December 20th, 2006
"The War on Christmas" is an absurd fantasy concocted by the Religious Right. But it doesn't have to be. If Brian Flemming has his way, we'll get a real War on Christmas, complete with atheistic shock troops (called "Rational Responders") confronting believers with the non-logic of their dearest religious beliefs. His "Rational Response Squad" is encouraging young people to take The Blasphemy Challenge — to commit blasphemy and post the results on YouTube.
It's all part of the continuing promotion for Flemming's worthy documentary film, The God Who Wasn't There. The film, in the words of Newsweek, "irreverently lays out the case that Jesus Christ never existed." Uber-athiests Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins appear, helping Flemming make his sacreligious point.
Besides interviewing Flemming on this year's RU Sirius Show Christmas Special, we had him on in April of this year, when he was gunning for Easter. We've combined the two conversations to create this interview. Flemming fielded questions from an extended RU Sirius Show family that included Blag Dhalia from The Dwarves, Steve Robles, Jeff Diehl and Diana Brown.
RU SIRIUS: Tell us what the Blasphemy Challenge is and how we might participate.
BRIAN FLEMMING: It's a challenge to you to commit the Christian unforgivable sin, on video, and upload it to YouTube for all the world to see. And if you do that, you can get a free DVD of The God Who Wasn't There.
STEVE ROBLES: Did you just say the sin? Are you speaking of a particular sin?
BRIAN: Yeah, there's one unforgivable sin. Mark 3:29 says, "Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven." So that is the one sin that, if you commit it, you can never ever be saved. So one benefit of taking the Blasphemy Challenge is that if any Christians come up to you and try to convert you in the future, you can just say, "Oh, no, I'm done. You can't help me any more."
RU: So you could jizz on a picture of the Virgin Mary, but this would be worse.
BRIAN: Right. You can do anything else. You can kill all the people you want; you can rape and murder and whatever; and Jesus will forgive you. But this is the one thing that he won't forgive you for.
STEVE: Actually, you won't be forgiven for suicide, either.
BRIAN: Oh, that's true.
JEFF DIEHL: Do we get a free DVD if we commit that blasphemy?
BRIAN: If you were to deny the Holy Spirit, and then kill yourself, you'd definitely be guaranteed to meet Satan for it.
STEVE: It gets into some tricky Catholic dogma because you have to blaspheme specifically against the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit being a part of the Holy Trinity. That means that if you blaspheme against Jesus or god, you're okay.
BRIAN: Yeah. In fact, Jesus says that specifically in another passage. He says, "Whoever speaks against the Son of Man can be forgiven" — but if you speak against the Holy Spirit, you can't be forgiven.
RU: You particularly want young people to participate. You advertised in Boy Scout Trail and Tiger Beat.
BRIAN: Yeah. We chose a bunch of sites online that specifically appeal to young people to advertising on. In fact, many of the people that are uploading videos to YouTube are in their teens.
RU: So are you trying to exacerbate right-wing paranoia?
BRIAN: My goal is definitely to provoke conversation. We rarely discuss religion on the same terms as we discuss any other aspect of our culture such as science or math or politics — any subject at all. People are allowed to make religious claims, and there's a taboo in our culture against actually questioning those claims the way we would anything else. The Blasphemy Challenge is designed to examine that. "Okay, Christianity makes this claim. Let's talk about it. Let's talk about whether there's any support for it at all." And Christians are welcome to demonstrate that hell exists and demonstrate that the Holy Spirit exists and demonstrate that insulting the Holy Spirit will send you to this place called hell.
RU: You claim to have a 21,000-member activist group. What are you guys planning? Should we be frightened of atheist fanatics?
BRIAN: We've done some interesting things. We hid copies of the movie in Christian churches and in other items. One thing we did during Easter — we put fliers with cartoons into plastic eggs at egg hunts for Christian children. They read, "Here's a fun game. Ask your Mom and Dad, 'Is the Easter Bunny real?' Now ask them, 'Is Santa Claus real?' Now ask them, 'Is Jesus real?' And remember this for the rest of your life. The answer to these three questions will always be the same."
