I used to be a Christian. In fact, I was a devout ministry leader for many years – focused mostly on youth evangelism, Biblical literacy, and critical needs relief efforts overseas. A number of life experiences began to tug at the fabric of my faith, not the least of which is what I refer to as the “slippery slope” – the fine line between being devout and becoming delusional. Over the course of a decade, I watched as several friends, family, and colleagues tipped their toes over the line from time to time, while some jumped both feet at once. Looking back, I often found myself worried, “Would I even know if I had gone over the line?” I will be forever grateful for this cognitive dissonance, a simple indicator of my own sanity.
In the year since we released our first book, the response has been quite humbling. So much so that later this week I am scheduled to speak at the National Convention of the Atheist Alliance of America along with Dr. Steven Pinker, Dr. Richard Carrier, Rebecca Goldstein, and many other great minds. (More on this in a moment…)
Aside from interest and support from lapsed and recovering Christians, I’ve also received a great deal of correspondence from many in the Christian community. Many have found our approach to be challenging (in a very positive way), causing them to open their Bibles for the first time since childhood to re-examine the stories they once learned in Sunday school. (In fact, our second book even features a foreword from prominent evangelical pastor and author, Dan Kimball of Vintage Faith Church). Some Christians have reacted with varying degrees of suspicion and anger for our approach to illustrating lesser-known Bible stories that might paint their chosen faith in a light that they don’t appreciate. This discomfort is completely understandable, really – especially given the level of Biblical literacy in the United States at the moment. Sometimes we do “poke the bear” a bit by diverting from Bible stories to discuss current issues related to Christian culture – from gay marriage to child coercion at church camps to legal battles over the separation of church and state. This is when, some devout followers of Christ seem to take their duties as Christians very, very seriously.
This week I received what is certainly not my first death threat, nor, I’m sure, will it be the last. Almost daily, I get what I would consider to be hostile emails from devout Christians (who have mostly not read our book), threatening everything from boycotts to bodily harm – even death. (Or, just weird guys like Dan.) Sometimes I also receive messages from atheists who think I’m too “easy” on Christians with some of our commentaries. In all honesty, I’m sure it just comes with the territory of working under a pen name (for good reason), making it easier for strangers to take pot-shots at what they perceive to be a character, not a real person. Coming through Facebook or email, these are relatively easy to track back to the sources, doing a bit of research and providing all of the necessary details to local authorities for follow-up (in case the subjects are known offenders in need of a refresher course about playing nicely with others). For the most part, these events don’t really affect me – I write under a pen name, I separate my writing from my personal life as much as possible, in order to maintain family privacy while protecting my other businesses from the unknown. You feel pretty safe until you open your personal mailbox to find an odd letter addressed to your private name – no return address, just a postmark from a couple of hours away.
A lot of things go through your mind while standing in the middle of the road, reading a letter like this: How did they get this address? How did they find my real name? What is this verse? Who are they? What do they want? This is obviously the King James? Are they serious? Would someone actually track me down at a speaking engagement to cause me harm? Where’s my wife? Where’s my gun?
Panic. Fear. Just what they were hoping for. Possibly just what they’ve been taught. I took a few moments to look up the Bible passage quoted on my phone. It was from Deuteronomy. Here is a more readable version from the NLT:
“Suppose someone secretly entices you—even your brother, your son or daughter, your beloved wife, or your closest friend—and says, ‘Let us go worship other gods’—gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known. They might suggest that you worship the gods of peoples who live nearby or who come from the ends of the earth. But do not give in or listen. Have no pity, and do not spare or protect them. You must put them to death! Strike the first blow yourself, and then all the people must join in.” – Deuteronomy 13:6-9. (NLT)
Honestly, my first reaction was, “Holy crap! How have we never illustrated this little bit of madness before?” My second reaction was, “I stand corrected – some Christians apparently do read their Bibles.”
