ON THE MORNING of December 7, 2007, Christopher Campbell walked into his English Honors class at Parker High School, prepared to tear out pages of the Bible.
Earlier that week his teacher had taped aphorisms by Ralph Waldo Emerson on the blackboard. Students were to select an aphorism of their choice, explain what they thought Emerson’s words meant, and relate it to a personal experience, accompanied with a visual aid.
Campbell picked, "So far as a man thinks, he is free," and spent the next few nights composing a rough draft in preparation for his speech.
On the day of his presentation, Campbell stood up in front of the class and said:
What Ralph Waldo Emerson meant when he said, “So far as a man thinks, he is free,” was that our only freedom, what we call our “free will” is our ability to think. This particular saying is likened to me because I no longer rely on such things as faith and feeling as sources of knowledge.
We must all grow up and lose our faith in the Easter Bunny, Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and eventually Jesus, because such things are fairy tales and while maybe appropriate for children, they cease to be rational when one reaches a certain age. Things like faith, mysticism, and feeling restrict one from productive, rational thought, and if we are not thinking, we are not free. Our only means of acquiring knowledge should be through rationale and logic.
- Ayn Rand personifies her vision of man’s existence in her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged. Rand says that the pursuit of our own happiness should be our goal in life and that morality does not come from others. The Bible says the poor man is rich for his kindness and humility toward mankind, and his rewards shall be great in the kingdom of heaven. Right. And I’m the King of England.
- The Bible is not rational to me, so why would I want to waste my life studying it, trying to seek some “moral enlightenment” from its pages?
- Now what I’m about to do next, some of your tiny little brains might not be able to comprehend, so viewer discretion is advised.
Campbell then lifted a copy of the Bible in his hand as he spoke:
- This book has halted the intellectual advancement of humankind for centuries. But now I am free from its grasp, so I am free to do this.
- In the beginning was the Word, and the Word became kindling. (At this point, Campbell starts to tear the pages.) This book is not holy. It was written by a bunch of old, smelly Mesopotamians with sand in their [expletive].
- Now, will anyone come up here with me to testify, and kick Jesus out of your heart? (No response from the students.) Well, I guess I’m surrounded by a bunch of superstitious, simple-minded ignoramuses.
Campbell sat down. Only three students clapped. The teacher gave him a B.
“My tearing of the Bible was symbolism for breaking out of the barrier of mysticism. It personified my stance as a thinking, rational human being. I see it as anyone who reads the Bible as a factual document of history is not really thinking,” Campbell said in an email interview with the Humanist. For privacy reasons, Campbell had previously declined interviews with local newspapers.
But what began as a simple demonstration of free will resulted in a school-wide controversy. Word quickly spread throughout Parker about the incident. Barbara Dougal, an assistant principal, brought him to her office later that day and told him several students had voiced concerns about his presentation, and that appropriate
discipline needed to be taken.
He was taken to in-school suspension and then sent home. A meeting with his parents was scheduled. The assistant principal, a police officer assigned to the high school and a social services worker attended, Campbell says, and he was barraged with questions unrelated to the actual incident: What do you do when you get angry? Are there problems at home?
“It was intimidating to have them all gang up on me like that,” Campbell said. “They really drove me to tears. Maybe it was their tone and my mom being there.” Campbell suspects that his behavior during the meeting convinced the officials that he was “unstable” and they ordered him to be examined by a psychiatrist before returning to school. He would be suspended for a week on the basis of “inappropriate language,” according to Campbell. Parker’s Principal Dale Carlson told the Janesville Gazette that Campbell’s punishment was “not tied specifically to the ripping of the Bible pages.”
“I did not harm anyone, put anyone in immediate danger, or threaten anyone. I didn’t say to the class, ‘I’m going to hurt you if you are a Christian.'” said Campbell.
But students did feel threatened–so threatened that one parent, Paul Jacobson, the father of Elle Jacobson, a student in Campbell’s English class, has withdrawn enrollment for both of his daughters from Parker, telling local NBC Channel 15, “This boy has done something that is unbalanced, violent in my opinion. He tore that Bible apart as an effigy for Christians. This was not some kind of a demonstration about free speech; this was in my opinion the words of a sociopath.”
Campbell thinks the Jacobsons are overreacting. “Seriously, did she really think I was going to hurt anybody?” he asked. “I do not believe I showed any anger or hostility, just irritation and frustration at organized religion.”
The district’s legal counsel, David Moore, was asked to provide an opinion, a copy of which was obtained by the local newspaper. Moore clarified that a student can’t be punished for the mere act of tearing Bible pages, but the school had the right to discipline him on the grounds of using foul language and promoting “negative stereotyping that degrades or flagrantly demeans any individual or group by negatively referring to religion.”
Campbell strongly disagrees. “I think it’s [expletive] that religion is protected in this country. It’s not like race, gender, ethnicity or nationality. People can’t help those things. They can, however, help what they think.”
In the days following the incident, newspapers, television reporters, and bloggers around the country provided their own commentary on Campbell’s actions. Many supported him and viewed the incident as a First Amendment issue. Others saw it as offensive and a direct attack on Christianity.
Reactions from fellow students have been mixed. “At the end of the class two students approached me,” Campbell explains. “One said, ‘You’re my hero,’ and another said, ‘Wow, you have a lot of [expletive] to do something like that.’ No negative comments at all. But a friend told me later that someone in his class said, ‘He should be beat up for his atheist [expletive].'”
Rebecca Comfort, a student at Parker and friend of Campbell, said, “I got a kick out of the speech. He’s creative and has a strong way of how he expresses himself. Anyone that knows him knows that this isn’t anything aside from his regular personality.”
Other students at Parker voiced their opinions by posting comments on the social networking site, Facebook:
- I think the topic needs to stay more on the fact that Chris was unduly punished because his point of view did not reflect the masses.
- Christianity is a religion. It is a sacred belief, and held close to many people. But Christianity, like other religions and beliefs, should not be made a target and threatened and insulted upon by people who disagree. It’s fine to believe what you’d like, but it’s not alright to shock your way of belief onto others.
- Why doesn’t he have the right to rip pages out of his own property? To him it’s nothing, so why shouldn’t he be able to with it what he pleases?
Though Campbell is back at school and life at Parker appears to have returned to normal, he says, “The whole incident was totally blown out of proportion.” But considering the media attention surrounding his actions, would he do it again? He says yes. “I had every right to do it. I was not sorry for what I did.”
His actions open up larger arguments over how far a person can go when challenging religious belief. Students and parents have the right to feel offended–even angered–at Campbell’s actions.
But it’s hard to believe school officials that the act of ripping the Bible had nothing to do with his punishment. Imagine a student tearing copies of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and calling evolutionists “simple-minded ignoramuses.” The student would receive no more than an afternoon of detention, if that. And to believe that today’s high schoolers never use inappropriate language–even slipping in an occasional curse word in a class presentation–is naïve. If Campbell’s interpretation of his presentation is accurate, none of his comments should have been perceived as threatening.
Whether or not ripping the Bible was the right thing to do, Campbell had the freedom to do it. What better way to display the importance of Emerson’s words?
Maggie Ardiente is the Development Manager for the American Humanist Association.