Mike has brought up the question of “respect” for religion again, this time drawing some interesting parallels between a fictionalization of the life of Muhammad and the desecration of a Eucharistic wafer by atheist blogger PZ Myers. We had an interesting discussion of the desecration a month ago, and I emphasized my view that there is a very important difference between respecting beliefs or ideas and respecting people. It seems to me that this distinction is being missed in the comparison of PZ’s stunt and the Muhammad novel, and I’d like to try again to put issues of respect into a more complete context.
Here’s the section of Mike’s post that got my attention:
When we recoil in fear from offending the beliefs of another group, we give religion a power it doesn’t deserve. We let it control even those of us who don’t share the religion. The people who bugged me the most in the crackergate fiasco were not so much the rabid catholics who wanted to see him destroyed and humiliated, the people who made me most angry were the equivocating atheists who said we should excoriate him because he wasn’t showing the proper respect to a religion he didn’t believe.
Now, I don’t know who these “equivocating atheists” are, but if they are bashing Myers for not “showing the proper respect to a religion he didn’t believe,” then Mike is right to be annoyed by them. I’m not an atheist, and I’m sure annoyed by that kind of talk, because I want to reserve the right to be critical of beliefs, ideas and religions, without being harassed by bogus accusations of intolerance.
I’m not sure, though, that this is the issue. Specifically, I don’t think Myers is being excoriated for merely failing to show “respect to a religion,” and I sure don’t think that this captures the reason why I and others found his stunt repugnant. Let me offer a few case studies to illustrate why I don’t buy the juxtaposition of Crackergate and the effective censorship of a historical novel about Muhammad and his marriage bed.
1. Suppose a friend of mine in Minnesota – we’ll call him Mike – ran a website that regularly criticized, in the most dismissive of terms, my religion. The usual stuff: comparisons of God to fairies or the FSM, baldly dismissive descriptions of Jesus of Nazareth, regular updates on the most embarrassing and outrageous antics of my fellow believers. Then suppose one day that his website featured a picture of the church I attend, digitally altered to look like a crematorium and emblazoned with swastikas. Or suppose that when Mike and I eventually met in person, he continually used the name of Jesus as an expletive and ignored my requests to stop.
In my opinion, Mike’s website is appropriate criticism of ideas and religion, but his personal smear of my church (even if it reflects his honestly-held beliefs about Christian complicity in the Holocaust) and his contemptuous attitude toward my personal convictions (even if he thinks ‘Jesus’ is just another collection of phonemes) represent something else. Treating religion or tradition with complete disrespect – even contempt – is just not the same as treating a person that way. I think that should be obvious, even if the finer demarcations in practice can get tricky.
2. One protester burns an American flag at a public rally against American policy. Another burns an American flag in front of a graveyard during the funeral of a WWII veteran who was murdered in front of his wife. Is there a difference? Why?
3. Cultures have various traditions and rules pertaining to “respect for the dead.” I happen to think that corpses are morally insignificant chunks of meat, ripe for biochemical recycling, and I don’t have a particularly high regard for practices that seek to provide comfort or preservation to corpses. If I nevertheless choose not to, say, walk on graves while people are watching, am I “recoiling from offending the beliefs of another group,” and thereby giving “respect for the dead” a power it doesn’t deserve? Or am I taking steps to show respect for other people?
And this final case study is the one I want to hear PZ’s defenders discuss.
4. Once there was an outspoken critic of Catholicism and many other religions who was well known for his bare-knuckled attacks on beliefs he considered ridiculous. He ran a website that was known throughout cyberspace and was occasionally the subject of mainstream news reports. One day he desecrated a religious worship service, specifically to protest what he perceived to be the outrageous nature of the beliefs of those present at the service (which was held in a public place). Those in attendance at the service were outraged, and began a campaign against the critic, hoping to destroy his organization and his livelihood. The critic insisted that he didn’t intend to hurt people, and pointed out that no one had been injured in any significant way. His position is clear: he doesn’t accept or respect the religious beliefs of nearly all of the people in world. Although most of those close to him defend him vigorously, he is regularly excoriated for his behavior, and many people are angered by the fact that he wasn’t showing the proper respect to a religion he didn’t believe.
His name is Fred Phelps, and in my opinion he’s the guy to look at when trying to put PZ’s stunt into a moral context. He and his sick followers believe that homosexuality has doomed the inhabitants of the planet to damnation, and he feels compelled to raise the nation’s consciousness regarding this moral tragedy. So he applauds the deaths of soldiers, at their funerals, holding signs that say stuff like “Thank God for dead soldiers.” I won’t desecrate our blog with links to his hate speech.
In my opinion, thinking about Fred Phelps and his obscenely misnamed church helps bring into focus the reason why respect, in the context of religion, does make sense. It’s not because any set of beliefs should be respected. It’s because people should be respected. I’m not saying that the distinction is always easy to make. But I think it’s a mistake to continue portraying behavior like PZ’s as merely disrespectful toward religion. At least give some thought to the ways in which decent people continually show respect for others who hold divergent – even wildly, irrationally divergent – beliefs.