Okay. First: Laura, I get that you’re upset and hurt and angry about this, and I want you to know that I don’t want that. So I’m going to try to say what I have to say, as best as possible, in a way that doesn’t exacerbate it.
How can I do this?
Let me start by making a comparison. You’re a grassroots progressive Democrat, and a pretty ardent, practicing one. You probably see and hear people making fun of Democrats and progressives on a daily basis, calling you (among other things) stupid and crazy, and worse. And I’m sure you get ticked off at this sometimes, especially when you think the jokes are inaccurate or mean-spirited.
But you don’t get angry at the very idea that people would make fun of Democrats and call them stupid or crazy or other bad names. Not this angry, anyway. (At least, I assume you don’t. Weâve talked about politics many times, and I’ve never heard you get as angry or as hurt as you seem to be about the Blasphemy Challenge.) You accept that that’s part of the public conversation about politics.
I’d like to ask you to look at religion in the same way.
Religions are (most of them, anyway) an idea about the world: a theory about how the world works, and a philosophy about how the world should work. And as such, it should be part of the public discourse, part of the marketplace of ideas — no different than any other ideas about the world, and treated with the same level of respect and/or irreverence.
Right now, this country is having a public conversation about religion, in a way that, as far as I’m aware, it never really has. And part of that conversation is going to involve people making mean, snarky jokes, both about the ideas and about the people who hold them. I personally wish more atheists would be more careful about aiming their jibes at Christianity rather than ChristiansâŠ but you know, I’m not always careful about making fun of Republicanism rather than Republicans, and I don’t think it’s the crime of the century.
And I don’t think it’s fair to be more angry at people who are childish and insulting about your religion than you would be about people who are childish and insulting about your politics.
Or, for that matter, people who are childish and insulting about the politics you oppose. Speaking for myself, some of my favorite pieces of social commentary are sometimes childish and insulting. South Park, Beavis and Butt-Head — very often childish and insulting. The Simpsons, Monty Python — not infrequently childish and insulting. The Daily Show, The Colbert Report — yeah, sometimes. I think if we’re going to accept this type of social commentary when it works in our favor, we have to accept it when it’s aimed at us.
You’re upset because many of the Blasphemy Challenge people treat Christianity as a joke, make fun of it — sometimes disrespectful, mean-spirited, not very nice fun. I’m not sure how to say this in a nice wayâŠ but this is kind of what I’m talking about when I talk about religion getting a free ride in the marketplace of ideas. Making fun of people is a respected, time-honored form of public discourse in this country. Making fun of big, powerful institutions — of which Christianity is most assuredly one — is an even more respected, even more time-honored tradition. I’m sure Republicans and other folks get upset when Jon Stewart makes fun of them and calls them stupid and crazy. Tough beans. That’s life in the big city.
And I really think we need to start looking at religious ideas the same way.
So that’s the big issue. Now a couple of somewhat smaller, more specific points.
If you want me to say that some of the “Blasphemy Challenge” videos are childish and insultingâŠ sure. Yes. Absolutely. Some of the “Blasphemy Challenge” videos are childish and insulting.
But not all of them are. I was just now looking at a bunch of them, trying to find a specific one I’d seen beforeâŠ and I came across these, just in the first few minutes of my YouTube search. Some of them make me want to stand up and cheerâŠ and some just break my heart, make me want to cry and scream and then go throw rocks at things.
Am I proud and happy to stand up with these people? You’re darned well right I am. (The last one especially. If you only watch one of these videos, watch hers.)
And you know what? I’m proud and happy to stand up with the angry, pissy, juvenile ones, too. I see them, and my heart just breaks. I know that when you hear someone say something like “The Holy Spirit rapes children,” what you hear is a terrible thing being said about your faith. But what I hear (although to be fair, I haven’t seen that particular video and am just going on your description of it) is someone who, I’m betting, had an appalling religious upbringing, one in which they were taught cruel, traumatic, bigoted, and flat-out untrue things, and told that to even question them would send them to be burned and tortured in HellâŠ and who’s only now coming to realize just how fucked up that was, and just how full of rage they are about it. (Or if they didn’t go through that themselves, they know and love someone who did.) You see the insult — I see the anger, the frustration, the trauma, the feeling of helplessness. And while I wish those people would express their rage in a better way than namecalling and insults, and while I hope they can move on from that eventually, my heart goes out to them. I get that this is where they need to be right now, and I want to stand with them and tell them that they’re not alone.
