Brian Flemming Explains the Rationale of the Blasphemy Challenge

Chris Hallquist and Brian Flemming both weigh in on the recent debate about the Blasphemy Challenge. I've already commented on it here, and here.

As the creator of the Blasphemy Challenge, I really liked what Flemming wrote. He said: "...negative press is part of the goal of the project. Seeking positive press is a fool's errand for any atheist. I have no desire to rub up to the mainstream media and beg them to present atheists as slightly less evil, and to call that a public-relations victory." He went on to say, "But the Blasphemy Challenge was a publicity stunt conceived in the real, rough-and-tumble, knife-fight media world that we actually live in, and, critically, it was designed to actually make a difference in our culture -- to shake people up and force them to encounter a new idea. The goal was not to have the press proclaim what nice, decent, upstanding, middle-of-the-road people the founders of the Blasphemy Challenge are. The goal was to manipulate the press into discussing religion as harmful superstition. And it worked."

Flemming concludes by saying, "One goal of radicalism is to move the middle -- and the more press the Rational Response Squad and Blasphemy Challenge get, the more the "nice guy" atheists become the middle of the discussion instead of the scary extreme. In terms of overall media manipulation, that's a good thing. But I sure hope the nice guys don't spend too much oxygen condemning us radicals who have the audacity to call superstition by its name. Because that would be a waste of the new platform the nice guys are being given."

I agree. I suspect people like Lazarus and Brayton simply don't understand the media and the value of radicalism, that's all. I just think they should become better informed about these sorts of things before they go off denouncing something they don't understand.

18 comments:

jdlongmire said...

ah, yes - radicalizing to extremes has always been a very productive way to coerce civilized conversation...look how well that has worked in the middle east...

oy.

John W. Loftus said...

jdlongnire, this is not analogous. The RSS is doing nothing morally or illegally wrong. The people at You Tube are merely expressing their opinions in a free society. They are not murderous terrorists, and they are not against free speech. If they were I would condemn the RSS, but they aren't.

John W. Loftus said...

Here is a response I wrote to Lazurus:

You say there are better ways to create an atheistic awareness. Better in what sense? I'm doing my part, and you are doing your part, agreed?

We merely disagree over the Blasphemy challenge. I say don't discourage them. I say the challenge is changing the lives of those who take it. I say it is generating enthusiasm among those who take it. So it's good for them. It's called venting. And people need to vent. It also has gotten national attention, and I say that also is a plus. Here's why: It gets people talking about the issues. It gets adult people to talk about the issues. It makes people wonder why they would do that, and as they do they might pick up a book like mine and read it. [Actually I think they have helped created a climate ripe for my book, but that's not important here to you].

You say it gives atheists a bad name. Which ones? Me? Why should I think so? I am my own person and I am responsible for myself. You might as well say that the many Christians responding to them in vulgur ways, along with the gay and black bashing going on by Christians in our country are giving Christians a bad name too. But why does that follow? If you do chance upon my blog from time to time I personally have never wrote a blog entry calling attention to the failings of any Christian, be he a molestor, a tax evader, or a murderer. The reason why is that I don't believe these people represent the majority. So I believe that educated people like you and I know differently, and yet you display an ignorance about this when you say the RSS is giving atheists a bad name.

You say we need a reasoned atheist response and I never disagreed with you. That's what I do, and I think that's what you do. But not all people are reasonable like you and I (your last lengthy comment is an exception), and they have every right to express their opinions wherever they want to do so.

So the RSS is giving them a chance to so so, and they are not all stupid responses, either.

There are plenty of examples in the Bible where the prophets did some strange things to get people's attention, like walking naked through the streets, or cutting off all their hair, too. So what? Just because you wouldn't do that doesn't mean that the prophets didn't create an awareness about injustice for doing so.

So I say let them. Don't discourage them. But in the process you(?) and I are there to help educate both them, and others who may now be searching for sites like ours because of this very challenge who might learn from more educated atheists about the arguments that have persuaded those college kids (and adults) who take the Blasphemy challenge.

