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While many atheist bloggers are quite supportive of it, The Blasphemy Challenge has come under fire from some "nice guy" religion critics who feel that a friendlier approach toward superstition would be better strategically. Ed Brayton calls the Blasphemy Challenge...

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February 13, 2007

Not everyone agrees that The Blasphemy Challenge is a fabulous idea

While many atheist bloggers are quite supportive of it, The Blasphemy Challenge has come under fire from some "nice guy" religion critics who feel that a friendlier approach toward superstition would be better strategically.

Ed Brayton calls the Blasphemy Challenge "pointless, juvenile and stupid" and lists all of the more goal-oriented, grown-up and smart things he's done that have had greater success in forcing Christians to defend their superstition on a national stage. Oh, wait. I think he merely did the first part.

My guess is that Ed Brayton, a deist, doesn't actually believe that blaspheming the Holy Spirit will doom one to Hell for all eternity -- he likely just thinks it's better not to mention this disagreement in public, as it may give offense.

Jim Lazarus says that in that Fox News interview, "Flemming still comes off looking like an extremist whacko." I don't see it myself, but then, I'm an extremist whacko who thinks that it is psychological torture to tell children that they will burn in Hell unless they accept an invisible companion as their savior, so what do I know?

My guess is that Jim Lazarus actually agrees that terrorizing children with Hellfire is a bad thing -- he likely just thinks it "comes off" poorly to express this conviction in public, as it may give offense.

Lazarus goes on to write:

There's a good side and bad side to this challenge. First, with respect to the younger kids making the videos, I think the Blasphemy Challenge was good in that it gave them a means to express their skepticism and feel as if they were doing something active online, when they typically aren't able to do much more than post on the typical message board. So, in that respect, I didn't mind the Blasphemy Challenge. On the other hand, though, it was obvious that this whole idea would come crashing down in flames once the media got involved, if it did. It has, and now the result is what you see in that Fox News video. I haven't read every piece of press on the Challenge, but I've seen and read a bunch, and it looks consistently negative. All I can say is, this looks pretty upsetting.

Interesting that Lazarus equates negative press with "crashing down in flames." I guess he doesn't understand that 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. Media success lies in tricking the brain-dead press into transmitting our subversive message, not in getting those brain-dead kool kidz to like us.

The press on the Blasphemy Challenge is "consistently negative"? Of course it is! Welcome to the mainstream culture of the United States of America.

I sympathize with the "nice guy" atheists -- and I am happy to give them cover by playing the radical to their moderate -- but I do hope they aren't truly so deluded as to believe that television news programs are just dying to host formal, rigorously intellectual debates on the finer points of philosophy. Sometimes it seems as if their criticism of the Blasphemy Challenge (and the media circus it has inspired) comes from just such a fantasy world. Lazarus recently wrote:

I want a bunch of Bertrand Russells getting together and being assertive, leaderlike with a strong degree of conviction, while still being fair and contemplative, getting people to think about worldview issues. That line of activism will better promote positive growth and change, even if it isn't as dramatic, and even if it isn't as attractive to the Fox News network.

To his credit, Lazarus seems to acknowledge that the movement he desires is not compatible with the present media landscape. And, for the record, I'd like a bunch of Bertrand Russells on Fox News all the time, too.

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.

Here are my raw early notes on the Blasphemy Challenge (then called the "Blasphemy Contest" and designed in a slightly different way; we later abandoned the idea of cash prizes) that I circulated among insiders on November 16, 2006:

The Blasphemy Contest

Goals: Provoke conversation about the religious indoctrination of children. Erode the credibility of Christian talking heads by forcing them to defend some of their their weakest ground -- the "rules" of salvation and the idea of Hell. Make Christian belief an object of ridicule. Cause Christian parents to reexamine what they teach their children and why.

Method: A stunt that appears to be dooming children to Hell. The Rational Response Squad will launch a contest in which people are invited to submit videos of themselves courageously denying Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit on church property -- thus dooming themselves to Hell forever. The contest will offer special rewards to young people and will be framed largely as a promotion for people under 18.


The WorldNet Daily treatment...

(this is an example of what a story about the stunt might look like in a conservative publication)

Atheists bribing children to deny God

A national atheist organization is offering rewards to schoolchildren who videotape themselves on church property denying the existence of God.

Every child who creates a video receives a free DVD of the atheist-propaganda movie "The God Who Wasn't There," and the winner of "Best Blasphemous Video" will receive $1000. Adults are also allowed to participate but receive fewer rewards.

On the contest's official website, children are instructed to make a video that includes a shot of the child in a church saying, "I deny that Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit are real. It's all just pretend."

The Rational Response Squad, a grassroots atheist organization that claims over X,000 operatives, asserts that the child bribes amount to "de-indoctrination."

"Religion hurts a lot of people, but children are victimized the most by it," says Brian Sapient, the leader of the Rational Response Squad. "We're just giving children the opportunity to state the obvious -- that these mythological tales are no more real than Santa Claus. This could be a liberating moment for a lot of young people who are currently oppressed by bizarre religious ideas that have been forced on them."

"These children are playing with their eternal souls," says [Christian theological expert]. "If they are young enough they may be forgiven, but older teens are certainly at risk. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable. This is a sick, despicable contest with deep theological implications."


Contrary to Ed Brayton's poorly researched accusation, the Blasphemy Challenge isn't "pointless." The point has been clear from the start, and part of the point is to provoke negative attention that smuggles a rare subversive message into the cultural dialogue.

Of course, the Blasphemy Challenge has succeeded in getting more condemnatory press than I had even dared to imagine at the start. Being screamed at by a Fox News personality wasn't a stated goal, but it certainly would have been if I had thought of it.

And to the Blasphemy Challenge critics, I would ask: What, exactly, is wrong with hoodwinking Fox News into broadcasting the idea that the religious indoctrination of children might be cruel? Had this idea ever once even been mentioned before on Fox News? What is wrong with contrasting the image of a trash-talking Christian zealot and a calmly reasoning atheist? And do any of the "nice guy" atheists actually think this kind of ideological judo can be achieved by being nice?

Again, I do feel the "nice guy" atheists have a role to play. 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.