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You’re not helping

Sometimes people hold the same basic beliefs as I do, but their presentation of this stance is so combative, so extreme and counterproductive, that I just cringe.

Case in point: Kathy Dettwyler is a talented and engaging anthropologist who has done some amazing work researching breastfeeding.  Then this week she responded to a Facebook conversation about feminism and mothering with this gem:

“But when it comes to children, if you want kids, but don’t want to breastfeed them, maybe you should reconsider why you are having them. It is not necessary to have children to live a happy, successful, fulfilling life. If you want children, and want to do right by them, you’ll figure out a way to be a good mother, which starts with breastfeeding.” 

When I read that, I grimaced and made the noise that Ralphie makes right after blurting out his wish for a Red Rider BB gun: “Oooooh!”

Similarly, I hear tell that one year at a La Leche League conference, one of the founders of the organization was a featured speaker.  During her talk, she told the crowd that anyone who goes back to work when their child is still a baby doesn’t really love their child.  (NB: this attitude doesn’t reflect the actual philosophies of LLL, and in fact went over like a lead balloon in that roomful of LLL Leaders and members.)

I’m very much against routine infant circumcision, but I still can’t believe that some intactivists responded to news of Michelle Duggar’s miscarriage with ruthless glee, opining that a child is better off dying in the womb than living to be circumcised.

I think homeschooling, bed sharing, and gentle discipline can be great ways to support your children as they grow, but too many advocates of these practices state loudly and repeatedly that their way is the ONLY way, and if your child goes to public school, sleeps in their own room, or experiences time outs, you are a failure as a parent, or at least patently inferior to them.

Every movement needs passionate people who aren’t afraid to challenge convention.  A lot of the time, these people are perceived as “militant,” but I think there’s a difference between unapologetically advocating for your cause and going out of your way to offend people.  Telling expectant mothers that formula is riskier than breastfeeding is appropriate and useful.  Telling moms if they really loved their babies, they’d move heaven and Earth to breastfeed is being a presumptuous jerk.

Let me try to rephrase Dettwyler’s message, keeping (what I hope is) the underlying intent, while changing the language so it doesn’t turn off the very people she’s trying to influence.

I think some people consider having children just because it seems expected in our culture.  Having children means putting other people’s needs above your own and being inconvenienced, and it will probably impinge on your career to some degree.  That’s not anti-feminist, it’s just reality, for both parents.  I hope that anyone feeling societal pressure to have babies will consider whether they really want to make those hard choices and have those extra burdens, and if they think it’s not for them, will remain happily childfree by choice.

There.  Now we’re addressing the issue of feminism, the legitimate burdens of motherhood, and supporting free choice, instead of implying that mothers who didn’t breastfeed are failures, and that women who, say, lost their breasts to cancer shouldn’t procreate.

Being involved in the atheist sphere online, I’m all too familiar with tone wars and concern trolling.  I don’t want advocates to feel they have to walk on eggshells and bend over backwards to protect the feelings of mothers, no matter what choices they’ve made.  But I think there is a zone between pussyfooted appeasement and vicious judgment, and most of us can land there most of the time if we put a little thought into what we say.  After all, if we alienate people who don’t agree with us, and prompt them to tune us out entirely, all we’re doing is building mutual self-congratulation societies where like-minded people get together to “tsk” at the poor benighted masses who don’t do as we do.  Aside from bolstering our egos, what good does that do?

“Believers are stupid.”

Notoriously smart Christian, Francis Collins

Sadly this sentiment comes up pretty often in atheist circles.  Some non-believers can be downright vituperative about religious people.  Sometimes I think it’s just extreme frustration with silly arguments or hateful attitudes associated with certain religious groups.  But a lot of the time, it seems to be meant very literally.

The mistake people are making is in confusing a selective, compartmentalized suspension of rationality with stupidity. It is abundantly clear that manymany intelligent, otherwise reasonable people turn off their critical thinking when it comes to religion. Believing something without evidence and reason is pretty much the definition of “faith,” after all.  In my experience, people who believe in something supernatural didn’t come to that belief through rational review, but more due to tradition, personal revelation, or plain old gut feeling.

Intelligence and rationality are often treated as synonyms in our culture, so it’s understandable that people conflate them.  But you can be really smart, and you can systematically review most claims with evidence and reason in mind, and still cordon off an area for beliefs that don’t get that treatment.  I think for people who try to subject every single claim to rigorous critical thinking, this approach is very puzzling and frustrating.  Sometimes it’s hard to get beyond that gut reaction of bafflement to the empirical truth that lots of intelligent people are religious.

As a thought experiment, imagine some belief you consider total, obvious codswallop – whose roots and causes are clear to you as mistakes of observation or well-known foibles of human perception. Perhaps alien abduction stories, the healing power of crystals, astrology, or bigfoot sightings. Now, don’t you just have a visceral reaction along the lines of, “How could anyone believe THAT? How could someone be so blind as to what is actually going on?” If you know a believer in this stuff who is otherwise bright and sane, don’t you boggle at how they can carry both of these personality aspects in the same brain? That mystified disbelief is just how non-believers tend to feel about smart believers.  Hell, I don’t understand how I could have believed the things I did when I was Catholic – there’s not a lot of hope of me really grokking the religious beliefs of other people!

But really I think we should examine this meme in our community and dispose of it.  Of course some individuals or some particular arguments may be stupid, and there’s no need to obscure that fact.  But if we could forge ahead with the idea that we all have more in common than religious labels would imply, I think we would do more for acceptance of atheists and for bettering our society in general.  We also need to remind ourselves that we’re not 100% rational either, because emotions are necessary for reasoning.  I guess it all boils down to a simple idea.  While I do think any equal rights movement needs a few firebrands, for the vast majority of us, Phil Plait’s famous advice is the best way to make cultural and interpersonal headway: “Don’t be a dick.

So for my part, I don’t think believers are stupid.  I have lots of friends of different beliefs, and generally it doesn’t even come up.  We all have a lot more to talk about, like work, kids, budgets, good books, favorite movies, relationships, health issues, family issues, jokes, housekeeping, procrastinating housekeeping, and on and on and on.  As long as you’re not spewing hatred or trying to use government force to indoctrinate my kids, your beliefs are no skin off my nose.  I wish more believers and more non-believers would get on board with that.