RU: So you're hiding these mind-fucks in Easter eggs. Do you feel that up to this point, you've been preaching to the unheavenly choir, and now you have to reach people who are believers and get them to think? Do you have any evidence that people have been affected by your message?
BRIAN: I get emails all the time. The movie has not worked alone but has worked in concert with other things, like Sam Harris's book The End of Faith. I know my film has been principally involved in the de-conversion of many Christians including one Baptist minister. It definitely is possible to reach Christians. It's astonishing what they don't know. And when you tell them, their jaws just drop. When I see Christians after a screening of The God Who Wasn't There, I can see the looks on their faces. I can tell they've just never been exposed to this stuff
RU: Do you anticipate any rumbles with Jack Chick's guys?
BRIAN: I'm sure.
BLAG DHALIA: Look, it doesn't bother me that you're trying to debunk Jesus, and it doesn't bother me that you hate the Easter Bunny. But I'm not going to sit here and listen to you talk about Santa! I'm just fuming about Santa. I think you're really pushing it.
BRIAN: Well, I'm hoping to reach out and have a dialogue with the Santa believers. Maybe we can come to some understanding.
RU: Is there evidence that Santa wasn't really born?
BRIAN: Actually, the thing is that Santa is more real than Jesus. Santa was an actual saint. In fact, I saw statues of him when I recently visited Amsterdam. He's the patron saint of Amsterdam. That's where the myth originated. So Santa is actually far more real than Jesus. A real human became the Santa legend.
BLAG: Santa is a scary fuck. He wears an animal skin that's bloody. That's where the whole red Santa suit came from — this guy with an inside-out animal skin that was still bleeding on his back. But a jolly, jolly man anyways.
RU: Tell us a bit about your film, The God Who Wasn't There.
BRIAN: It's a documentary that makes the case that Jesus Christ never existed. I interview some people who rarely get their theories aired in the mainstream media. They're very credible people who have looked at the early evidence for Jesus and found that it was sorely lacking. And then the film goes on to examine how Jesus is used in our culture and the effect that this dogma that Jesus existed and is our savior has had in our culture.
RU: How did you research the film? Did you start with your conclusion?
BRIAN: I started out thinking the theory that Jesus never lived must've been a crackpot theory. I'm into crackpot theories and into crackpots. I like to look into what makes them tick.
STEVE: That's why you're talking to us.
BRIAN: I started looking into it. And I came to realize that the evidence did stack up and the real crackpots were people who could look at early Christianity and determined that the early Christians believed in a human Jesus. When I realized how few people knew about this, I decided it was a good focus for a documentary.
JEFF: In college, I was challenged by a piece of writing called Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches by Marvin Harris. He claims that there were a lot of self-proclaimed Messiahs back in Jesus's day. And a lot of them were crucified, and they were basically terrorists. They were trying to overthrow the Roman government. In many cases they were assassins. They carried daggers in their robes. And there's a good chance that Jesus himself was a dagger-carrying assassin.
BRIAN: I have heard that theory. With Jesus stories — you can speculate anything that you want about Jesus, because there is no writing whatsoever about him from the time. All we have is this sort of invented history of Jesus that was improvised over the decades immediately following the apostle Paul, who never claimed to have met Jesus. So there's no direct evidence, at all, that Jesus ever existed. And there's a lot of evidence indicating that he was just kind of improvised into existence, first as a mythical savior and then later on, historical details were added.
RU: You used to be a fundamentalist Christian. Why did you stray from the flock?
BRIAN: I went to a fundamentalist school called Village Christian School in Sun Valley, California. That's where I got the doctrine pounded into my head. I was a fundamentalist Christian then. Once I got out of that school, I began to think for myself a little bit more and learn about science. Going to college kind of opened my eyes to the absolutely false things that I believed were true. I gradually became an atheist. I just deduced and learned my way to atheism.
