A final (?) word on book burning

Sep 13 2010 Published by under Politics

I was pleased to see PZ Myers respond to my open letter about book burning.  (Digression: For all of you who are cheesed off about my grammar or my failure to respond to your one particular comment: There's a lot of comments, and yours was either not worthy of pursuing, or more likely, just lost in the shuffle.  And if you are terribly worried about grammar on the internet, STFU.)

This post is going to run on a bit, so I'll be dividing into two parts.

I: General thoughts on freedom of expression

PZ and I agree about many things, probably about most things when it comes to science and religion.  Religion, in and of itself, is irrational, and people who are religious should not be permitted to limit those of us who fail to believe in their gods.

But people, like religions, are irrational.  For whatever reasons, they believe.  I live in a world with six billion other people, most of whom hold some irrational beliefs, religious or otherwise.  In some parts of the world, the religious attempt to impose these views on others.  In Saudi Arabia, failing to believe in a particular form of Islam can get you killed.  In the U.S., failing to believe in particular forms of Christianity can get you killed. (Some would argue that it's different because in Saudi, the state kills you, but here in the U.S., if you get a botched abortion because of religion-inspired laws, you're just as dead.)

Given that most of my fellow human beings believe in things that I do not (supernatural or otherwise), I have to figure out how to get along in this world, and in doing so I have to look to history.  The founders of the U.S. did us some terrific favors by explicitly separating religion and the State.  This hasn't always worked well, because in a democracy, the religious majority can still win some battles (cf abortion, gay marriage, etc.).  But we've still remained much more secular than a good piece of the world.

If we take as a given that religion, as it intersects with secular interests, is a negative force (something which I will grant for the sake of argument only), then it must be dealt with.  One way to deal with it is to extend the French model, and outlaw public displays of religious (and often ethnocultural) identity.  If religion is confined to the home, its influence may be better contained.

But suppression of religion has its problems as well.  In addition to being oppressive, limiting religious expression can cause the religious to rise up and use the mechanisms of democracy or violence to release themselves from legal constraints.  But we shouldn't be "tolerant" simply because we fear violence. We should be tolerant because it is good and proper.

The way the founders chose to deal with the threat of religious diversity (and that's what it was: a threat---the threat posed by different belief systems vying to control secular life) was to recognize that religion exists, is valuable to most, and to say, "that's fine, but leave the State out of it."  They realized that people will continuously act in ways that would insult each other's beliefs, and understood that allowing this was the way to go.

I favor the U.S. system.  Although we continue to have problems with the religious majority attempting to impose its will on us all, we have been able to do better than most of the world.  This is a democracy, and to deny either the nonbelievers or believers of their right to believe or not believe is wrong.

But this American compromise  did not deal with a particular question: what if religion---all religion---is inherently detrimental to human well-being?  Those who believe this would, I imagine, work to end religion in all its forms.  When this is done through speech, this is perfectly congruent with American values and laws as regards to freedom of expression.  When done through action that constrains the rights of others, this is in direct opposition to American values and laws (depending on the action of course).

Burning of books is, and must always be, legal in the United States as a protected form of expression, rather than as an action that constrains the rights of others.

Now lets add a layer of historical context.  The Founders, in addition to ensuring our freedom of religion and expression, were concerned about tyranny, and not just the tyranny of a  monarchy.  They were concerned about the tyranny of a majority, whose combined political power could be used to oppress a minority, often through legal means.  The enumerated rights we enjoy were specifically designed to apply to all, regardless of minority or majority status.  This allows, for example, those of us who want to protest against a popular war to do so.  It allows those of us in the atheist minority to speak out against the beliefs of the majority, and prevents them from from passing laws forbidding this.

As Americans, we defend the most heinous forms of expression, knowing that doing so protects us all. We allow KKK rallies, Nazi marches, book burnings.  Given our inherent disgust, we often have to rely on others to keep us honest.  The ACLU is one such organization, bravely standing in the way of our own anti-democratic instincts.

