The story of biology professor P.Z. Myers (University of Minnesota) who announced publicly and under great media coverage the just as public desecration of the Eucharist, has sparked a lot of ink to flow and keyboards to heat up.
What I will try to do here is dissect the problem from a philosophical point of view, for sometimes showing how people are wrong on the basis of what is commonly considered ‘acceptable social behaviour’, opens more eyes than an internal refutation of arguments – if by applying the principle of charity Professor Myers’ raving can really be considered a string of arguments.
Common sense and Social Rules of Behaviour
Before any consideration of social “dos and don’t”s, we might first want to turn to common sense. Common sense tells us that it is wrong to attack people, groups, minorities et al. Not because some high moral authority says so, but because in doing so, we void our own right to not be attacked. Extrapolating from this basic functioning of social interaction, we arrive to the general rule of ‘do not onto others what you do not wish to be done to you‘. In philosophy this is called the Golden Rule. Kant used this golden rule to form his theory of the categorial imperative: Act only according to a maxim of which you can will that it would become a universal law. [cf. Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, Akademie-Ausgabe Kant Werke IV, S. 420, 27–421, 5. - Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, (transl., 3rd ed. 1993), Hackett, p.30.]
The same common sense tells us that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Again based on the golden rule, if we do not grant to others their right to an opinion on a subject, we ourselves have no right such claim so ourselves. However, this presupposed something that is often too hastily overlooked. There is a difference between having an informed opinion and just having an opinion based on assumptions. In philosophy we would call that the ‘honesty presupposition’. We take for granted that the person we talk to has an idea what they are talking about. An opinion based on false assumptions is not protected by this universal right to an opinion. Simply because as it is based on false assumptions, it voids it’s own honesty agreement within a discussion. This leads us into the topic of opinions, beliefs and how one can tell if they are true, real and the direction of fit of certain propositions and would definitely take us away from the topic of this article. (For further reading I suggest these links for a quick look: direction of fit, truthmakers )
If we now move on to social rules and expected behaviour the same basic principle applies as we’ve seen it in the golden rule. The only real difference is that social rules are made by the body they apply to: society. And thus they can be subject to change. What in one group of society is wrong can be viewed as right and correct in another. (Canibalism, Huma sacrifice are only two examples – extreme ones I grant you – of such a ‘change’ in social norm. The most recent one might be abortion which was socially inacceptable and punishable by the law only a few decenies back. The same goes for homosexuality or women smoking in the streets.)
We have all seen in recent years how such rules change and are very fluent when it comes to the self-definition of a social group. A term that is widely known and rules the interaction between social groups that ultimately make up a society is the one of political correctness. In the beginning of the concept it was meant to designate a certain set of rules that were aimed at minimising marginalisation of minorities or certain groups. Today however it has become much more normative than that. However it still is based on the same golden rule. With one addition when concerned with minorities: social equality. If you allow the bashing of one minority, who knows who is next or to what it might lead? European History is still coming to terms with the last time something like that happened.
In an era where belief systems are so readily available over internet, through travel, books, audio testimonies and the television, a lot of things have changed however. We are all more informed and thus expected to respect people of other belief systems. Of course, we’re called to it by the golden rule as well, but in the information society that we live in, we cannot claim to be ignorant and thus weary of certain things. Wether this is justified or even a good way of things to be is not my immediate concern here. What is however is a point of current politics: muslim integration.
Professor P.Z. Myers has in various points on his blog said that the enraged muslims that reacted by burning Christian churches or shooting Christians were justified in doing so, after the publication of the derragoritory comics that showed the prophet Mohammad as a terrorist or such.
So we come to a point where the basic social rules are violated by a newspaper by publicly making fun of another faith group. As condemnable as that may be and as socially unacceptable, it does not warrant another escalation to violence. So what as happened here?
Desecration of something holy to us
Running over a holy Indian cow, touching the Qu’ran as a non believer, shaking the hand of an orthodox Jew when you are a Christian woman, eating the Eucharist for breakfast with jam… all things that violate something that is holy to one group of faith or another. Some might react with prayer for guiding people doing such acts, others might shun them, others again might try to guide them and explain and again others react with violence.
The problem is not the act in itself which cannot either be good or bad – in classical moral philosophy. (I personally however think that certain acts have a tendency to be good or bad that is either confirmed or cancelled by the intention of the one committing the act.) The real problem arrives when such acts are committed intentionally and consciously with the goal to hurt. One could muse about the stupidity of an editor that accepted the Muhammad caricatures, but we have no way of knowing whether they were intentionally hurtful. What we can say however is that Professor Mayers wants to hurt Catholics. If you spend more than a few minutes on his blog you can see that by the fact that he publicly violates the contract of trust and confidentiality when sending someone an email (he publishes the people contradicting him openly on his blog, from what I gather without asking them) or how he puts a Neanderthaler under every single quote of creationist theory he wants to discuss. Announcing publicly what he intends to do shows the same attitude. And unfortunately it seems that under the rule of political correctness it is not ok to bash a Muslim because thousands have died because the Qu’ran commands violence against the Infidels (ATTENTION: Jews and Christians are NOT considered infidels (kafir) by a strict and correct lecture of the Qu’ran, but are considered Ahl-e-kitab, People of the Book.), but it is absolutely ok to bash Catholics because they stand up against a student that took what they believe to be Holy, hostage. Because this is the reason why Professor P.Z. Myers is mounting his barricades and the media against the Catholic Ligue.
Desecration ultimately is nothing else than a will to destroy something that is not understood. Respect, tolerance or even indifference are preferable by any social standard or rule.
I have in the above small exposition not made use of one single Catholic argument against Professor Myers. Not because there are none – there are enough to be made, such as the false equalisation between chemical substance of the Eucharist and the theologically transformed substance after the transubstantiation, for instance – but because it would be a lost cause and should be done in another post and probably by others. What was important for me to show here was that this is not something that anybody should just let go on account that everyone is entitled to their opinions or that they have a right to their different views. However way you put it, desecrating consciously something that someone else holds holy on account of having the higher truth is condemnable by society, mindless whether you are a believer or part of the attacked group or not.
A last argument could be made now and it is one that is becoming more and more common when dealing with the new militant atheist movement. For the followers of Richard Dawkins believers of any colour are delusional and subjects of a mass hysteria. On account of past crimes such as the crusades or the Spanish inquisition, they violently dismiss any other opinion than their own which is ultimately nihilistic. Again, social rule would command them to accept other ways of life to their own as to not make themselves subject to attack.
Unfortunately, the rules they want to defend (liberty of spirit and exploration, speech, opinion etc.) they substract from others they disagree with. And thus ultimately, they are not much more than playground bullies throwing a tantrum. And this is where the potential dialogue is rendered impossible: shouting people cannot hear if someone wants to show them where they are wrong. They can only hear themselves.