Now, maybe that’s not fair. Maybe it’s not fair to be sympathetic with atheists who are angry about religion, and yet expect religious believers to get over their anger about atheists. But I feel the same way about women’s anger towards men versus men’s anger towards women; queer folks’ anger towards straight people versus straight peoples’ anger towards queers. The difference is in which group has the power. And in this case, it’s not atheists.
In any case, let me ask you this: Are there stupid, childish, insulting people in MoveOn, or Democracy for America, or whatever organizations you’re working with right now? And are you still willing to stand up with them, to fight alongside them, to work with them in the movementâŠ or, at the very least, to put up with them so you can work with the people who aren’t like that? That’s how I feel about the atheist movement in general, and the Blasphemy Challenge in particular. If I weren’t willing to make common cause with atheists who are seriously angry and don’t always express that anger well, I’d be in pretty thin company in this movement. Yes, some of the Challengers are juvenile and insulting. But many of them I just love to pieces. And I think the basic idea of the Blasphemy Challenge is sound and worthwhile.
Which brings me toâŠ
You asked what the point of the Blasphemy Challenge was, other than to piss people off. I can’t speak for the organizers — if you want to ask them why they’re doing this, you’d have to ask them.
But I can tell you what I think the point is.
One: Visibility. I wish this weren’t the case, but calm, nuanced philosophy isn’t always the best way to get the world to pay attention — especially in the early days of a movement. Sometimes you need to stand in the street and scream, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” (Or throw rocks at cops. I canât remember who it was now, but some very respectable gay politician was once asked what would be an appropriate memorial statue for the Stonewall riots, and he answered, “A drag queen with a brick in his hand.”)
Two: Community. Knowing that you’re not alone, that there are others who are as pissed and upset as you are.
Three: Venting. Emotionally important. Helps you get past your anger and move on.
I think the extra-high level of venting in some of these videos is there for two reasons â both related to the whole “respect for religion means never questioning it or saying that you disagree with it” thing. I think a lot of the anger in these videos is an explosion that’s coming after years of silence and suppressed rage. And I think it’s an attempt to counterbalance the polite silence with a rude scream. Is that juvenile? Insulting? Sometimes. So were punk rock, underground comix, Lenny Bruce, Queer Nation, etc. etc. etc. All wonderful, overwhelmingly positive forces, in my opinion.
Four: Motivation. Shared anger can be a powerful motivating force, especially in the early days of a social/political movement. When you’re facing injustice, the opposite of anger isn’t serenity — it’s apathy.
Five: Getting people who are on the fence — or people who have never seriously considered the question — to know that that they have options. I agree that hard-core fundamentalists are unlikely to be convinced by the Blasphemy ChallengeâŠ but I think it can and does let less-hard-core people know that they have a choice. I wish I could find it now (one of the problems with the Blasphemy Challenge is that there are hundreds of videos, which makes it awfully damn hard to find the specific really cool one you saw a couple of days ago), but there’s one B.C. video featuring a young man who said that he had gone to the Blasphemy Challenge website to argue with itâŠ and now, six months later, he had been convinced, and was making his own B.C. video.
Six: Getting people to pay attention to what the Bible actually says. The amount of ignorance about the Bible’s actual teachings — even and especially among Christians — is astonishing. Getting people to think about, not what their preachers or teachers or parents told them the Bible says, but what the Bible actually says, is crucial in getting people to think seriously about the larger issue of Christianity in public life.
Seven: Making a point about fundamentalism, and the patent absurdity of trying to take every word of the Bible as literal truth. I don’t think this is only important for fundies to see. I think it’s important for the rest of the country to see as well — to see what kind of thinking, or lack thereof, is driving the people who have become so powerful.
