In today's news, we hear that a group of high school students were offended and walked out of a talk because they were told that they are too moral to do things like stoning women for being non-virgins on their wedding night or owning slaves. The person giving this talk called them cowards for doing so. When word of this event reached certain sources afterward, they loudly condemned the speaker for being a bully. The speaker then apologized.
Yes, I'm serious.
What, you want more details? Fine...
The speaker was sex advice columnist and gay rights advocate Dan Savage. The talk he was giving was about bullying of LGBT students and causes of such. And what happened was...well, I recommend you just watch the video.
It's important to actually hear what was said and done, yes, but mostly so that you can recognize the correct interpretation of what happened rather than what is being reported, which is that Savage went on an "anti-Christian tirade."
No, he did not. Nor did he go on an anti-Christianity tirade, or even really an anti-bible tirade. He did not bully Christian students, he didn't abuse anyone, and-- let's note-- he didn't offend most of the Christian students in the room, at least not enough to make them walk out.
I don't find it likely that the loud cheers and applause when Savage dryly remarked "It's funny, as someone who's on the receiving end of beatings that are justified by the Bible, how pansy-assed some people react when you push back," came from a group made up of only atheists, Muslims, and Jews. I think it included at least a few Christians who recognized how absurd it is to be offended at the suggestion that the Bible includes descriptions of and outright commands to do some silly or even horrible things, and modern Christians are content to leave such things to history rather than interpret them as rules for living today. And that if Christians can do that with stoning and slavery, they can do it with attacking homosexuals.
Because that's what Savage said. Only he chose to describe those silly and/or horrible things as "bullshit," which apparently was a bridge too far. Or at least I hope that's what got so many outraged posteriors out of uncomfortable-looking conference hall seating. I hope it wasn't a belief that it's actually really unfortunate that we can't stone fornicating women to death anymore, because such is God's true and enduring will.
I realize that language was the primary concern that caused the movie Bully be rated (ironically) as appropriate only for ears older than those of the victims depicted in the documentary. But really, no high school student hasn't heard the word "bullshit" countless times. As the title of a popular long-running show on Showtime, it barely rates as profanity. But was it an inaccurate word for what Savage was describing? In his apology, he says
"On other occasions I've made the same point without using the word bullshit...
We can learn to ignore what the Bible says about gay people the same way we have learned to ignore what the Bible says about clams and figs and farming and personal grooming and menstruation and masturbation and divorce and virginity and adultery and slavery. Let's take slavery. We ignore what the Bible says about slavery in both the Old and New Testaments. And the authors of the Bible didn't just fail to condemn slavery. They endorsed slavery: "Slaves obey your masters." In his book Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris writes that the Bible got the easiest moral question humanity has ever faced wrong. The Bible got slavery wrong. What are the odds that the Bible got something as complicated as human sexuality wrong? I'd put those odds at about 100%.
It shouldn't be hard for modern Christians to ignore what the Bible says about gay people because modern Christians—be they conservative fundamentalists or liberal progressives—already ignore most of what the Bible says about sex and relationships. Divorce is condemned in the Old and New Testaments. Jesus Christ condemned divorce. Yet divorce is legal and there is no movement to amend state constitutions to ban divorce. Deuteronomy says that if a woman is not a virgin on her wedding night she shall be dragged to her father's doorstep and stoned to death. Callista Gingrich lives. And there is no effort to amend state constitutions to make it legal to stone the third Mrs. Gingrich to death.
...and maybe I shouldn't have used the word bullshit in this instance. But while it may have been a regrettable word choice, my larger point stands: If believers can ignore what the Bible says about slavery, they can ignore what the Bible says about homosexuality. (The Bible also says some beautiful things that are widely ignored: "Sell what you possess and give to the poor... and come, follow me.” You better get right on that, Joel.)
Finally, here's Mark Twain on the Bible:
It is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.
I'm not guilty of saying anything that hasn't been said before and—yes—said much better. What is 'bullshit' in this context but 'upwards of a thousand lies' in modern American English?"
That part, at least, doesn't sound very apologetic. What Savage was actually apologizing for is calling the students who walked out "pansy-assed," which sounds like a pretty good description to me for rising up from one's chair and walking out almost the moment a speaker even mentions your holy text in a discussion on atrocities that once were seen as acceptable but are now easily recognizable as abhorrent. That is what happened, and I've seen claims in a few places that the walkout was planned in advance, before Savage even hit the stage.
Hemant Meta's discussion of this says that Savage should not have used the words "bullshit" and "pansy-assed" because they are alienating. Perhaps they are, but that isn't necessarily an argument against using them. For one thing, the students Savage called "pansy-assed" were already feeling good and alienated. And I thought it pretty clever to use one of the predominate epithets hurled against gay men for the past few decades to describe a walkout in response to the suggestion that the bible is a source of bigotry and bullying. It's not the source, however, as Meta surprisingly claims:
"So did he go too far in talking about the Bible? Nope. If you’re a journalist covering this subject, you should know about the root cause of anti-gay bigotry: the Bible. I don’t know how anyone could give a speech like this without talking about religion."
"The Bible" ! = "religion." It wouldn't even be accurate to say that religion is the root cause of anti-gay bigotry, but it would be a lot closer. Many religions contain moral codes in which some notion of sexual purity and prescribed gender roles are important and therefore men who "act like women" and women who "act like men" by sleeping with members of the same sex are regarded as unnatural and profane.
Ultimately, however, mistrust of any and all people who step outside of rigid gender roles is so widespread that I believe it precedes and is imported into religion by people who want to believe God not only shares but is the source of their bigotry.
Indeed, you can't-- or at least, shouldn't-- give a talk addressing bullying and general mistreatment of gays without addressing how religion contributes to it. But that doesn't mean holding all religious people solely accountable for homophobia, which Savage took great pains not to do. That was the point of noting that there are all sorts of things good religious people no longer believe or practice even if old doctrines say they should, because they (the people) are good.
People who have been taught that God considers homosexuality sinful change their position on this all of the time, usually because they are actually exposed to the existence of homosexuals who are decent, kind, normal people who aren't harming anyone. "Therefore," the non-homophobic religious person concludes, "I must have been given bad information about what God thinks is sinful in this regard. Surely in order to be considered sinful something must be harmful to someone, and homosexuality isn't."
The existence of this sort of person must be acknowledged and respected, and my hunch is that Dan Savage's audience was largely composed of them. Those are the people who laughed when he said "The Bible guys in the hall can come back now because I'm done beating up the Bible," because they knew he wasn't really beating up the Bible.
And he certainly wasn't beating up Christianity or Christians. He was beating up the notion that it's acceptable to hypocritically discard other relics of religious hatred from 2,000 years ago because they don't apply to how we should live today, but not when it comes to beating on the gays. And that's a message for which nobody should apologize.
Gretchen recently received her PhD in the Study of Religion from the University of Aarhus in Denmark. She currently lives in Plano, Texas and is working on forming her dissertation into a book, and she serves on the Cognitive Science of Religion Consultation for the American Academy of Religion.