Is Jay Michaelson ignoring the Bible, too?

In his now-infamous remarks at the National High School Journalism Conference, Dan Savage made two crucial points: that the Bible says some terrible things, and that we can choose to ignore these things because they are terrible. Though the resulting firestorm of controversy focused as much on his choice of words as what he was actually saying, it reaffirmed that such ideas are still unacceptable in mainstream American discourse. In two articles at The Daily Beast, author and activist Jay Michaelson further argues that Savage is simply wrong to recommend that we “ignore the bullshit in the Bible about gay people”.

As Michaelson sees it, this amounts to “affirming that one must choose between sexuality and religion, between God and gay”, leaving no place for gay religious people and reinforcing the idea that homosexuality is incompatible with religion. Yet Savage did no such thing; instead, he offered a completely viable means to reconcile one’s faith with support for the equality of gay people. Christians can just ignore the parts of the Bible which conflict with their pro-gay values.

We know this is a realistic option because, as Savage pointed out, even conservative Christians already ignore aspects of the Bible – such as its apparent support for slavery – which conflict with their own values. If they chose to accept gay people, they could likewise disregard any portions of the Bible which contradict this stance. This is not a novel proposal; it’s fully compatible with most modern Christian attitudes toward the Bible. And it offers all Christians, queer and straight, a way to maintain both their personal faith and their support for gay rights. Whatever one may think of Savage’s idea, there’s no way that it forces anyone to choose between gay rights and religious belief. They can easily choose both.

Michaelson, however, suggests that there’s no need to ignore any part of the Bible to support gay equality, as the verses which appear to be anti-gay actually aren’t. He contends that “the Bible says nothing about gay people at all”, because the idea of homosexuality as an enduring, exclusive orientation did not exist at the time it was written. Instead, he says, verses such as those in Leviticus 18 pertain solely to anal sex between men as a kind of idolatry, and can be disregarded as part of Old Testament ritual law.

I struggle to see how this is anything but a more detailed formulation of Savage’s suggestion to “ignore the bullshit” – Michaelson has just provided Christians with an easily understandable rationalization for ignoring such verses as irrelevant. (Of course, it’s unclear whether this also gives Christians an excuse to disregard other prohibitions of Leviticus – such as having sex with one’s mother – as long as one does not do so anally or in an idolatrous manner.)

Moreover, it’s plainly disingenuous to claim that the Bible couldn’t be talking about gay people merely because its authors had no explicit concept of being gay as a romantic and sexual orientation. Unless one believes that gay relationships never have a sexual component, a condemnation of homosexual intercourse does pertain to gay people, even if the Bible makes no reference to people who were identified as gay or exclusively gay in their sexual habits.

Michaelson himself later refutes this argument, describing homosexuality as “a particular, modern, European concept that has no parallel in Ancient Near Eastern Biblical literature, save perhaps in the story of David and Jonathan.” Apparently, the modern-day idea of homosexuality has no parallel in the Bible, except when it does.

In chapter 12 of his 2011 book, God Vs. Gay?: The Religious Case for Equality, Michaelson says:

What is clear is that Jonathan loved David in an intense emotional way that is far more than mere platonic love or friendship … and that both he and Saul had relationships with David that would conventionally have been understood as including an erotic element.

Even if the Bible’s authors had no concept of homosexuality, they still describe a committed emotional relationship between men that went beyond mere friendship and probably included sexual activity. So it’s clearly impossible that Leviticus 18:22 was describing homosexuality – unless it actually was.

Michaelson points out that “about 40% of Americans believe the Bible to be the word of God”, asking us, “Do we have nothing to say to them, except to demand that they ignore the bullshit?” The answer, challenging as it may be, is yes. Just as we expect people not to be prejudiced against women, racial minorities, or the disabled, we can expect them not to be prejudiced against gays – no matter what theological contortions this requires of them. Indeed, ignoring the bullshit is precisely what Michaelson teaches them to do.

The problem, however, lies in the assumption that we must always find a way to make the Bible appear compatible with modern morality for the sake of that 40%. If we’re going to develop whichever interpretations are needed so that the Bible is congruent with the prevailing values of the day, how is this not tantamount to ignoring the Bible altogether? When we can make the Bible say anything, it no longer matters what it actually does say. There’s nothing wrong with that, and as an avowed atheist, I agree that it shouldn’t matter at all. But let’s not kid ourselves about what’s going on here.

