The Blasphemy Challenge has come under fire from many religious people who see it as both offensive and (ironically enough) an improper form of blasphemy; however, the challenge is still going strong.
Brian took the time to answer a few of my questions:
Hemant Mehta: What is the goal of the Blasphemy Challenge? Can the goal ever be reached?
Brian Sapient: The original and primary goal of the Blasphemy Challenge was to provoke a conversation about religion and in this case, specifically, Christianity. As far as we’re concerned the goal has been met already. We’ve gotten some major press including three NBC local news stories, articles in Newsweek, Christian Science Monitor, along with countless blogs and smaller publications. We’ve also been featured on John Gibson, Alan Colmes, Laura Ingraham, several other smaller radio outlets, and we’ll be on Mancow on the 16th. We had also hoped that atheists would use this as an opportunity to “come out of the closet.” Today the homosexual community is treated better than they ever have before and most people credit their acceptance in society with their coming out of the closet. Merely speaking up and showing others that you look normal, seem like a nice person, and have reasonable reasons for feeling the way you do can go a long way.
HM: What would you like the reactions to be from Christians who hear about this project?
BS: In an ideal world they would begin to question why it is that they believe the things they do. Admittedly, many who are brainwashed by religion will try to defend their beliefs in the face of something like this. Christians perceive their beliefs to be of some value in their lives. They often think their very survival depends on their beliefs and then when we point out how it is damaging to them (or that we don’t need it), it is shocking. When these defense mechanisms go up they tend to have something to say or questions to ask. I think it’s important that a voice be there to respond and to keep encouraging the Christian (and all theists for that matter) to think.
HM: Are you only getting responses from atheists? Are young Christians bringing themselves to deny the Holy Spirit?
BS: We never expected to get Christians to respond; however, there have been quite a few people that have mentioned they gave up Christianity within weeks prior to recording their video. This response seems to be one from a girl who gave up Christianity as a result of the Blasphemy Challenge.
There were Christians that used mental jumps and rationalizations to explain away why we’re not actually blaspheming (there have been plenty of prayers offered for us as well). We did make a response video for the denial deniers here. Keep in mind, as I said before, we want to provoke conversation, so any rebuttal from any Christian can help open a dialogue.
HM: Is it helpful or harmful to deny a Christian idea of God (the Holy Spirit) rather than religion altogether?
BS: I believe any denial of any superstition done in public is helpful whether it be Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, paranormal claims, or homeopathy. The idea of this campaign was to focus on one Bible verse and the largest superstition in America. We live in a culture of 15-second sound bites and I’m not sure if we would’ve had this many entries had the rules been long and drawn out. With that said, we did tell people to put their personal flair on their videos and a great many people have taken the time to speak about all sorts of other gods and superstitions they don’t accept as true. We’ve simply given them a reason and a platform to do so.
HM: The Blasphemy Challenge is a short-term project. What should young atheists be doing in the long term to gain more respect and visibility?
BS: The Blasphemy Challenge is actually a long term project. During 2007 we will be creating a campaign for people who want to speak out against superstitious nonsense that will incorporate several different activities. The first idea to come to fruition is the Blasphemy Challenge. We may even offer prizes again in the future after we’ve given out the 1,001 DVDs. It is our hope that people will want to speak up, and not need a reward to do so. The Blasphemy Challenge will end when Christianity ends. Young atheists should speak up, they should converse with their friends about why they believe what they believe, and they should do so in as polite a manner as possible. If they don’t feel comfortable talking to their friends about it, they should go online where they can engage anonymously with someone else’s friends. I think the most important thing we can do to help rid the planet of this ridiculous nonsense is to keep speaking up about it. A recent blogger wrote about RRS, “I am a firm believer in John Stuart Mill’s philosophy of total inclusion when it comes to what we admit into popular discussion and the more points of view on such an important topic the better. With this approach the meritless ideas will, over time, shrivel and fade, and truth will reveal itself against the dull backcloth of falsehoods.”
