Moral Panics Can Be Dangerous for Those Outside the Religious Majority

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Image by ErikaWittlieb from Pixabay

If I had to pick one topic related to atheism that most fascinates and terrifies me, it would be that of moral panic. I am intrigued by mass hysteria and how it works. I like to examine the processes by which people do unspeakable things to one another. We humans have so many creative ways of rationalizing our cruelty!

As someone living in the United States, I have observed many moral panics. As an atheist, it is hard not to notice that most involve fundamentalist Christians. They are already too quick to impose their beliefs on others. This tendency gets amplified when they are afraid. I find that a terrifying prospect. Even when atheists aren't the target of a particular panic, we aren't far from it.

Too Many Moral Panics to Count

During a recent spat of insomnia, I found myself trying to recall the moral panics I've lived through. I couldn't do it. There have been too many. The first I remember was the Communist-related paranoia toward the end of the Cold War. I remember the fear and hatred of all things Communist and atheist. "Commie" was still a popular insult on the playground, and the fear of the label was palpable. We didn't know what "atheist" or "Communist" meant, but we knew we didn't want to be either one.

This was soon followed by an amalgam of the war on drugs and fears of a violent crime epidemic. It didn't seem to matter that there was little evidence of rising crime rates outside of a few cities. This one had (and continues to have) many unfortunate effects related to race and policing. It deserves some of the blame for our present gun situation too.

The moral panic over HIV/AIDS was another one with a disproportionate impact. This time, the fear centered on gay men. This panic revealed the full scope of a hatred I hadn't recognized. I remember hearing many Christians claim that AIDS was a plague sent by their god. It was their god's will that gay men would suffer and die. The influence of this panic is also still with us.

I remember the Christian moral panic over Dungeons and Dragons because I had played it in my youth. This enabled me to recognize how silly it was right away. It was a game! What was wrong with these people to get so upset over a game?

The Christian moral panics over yoga, meditation, and the New Age movement puzzled me. Some Christians insisted that these things were Satanic. What did that even mean? Weren't many New Age practices rooted in the traditions of other religions? Or was that the problem? Was every religion outside of fundamentalist Christianity Satanic? Fundamentalist Christians protested and forbade their children from coming near any of it.

Then came video games, heavy metal and rap music, and...well...too many others to track. Still, there is one moral panic that stands out from the rest: the Satanic panic.

The Satanic Panic

When fundamentalist Christians jump into a moral panic, one will hear about Satanism. Through their involvement, all moral panics become "Satanic" in some respects. But there was one defined by this label in a way the others weren't.

It started with incompetent therapists using hypnosis with vulnerable clients. Recovered memories of alleged abuse captured the attention of the news media. These reports soon expanded to stories of ritualistic infanticide by Satanic cults. Before long, police departments were bringing in "experts" to teach them how to recognize Satanic cults.

Our news media told us that no town in America was safe, no matter how small. Satanic cults were everywhere, sacrificing countless infants in bizarre rituals. Never mind that there were no bodies and no infants reported missing. Reality never matters in a moral panic.

This one stands out as the first moral panic I lived through that I was old enough to appreciate as it was unfolding. I remember recognizing it for what it was and feeling powerless to do anything to stop it. The extent of the panic was astounding. I knew people affected by it, and it pained me to see what they went through.

Before it ran its course, some would serve long prison sentences for abuse that might not have happened. Others served time for actual crimes they did not commit. It remains an embarrassing chapter in our history, one from which we seem to have learned little.

Lessons for the Taking

The Satanic panic has had remarkable staying power. If we ever make it to the other side of this one, we will have more moral panics. No matter how many people they harm, we have been powerless to stop them. They reflect many of our fundamental flaws. As individuals, we can break out of the moral panic cycle. As a society, we don't seem able to do so.

What should we learn from moral panics? I'll highlight a few potential lessons. First, we are too susceptible to these panics. They may start small but spread like wildfire and often burn down our ability to reason. We need to better inoculate ourselves against them. How? Studying them seems like a good start. This could help us recognize the next earlier than we recognized the last.

Second, there is a generational component to them. At any given moment, there is at least one active moral panic around whether "the kids are alright." This provides an important clue about how these things work and which ones take off. This would be an excellent time to examine the science. For example, what do the developmental psychologists who study this sort of thing say?

Third, our insistence at the outset of a new panic that "this one is different" is always false. They are never different. The next one is no more valid than the last. This is another case where learning about previous panics may help. Doing so may make it easier for us to spot the similarities. It can also provide us with a common language to talk about the new panic.

And what of the most important lesson of all? Moral panics can be quite dangerous for those of us outside the religious majority. We are always outnumbered, but we are usually safe. When fear of "the other" grips the majority, the prohibitions on cruelty become weaker. Freedoms we've taken for granted may disappear. The assumption of innocence fades away, and violence may not be far behind.

Those of us outside the majority would do well to appreciate that the dangers of moral panic are greater for us. When we see frightened fundamentalist Christians at the center, we should be apprehensive. They may not come for us every time, but the threat is never far away.