Phil Robertson paints macabre picture to make point about atheism

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Phil Robertson (photo by Gage Skidmore: Wikimedia Commons)

Right Wing Watch reports on a bizarre outburst, delivered last Friday at a prayer breakfast by entrepreneur and reality-tv celebrity Phil Robertson in Vero Beach, Florida, and broadcast on Rick Wiles’ right-wing radio program Trunews, in which the patriarch of the Duck Dynasty clan indulged aloud in a morbid fantasy, designed apparently to demonstrate that atheists have no morals and cannot be depended on to do good things without a belief in gods or divine justice.

(Warning: graphic verbal description of violence)

Phil Robertson endeared himself to the Christian right in 2014 when he made remarks in GQ magazine about gays, which resulted in his suspension from the show by its network, A&E. An outcry from fans and right-wing politicians followed, resulting in the lifting of his suspension after nine days, even as the entire debacle became a central talking point in the developing narrative of “Christian persecution”. He has since become a frequent speaker at conservative events, decrying abortion, gay rights and secularism.

Asking an atheist, “If you don’t believe in a god that will hold you to account for your deeds, what is preventing you from raping and killing right now?” is an old chestnut that any non-believer worth his or her salt can dispose of, mainly through the argument that anyone who counts on the wrath of a god to keep him from raping and killing is not a moral person to begin with, and deserves to be given a wide berth. It can even be argued that since Christianity teaches the forgiveness of sins in exchange for acceptance of Christ, moral excellence is not necessary for salvation at all. Just accept Christ after a long life of raping and killing, and you’re good.

But what made this particular version of the argument memorable was Robertson’s ghoulish elaboration of a scene that seems lifted from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Here’s RWW’s account of his remarks:

I’ll make a bet with you.Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at him and say, “Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now is it dude?”

Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say, “Wouldn’t it be something if this [sic] 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.”

Atheists all over the internet are puzzling over what could have motivated the mind-boggling words that came out of Robertson’s mouth. Does he think he can scare non-believers into believing with blood-and-thunder stories? Is he rallying the troops with lurid cautionary tales of the dangers of non-belief? Is he taking sadistic pleasure in imagining atheists coming to a horrible end? What the hell is wrong with this guy?

Everyone has a dark side to their imaginations: we all have a little corner in our brains where we explore our fears, our aversions, our aggressions. This is normal, and usually cathartic. But we also overcome our baser natures by developing empathy for others, by considering others’ needs and desires as being as important as our own, and by feeling good about doing the right thing and feeling bad about doing the wrong thing. That’s what being good without gods is all about, and it’s not hard.

Robertson’s words amount to little more than words. The argument is, again, absurd, and the most one could accuse of him would be of being tactless and off-putting, were it not for the extreme image he paints, the skewed picture he has of people he doesn’t agree with or understand, the arrogant confidence he has in his own ignorance, the complete lack of self-consciousness he has when he flaps his lips and words come out.

As of this writing, I haven’t seen any counterblast from Robertson or his supporters to the understandable outrage and offense his words have provoked, though I’m certain that’s coming. And it will only add to Robertson’s undeserved image as a free-speech martyr whose only crime is showing us poor sinners the way, the truth and the light.

Update: 03-27-15: Courtesy of Digital Cuttlefish at Freethoughtblogs, word of right-wingers coming to the defense of Phil Robertson’s comments, specifically from Breitbart.com.

I noted the reaction from atheist social media and the atheist blogosphere, but John Nolte at Breitbart has also noted that Liberal Mainstream Media outlets like the Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, the Huffington Post and the Hollywood Reporter have also noticed Robertson’s remarks. Not surprisingly, he refers to the coverage as bigoted attacks on Robertson for being a Southern Christian rather than a pointy-headed coastal liberal, and attempts to salvage explain Robertson’s comments as follows:

It is so obvious what Robertson is doing here it feels silly to have to explain.

Robertson is not “fantasizing” about an atheist family suffering a home invasion. It’s glaringly obvious he is portraying this scenario, not only as terrible, but as the most terrible thing imaginable. He is using an extreme scenario to drive home an important point about right and wrong, and where the notion of moral relativism can ultimately lead.

Robertson is in no way saying atheists deserve this. Quite the opposite. It is horrifying and tragic situation and presented within that context. Robertson is telling a parable, a graphic parable, but still a parable using shock value as a way to bring home a perfectly valid point about a Godless world in which there is no Ten Commandments and by extension no basis to judge right from wrong.

In other words, following a specious argument (Atheists have no basis for morality) with another, completely different and equally specious one (Since atheists can tell right from wrong, and the sense of right and wrong comes from God, atheists aren’t really atheists).

We can’t really let the Ten Commandments remark slide here either, although we note the Abrahamic inclusiveness of referring to a set of laws revered even by Muslims. But the idea that human morality begins with the revelation of the Decalogue, or can’t exist without it, is just horseshit.

Nolte’s comments are not directed primarily against the secular community but the major media and their supposed hatred of Christians like Robertson:

There is no question that many in the media simply hate Christians, especially Southern Christians. Some, though, just don’t seem to understand Christianity and the Southern notion of firebrand preaching. It’s called scaring the Devil out of you, and it’s a tradition as old as John the Baptist.

What the media is doing here is pointing, judging, and laughing at a culture they don’t understand, and don’t want to understand.

I was born in the Midwest but have lived 15  of my adult years in the South, 9 in Los Angeles, 2 in an inner city, and 1 in Florida. Because I’m not a media provincial, because the only American culture I haven’t experienced is the New York/DC provincial bubble, I don’t see Phil Robertson as a freak.  He doesn’t scare me. He’s not unique. He’s just folks.

Umm, no. Firebrand preaching is one thing, but putting emotionally manipulative images in one’s head just to make a point about atheism is another, particularly when that point is a straw-man characterization that convinces no one who is not already convinced. I won’t go so far as to say Robertson’s remarks were abusive or psychological violence, just so we don’t have to deal with charges of politically-correct squeamishness, but most people are capable of making the same point without vicariously waving someone’s severed dick in their face.

Secondly, don’t play that cultural élitist card with me (look! I actually used an accent on the “e”! I must be one too!). You can keep your cooking, your music, your accents, your American-flag bandanas, hell, keep your old-time religion, if you can manage to refrain from forcing it on those who don’t want it. But if your “culture” tells you it’s okay to tell women what to do with their bodies, to force children to pray in schools, to keep science out of classrooms, or to discriminate against people, your “culture” has a problem, and the rest of us, including many who were born, bred and live among you, will keep pointing it out until you get the message.

Additionally, I wouldn’t characterize the media reaction to Robertson’s remarks as pointing, judging and laughing at a culture. It goes beyond that. And it’s not the culture, it’s him. Robertson said something genuinely disturbing here, in the middle of a nice little prayer breakfast, something ripe for armchair psychoanalysis, and Nolte seems to be saying that that’s something normal.

Finally: Phil’s “just folks”? Really?? Most “just folks” are not independently wealthy TV stars who do speaking engagements at CPAC. I think he’s quite capable of being called on the stupidity of his own statements when he says something stupid.