The Blasphemy Challenge

Inspired by a post on Debunking Christianity, I’d like to chime in on the “Blasphemy Challenge” conceived of by an atheist group called the Rational Response Squad. This challenge encourages people to film themselves denying the existence of the Holy Spirit, the one unforgivable sin according to certain interpretations of the Bible, and post it to the internet.

The intent is to gain coverage for the atheist movement through tactics that cause shock and stir up controversy, one of the few reliable ways to attract attention from the media, which is obsessed with spectacle and sensationalism. I can get behind this. I agree completely that atheists simply speaking out in defense of our principles, no matter how eloquently or forcefully, is not likely to attract much notice. We need something more to grab people’s attention. And the Blasphemy Challenge is fairly harmless, as stunts go: it’s a fair portrayal of atheist ideas without unnecessarily impugning the intelligence or sincerity of religious believers. If it draws attention to our cause, that’s all to the good.

However, I’m concerned that the Blasphemy Challenge can make it seem that we are buying in to the mythology of Christianity. It makes sense that atheists who live in areas of the world where Christianity is the dominant religion would spend most of their time criticizing the beliefs and actions of Christians, just as atheists who live in other areas of the world would probably spend more time criticizing other religions that dominate there. On the other hand, atheists everywhere on Earth should make it clear that our objection is to all supernatural beliefs and ideologies, not just to whichever superstition is most popular in our country of origin. We disbelieve in them all alike, not in one more so than others.

If we American atheists define ourselves purely in opposition to Christianity, we give the appearance of being a purely reactionary movement obsessed with criticizing one particular religious belief set. That is not what we are; we offer a bona fide alternative to all forms of religious belief, a positive and desirable alternative path that people should be proud to follow. Getting media attention through stunts like this is well and good, but we should be taking pains to make that clear.

In this respect, we can take a valuable lesson from fringe groups such as Satanists, who say they reject supernatural belief and then inexplicably cloak themselves in the etymology and symbolism of Christian supernaturalism. If you are an atheist, then say you are an atheist. Don’t muddy the waters by defining yourself through superstition-derived labels that are only going to confuse people and give them a false impression of who you are and what you stand for.

For this reason, I think challenge-takers like the man named Joel cited on this page have the right idea. He does exactly the right thing: he states his disbelief not just in the Christian god, but in all supernatural entities conceived by humans, and makes it clear that he disbelieves in one for the same reason he disbelieves in all the others. That is the kind of message atheists should be sending, and it has all the good points of the standard Blasphemy Challenge without giving self-important Christians the idea that this is all about them.

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  • Will E.

    My problem with Joel’s statement is his rather ridiculous linking of “Sponge Bob, the pope, Santa Claus, Mother Mary, the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy, Optimus Prime, all the saints and Spiderman” with the god(s) that people actually worship. As an atheist, I think we shouldn’t belittle theists’ beliefs; there is nothing “supernatural” or “religious” about Sponge Bob or the tooth fairy, etc. (excepting, I supposed, the pope & Mary). People believe in god(s) for different reasons than they “believe” in fictional characters. Sponge Bob is not tied up with people’s ideas about morality, Spiderman says nothing about death, & I doubt Optimuus Prime (that sounds too dorky for me to even contemplate what it actually is) links to theists’ ideas of love.

    I used to like this line of reasoning, and see it used quite a bit (even Dawkins does it) but after reading Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer (I can’t recall if you’ve reviewed that book here) I’ve come to see why people believe in *some* supernatural entities, but not others, and that it’s fallacious to link said characters with god(s).

    I’ve argued this point about the Blasphemy Challenge on Dispatches from the Culture Wars, and think atheists shouldn’t even mention what they *don’t* believe, but what they *do* (and not that we believe it as such, but that we base our conclusions on available evidence), such as morality evolving from thousands of years of primate social interaction, or that the wonders of the universe, and of our very planet earth, are more profound and lovely than any “sacred” text.

    So while it’s good and right that Joel included Allah and Joseph Smith in his statement, I feel mentioning Spiderman, etc. does us atheists a disservice by revealing that we don’t understand what religion *is* or how it functions in theists’ lives.

  • Todd Sayre

    Yes, focusing on atheism as simply the denial of the Christian god through Bible-based agitprop is unproductive. And I don’t think this helps correct the pervasive monotheistic bias in virtually all definitions of atheism (and agnosticism for that matter). Additionally, I think that sort of monotheistic bias is not just misleading but flat out wrong.

    But it’s nice to do things just to see them squirm sometimes.

  • ellen

    The point of the Blasphemy Challenge, as Brian Flemming has pointed out on his blog, was to give atheists a platform from which to speak our piece and get the atheist message to a larger audience. A platform, I may add, which atheists will not have under any positive circumstances ordinarily. So I give high marks to the RRS for their stunt, even though I agree that it is childish, stupid, etc. etc. etc. It worked, and that is really the most important thing in the here and now.

