What shouldn’t be submerged in piss?

The 1987 photograph “Piss Christ” will be on display at the Edward Tyler Nahem gallery in New York City  for a full month starting tomorrow. The same Christians who have been screaming that a poorly-made film insulting Mohammed was an expression of free speech are now wringing their hands and whining that Mayor Bloomberg isn’t doing something about this offensive work of art.

I don’t want to talk about the hypocrisy or the politics of this; there will be plenty of that all over the news and the web, and I doubt I will have anything new to add. Instead, I want to talk about the more philosophical issue of what it means for something to be offensive.

To make it more concrete, I ask myself the question: what object would I absolutely not want submerged in piss? What thing, if it were submerged in piss and put on display, would make me angered and offended?

It’s a tough question. Now, I don’t want you to think that just because I’m not religious, there aren’t things that I value or attach symbolic meaning to. I value lots of things.  So let’s try to imagine…

I picture a mathematics textbook submerged in piss. No emotional reaction.

I picture “Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain” by Patricia Churchland submerged in piss. Seems like a waste, but not really upsetting.

I picture “Steps to an Ecology of Mind” by Gregory Bateson submerged in piss. For some reason, that one strikes me as a little funny. I don’t know why. But certainly I feel no outrage.

OK, maybe something other than a book. Maybe a symbol of some sort.

I imagine the American Flag submerged in piss. Seems kind of dumb, but it doesn’t get me angry.

I imagine the HRC “equality” symbol submerged in piss. I suppose it might upset me if it was meant as a form of intimidation, like if it were left on the doorstep of  an openly gay political activist. But if it’s on display in a gallery then… meh. No real emotional reaction.

I imagine the Democratic Party donkey submerged in piss!  Poor donkey. Now I’m just worried about animal abuse. But I’m not really offended.

How about something more personal?

I support President Obama and have a great deal of admiration and respect for him. How about a photo of Obama submerged in piss?  Actually, this has been done by a conservative activist thinking that he was “getting back” at liberal artists for “Piss Christ”.

I think it’s kind of stupid. I think it’s crass and classless. But I’m not particularly offended by it. It doesn’t make me feel personally hurt or angry. I am not outraged. I don’t feel any personal emotion about it at all, except that I think it’s kind of pathetic.  If that even counts as an emotion.

I am half German, so I imagine German things submerged in piss: A Bavarian flag in piss, a pair of Lederhosen submerged in piss, a nice cold mug of beer submerged in piss. No reaction. Actually, to me, certain German beers look a little like piss.

I’m half Ukrainian, so I imagine Ukrainian things submerged in piss: pysanki in piss, borscht in piss, vareniki in piss. Now I’m just hungry and grossed out at the same time. But not particularly offended.

I like working out, so I imagine… I don’t know. Dumbbells submerged in piss? No emotional reaction.

Money submerged in piss?

Doctor Who action figures submerged in piss?


I really can’t think of anything at all that I would get angry or personally upset about, if it were submerged in piss for the purposes of putting on display in a museum or art gallery.

Is this a real difference between atheists (or at least atheists like myself) and theists (or at least theists who take offense at things)?

A lot of people like to claim that atheism is just another kind of belief system. Some go so far as to call atheism just another “religion” . They claim that it is not qualitatively different from religions, and that the only difference is that atheists hold a different set of beliefs to be sacred.

But I think this thought experiment belies that assertion, to an extent.

Both religious people and atheists value things, to be sure. Both will argue tooth and nail to support the assumptions that they feel are true about the world we live in.

But it seems as though religious people (perhaps not all religious people, but certainly many) have an extra layer on top of that belief. They have a layer of emotional attachment that says: if you mock or insult my beliefs, then it will shake me to my very core!

In fact, with religious people it is almost assumed that if you insult certain things that they believe, it is not just expected but perhaps even justified that they will get angry or seriously emotionally hurt. They will take it personally, and it will be experienced as a kind of emotional pain for them.

I just don’t see this with atheists. I do not see atheists saying, “If you submerge a book by Darwin in piss, then I will boycott and protest and set things on fire.”  I do not see atheists saying, “You have insulted scientific method, and now I’m just so personally hurt by that act that I can’t sleep at night.”

It just doesn’t happen.

Or at least, it doesn’t with me. Maybe it’s different for other atheists.

If you are an atheist, you may want to ask yourself: What do you think shouldn’t be submerged in piss?


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  1. Rick Sage says:

    Being a non-atheist, and a 1st Amendment right supporter, my usual though …Okay…Whatever.

    Although I have read a 2014 study suggesting urine is not sterile, medical students are taught that urine is -in fact- sterile.

    So, I also think …Leftist Urine Artists are in trouble, they don’t know what urine is. Thanks for the blessing/purification! Ha! 🙂

  2. Niles Chandler says:

    “In fact, with religious people it is almost assumed that if you insult certain things that they believe, it is not just expected but perhaps even justified that they will get angry or seriously emotionally hurt.”

    That could be because, secretly, they’re afraid you may be right.