RU: Did you preach in neighborhoods?
BRIAN: No, I didn't. I never had the nerve to witness. I practiced it. They would take us out on the playground and we would practice-witness to each other. And then we were supposed to do what we practiced with people in our lives, particularly Jews. I had Jewish friends, and every time I visited them at their house I was just wracked with guilt because I wasn't witnessing to them. But I just couldn't bring myself to do it. Something felt wrong about telling them that Jews were going to hell.
RU: You left us to rot in hell! So your film makes the case that Jesus never existed. What's the evidence? How do you prove a negative?
BRIAN: There's a more positive case to be made. The early Christians, the very first Christians, did not believe in a human Jesus. It took decades before they started adding history into their writings. They created this Jesus who wasn't just this mythical god like most gods at that time were — but in fact a man who walked around on earth.
If you look at the beginning of Christianity, for at least forty years there was no human Christ. Nobody was mentioning Bethlehem or Jerusalem as the place where he was crucified. Basically, nothing that you and I would call the story of Jesus was told then. He was a savior who lived up in another realm. He had died and had risen back up to be with his father. All of this took place in an upper realm, not down on earth. Bit by bit, they added historical details.
RU: This story had been told many times before, right? There were various versions that were nearly exactly the same.
BRIAN: Yeah, there were versions of the story both before the time that Christianity started and particularly right around the time that Christianity started. The dying and rising savior is probably the oldest story in the world. But there were specifically other gods who were remarkably like Jesus in the time preceding the invention of Jesus. There was the Attis cult and the Mithras cult. They had saviors who died, stayed dead three days, and then rose up to sit with their fathers as the eternal judge on mankind. It's pretty clear that's where the Jesus story came from.
DIANA BROWN: You're calling for an atheist activist movement. Do you believe it could make a difference if enough people got on board?
BRIAN: Oh, definitely. I think there is an atheist activist movement. I'm trying to contribute to it as much as I can. I think there's a gradual realization among atheists that just sitting at home, not believing, and watching the world go to hell isn't really a very viable strategy.
DIANA: People are being kind of politically correct — not wanting to talk to people about their religion because it's polite.
BRIAN: Exactly. Religious tolerance really has to go, if religious tolerance means we let people talk baby talk in public and elect them as politicians who control our policy. If that's religious tolerance, then we can't really be tolerant because it's just too dangerous.
DIANA: What would you say to an agnostic?
BRIAN: I think an agnostic is really just an atheist who hasn't thought about it enough.
RU: The reason I'm an agnostic — I just don't assume that as a human being I have the equipment, the nervous system and the brain to be quite certain about everything that is going on. To me, atheism is a belief system just like faith is.
BRIAN: I would disagree with that. I don't think that atheism is a belief system. It's simply, as Sam Harris puts it, "The inability to be unreasonable." Basically, everyone is an atheist. It's just that religious people are atheists about every other god except their own. So even a Christian is just one god away from me. I don't believe in Zeus. I don't believe in Poseidon. The Christian is also an atheist in regard to Zeus and Poseidon. The Christian has just selected one of those books of mythology, pulled it down off the shelf and said, "This one is real." As an atheist, all I've done is to not do that.
STEVE: But this still leaves at least the possibility that you might discover something. The problem with atheism is that it doesn't allow for anything beyond what we perceive now to be our physical reality.
BRIAN: I admit that there's a possibility. I take a scientific approach.
DIANA: Ha! So you're an agnostic.
BRIAN: It's a misconception that you can only be an atheist if you declare absolutely that you have the answers and that you know there's no god. An atheist has just looked at all the gods available and determined: no — none of these could exist, so probably there is no god. That's not agnosticism. That's really atheism.