    Granted websites like this one are getting the message out to more and more people and doing an excellent job. It was one of the resources I used myself. But it is a slow process when most people are not even really aware that it is possible to question their beliefs, or that there is another way of looking at the world.

    It took me many many years to wake up. I wasn’t even a Christian. I have a college degree in liberal arts. And I was a member of Mensa. So how do the conservative atheists suppose the ordinary Christian will get this message if not through some shocking tactic such as the Blasphemy Challenge?

  • Gaia sighs…

    “I agree completely that atheists simply speaking out in defense of our principles, no matter how eloquently or forcefully, is likely to attract much notice.”

    Eh? Don’t you mean “…is not likely…”?

  • chronomitch

    I have conflicting opinions on the Blasphemy Challenge. On a personal level, I see no reason for it, as I don’t need to officially deny anything or prove to anyone that I’m an atheist. On a social level, though, I can see how it’s being used to challenge what younger people have been taught by their parents and churches. The fact that these denials are being posted on youtube shows that they are targeting this younger audience. While this is a nice start, if the people behind the Blasphemy Challenge really want to help young, indoctrinated people, they are going to have to do much more than just show people who don’t believe in any god(s).

    The path to atheism has traditionally been on an individual level. Sure, there are exceptions, but usually a person who turns to atheism reaches his/her own conclusions and has no atheist mentor or support group. In order to really help young, indoctrinated people, the atheist community needs to be there to discuss and answer the hard questions about living life without belief in god/karma/fate. Making the transition from religion to atheism can be really difficult and even frightening, especially if everyone around you believes in a god. I know it was for me. Once I realized the truth, I had a great deal of trouble breaking free from something I had become so dependent on. There was no one there to help me through the transition. The people I was closest to either were either apathetic or were deeply religious (so no help there). If there were atheist support groups available (on the internet or in my area) at least I could have asked some questions here and there and had some support.

    I believe that this frightful and difficult transition period is perhaps the biggest obstacle keeping people from becoming atheists. Most people would rather go on believing a lie even having realized the truth due to convenience. The atheist community needs to be there for people who question their beliefs to help them realize that living life without beliefs is not only possible, but better for themselves and the world in the long run.

  • James Bradbury


    The atheist community needs to be there for people who question their beliefs to help them realize that living life without beliefs is not only possible, but better for themselves and the world in the long run.

    Good point. I think we have a responsibility to be supportive and compassionate to those struggling to let go of irrational beliefs that are socially convenient/acceptable. There are a lot of people (I fear maybe even the majority), who act like sheep and will just follow those around them, really disliking the idea of a philosophical debate. Perhaps the “Flock/Shepard” analogy in Chritianity is very appropriate!

    They will probably take the path of least resistence just to fit in and get on with their lives with the minimum of thought. But for all the floating voters who are a little more open-minded, but still fearful, we should make efforts to lessen the resistence along the path to atheism.

  • Glo

    I would participate except. …

    My worst fear is that in spite of reason the likes of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and others of the dominionist persuasion will, indeed, get control of the government, then come for me with all the zeal of the Grand Inquisitor, and we know how that ends.

    So, I’ll not participate. What I will do is deny christians jobs and my patronage at their businesses.

  • James Bradbury

    Deny them jobs!? Not fair to discriminate on the grounds of belief – you wouldn’t like it done to you!

  • Terry

    We have an organisation in New Zealand called the “‘Sea of Faith’which welcomes people who are willing to explore religion and *spirituality without fear of being criticised or rejected. All contributions are accepted, radical views and contemporary concerns (eg climate change) are debated, traditional doctrines and practices are questioned in order to renew or reject them. The Sea of Faith is available to people of all beliefs or of no belief who are searching for and wanting to practice a new kind of open-minded, open hearted faith. *Spirituality can be defined as “a sensitivity to the things of the human spirit such as caring for others, a passion for justice, an appreciation of beauty and a concern for truth.” (Lloyd Geering) Sea of Faith Hawkes Bay and also in the UK

    This organisation has helped me no end. Meetings are held every month. During July we will be discussing the recent books by Sam Harris Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. A notice is up at each meeting ‘This is a safe place to say unsafe things’

    At a recent conference there were 175 members present.

  • Jeff T.

    As an ex-christian evangelical, I am fairly certain that the blasphemy challenge is just going to convince evangelical christians that atheists are in league with satan.
    This tactic does not make sense to me. A better tactic in my opinion is to live the most moral and decent life you can and denounce religion for the cancer that it is.

    On a different topic and comment, I disagree that comparing god to spiderman is wrong. Both are fiction, regardless of worship. There is nothing more supernatural or divine about a made up god than there is with a made up spiderman. Showing respect to falsehood and deceipt enpowers that falsehood and deceipt, imho.

