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Christian Piatt

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Slavery, Tokenism and the Atheist PR Debacle

Posted: 03/21/2012 12:01 am

Atheist activism is hardly news these days. Folks are feeling increasingly convicted about making their disbelief public, and more specifically, pointing out the damage done by religion in the past.

But it seems the most recent publicity campaign by a group called American Atheists has gone a little too far, even for those not in the religious sphere.

Human rights groups howled when the following billboard appeared in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania:

Following a public uproar, the billboard promptly was replaced with one for the local symphony.

There are some more obvious concerns this kind of campaign raises, while others are more subtle. The point of the billboard is well taken, at least for me; the Bible has some messed up stories and rules in it. But cherry-picking isolated quotes like this from scripture is something that most in mainline Christianity consider a no-no. It's called proof-texting, and it's seen as tantamount to using the Bible as a weapon to further a personal agenda.

So in a way, the atheist group that did this is guilty of the very transgression for which they would criticize, say, a religious group for using the Bible to discriminate against the LGBTQ community or women. To me, this hollows out an otherwise reasonable point and an opportunity for discussion, and it also serves to discredit the organization that paid for the ad.

I've struggled much of my life with things like the treatment of slaves and women in scripture. And though I still see those kinds of rules or stories as patently wrong and dehumanizing, I have benefited from learning some historical and cultural context around the scriptures that helps me understand why they're there.

The early Rabbinical laws were primarily about creating a sense of order in society. And sometimes, the rules were meant to attenuate chaos or violence that tended to spiral out of control. For example, the "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" law sounds really harsh, and is still used by some to justify direct retribution. But that law is actually a response to the "avenge sevenfold" tradition of the culture which said, "You kill one of my sheep, I can kill seven of yours." To stem such escalation, this type of law was meant to mean ONLY eye for eye, tooth for tooth. No more of this avenged sevenfold stuff.

Think of it as a step toward something that Jesus ultimately fulfilled with his Great Commandment to hang all other laws on the principle of loving God and neighbor first. It's kind of like Clinton's old "Don't Ask, Don't Tell Policy." It was less than perfect, and many of us who advocated for unrestricted equality despised it. I don't even think if you asked Bill Clinton himself, he'd say he loved the bill. But he saw it as a necessary step toward an ultimate goal, which recently was achieved in the American Military.

Now, if you looked back in a hundred years at "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and considered it in isolation, without that context, you could easily argue that Clinton was actually trying to oppress LGBTQ folks, rather than afford them a graduated measure of equality.

The same might be said about something like this "Slaves, obey your masters" rule. I don't know if the authors of this meant for it to actively oppress other human beings in the name of God. I suppose it's possible. But given the cultural norms of slavery at the time, and given the value of greater order -- more so than the value of any individual life -- it's reasonable to assume that this rule was an attempt to stop some cycle of disorder and abuse.

Now, to call that a divinely ordained law? I'm with the atheists on that one. That's messed up.

The problem is in presenting this kind of Biblical reference this way, there's no opportunity for dialogue. And it appears there's no desire on part of the atheist group to engage in one. Again, in this way, the group reflects more of the characteristics of the fundamentalist Christians they object to so much by engaging in a one-sided shouting match, rather than actually putting in the work to talk to each other and work for common ground.

Finally, there's the matter of tokenism, which is really why the human rights groups got so bent about this campaign. Though the underlying implication from the atheist group is that religion does not value all human beings as they should (a valid and historically supportable position), they reduce the symbol of the slave to being a convenient vehicle for their personal agenda. For me, this places them in a similar boat, once again, as those they aim to criticize.

We can all do better than this. Really. Fundamentalism is ugly and dangerous, regardless of it's religious stripe, or even opposition to it. It places the our collective humanity second chair to ideology. And in this particular case, it de-fangs an otherwise worthwhile position, simply because the atheist group in question ends up looking so curiously like the very thing they claim to hate.

 
 
 

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