I am an atheist.
There. I said it. It will come as no particular surprise to some. It may be a bit of a shock to others. I have family who read this blog, and while they know my secular and anti-organized-religion views, by and large they have never heard me bluntly say "I am an atheist". But now it is out there. No take backs.
But that is not what this blog post is about. It is about the recent fiasco in the news about pastor Terry Jones' planned Qu'ran burning. (here, btw, is a Christian response to Mr. Jones' plan that I find agreeable). It is also about the subject of criticizing, ridiculing, or disrespecting religious beliefs in general.
The first thing to address and get out of the way is the question of free speech. Mr. Jones absolutely has the right to express his opinions. Our laws do not permit government intervention (other than attempts at verbal persuasion), and I agree with those laws. Any guilt for any violent acts committed by angry Muslims in response to the book burning lies squarely on the shoulders of those who actually do the violence. There is simply no comparison between the harmless burning of a pile of wood pulp and ink on the one hand, and murder or maiming on the other.
What of the ethics of this book burning? Personally, I find the beliefs of Mr. Jones to be almost as unpalatable as those of the "radical Muslims" to whom he wishes to "send a message". Obviously Mr. Jones believes that Islam is at best misguided and at worst evil. But what message is he sending? Is he critiquing the beliefs of Islam, is he simply expressing disagreement? No. It is quite clear that he is deliberately sending a message of war, of hate. He is figuratively spitting in the face of Muslims.
Mr. Jones has every right to express his opinion. We should not attempt to muzzle him by force of law. We live in a society where free speech is enshrined as one f our highest laws. The best answer to "bad speech" or "evil speech" or "hate speech", is for the rest of us to speak up and speak exercise our own free speech and speak up loudly.
If Mr. Jones goes through with his plan, I hope that a large body of protesters is on hand to loudly condemn his action. Likewise our president should condemn it (which he already has). We won't be able to prevent radical Islamists from using media coverage of the event to stir up violent protest, and riots. But hopefully much of the Islamic world will see just how "free speech" works. They will see that Mr. Jones is a fringe radical himself, and that the overwhelming majority of Americans do not agree with his action.
The notion that the way to fight bad speech is not to censor but to speak up loudly to criticize or condemn it (i.e. not by limiting free speech, but by using more free speech to combat the bad or wrong speech) comes from a blogger notorious for his outright contempt and ridicule of religion: PZ Myers. (At least I think is was in his blog -- I can't find the article now. Maybe it was a commenter on his blog.)
PZ is an outspoken atheist, scientist, and skeptic who pulls no punches when it comes criticizing and, yes, ridiculing, what he considers to be dangerously irrational beliefs (religious beliefs being only one of many). In his blog he does not scruple about his choice of language. He makes no attempt to be "nice", shall we say. So if you follow any of these links, consider yourself warned.
About a two years ago, PZ infamously engaged in an act that became known as "Crackergate". He stuck a nail in a presumably sanctified Catholic communion wafer and through it in the trash, in the privacy of his own home, took a picture, posted it on his blog. Bear in mind that Catholic doctrine believes that once sanctified, a communion wafer is literally part of the body of Christ. Predictably (although apparently not to PZ) the response from the Catholic community in general extreme outrage, and PZ receive loads upon loads of hate mail, including not a few threats on his life.
PZ did this, in part to protest the harassment of a student who put a communion wafer in his pocket instead of eating it during a Catholic mass. He also wanted to make the point: "It's just a cracker!" He also wished to make the point that just because someone may be offended by what you say or express, you still have the right to say it or express it. He certainly had the right to do and say what he did, and to write about it in his blog.
Now I certainly agree with PZ on the following: religions, religious organizations, and religious beliefs should not be immune to public criticism and debate. Even some degree of mockery and ridicule, while perhaps not nice, are not necessarily out of bounds, when attempting to point out something which to you simply appears absurd.
No matter how silly and superstitious someone's sacred belief may be, no matter how much you may disagree with their beliefs, if you are going to treat their sacred symbols with contempt, figuratively or literally pissing on them, then, you are no longer simply critiquing, disagreeing, debating. You are not even simply ridiculing that which you perceive as 'ridiculous'. You are communicating gross disrespect, contempt, enmity, and quite possibly hatred for the people who hold those symbols sacred.