HM: Which videos have been your favorites? Are there any types of videos you would prefer people *not* submit?
BS: I prefer that people stay away from hate and anything illegal, when possible I think the best approach someone can take is making a video that the viewer can’t help but to laugh at. It’s hard to hate atheists when they make you laugh.
This is my favorite.
That video really means an awful lot to me.
Rational Response Squad Oklahoma leader, Mark, goes to Church.
When possible we’ve tried to add the best videos to the beginning of the play list. The first 70 on this list have all been in the top 10 at one point.
HM: Brian Flemming was supposed to release The Beast movie on June 6th (6/6/06). I think it got renamed to Danielle but where is it as far as production and release date? (From TXatheist)
BS: It’s still in pre-production. Brian has high hopes for this film, and so he wants to put himself in a situation with a great lead actress, a great budget, and a great studio that can put out a movie suitable for your local major movie theater. This of course is every filmmakers dream, and so it’s not an easy or quick task. When he missed the 6-06-06 cutoff for the Beast, he realized how big he wanted to make this and he’s being patient as he tries to get the pieces to fit just as he wants them.
HM: What’s the most positive response you’ve gotten from a believer? I’d like to know where the positives are on this… not in number of respondents, not of amount of press-coverage. Not on the number of people who were already atheists. (From Siamang)
BS: Have you ever heard how the FCC considers one phone complaint akin to if ten people had called in? They have this theory because people are generally lazy and don’t call to vocalize complaints. I have a similar theory when it comes to making points that confront religion. I don’t think some of the most positive responses to the Blasphemy Challenge can even be known because they remain in the mind of the theist. I think it’s much easier to call the FCC than admit you’ve been misled all your life by the people you’ve trusted most. To this end we’ve had about 10 people vocally admit that the Rational Response Squad’s efforts have steered them off of religion, and I think this number represents more like several hundred people that have been turned off by religion as a result of what we’ve done. The Blasphemy Challenge has gained us attention and now we have an influx of theist posters on our message board, I don’t know how many were talking about religion elsewhere, maybe half of these people we’re not investigating (or defending as the case may be) their views. Getting people to speak about their beliefs and reading why it is that others see flaws in this thinking is a big benefit and goes to the heart of what we were trying to achieve.
HM: I would like to know whether Sapient or others in the Rational Response Squad have received credible threats of harm as a result of any of their public statements or activities. (From MTran)
BS: About 5 years ago before I started RRS I had a Christian backed up in a debate to the point where he was either forced to admit he was delusional or that his God didn’t exist. He resorted to telling me that I had won, that his God didn’t exist, and because of this he had no reason to be good, so he was coming to kill me. Funny how Christians can believe in imaginary Gods, yet have a hard time grasping something very real like law enforcement. This man somehow found out quite a bit of information on me and began calling my home, threatening my life, and telling me the name of my son, his teacher, his school, and that he would be picking him up tomorrow so I better watch my back. I called the feds, and the man didn’t bother me again. I was not updated by the feds, and don’t know what happened. To this day I have never got a threat as real as that one. We constantly get emails like “I hope you die” or “if you ever speak up again, I’m going to kill you.” These emails have almost no weight behind them, and while they are designed to make us cease and desist, instead we use them as fuel for the fire. These threats seem to be a part of the defense mechanisms mentioned earlier that theists use to protect what they believe and what they perceive to be valuable in their lives as we point out how it is damaging. We use these threats to help remember why it is we do what we do. Its threats like this that give us more reason to speak up, not reason to stand down. We’ve probably gotten about 100 death threats since starting the RRS.
HM: Your name is a pseudonym. Why is that? Why do you continue to use it while asking others to publicly declare their “blasphemy”?
