How Humanism (And Empathy) Became a Conservative Christian Devil Term

How Humanism (And Empathy) Became a Conservative Christian Devil Term

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how we got to where conservative Christians are literally demonizing empathy. And this week I had a breakthrough: I think the rhetorical move that most undergirded the acceptance of this came from when conservative and conservative-leaning Christian leaders started casting humanism as a devil term. In this week’s post I plan to unwrap how this worked in my moderate pastor’s kid past, how it’s connected to my previous analysis of pride as a devil term, as well as how communication scholarship views on conflict help us understand how it’s unhealthy, as well as why we need to keep speaking up against these unhealthy views.

So Yeah, Let’s Dive In.

How, may you ask, may Christianity come to see something as a threat—a devil term to be fought at all costs—that is defined in Merriam-Webster as “a devotion to human welfare”? After all, that’s one of the main definitions for humanism in that and several other dictionaries.

It seems, at first blush, ridiculous. Especially if you’re raised outside of conservative-leaning Christian thinking.

Humanism Awfully Closely Related to Jesus’ Great Commandments

I mean, when you break it down, a devotion to human welfare sounds an awful lot like what Jesus said half the greatest commandment was—to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

And if you take the other part—love God—together with what Jesus said about how you love God by taking care of the least of these, it sounds, well, an awful like humanism might have an awful lot of overlap with Christianity.

Sibling Rivalry?

And maybe that itself is the problem?

Why and How Common Ground Can Be Seen as a Threat

I once was talking to someone about communication theory—as I tend to do—and we were talking about how similarity can be seen either as a form of common ground or as a threat.

And they told me this story about how they had a coworker with the same first name as them. And that coworker really disliked them.

You see, the person telling me the story was a harder worker than the other person.

And the fact that they had the same name just highlighted that difference tremendously.

When Social Comparison Gets Under Our Skin

So yeah, in that situation a strong similarity called out the differences in an unflattering way for this person’s coworker.

Social Comparison Gone Awry

Let’s be clear: I think something similar is going on between Christianity and humanism. It’s been going on for awhile, as I’ll explain, but it’s most disturbing recent expression has come between conservative Christians and their demonization of humanism, and, by extension, philosophies that center empathy and healthy treatment of all human beings.

Politically, this ties in to the demonization of progressive political beliefs in all sorts of forms.

Hating the Achieving Sibling?

And to be honest, now that I’ve shifted my lenses, I think progressive humanism is frankly the harder worker of the two toward carrying out Jesus’ commandment in a wider and more inclusive variety of ways.

(NOTE: This doesn’t mean no one in the church is working on them. It just means churchy exceptionalism, which I talked about previously here and here, and especially the white Evangelical-centrism variant, which I talked about here, is especially not on firm ground right now, especially when looking at the unhealthy dynamics from the loudest white Christian nationalist voices.)

Fundamentalist Christianity Is Especially At Issue Here

This achievement discrepancy when it comes to Jesus’ Great Commandments seems to be especially the case now that the last 5 years and especially January 6 has laid bare the poisonous militant masculinity and Christian nationalism at stake in much too much of conservative-leaning Christian rhetoric and practice.

Feels Like a Cain and Abel Thing

So yeah, if you wanted to put it biblically (which the humanist likely wouldn’t), this feels an awful lot like a Cain and Abel thing, honestly.

And we know how well THAT went. (If you don’t, please check out Genesis 4. Spoiler alert: it did not end well for either Abel, who ended up murdered by Cain, or Cain, who ended up cursed and wandering the earth.)

Time to Dig Deeper

I do think that the Cain/Abel dynamic’s what’s going on between conservative Christians and humanists–I’ll get to that in a bit. But I also think it’s also worth diving deeper into the cultural and theological rhetoric around this felt threat to see how this is justified in conservative Christian thinking.  Especially to see how it fits with varying scholarly views of conflict.

My Background: Split Down the Middle

Soooo yeah. As I’ve said before, I grew up in a predominately white moderate denomination just on the Evangelical side of the Evangelical/mainline divide in the American Protestant world. If you’re not familiar, that means that people from the denomination I grew up in as a pastor’s kid have fallen on both sides of the stark religio-political divide that’s opened up in this country recently, especially over the last 5 years.

Where the Rift Comes In: How “Christian Worldview” Discussions Were Handled

The place the divide became super clear for me this week when reflecting on this, right smack dab in the middle of my group growing up, is in the area of discussion around “Christian worldviews.”

Apologies to Exvangelical Readers for Using that Term

I apologize if that phrase made some of my exvangelical readers shudder. I get it.

See, those people who just shuddered likely grew up with the views taken by those who saw humanism as a devil term–something to be fought at all costs. I get it, because I saw slightly subtler but still disturbing versions of this approach taken by some people in my background.

The Distributive/Cain Approach to Conflict

This is called in communication scholarship the distributive approach to conflict. In short, to tie this into the biblical story I just raised, this is, frankly, the Cain approach.

