Posted by: Ken Brown | July 14, 2008

Violence and Disrespect

Drew Tatusko has up an interesting post asking “Should Atheists ‘Respect’ Religion?”:

One common answer to the question of respect to religious belief that I have encountered in many an argument is an unqualified No. It is a simple argument with little persuasive rhetoric. Religion should not be respected or even much tolerated due to its track record of human harm and its basis in that which has, in the common parlance of the argument, not one shred of evidence. This seems to be the foundation for the entire whirlwind of extremism regarding the theft of a consecrated Eucharist wafer and the less than hospitable reaction from one PZ Myers.

Drew helpfully discusses the tension between this and Myers’ claimed liberalism, but I’m struck by something else: I find it particularly ironic that the very atheists most eager to accuse religion of leading to violence and oppression, are often the same ones boasting of their freedom to disrespect the views of others. It seems to escape their notice that it is precisely such a disrespect which has often been the direct cause of such violence and oppression in the first place, and this has been true both in religious and atheistic (mostly communist) nations. By engaging in such disrespect, Myers and others like him implicitly undermine one of their central arguments against religion.

Do they have the legal right do disrespect religion? Of course. But many things are and should be legal that are nevertheless a terrible idea.

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Responses

  1. Thanks to your tracking of the issue I was able to see the whole thing unfolded already!

    Something else occurs to me that is kind of a side point and another argument that I probably have posted on, but might do so again:

    Atheists will also argue that progressive/liberal Christianity or, any Christianity that actually respects others’ beliefs and cultures with no condemnation of others (evangelical Christians can have “mad” respect for difference too) actually legitimate harmful forms of fundamentalism and absolutism. Dawkins makes this claim quite explicit in The God Delusion.

    That is hogwash. Why? There are a lot of Christians that I have fundamental disagreements about certain doctrinal and ethical issues. Yet we are a rather united front when it comes to the problems with many atheist arguments. Thus, the new atheist vitriol acts as a catalyst to unify otherwise disparate Christian voices along with Muslims, Jews and so on who are quite comfortable that their beliefs make sense with the world! It’s these two ares where I think their whole project blows up in a cloud of nonsense.

  2. I find it particularly ironic that the very atheists most eager to accuse religion of leading to violence and oppression, are often the same ones boasting of their freedom to disrespect the views of others.

    You can disrespect as many people or ideas as you please. The same cannot be said of violence. That this should qualify as an irony to you speaks illy of your conflation of the two concepts. The Myers incident caused bodily harm to no one–I cannot stress that enough.

    It seems to escape their notice that it is precisely such a disrespect which has often been the direct cause of such violence and oppression in the first place, and this has been true both in religious and atheistic (mostly communist) nations.

    Well, here I am inclined to agree, as the many Christians who either sent Myers death threats directly or indirectly, by egging him to desecrate the Koran so that a Muslim might do the job them, have proven.

  3. It is a simple historical fact that disrespect and iconoclasm very often precede, accompany and precipitate violence against persons. Certainly I do not expect Myers himself to cross that line—frankly, I wouldn’t even expect him to engage in such rhetoric in a face-to-face conversation, but the internet tends to lower our inhibitions in such matters—but by engaging in iconoclasm he intentionally aggravates the situation, sharpens the emotional lines of division and stirs up anger and resentment which tend to cloud judgment (on both sides of the issue). Hopefully this particular case will not spark violence, but that doesn’t change the fact that historically speaking, the line between disrespect and violence has been quite narrow, and it is at best foolish, if not reckless, for a public figure to toe that line.

    So it is indeed sadly ironic for a self-described champion of liberalism to oppose the violent history of previous generations, while continuing to engage in the very same disrespectful rhetoric that has often made such violence possible. (He also seems rather quick to limit such violence to religion, despite the fact that the scarcity of resources, tribalism, nationalism, sectarian politics, and all manner of ideologies have each accounted for at least as much violence as religion; but given his current opponents, it can’t surprise that he would focus on Catholic violence particularly.)