But the tyranny of the majority can work extra-legally as well, and history has its lessons for us here.  Minorities, even despised minorities, have the right to exist and to disseminate their beliefs.  Atheists have the right to insult religion, Christians have the right to decry gay marriage, Muslims have the right to ask us to respect their religious texts---and we have the right to say "no".

And sometimes, we should say no.  If you truly believe that the greatest threat to the world is religion and those who believe, anything else I write is irrelevant.  But our own desire to express ourselves can be used to intimidate, oppress, and destroy.  Our own actions, even our own legal actions, can be wrong.

Throughout history, oppressors have used believer's attachment to sacred objects as a weapon, and they have often enrolled the majority perpetuating this oppression.  Burning Korans in Saudi Arabia is an act of rebellion.  Burning Korans in America (or France, the UK, etc) is not an act of rebellion against religious oppression, but a statement to an ethnic minority that they are despised.  It is legal, and should always remain so, but it has consequences.  Some of us have perspective on this.  In Europe, Jews were attacked by religious and secular institutions for centuries, and one of the ways the terror was maintained was through destruction of religious objects.  That an attachment to a religious object is "irrational" does not change the fact that preying on this belief to harm someone is wrong.  The ownership of the object is also irrelevant in this sense. This is not about property rights.

I think I made it quite clear in my original piece that I book burning are and should always be legally protected expression.  The reason people try to outlaw expression is that it is powerful---it has consequences.  If we act to burn books, to defend the burning of books, to prevent the burning of books, we are acknowledging the power of the act.  As responsible human beings we should, when exercising our rights, try to understand the consequences of our actions.

It may be a sad statement that I feel the need to voluntarily limit my own expression in order to prevent a greater harm.  But that's part of being a mature adult.  Yes, many Muslims would ask me to restrain myself from burning a Qur'an in order to please their god.  But refusing to burn it does not mean I am acknowledging their god, or acknowledging any legal abridgment of my rights.  It acknowledges that in the U.S., Muslims are currently a minority under threat, and an act like protesting a cultural center or burning a pile of  Qur'ans is cruel, intimidating, and selfish.

II: Specific thoughts on PZ's response

I agree with PZ entirely when he reminds us that "we have a right to destroy our own property."  As far as I'm aware, few rational people are arguing otherwise, rendering this statement a non sequitur.  The real question is what are the consequences of burning a pile of Qur'ans and how should good people react to it.  And this is where PZ loses me:

Informing me that the Muslims are genuinely and sincerely and deeply offended is not informative — contrary to the suggestion that I must have an empathy deficit to be unaware of that, I know that and appreciate the fact that their feelings are hurt and they are angry and outraged. My point is that I don't care, and neither should anyone else.

If PZ thinks that burning Qur'ans makes a statement, and this statement is worth the consequences, what is the statement and what are the consequences?  He admits that one of the consequences is to make Muslims hurt and angered.  He agrees with Glenn Beck et al. that we are in danger of having Muslims enforce their practices on us.  If the real issue were the imposition of Qur'anic beliefs on the rest of us, I would also be enraged.  Just as when the New Right tries to impose its belief onto our laws, we should fight any religion's similar impositions. I would agree with the sentiment that how this plays abroad is, in the long run, irrelevant.  True religious zealots will hate us or not, independent of how we behave.  But I also do care if my actions make people feel hurt and angry because I'm not a total douche.

PZ argues (or so it I read it) that the correct frame for this is that failing to burn a Qur'an is surrender to the whims of kooky religious zealots.

No one is saying you can't irrationally revere some religious object — we're just saying you can't tell others that they must irrationally revere your religious object, and you especially can't tell others that their cheap, mass-produced copy of your religious object must be treated in some special way.

I see it differently, from a different historical perspective.  While he looks at 2000 years or so of theocratic imposition, I see a century or so of majority attacks on minorities.  I'll admit it is an imposition to have to tolerate irrational beliefs, but as he says, "It is not a crime to offend others, and in fact, it's pretty much a natural consequence of having diverse cultures."  When I tolerate an irrational belief, I am also tolerating other human beings and their desire to be treated with respect, regardless of the irrationality of their beliefs.  I refuse to dehumanize them simply because they believe in fairies.