BLAG: Mr. Fleming, I gotta be on your team with this. If you don't believe in slavery, you can either sit at home and say, "I don't believe in slavery," or you can be an abolitionist and say, "Wait a minute. We have this thing and I am going to actively be against it." So let's kill god. We're atheists. Fuck 'im.
DIANA: If we can kill him, we can prove something... You think knowledge is the enemy of faith, so you're basically encouraging people to seek knowledge. Correct?
BRIAN: Exactly. Doubt is the enemy of certainty. What I want to do with the War on Christmas is have Christians come across information that they're not getting, because only one version is told. No one's allowed to present another view. If you really start examining what most faiths are based on, you can't deduce your way into believing in it, so you eventually have to let it go.
STEVE: Don't humans need to believe in myths? Even if Jesus never really existed, don't people need to believe?
BRIAN: Humans need to band together in groups that have an identity. They like to get together and experience stories and some of them go too far and love the story to the point that they believe it. That's all true. Certainly there is something about humans that caused religions to develop. There has to be something in us that makes us want that. But I see no reason that anyone's ever articulated that we should have it today. Two thousand years ago, I kind of get why they thought the way they did. They didn't have science. They were answering questions that we've answered since then. They thought that demons caused disease.
RU: They don't?
STEVE: You've never had shingles.
JEFF: There was a study recently that showed that belief in god or religion makes people happier. Assuming they can actually measure something called happiness, might there not be a benefit to believing, just to be happy?
BRIAN: Yeah. I would say it has the same benefits as heroin.
BLAG: Now you're talking my language!
JEFF: You're killing your case here, Brian. (Laughter)
BRIAN: There's a cost to being rational. There's a cost in looking at the world in a sensible way and not falling prey to fantasy stories that make you feel better. It's not easier — I'll admit that. It certainly takes more courage. So people who are afraid and want to trick their minds into being happy should turn to religion and drugs, because you do have to be strong to deal with the world as it is.
JEFF: It's kind of like that brain-in-a-vat story, though. If you could climb into a chamber and never experience reality and just be told that this is reality, would you do it? What's the difference? If you've convinced yourself that you're happy, you're happy.
RU: The blue pill or the red pill?
BRIAN: Maybe before we die, we'll have that. We'll be able to jack into the matrix. I think part of the reason we haven't done it already is because religion has held back science so much. Literally for centuries, it has prevented progress. So, ironically, religion has kept us from having eternal life.
RU: There's some talk about a cluster of neurons in the brain that tap people into their feeling of belief in god; or their sense of god. Have you looked at that at all?
BRIAN: No, but Sam Harris, who's in my movie, is devoting his PhD thesis to exactly that. He's studying the brain basis of belief with an FMRI — Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging technology. He hasn't published yet, but I know he's discovered some things. I can't wait to find out what they are.
RU: Do you think we're headed into a theocracy? Kevin Phillips, the Republican who hates the Bush family, wrote a book about how America is becoming a theocracy. How close do you think we are? And do you think we'll go the rest of the way?
BRIAN: I think that we will go the rest of the way if we don't take action to stop it. That's going to require people to go out on a limb. The time to act is now, before we reach a point of no return.
RU: Today, most everyone is screaming about the Koran and Islam. How would you compare the memetic nastiness of Islam to the memetic nastiness of Christianity?
BRIAN: The Koran is certainly more vicious; more clear about the killing that has to be done. It is, in general, a more dangerous book. It's got all sorts of stuff about what you must do to infidels; how they must be treated — cut them into pieces and throw them into a fire. The Bible has some of that stuff, but it also has Jesus making all this happy talk. The Koran is just really clear. If you believe in Islam, you believe the place of the infidels in the world is either to be subjugated or killed. So I do think Islam is potentially more dangerous than Christianity. But any religion — particularly any monotheistic religion, if it gains enough power — they all could be extremely dangerous.
The Satanic cosmology of Jack Chick
Thou Shalt Realize the Bible Kicketh Ass (Rushkoff interview)
Death at Christmas
They're Dreaming of a Boobs Christmas