A college professor stood up on his chair and said, “If God really exists then let him knock me off this chair?!” Nothing happened as the class sat quietly, and he said, “See!”
An Army veteran stood up and punched him in the face, knocking him out and off the chair, then sat back down. As the professor came to, he looked at his student and said, “Why did you do that?!” The veteran said, “God was busy protecting my buddies still fighting for your right to say and do stupid stuff like this, so he sent me!”
I came across this on Facebook recently, and it immediately struck me as a remarkable piece of propaganda.
- The utilization of cultural archetypes to bias in favor of Christianity
- The explicit suggestion that God is actively favoring American military activity
- The implicit suggestion that physical violence is an acceptable response to religious challenges
American culture has always had a conflicted relationship with intellectuals, and despite the desire for children to have the advantages of higher education, there are still strong undercurrents of anti-intellectualism within the culture. . In contrast to this, there has been a long history of support for those who serve in the armed forces, understanding these people, whether rightly or wrongly, to be more patriotic and authentically American. The use of these two archetypes can hardly be accidental considering the powerful contrast they provide, the anti-American intellectual verses the hyper-American veteran. The overtones are clear in the association of Christianity with one, and atheism with the other.
The history of American exceptionalism, and the religious rhetoric used to bolster it, is as long as the history of the American colonies when before even landing the puritans referred to their new colony as a “city on a hill”. It has justified nearly every American ambition from the continental expansion of Manifest Destiny to today’s neoconservatives embrace of the American hegemony and disregard for international legal and moral constraints upon American conduct in foreign policy. It is in essence a belief that there is some sense of a divine sanction upon America that excludes it from the limitations and constraints of other countries. This is actually a convergence of two themes, one religious, the other secular, but both in agreement with the exceptional place of America in the world.
It is these powerful cultural memes that are synthesized into this short morality tale to justify what would otherwise be understood as an infringement upon free speech and an assault. The veteran has the combined attraction of perceived patriotism and alignment with the divine national mandate allowing for him to overcome the obviously negative qualities of his actions. When the equation is further modified with the professors position in an anti-intellectual culture (never mind the common accusation of socialism/communism within intellectual circles), the emotional weight is more than enough to justify the violence performed against him. He is in fact asking for it after the multiple layers of anti-Americanism applied to him.
What, then, is so wrong with this? The average person might have a chuckle over it, but they aren’t going to take it as license to assault outspoken atheists. But most acts of violence are not committed by the average person. They are performed by those living on the fringes of society, radicals that lack many of the constraints that would otherwise inhibit people from acting out the behavior illustrated in the story. Racist, homophobic, misogynist, and religious bigotry are propagated by the masses, but acted upon by the radical fringe. The problem then isn’t that the objects of such bigotry live in direct threat of the general population, but that they provide an umbrella of cultural justification for the actions of the few. Simultaneously, it contributes to a cultural milieu that is implicitly (if not explicitly) hostile to the denigrated persons, creating a host of opportunities for the prejudice to be informally (and sometimes formally) institutionalized to the detriment of those subjected to it.
There is no room for this type of behavior in a pluralistic society under a secular government that claims to value the contributions of all its citizens and respects their rights without prejudice for ethnicity or creed. But even putting that aside, the above statement ought to have been found offensive even to Christian sensibilities, which would have never condoned physical violence against another human being simply because they challenged the legitimacy of Christianity. There is no precedence in the New Testament for such sentiment, and there is a multitude of passages that advocate the opposite. There should not even need to be a mention of passages advocating turning the other cheek, blessing your enemies, or the example of Paul in Athens for how to properly handle intellectual criticism. The story is a failure on both moral and religious grounds and lies in contradiction to the better aspects of both the country and religion it claims to represent.
Another website makes an excellent point: “The anatomy of bigotry is that someone is not seen as a person, but as a symbol”. It is the essence of bigotry that it dehumanizes its target, strips them of their humanity and personhood and reduces them to a symbol, a stereotype. You are no longer the person you are, with the varied experiences that mark out your hopes and fears. Now you are a nigger, or a jew, an arrogant God-hater (isn’t it funny that even the word atheist is considered derogatory), a fag, or a commie. The list goes on for as many prejudices as the human mind can hold. It is always “one of them” or “not one of us”, us being one of the real people with real lives and real hopes and concerns. Just like in the above story, there are no humans involved, only a hero, a villain, and a narrative that plays out to the proper conclusion for both. It is unfortunate that the harm caused by such stories is not similarly constrained to stereotypes and caricatures.