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Phil Robertson's Appalling Atheist Fantasy

03/25/2015 11:03 am ET | Updated May 25, 2015

Let's all pray that Phil Robertson keeps his faith, because his fantasy of what would be permissible if he lost it is definitely terrifying.

At a prayer breakfast in Florida, the Duck Dynasty star revealed a horrific scenario that involved rape, decapitation, and, to top it all off, the cutting off of the penis (or 'manhood' as he called it) of an atheist and his family.

At the end of Robertson's little parable, the two men responsible for the atrocities explain:

Wouldn't it be something if this was something wrong with this? But you're the one who says there is no God, there's no right, there's no wrong, so we're just having fun. We're sick in the head, have a nice day.

The apparent 'moral' of the story is that without a belief in a judging God, people are free to do whatever horrific act they want. The aim, of course, is to cast fear and judgment on those who do not believe in the same God that Robertson and his allies do, which in this case are the atheists.

Robertson is a fearmonger who is preying upon people's suspicion of the many atheists who live in the United States and, as polls show, are subject to unwarranted prejudice. Presented as a fantasy, his tale sounds ominously like a prediction of what our society would look like if we had more of those fearsome people around.

Robertson's words are ugly and ignorant, and the organizers, and all those who applauded him at the Prayer Breakfast in Vero Beach should be ashamed of themselves.

It is way past time for Christians to learn and understand moral traditions that have developed in other religious traditions, and those that have developed outside the religious framework entirely. One of the most pathetic aspects of Robertson's rant is its appalling lack of curiosity about how human beings have understood morality throughout history outside Christianity.

Ever heard of Socrates?

In more recent history, my own cousin Richard Rorty was essentially an atheist, although pragmatist and humanist probably hit closer to the mark. Rorty was one of the most moral people I've ever known; someone who believed that we must always be honing our sense of how to live justly, in solidarity with one another. I'm pretty sure Rorty was never tempted to pick up a gun for any reason, even if he didn't believe that God would judge him.

Robertson's anti-atheist rant also shows no interest in the moral traditions of other faiths such as Buddhism and Hinduism, both of which have no concept of a judging God, but have strong moral codes that are embedded in their sacred scriptures and within their cosmology. For instance, I'm not qualified to talk about the karmic consequences of Phil Robertson's words, but my guess is that it isn't good.

What's more, Robertson doesn't realize the breadth of the moral tradition within his own faith. Christians have always had, and continue to have, deep disagreements on moral questions. The ecclesial and theological tradition I grew up in and continue to adhere to is radically different than the one Robertson represents.

Of course the big moral elephant in the Prayer Breakfast in Vero Beach is the history of awful things that Christians and other religious traditions can do, even when they purport to believe in a judging God.

President Obama waded into that territory at the Prayer Breakfast in Washington with his completely correct call for humility within our faith traditions. Certainly ISIS believes in a God who judges them and yet they are probably the closest to carrying out the fantasy that Robertson laid out in Vero Beach. Closer to home, George Zimmerman recently told the world that killing Trayvon Martin was 'part of God's plan' and to question it was 'blasphemous.'

The truth of the matter is that atheists can commit horrible acts. And so can Christians. And so can all people of faith, some faith, and no faith at all. Not because they are atheists, or theists, but because they are human and humans too often do horrible things to one another and to the world.

If there were anything to salvage from Phil Robertson's words, it is that we need to talk to one another more. Even more, we need to listen. Atheists and Christians should stop throwing verbal bombs at one another (and atheists do throw verbal bombs too); and instead have real conversations about where our moral ideas come from, the ways they impact our lives and how we can learn from, and respect one another's traditions without sacrificing our own principles.

If America is to be America at all, it must constantly be seeking ways for people of different cultures, races and beliefs to live together in solidarity and peace. Any preaching that singles out a group of people for distrust and hatred as Phil Robertson did is un-American at least, and should also be understood as un-Christian.