Over at The Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan is engaging in a disputation with some of his readers over what is, and what isn't, an appropriate way of critiquing religion.
It begins with Sully's angry riposte to PZ Meyers, evolutionary biologist and militant atheist, who recently wrote:
Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There's no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I'm sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I'll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won't be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls, which would apparently be a more humane act than desecrating a goddamned cracker), but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web. I shall do so joyfully and with laughter in my heart. If you can smuggle some out from under the armed guards and grim nuns hovering over your local communion ceremony, just write to me and I'll send you my home address.
To which Sully responds:
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. Calling the Holy Eucharist a "goddamned cracker" isn't about free speech; it's really about some baseline civility. Myers' rant is the rant of an anti-Catholic bigot. And atheists and agnostics can be bigots too.
This is surely true, and PZ Meyers, along with Hitchens and others of their ilk are bigots of the first order, however worthy of respect they may be in other venues. And in this case, Meyers is just being a dick.
However, several of Andrew's readers have pointed out an inconsistancy in his outrage:
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.
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.?
In adding the necessary nuance to your position, it is well worth remembering that much of Islam’s response to the Danish cartoons was quite simply directed at the fact that these cartoonists had reproduced Mohammed’s image, which is blasphemous to a Muslim. Catholicism (to its credit) isn’t so easily offended (crosses in jars of Urine to the contrary). Moreover, it would seem obvious that abusing the Eucharist is much more similar to abusing the Koran – than it is to caricaturing Islam. Of course – it is also worth remembering that PZ Myers hadn’t yet abused the Eucharist, but, rather, had merely advocated doing so (when and if he does, then the situation changes). So – how does his right to advocate abuse the Eurachist compare to Danish cartoonists rights to caricaturing Islam?
To which Sullivan replies:
My objection to PZ Myers - even as I defended his right to say whatever he wants and wouldn't want him punished in any way - is not, in my view, a double standard. Printing a cartoon for legitimate purposes is a different thing than deliberately backing the physical desecration of sacred objects. I'd happily publish a Mohammed cartoon if it advanced a genuine argument, but I would never knowingly desecrate a Koran purely to mock religion.
But this precisely misses the point: Who gets to decide what constitutes "mocking religion"? To the Muslims who objected to the danish cartoons, they constituted an unacceptable "mocking" of their religion, just as Meyers' advocacy of eucharist desecration constitutes an equivalent "mockery."
To my knowledge, in all of Sullivan's defenses of the cartoons, he never once considered the possibility that Muslims were rightly outraged over their mockery. He concentrated solely on the right of the newspapers to publish them. And, to be clear, I'm not disagreeing with him that the newspapers had such a right, but at the same time, if he had recognized that what the newspapers were publishing was in fact objectively offensive to a great many Muslims, it would have put the rights of the newspaper into the broader context.
That is to say, just as Meyers has a right to be a dick, so did the newspapers. But the fact that they had those rights does not make their mockery and denigration of the sacred symbols of widely held religious faiths any less offensive or worthy of criticism.
It is also, of course, true that there is a great degree of difference between giving someone a silly "award" and threatening violence. But even recognizing those differences, it remains true that the feeling of offense remains the same. The perpetrators of the offensive actions should be free from fear, but not free from criticism, and thus Meyers is rightly criticized by Sullivan.
But the publishers of the Danish cartoons were also rightly criticized for exercising their rights in a demeaning and offensive way. While Sullivan might think that the publication of those cartoons in some indefinable way "advanced a genuine argument" (what argument, that Muslim=terrorist? Is that a genuine argument, or just an expression of bigotry?), it is not for him to decide whether they rise to the level of desecration for the purpose of "mocking religion." If he can understand what it is about Meyers' remarks that are so offensive, why can't he extend his understanding to those who were appalled by the Danish cartoons?