Follow up on Dan Savage's Attack on the Bible That Inspired Walkouts

Follow up on Dan Savage's Attack on the Bible That Inspired Walkouts April 29, 2012

Yesterday’s post of a Dan Savage video has been unusually popular and continues to get hits so let me add a couple follow up links on matters of interest related to it, for all those trafficking through on the video’s account:

For one, there is a controversy which lies in the background of the video, one about whether or not it is fair to consider Christian students who object to the morality of homosexuality in school to be engaged in intolerable bullying simply by voicing such views. I recommend a dialogue I wrote on this topic last fall called Bulling or Debating? Religious Privilege or Freedom of Speech which attempted to give an evenhanded consideration of the complexities of that issue. For a particularly strong case for the position that religious students should be curbed in their right to condemn homosexuality in public school settings, even when they are only speaking in the abstract, see James Croft’s remarks in the comments sections of that post.

Secondly, Dan Savage has, subsequent to this video going viral, posted follow up clarifications and retractions. 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.

Such demands make it clear to me that it is absolutely incumbent on those of us who think religions are bullshit to start saying so more frequently and to fight to stop this trend of insidious undue deference to baseless believing. It is the result of decades’ worth of concentrated effort by the Religious Right to make politics bow the knee to fundamentalist religion, combined with the Left’s confused understanding of the value and limits of multiculturalism. Of course no one deserves to be made into a second class citizen on account of their beliefs. But American freedom of speech has to not only politically but morally and intellectually guarantee that all beliefs are open to rational scrutiny by public figures and intellectuals without fear of career reprisals.

Religions do not deserve the support of the rules of politeness when it comes to their truth and falsity. The public sphere should not revere indiscriminately everything that tries to halo itself with the name of religion. The secular public sphere should feel no such shyness about sacrilege, blasphemy and treating religion rudely less it implicitly be in the political thrall of the religious sphere. To so refrain from unabashed, scrupulously rational, public criticism of religion is to favor and support it implicitly. This is intolerable. Forcing atheists to honor the excessive reverences of religious feelings is coercing atheists to treat as sacrosanct that which their own consciences do not judge to be genuinely sacrosanct. This goes beyond normal social politeness and deference to other cultures’ traditions to the point of atheists having to de facto accept religious restrictions in their own right, on account of their being religious. That’s intolerable to my atheistic conscience and should be to other atheists’ consciences as well, as it cuts to our very right to live thoroughly independent of deference to all religious authorities which we don’t believe in.

Finally, Savage’s distinction that he was not attacking Christianity when attacking the Bible on account that he knows there are some good Christians whom he very much appreciates, seems to confuse attacking Christianity with attacking all Christians whatsoever. Christianity can still be directly attacked even if there exist some more (thankfully) progressive strands and virtuous individual Christians just as much as America or Americans as a group can be justly criticized for our government’s behavior or our fellow citizens’ regular, overall patterns of behavior—even if some of us individual Americans disassociate ourselves from our corporate behavior and personality. That’s how groups and group membership works. It sucks, but it’s part of the reason group members have a vested interest in not letting the collective they contribute to be a rotten one.

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