    When mullahs first issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, and many of their followers sought to carry it out, a perceptive New York Times columnist wrote that this was not an expression of how strong their faith was, but how WEAK it was. If their beliefs were actually strong and secure, he said, they would not feel so threatened by the views of unbelievers. The expression “hitting a raw nerve” comes to mind…

    To me it seems that when religious fundamentalists try to impose their beliefs on a gay person, an atheist, or a woman seeking an abortion, they are motivated in part by a need to reassure themselves of how devout they are– just as so many gay-bashings represent the bashers’ attempts to quell any self-doubts about their own “masculinity”.

    Why did the Founders decide that no religion should be imposed on all citizens by their government? And, more broadly, why is it an American tradition that no person should have a religion imposed on him by his neighbors? Because we have had a common understanding– even if not openly acknowledged– that most of our religious doctrines contain some bullshit. “So the deal is, you don’t try to impose your brand of holy bullshit on me and I won’t try to impose mine on you.”

    • Greg Stevens says:

      “That could be because, secretly, they’re afraid you may be right.”

      That could be it. I go back and forth about this kind of speculation. On the one hand, I want to show them the respect of taking their statements at face value, and not speculating about “what is really going on” in their heads. I always think that is a dangerous game, and a bit pompous since it’s almost always unverifiable.

      But I do see the temptation to wonder what is driving the emotional reaction? It may not be fear of being wrong. It could be other things. As long as one is speculating: if you see religious beliefs as related to your family’s honor, or as related to some kind of “team” identity you have built up, then saying you disagree with a religious belief may be seen as an attack on your family or on your “group” or “kind”. This kind of confusion — believing that any statement “I disagree with statement X” is akin to saying “I am COMPLETELY OPPOSED TO THE TYPE OF PERSON YO ARE” — could lead to an emotional reaction like that.

  3. Todd says:

    I am a atheist, and nothing would offend me, submerged in piss. This is one think we can agree on. My only comment is that you didn’t list the one thing that separates atheists and theists. It can simply be put in two word”pedagogical dogma”.

  4. JoeStFrancois says:

    Puppies and kittens. I have a strong emotional response to the idea of little puppies or little kittens submerged in piss. Oh, and baby chimps too. Puppies, kittens, and baby chimps.

  5. Kurt Boyd says:

    As a non-atheist, I haven’t seen the photo and don’t even know if I would find it offensive, but at the same time, I support the first amendment and artistic expression. My theory is, if you don’t like or are offended by it, then don’t go look at it. That’s why I always have to laugh when family/religious groups get all wound up about TV shows they find “offensive.” If you don’t want to watch, then turn the damn channel! What is so difficult about that concept with some people?

    Like a friend of mine in college used to say, it’s better to be pissed off than pissed on.

  6. On a slightly serious note, as a father, if my dead children were submerged in piss I would take great offense to that and possibly become violent.

    However, on a slightly not so serious note, as an atheist, if any object, symbol, avatar or other non-once-living-thing-I-cared-about are submerged in piss I could give two craps.

  7. Hilde says:

    As an atheist, nothing will upset me for things submerged in piss. If you are talking from a scientific / religious point of view, I don’t really care, I don’t see how it would affect me in any way. Of course, I won’t like it if you take my stuff and dump it in a glass of piss, but I wouldn’t be offended as such. Things on display, not a problem, but if it is done to a picture of someone I really love, mocking him/her, ridiculing and degrading this person as a way of ‘bullying’, then I would be very angry and upset. Whatever you do to my friends, you do to me too. That would be a totally different story because then it becomes very personal.

    • Mike Pemberton says:

      The whole “Submerged in piss” concept is a little odd. Although this type of discussion is what I would hope people would want to inspire by creating this piece of art, I do think that upsetting devout Christians was a big chunk of of his agenda. It’s not always easy but I find the best way to combat something that is meant to enrage me, is to try and not even acknowledge it. The ones that are trying to upset me are the ones with the problem. I have my own to deal with.

      Although there is something fun about teasing those u know are going to flip out over something stupid. I am mainly glad that Greg was not spending his time putting things in piss.

  8. Szebastian says:

    Umm, reading through, I tried to picture all of the examples you gave from books to money to pictures to role models and then some more. Honestly I even asked myself what or who is most emotionally important to me – Mom and Dad came to mind. Then I asked myself would it offend me … turn me violent? I feel my first reaction will be ‘what the’ and then after 2 seconds I will say ‘What stupid’ how does that prove anything? then my family and I would laugh over the stupidity and get on with our business.

    Mom is VERY religious but then again she follows three religions so I have my own confusions about what her path of belief system is, but I asked her anyway and she said ‘Well in my view the person who does this is simply mentally ill and I will pay no heed and keep moving on assuming that person needs professional help, but I have no time for him or her’.

    I mean … meh …. the one who is doing is lame and low .. I don’t think it would be worth my time and energy to get worked up or even try and reason with someone so daft!

    That Is All.

    Be Well, Do Well and Spread Smiles


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