Ascription Errors

It started on Salon with a discussion about feminism, and how sometimes feminists can be unkind to women who decide that they want to be stay-at-home parents. Someone claimed that such unkindness should not be ascribed to feminism itself (since it is about allowing women to have choices), but to the individuals who do it.

I’m only partly sure I agree in that particular case – not least because feminism has many flavors. But it made me also think about how we ascribe things – usually negative things – to any framework or belief system or worldview.

Do we ascribe the judgemental behaviour of some Christians to Christianity, or to their own character and personality?

The extremes are fairly easy. The BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) serial killer was a pillar of his local church – but it’s pretty easy to decide that his actions were due to his own evil nature and choices, rather than to his faith.

But there are huge grey areas. What we tend to do is actually split off frameworks into smaller ones, in terms of the things we like and don’t like. So Fred Phelps and his ‘God hates fags’ church gets split off from the mainstream of Christianity, and we don’t ascribe his extremism to Christianity… even though it is not all that far from a lot of the beliefs in many mainstream Christian churches.

Then there’s the distinction between what is taught in the Bible and what is taught in some church congregations…

I’m not sure it’s even a useful question in every situation, but sometimes ‘is this the framework or the individual?’ might help to avoid stereotyping a whole philosophical perspective, religious faith or racial group with the actions and attitudes of a few.

The hard part is making sure we are willing to give the benefit of the doubt to those we disagree with, while holding those on ‘our side’ to a higher standard.

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