A recent story has about an atheist named James Maxie who beat up a pastor has been making it’s rounds around the blogosphere, including the Friendly Atheist Blog. Some theists have tried to use this mans actions as an indictment against atheism in general, which I think is ridiculous since the number of atheists who have gotten in fist fights with preachers is actually quite small.
Now, on the other side of this story there are atheists who, while they condemn Maxie’s actions, are tempted to commiserate with him because they feel the anger that led to his violent act was justified by the pastors bigotry against atheists. On this point I have to disagree with them, at least based upon the available evidence.
See the violence started when Rev. Norman Hayes asked Maxie’s girlfriend, whom he presumably knew, if she was safe, indicating that he was worried that Maxie might be abusing her. I suppose that some atheists believe that the pastor made this accusation because Maxie was an atheist, but there really isn’t any evidence of that.
Now, I’m not saying that bigotry against atheists doesn’t exist, nor am I saying that this pastor might not have some of those views himself, but nothing in this altercation leads me to believe that Hayes leveled such a charge because of Maxie’s atheism. Further, Maxie’s reaction is evidence that there was merit to Hayes supposition of abuse. Maxie had already been argumentative throughout the service, and having been convicted of both assault and statutory rape previously it is entirely possible that people in the area, including the pastor, already knew his reputation.
So it is entirely possible, and even likely, that Hayes’s accusation not influenced by Maxie’s atheism, but a genuine concern that the woman was being abused. Given his position as a preacher it probably wasn’t the first time he had seen a couple exhibit signs of an abusive dynamic, and given that there are many stories where preachers have ignored or even actively covered up cases of abuse I have to give Hayes credit for his actions.
That being said, there is one point where I think Hayes made a mistake. Preachers often act as therapists or counselors even though they are not properly trained to do those things. A trained psychologist or psychotherapist would have known that you never ask someone if they are being abused in front of an abuser, and might even know tricks to separate them so they could ask the question privately. At best, in front of the abuser, the victim will deny it. At worst, we get exactly what happened and the abuser becomes violent as a result of the accusation. One of the reasons for this is that most abusers intellectually know that hitting their significant other is abuse, but they don’t think of themselves as abusers. In their own mind they will have found ways to excuse their own personal behavior as somehow different than that of actual abusers. Accusations of abuse will force them to face their internally inconsistent views. Of course, this makes them angry and these are people who often deal with their anger by blaming someone else and then hitting that person.