The Case of the Communion Cracker Part 2: Bill Donahue
So far, I have given a moral evaluation of the theft of a communion cracker.
In brief, there are three types of theft, distinguished from each other by the method used to illicitly get possession of property that belongs to somebody else. Property illicitly acquired through the use of force is robbery. Property illicitly acquired through the use of stealth is burglary. Property illicitly acquired through the use of deception is fraud.
Regardless of the method used to take somebody else's property, the object remains the property of the person it was stolen from. If one discovers that one has acquired stolen property, he or she should return it to its rightful owner is as good a condition as circumstances allow.
I have given a moral evaluation of PZ Myers' reaction to this event.
It was wrong for him to incite people to commit theft.
However, nothing that he wrote constitutes 'hate speech'. Hate speech involves making false moral claims about a group of people in order to promote hatred against them. The types of speech that classify has hate speech includes:
(1) The Connecticut Valley Atheist's Christmas sign that shows the world trade center and the text, "Imagine No Religion" - thus falsely casting moral blame for the 9/11 attacks on all people who subscribe to any religion.
(2) Ben Stein's "Expelled" that tried to link all atheists and all those who believe in evolution to the Nazi Holocaust.
(3) Any claim that tries to blame all Catholics for the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests.
(4) Any claim similar to (3) above that tries to assert that all homosexual men are child abusers.
What all of these statements have in common is that they make over-general moral claims for the purpose of promoting hatred of whole groups of people regardless of the innocence of individual members of that group.
If it were possible to honestly acquire ownership of a communion cracker, in that case I would be tempted to join Myers in designing some way to forcefully communicate to people the fact that this is just a cracker.
It is hard to think of anything more vile than to intentionally desecrate the Body of Christ. We look to those who have oversight responsibility to act quickly and decisively.
Nobody is going to desecrate the Body of Christ. That body turned to dust a long time ago (if it ever existed at all). The fact that some delusional people think that this cracker is the body of Christ does not make it true, any more than the fact that a person thinks that they have a bank account with one million dollars in it does not make it true.
In fact, that would be the point of the demonstration - to state clearly that this is just a cracker. I can agree that it would be wrong to desecrate the body of Christ (as I think it is wrong to desecrate anybody), but that has nothing at all to do with this cracker.
Do I need to respect the fact that some people believe that a communion cracker is the body of Christ?
Well . . . do they have an obligation to respect my view that it is not the body of Christ? By what moral rule am I required to treat a cracker as if it is the body of Christ (against all reasonableness to the contrary), but others are not obligated to treat the cracker as if it is just a cracker?
Whenever moral claims are asymmetric like this, you have injustice. You have people imposing rules on others that they are not willing to apply to themselves. You have people who are 'doing unto others' that which they are not willing to allow others to do unto them.
The symmetric rule - the rule that is imposed on others and self alike - is, "It's your cracker, do what you want with it as long as you do not harm others. If you want to pray to it, then pray to it. If you want to cover it with a cheese spread and ham and serve it as an appetizer, then do so."
If PZ Myers legitimately acquired a set of communion crackers, then he would be within his rights to serve them with a cheese spread and ham, or to do anything else to them that he may do to any other cracker that he might happen to come into possession of.
If the crackers were truly his.
I know that these acts would upset a lot of people. What is the moral status of that?
Well, imagine a mentally handicapped adult who thinks that a doll that he sees (it is not his) is his sister Jane. He takes the doll and screams at anybody who tries to take it back. If we take the doll from him, this will induce suffering. To what degree does this suffering have moral relevance?
Well, up until the point that the person with delusional thinking becomes a threat to others. If he is an otherwise harmless individual, his suffering gives us reason to say, "Let him have the doll. Go ahead and humor him. He's not hurting anybody."
However, when his delusional beliefs are a part of a pattern of behavior that involves doing harm to others, then there is reason to quit playing nice when it comes to humoring that person.
In this particular case, we are talking about death threats and other threats of violence made against the student who stole the cracker. These are threats of violence grounded on the delusional belief that this cracker is the Body of Christ. When a delusional belief is inspiring people to threats of violence, with a possibility of actual violence, it becomes morally legitimate to confront them with the fact that this is just a cracker.
If it were possible to honestly get a communion cracker, then there would be good reason to communicate to those who have made threats of violence based on the delusion that it is the body of Christ that a key premise that they are using to try to justify their actions are absurdly false. As such, the actions that they claim to be justified are not justified in fact.
It is not hate speech to say, “The premise that you are grounding your call to do violence to another person on is deeply flawed.” Particularly when the premise that the person is grounding his call to do violence to another person on is deeply flawed.
Now, let us look at this from Donahue’s position. Donahue wants to ban people from saying that, “The premises that some of my people are using to justify violence to others is deeply flawed.”
What type of claim is this? By what authority does anybody have the right to say, “Nobody may question the reasons that these people give for threatening harm to others?” The very act of threatening harm to others opens up every reason one might give to defend that harm to scrutiny and criticism. If you do not want a belief of yours to be questioned, then resolve never to use it to try to justify doing harm to others. Because, the instant you use it to try to justify doing harm to others, others (particularly those who would be harmed) have a right to question it.
This does not only apply to death threats against a student who stole a communion cracker.
It also has to do with the fact that these beliefs are being used to justify political actions. They are used to justify denying people the benefits of stem-cell medical research, to prevent the distribution of condoms to prevent the spread of disease, to prevent women from having early-term abortions, and to prevent homosexuals from having the benefit of marriage.
As soon as a belief is used to justify actions harmful to the interests of others, others have a right to question those beliefs. If you want your religious beliefs to be immune from questioning and criticism, then do not use them to justify policies that are contrary to the interests of others. The instant that a belief is used to justify harming others, that belief is on the table and it can be challenged, particularly by those whose interests are to be harmed.
For the very reason that these Catholic beliefs are being used to justify policies that are harmful to the interests of others, those beliefs are on the table, and may be legitimately challenged. It is not hate speech. It is, instead, the right of any person whose interests are to be sacrificed to challenge the reasons that others give for having those interests sacrificed.