If these literalists need to change their interpretations so they can believe the Bible supports whatever they want it to, then their own values have already prevailed over the Bible. Pretending that the Bible backs our preferred values is a cheap, lazy way of harnessing the trust society has placed in the Bible to lend support to what are really our own morals. Michaelson’s proposal is actually much more insidious than Savage’s coarse suggestion to “ignore the bullshit”, because Michaelson aims to grant Christians a license to disregard the Bible at will, while still claiming they follow every word of it. At least Savage, and myself, are open about our intentions: If the Bible is wrong, it’s okay to put it away.

Frank Turek’s embarrassing details

Christian apologist Frank Turek has recently made a name for himself as the premier hate-martyr for the National Organization for Marriage. As part of their so-called Marriage Anti-Defamation Alliance project, Turek recounts the tragic story of how he was let go as a consultant for Cisco and Bank of America after they discovered he had written a book about “How Same-Sex Marriage Hurts Everyone”. In reality, his views on homosexuality go far beyond merely opposing gay marriage, and he neglects to mention his history of claiming that gay people are “on the road to destruction”, that they “hate Western Civilization”, that they’re predisposed to “bad behavior” comparable to pedophilia and alcoholism, that they should be banned from the military, and that they’re “acting like racists” by seeking legal recognition of their marriages. Yes, these are the words of a man who presents himself as the victim here. Ironically, Bank of America had hired him to present a training seminar about adapting to diverse personalities in the workplace.

When he’s not angling to join the ranks of brave moral crusaders like George Wallace and Hazel Massery, Turek has made a living out of defending Christianity in books like “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be An Atheist”. In the course of trying to convince people that the Christian faith is more well-supported than any other belief, he unleashes a particularly shameless argument. He calls it the “principle of embarrassment”, a phrase which he attributes to unnamed “historians”, but only seems to appear in the context of Christian apologetics, and was probably invented for that very purpose. Briefly, Turek claims that the authors of the New Testament included embarrassing details about themselves, such as failing to understand what Jesus was talking about, which they would have omitted if they were trying to pass off a fictional narrative as true. He contends that there would be no reason to make themselves look bad rather than good if they were making it all up. He also refers to this as “the duh factor”.

However, for any of these things to be genuinely embarrassing to their authors, they would first have to be true. And how do we know that they’re true? This would require that the New Testament is true. But the truth of the New Testament is exactly what Turek is trying to establish by citing these supposedly embarrassing details. If we don’t know that the New Testament is true, then we don’t know that the embarrassing incidents in the New Testament are true, either. And if we simply assumed that these details of the New Testament are true, then we could just as well assume that the entire New Testament is true, without having to appeal to any of these embarrassing details. With this oversight, Turek has failed to establish the truth of either.

More crucially, the fatal flaw of this criterion of embarrassment is that Turek and his fellow apologists do not have privileged access to this concept. They’re certainly not the most uniquely brilliant people on earth, and if they were able to imagine that such a standard could be used to judge the believability of a given narrative, then why couldn’t others realize this as well? Couldn’t they anticipate this principle, and thus account for it when writing these stories? If you want your fictional narrative to be seen as believable, then why wouldn’t you aim to fulfill this requirement? Even stories that are acknowledged as fiction from the outset still have to maintain a degree of believability by making their characters realistically flawed. Failing to do so, and instead writing all of them as utterly perfect, makes the story unrelatable and generally intolerable to read. Frank Turek was not the first person to discover this.

The real “duh” factor here is that he thinks he can pass this off as a compelling argument for Christianity – and the worst part is that maybe, he can. If it weren’t for people who are willing to accept anything they hear so long as it confirms their beliefs, Turek wouldn’t even have an audience for this tripe. He’s little more than a huckster peddling hollow justifications for faith to people who don’t know better, or just don’t care, all the while knowing that a child could poke holes in this. Now that’s an embarrassing detail.

Projective stupidity and Jesus

Have you ever noticed how some people tend to assume you’re just as dumb as they are? It’s not that they’re necessarily being patronizing or disingenuous, they’re just genuinely ignorant. They expect you to believe what they’re telling you because they believe it themselves. None of us are exempt from this, of course – we’re all subject to our own limitations here. It just becomes especially striking when people make the most transparently terrible points, without even realizing how bad they are. And nowhere is this more apparent than with arguments for the divinity and resurrection of Jesus. Some people really seem to believe that I’ll find these claims just as compelling as they do, to the point that they fail to anticipate even the most obvious responses. I have to second-guess myself on this every time, because I keep thinking I must have missed something – this couldn’t possibly be what they’re really saying. But it is. It’s just that awful.

