We’ve been debating the fallout from Florida student Webster Cook taking (and then returning) a communion wafer, atheist blogger PZ Myers’ aggressive reaction to the blacklash, and Andrew Sullivan’s lame defense of double standards when it comes to defending the infamous Muslim cartoons, but condemning Myers’ proposed symbolic wafercide. In the process, I had an exchange with Murder of Ravens on the subject that I think helped clarify my position on the whole mess, and was worth expanding on a bit. MoR wrote:
In the case of the Danish cartoonists, they were mocking specific actions of fundamentalist Muslims, namely, their proclivity towards blowing things up and killing innocent people in the name of Allah. Sure, the cartoonists’ approach was injudicious and heavy handed, but then, surely no more heavy handed than the actions of their subjects. And besides, political cartoons have never been known for their subtlety.
In this case, the cartoons were not intended to depict at ALL Muslims, simply an odious minority who engaged in violent and, one might daresay, sociopathic behavior. I think most people will agree that this sort of behavior is rightly condemned by all right thinking people.
On the other hand, taking communion is a benign expression of faith that is partaken of by almost all Catholics. Even if you don’t believe it has any benefits, I think you’ll agree that it harms no one. Unlike the Danish cartoonists, Myers is deliberately antagonizing an entire faith for participating in a harmless act of faith.
The distinction still doesn’t quite fly: you’re assuming that it was depicting violent Muslims that was the relevant offense here.
But reason people were actually rioting in the streets was the actual depiction of Muhammad (which itself would be bad enough even without demeaning that image further) which is all by itself considered a desecration of the sacred in Islam. For Muslims, depicting the prophet is pretty much analogous to consecrating a wafer and then flushing it down the toilet: depictions are by their nature profane.
Some observant Jews have a similar belief about names of God: if you or anyone writes one down somewhere, then you are duty bound not to harm the paper, and it can only be disposed of in a very particular fashion (basically put in a special place where it can never come to any harm). To not do so (or to do something like print a name of God on a newspaper destined to be thrown into the garbage or burned) is, again, a willful desecration.
In short, all of these acts are deliberate acts of religious desecration in the eyes of certain believers. They are all in some sense unnecessary acts of blasphemy, and thus deeply and deliberately insulting when knowingly done.
The problem here is that Myers comes off as a total dickhead on this one: “It won’t be gross. It won’t be totally tasteless, but yeah, I’ll do something that shows this cracker has no power. This cracker is nothing.” And: “It’s so darned weird that they’re demanding that I offer this respect to a symbol that means nothing to me.”
What Myers either can’t or won’t understand is that it’s not the symbol that deserves respect, (although I realize that some will disagree with that) it’s the people. To me, the Bible and the Koran are just books. Interesting (in places) and historic, but still just books. But I still would not desecrate either, not because I respect the books, but rather because I know my actions would offend.
Now, call me hopelessly old-fashioned, but I still believe in an old concept known as “consideration for the feelings of others”. An outmoded concept, I realize, but one which still has some value. Clearly, Myers does not share my view.
I agree that Myers is being rude here of course. I just don’t think one can defend one act of defiant desecration and not another, or condemn one as rude and hurtful and not another.
And there’s an important nuance here: why I disagree with him is important, and I get the sense that it’s a key difference between my reaction and that of someone like Mark Shea. Shea thinks Myers is just being an ass out of a mere arrogant desire to feel superior.
But that’s just Shea’s usual way of dismissal (note his constant reliance on psychological characterization nutpicking). Myers does have a clear reason for what he says and does: he actually believes that his description of desecration is aimed at puncturing the power of a belief that needs puncturing, and that this is so important that it needs to be confronted in the style of a sort of dramatic intervention.
Now, you and I both clearly agree that nothing so important is at stake here that it’s worth even hurting anyone’s feelings. But I think you would have to agree that it’s not always wrong in principle to hurt someone’s feelings by a demonstrative act: sometimes the act is justified by the importance of expressing the cause (for instance, burning a communist flag during Poland’s independence movement probably sincerely hurt the feelings of dedicated communists and Soviets, but it would have been a powerful and important symbolic act as well).
In that sense, what’s going on here is a judgment call on what measures are worth it for what cause, not a violation of any absolute principle against hurting feelings by symbolic acts.
Now, Myers thinks that mocking and thus holding to public ridicule religious beliefs can weaken their grasp on people. I’m agnostic on that score: it potentially could do that, and many such acts have in the past worked to delegitimize certain beliefs or movements. It’s not, as some think, that devout Catholics are suddenly going to change their minds upon being mocked, but rather the act of casting the belief under public, culture-wide scrutiny. That’s plausible as a means to delegitimize the belief. On the other hand, I think it’s just as possible that it could have the opposite effect: mere bullying that doesn’t play well in the general public at all, and thus only enrages Catholics. So maybe more than just agnostic as to the effectiveness of the method: I’m skeptical.
But where we really differ is how we weigh the stakes. Myers truly believes that religious beliefs are not just wrong, but harmful. No, he doesn’t believe that Catholics at Mass are akin to suicide bombers. But he does think that it legitimizes a form of dogmatic irrationality in our culture that leads to all sorts of other irrationality in our culture, leads to political views he thinks are bad, and so on. He watches the indoctrination of new generations of believers and sees it as a crime upon their intellects. And, I think somewhere along the lines, he believes that this all rises to being a threat to our civilization: that the continued grasp of ancient superstitions on our culture both holds us back and diverts us off into places he doesn’t want us to go.
And don’t get me wrong: I do think there is some real harm here. The moral confusion of someone like Bill Donahue, thinking that taking a wafer out of a church is the worst thing that has ever happened or is in any sense comparable to a violent kidnapping: that’s pernicious stuff. Morality is too important to have people’s priorities generally muddied and distorted in such a bizarre manner.
But the harms here are, I think, ephemeral, indirect, and uncertain. And they’re filtered through complex people: people who for the time being may well be worse off without their religion than with it, wrong or right. In the face of that, I’m far more inclined to think that religion per se, as a cultural practice, is fairly neutral in terms of its social harms. I think that when it comes to behavior, people as often as not justify their existing convictions and desires with religious ideas, rather than the other way around (following religious directives).
And while I agree with Myers and Harris that merely silly or moderate beliefs help justify the intellectual habits of extremists, I’m not sure extremists need justification or acceptance, or even that moderates really in practice follow that logic in practice anyway.
So the stakes, for me, are way way less. And coupled with a dubious, potentially counter-productive method and the certainty of hurting and insulting people, I don’t see the point. Myers, while certainly in the right to reject the overreactions directed at Webster Cook and many of the incoherent outraged arguments of Shea, Sullivan, and Donahue, hasn’t, in my mind, been able to justify insulting all Catholics in return by threatening blasphemy.
But it is a judgment call, based on some real differences of opinion: not matter of mere bigotry, as Shea would have it.