  • SteveC

    Well, the Blasphemy Challenge may be nominally oriented against Christianity, but I’ve seen plenty of Blasphemy Challenge videos which deny the existence of Zeus, Allah, Thor, the Invisible dragon in your garage, etc. But, when Nick Gisburne spoke up against Islam specifically, making a video composed only of quotes from the Koran (sp? who the hell knows), look what happened…

    Two things happened. 1. He got banned from youtube. 2. A flood of atheists reposted his videos to such an extent that when you search youtube for “atheism” what you git is mostly Nick Gisburne videos.

    The blasphemy challenge has more than accomplished its goals, in terms of publicity.

  • anti-nonsense

    I think the Blasphemy challenge is basically just the Rational Response squad trying to get the spotlight on atheism for a change. I think many people who are Christian in North America assume that everybody around them is also Christian, atheists tend not to be noticed.

    Of course, that’s because many atheists feel shy about speaking out, so I think it’s also meant to encourage atheists to speak out and let people know that we aren’t a tiny little group that can be safely ignored by the politicians.

    Whether it will work is another story although. I think a better idea would have been to challenge people to make a video proclaiming their atheism, rather then just their lack of belief in a particular Christian doctrine.

  • Ebonmuse

    Eh? Don’t you mean “…is not likely…”?

    Yes. Fixed now.

  • Charles Schisler

    Getting down to basics, so often completely ignored, I offer this analysis.
    To the question, how did everything, the Universe (the Totality of all existence)come about? – there are three possibilities proposed. One answer is that the Universe created itself by a process not yet understood. Another is religious – created by a deity. A third answer is that the Universe is eternal, without beginning.
    Creationists argue how unlikely living things could have occurred just by chance. But, extraordinary as may be the emergence of life, how much more impossible is it that such an entity as God could have happened just by chance? To explain the vast Universe by injecting the additional complexity of an ultimate creator only adds to the problem , and explains nothing, except (for consistency) need for another even more complex Deception, ad infinitum. If either a god or the Universe must be eternally uncaused – the choice, obviously, is the one already known to exist!
    For something to come into being from nothing, is absurd enough. But how much nothing would be required, to create from it, all that exists in an infinite Universe? It should also be obvious that an entity cannot cause itself to exist, because to argue self-creation is to claim that before an entity exists, or before it may ever exist, it already has the ability to execute an act. The first answer must be summarily rejected.
    Nor could the Universe be caused by another entity. WHATEVER it is that exists, must be a part of the Totality. Yet fools magically insert a god into the Totality and then claim that it created everything. A mere part of an entity could create its entire Whole? NONSENSE! To fully understand and base an argument on the knowledge that the whole cannot cause itself, but then flagrantly argue (as the religious do) that an invented part of the whole could create the Greater Whole’s existence, is not innocent. It is an ancient scam intended to victimize the innocent and subvert reason.
    This understanding that wipes out god belief is – the Totality could not be created by an entity external to it, by itself, or by a mere part of itself! The infinite Universe is thus eternal, without a beginning.
    Do not think this is oversimplification. Every claim, every appeal for God hinges on the assumed necessity of an ultimate creator. When creationism is understood as having met abysmal failure, gods disappear without meaning! Critics invariably assume god without first questioning if ultimste creation is even possible! After establishing it is not, continued god-talk is vain and endlissly boring to perceptive minds!
    Charles Schisler

  • Becky

    I am new to much of what I have read here. I just learned about The Blasphemy Challenge a couple of weeks ago. I must say there was something about it that bothered me. When I left christianity I never felt I needed to prove anything to anyone. It should stand to reason if one is an athiest or deist they do not believe in the bible or the trinity. It is one thing to stand up for your right to believe or not, but this tactic seemed rather childish and cheap to me. It made me think of kids who start little clubs and always have that one thing everyone is required to do before they can join. Why should there be any challenge at all to prove you don’t believe in the bible gods? If I had seen those videos before I came out of the church, they would not have enticed me to seek atheism or learn anything about it. It was just something I consider very bad taste.

    I agree 100% with Jeff T. The way we live should be on a higher plane to show the world there is a better way without religious baggage. Let the christians be the obnoxious ones and not us. The world is watching and actions do speak louder than words.

    Also, I never saw one word encouraging those young people to study and make sure they knew what they were doing before they made their confessions. What if some of them got caught up in the moment or gave in to peer pressure? If that is the case, many of them may come to regret such a silly challenge. They may never lead a true free life if they later have doubts. We criticize christians for pressuring children to ‘get saved’ and here are atheist doing the same thing in the opposite direction. One is as bad as the other. A challenge is a dare and a dare always insinuates someone is afraid to do a certain thing and needs to prove they are not. It is just strange that the religious community didn’t come up with this challenge, the atheist did. I don’t like it.