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.