Shygetz said...

I think that, even (especially?) in the context of your "move the middle" strategy, it is important that the nice-guy atheists lightly condemn the Blasphemy Challenge. If they do not, they will not be seen as the reasonable middle, but rather as a silent part of the extreme atheist brigade. The platform that the nice-guy atheists have been given as a result of the Challenge is due primarily to the challenge itself, so of course they must comment on the Challenge. I think that, in order to best use the opportunity that you are trying to provide, they should say something along the lines of "Well, that's certainly not how I would do it..." and then proceed to explain what atheism means to them.

John W. Loftus said...

Agreed, shygetz. That's certainly not how I would do it, simply because I am not an extremist. I cannot make the claims they make. I must use reasonable arguments that reach reasonable people. That's what I do.

Hellbound Alleee said...

I hope that no one makes the mistaken assumption that these (mostly) young people are making some sort of cheeky political move. I don't agree with making it into a political move, either, because politics are necessarily dishonest. It's, well, gross.

Many of these individuals making the statement are asserting something so much more important than joining some "movement" called capital A "atheism." It's almost opposite: they are claiming moral independance for themselves. They are pointing an accusing finger, yes, at the systems that claim to own them, but it's much more important that they are saying to themselves "I am now responsible for my life, not a god," and probably not anyone else.

To take this away from these individuals and suck them into a "movement" that can take credit for their courage and use them to attain power is pretty hypocritical. If they want to lose their identities in a Group, that's their choice. But just because that's the way the Others sees it is not a justification for it. They cut themselves off from imaginary entities. Why would anyone want to suck them into another imaginary entity called "Atheism," except to get political power? I see it as dueling ghosts against ghosts: the State, the Church, Jesus, and The Interest Group. (Also "radicals," "centrists," and "extremists.") What about People?

The Blasphemy Challenge, as I see it, is definintely an important thing, and I think it's benefit is already attained by those who asserted it. No need to rub our hands together in contemplation of how to use it. Our own benefit is already there.

Sacred Slut said...

The Blasphemy Challenge has served a useful purpose, which is to get publicity for the atheist movement. It doesn't really matter if we don't agree with the tactics. Negative publicity is not always bad. In fact, PR people will tell you there's no such thing as "bad" publicity.

Frankly, I think that the stakes are too high to always play nicely. People are going to get offended when we disagree with their religion, no matter how polite we are. And I'm starting to wonder if we really, as a species, have time to dick around much longer. Religion has a great potential to destroy us all.

Meanwhile, the RRS is allying with the American Humanist society to issue a new challenge - making a video that focuses on the POSITIVE aspects of humanism.

Lory Jean-Baptiste said...

1. Respect

If you're not a Christian fine but what is the point in mocking Christianity if you don't believe in it? Why invest so much energy in something you don't believe in? I'm a Christian but I don't go around insulting the Hindu god Ganesh on YouTube. Respecting people, their cultures, their beliefs is just common decency.

2. Arrogance

I don't believe in Native American mysticism but if someone told me not to build my home on that piece of land because it was an ancient Native American burial ground and anyone who did so would be cursed, then I would look for another plot of land. Why? Because I'm not so arrogant that I believe I know everything.

So, you're so 100% sure--not a spec of doubt in your mind--that you're willing damn your immortal soul to an ETERNITY in hell. Wow, that shows you are really certian about a negative--there is no hell. Wow, I thought there was no way to be certain of a negative. There is a word for people like that--ARROGANT.

I think these people are only making themselves appear hateful and closed minded.

es said...

Christians have been anything but respectful of others' beliefs throughout history. It's largely due to their willingness to kill their enemies that Christianity is the dominant philosophy in the Western world today.

I'm willing to have respect for others' beliefs, as long as they don't infringe on my liberties and security. I can't say that is true of much of Christianity. You personally may be a moderate Christian but there are many out there who think it would be a fine idea to bring on the Apocolypse.

