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Pat Robertson, Richard Dawkins, Al Qaeda, and Our Fascination with the Fringe

As I’ve watched the Pat Robertson train wreck get worse and worse over the past few years, I’ve marveled at the way humans are drawn to caricatures.  That’s what Robertson is – he’s a warped caricature of a thoughtful wise Christian leader. His foolish hurtful very-un-Christian pronouncements receive massive media coverage and widespread rebuttal from others in the Christian community, while the real thoughtful wise Christian leaders continue to quietly serve people like you and me.

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Why does this happen? Why are we so drawn to weirdos?

I think it’s an intellectual short cut. It’s easy to dismiss whole swaths of people if you can lump them together with a well-known, oft-mocked fool. We can look smart and win a debate with very little effort when the person we’re debating makes no sense.

If we dislike Christians, we try to paint them all with the Pat Robertson or Westboro or Benny Hin or Mark Driscoll brush. We say, “Look at this/Listen to this one. They’re all crazy people who spout off, can’t think, manipulate others, and preach love but live hate (or, in the case of Westboro, who preach hate and live it too). They’re all the same.” In this way, we can avoid discussing the uncomfortable questions they raise about our lives, our beliefs, and our society.

If we dislike atheists, we hold up Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens as figureheads of atheism, and claim that every atheist is like these guys: angry and hateful and thinks religious faith is a mental defect. By dismissing them this way, we fail to hear the stories of how people come to believe God does not exist, and we can ignore the possibility of our own culpability as failed Christians in many of their stories.

When we’re the ones being unfairly represented, we’re quick to distance ourselves from those on the fringe of our group. We point out that they are caricatures, and in some cases, total imposters. We don’t bomb abortion clinics or picket funerals or pretend to heal people to get money or berate men to get a job in a recession. That isn’t us. We try to express thoughtful coherent defenses of our beliefs, and we complain at how we’re ignored, unheard, or dismissed because of those few crazies who misrepresent us.

But then we turn around and do the same to others. We lump whole political parties together with one easy-to-dismiss politician and call it a day, failing to engage in any of the serious questions they raise and resorting to name-calling in place of reasoned debate. We declare that suicide bombers and al-Qaeda represent all of Islam and claim that every practicing Muslim is like them. Then we regard everyone in traditional Islamic garb with suspicion and fear, instead of as neighbors and citizens who care as much about our community as we do.

When the peculiar grabs headlines, we forget this strange penchant for the abnormal… unless we’re implicated or associated in some way. We forget that the rule of extremes applies equally to everyone. We forget that the strange, the loud, and the obnoxious get all the press. We forget to look for the ordinary. We forget that most people with whom we disagree are average every-day people like ourselves, living and believing what they do in thoughtful, clear-headed ways.

We forget they are people too.

So next time someone grabs headlines for their bizarre declarations, let’s make a conscious effort to avoid lumping others in with them. We need to do the hard work to understand and engage with the real ideas instead of dismissing them out of hand as crazy.

Why do you think we’re so fascinated with the fringe? Who do you find yourself distancing from most often, and why?


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