Friday, March 5, 2010

Westboro Atheist Church

I keep my RSS ears on in the atheistic blogosphere, mostly because if there's an issue or a challenge confronting the faith community, that's a great place to read about it. In particular, I listen in over at the friendlyatheist, a blog written by humanistic math teacher Hemant Mehta. Mehta's the guy who once famously "sold his soul on eBay," meaning, he took bids from churches in return for a promise to attend their worship.

Over the last few days, there's been some debate there about the "Smut for Smut" campaign on the part of an atheistic student organization in Texas. In the event you haven't heard of this one, it involves a pretty simple transaction. If you bring a sacred text to the table the group has set up on campus, they will happily let you trade it in for the pornography of your choice.

Their point is simple: religious texts are filthy, nasty, dirty things, and are essentially the same thing as the "smut" that religious people find so bothersome. Therefore, atheists can to show theists just how misguided they are by being as intentionally offensive and insulting as possible.

I'm not sure quite how many Christians have been dissuaded from their faith by this event. Given the dynamics of human nature, I'd say, oh, probably none. Folks have taken offense, and many may have gotten into a lather about it. Look at these UNBELIEVERS! DESECRATING GOD'S WORD!

Honestly, though, I'm not bothered by it as a Christian. Measured against the vastness of the Creator's work, it's an entirely meaningless thing. Yeah, pornography creates a deeply unrealistic and ultimately destructive view of human sexuality. Yes, it's an intentional effort to offend. But it is no more philosophically meaningful than that dude at the county fair dunking booth who hollers insults at your wife. It's just an attempt to get attention, and it does that quite effectively. I don't care what you say, clown-boy. I'm saving my money for the funnel cake.

Mmmm. Funnel cake....

But as a reasoning person, it bugs me. There is so much of value in humanistic ethics, so much that could be positively expressed. Screaming insults and intentionally offending others might be atheistic, but it is not rational or humanistic. Yes, it gets attention, in the same way that everyone gathers around a fight in the school cafeteria. As a means for changing either individuals or culture, though, it is profoundly counterproductive.

This sort of monkey-poo stunting is the dark psychotronic performance art specialty of the Westboro Baptist Church. It is a form of self-expression that calls attention to itself, but not with the purpose of changing the perspective of the other. It exists to exacerbate and heighten conflict with the Enemy, whoever the Enemy happens to be. In doing so, it reinforces the bright line boundaries between the Us, who are correct, and the Them, who are horrible in every way.

Across the little flicker of screams and swords and shouting that is human history, this approach has never, ever, ever worked. Jesus people, at least those who pay attention to what he taught, already know this. But rational folks know it too.


  1. Agreed. It's misguided. I mean, I think the evil parts of the Bible should be publicized, but equating it to pornography is ill-conceived for all the reasons you give.

    And even a little unfair to the porn. Bad as it can be sometimes, garden-variety porn is seldom as destructive and downright evil as the Bible. For one thing, consumers of the former usually understand that it represents a fantasy.

    (My verification word on this post is "sorkster," which, I'm sorry, I just had to share.)

  2. I've got to agree with you here. This is a ridiculous stunt. It's one thing to have one's own view of religion and whether or not to believe in it. It's plain trolling when attempting to disrespect another religion's sacred text regardless if you think it's not sacred. It's just rude and pointless. I doubt anybody converted to atheism during this stunt. I can think of better things to trade a Bible in for than porn.

    I think porn generally exploits and oppresses women and there are some historical aspects of religion that exploit and oppress women, too. A trade off of those aspects benefits nobody.

    It's no wonder most Christians think atheists are jerks. :\

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  4. I won't exchange a Bible for porn. Sex should be a participatory sport. Nevertheless we need to admit that between the sex and the violence in the Bible it should be rated R. Which, by the way, is one way to get high schoolers to read the OT. Tell them they aren't allowed to read parts of Genesis because of the sexual content.