There is an intersection of beliefs and actions that is difficult to reconcile.  Most Christians profess to believe many of the things I believe.  For example, they have an injunction against murder.  They often ask all of us to follow that belief.  Some Christians also insist that I should ignore the humanity and rights of homosexuals.  I refuse to adhere to the latter, but I will the former, even though it will as an unintended consequence adhere to Christian beliefs.

The latter part of PZ's response is frankly patronizing and dehumanizing.

The West is still barging in militarily and causing devastation. Muslims in those countries should be righteously pissed off, but not about something as trivial as copies of their favorite book being destroyed.

That's empathy, too — the awareness that Muslims are human beings who deserve better, and that watching them get distracted by such pointless noise is doing them harm.


Religion infantilizes people. It makes them humorless and blind to others' ideas. We're doing no favor to them by indulging their unrealistic and impossible dreams of controlling everyone else's life.

I'm not sure why PZ, a spokesperson for atheists, also feels he can appoint himself spokesperson for all the poor, deluded Muslims.  This over-generalization, this dehumanization, is the sort of thinking that blinds someone to the harm caused by, say, burning the books held sacred by an at-risk minority.  PZ simply redefines the battle: those Muslims shouldn't be offended, because it's our right to burn the Qur'an, and they shouldn't believe this nonsense in the first place, and I'm really helping to free them.  They should thank me.

If you lack empathy, if you come from a position of privilege, if you are not the member of a minority with a history of significant persecution, it may seem that simple.  It is not.  It is and always should be legal to burn a pile of paper with words, or a shmate on a stick.   But for many people in this world, the burning of their books is followed closely by the burning of their houses of worships, their homes, and their person.  What PZ and his followers are arguing is that their acknowledged right to engage in this particular form of expression is always more important that the desire of others to feel safe.

46 responses so far

  • Kevin says:

    I have been reading PZ for years - his was the first blog I started to read regularly - and have disagreed very little with what I've read. But I'm with you on this one.

    Still, it's a bit disconcerting that I find myself vehemently defending "everyone draw mohammed day" or PZ's defiling the cracker against arguments that sound very similar to my objection burning the Qu'ran.

    • Kevin says:

      *my objection TO burning..."

    • James Sweet says:

      @Kevin: I too felt it was important I put my finger on exactly the things that separate this from Crackergate, etc. I written about it and I feel that the difference is in there being a clear message that is conveyed by the "blasphemous" act.

      If Jones had planned to burn a pile of Qurans to highlight a specific criticism of Islam, e.g. the taking of child brides in many Islamic countries with supposed Qurannic justification, then it would be very different. I would still find it highly distasteful because of the inescapable implications inherent in the history of book-burnings, which PalMD has expounded on at length -- but I would probably not call that hate speech, and could maybe even find myself defending it.

      Anyway, I'll just repeat what I said in another thread: PalMD and PZ are both more or less right. Given Jones' stated intentions and the context of Muslims being a tiny minority in the US, there is no way to view the proposed book-burning as anything other than an implied threat against a minority ethnic group. On the other hand, PZ is right that it's really messed up that people on entirely different continents get this apoplectic about it just because it is a religious symbol.

      Maybe another way of saying it: PalMD's condemnations are right on the money. At the same time, I seriously doubt that, globally speaking, most of the people condemning the act are using reasoning that resembles PalMD's in any way -- and PZ's comments are pretty applicable to many other people's reasoning.

  • J says:

    *If you lack empathy, if you come from a position of privilege, if you are not the member of a minority with a history of significant persecution, it may seem that simple. It is not. *

    Actually it is. Muslims should be angry about being bombed, oppressed and lied to. They should not be angry at all about their stupid "holy" book being burned.

  • PalMD says:

    I don't think you get the whole concept here, J. What you think Muslims should think is irrelevant. It is demeaning, humiliating, and insulting to have someone insist that you should think differently and believe differently than you do.

