This school could have taught a real lesson

Thanks to a post over at the Friendly Atheist, we have information on an interesting incident that occurred several months ago at a high school in Tennessee. The school held a “Fictional Character Day” in which students could come to school dressed as a fictional character (can you guess where this is going?) One student came dressed as Jesus. Bam! There was anarchy the halls, babies crying, and cats and dogs taking up residence together.

Ok, not really. What happened was the student, Jeff Shott, was summoned to the principal’s office to have a conversation with three administrators at once about the “appropriateness” of his costume. Shott was told that his costume was controversial and likely to disrupt the learning environment. To be fair, the school administrators didn’t immediately force Shott to take off the costume. However, they did warn him that if even one teacher reported the slightest disruption, Shott would have to take it off. After being given this warning, Shott decided simply to remove the costume then and there (his writeup of the whole incident is available at the Friendly Atheist, linked above).

Jeff Shott as Jesus

I’m going to present two sides to this, starting with the side I probably would have taken when was in high school. I was a christian then, and I probably would have sided with the people who thought (as some people at Shott’s high school must have) that dressing up as Jesus and asserting his fictionality was a rude and disrespectful thing to do, and possibly shouldn’t be allowed. There is a feeling in American culture, and I’m sure others as well, that there is something “off limits” about religious beliefs. Criticize someone’s politics, or their scientific findings, or their beliefs about how to run a company, but as soon as a person’s beliefs become attached to a god somehow, they are then felt to be off limits, beyond criticism – as if a statement couldn’t be false just because it has the word “god” in it. It’s not a rational thing to think, but I’ve been there, I’ve felt it, and it’s real. When I look at the picture of Jeff Shott standing in his school cafeteria dressed up as a “fictional” Jesus, my mind goes back to the belief system I held when I was in high school, and my gut reaction is something like “Hold it – you can’t do that.”

But I see things differently now. It’s silly to object to, or be upset by (enough to cause a classroom disturbance) someone asserting the fictionality of Jesus. The supernatural Jesus is, after all, certainly fictional, and even the historical Jesus (in the form of an apocalyptic Jewish preacher around whom the Biblical myths coalesced) may be just a legend as well. But even if this weren’t the case, why should it be upsetting that a random student at a person’s high school was wrong? When a person honestly believes something that is patently false, there is little reason to pursue an argument with them, or to care very much about what they have to say. So why shouldn’t christian students at Shott’s high school simply ignore Shott, since he obviously doesn’t know what he’s talking about? This is what anyone would do if a student came to Fictional Character Day dressed as Abraham Lincoln. No, clearly the idea that Jesus existed is one most christians find needs defending. I wonder why.

The school administrators’ response to this event is something I find more probematic. Apparently the administrators thought that if the sight of a student dressed as Jesus incited a classroom disruption, the solution would be to make that student remove the costume, rather than punishing the students who caused the disruption. It seems to me that the administrators wasted a teachable moment, and planned on holding  Jeff Shott – who was following the rules – responsible for the actions of disruptive students who weren’t.

Instead, this would have been an excellent opportunity for the adults at school to teach the young adults that people have a right to their beliefs, and people have a right to disagree with those beliefs, and they must do it civilly. They must follow the rules of the school or the society at large that they are subject to. Offense is not free pass to behave however you like, or to silence someone with an opinion you don’t like. A braver school administration might have taken the opportunity to teach this, and it would have been far more pedagogically effective than any abstract discussion of free speech like the kind that are had in history class. This is real.

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9 Comments

Filed under Free Speech, Religion

9 responses to “This school could have taught a real lesson

  1. You’re not very well-educated about Jesus. There is almost no doubt that the “historical” Jesus existed. He is referred to by several prominent historians of the period (Josephus, Pliny, etc.) and the stories written about him by the church came well within 70 years of his death, not long enough — in the judgment of nearly all historians — to have escaped serious contemporary criticism if he didn’t actually exist.

    As to your claim that “[t]he supernatural Jesus is, after all, certainly fictional,” I won’t address it except to point out that it’s a textbook example of the question-begging fallacy.

    I also find it pretty hilarious that you write quite a bit about atheism, referencing atheist advocates like Friendly Atheist and Christopher Hitchens, and yet you assert that “[Christians should] … simply ignore [atheists], since [they] obviously [don’t] know what [they’re] talking about.” You don’t seem to ignore Christians, though. Why the double standard?

    Further, you also don’t seem to understand schools, because every school I’ve ever seen or heard of will focus its attention on the person who is intentionally doing something that generates the cause of the disruption. Yes, they too have double-standards sometimes, but the normal course of action is to disallow the disruptive influence. The simple reason for it is that it’s easier. And it has nothing to do with atheism or Christianity.

    Finally, I’d say that I do agree that Christians shouldn’t be bothered by this, but, surprise! People are often immature. They lash out at the beliefs of others they perceive as a threat, whether it makes sense or not. Kinda like you’re doing.

    • Personally, I have not given full consideration to the arguments for the historicity of Jesus – it is an interesting subject which would require some serious study before I felt educated on the matter. But to say that there is “almost no doubt” a historical Jesus existed is simply false. Scholars who argue that he did not exist include Richard Carrier, Robert Price, Earl Doherty, G.A. Wells, Thomas Thompson, and Frank Zindler. This amount of scholarship is certainly enough to merit the very weak claim that I made, that the historical Jesus may be a legend.

      Furthermore, your arguments aren’t even factually accurate. Pliny mentioned christians, not Jesus. Josephus’ mention of Jesus is considered by most scholars to be an interpolation. And so on.

      As to your claim that “[t]he supernatural Jesus is, after all, certainly fictional,” I won’t address it except to point out that it’s a textbook example of the question-begging fallacy.