    No one takes the risk of engaging in violence unless they believe their opponent(s) so foolish or wicked that more peaceful methods of persuasion are unlikely to work, and extreme and disrespectful rhetoric serves to present one’s opponents in just such a light (and this is true of both Myers’ and Donohue’s comments, by the way, and all the more so of the people sending hate mail). Such disrespect is inherently dehumanizing and so closely tied to violence. It should not, perhaps, be illegal, but it should have no place in civil society.

  4. Hopefully this particular case will not spark violence, but that doesn’t change the fact that historically speaking, the line between disrespect and violence has been quite narrow, and it is at best foolish, if not reckless, for a public figure to toe that line.

    Yes but this is not medieval Europe were Jews falsely accused of committing the same acts which Myers performed were killed. This is the country where George Carlin can make a career out of ridiculing religion yet lead a full life without incident; a tradition that goes back to Mark Twain and won’t end with Myers (Bill Maher’s documentary “Religulous” will be released later this year).

  5. This is the country where George Carlin can make a career out of ridiculing religion yet lead a full life without incident; a tradition that goes back to Mark Twain and won’t end with Myers (Bill Maher’s documentary “Religulous” will be released later this year).

    So since someone else did it without facing violence, Myers should to? Civilizations rise and fall; there is no guarantee that ours will survive any more better the Roman’s did, and aggravating the differences between us (and between us and the rest of the world) does nothing to help the stability of our current, relatively peaceful, way of life.

    For that matter, politicians have been mudslinging for generations, but that doesn’t make it helpful nor conducive to constructive public discourse. Do you really think a mock-umentary is the most effective means of making a point to those it targets? Such things, whether produced by Michael Moore or Ben Stein, are purely a means of falsely boosting the self-confidence of the already convinced, and the world would be better off without them (true unbiased documentaries, on the other hand, serve an important purpose, but nothing sells like a scandal!).

  6. So since someone else did it without facing violence, Myers should to?

    The point is that your appeal to history is not analogous to the times that we live now. You live in a country that has freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Embrace it.

    Do you really think a mock-umentary is the most effective means of making a point to those it targets?

    Why is that argument made as though it that could be the only possible purpose for ridicule? I mean, can we extrapolate from your linking to folks who call the thinking of the New Atheists stupid as evidence that those very blog posts served no purpose?

  7. You live in a country that has freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Embrace it.

    I also live in a country where I am free to sleep with my neighbor’s wife, but that doesn’t make adultery any less harmful to all involved. As I have said again and again, many things are and should be legal that are a terrible idea, and that doesn’t change just because we have a police force that can sometimes hold in check the worst escalations that such things can lead to. Nor are they always successful, as the aftermath of the Danish cartoons proved.

    I mean, can we extrapolate from your linking to folks who call the thinking of the New Atheists stupid as evidence that those very blog posts served no purpose?

    If I have written or linked to anything that made such ad hominem remarks (and it is entirely possible that I have), then those remarks were indeed disrespectful and unhelpful, playing to the prejudices of the audience rather than seeking to convince the skeptical. That does not mean that the blog posts in question served no purpose, if they also made valid points that did not rely on such tactics (and I’ve fully admitted that Myers’ posts in this debacle have made some valuable and important points about the value of a human life being of far greater than the value of any symbol). But that doesn’t change the fact that those statements or actions which descend into disrespect are almost always counterproductive and reprehensible, and have often led to violence (even in our own time).

    Such disrespect buys emotional support for one side at the expense of the humanity of the other, and it is almost always stereotypical and therefore unfair (as in this case, where Myers generalizes from a few crazies—with his own appeal to violence in previous societies—to attack the sensibilities of all Catholics everywhere, the vast majority of whom have no part in the events he is criticizing and would not support them). This is not rational, it is not liberal, and it is not helpful. Why do you insist on defending it?

