June 8, 2009

Keeping Your Cool When Confronted by Christian Crazy

Wal-Mart HermosilloImage via Wikipedia

Friendly Atheist recently had a post in which Hemant shared a report he had received from an atheist woman about how a complete stranger had approached her in Wal-Mart and began praying over her 15-week-old child. He asked readers how they would respond if something like this happened to them as well as a few related questions. I found myself thinking that how I would like to respond is probably quite a bit different from how I would actually respond.

I thought that the first comment on Friendly Atheist's thread, contributed by SkepGeek, was so perfect that it should be shared:
I would treat this the same way as when the mentally handicapped guy waves vigorously at me and says hi when I get on the bus.
What a great lesson for us all to remember! Sure, we could get angry and yell. It might even make us feel better temporarily. But when one is not dealing with a rational adult, SkepGeek's reframe seems so much better.

I spent a year living in an apartment next to a family with an moderately retarded adult child. He was extremely friendly but could sometimes be a bit intimidating due to his size, the loud volume with which he spoke, and his quick and unpredictable movements. One never quite new what to expect from him, and I recall that my female guests, which he would never miss greeting, often said that he made them feel uncomfortable.

The thing is, I never would have yelled at him, struck him, or even found myself becoming more than mildly annoyed with him. Yes, he was loud and often disruptive. His parents seemed to cope by leaving him out in the apartment complex's parking lot, often with no supervision. Having him in my face every time I went in or out did get old. At the same time, I recognized that he did not know any better. He wasn't doing this to annoy me; it was just who he was.

In many respects, the crazed Christian who abruptly begin praying over a stranger's child is the same way. I suspect that she would not have done what she did if she had stopped to consider how the child's parents would feel. In the grips of her Christian delusion, she might have even thought that she was doing something nice for the child.

Still not buying it? Still think my comparison falls flat? Fair enough. How about another one. I've worked in a couple of different psychiatric hospitals where I had the opportunity to interact with quite a few seriously delusional individuals. The majority had religious themes to their delusions, although there were certainly plenty that involved other themes.

I remember being insulted in all sorts of ways by some of these patients. I never took it personally, and once I had taken precautions to protect my safety, I was not one to shy away from interacting with them. The reason I was able not to take it personally and not to get defensive was that I recognized that these patients were impaired. They were suffering from serious mental illness.

The woman at Wal-Mart may not have been mentally ill, but her judgment was clearly impaired by a delusional worldview. Would she be diagnosed with a mental disorder? Probably not unless this behavior was part of a pattern that caused her distress or impaired her ability to function.

Regardless, this post really isn't about the Christian woman in Wal-Mart. It is about us and how we deal with expressions of religious delusion in our day-to-day lives. The next time I hear "god bless" after sneezing, "I'll pray for you" after sharing bad news, and the like, I am going to try to remember what SkepGeek said.

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