I don't have any problem with being labeled arrogant. I'm not into that Christian humility bs.

Benny said...

I found Flemming's rationalization for the challenge interesting to read, but ultimately unconvincing. Sure, controversy is attention-grabbing. So is sex. Should we start putting out large ads for atheism prominently featuring scantily-clad babes? I would hope not.

The challenge reminds me of the anti-abortion protesters I used to see outside my highschool, chanting and parading on public sidewalks with large pictures of dead fetuses. They too were just exercising their 1st amendment rights, doing nothing illegal or immoral. Did they raise awareness of the abortion issue? Sure, but their conduct made it seem that anti-abortionists were all unreasonable fanatics. I think they ultimately did more harm than good for their cause.

Many (all?) of the condemnable things done in the name of religion were done by radicalists. Is radical atheism the best way to fight radical theism? Methinks fighting fire with fire just makes for more fire all around.

dolio said...

"If you're not a Christian fine but what is the point in mocking Christianity if you don't believe in it? Why invest so much energy in something you don't believe in? I'm a Christian but I don't go around insulting the Hindu god Ganesh on YouTube. Respecting people, their cultures, their beliefs is just common decency."

The answer to this is simple: you are in the majority. In this society, Christianity is forced down one's throat in a way that Hinduism is not. There are no significant groups campaigning to have Hinduism taught in science class, or to have plaques of sayings from the Vedas prominently displayed in court houses. Perhaps if there were a majority trying to get government sanctioned support of Hinduism in various areas, you might be more eager to speak out on the subject.

Respecting people (in general) is a given. Respecting their beliefs is not. We do not grant political beliefs unquestioning respect; we feel free to discuss them, and call a spade a spade. Why should religious beliefs be any different? You respect beliefs in Hindu gods, and expect respect for your beliefs in turn (I suspect) because they are indefensible. It's like a patent standoff between Microsoft and IBM. Everyone has some patents that are violated, but they won't pursue it, because they don't want their own violations pursued.

Meanwhile, atheists (the free-thinking variety, at least) try to avoid holding to such beliefs without any support, and think they have valid arguments against those who do. They upset the stalemate. That may not make you happy, but that doesn't make them wrong. Your beliefs may well be silly, and setting public policy based on them would be a bad idea, so it's important for them to be challenged, and perhaps even ridiculed if that is what's necessary.

"I don't believe in Native American mysticism but if someone told me not to build my home on that piece of land because it was an ancient Native American burial ground and anyone who did so would be cursed, then I would look for another plot of land. Why? Because I'm not so arrogant that I believe I know everything."

And most of us will probably laugh, because believing in cursed Native American burial grounds is about as silly to us as belief in Zeus, or an omnimax deity who cares about your sex life. That's not arrogance, that's just being well grounded in reality and critical thinking.

"So, you're so 100% sure--not a spec of doubt in your mind--that you're willing damn your immortal soul to an ETERNITY in hell. Wow, that shows you are really certain about a negative--there is no hell. Wow, I thought there was no way to be certain of a negative. There is a word for people like that--ARROGANT."

And you are so certain that Islam is wrong that you are willing to condemn yourself to an eternity of suffering by believing in the divinity of Jesus (I assume)? Maybe the real god likes to burn people who eat chicken, or vegetables, and simply no one on Earth has properly communicated this fact. Pascal's wager is a bad argument, and threats of eternal torture for simply coming to a reasonable conclusion, and acting on it are either juvenile or barbaric.

And that's essentially what this is. These kids (or people in general) have come to the perfectly defensible conclusion that Christianity is a bunch of hooey, and after one does that, blasphemy is no bigger a deal than eating a hamburger is to a non-Hindu like yourself (unless you're in PETA or something). On the other hand, it's an easy way to grab attention, and let people know that there exist plenty of people who don't buy into the commonly accepted nonsense. You may be offended, and it may not be the most erudite way of expressing oneself, but your veiled threats and appeals to lack of absolute certainty do not a compelling argument make.

