What we can learn from Phil Robertson

Let’s make a few things clear at the start. I don’t want Phil Robertson censored. I don’t want him to lose his job. If someone acts on his claims and kills people, it’s the murderer’s fault, not Robertson. In fact, I think we can learn something from his words, in a perverse way. Here’s what he said:

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.’

If it happened to them, they probably would say ‘something about this just ain’t right.’

Phil Robertson (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)Well, yes, something about that would not be right. The same thing would not be right if fanatics broke into Robertson’s home, claimed that Christians say there’s no right or wrong, and raped and murdered his family. But the clear implication is that the atheist would be wrong, that in fact there is no right or wrong if the target of violence doesn’t believe a deity exists.

I wanted to make sure I was understanding Robertson correctly, knowing how distorted media accounts can get. It was conceivable his next words were, “Of course something about this ain’t right. People don’t stop being human just because they don’t belong to your religion.” However, I haven’t found any claims that his words were ripped out of context. I did find a defense of Robertson by someone named John Nolte. This piece calls the denunciations of Robertson “ignorant” and “bigoted.” Nolte says Robertson was making “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.” This clarifies an important point: the scenario applies not just to atheists but to anyone who doesn’t have a belief system that includes Moses. He could equally well have talked about raping and killing a “little Hindu wife” or “little Buddhist daughters.”

I don’t think he’d act on that principle and murder unbelievers, but there are people who do just that, for the reasons he gave. They kidnap, torture, and kill on the principle that anyone who doesn’t recognize their form of religious authority falls outside all moral consideration. Robertson points to the Bible as his revealed moral authority, and Islamic State and Boko Haram point to the Quran, but there’s no way to decide which is the “true” one.

Robertson and IS believe that humans are incapable of moral knowledge on their own and that anyone who doesn’t follow divine authority doesn’t count as a human being. For Muslim fanatics, this applies even to people who don’t hold their exact interpretation of the Quran; they kill more Muslims than non-Muslims. There’s no need to feel moral doubt while committing mass murder, since apart from God’s orders there is no right or wrong.

It’s an escape from personal responsibility. The people who accept this view don’t have to bear the burden of deciding what’s right and what’s wrong. By accepting that they’re incapable of independent moral judgment and have to follow divine orders, they escape the need to think and the risk of doubt. The ones who take up violence literally would rather die than think.

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