  5. Hear, hear, Pastor Bob! That's how Mr. Katzenbach got us all to read the Miller's Tale (that sly old dog).

    But I think it's bizarre in retrospect how young I was when I was first exposed by my Sunday school teachers to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Elementary school! They sort of skated over a few of the details with pained, embarrassed expressions on their faces, and dodged our simple questions. "Why did the bad men want the angels? Why did Lot want to give them his daughters instead? He was the good guy, right?" They seemed relieved to get at last to the pillar of salt. Pshew! Turned to salt. Such a whole wholesome, whimsical image. (Which, to me, seemed impossibly unfair and unforgiving, a hideous punishment for such a human impulse, her family forced to march on without her. She was the Mom in the story, and I loved her. Who couldn't? God, apparently.) And then, of course, there was no mention at all of what comes next, which is even more twisted and disturbing, but there was nothing to stop us from discovering it ourselves. There were scads of Bibles just lying about everywhere--in every hotel room in America, in the back of every pew, or on my grandmother's nightstand--where any one of us might have innocently picked one up and started reading.

    And how strange, how surreal, to think that nearly every political leader in a America, every president in our history, swears to uphold truth and justice and decency by putting his hand on a book packed to the brim with such stories. Gang rapes, dismemberments, genital mutilations, slaughtered children, rivers of blood, divinely ordered famines and plagues, wars and genocides.

    Still, I heartily approve of Daniel Dennett's dangerous idea that at a certain age, public education should require a knowledge of the core beliefs and texts of all the world's religions. It will never happen, of course. The faithful will find a reason to never allow it.

  6. @ Browning: Accentuating the positive, as always. ;)

    But..why wouldn't the faithful encourage a strong grounding in the religious traditions of the world? As a Religious Studies Major at Mistah Jeffahson's University, I found that a deep historical-critical-textual engagement with the world's religious traditions only enriched my own faith. Yeah, it messed with the heads of some of the folks who'd come out of literalist churches...but there's nothing about learning about other religions and the history of the faith that is inimical to faith itself.

  7. @David. Well, I haven't heard anyone say anything positive about porn yet either. What's up with that? :)

    As for Dennett's idea, I think most of the faithful don't like the idea of having their cherished beliefs put on equal footing with all those ridiculous things that people of other faiths unaccountably believe. Plus the don't trust anyone but a believer to do them justice. They are certainly suspicious of Dennett. But you'd have to ask the ones who do object, I guess.

  8. The only ways to talk about the Bible in schools is either have a Bible as Literature class or a class on Work Religions. While I think the first may be helpful and even possible I think the second is more important. How can we truly seek to understand those of different religions without knowing the things that are the basis for their world views?

    Oh, and as to the atheists in the original post I think they would do better if they offered cash for Bibles. If the price was right some Christians could do a lucrative business in selling Bibles to the atheists while buying them for a lower or equal price. Wouldn't that surprise the atheists!

  9. I like the cash for Bibles idea, Pastor Bob. More incentive, less offensive.

  10. Or even better, after paying you cash for the Bibles that you are are purchasing elsewhere on the cheap and making a profit on, then they could send the Bibles they collected to Haitian orphanages. Yeah, that's the ticket!

    No, you guys are trying to improve this from the wrong side of the aisle. Let me take a crack at it.

    Getting the outrage and attention for it's own sake is useless, even counter-productive. But there is nothing inherently wrong with provoking outrage, if it's in the service of bringing necessary attention to the truth. And, as someone once said, the truth will set you free. The truth is that the Bible is filled to the brim with atrocities, and not always perpetrated by the villains in the story. The worst of them are attributed to God himself. It's more often than not a breathtakingly ugly story, and the morality it purports to illustrate is not one that most intelligent, modern people would recognize or endorse. The reverence our culture has for it is largely based on long out-moded habits of assuming that we know what it says, when the vast majority of us have no idea, and would be shocked if we did.

