The Problem with “With Us or Against Us” Rhetoric

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has observed the phenomena of all or nothing approaches to discourse. To put it another way, if we disagree in just one small part, then you’re just as bad as my polar opposite. Take, for example, the marriage equality debate. One position many people took (before it became moot) was that civil unions are okay, but marriage is out. The reaction I’ve often seen to such a position is something akin to, “you’re anti-marriage equality? You’re a homophobic bigot. Plain and simple.”WithUsOrAgainstUs

But is it plain and simple? No. Calling for civil unions falls short, but is a hell of a lot more caring than calling for nothing at all or, worse, completely dehumanizing LGBT people. So, why must these people all be thrown into the same pool? What is gained from such conflation?

Nothing. The result is only more division, more anger, more easy hate, and further polarization. Instead of writing a pro-civil union person off whole cloth, we can instead recognize an opportunity. It often just takes a small pivot to change perspective. Instead of focusing on the fact that this person is not pro-marriage equality, recognize that there is some level of LGBT rights that they are supporting. There is caring there.

Let’s recognize that a very many civil union people are coming from communities where homosexuality is a grave sin. They grew up hearing from their parents, teachers, ministers, and friends that LGBT people are essentially evil people who choose evil no-less. Coming from this climate, landing on civil unions is a big deal. That should be recognized.

What does calling them bigots accomplish? It likely sends them back to the open arms of their fully homophobic community where they dig in. An opportunity for growth is squashed just as it emerges from the soil. Not only is this unhelpful, it’s wholly detrimental to the cause.

Since I spend so much time in atheist and interfaith circles, that is where I see this dynamic play out the most. And I have to say, interfaith people commonly have the higher ground here. The very heart of interfaith work requires taking into account an interfaith partner’s background, education, and community in looking for locations of connection. For example, it is true that among the Abrahamic faiths there is an eternal disagreement about the divinity of Jesus. But it is also true that all three have a robust tradition, both theologically and practically, of aiding the poor. There is absolutely no reason why they cannot work together on this issue, unless someone writes off the other claiming that some differences means no commonality.

Many atheists (obviously, not all) are quick to dismiss any person with any supernatural beliefs as not worth their time. This approach solves nothing. This reaction does not help atheists live equally in society. Even if your goal is conversion (which I am not advocating) this does not help. So why does so much public discourse consist of “with us or against us” rhetoric?

More to the point, there are caring religious people and caring atheists. And there a lot of issues plaguing humanity. When caring people come together solutions can happen. Progress can happen. But as long as we automatically ridicule or dismiss anyone who doesn’t agree with us completely, we’re stuck.

Wendy Webber (Yale University)

Wendy WebberWendy is a graduate of Yale Divinity School, where she was a founding member of an atheist, agnostic, and multifaith community that continues to foster interbelief dialogues and initiatives. Currently she’s traveling the world with Pathfinders Project, which aims to create a permanent Humanist Service Corps. Wendy writes about religion, atheism, and interbelief primarily for her blog andState of Formation. When she is able, she plays tennis, takes photos, and enjoys offbeat museums.

2 responses to “The Problem with “With Us or Against Us” Rhetoric

  1. Hi Wendy well written, I came to faith and believing in the resurrected Christ late in life, 47 to be precise, while I have seen so much bad teachings in His name and the damage religion does has it is misinterpreted through translation, my faith has grown in spite of this, for there has to be an ultimate source, there can only be one truth. Homosexuality in itself is not sin, the act is. People growing up hearing how wrong homosexuality is, i believe will be pushed more into becoming one. My belief is that it is a lack of understanding of the human heart and that both male and female posses the same attributes which, when i grew up was OK for a woman but for a man, anything slightly effeminate was strictly taboo, a man crying, God forbid. To be weak and vulnerable you were instantly called gay.
    Is it any wonder then that men grow up confused when all these so called girly emotions come to the surface, it destroys building a close relationship with your dad, couple this with insecurities towards women and hey presto you have a confused man, in my belief, believing himself to be something he is not.
    I speak from experience, my relationship with my parents, left me confused while growing up.
    I don’t believe we are born that way but we come to believe who we are in our hearts because we base our opinions on what the world wants us to believe, and not on the truth of Holy scripture.
    Religion is doing likewise and actually exacerbating the problem.
    I totally agree with your sentiments about us and them, we are all born with the same equipment, but there has to be an ultimate truth.


  2. Very well written; I’ve been thinking the very same thing for a while and I couldn’t agree more.
    I’ve been an agnostic atheist since I was a teenager, and I have attended meetings of a local group for a while. The reason why I joined them was because I felt non-believers were kind of second-class citizens in my country and I wanted to fight for my rights; yet I started to notice in these circles there can be as much hatred towards believers as there is among some believers towards atheists.

    I used to find Dawkins’ take on religion and public life interesting, a funny satire that helped show the contradictions of religion, yet now it feels more like an excuse to mock ANY believer for just having a faith.


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