BS: When I first decided to research my religious beliefs online about nine years ago, one of the first things I did was search for people who thought differently than myself. I stumbled upon the atheistnetwork.com message boards. My beliefs at the time could be considered deist, and as a theist I didn’t feel threatened by using my real last name, I was ignorant to the threats that using your real last name online could pose. I spent several years researching and learning, and the more time I spent the more I started to realize that theistic belief is the most dangerous lie that has ever graced the face of our planet. I was debating with regularity, posting on many Christian sites, as well as at atheistnetwork.com, no less than 3,000 posts per year, and never abandoned the usage of my real last name. It was after that very real death threat that I realized I should remain anonymous. My son should have nothing to do with my thoughts, and should never have to worry about having his life threatened because of what I do. I can handle death threats made on me, but death threats against my son, I absolutely must protect him from, it’s completely unfair to him to have to deal with that.
During this time period I had accepted a volunteer role in the management and upkeep of Atheist Network, and I looked to one of the other managers of the site for help determining what moniker I should use. It was this close friend who came up with the name Sapient. And since that point, I’ve used it for all my online activity. I’ve always been proud of the fact that I didn’t choose that name for myself, as it seems cocky to refer to oneself as wise or sagacious. I probably come off as both cocky and someone who enjoys the spotlight, however I feel like I’m neither. I hate the spotlight, I dread it, I don’t like being put under a microscope, but I feel as if there aren’t enough people speaking out. I feel as if I have to do it, someone has to do it, and I try to fill that void. I’d love for others to fill my shoes, do this better than I, and to some degree there are many people who do… but not enough.
One question that you didn’t ask but others often do is “Shouldn’t we just respect other peoples beliefs?” I bring this question up because it falls in line with that “have to speak up” mindset that I have. I (and probably most of you) grew up in a society where we were taught to respect other peoples beliefs, however I think this notion has been promulgated by theists who often times don’t actually respect other peoples beliefs. But for a moment I’ll assume theists respect the beliefs of atheists, and address the question differently. I am very humanistic in the sense that I care for humanity greatly and want the best for it. I feel that through what I’ve learned, the religious mindset is extremely dangerous to society and to oneself. Extreme examples include the 9-11 hijackers who killed themselves for a heavenly reward, or the man who murdered an abortion clinic doctor for Jesus, or currently the subversion of stem cell research when many of the people who are against it could cure themselves of illnesses they will have later in life should they abandon their mission to subvert this research. These are threats that are actually very dangerous to the individual people who believe these outlandish claims without proof. I think that in order to properly respect people who hold religious belief, you must, you are forced to disrespect the religious belief itself. If you were addicted to heroin or cocaine, and you told me it was good for you and I utilized this “respect other peoples beliefs” notion, I wouldn’t be able to tell you that you were wrong. However if I care about you and respect you, I am forced to tell you that your beliefs are ridiculous and run contrary to evidence. I think it’s time for people to disrespect religious belief and do so fervently. Do I think people need to use their real name in order to be a voice against superstitious nonsense? No. In fact I think quite the opposite, keep your real name private. Religious people are dangerous, you’re trying to help them so they are less a danger to society and themselves, you’re not trying to get yourself killed.
HM: Do you ever have second thoughts as to whether or not openly defiant acts such as the Blasphemy Challenge or the Bible Recycling Program are perhaps in poor taste? (From AustinAtheist)
BS: Of course, doubt is good, it’s healthy. It’s because I doubt, re-analyze, and second guess myself that I am able to admit when I’m wrong. You should know that we’re very open to constructive criticism; on the other hand deconstructive criticism is a pet peeve. With that said, I don’t see much at the present time that we are doing that I regret or would want to do much differently had I had a second chance. And for the record, I think theistic belief itself is in poor taste, it’s an insult to human intellect.
Brian added these kind (and humbling) parting words:
Thanks Hemant for everything you’ve done to help further awareness of who atheists are. I very much respect what you’ve managed to accomplish in the last few years, I wish you success with your book, and look forward to having you on my show. Thanks also to your friends for asking some good questions, I appreciate the opportunity to be heard. If anyone reading this is interested in engaging in the sort of blunt discourse that RRS engages in, please join us at www.rationalresponders.com.