    • J says:

      *It is demeaning, humiliating, and insulting to have someone insist that you should think differently and believe differently than you do.*

      You're catching on, PalMD.

  • Col says:


    There is a huge circularity in your reasoning here. Substitute 'athiests' or 'christians' or whatever for Muslims from your quote

    "What you think Muslims should think is irrelevant. It is demeaning, humiliating, and insulting to have someone insist that you should think differently and believe differently than you do."

    and the quote retains its meaning. Around and around it goes. As long as no laws are broken, rights restricted, or physical violence occurs as a result of an action we have to let it go and simply ignore it. The ignore it is what is missing from the whole book burning idea. Forcing people to alter there actions in this case is not warrented

    Long time lurker and fan of the blog,

  • Nathan Myers says:

    Closer to SEVEN billion people, now, unless you're summarily disqualifying many of them. Yes, it's hard for me too.

  • bluefoot says:

    In the current context of trying to intimidate Muslims i.e. get a community center moved, how is burning the Koran any different than burning a cross on somebody's lawn to intimidate them?

    And sure, burning books is protected speech, and it should be. But IMO, the real question is: why are people blaming all Muslims for a what a handful of people did? It's even less rational than saying all Catholics are pedophiles. After all, the Church and the Vatican - as an institution - covered up, and in some cases enabled, the abuse of children by priests. It's like saying all New York State residents are terrorists because Timothy McVeigh was from Niagara Falls.

    • Orac says:

      In the current context of trying to intimidate Muslims i.e. get a community center moved, how is burning the Koran any different than burning a cross on somebody’s lawn to intimidate them?

      It's not, really, except in degree. Indeed, the pastor's stated motivation in threatening to burn the Koran was to do what the wingnuts accuse the Park 51 project planners of wanting to do by building their Islamic Center two blocks from Ground Zero: To assert the superiority of his religion over that of another.

  • Jeff says:

    I think a huge part of the problem is context, which PalMD has talked about a bit and PZ has somewhat ignored, but has never really been explicitly stated.

    A Christian burning a Qu'ran is very different from an atheist burning a Bible, a Torah, a copy of the Rig Vedas and the Qu'ran. A Christian burning a Qu'ran is an oppressive act. That is, it sends a message to Muslims that they are not welcome and that the Christians involved would be happy to e.g. strip Muslims of their right to worship freely if they weren't constrained by the 1st Amendment.

    If it were an atheist holding an ecumenical book-burning, the message is entirely different. An attack by a minority (atheists) against the majority (people of faith) is non-oppressive in almost all cases, because the minority has no actual power to harm the majority. It is a rebellious act, not an oppressive act (c.f. burning the American flag in protest).

    It seems like PZ is ignoring the context. This is fine, in my opinion, because when everybody and their dog is (rightly) condemning this Qu'ran burning, it's important to point out that that burning religious artifacts is not in se oppressive. It's also relevant that the Muslims who have been vocally opposing the Qu'ran burning (at least that I've seen) haven't said anything about Christians depriving Muslims of their rights, or about Muslim Americans fearing violence, or any of the other reasonable arguments against the Qu'ran burning. They have said that burning the Qu'ran is, without exception, inexcusable. This sort of argument is wrong, and it needs to be pointed out.

    • Kevin says:

      On PBS News Hour last week, Reza Aslan (who I believe is a Muslim) made a pretty nuanced point about this being a bad idea because it incites Islamic hatred, and is just emblematic of a growing anti-Islamic sentiment. He didn't say it was without exception inexcusable. His may be a minority position among Muslim commentators, but there's at least one...

      • PalMD says:

        Reza is muslim, and wrote (among other things) No God But God, a tough read but good. He's also a frequent guest on the Daily Show.

        I don't think "inciting hatred of us" should be the primary reason to avoid the act, however.

  • There is a wonderful book by Ursula K. LeGuin, The Telling, that deals with the opression of religion and the opression of secularism. No answers, just a story that raises questions.