    For an analogy, just think of the one point in our own conversation where I slipped into disrespect (and of a relatively mild form, compared to Myers’ stunt), did that comment do anything at all to advance our discussion? Did the fact that I made it rule out the value of the rest of the things we have said?

  8. I also live in a country where I am free to sleep with my neighbor’s wife, but that doesn’t make adultery any less harmful to all involved. As I have said again and again, many things are and should be legal that are a terrible idea, and that doesn’t change just because we have a police force that can sometimes hold in check the worst escalations that such things can lead to. Nor are they always successful, as the aftermath of the Danish cartoons proved.

    When I invoked free speech, I was not talking about some legal technicality which allows for morally questionable acts to go lawfully unpunished, but a concept which you cannot separate from the American consciousness. The reason why offensive acts by public figures often do not lead to violence is because it is widely recognized that the figure in question has a right to his own view. This is what separates us from the countries that housed the violent protests during the Danish Muslim Cartoon controversy. That Twain and Carlin have lived their lives without the historical violence you have cited should be evidence of as much.

  9. The reason why offensive acts by public figures often do not lead to violence is because it is widely recognized that the figure in question has a right to his own view.

    To have a right to your own view does not justify blatent disrespect of the views of others (quite the opposite, in fact), which is precisely what Myers has demonstrated by his stunt.

    That Twain and Carlin have lived their lives without the historical violence you have cited should be evidence of as much.

    I’m afraid I don’t see your point. If a certain man has, in the past, gotten away with keying his neighbors’ cars, does that justify his continuing to do so in the future? The fact that violence is not the proper response to Myers (or Twain or Calin) doesn’t make their actions commendable or acceptable.

  10. That Twain and Carlin have lived their lives without the historical violence you have cited should be evidence of as much.

    To be fair, I’m not sure I would compare Twain and Carlin to the good Dr. Myers. While both men were probably just as atheistic as Myers, and while both of them ridiculed religion quite a bit, neither have them ever actually committed blasphemy. The most either Carlin or Twain did, as far as I know, was denigrate religion in their stand-up acts/writings. They never actually drew offensive pictures of the Prophet/desecrated a Eucharistic host/did anything else as overtly blasphemous.

    Thus, I would say that the fact that George Carlin and Mark Twain made careers out of “ridiculing religion” indicates that even at their worst, neither of them did anything as offensive as what our friend from Minnesota has done. I don’t think you’ve really made much of a point regarding America’s long tradition of freedom of speech.

  11. I’m afraid I don’t see your point. If a certain man has, in the past, gotten away with keying his neighbors’ cars, does that justify his continuing to do so in the future?

    My point: your suggestion that violence naturally follows from disrepect has not been the case with Carlin nor Twain because of (not in spite of) standing American values.

    To be fair, I’m not sure I would compare Twain and Carlin to the good Dr. Myers. While both men were probably just as atheistic as Myers, and while both of them ridiculed religion quite a bit, neither have them ever actually committed blasphemy.

    Consider that it was not too long ago when ridicule and atheism alone were considered blasphemous. Still is in many circles.

  12. when ridicule and atheism alone were considered blasphemous.

    True, to an extent, but you have to admit that not every ‘blasphemous’ act is equal in terms of *how* blasphemous it is. Some Catholics may tell you that insulting the Pope is blasphemous, but I would wager a large amount of money that they would tell you desecrating the Eucharist is much *more* blasphemous.

    So you have little blasphemies (like Carlin and Twain verbally poking fun at religion) and bigger blasphemies (actually desecrating a Eucharist). The fact that violence never came up against Twain and Carlin is indicative only of the fact that they committed little blasphemies rather than large ones people would get really riled up over. I’m still not convinced of your point regarding America’s long tradition of freedom of speech.

  13. True, to an extent, but you have to admit that not every ‘blasphemous’ act is equal in terms of *how* blasphemous it is.

    Jews were publicly executed in medieval Europe because they were accused (probably falsely) of performing the act Myers actually did. Answer me this: why is it that in one instance the mere act of being accused of wafer-desecration leads to death while a public and open stunt does not?


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