On Desecration

On Desecration August 4, 2008

I’ve resisted commenting on this until now, but I have to give in. I’m sure you’ve all heard the story of Webster Cook, an unsuspecting college student who got himself into a great deal of trouble because he took a consecrated communion wafer home with him from church rather than eating it. On cue, professional victim Bill Donohue of the Catholic League and his legions of squalling bigots descended on Cook’s school, some demanding he be punished or expelled, others threatening his life.

The ever-irascible PZ Myers heard this story and was exasperated, as well he might have been. In a post, he offered to show the world some real blasphemy if someone would send him a communion wafer. This precipitated a second wave of hate mail targeted at him, with many letters fantasizing about committing violence against him and his family. One particularly stupid individual got his wife fired by sending PZ a death threat through her work e-mail account. But none of this deranged lunacy availed, as PZ did indeed receive a wafer and carried out his threat. Not surprisingly, his university declined to fire him for exercising his First Amendment rights.

I probably wouldn’t have commented on this, but PZ recently posted on a statement from some group called the “Confraternity of Catholic Clergy” that’s so ridiculous I couldn’t let it pass:

We find the actions of University of Minnesota (Morris) Professor Paul Myers reprehensible, inexcusable, and unconstitutional.

Unconstitutional?! Unless the U.S. Constitution has recently gotten a new amendment I haven’t heard about, I rather doubt that. It’s true that there are amendments protecting the rights of women, blacks, and minorities, but this is the first I’ve heard of an amendment protecting crackers.

…Attacking the most sacred elements of a religion is not free speech anymore than would be perjury in a court or libel in a newspaper.

…The freedom of religion means that no one has the right to attack, malign or grossly offend a faith tradition they personally do not have membership or ascribe allegiance [sic].

I’m left almost speechless by the ignorance of this. Attacking others’ religions is not free speech? Wrong! You don’t get any wronger than that! That’s what makes speech free – that we can say what we like, and other people cannot forcibly silence us just because they dislike the message. If we don’t have the right to say things that upset, anger or offend other people, then we don’t have free speech, we have censored and restrained speech that is kept in check by the prejudices of the majority. This should be too obvious to need pointing out.

The desire to control all speech in order to prohibit criticism and satire is an old, recurring desire of organized religion, one that’s bred into the bone of nearly every church and sect. It’s not just the Catholics who are throwing hysterical fits over people criticizing them; Muslim nations know how to play this game too, as witnessed in their recent demands for the Netherlands to permit them to punish Geert Wilders for saying things they don’t agree with. It’s not just Wilders who’s been targeted in this way, either. As Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes in her book The Caged Virgin:

…when I initially spoke on the immoral practices of the Prophet Muhammad, more than one hundred fifty complaints were made against me to the police and the government. Four ambassadors visited my party leaders – ambassadors from Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Pakistan, Malaysia. They carried a letter attached to which was a list of twenty-one countries belonging to the Islamic Conference… that supported the letter…. Death threats followed against me and also against the leader of my party when he refused to take seriously this complaint and evict me from Parliament.

No matter how allegedly enlightened, liberal, or tolerant the church, these naked desires for censorship and inquisition rise right back to the surface as soon as the religious authorities see any way they think they can impose them on others. The violent rages that erupt among both Catholics and Muslims when their respective dogmas were disrespected underline, in the clearest possible way, why the church needs to be kept separate from the state and why no religious group must ever be allowed to gain control over any society’s government.

Theists have intentionally misunderstood what it means to be “respectful”. What it really means is that we will respect your right to hold the beliefs of your choice. Instead, apologists act as if we were obligated to respect the beliefs themselves, which would mean obeying the same rules and edicts as the believers. If Catholics treat the Eucharist as sacred, atheists and non-Catholics must treat it in the same way. If Muslims believe that criticism of Islam is a sin, then no one is permitted to criticize Islam.

This is not a demand for respect, but for submission, and I for one will not take them up on that bad bargain. To these people, I say that you can live by whatever rules you like – but I am not a member of your sect, and I will not obey your rules as if I were. If you expect me to treat your edicts and proclamations as binding, you are going to be disappointed. (And it goes without saying that “respect” is not a two-way street: the fanatics expect everyone else to respect their beliefs, but never extend atheists the same courtesy in return.)

I’ll give no ear to cries that I not do something because it would be “desecration”. As an atheist, I have no sacred symbols, and hence I cannot commit an act of desecration. Sacrilege is just another imaginary crime. I don’t go out of my way to offend believers’ sensibilities – but I will live my life as I see fit, and I will not heed rules that are not based on reason. Not all the pleas or threats in the world will convince me otherwise.

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