Lory Jean-Baptiste said...

dolio,

And you are so certain that Islam is wrong that you are willing to condemn yourself to an eternity of suffering by believing in the divinity of Jesus (I assume)?

I'm a Christian because I believe in Jesus Christ not because I'm trying to insult or mock Islam. Your analogy doesn't really work. You are right that by being a Christian I am disregarding the warnings of Islam (that is the result) but that's not my intent. I didn't become a Christian just to proclaim my disbelief in Islam however these people are blaspheming for the sole purpose of decrying Christianity.

blasphemy is no bigger a deal than eating a hamburger is to a non-Hindu like yourself (unless you're in PETA or something).

Again, I don't eat hamburgers just to mock Hindus. I eat them because I like them.

On the other hand, it's an easy way to grab attention, and let people know that there exist plenty of people who don't buy into the commonly accepted nonsense.

So, the ends justify the means?

Pascal's wager is a bad argument, and threats of eternal torture for simply coming to a reasonable conclusion, and acting on it are either juvenile or barbaric.

So the Blaspheme challenge is mature and sophisticated?

If some Amazon tribesmen told you that if you ran around their sacred tree naked three times you would be damned for eternity, would you do it? If you did then it would only prove you are arrogant. Pascal's wager suggests that you believe to minimize your risk. In this case you're simply asked not to do something you wouldn't want to do anyway. This is very different from Pascal's wager. It's more like a fool's wager--risking without gaining anything.

Moreover, these people only prove that they are closed-minded. They are in fact so closed-minded on the issue of Christianity that they are willing to damn their eternal soul to an eternity in Hell, that's how sure (closed-minded) they are. Is it because they are all experts on all the evindence or lack of evidence on the issue? I doubt it but I'm pretty sure their minds are closed.

Steve said...

rofl. I love the discussions here, simply because they are so lively.

Benny - what's wrong about advertising Atheism with scantily clad babes? I mean, its not something I would actively promote, but it is publicity. *kidding*

Lory Jean - We atheists aren't believing in atheism because we reject christianity, we reject christianity because we believe in atheism. The reason it seems to be the other way around is most of us here have had a long journey of thinking and learning to come to the conclusion that God does not exist.

So, if we are rejecting Christianity by being atheists, then you are rejecting islam by being christian. It may not be intentionally, but you are just the same, the same way I reject every religion related to gods.

Also, deciding to make a statement saying one does not believe in the holy spirit, is not being closed-minded. Being closed-minded is ignoring evidence contrary to your belief so you can continue believing it - be you atheist, christian, or muslim.

dolio said...

"I'm a Christian because I believe in Jesus Christ not because I'm trying to insult or mock Islam. Your analogy doesn't really work. You are right that by being a Christian I am disregarding the warnings of Islam (that is the result) but that's not my intent. I didn't become a Christian just to proclaim my disbelief in Islam however these people are blaspheming for the sole purpose of decrying Christianity."

And atheists don't become atheists to mock Christianity. They become atheists because, for whatever reason, they can no longer accept the proposition, "god exists."

And, I suspect, people are blaspheming because they feel Christianity needs to be decried. They feel it is doing a lot of harm in this society, perhaps to young people like themselves especially. If you disagree, you're going to have to present arguments why that is so, because, "we should all unquestioningly respect and not make fun of one another's beliefs," is not self-evidently correct.

Again, I don't eat hamburgers just to mock Hindus. I eat them because I like them.

That wasn't my point in that analogy. You had previously trotted out Pascal's wager, and how these people couldn't be certain that they weren't condemning themselves to hellfire for their blasphemy. I was merely pointing out that you are unbothered by things that could have similarly dire consequences, yet aren't 100% certain yourself, so you have something of a double standard in this area.

So, the ends justify the means?

