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The Blasphemy Challenge and the Media


This article originally appeared in the SSA eMpirical No. 18 - It's Spring, We Think.

Chris Hallquist Article by Chris Hallquist, President of Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics at UW-Madison

Late last year, the Rational Response Squad, an online atheist group headed up by Brian Sapient, launched a project called The Blasphemy Challenge: make a YouTube video of yourself denying the existence of the Holy Spirit, and you get a free copy of Brian Flemming's DVD The God Who Wasn't There. The premise of the challenge comes from an observation Flemming made in the video, that there are two spots in the New Testament where it indicates that most sins are forgivable, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit has committed an unforgivable sin.

If you haven't seen it already, here's the challenge:

There was some debate in the atheist community about whether it was a good idea; many said "heck yeah!" but others were convinced that the idea was too offensive and would just mean a lot of bad press for atheists. I had made a video myself and jumped in defending the challenge, though I noticed that there was a lot of talk about how this would shape perceptions of atheism with very little looking at the actual evidence on that point. So I browsed the media coverage, and created a sampling of several big media sources and a couple small ones, to give something of an idea of what actually happened.

Let's start with the good: The Nightline segment on the challenge went so well that even James Lazarus, a staunch critic of the challenge, agreed Sapient did well. My favorite part was when a minister who Nightline interviewed for a response made ominous noises about how "You're playing with fire…that's just dangerous. They may get themselves in eternal trouble." This came not long after Sapient explained that part of the point of the challenge was a way of saying that they aren't afraid of the threats religions have traditionally used to keep people in line. One of the reporters was fairly hostile in interviewing Brian and Kelly (another member of the RRS), but they had a good response to everything he said, a fact the voiceover actually commented on.

Skipping over the bad and going right to the ugly, we have the Fox News interview with Brian Flemming. Flemming let the guy get away with misrepresenting the challenge: the host hammered the fact that they were giving DVDs to participants, but ignored the fact that The God Who Wasn't There is the sort of thing that would only appeal to young people who've already decided to chuck religion on their own. Still, Flemming managed to get in a fair amount edgewise, especially arguing that teaching kids they'll go to hell if they don't believe certain things is harmful. Also, Fox News misrepresents their guests on a regular basis, so the fact that this happened to Flemming shouldn't surprise anyone. The question of whether this is the kind of thing we want to see happen really boils down to whether atheist activists want to bother reaching the Fox News demographic. In the end, I agree with Flemming: getting Fox to broadcast the idea that religious indoctrination is a bad thing is the kind of thing we want to see happen, even if Fox does its best to make atheists look like Big Bad Menâ„¢ in the process.

On discussion boards, there was some griping about the Newsweek coverage, because the article opened with some mindless endorsement of Pascal's Wager. However, the article broadcast the "you don't have to be afraid of God" angle loud and clear, and the closing line was the sort of thing most atheists only wish they could come up with: "God could not be reached for comment."

I admit that the article from the New York Times made me wince with its quote from one of the videos: "I know that the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ, God, the flying spaghetti monster, pink unicorns, all of these made-up entities do not exist." I think that most of the time, such comparisons should be restricted to entities that adults actually have believed in (and there isn't exactly a shortage of silly things in this category, as skepchick Rebecca Watson showed quite nicely in her contribution to the challenge). On the other hand, the quote is representative of what one can find on many atheist message boards, and in my experience the Flying Spaghetti Monster actually resonates to a surprising degree among college students. I'm not just talking about hard-core atheists; I'm talking about lapsed/nominal Catholics, agnostics dabbling in neopaganism, and pretty much anybody who thinks the latest in evangelical propaganda is actually rather silly. On top of that, the New York Times' religious counterpoint to the challenge came in the form of rapture nuts that seemed to think the challenge was literally demonic.

The coverage at WSLS.com gives a nice example of the generic negative reaction: it emphasizes how the challenge "targets youngsters" and how a lot of Christians are upset about the challenge, but doesn't give much in the way of details.

One pleasant discovery in my browsing of the media coverage was an op-ed in The Daily Reveille, the student paper for Louisiana State. It was an example of an atheist perspective on the challenge in a non-atheists-only outlet. It also gave some publicity to the way atheists can be marginalized in the US today.

That piece, however, was not my favorite bit of coverage of the challenge. That award goes to an article in something called The Conservative Voice titled "Your Children Have a Gun At Their Heads," which is basically what it sounds like. What I love is that it showcases a prime example of an Evangelical Christian seeing the logical implications of his beliefs. Indeed, if it's true that unbelievers go to hell, then every attempt to promote atheism is a threat to people's eternal souls, whether we're talking about the Internet Infidels or the Secular Student Alliance or copies of Why I Am Not a Christian and Ingersoll's Greatest Lectures sitting in public libraries. This conclusion, of course, will strike even many Christians as rather silly, so it's nice to see someone working it out and broadcasting it to the world.

In the end, I concede that, yes, most of the news coverage was negative to some degree, and, yes, in an ideal world we would have no Blasphemy Challenge and would instead have stations giving air time to documentaries produced by atheists and promoting atheism. However, we don't live in an ideal world, and the negative coverage was mostly along the lines of "OMG! Atheists! Bad!" It's not as if, as some people seemed to have feared, that newspapers went through, collected the 10 most gratuitously offensive videos of the hundreds that were posted, and made their articles all about those more extreme videos. The sort of coverage we did see-superficially negative, but raising awareness all the same-is what we have to use as a first step to greater acceptance of atheism. It might not be ideal, but it's better than nothing, and we have to take what we can get.

We should all be wishing more atheist projects are as successful as the Blasphemy Challenge.

This article originally appeared in the SSA eMpirical No. 18 - It's Spring, We Think.

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