    How best get that idea across? Take some suitably shocking passage from it, or better yet a dozen or so. (Lot and his daughters will do quite nicely for a start though.) Then illustrate it. Needn't be too explicit. In fact it's better if visually it is no more x-rated than, say, an edgy ad in a fashion magazine. Leave something to the imagination. Be sure to put in the pertinent scripture though. Now also design a logo that would appear in the corner of all the posters/ads in the series, and that would show a figure placing his hand on the Bible and raising his other hand. Perhaps somehow reference the famous Norman Rockwell painting of the guy being sworn in. The slogan? "I swear to God. It's in there." Actually two slogans. That one at the top, and then at the bottom, "The truth will set you free." Maybe the latter could just be the name of the campaign. Then put it in an ad or on a billboard.

    Then, when the outrage follows, you say, "What's the problem? It's the Bible. It's the cornerstone of our morality, right?" And let the theists sweat the explaining. They'll respond with "It's out of context!" you make them explain the context, and you have ready your own historically accurate context as well. E.g., Lot and his daughters were there to depict the ugly beginnings of a couple of hated outgroups. In other words, it's a just-so story in the service of an ancient racism. The theists yell, "You are just trying to provoke people!" and you respond, yes, we are trying to provoke them to read and understand the Bible. The outrage gets us all talking about what exactly is in the Bible and what does it mean. The talking heads: "Well, it raises an interesting question. Do we want to be swearing people in on a book like this? Should children be exposed to it?" Etc.

    Then you'll get the liberal theists hurrying to distance themselves from it, even as they are bashing you all over the op ed pages. "Well, it's ugly, yes, but it's just a bunch of old legends. It has nothing to do with the real God." And then the fundamentalists will have to find a way to dispute that, which will be very tricky for them as well, because they have to spell out their take on it all, which doesn't put them in a pretty light either.

    In the meantime, a lot of people learn something about the Bible that they didn't know before, something they never would have learned just by seeing a silly card table stacked with porn mags. And a lot of them -- and this is the real purpose -- are going to start asking themselves if the really believe that Bible is true, or good. They will have no choice but to start thinking a little more deeply about what they believe, or claim to. Now, that I could get behind.

  11. @ Browning: Already been done, Mon Frere. Have you seen R. Crumb's version of Genesis? It's quite impressive. Might make a good addition to your library.

  12. @Browning It would be nice if a donation to Haiti came from the sale of a Bible. Beats spending it on McDonald's or something. Anyway, I don't think anybody is trying to improve upon this.

    As for the outrage, I agree that it is pointless. While there may not be anything horrifically wrong with it, it's just plain rude, obnoxious, and stupid. Do they have the right to be obnoxious, sure. Does it do anything positive for themselves, nope.

  13. Browning I suspect that your suggested method will not be taken up as a primary method. Why? To the college student it takes to much time and isn't as outrageous so it isn't as much fun.

    Besides it makes too much sense and I don't think this group is going for making sense. They would rather offend directly.

  14. @ David. Yeah, I had Crumb partly in mind when I wrote that. And I kind of want to get the book too. It's it's in my Amazon cart. But I have been hesitant because I live in a house with small children, and I'm not really eager to bring an ultra-violent x-rated comic book through the door.

    Also, I think it's important the the imagery in the ads campaign not be too x-rated. I haven't seen his book, but I'd be concerned that he didn't skimp on nasty. I think my idea is value-added. "I swear to God. It's in there." Tell me that's not worthy of Don Draper.

    @ Vic. It would be nice if every Bible sent to Haiti went in the form of cash instead.

    By the way, there is still time to get in on my fundraising campaign for Haiti. You too could make the atheist put his devilish talents to a good cause! Put him to work! Make him stop wasting his time on silly blog comments!

  15. @Browning Oops, I misread you originally but solar powered Bibles?! They could have sent solar powered something more useful in a disaster. Not to dis the power of people's faith in a disaster but something that purifies water might be more urgently needed. I think sending basic necessities or money for such would be much better. Also, excellent campaign you have going. :)