    • J says:

      There is no such thing as secular oppression.

      • PalMD says:


      • Vicki says:

        Is the claim here that throwing people into prison without trial and torturing them is not oppression, or that when the United States sent Maher Arar to Syria to be tortured, and imprisoned hundreds of people without trial in Guantanamo, it was doing so for religious reasons?

        Those both seem nonsensical, but I'd like to know which you're claiming.

        • J says:

          *Is the claim here that throwing people into prison without trial and torturing them is not oppression*

          That is oppression.

          *... or that when the United States sent Maher Arar to Syria to be tortured, and imprisoned hundreds of people without trial in Guantanamo, it was doing so for religious reasons?*

          Only indirectly. If people weren't infected by religious paranoia, they never would've voted for Bush or supported those policies.

  • J.J.E. says:

    You know, PalMD, if you'd concede that you over-generalized by claiming that burning Korans in the U.S. is threatening, you wouldn't get nearly as much disagreement. In particular, protests by minorities (even viewed through your lens of the pernicious effects of privilege) like atheists would certainly qualify as non-threatening protests.

    I'm not sure what you are aiming for exactly, but burning Korans (as stupid as it sounds to me) isn't universally a threat or hateful, nor does it necessarily target human beings. That I think it is an impotent and attention grabbing stunt pales in comparison to the horror of reading someone who is willing to give the appearance (if not the actual reality) of caving to the "terrorist veto".

  • Different Frogs says:

    I feel that you and PZ are debating different things here, PalMD. Your arguments are not meeting head on but rather passing each other in the night on parallel tracks.

    You are saying that Koran burning is a dick thing to do; so is PZ. You are also admitting that people should have the legal right to do it; PZ agrees. However you seem to think that PZ is approaching this topic solely from the perspective of a free-speech-comes-first-always-ALWAYS-atheist.

    "PZ argues (or so it I read it) that the correct frame for this is that failing to burn a Qur’an is surrender to the whims of kooky religious zealots."

    I don't think that's what he's saying at all.

    He is saying that the correct frame is that of people in a country thousands of miles away rioting and murdering over the burning of a few random copies of a mass-produced book. Admittedly he does not seem to consider the feelings of American Muslims, and this is one of the places where you seem to be arguing at cross-points – he is pointing out the actions of Muslims overall, you are only considering those who find themselves as minorities. You are defending the rights of an “at-risk minority” while he is decrying the action of (correct me if I'm wrong) a population that is at least as numerous as the United States.

    I think a related point here is PZ's quote:

    “I know that and appreciate the fact that their feelings are hurt and they are angry and outraged. My point is that I don’t care, and neither should anyone else.”

    IMO this is not PZ saying he doesn't give a shit about American Muslims who feel oppressed by the burning of their symbols, this is PZ saying he doesn't give a shit about Muslims who feel the need to be violent, angry and even more irrational just because they believe we burnt, NOT a symbol first and foremost, but a BOOK. He feels no sympathy for those Muslims who are rioting because they believe their God just got a 3rd degree burn. I would guess PalMD, albeit it hesitantly, that he would strongly agree with you on the former point.

    This brings me to my second point. PZ is not angry at Obama and everyone else because they said the book burning was a bad idea and he thinks it's a good one, as you seem to think - he's angry at them because they elevated the issue from obscurity to international prominence completely unnecessarily:

    “The problem is a whole fleet of deranged wackaloons, including the president of the USA in addition to raving fundamentalist fanatics, who think open, public criticism and disagreement ought to be forbidden, somehow.”

    Nor is he shouting OMG TE MUSLIMS ARE COMING AND THEY ARE GOING TO DO NASTY NASTY THINGS TO US WHEN THEY DO - WE MUST FIGHT BACK!!! as you seem to be suggesting with this quote:

    "He agrees with Glenn Beck et al. that we are in danger of having Muslims enforce their practices on us."

    No, I don't think he does, and if he does well then I disagree with him on that point. You claim to be his colleague, and to have known him for some time, so I find to hard to understand how you can put him on the same level as Glenn Beck without a second thought.

