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There's a story, typically called "The Asshole in the Red Car," that I often hear from people who are trying to explain a particular phenomenon in social psychology.

You're driving down the road. You're in a bit of a hurry, but traffic is heavy and there's nothing you can do about it. All of a sudden, you see a red car in your rear view mirror, weaving in and out of traffic. It's moving much faster than every other car on the road and you worry that it will cause an accident. The red car comes closer and closer to you and the driver swerves to pull up next to you and pass you. The red car passes you and cuts you off, nearly hitting you. As it passes, you get a quick look at the driver, a man who doesn't appear to be worried about the stress and danger he is causing you.

What do you think about the driver of the red car?

The title of the story is informative -- most people think the driver is an inconsiderate asshole. How dare he drive so recklessly! How dare he nearly cause you to have an accident! How dare he violate the social norms of the situation! Traffic might be heavy, but at least it's moving -- he should wait his turn just like everyone else.

That's the default mode of thought; it's only natural that you would think that way about the asshole in the red car in such a situation. But remember, the person telling the story wants to teach you something about social psychology. So s/he has a question for you.

What if you were the driver of the red car?

You're not an asshole, are you? (Are you? If you are, I'm sure I'll hear all about it in the comments.)

So if you're not an asshole, why were you driving so recklessly? Why did you endanger every other driver on the road? You must have had a reason for your behavior, right? (Let's assume that you didn't drive that way just because you're a horrible driver.)

There are several common answers. Maybe you, as the driver of the red car, have an emergency. Maybe you're having a heart attack and have to get to the hospital to try to save your life. Maybe your wife is having a baby and you have to get to her. Maybe you're a police officer who was off duty (and therefore not in a car with lights and sirens) but got a call about a dangerous situation and you have to get there right away. Maybe your brakes failed and you can't slow down. Maybe (and believe it or not, I've actually heard this one three times from people who heard the story for the first time) you know that there is a certain bus with a bomb on it, and that the bomb will explode if the bus drop below 50 miles per hour, and you have to get to the bus to warn them.

We've now come up with several reasons why the asshole in the red car may not actually be an asshole. So why didn't we come up with those reasons when we thought it was someone else driving? Why was the driver an asshole when it was someone else, but not when it was ourselves?

Here's where the lesson in social psychology comes to fruition: it's about fundamental attribution error, which is also known as the overattribution effect. Fundamental attribution error refers to our natural but erroneous tendency to privilege dispositional explanations to the behavior of others while favoring situational explanations for our own behavior. Put simply, if you see someone else doing something that would be wrong under normal circumstances, you attribute the behavior to a character flaw on their part, but if you yourself do something that would be wrong under normal circumstances, you excuse your behavior, justifying it based on the situation. Or in other words, we attribute the actions of others to the kind of person they are rather the situated context in which they act, but prefer to frame our own behavior against situational variables rather than portraying it as wholly reflective of our character. That's why the driver in our little story is an asshole when it's someone else, but s/he isn't doing anything wrong when we are the driver.

I bring this up because of a rather insulting disconnect I see here on a semi-regular basis, and it's been popping up more frequently recently. I've seen so many comments lately -- some hidden (justifiably) and others uprated dozens of times (offensively) -- that apply blanket negative stereotypes to all people of faith under the logic that because the (not-so-)Christian (absolutely-not-)Right likes to impose its private, parochial, bigoted religious perspective on everyone's lives, all people of faith do as well. But that logic is faulty and incredibly offensive. I'm sure it would come as a shock to people like Rev. Martin Luther King and his counterparts in the Civil Rights Movement to hear that they are no different from the Pat Robertsons, James Dobsons, and Rush Limbaughs of the world. I'm sure it would come as a shock to people like Barack Obama to hear that they are no different from people like George W. Bush, no matter what Ralph Nader says. I'm sure it would come as a shock to someone like Al Gore to hear that he is no different from someone like Tom Coburn.

And perhaps most appalling, it may shock progressive people of faith that they are lumped together with fascist regressives who would impose medieval religiosity on us all based not on fact but assumption. It should offend everyone in the reality based community when such overgeneralizations are made not on evidence but on faith.