I am not saying that even this level of offensiveness should be banned in any way. It is still protected free speech. This is simply me, exercising my free speech to condemn such expressions as hateful and divisive.
Can you imagine trekking deep into the Amazon to find a remote tribe, and then pissing on their sacred burial ground or stomping some feathered totem into the ground? You might as well spit directly into their faces, or worse. Quite understandably they would be shocked, and react to you with the hatred that they perceive you directing at them.
There is also the problem of painting with too broad a brush. Even though many if not most Christian denominations do not believe communion bread to necessarily be literally the body of Christ, they general do all regard it as sacred. The Crackergate incident directly expresses contempt and enmity to all Christians, of all stripes. This may not have been PZ's intention, but this certainly is the effect.
This does not in any way justify violence or threats of violence in response to the offensive act. But it certainly is predictable, at the very least, that the at least some of the people you have offended will revile you in return.
Where exactly is the line? Certainly no religion's 'rules' should be forced upon non-believers (neither should the rules be forced on the believers, for that matter). Making a point of breaking the rules of some religion, in order to demonstrate that you disagree with that rule, is not showing gross contempt and enmity.
There are more than a few among the so-called "New Atheists" (I prefer "Gnu Atheists") who very openly mock, ridicule and antagonize both religious beliefs and religious persons. 1 Often these attacks are made with sweeping generalizations, rather than targeted directly at a specific belief or at an individual who has said or done grievous things. At the risk of being painted as an "accommodationist" or a "concern troll", I am going to suggest that this is not productive.
If we have any hope to bring humanity (or most of humanity) together under a common, inclusive, compassionate, accepting, secular and humanist morality, it will not happen by making enemies needlessly. There are those (i.e. religious extremists and other extremists)who will insist on making enemies of themselves. If and when they do, so be it.
It is far better to regard the majority of religious persons as friends, family, of the atheist/agnostic/skeptical community (to the extent that such a community even exists -- one does seem to have formed over the past decade). We may have profound disagreement, but they are still "family". A large fraction of Christians certainly adopt nearly the same moral code as the secular humanism subscribed to by most atheists.
And now I come full circle. I announced at the beginning of this post that I am, indeed, an atheist. What that means, and why I have come to it, and even why I choose to announce it, are all subjects for a later time.
Religion will be far from the only thing I discuss on this blog, but when I do, I may be quite pointed in my criticisms. However, I will always attempt to direct both explicit and implied criticism at very specific beliefs, practices, and at specific individuals or groups whom I find to be particularly objectionable (Westboro Baptist Church, anyone?). I will, for my part, never mock nor ridicule, for all the reasons discussed above.
So here is my defense of the religious, not that their beliefs should be immune from criticism, rather that all persons, of any religion or lack thereof, deserve basic respect and courtesy (possibly excepting those guilty of performing or advocating reprehensible acts). My objection both to Mr. Jones' Qu'ran burning and PZ's crackergate are the same: both display a deep contempt and disrespect for broad swaths of people.
We all deserve better.
UPDATE: Apparently as I was writing this, Mr. Jones decided to cancel his Qu'ran burning. But the Westboro Baptist's have decided to take up the mantel.
1 Lest I be misinterpreted, in my view, I have never seen any of the so-called "Four Horseman of the New Atheist Movement" (authors Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens) do anything that I would consider to show gross contempt and enmity for religious persons. No burning of holy books. No defacing of sacred symbols. They do offer very pointed and often blunt critiques, and they speak there minds passionately and according to their respective consciences. Dawkins and Hitchens do use a razor sharp wit that can no doubt sting. Dawkins certainly does not hesitate to name absurdity when he finds it. Harris and Dennett, from all I have seen, are quite soft spoken and compassionate in their approach, if no less passionate. I am not among so-called 'accommodationist' atheist who think any of these gentlemen are "too strident" or "shrill". Accusations that any of these four are "extremists" or the "atheist equivalent of fundamentalists" are patently ridiculous. No one should fear to read or listen to what these writers have to say, whether you agree or disagree with them on any level.