December 24, 2008

The Psychology of Christmas Wars

Baptism of Jesus (Bogojavlenie, ortodox icon)Image via WikipediaA reader by the name of Frozen Summers left a comment on a recent post that really got me thinking:
As a former Evangelical and Campus Crusade for Christ worker I remember when I too saw anything that was even remotely not pro-jesus as an attack. This included all the Santa stuff and secular carols, as well as the blatant commercialism, and the obvious stuff like the displays by ffrf.

I wish I knew enough psychology to explain why, but I think its partly due to the whole persecution complex that the Bible fosters....
Why haven't I been wrestling with this excellent question here? What is it precisely that drives someone to perceive the absence of pro-Jesus material in December as an attack of some sort? Time to put on the psychologist hat and struggle with this one a bit.

In order to make any sense out of this one, I think we must examine three components: (1) the importance of religion to personal identity, (2) threatened egotism, and (3) Christian privilege.

Religion and Identity

We have to start by understanding that religion, broadly construed, is an important part of personal identity for many Christians. For our analysis, I am going to lump church attendance, beliefs about the supernatural, the conviction that one has a "personal relationship" with some sort of mythical zombie, and the many traditions and practices surrounding all of this under the heading of religion. As such, religion is an important aspect of culture.

Psychological research has demonstrated repeatedly that many Christians rank their identity as a Christian rather high among their various roles. A typical study might ask respondents to write down the 10 most important components of their identities (e.g., father, husband, son, teacher, Christian, etc.). Respondents might then be instructed to list these various components in order of importance to them. "Christian" is often ranked at or near the top. In fact, there are plenty of people among us who indicate that it is more important than their marriage, their children, etc.

Why is it so important? I don't want to deviate on this tangent any more than necessary, so I'll simply suggest that it is so important largely because many people have been taught that it should be so important. Some have been indoctrinated into various religious traditions, read the Christian bible, or been persuaded by clergy. Part of what they have learned involves what Frozen mentioned with regard to persecution. The persecution complex is indeed a vital tactic used by the religious to maintain their religion and build group solidarity.

Threatened Egotism

Psychological studies on human anger and aggression show that attacks on one's identity, including perceived attacks, often provoke the most intense responses. In fact, perceived attacks elicit every bit as potent a response as real ones. It is the individual's perception that matters. Unfortunately, highly aggressive individuals have been shown to have seriously skewed perceptions, interpreting neutral events as insults or threats.

If I am convinced that others are likely to attack me, constantly scan my environment for threats, and then perceive such threats in emotionally neutral situations, it is only natural that I would strike first. Convinced that I have deciphered others' motives and can predict their hostility toward me, I strike first to protect myself.

Christian Privilege

The feminist literature is replete with references to male privilege, and the multicultural literature has explored white privilege in the U.S. extensively. In a nutshell, privilege results from a group's status in the culture being so elevated for so long that it comes to define the norms of the culture. Members of the privileged class do not experience themselves as privileged in any way because they are basing their sense of "normal" on their experience as a member of the privileged class to which they belong. My white privilege, while invisible to me, is obvious to members of racial minority groups.

Christian privilege is an undeniable fact of modern American society. The assumption is that everyone shares Christian beliefs, participates in Christian traditions, and affords Christians a higher moral status. Those who deviate are clearly outside this norm and often regarded as aberrant.

It is because of Christian privilege that good, well-mannered, tolerant people wish strangers "Merry Christmas" without stopping to consider that the stranger might be Jewish, atheist, etc. It is because of Christian privilege that many people expect to see Christmas trees in government buildings, don't understand how anyone could object to "under god" in the pledge, and wish those damn atheists would just leave well enough alone. It is because of Christian privilege that we are perceived as undermining cherished traditions and trying to change "normal."

Synthesis

Perceived attacks on one's religious beliefs provoke such an intense response precisely because the beliefs are normative for the believer's culture (i.e., Christian privilege) and so central to the believer's identity. Throwing the persecution complex into the mix makes it more likely that Christians will expect that they will indeed face persecution. We now have a recipe for hypervigilance and overreaction. We have effectively reduced the threshold for taking offense.

For such a Christian, anyone speaking out against what they regard as normal is a threat. However, when the subject is religion, the nature of the threat takes on a whole new dimension. Now the threat is not only personal but aimed at a core aspect of identity. As the believer experiences the threat as being against his or her very self, we see more intense reactions.

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