So here's a primer -- eight simple truths -- to remind everyone that logic need not be shortcircuited when dealing with people of faith:

1) People of faith are not all the same. Like some of you, I am Jewish. Others here are Christians of various denominations. Some are Muslims. Some are Buddhists. Some practice Wicca. And so on -- if you can name the faith, there is probably at least one practitioner among our fellow kossacks. But religion is a highly personal thing, and what holds true for one person of faith may not for another, even within the same denomination. We can't all speak for each other. In Judaism we have a popular expression: "Two Jews, three opinions." In short, we can't even speak for ourselves sometimes. So when Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Ralph Reed, Fred Phelps, Dumbya (who, incidentally, I tend to think of more as a poseur and an opportunist than someone who is genuinely religious, but that's an issue for another time), or some nameless local preacher says something hateful, a reasonable person cannot in good conscience attribute their bigotry even to all people of their denomination, let alone all people of faith.

2) People of faith don't all want to convert you. In fact, some religions prohibit active proselytizing (or if you prefer, "recruiting"). In Judaism, for example, the tradition is that you're even supposed to discourage someone who approaches you to seek to convert. Again, religion is a deeply personal thing, and for many people it's deeply offensive when someone approaches them to try to convert them. A great many of us want to practice our religions privately, without interference from real-life roving bands of dominionist evangelizers bent on Rapture, and we respect your right to believe (or not) in your own way. Which leads to the next item...

3) People of faith don't all hate people who adhere to faiths other than our own, or atheists, or agnostics. I swear we don't. As clichéd as it may sound, some of our best friends are adherents of other religions, atheists, and agnostics. If you think about it, some of your best friends probably are, too -- that's probably because you are probably a tolerant person, as most progressives are, so you don't disqualify people who believe differently from being your friends. We're no different; just because we disagree on this one issue doesn't mean we hate you.

4) People of faith don't all hate gays and lesbians. We believe that religion should be used to promote lovingkindness, not hatred. We are just as appalled as you are by the homophobia justified by many as religious doctrine, and we shout out against it at the top of our lungs. We stand side by your side fighting Proposition 8 in California. We fight with you to repeal same-sex marriage and adoption bans all over the country. We regret that the loudest homophobic voices are coming from people who describe themselves as religious, and we're going to continue to do the best we can to show the world that we won't tolerate the bigots' attempt to hijack our religions.

5) People of faith are not all raving mad protesters outside abortion clinics. A great many of us are pro-choice. Some of us volunteer at clinics; I've been an escort for terrified patients on several occasions. I suspect if you polled us, many of us would be in the Clinton camp on abortion -- we want it safe, legal, and rare. Rather than condemn people who have or perform abortions, we think they should be treated with compassion. Rather than have the government ban abortion, we think the government should do something about the underlying problems that make abortion the least of several possible evils in many circumstances. We think that if we as a society really want to reduce the number of abortions, we ought to be teaching comprehensive sex education in our schools and worrying about children's welfare and that of their families after they're born, not just until they're born.

6) People of faith are not all crazy, stupid, delusional, mindless, unthinking, or uncritical. Calling us crazy because you disagree with us is insulting to people with genuine mental illnesses. (It's also a hallmark of Republican rhetoric.) Many of us are highly educated; I am a doctoral student at one of the best universities in the country and a graduate of an Ivy League university. We are doctors, lawyers, engineers, candidates for higher office (see, for example, Ted Strickland, a minister and the governor of Ohio, and Barack Obama -- you all remember him, right?), scientists, professors, teachers, and students. We believe in science as well as God -- and no, that doesn't mean we subscribe to "intelligent design" over evolution. We are somewhat amused at the lack of faith among those who claim to be paragons of religiosity but who cannot accept that their deity is powerful enough to have created a world in which evolution is possible and in which scientific laws prevail. We accept prevailing scientific wisdom as fact, not theory. We question our leaders when we believe they are wrong and we seek to the best of our ability to rectify wrongs committed in the name of our religion. We do not all accept our sacred texts as the literal word of God.

7) People of faith don't all wield our religion as a weapon to divide and oppress. Quite the contrary, many of us are progressive because of our religious identities. Speaking for myself, I think Hillel's lesson, redacted in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 31a, is emblematic of why I am progressive:

A man wanted to embarrass the two leading rabbis of the era (end of first century BCE, beginning of first century CE), Shammai and Hillel. He decided that he would feign interest in converting to Judaism, but would only do so if the rabbi could teach him the entire Torah while he stood on one foot.