      In which I assume that Jesus is fictional in order to prove that Jesus is fictional? Oh wait, I didn’t do that.

      …you assert that “[Christians should] … simply ignore [atheists], since [they] obviously [don’t] know what [they’re] talking about.” You don’t seem to ignore Christians, though. Why the double standard?

      I didn’t really say that, did I? (And you made an awful lot of changes to my words in order to get that.) I said that there was no reason for christians not to ignore Jeff Shott dressed as Jesus – not that christians should ignore atheists altogether. Furthermore, I ignore christians all the time. I frequently see people wearing crosses, which is equivalent to asserting that 1) I am a dirty sinner, 2) God died for me in order to take away my sins, and 3) I may be tortured forever because I do not believe these things. I find all of these ideas offensive and/or immoral, but do I make a disturbance, or any comment whatsoever, when I see a christian wearing a cross? Nope, I ignore it.

      People are often immature. They lash out at the beliefs of others they perceive as a threat, whether it makes sense or not. Kinda like you’re doing.

      oh noes, i am totally lashing out!!1 i am so enrayged i can bearly spell or rite compleat sentenses!!11 angurrrrrrrrrrrr.

      • But to say that there is “almost no doubt” a historical Jesus existed is simply false.

        No, it’s not. Yes, some scholars say he didn’t exist. The evidence against them is overwhelming.

        your arguments aren’t even factually accurate. Pliny mentioned christians, not Jesus. Josephus’ mention of Jesus is considered by most scholars to be an interpolation.

        You’re wrong again. Pliny did not mention “Jesus,” but he did mention “Christ,” not merely “Christians.” And you’re similarly wrong about what “most scholars” think about Josephus’ words: while one of the entries was probably at least embellished, most agree it probably did reference Jesus originally; but the second reference to Jesus, few doubt as fully authentic.

        In which I assume that Jesus is fictional in order to prove that Jesus is fictional? Oh wait, I didn’t do that.

        What you did was assert he is fictional as part of your rhetorical defense of someone claiming he is fictional.

        I didn’t really say that, did I?

        Yes, you did.

        I said that there was no reason for christians not to ignore Jeff Shott dressed as Jesus – not that christians should ignore atheists altogether.

        No, you didn’t. You very clearly said the reason they should ignore him is that he (to them) doesn’t know what he is talking about. The only possible way this would make sense is if, by general principle, they should ignore people that (to them) don’t know what they are talking about. So yes, you said they should ignore atheists.

        Furthermore, I ignore christians all the time.

        Not enough to follow your clearly stated general principle.

        I frequently see people wearing crosses, which is equivalent to asserting that 1) I am a dirty sinner, 2) God died for me in order to take away my sins, and 3) I may be tortured forever because I do not believe these things.

        False. Even if I grant the first two — which I don’t, because they are not necessarily a message TO YOU — for the sake of argument, the third is simply incorrect. Christianity does not assert that because of your lack of belief you will be tortured.

        First, it’s not torture. Torture is something someone does to you. That’s not the hell of the Bible. Second, it is not your lack of belief that puts you there, it’s your sin. It’s belief that gets you out of there, not the lack thereof that puts you there.

        I find all of these ideas offensive and/or immoral

        Well, that’s retarded of you.

        oh noes, i am totally lashing out!!1 i am so enrayged i can bearly spell or rite compleat sentenses!!11 angurrrrrrrrrrrr.

        Pretty much, yes.

    • Yeah_No

      * Josephus was tampered with, fought a war against the Romans all around Judea yet never mentions Nazareth.
      * Pliny’s Christians believed in the spiritual Christ, not the flesh and blood God-man. (It’s also odd that 2nd century Pliny had never heard of “Christians” when he should’ve seen them thrown to the lions in the Colosseum when he was growing up.)
      * Seneca the Younger (-4-65) in Rome never writes about Jesus.
      * Philo of Alexandria (-20-50) never writes about Jesus, even though he was a Jewish leader in nearby Egypt at the time.

      Saying that there was a flesh-and-blood Jesus is like saying there was a guy named “Adams” from Boston in the late 18th century who killed a red coat.

      All this and more you can learn at jesusneverexisted.com.

      • Josephus was tampered with

        You’re not paying attention. I already addressed this. Yes, one citation of Josephus’ is challenged, but another one is — by far — accepted by most scholars.

        Pliny’s Christians believed in the spiritual Christ

        That’s not an argument.

        And then there’s Tacitus, which most scholars accept. And there’s others.

        I won’t bother to respond to your “absence of evidence” arguments, for obvious logical reasons.

  2. Just imagine if he’d dressed up as the “Prophet” Mohammed.

  3. The school was mind-numbingly stupid to invite the students to dress up and then be surprised when a costume was provocative. At my (private, progressive) high school, dress up days were intened to be ways to start a discussion. I love this kid’s costume (although it verges on supermodel in drag rather than Jesus) and considering the seperation of church and state, the school was wrong to try and protect religious interests.

  4. There’s no mention of any actual disturbance in the article. I find this interesting as it reveals that the school administration expected Christians to be badly upset, while there’s no indication in the article that they were.

    Personally I think Christianity gets a bad reputation in this country for much the same reason Islam does: a vocal minority of nutjobs who usurp the name of Christianity to commit very un-Christian acts (the “God hates fags” crowd comes to mind, as well as most televangelists).

    I think you are right: the Christians should have ignored him. That being said, overall it appears they did. It was the school who didn’t, probably based on their overall impression of what Christians represent. Christians should probably worry less about atheists and worry more about the bad name others are giving their religion.

  5. Pingback: Yes, you can still be offensive in school (and why this is a good thing) | The Floating Lantern

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