Friday, 11 July 2008

There’s no goal like an own-goal

P. Z. Myers writes about a student, Webster Cook, who took a Eucharist wafer but failed to consume immediately and has found himself the subject of threats of expulsion from campus and, even, death.

Death threats? Trying to get him thrown off campus? This is totally over the top. It doesn’t seem that Cook intended to give offence. Surely he’s entitled to the benefit of the doubt? He’s made a mistake; it has upset a lot of people, so what should they do about it? They should take the chap to one side, explain what he’s done and give him a jolly good talking to. The reaction is no doubt being hyped but, even so, it’s over the top. It shows these people in a very bad light: unforgiving, aggressive and doctrinaire.

What a great post for P. Z. Myers. The champion of reason can point out how far the actions of the religious fall short of what they themselves claim. They claim that if only we all took up religion then everything would be fine. Here we have pretty clear evidence that a firm moral compass from God doesn’t stop you being the kind of asshole who threatens someone with death.

This is not, however, the main thrust of Myers’ post. Myers goes badly awry and misses the target entirely. The main thrust of his post is that these people should not get in a tizzy at all because what they believe is wrong and that he, Myers, is going to show them that they are wrong. According to Myers the actions of Cook are not a “hate crime”, not because Cook intended no harm, but because no harm was done. These people are “demented fuckwits”, “deluded lunatics” who are only offended because they believe something idiotic. “It’s a Frackin’ Cracker” heads the piece which ends with a promise to show us “sacrilege….and with much fanfare”.

It doesn’t matter if they are factually incorrect about the cracker

Was the publication of “those” cartoons in “that” Danish newspaper a “hate crime”? I would say not. Non-muslims do not have to follow the Islamic injunction not to depict the prophet. We are also quite entitled to think him less than perfect, to say so and to say so publicly. Now, if I were to take those cartoons print them on large poster-sized paper and stick them on the inside of the nearest mosque would that be a “hate crime”? Of course it would, it would be a mean, nasty, vile and deliberate insult. And where does whether or not Mohammed was the last prophet of God fit in? How reasonable a belief that Mohammed is Allah’s messenger have to be for it to be an insult? I am not a Muslim. I do not think Mohammed was the last prophet of God. I do not think it a “reasonable” belief at all. From my point of view those Muslims complaining about my poster campaign are complaining about me telling the truth! It does not matter whether I think it’s a silly belief or not: it’s their Mosque, they would be upset and I should respect their wishes.

But what if I’m completely wrong about Mohammed? Beside being in deep trouble when I die, does it mean that the cartoons were wrong? No, no it doesn’t: they may be factually incorrect but the cartoonists are entitled to their beliefs. As far as mistakes go denying the Prophet of God is one of the biggest, it matters not. What matters is the right of people to hold these beliefs. Either the cartoonists or the Muslims in the nearest mosque have got something very, very, wrong indeed. Yet the cartoonists have a right to publish without death threats and the Muslims have a right to worship unmolested.

Real Delusion

Let’s look at real delusion for a moment. I have a favourite chair. It’s my chair and I sit on it. If my son’s friends come round and sit there I will ask them to get up. How stupid is that? What sort of difference do I think that chair has? How deluded a demented-fuckwitted-lunatic do you have to be to actually care about which seat you sit in? What do these teenagers do when I ask them to move? They move. They realise that it’s my house, my chair, I will be upset if they stay there and, no matter how stupid the entire thing is, common decency requires them to move.

And so it is with the Mass. These people gathered together “in private” (though I imagine anyone could attend none had to) to do certain things that were very important to them. Whether or not they were demented lunatics is irrelevant. The facts in the case are that this Mass was important to them. The fact is that they believed that the cracker was the body of Christ and were bloody upset.

Own Goal

So Myers missed the target, the totally over-the-top reaction. Missed opportunity, yes, but why did I mention “own goal”? Because we all know what is wrong with fundamentalists. They try and impose their beliefs on us and we hate them for it. For them the question is not whether or not you are hurting anyone else, but whether or not what you believe is correct. If they decide that it is incorrect, silly, idiotic or “demented” then they feel free to completely ignore it. If your idea doesn’t match up to their standards then you are not worthy of respect. It’s ok to deliberately misquote Darwin, because Darwin is wrong. It’s fine to disrupt prayers in Congress, because they are stupid heathen prayers. The Fundie cannot see what is wrong with picketing a gay carnival, because they’re against God.

The Fundie cannot see what is wrong with desecrating what somebody believes is the body of Christ because, it’s just a frackin’ cracker.

