As an adolescent I found it extremely irritating when adults dismissed my thoughts as expressions of someone else’s influence upon me. Comments like, “You only think/say/do that because you’re being influenced/indoctrinated by friends/culture/hormones” threw me into a huff and sometimes led to me to completely dismiss the value of the speaker’s advice. I not only hated the condescension, I felt deeply disrespected, and I think I may have finally figured out why.
When people asserted my thoughts were merely the echoes of external influences, they were telling me that I had no intellectual agency. They were implying that I was not an active thinker, but a passive receiver, a sponge of cultural fads and pressures. They were calling me a puppet; their comments reflected their arrogance that they could control me by controlling the influences around me, whilst avoiding any meaningful engagement with me.
Since leaving organized religion, I’ve noticed many people on the agnostic spectrum adopting similar attitudes towards religious adherents. We often dismiss theists as puppets of a mindset and victims of indoctrination. As such we assume they cannot be changed by arguments, cannot be ‘reasoned with,’ and so are not worth engaging. But is this a fair or well reasoned attitude?
Pity the Gelth
I’m reminded of an episode of Doctor Who where The Doctor and Rose travel to 19th-century England. While there, they discover intergalactic refugees are preserving the last of their species by living in gas pipes and sporadically reanimating corpses. They are called ‘the Gelth,’ and they not only speak perfect English, but can live stably if given fresh bodies to animate. They’ve been scavenging the dead, but there aren’t enough stiffs to go around, and there’s some [in]convenient plot device involving natural gas and air saturation.
Over Rose’s objections, The Doctor offers up the contents of earth’s mortuaries to the Gelth’s stranded ambassadors (believing it a new era of human recycling). The only catch is that the rest of the species must come to earth through Gwyneth, a young Cardiff servant girl whose childhood on the rift has given her timey-wimey superpowers (including something akin to clairvoyance). Gwyneth agrees to help, interpreting the Gelth as angels sent by her late mother. But Rose, disgusted by the whole arrangement, continues to object to her involvement:
Rose Tyler: They’re not using her.
Gwyneth: Don’t I get a say, miss?
Rose Tyler: Well, yeah… look… you don’t understand what’s going on.
Gwyneth: You would say that, miss, because that’s very clear inside your head, that you think I’m stupid.
Rose Tyler: That’s not fair!
Gwyneth: It’s true, though. Things might be very different where you’re from, but here and now I know my own mind, and the angels need me.
Gwyneth doesn’t see spacy-wacey foreigners who want to come from another dimension using her mind as a gate. She sees her mother’s messengers. Rose is perturbed by Gwyneth’s ill-informed consent, but the Doctor has no qualms, so the plan moves forward and Gwyneth grants The Gelth passage.
Gwyneth’s words remind me that just as we can’t presume to understand another person’s experience when we would label them a villain (as episodes like “Vincent and the Doctor” remind us), we can’t presume to understand their experience when we would label them a victim. I owe theists the respect to accept that they know their own minds. Most of the time, it isn’t for me to say how much someone has thought out their position. There may be a world of honest study behind what seem like ridiculous conclusions. Even if I am certain that someone hasn’t truly examined their position (or examined it effectively), I won’t help the situation by saying so. Very few people respond well to being called a puppet.
As an interesting aside, Gwyneth was—of course—mistaken in her assessment of the Gelth; but as it turns out, so was The Doctor. Both Gwyneth and The Doctor chose to believe what they were told. Gwyneth listened to 19th century pop-Anglican sensibilities, The Doctor listened to the Gelth, and both were taken advantage of as a result. Immediately after the Gelth began streaming into the room, they proclaimed their intent to kill all humanity to provide bodies for themselves. They dispatched minor characters, adding the corpses to their ranks in the opening salvo of a miniature zombie apocalypse. Ultimately, it wasn’t the Doctor but Gwyneth who saved the day, holding the Gelth back with her mind while Charles Dickens lit a gas explosion.