By far the most glaring oversight is when events from the Gospels are cited as supporting evidence for the alleged resurrection. This, of course, presumes that the contents of the Bible are factual and that all of this actually happened. If that were the case, there would be no need to refer to anything other than the resurrection story itself, because we’ve simply assumed that the Gospels are accurate. We could just point to the part with the resurrection, and say, “There it is!” But if we’re trying to establish the veracity of the resurrection, then the contents of the books which recount that story can no more be assumed to be true than the very event in question.

Some people have claimed that the contents of the New Testament have remained largely intact and unchanged throughout the centuries, but that has nothing to do with whether the events it describes actually took place – unless humans only acquired the ability to write fiction some time after the first century A.D. But even if we grant that the events cited in favor of the resurrection really did happen as claimed, an actual resurrection of Jesus is hardly the only explanation for this, let alone the best or the most likely.

One common argument is that Jesus claimed to be the son of God. Apparently that alone is supposed to tell us something about whether he was actually divine. Yet many people throughout history have said they were the son of God, relatives of gods, or gods themselves. Was all of this true as well? After all, why would someone claim to be the son of God if they weren’t? And yet most of them were probably wrong. The fact that someone has declared themselves divine says nothing about the truth of the matter.

It’s also been said that Jesus supposedly showed exceptional and even supernatural moral wisdom, beyond the ability of any mere human to articulate. The rapid spread and modern prevalence of Christianity is often cited in support of this claim. But what part of his moral philosophy could not have been developed by regular people? Could no human mind figure out that pacifism, humility, personal virtue, honesty, kindness, loyalty and generosity can be good things? What about this is so difficult as to be accessible only to the divine? And if the success of Christianity is supposed to say something about its truth, what does the spread of Islam tell us? Is the validity of a religion contingent upon demographics now? Even if two billion people are Christians, that leaves five billion people who aren’t. Is that supposed to inspire confidence?

Another key point of this argument is that after Jesus was buried, the stone closing the tomb was found to have been rolled away, and the tomb itself was empty. Has this never happened before or since? Was this the only occasion where a body went missing from a grave? It seems plausible that much like how they put the body in the tomb and rolled a stone in front of it, maybe someone removed the stone and took the body out. Does any of this really require the involvement of a god? Is that the only possible explanation for grave robbery? Of course, some people have claimed that there was a guard watching the tomb. Could this guard not have been bribed, or distracted, or a secret Christian, or missing for some reason? It seems we’re meant to conclude that an act of God is somehow a better explanation than a guard being complicit or absent.

Apologists have also claimed that Jesus appeared to many people after his resurrection. And this does occur sometimes. It’s just a question of what actually happened. There’s a difference between people claiming to see something, believing they’ve seen something, and genuinely seeing something. These are not the same thing. Quite a few people throughout history have seen things that weren’t really there, and most of the time when people see the dead, this doesn’t indicate a resurrection. Jesus certainly isn’t the only one to have appeared in this way, but I doubt that Protestants would give much credence to supposed apparitions of Mary that have been certified by the Catholic Church. Even great numbers of people have reported seeing things that didn’t and couldn’t happen, like the sun flying around the sky. This is the result of either willful self-deception, people going along with a popular trend, or an artifact of abnormal brain functioning. We know that this kind of thing can happen, so why does the alleged resurrection require any supernatural explanation?

Finally, many apologists have cited the conversion of various non-Christians who purportedly had every reason not to believe as evidence for the truth of the resurrection. If this is supposed to prove something, what does it mean when someone who desperately wants to believe in Christianity is nevertheless drawn to atheism? What if someone has every reason not to want to believe in Islam, but finds themselves convinced to become a Muslim anyway? This is hardly unique to Christianity.

As further evidence of the devotion of these converts, some people have pointed out that they refused to renounce their faith even when it led to their martyrdom. Would they really have faced death for the sake of a lie? Well, it’s certainly possible. Maybe they were mistaken, or deluding themselves. Maybe they were just really stubborn. Do people only die for beliefs that are actually true? No. People have readily given their lives in the name of all kinds of non-Christian religions and philosophies, and this does nothing to establish their truth. Unwavering faith to the point of death is simply a non-denominational feature of humanity. If even Christians will dismiss the significance of this, how can they use the very same phenomenon in support of their own religion?

All of these arguments demonstrate a startling lack of imagination and an abject failure to consider the mere possibility that there could be other explanations. It just hasn’t occurred to these people. And even if the resurrection of Jesus happened exactly as the Bible says, that still doesn’t mean it was supernatural or an act of God. What if it was the work of aliens, or nanotechnology? Or aliens with nanotechnology? At least we know these things are actually possible. Does that sound ridiculous to you? So why does it make any more sense to believe that it was literally magic?