What should happen now? Certainly not “39 pieces of personal hate mail” saying some of the things Myers says that they said. Should he be sacked? What for? For being wrong? (Standard definition of "wrong": disagreeing with me). This is what this free speech stuff is all about, we disagree, we argue, we criticise. We do not silence and sack. P. Z. Myers has written something on the web that I, strongly, disagree with. P. Z. Myers deserves the embarrasment of reading a good, well argued, well written, rebuttal.

Sadly, PZ, you’ll have to make do with this!

Oh, have a link to some fun own-goals


Michael said...

You have obviously missed one point. PZ Meyers was objecting to people issuing death threats over superstition.

For various reasons, I've got an interest in the Thirty Years War. This war resulted in the deaths of approximately 1/3 of the population of modern day Germany and the Czech Republic. One of the main causes of the war was the concept of cuius regio, eius religio. This translates as "Whose region, his religion". In other words, the religion of the king or other leader would be the religion of the people.

Which superstition should be supreme has been and still is the cause of hatred and wars. PZ was reacting strongly to a superstition, one of the two main superstitions responsible for for the deaths of almost a million people in the 17th Century, still wanting to kill people who didn't "respect" the superstition.

Tony Lloyd said...

Hi Michael

If it wasn't superstition would death threats be ok? If not, why mention it? The problem does not lie in the factivity or otherwise of the belief. It lies in killing, or threatening to kill for it.

"Whose religion, his religion" ties in nicely with Myers post: "Whose opinion, Myers opinion". The Thirty Years Was killed so many because they over-rode people's rights on the basis of whether their beliefs were "correctly" held or not. Myers piece takes a similar view (with a much, much milder action!), the rights of the Catholics at the Mass to respect of their religion is over-ridden by the "superstitious" nature of their belief.

I think you're right that "respect" for religious belief is behind some pretty dreadful things. P Z Myers is not going to respect the beleifs, and that's fine. Respecting the people involved and their right to follow their religion, demented or not, is the issue.

Michael said...

Respecting the people involved and their right to follow their religion, demented or not, is the issue.

Neither PZ Myers nor I have any problem with people being religious. Both of us think it's silly and intellectually dishonest to have religious faith (that's a discussion for another time) but if you insist in believing in The Big Guy In The Sky then that's your lookout.

What both of us object to are death threats for disrespecting the magic cracker. Some people think that if a guy wearing a dress says an incantation over a cracker, then presto-chango it becomes the body of a guy who died 2000 years ago. Because a student supposedly "desecrated" one of these magic crackers, some of these cannibalistic people threatened to kill the student. Then PZ Myers expressed his disgust about the threats. Some other cannibals threatened to get Myers fired from his job and/or kill him.

Believe in Jesus or Thor or Quetzalcoatl all you want. Just don't make threats because your superstitioun has been disrepected.

Tony Lloyd said...

“What both of us object to are death threats for disrespecting the magic cracker.”

My suggestion is that he should have objected to the death threats.

Would the death threats have been appropriate if it were the body of Christ? I think not. Would Cook’s actions have been appropriate if it were just a cracker? I think not.

Myers seems to imply that actions beyond taking Cook to one side and explaining to him just how badly he had behaved would have been appropriate if the base belief were correct. If the actions are not dependent on the correctness of the belief then why mention it?

In proceding on this basis Myers does two things:
1. Comes across as just as much a dogmatic idiot as the worst fundamentalist. If we are to judge actions on the basis of the correctness of the belief then we have to have some way of determining the correctness of the belief. In this case the methodology is whether or not the belief is one shared by Myers. Of course we need not adopt Myers’ beliefs as a foundation. We could accept ex cathedra pronouncements, the fatwa of an Islamic scholar or some shiny-suited evangelist’s interpretation of the Bible. And why on earth not accept those three? They have just as much to back them up as “because PZ Myers said so”. This type of behaviour serves to authorise the irrationalist, mostly because it is irrationalist. Myers is not arguing from a stand point of rationalism against superstition, he is just trying to supplant one authoritarian epistemology with another. “Demented fuckwits” is just another shout of “heresy”. He is being just as irrational as them and handing them a tu quoque on a plate.

2. He puts the argument firmly in the Fundies’ and the Inquisition’s court by debasing a key concept of secularism: that common decisions should not be taken on the basis of belief. Back to those cartoons. If we ignore beliefs we can delineate the rights in the case quite clearly. The Danish paper was within its rights to publish the cartoons. It would not have been within its rights to display them within a Mosque. If we have regard to the correctness of the beliefs then that clear distinction falls. We have the possibility of secular rights, either of the paper’s free speech or the Muslims right to not be molested, being over-ridden by judgements we make about faith.