    I think perhaps your final point has some merit – who is he to say what is best for Muslims after all? - but then again all he is really calling for is less war and (here being where you both fundamentally disagree I believe) less religion: the former is a some kind of human right I think (or at least the UN certainly is working towards the same goal) and the latter, well... that's his opinion.

    But honestly PalMD, I think you guys need to take a second look at what you are arguing for and against – it seems to me like you agree on far more points than you think you do.

  • thstone says:

    Short version: Islam doesn't give a sh@t whether I, as an athiest, feel safe. And PZ never said "that burning Qur’ans makes a statement, and this statement is worth the consequences"; he said exactly what the quote said: he knows it might offend folks but that's not his problem, it's their problem and it is not fair or appropriate that they try to make it his problem. (and to what consequences are you referring? beheadings? jihads and fatwas? peaceful Muslims threatening death and violence?)

    They don't care about his trodden toes, why should he respect theirs. I friggin' hate the fact that Muslims and Christians have defined the argument around their untouchable sentimentality about their rites and rituals. What about MY sentimentality about my desire to be left the hell alone by your religious fervor. You don't care about my sensitivities (it's not one nation under god, it's one nation indivisible; God is not in the constitution; creationism is not science; I don't want to hear or say a prayer before, during or after a sporting or educational or political event; I don't want to have to pretend to generic christianity at work so as not to offend; I _am_ _not_ _religious_!!!) so please, spare me your protestations about your delicate religious sensitivities.

    Hm, sorry, that wasn't the short version. That was the medium one. Here's the short one: You don't give a sh@t about my sensitivities. Don't expect me to cater to yours.

    • J says:

      I agree. It is TOO FUCKING LATE for religious people to complain about insensitivity.

      Plus why is "sensitivity" even what we're talking about here? Why is "giving offense" even a problem? These people make very big claims on paper: Their god is all powerful, all knowing, the lord of creation, the master of the fates. What exactly do they or their god have to fear from "desecration"? If "a mighty fortress is [their] god" then what do they have to fear from me? Or anything?

      No. I think these people are, essentially, just bad atheists. They actually aren't sure at all that their god exists and are desperate to shut out any evidence that that might very well be the case. Their faith isn't a rock; it's a soap bubble.

  • Rodrigue says:

    "In Europe, Jews were attacked by religious and secular institutions for centuries, and one of the ways the terror was maintained was through destruction of religious objects."

    You mega-over-generalize.

    Obviously, you think that a few cheap korans burned are very, very close to "attacks by religious and secular institutions" and "the burning of ... houses of worships, ...homes, and ...person[s]"

    But unless I'm mistaken the case is entirely different here. First, ONE pastor in Florida wanted to burn a few books (in the opinion of many he rather wanted some free publicity). Second, the Head of State, the Commander in Chief himself said that it was wrong, and many politicians + religious leaders went along.

    Where are the "secular attacks" against American muslims? I fail to see any.

    Maybe you missed the information on Pharyngula, but an Australian lost his job (in a university) because he burned a bible and a koran [http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/09/one_way_holy_books_can_alter_y.php]

    So it's easy to see who is really attacked by the secular institutions in such matters.

    Of course the pastor motives were dubious. I doubt he was interested in free speech and intellectual freedom. Thanks to the news networks and the White House he got what he wanted: publicity.

    Of course, burning a book is a poor way to exercize free speech.

    The problem is this: do morons/dicks/infidels/blasphemers also have a right to freedom, or not?

    USA and Australia just gave us their answers (though these answers would probably have been different if the "sacred" text was a buddhist sutra or a wiccan prayer!)

  • J says:

    Hey here's a thought, PalMD:

    Right now, I could download a digital copy of the Qur'an from any of dozens of places. I can then multiply the copies infinitely. If I start placing those digital copies in my computer's trash bin and hitting "Empty Trash" over and over, am I desecrating the Qur'an and/or giving offense to Muslims?