He approached Shammai first. Shammai was a very conservative man, and he was so incensed at the ridiculous request -- how could he dare mock the importance of Torah study and the discipline required to do it well? -- that he kicked the man out of his academy.

The man then approached Hillel, who was much more progressive, and repeated his request. Hillel's response?

That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it.

(After all, is that not the essence of Judaism (or Christianity, or any number of other religions for that matter)? To progressive people of faith, it is. How much more appalling, then, that some people who don't adhere to any particular faith and who claim to be progressive automatically attach their negative feelings toward the fundamentalists to the rest of us! How clear an example of fundamental attribution error!)

The man was so impressed that he did end up converting to Judaism, but that's hardly the point of the story. The point is that nothing matters so much as loving our fellow human beings -- taking care of them when they need help (and even when they don't), protecting the least among us, defending the weak from the powerful, etc., etc., etc.

That's why I'm a progressive, and there are many kossacks with similar stories who adhere to all manner of faiths. So I arrived at my progressive values through my religious identity, as have millions of other progressive people of faith. What's wrong with that? I know someone will probably say in the comments that we could have arrived at those values independent of religion. That's true -- but we didn't. If we had, we wouldn't be us. We are all shaped by our experiences, and our religious experiences led us to progressive values. We choose to use our religions to unite and uplift, all without imposing our religions on anybody. That, to us, is a core progressive value -- living out your values, whatever they are, without imposing them on others.

8) People of faith are a powerful weapon to aid in the election of Democratic candidates. Isn't that what this site is for in the first place? According to the American Religious Identification Survey, 81% of Americans self-identify as adherents of some religion or another. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that generalizing people of faith as crazy, stupid, delusional, mindless, unthinking, or uncritical is a great way to alienate enough voters to ensure that we never win another election. It also reinforces the bullshit Republican meme that Democrats actually are anti-religion -- and like it or not (I opt for not), a substantial proportion of the electorate has gotten that idea into their heads. We progressives of faith can fix that if given the chance. We speak the language of faith, and we walk the walk as well. We can convince independent voters that Democrats aren't anti-religious, as President Barack Obama did just a few short months ago. We can convince lots of people that the ideals of the Democratic Party far more closely resemble the ideals of most Americans' religions (or lack thereof) than the ideals of the Republicans. In a time when many people still unthinkingly repeat the meme that there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans, we progressives of faith can help convince swing voters of faith to vote for Democratic candidates. Use us and we all win. Alienate us and we all lose.

Yes, it's true that some religious people are opposed to modernity, but that doesn't mean that religion itself is inherently opposed to modernity. Yes, it's true that some religious people are making things worse for the people in Iraq and Afghanistan and Gaza, but that doesn't mean that religion itself is inherently pro-war, pro-violence, or anti-peace, and if you know anything at all about the Middle East, you know that efforts to "convert" the people in any country there to atheism is one of the stupidest, most inflammatory things you could do.

We are a community of (mostly) progressives. We believe that evidence is needed when we make factual claims, and we don't accept factual claims made on faith. Let there not be a double standard when it comes to making claims about religion. Let us never accept such hateful claims about religion without evidence of systematic wrongdoing inherent to religion itself, and not a function of the people practicing or bastardizing the religion.

Let us remember that some religious people condemn us for not believing the same way that they do simply because they accept on faith alone that their way is the only way. Let us remember that if we condemn all people of faith -- even those who feel deeply it is our right to believe whatever we want -- not because of their behavior but because of their beliefs, if we stigmatize or even criminalize them for their beliefs, if we call them abusers and cast them out of our community because of their beliefs, we are doing exactly the same thing: condemning on faith rather than actual evidence of misbehavior. If this is what we do, we are no better than the dominionists we condemn. We are just as judgmental; we are just as arrogant; we are just as fundamentalist in our faith-based condemnation of others; we are just as hypocritical; we are just as hateful.

Let us not be like them. Let us be progressives. Let us welcome people with different ideas and different beliefs. Let us be thankful that we live in a country where there is still freedom to believe differently. Let us remember that that freedom was one of the fundamental principles embraced by the founders of this country.

Let us not make the mistake of prejudging the driver of the red car as an asshole. For God's sake, for goodness' sake, for democracy's sake, and for the sake of basic decency, let us be tolerant.

Originally posted to וויסקמס on Sun Feb 22, 2009 at 10:06 AM PST.

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