So, I took the letters to my local police department even though I knew there was nothing they could really do. No name, no return address, no handwriting, probably no fingerprints – all coming from a generic postmark from a large geographic area of millions of people across several jurisdictions. The officer’s response was essentially threefold:
- Yes, it is creepy as hell and you have every reason to be alarmed.
- It’s not technically a direct threat by state standards.
- At this point, it is still covered by freedom of speech.
In short, their answer was, “Don’t let these nuts get to you, but try be more alert of your surroundings from now on. Can you hire private security to escort you to the event?” Uh… (To the officer’s credit, he definitely showed true concern and understanding, and we agreed that there wasn’t really anything to go on – from either an investigative or legal aspect…) I have also contacted the USPS Inspector General’s office on several occasions, but have yet to receive a call-back. In short, when it comes to menacing anonymous letters, you are on your own… I’ve heard stories of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris having bodyguards accompany them to certain events, but – I’m sorry, I’m not sure I’m interested in living in a world where you need personal protection for pointing out Bible verses that most pastors try to skip over.
Do I have your attention now? You think your so safe to hide behind a fake name to spread lies about God and attacking Christians? You aren’t.
So, here I am – trying to make some tough decisions on whether or not to attend the conference in Seattle. A coin toss, really… On one hand, God’s Little Helper is probably relatively harmless – some burned out fundamentalist seminary student with nothing better to do with his time than wreak havoc in the name of the Lord – misguided and childish, but ultimately harmless, never leaving his mom’s basement. On the other hand, God’s Little Helper could be THAT guy – the one at the bottom of the slippery slope, already way over the line, willing to do anything to prove just how faithful they are. Somebody like Jared Padgett, who acted on his plans to “kill the sinners” at his high school in Oregon. Or, somebody like Jessica Murphy who told police, “He had to die. I am saving him from going to hell,” after stabbing her eight year-old son to death. Or more extreme cases like Vince Li a church janitor, following God’s voice to kill, decapitate and eat a complete stranger on a bus.
Sadly, these seemingly bizarre religiously-motivated killings take place more often than our Judeo-Christian society (and media) would really care to admit. With as much focus as Christians put on violence and intimidation within radical Islam and the FLDS, a little look in the mirror from time to time might be surprising.
Call it masculinity or ego, but – when I am cornered by a bully, my normal instinctive reaction is to stand up and fight for what is ”right.” We should never let anybody steal our peace! Yet, in this case, there is nobody there to stand-up to – just a creepy innuendo of an apostate’s death penalty from an even creepier chosen title, “God’s Little Helper.” For that, I must give this person some credit for creativity – theatric effects noted. (Unfortunately, they lose points for grammar and spelling – so, it’s even.) So, what do you do? Do you stand up publicly and make the trip to Seattle to speak out against the exact sort of indoctrination that likely led to this person’s delusions in the first place? Or, do you check your ego at the door, stay home, to protect yourself and your family from harm? It’s one hell of a coin toss, really. Heads, you live to see another day of looking over your shoulder for no real reason. Tails, you’re dead. A martyr of sorts for one minute, forgotten the next. I gave up the idea of a dying for my religious beliefs when I gave up my Christianity.
I’ll see you up in Seattle next week. You wont see me.
I feel it is worth noting – I have presented at countless events throughout my life – from Christian conferences, to business conventions, to political events, to educational seminars. Yet, I never received a death threat until I agreed to speak at a convention of secular academics that don’t hold the majority view of religion in this country.
