series of conversations for well-meaning Christians. There are reasons I keep coming back to the concepts of empathy and respect and listening to people who believe differently than conservative Christians do.
One such reason is the vast divide between what Christians expect from non-Christians and what they expect of themselves in relation to non-Christians.
Many conservative Christians see no problem whatsoever with “speaking the truth in love” to me at every golden opportunity.
They expect such a thing is entirely permissible through the divine authority given to them by God and the Bible, utterly failing to recognize that my very belief in the nonexistence of supernatural realms or beings means the authority they believe they have through God and the Bible is an authority that has no sway on me whatsoever.
With God on their side, many Christians take the liberty afforded to them from on high to run roughshod over any boundaries I’ve set, even over boundaries set by societal norms, in order to convince me to change my ways. After all, the Word of the Lord will not return void. So who cares if anyone has a problem with it, amiright?
And so they link me to videos of Lee Strobel talking about his miraculous salvation, as if I’ve never heard it before. (I still own The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith, for what it’s worth — both books I’ve read multiple times.)
They email me and tell me that Satan’s people have spent years drugging me in an attempt to bring me away from Christ (I am totally not kidding here).
They spend a truly inordinate amount of time and energy crafting letters to explain to me why my experiences and voice are invalid.
They say that by writing and sharing “controversial things” (read: not espousing conservative Christian values), I am personally attacking them and their faith.
In short, they assure me they respect and love me — all the while trying to control me. The expectation they seem to have about how they’re allowed to treat me involves attempting to silence and change me, ostensibly for my own good. But I’m not allowed to expect them to not treat me this way, and in fact the expectation is that I’m obligated to allow them to vent their spleen at me.
These Christians mean well. I know they mean well. I whole-heartedly believe they have only good thoughts and love and care for me in their hearts.
And so I don’t fault them for their intentions*.
I fault them for their impact.
Magical intentions and mythical impact.
Melissa McEwan of Shakesville fame has written a fantastic post defining magical intent. She describes it thus:
Magical Intent is the principle by which someone who has said or done something offensive, hurtful, rage-making, marginalizing, and/or otherwise contemptible argues that the person to whom they’ve said or done it has no right to be offended, hurt, enraged, alienated, and/or otherwise disdainful because their intent was not to generate that reaction.
In other words: “I didn’t intend for you to feel that way, so if you do feel that way, don’t blame me! My intent magically inoculates me from responsibility for what I actually said and how it was received!”
This is explicitly what I was referring to in regards to my eye-opening therapy session last week. I have no doubt whatsoever that my counselor meant well as he explained how his faith informed and directed his counseling techniques and strategies. And yet he could not (or would not?) understand that continuing to treat me with a faith-based approach to my care was explicitly disrespectful.
The fact that he was trying to help me, in his mind, superseded the fact that he was not actually helping me. And the way he repeatedly framed the problem was if I could “accept” his help, then it would help. Which was a nice sort of gas-lighting routine he had going, whether cognitively or not. In his mind, there was this mythical impact that his magical intentions would bring about if only I would allow it. He heavily implied if his faith-based approach was not helpful, then it was because I didn’t let it help me. In other words, if his well-intentioned approach didn’t have his desired impact, then it was my fault.
This sort of thing happens so often, it’s downright wearying. Somehow, a person’s intentions supposedly have more weight than the impact of their words or actions, magically relieving them of all responsibility since they’re expecting some sort of mythical impact that never comes to pass.
Let me clarify that there are, of course, limits to this. We can’t go around saying that everyone else is responsible for the negative feelings we have about them simply living their own lives. That’s not what I’m addressing here at all. What I am addressing is how direct words or actions aimed at a person or persons can have a clear negative impact despite good intentions. Intentions do not outweigh impact, and blaming someone for being hurt by your actions is the epitome of unloving and disrespectful.
At this point, Christian readers, you may be feeling really frustrated. “I do mean well, and I do want what’s best for my unbelieving or differently believing friends and loved ones! How can I even have a relationship with them that’s beneficial to both of us without offending my conscience or pushing them away?”