  • Katharine says:

    I have to agree that I think PZ sounds a little tonedeaf on this one and somewhat ignorant of context.

    I'm an atheist and generally anti-religion, no matter which one.


    1) I'm generally opposed to book-burning, because books contain information - even if not necessarily directly, as some religious texts; though they make ridiculous claims of what exists and what doesn't, it tells you something about the author's state of mind and the author's milieu. (My idea of a better alternative is to make fun of absurdities without burning things, perhaps by writing a well-written rebuttal. Others may make an offensive drawing or poem or something else. But destructive forms of this make me wonder if someone's not going to take it to the point of causing physical harm - there are plenty of people on the far right who are eliminationists; we shouldn't be fueling eliminationist fires. Criticize, yes. But the only destruction should be done with words, and done for the betterment of all.

    2) There is an undertone, and I don't want to invoke Godwin's law unnecessarily especially on a site run by a culturally Jewish guy, but the anti-Middle-Eastern rhetoric seems to be ramping up so much that at least to me some of the nastier bits of it sounds like anti-Semitism did back in the early days of the Third Reich, and some of it sounds Inquisitiony. Americans of Middle Eastern ancestry have already been assaulted and killed here, and the assaults have made a bit of an uptick lately. As much as I have plenty of criticism for Islam, I do not want a consequence of that criticism, no matter how harsh it is - and my criticism is VERY harsh for all religions - to be injury or death.

    PZ, I think, is making this sound like it would if Islam had the same standing that Christianity did in the United States; it would be a vastly less complex situation if they were treated roughly equally. However, Islam is a minority religion in the United States, much the same way Judaism was during the Middle Ages and in 1930s Germany. Physical and political persecution of a minority reeks badly of things that are horrific.

  • Katharine says:

    "It is demeaning, humiliating, and insulting to have someone insist that you should think differently and believe differently than you do."

    Pal, you got this one REALLY wrong.

    • Luna_the_cat says:

      Katharine, what matters here is context. Pal said this in the context of, here is a minority being told that they are wrong to be offended by a certain action, as that action is for their own poor deluded good.

      There is a certain analogy here to women being told that they are wrong to be offended at protests against doctors who provide abortions, since women who get abortions are poor deluded fools who need to have someone step in and show them how wrong it all is.

      Whether or not you agree with the motivation or the outcome, there is also another very important aspect to this: we are entitled, in the course of protecting the each from the all, to dictate how people may and may not act and even speak, under certain circumstances. But we have to live with the fact that what people believe belongs solely to them. It may be legitimate to regulate how people act on what they think, but it is not legitimate to dictate thought. We can disagree with what they think, even violently disagree. We can point out the errors of it, multiple times and in many ways. We can ridicule it. We can be disgusted by it. We can't dictate it.

      I actually think that this is important.

  • Katharine says:

    "The problem is this: do morons/dicks/infidels/blasphemers also have a right to freedom, or not?"

    Infidels and blasphemers do, 'cause I'm one of them.

    'Dicks'? Depends on your definition of 'dick'.

    Morons? Nah, fuck 'em.

    • Rodrigue says:

      "Infidels and blasphemers do, ’cause I’m one of them (...) Morons? Nah, fuck ‘em."

      Thank you, it was an interesting demonstration of empathy.

  • Walt says:

    Thanks, PalMD, I'm late to the post, but wanted to express my gratitude for your perspective (and I write this from a position of privilege in Minnesota with 3 bottles of akvavit in my freezer). You have articulated what's bothered me about PZ's writing: his occasional lack of empathy--which, of course, his detractors seem to describe as perpetual. I have long noticed the over-reliance on logical reasoning in the posts and comments on Pharyngula, but of course, it's hard to argue with logic. However, your post illuminates the middle-ground between logic and belief, a place where empathy is valued, and not seen as weakness or appeasement.

