Dissent Of The Day

A reader writes:

In today's Moore Award post about PZ Myers you write:

"It is one thing to engage in free, if disrespectful, debate. It is another to repeatedly assault and ridicule and abuse something that is deeply sacred to a great many people."

On Feb. 11, 2006 you posted the following, in relation to the Danish Cartoonists ridiculing Mohammed and Islam:

"The point is this: everyone is supposed to observe the religious constraints of one particular faith, regardless of whether we share it. And if we don't observe Islamic etiquette ... we're lucky if we only get cursed and condemned. Get that?"

That sounds like a double standard to me. Are we supposed to be more deferential to Catholics than Muslims, when it comes to ridiculing what some of us see as silly and oppressive superstitions? I don't recall you referring to the Danish cartoonists as "bigots." The only difference I can see here, is that now it's YOUR personal religion that's being ridiculed. So of course that makes the offender a bigot.

Another reader adds:

The boundary between respectful debate and ridicule or abuse is frequently in the eyes of the beholder.  I can’t help but think of the cartoons of Mohammed published in Denmark and elsewhere.  I’m sure some semantic difference between the cartoons and Mr. Myers’ screed could be posed.  However, in the eyes of many of the believers of the respective religions, both Mr. Myers’ language and the cartoons “assault and ridicule and abuse something that is deeply sacred to a great many people”.  You, in particular, have been especially tough on newspapers that refused to publish the cartoons of Mohammed.  Rightly so.  Yet many Muslims would appeal to you for some sort of “baseline civility”.  In their eyes, you would be inciting others to ridicule and abuse their prophet.

For an Atheist like Mr. Myers, the idea of transubstantiation is just as absurd as Xenu stacking nuclear weapons around volcanoes, reincarnation, taking up snakes and baptizing the dead (or living). Why shouldn’t Mr. Myers “ridicule” something he knows to be a cracker?  It’s a cracker, for goodness sake.  Which religious tenets is he allowed to ridicule?  Xenu’s bombs? Christians that take up snakes? None of the above?  What about young Earth creationism?  One of Mr. Myers’ more frequent attacks is on the idea of young (6,000 year old) Earth creationism that’s espoused by many Christians and other believers.  He’s equally crude with his attacks on those beliefs.  Where is your outrage with respect to those lines of attack? Is your lack of outrage due to the fact that you actually agree with him that the Earth is much older than that?  Who decides which silly beliefs are worthy of ridicule, sarcasm, etc.?  If we assume for the sake of argument that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old and all the creatures on the Earth today are the product of evolution, shouldn’t he be able to use a variety of tactics, including ridicule, against those who fight to teach young Earth creationism in the classroom?  Similarly, if we assume that transubstantiation is false (which he does), why shouldn’t he be using every rhetorical device available to pound that idea home to whoever will listen?

In many areas of the country, this same argument about civility versus abuse could be made about burning the flag.  To many Americans, the flag is deeply sacred, and burning the flag or otherwise using it in protests is a horrendous abuse of a sacred object.  However, to my mind, and I presume yours as well, such an act would be a legitimate form of free speech to symbolically protest governmental actions.  What if Mr. Myers had used the same language to ask his readers to send him a flag to burn, due to his anger over the government’s torture of fellow humans?  Would you have had the same response?   As you have documented on your site many times, the Catholic church has many problems.  What if a true-believing Catholic made the same post as Mr. Myers in order to protest the repeated child rape by Catholic priests?  Reread Mr. Myers’ post as if he were a disgruntled Catholic, upset at his church’s response to the rapes.  Would you still have the same response?  In part, it’s the abuse of a “sacred” object that gets people to sit up and take notice of what you’re saying.  In addition, the abuse of the object speaks symbolically to all of the problems of the entity that the symbol represents.

You have written passionately in the past about your reverence for communion (e.g., “the sacraments, especially that of communion, have always been for me the only truly reliable elements of direction, concrete instantiations of another order”).  I suspect it’s this reverence, not unlike the reverence of Muslims for Mohammed, that motivated your post.  You are at your best when you have no sacred cows.  If indeed you have some sacred cows, I hope you don’t begin to impose them on others.