Occasionally, I flip through YouTube videos. More often than not, they’re the ones that have caught on like a California wildfire. Of late, I’ve been watching a pitched battle in online media: radically confused fundamentalist Christians vs. rabidly aggressive atheists. Pick a vociferous, stentorian preacher and his dramatic gaffes and you’ve got a minor internet scandal—pure bait for blogs like The Angry Atheist. Not long ago, it was the “oopsie” preached by Pastor Sean Harris of North Carolina. In his sermon—if we can call it that—he ranted and railed against “queer acting” youth, exhorting parents to put a stop to their gay tendencies before they get out of hand. The kicker? He actually gave them a “special dispensation” to punch their kids.
People cheered. People CHEERED, folks. That’s the first problem.
The second is, it’s hard to sit down and talk rationally with people like this. Not long after his missteps, Harris issued an apology—sort of. He also affirmed his belief in God’s unerring condemnation of those who practice homosexuality. Throughout all of this, he never once cited Scripture, never once offered a sound theological explanation for his teaching. He just knew (somehow) that God hates the gays.
Now let’s look at the flip side, shall we?
In response to such inane quasi-religious mouth-frothing, atheists have gone on the attack—and what an easy target Harris has proved to be. Justin Griffith, a writer for Free Thought Blogs, chatted with Harris after the pastor’s sermon went viral and his subsequent apology hit the media. Griffith, while calm and subdued in the interview, is also the Military Director for American Atheists (a title that still baffles me). His background? Fundamentalist Christianity. Since the days of indoctrinated childhood, Griffith has vocalized his own condemnations of the religious right. There isn’t much room for negotiation—to Griffith, fundamentalism is inherently evil.
All of this underscores the self-evident truth that fundamentalist anything begets exclusion, hatred, and merciless judgment. Ironically, the loudest voices arguing against pastors like Harris are the ones that came from fundamentalist backgrounds—where aggressive policing of ethical behavior without room for humanity or intelligent discernment is the norm. The argument on one side is often as ridiculous as the other: all gays are to be condemned because they are gay; all Christians are to be condemned because they are Christian. I’m not putting words in people’s mouths—I’m just pointing out a tendency.
I, for one, am not sure I know a way to get past this religious/ethical struggle. It seems that we, as American citizens, are either inside the fight or standing on the sidelines laughing about how ridiculous it all is. For those whose familiarity with religion or atheism is slim, however, it’s battles like these that can leave a horribly contorted first impression.
So there are two things that need to happen, though I’ll be the first to say I’m unsure of the initial steps. One: those inside the battle need to spend some time outside the battle. It’s time to get some perspective. Two: those on the sidelines learning by observation need to be exposed to more than just the scandalous negativity from both sides that pervades the media. Christians are not all fundamentalist nut jobs; atheists are not all belligerent militarists. It sounds like common sense, but when you’re in the thick of emotionally-charged arguments, it’s easy to get caught up in one side or the other. It’s easy to be seduced.
That being said, it’s also worth mentioning: there is no such thing as a perfect Christian. Even those who have the best intentions, wanting nothing more than to follow the teachings and example of Jesus, often fail. Which is why the words of anyone—pastor or not—should never be taken as gospel, but through the lens of humanity and spiritual reflection. And in case anyone wonders about their own capacity to judge such preaching for themselves, I’ll call on Scripture: Jesus himself said, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20).
Take that, Harris.