The walkout on Dan Savage and “ignoring” vs. “interpreting” the Bible

So Dan Savage gave a talk at a high school journalism convention where he said “We can learn to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about gay people, the same way we have learned to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about shellfish, about slavery, about dinner, about farming, about menstration, about virginity, about masturbation… People are dying because people can’t clear this one last hurdle, they can’t get past this one last thing in the Bible, about homosexuality.”

Link here, having issues getting it to embed at the moment (in part because YouTube is displaying in Korean). Well duh, you’re all saying, but what makes this interesting is that a whole bunch of students walked out on Savage, and I would really love to have a chance to ask them what they were thinking.

At the end of the linked clip, Savage called the walkout “pansy-assed,” a comment he has since apologized for. In the same blog post, though, he refuses to apologize for saying there’s bullshit in the Bible:

I didn’t call anyone’s religion bullshit. I did say that there is bullshit—”untrue words or ideas“—in the Bible. That is being spun as an attack on Christianity. Which is bullshhh… which is untrue. I was not attacking the faith in which I was raised. I was attacking the argument that gay people must be discriminated against—and anti-bullying programs that address anti-gay bullying should be blocked (or exceptions should be made for bullying “motivated by faith”)—because it says right there in the Bible that being gay is wrong. Yet the same people who make that claim choose to ignore what the Bible has to say about a great deal else. I did not attack Christianity. I attacked hypocrisy. My remarks can only be read as an attack on all Christians if you believe that all Christians are hypocrites. Which I don’t believe.

The way he phrased that drew some criticism atheists. Here’s Dan Fincke:

 He rightly apologized for his use of the word “pansy-assed”. But, more annoyingly, he has tried to water down his condemnation of Christianity, making very unconvincing appeals which amount to implying that it would be wholly unreasonable to infer he would ever denounce the religion in which he was raised!

He has tried to delicately parse a tenuous distinction between calling parts of the Bible bullshit and calling Christianity, in turn, bullshit. He is squeamish on the word bullshit, half-apologizing for using it. I can understand the desire not to alienate people who would otherwise listen to arguments if the word bullshit were not included in them (though I still think it is valuable for reasons explained below). But implying that Christianity itself is not deserving of criticism itself, but only the bad parts of the Bible are, is cowardly weaseling from a man who surely knows better. It’s also a troubling acquiescence to advice he says he received which was along the lines that one simply cannot call anyone’s religion “bullshit” in today’s America.

I agree it’s silly to act as if it’s unthinkable that he would denounce the religion was raised in, since plenty of people do that. But I see nothing wrong with Savage saying he wasn’t attacking Christianity. Because he wasn’t. He was making a point that even Christians should be unable to deny, namely that even Christians routinely ignore many parts of the Bible. I obviously don’t think there’s anything wrong with attacking Christianity, but there’s also nothing wrong with saying, “Look, right now I don’t care if you’re a Christian, you still can’t deny there are parts of the Bible we all ignore, so why can’t we ignore these other parts too?” Sometimes, that will be the more effective strategy.

This brings me to the walkout. Debating Christianity itself encourages the argument to go off in a hundred different directions, but there isn’t a hell of a lot Christians can say in response what Savage actually said. So how the hell could these students possibly justify their walkout? Just about the only thing they could possibly say is that we shouldn’t “ignore” the Bible, we should instead “interpret” it differently, but I doubt these high school students really give a shit about debates between exegetes that nobody reads.  

On the other hand, Ophelia suspects the walkout was orchestrated, and I wonder if she’s right, especially given that (1) one girl walked out before Savage had said anything other than stating what other people say and (2) it seems like a large group of students got up and walked out all at once, like they said, “he said a naughty word, that’s our excuse to pretend to be offended.” Also, one of Ophelia’s commenters points out:

Orchestrated. Look at their faces: just smirking & giggling, they don’t look particularly angry or offended. I noticed at least one giggling girl looking slightly embarrassed as if she was doing it only because she’d been told to.

Other choice bits of commentary from Ed Brayton:

The problem is not that Dan Savage criticized the Bible’s disgusting statements about homosexuality; the problem is that we live in a country where it’s not only considered controversial to do so, but where it’s seen as a terrible character flaw to have brazenly “attacked” those vile ideas.

And Amanda Marcotte (via Joe. My. God.):

The American right is undertaking a huge project of trying to put right-wing politics beyond criticism by shouting “religious bigotry” any time someone gets in the way of their political agenda. If they can create a consensus that it’s somehow off-limits to criticize teaching that gay people are subhuman as long as you wrap it up in religion, that gives them a huge political advantage. Taken far enough, merely stating out loud in public that you don’t believe gay people are evil could be cause for the fainting couches to be pulled out and accusations that Christians are being oppressed. Sounds ludicrous? Well, consider that we’re currently debating whether or not it’s oppressing Christians to accurately state what’s in the Bible. Anyone who is actually supportive of gay rights shouldn’t be playing along with this feigned umbrage. It won’t stop until opposing anti-gay actions is considered completely off-bounds on the grounds that it’s an attack on religion.


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