That’s the side that sees humanism as a devil term to be othered and fought at all costs.

Defining the Distributive and Integrative Approaches to Conflict

The idea of the distributive approach is that if one person “wins” or does well, then the other person must be losing. There’s no room for win-win in this approach.

The other approach—the integrative approach to conflict—sees a potential for conflict but doesn’t see a need for sharp antagonism in the same way. It looks for a way to meet everyone’s needs as much as possible in a given situation.

The “Love Your Neighbor as Yourself” Integrative Approach

I don’t think things are cut and dried enough in Genesis 4 to call the integrative approach the Abel approach to conflict. But I do think it’s pretty clear that if Jesus is telling people to love God and their neighbor and themselves all as the way the ten commandments boil down, then surely Jesus is advocating for the integrative approach.

The Ironies: Abusing Commandments

This is fascinating to me in retrospect because the more conservative folx in my past who were calling for us to see humanism as a devil term were using one of the ten commandments—specifically the one about idolatry—as their base.

Or should I say that in retrospect, in light of Jesus’ words, it’s clear to me that they were abusing this commandment. See, when Jesus was talking about how “all the law and commandments were summed up in love God and your neighbor as yourself,” I believe Jesus was saying that all the ten commandments were being abused if they weren’t interpreted through the most integrative lens possible, wherever possible.

The Distributive Way of Discussing “Christian Worldviews”

But the distributive way of discussing “Christian worldviews” is to cordon their distinctives off from worldviews that are perceived to be “other”—and then to tell their adherents those other views were dangerous and ought not to be listened to—and actually to be fought.

That’s right, folx! There’s a good reason exvangelicals shudder when they hear those words.

Ugh, More Grounds for Christian Nationalism

See, this kind of logic undergirds a lot of the “culture wars” rhetoric historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez discusses in her book Jesus and John Wayne–which I’ve talked about a lot previously in this space.

And the idea that “humanism”—looking out for human welfare (also known as looking out for the least of these and loving one’s neighbor as oneself)—would be seen as on the “devil side” explains an AWFUL LOT about how reasonably empathetic and rational religio-political attempts to solve problems for the common good came to be demonized by conservative Christians.

Not Just Recent Conservative Christianity, Though

And yet, if you Google definitions of humanism, you can see that this view hasn’t just been that recent or just confined to current white Evangelicals in the US. See, if you look at those other definitions of humanism in Merriam-Webster and other dictionaries, you’ll see that some parts and pieces of the definition define humanism as a philosophy specifically in opposition to the church.

From my view, that’s because at least from the time of the Enlightenment and probably since the Renaissance, versions of the church that had a lot of power—including but obviously not contained to the Catholic church—found a philosophy that worked to take human welfare as the primary thing as a weird kind of threat.

Oh, Wait, Look! Back to Those Extra-Biblical Views of Pride as a Devil Term

It wasn’t until I started writing this piece that I realized all of that went back to the same largely extra-biblical concerns I first raised in my pride as a devil term blog piece.

I won’t repeat those here fully—if you want to read about that you can go back to the previous piece. But the devil term concern that’s even wormed its way into many dictionary definitions of humanism  is largely related to the idea that humanism takes care of humans and cares for humans and focuses less on God and the supernatural.

And well, for those that associate taking care of humans with the kind of devilish pride that says humans are somehow in conflict with and perhaps better than God—you know, the kind Satan was fabled to have—well, no wonder they see humanism–and by extension, empathy for others–as a threat.

So Deep, The Bias Has Become–Ugh–Definitional

And yeah, this stuff runs really deep, these ideas of natural opposition between these things. Sheesh—it runs so deep it even made it into the dictionary.

Why I’m Glad I Was Raised in a Moderate Church

I will say, I’m super thankful I was raised in a moderate church, because not everyone viewed these types of things with this deep kind of aversion. In fact, many of the people and institutions I feel thankful to have been formed by took on “Christian worldview” discussions in a much different, much more integrative way.

The Integrative Approach to “Christian Worldviews”

Yes, they were happy to bring out the distinctives of their view—and would certainly talk about the differences between their thoughts about Christianity and their views of humanism.

But—and this was crucial—they were happy to listen to and even learn from humanists and others seeking to love humans and even care for the rest of creation, as they believed God was calling them to do. They didn’t think they needed to fully agree with these folx to learn from them and look for common ground to collaborate with them.

And they realized they had their own blind spots and were willing to learn from them as well.

There But for the Grace…

I am so incredibly glad for these influences in my life. I can see now how much they helped me to make my slow but sure leap away from those early fears of the other to get to where I am.

Tut tut—All that Slippery Slope 😉

And let me be clear—these “bridge” voices were the ones that helped introduce me to the “slippery slope” of the more progressive perspectives. To help introduce me to their humanity and see how Christianity—and loving one’s neighbor as self in general—could be done a different way.