Eight: Making a point about Christianity in general — not just fundamentalism. Many non-fundie, moderate or progressive Christians say things like, “I don’t take every word of the Bible literally, I’m inspired by Jesus’s message of love and forgiveness.” I think it’s important to point out that Jesus’s message, as quoted in the Gospels, is not universally one of love and forgiveness — that you don’t have to go to the Old Testament, or Paul, or Revelations, to find some fairly fucked-up stuff. I think it’s reasonable to ask moderate and progressive Christians to think about that — to think about how it does or doesn’t fit into their beliefs, to think about why it’s so much more upsetting to hear someone say “Fuck the Holy Spirit” than “Fuck Bill Clinton,” to think about what it means to be a Christian when you disagree with the words of Christ himself. That sort of thing.
Which brings me toâŠ
As to the Blasphemy Challenge website misrepresenting the passage in question by saying it refers to hell and damnationâŠ I’m really not sure how else to interpret “never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” Maybe that’s not the only possible interpretation, but it’s hardly an unreasonable one.
But much more to the point: It simply is not the case that the Bible — or even the Gospels — never mentions hell and damnation. Here are just a few examples:
Matthew 3:7, John the Baptist: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Matthew 3:12, again J the B: “His (Jesus’s) winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Matthew 5:22, Jesus now:: “But I say to you that every one who is angry with the brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council; and whoever says ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.”
Matthew 5:30, Jesus again: “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go to hell.”
Matthew 10:28, again Jesus: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Matthew 11:22, Jesus: “But I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you (Chorasin and Bethsaida).”
There’s more.. And I’m not even trying that hard. I’m flipping fairly casually, and I’m not even halfway through the first book of the four GospelsâŠ and I’ve already found six separate references — four of them in Jesus’s own words — to wrath, the hell of fire, the destruction of hell, and judgment day.
Now, I think it’s fair for Christians to say, “I’m going to be inspired by the parts of the Bible that inspire me, and I feel free to disagree with the parts I disagree with.” (I do have some questions about this approach, but I sure think it’s healthier than strict fundamentalism.) If you think hell doesn’t exist, I’m certainly not going to try to convince you that it does.
But whatever else you may say about the Blasphemy Challenge, it really is 100% unfair to accuse them of making up the idea of hellfire and damnation. It’s right there — not in the brutal Old Testament, not in tight-assed Paul, not in whacked-out Revelations, but in Jesus’s words, as quoted in the Gospels.
I understand that fire and damnation aren’t how you practice Christianity. And good for you. I think that’s exactly as it should be. But people who do believe in that kind of Christianity aren’t “twisting it into something it isn’t.” Hellfire and damnation are all over the Bible, including the Gospels.
See, here’s the thing. I don’t understand why Mark 3:28-29 is an “obscure passage” (the same concept appears in Matthew 12:31-32, btw)âŠ unless by “obscure” you mean “not cited very often,” which of course it isn’t, what with it contradicting the central message of the religion and all. I don’t understand why this passage doesn’t count. It’s not some irrelevant law from Leviticus about where to plant your barley. It’s in the Gospels, the words of Jesus. If you have a red-letter Bible, it’ll be in red letters. We were talking about this today with Ingrid’s dad, who was brought up fundamentalistâŠ and he immediately knew exactly which passage we were talking about.
Now, I think it’d be fair for a Christian to say they don’t agree with it. I think it’d be fair for a Christian to say they think Jesus said it, but he was mistaken. I think it’d even be fair for a Christian to say, as Jane did, that Jesus said it because he was having a bad day and he got pissy. But I don’t think it’s fair to do as Reverend Lovejoy did, when Lisa asked if the Bible didn’t say, “Judge not lest ye be judged,” and he replied, “I think it may be somewhere towards the back.” The passage says what it says. And it’s Jesus who said it. Defend it, explain it, disagree with it, put it into historical context. But I do think it’s kind of unfair to criticize people for taking it seriously and responding to it.
I get that these videos upset you a lot. If that’s so, maybe you shouldn’t watch any more of them. But your argument seems to be “these videos upset me, therefore they have no value; they don’t convince me, therefore they won’t convince anybody; they make me angry, therefore they have no power to change the world for good.” And for all the reasons I’ve gone into here, I just don’t agree with that.