I’m glad you asked. I’d like to introduce you to the single most influential revelation I’ve had regarding human interactions.
The least common denominator.
Those of you who know me well might be scratching your heads after that headline. “Dani is not a math person. What’s going on?” All I can say is somehow, a couple of my greatest light-bulb learning moments have come from finding a math tie-in, despite my abysmal grasp of higher math. This happens to be one of those times. Another time was when I realized that drawing in Illustrator using bezier curves was exactly like plotting points on a graph.
I’ve said before that I’d much rather my relationships with Christians be based on what we have in common rather than focusing on what separates us.
Enter: the least common denominator.
In many ways, we already use a common denominator sort of system for making friends and relating to people. Shared interests, hobbies, careers, geographical placement, passions — these form common bonds or common denominators on which we can base a friendship.
I’d like to shift that idea from common denominators that bring us together to common denominators that ought to determine how we treat one another.
My partner and I are literal polar opposites with our personality types. I’m an introvert; he’s an extrovert. I’m deeply intuitive and driven by emotion; he’s more practically logical without emotions coming into play easily. These differences can make communication between us really difficult, particularly if we treat one another and experience one another’s treatment of us solely from our own perspective without stopping to empathize with one another. So as we’ve grown, we try to approach communication differently by appealing to shared values rather than doubling-down on our differences. Particularly in arguments, we look for the least common denominator — the values and beliefs we share — to help bring us together to approach the problem united rather than fractured.
In the same way, with many of my more liberal Christian friends, we tend to approach how we treat one another differently than how I might treat a fellow atheist or how they might treat a fellow Christian. They don’t appeal to divine authority when helping me navigate situations, because that’s not a common denominator — it’s not a belief that we share. Likewise, I do my best to appeal to our shared values of respect for all, empathy balanced with healthy boundaries, informed consent and honesty. We allow what brings us together to be what determines how we love, respect, encourage, and support one another.
In short: the lowest common denominator in all relationships ought to be basic human decency.
When Christians tell me that it’s not fair for me to expect them not to trample on my boundaries or treat me with disrespect for my autonomy as a human being, all I can hear is, “You can’t expect basic human decency from me or my people.” More than that, I hear, “You don’t even qualify as human enough for us to consider treating you differently.”
Christians? This is a problem.
How will the world know you as loving if you refuse to act lovingly? How can you say you possess the love of Jesus Christ when this is how you treat unbelievers? You claim that you’re no better than us, yet treat us like you’re the Designated Adult and we’re the naughty children you must put back in our places. You insist that for me and other unbelievers (or even liberal believers!) to write and live and share our authentic selves is a direct attack on you, and so you try to control us through silencing tactics and what you must think are counter-attacks. You can’t see the difference between someone being honest about who they are and someone exerting control over a person? How can you not see the disrespect of that? How can you not see the condescension? How can you pretend to be sharing Christ’s love when you refuse to see the image of God in anyone but those who look and think and act like you?
Despite being an atheist, I do think the Bible has a few nuggets of wisdom here and there. And one of those nuggets is this: “Let us not love in word…but in deed and in truth.” In other words, don’t tell me that you love me while showing me that you don’t.
I’m reminded of Eliza Doolittle talking to Freddy Eynsford-Hill in the musical My Fair Lady:
Words, words, words!
I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through —
first from him, now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?
Don’t expect to be allowed to trample over those who believe differently than you in order to satisfy your need for them to agree with you (which necessarily involves their capitulation to your opinions on their lives). Don’t expect that your magical intentions will bring about mythical impacts that overwrite what people actually tell you the impact of your words and actions are. If you love me, if you seek to love others like me — do not “expline,” show us. Treat us with what ought to be the least common denominator between all.
Basic. Human. Decency.
*It could be easily argued that the intention to change me is, in fact, a bad intention. I tend to agree with that assessment. However, I know the intent to change me is, from their perspective, for my good. They just don’t realize that manipulating someone to only do or say or be who they want them to be is wrong.