    The strict adherence to logic by PZ and his most ardent fans often results other false dichotomies, too, such as this one where the Florida so-called reverend's actions are described as analogous to Crackergate. Although both involve the destruction of an object held sacred by a group of people, by someone not in that group, the message is different. Unless I've misunderstood PZ's accounts of his actions, they were to show that there is no inherent sacredness to the wafer (nor to the Koran or Dawkins's book) that should have provoked the reaction that it did (in his case or that of the original student), and the hostility was directed at the belief itself. The pastor in Florida, however, surely understands how Muslims feel about the Koran, since he clearly feels the same way about the Bible. He didn't threaten to burn the book to show that it's not sacred; he threatened to burn it because it is sacred to Muslims. That's hostility.

    I appreciate your empathy (a good trait for a physician to have). I can't wait for the next round of healthcare debates--your posts provided a great perspective from the proverbial trenches.

  • Daniel J. Andrews says:

    Just read the open letter. You made some very good points about seeing things differently from a position of privilege versus a position of a minority. Maybe PZ didn't agree fully with you, but your post certainly made me re-examine my own views on the subject. Thank you for those insights.

  • Katharine says:

    "The strict adherence to logic by PZ and his most ardent fans often results other false dichotomies, too, such as this one where the Florida so-called reverend’s actions are described as analogous to Crackergate."

    I don't think this is a case of 'strict adherence to logic'. I think you got it right the first time when you said it was a problem of empathy.

    Being logical doesn't necessarily make you unempathetic, and when people say that, it ticks me off, as if people are putting down being sensible and logical and holding up stupidity and emotional reasoning.

  • Katharine says:

    One thing I'd really like to see in response to this is some good shaming of the stupid. Society needs to make fun of the ignorant and make their lives worse than they already are.

    If we manage to drive a few to jump off a bridge, I'd consider that an accomplishment.

    • PalMD says:

      Then you are a sociopath.

      • Katharine says:

        And you are entirely too lenient with everyone.

        • PalMD says:

          That's true. If we were really smart about this, we would take all people with irrational beliefs and bar them from public schools where they can become troublesome. We could also boycott their businesses. In fact, we should probably try to limit their access to public life so as to avoid contamination.

          Here's one good approach: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Jewish_legislation_in_prewar_Nazi_Germany

          • random person says:

            While Katherine's recent statement about inspiring a few suicides seems sociopathic to me too, she's absolutely correct in the need to shame the stupid. If Hitler, when he began his tirades in the Bavarian beer halls, were greeted not with respect, but with laughter, ridicule, derision, and spat beer, then that legislation may never have come into existence.

          • Vicki says:

            Pointing out and laughing at stupidity or ignorance is one thing; wishing random strangers dead is another. I don't want the ignorant to jump off bridges, I want them to learn.

            A rather sneaky pagan friend of mine, who agreed that cursing people was unethical and possibly dangerous, used to try to cast spells to make hostile people more compassionate and loving.

          • random person says:

            Vicky, you may want to tell your pagan friend that it is bad luck to be superstitious. 😉

      • Galwayskeptic says:

        Agreed. The lower limit of tolerance has now been defined. Katharine, you've undermined whatever arguments you might have had with a woefully stupid statement like that.

  • spit says:

    Good post. And exactly on target, I think.

    Within the context of anti-Muslim sentiment and a rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes around this country, I honestly don't see how anybody can miss the implied threat in burning the Muslim holy book, no matter what I think of the book's merits.

    I don't care much about the book one way or the other. But I do care about intimidation and threats aimed at any minority group, and I care about ramping up incitement to violence here against Muslims and against those from the Middle-East generally.

    A part of what some people fail to grasp is that religion is, for many people, an inherent, connected part of their understanding of culture. Cultural symbols and religious symbols overlap to a huge degree for much of the globe, and pretending that you can easily single out people's religious beliefs without simultaneously catching their cultural identities in it is stupid.

    People can feel free to call religious beliefs and cultural identities stupid, and I can feel free to call them stupid in return. Once we're all done calling everybody stupid, then what? Do we all get to revel alone in how smart we each are and how stupid everybody else is? Because I have to say, that's not a real big goal in my life, personally.