And eventually I was able to actually see that what I’d always been taught to see as anathema—the idea that some people outside the church were more Christian in behavior than the Christians—had some truth in it.

And yeah, I probably shouldn’t have been remotely surprised by that. After all, Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan says pretty much exactly that in an extremely obvious way. This wasn’t new at all–it was foundational to the ways Jesus was calling out the unhealthy religious tendencies of his day.

Tendencies that have, shall we say, persisted pretty strongly and still need to be called out just as assertively.

A Hard but Important Shift

It took me a disturbingly loooong time to get to the understandings I laid out at the beginning of this piece–the idea that it seems like the most important part of loving God, however one may conceive such a deity but especially the God as represented in the Jesus described in the Bible, is also loving one’s neighbor, especially the vulnerable neighbors. These things seem common sense to me now.

But I also get why they were so hard to shift in me–and how it’s hard for others to make those shifts–when taught that humanism is a devil term.

Driven by Spiritual Fear and Trauma

See, even though I was raised in a church that emphasized a ton of grace stuff—and being made in the image of God no matter what, and all that—I can see now that there was also a lot of fear about doing and believing the right things to please God under the surface.

I can see how much fear of disconnection from God (that is, shame) drove Cain’s hatred of Abel.

I can see, looking at Genesis 3—how much familial trauma around fear of disconnection from God there would have been in Cain and Abel’s family in light of the Adam and Eve story.

Explaining but Not Excusing

None of this excuses Cain’s actions. But it helps explain them.

And none of this helps excuse those in my childhood—and in the current conservative-leaning Christian church—who see their favor with God through doctrine as more important than serving Jesus in the face of the people of the world.

And yeah, it certainly doesn’t excuse the ways they’ve seen their very own doctrines as a threat when they happen to be held by those who don’t fit their picture of what a Christian ought to look like.

So Many Disturbing Ironies

The ironies run sooo soooo deep here, folks, if you think about it.

After all, one of the very biggest principles of idolatry—of taking on the sin of pride like Satan was rumored to do—is to presume to know the mind of God.

So yeah, in their anxiety about their own faith and their own standing with God, wayyy too many conservative-leaning Christians seem to be actually projecting that outward, and hating those who seem to be acting as God actually asked them to act.

In the process, they disturbingly seem to be setting themselves up for failure—again and again and again. At least based in my read of the Bible. Because in scapegoating and demonizing the actions God is calling them to, they’re really self-sabotaging big time, while at the same time causing a ton of unnecessary and horrific damage.

Tragically Horrific, The Consequences of This

That makes me so incredibly sad, but also, frankly, a little ragey.

And that is empathetic anger I’m feeling (I coined that term here)—on behalf of all those who have been hurt by their refusal to work through their individual and collective grief and religious trauma and are taking it out on others.

Because, d*mmit, these people, like Cain, are literally causing grief and pain and trauma and death unnecessarily because they can’t deal with their own fear of disconnection from God.

And that’s not f*cking okay—any more than it was when Cain did it.

All of this helps me understand why Jesus and the prophets used such strong language when calling this sh*t out.

Not Remotely Okay

In their fear of disconnection from God, these conservative-leaning Christians are propping up militant masculinity and trauma to people of color and LGBTQ+ people and women who have been raped and exploited and justifying the kinds of beliefs that led to the Christian nationalist attacks of 1/6. Not even to mention the ways their anti-science rhetoric is continuing to cause completely unnecessary pandemic deaths.

And that is not remotely okay.  

All the Evidence Points To the Healthier Way

Here’s the thing, ultimately: I don’t pretend to know the mind of God. What I know is this: science and social science and Jesus’ message and core messages in most if not all the world’s religions all point to ideas and findings that show that the integrative approach is literally better and healthier for people than the distributive approach.

In short, Cain seems to have suffered trauma, yes. But that doesn’t mean what he did with it is right or healthy at all. And conservative Christians on the whole seem to be acting an awful lot like Cain rather than Jesus in their dealings with their sibling humanists and others reaching to care for the least of these.

And that ought to disturb us all, greatly.

Jesus’ Commands as a Devil Term? Sadly, Yes.  Let’s Keep Speaking Against That!

Because that’s how this group is turning what Jesus asked them to do as the primary commandment into a devil term. And not incidentally, how they are ending up breaking a sh*t ton of commandments in the process.

We ought to keep speaking up against that.

It’s important. It can stem the tide of some really unnecessary and horrific damage.

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can, where we are, with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.

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3 thoughts on “How Humanism (And Empathy) Became a Conservative Christian Devil Term

  1. If not already familiar, Ragamuffin on FB might be a good place to meet like minds. David Leo has done interviews with others and I could see you two having an interesting discussion. It’s time they focus more on the the community at large.

  2. Great insights, especially the distributive—integrative continuum construct as a way of better understanding those I seem to so often disagree with. Now, how do I use this insight to facilitate movement toward a more integrative approach to problem solving and making social progress?

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