I’ll admit – I’m definitely conflicted. I don’t want to put others in harm’s way, the event staff, volunteers, attendees, or other speakers. At the same time, I don’t want to let anyone down by not following through with my commitment, as I have been looking forward to and promoting this event for months! The sad irony is that much of my presentation was originally going to be related to calming the tensions between the faith and the faithless, dismantling stereotypes from both sides of the aisle in hopes of ushering in a more compassionate understanding of the religious divide that causes these sorts of irrational behavior to begin with. This suddenly seems quite disingenuous, given the possibility that someone might be lurking in the audience or hallways with intent to do me harm for… What, illustrating the Word of God? Of course, many in the religious community will be quick to claim, “He’s obviously not a true Christian” or “He’s obviously mentally ill.” But, isn’t that always what they say the day after the school shooting, the day after a mother kills her child? What about the day before? “He is highly spiritual teen,” or, “She is a wonderful example of a Christian mother.” I wonder what acquaintances of God’s Little Helper would say about his or her faith, knowing nothing of their practices of mailing Biblical death threats to complete strangers – today, tomorrow?
Of course – not all Christians are hostile and menacing toward people of other faiths. To suggest otherwise would be a gross generalization born out of an agenda that I do not agree with. However, it is clear that God’s Little Helper is mentally ill. Who else would take the time to research and send such methodically menacing messages to a complete stranger? On the other hand, the illness in this case appears to be religiously motivated. So, which came first? As a predominantly Christian society, will we ever be willing (and able) to openly research the question with an objective mind? .
Today I received another letter from God’s Little Helper in the mail – equally as creepy, equally as anonymous, equally as threatening. Again, I took it to the police for some seemingly-false sense of security for my family. Today I sit, feeling rather hunted and helpless. For simply illustrating Bible verses from a perspective that might be critical of the church? Do I speak in Seattle or stay home? Probably live but possibly die? Is this really the only choice given by some faceless thug in the name of God? Some things never change, I guess…
So, congratulations, God’s Little Helper – you’re a celebrity! Some may applaud you, others may denounce you. Therein lies one of the greatest conflicts that has plagued your chosen religion for two millennia. My only question would be, would you even know if your devotion had crossed the line to delusion?
– Horus Gilgamesh
UPDATE: As the situation continued to escalate throughout the week, I officially canceled my appearance. When word of this got out this morning, fellow conference speakers, volunteers and attendees began sending photos of themselves wearing nametags that read, “Hello. My name is Horus Gilgamesh.” This act of solidarity from complete strangers left me speechless and profoundly humbled.
WHY I CANCELLED: Working with event organizers, I was ready to stand firm for my own right to free speech. However, once there were plans of adding security and hiring personal bodyguards, it all just felt like it was getting out of hand. Off-duty police officers and military personnel should NOT be put in harm’s way to defend a complete stranger – simply for their lack of faith. It is insanity and I simply wouldn’t allow it.
Additionally, a lot of really good people have put a lot of time and effort into this event and it didn’t seem fair to them to make my presence a distraction or give attendees any reason to have concern for their safety. This should be a fun and engaging weekend of sharing ideas and making new friends – period.
Lastly, I have a family to think of. Years ago as a Christian, I dreamed of a martyr’s death – ready to play hero and pay the “ultimate price” for my place in heaven. Those days are over, as I am no longer willing to die for my faith or lack thereof. Instead, I choose this life – the one I can actually see, smell, hear, taste, and touch every day.
In my mind, ‘God’s Little Helper’ has already lost by showing how such horrible threats can still be justified by the Bible. Of course, I do NOT think all Christians would want to do me physical harm – that would be a wildly inaccurate generalization that would serve no purpose other than in inflame tensions between those of varying faith. Most of my friends are Christians – pastors, professors, and good parents. In fact, Dan Kimball, a prominent evangelical author, professor, and pastor of Vintage Faith Church wrote the foreword to our latest book. (Of course, many Christians already consider him an apostate anyway, so…) All that said, with so much focus on what many refer to as ‘radical Islam’ overseas, I think many Americans need to take a look in the mirror and recognize that religious fanaticism is alive and well – right here in the USA.
CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW? I don’t actually feel silenced, just annoyed by the timing and circumstances that forced me back-out of the event at the last moment, letting down all of the amazing organizers and supportive fans. Aside from skipping the convention, this situation has done nothing but further strengthen my resolve and I’m not going anywhere!
Hello. My name is Horus Gilgamesh