I didn't say that. But I'm not PR expert, so maybe this is a good strategy. Further, the "means" here are blasphemy (which is totally harmless), and offending Christians, many of which are probably going to be offended by atheist activism of any sort. This is hardly a, "should I kill one man to save five," question.

So the Blaspheme challenge is mature and sophisticated?

I didn't say that, either. But I might expect the almighty creator of the universe and his representatives to live up to a higher standard of maturity and sophistication than a bunch of youths and (no offense) the RRS.

If some Amazon tribesmen told you that if you ran around their sacred tree naked three times you would be damned for eternity, would you do it?

No. But I wouldn't do it because I was scared. I wouldn't do it because running around a tree naked is a silly thing to do.

I didn't do the blasphemy challenge either, incidentally.

If you did then it would only prove you are arrogant.

Can you prove this? What if I just wanted to run around the tree naked? What if doing so were a decisive, calculated political move to speak out against the oppressive, tree-worshiping majority?

Pascal's wager suggests that you believe to minimize your risk.

Pascal's wager is lame. Any action you take could well be an unforgivable sin that condemns you to hellfire for eternity. Consider yourself informed; the true god may have been speaking through me just now.

In this case you're simply asked not to do something you wouldn't want to do anyway. This is very different from Pascal's wager. It's more like a fool's wager--risking without gaining anything.

Ah, but this assumes that the blasphemy challenge provides no gain. You have not demonstrated this either. Many people disagree. It got Brian Flemming on Fox News of all places, to discuss his reason for starting it. It's generating a lot of press, some negative, but some people think that negative press is positive. And in addition, it's giving the people that participate an outlet for their frustrations with the organized religion they have been/are force-fed in this society.

That's hardly "no benefit" for the moral equivalent (to them) of eating a hamburger, or saying to a group of people, "you guys believe silly things."

Moreover, these people only prove that they are closed-minded. They are in fact so closed-minded on the issue of Christianity that they are willing to damn their eternal soul to an eternity in Hell, that's how sure (closed-minded) they are. Is it because they are all experts on all the evidence or lack of evidence on the issue? I doubt it but I'm pretty sure their minds are closed.

Hogwash. If being "closed-minded" means coming to a conclusion in the absence of absolute certainty, then I'll take it over "open-mindedness" any day. The alternative is universal skepticism.

Atheists aren't afraid to blaspheme because they're pretty sure there is no hell, and they're not going to live in fear by living by every superstition they believe is nonsense, simply because it's not 100% certain that said superstition is nonsense. That's a ridiculous way to go through life.

Blasphemy is a touchy issue to you, and thus, to you, it seems like they're risking something important. But they aren't. They aren't risking any more than you are when you eat a hamburger merely because you, "like them" (not even for the publicity and cathartic benefits mentioned above). You aren't 100% certain that eating a hamburger won't condemn you to hellfire, yet you do it anyway. Does that make you arrogant and closed-minded? Does it only count if someone specifically tells you that an action will condemn you?

If so, consider yourself told. Are you going to stop now?

Tommy said...

We all know what's going to happen anyway, don't we? Some Christian is going to start a counter-offensive by having young Christians film themselves for Youtube announcing that they accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior.

Dissident said...

AS an agnostic, I think the blasphemy challenge is for fools.

I'm keeping my options open!

I don't believe in burning bridges, you never know if a retreat my be necessary!

Shygetz said...

It's more like a fool's wager--risking without gaining anything.

Maybe I'm thinking of something else, but I thought they got a free DVD...

What if I told you that, if you look in a mirror and say "Biggie Smalls" three times, Biggie Smalls would return from the grave and kill you. Then, I bet you five dollars ($5) to do it. Would you? I mean, the reward is really minimal considering the fact that YOU ARE RISKING YOUR LIFE!!!!

Shygetz said...

AS an agnostic, I think the blasphemy challenge is for fools.

I'm keeping my options open!


But many religions clearly indicate that "keeping your options" open damns you to hell (or the nearest equivalent). Apparently, you can't please all the dieties all the time...