Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Case of the Communion Cracker III - Bill Donahue

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.

Donahue said:

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.

19 comments:

Vaporz said...

"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."

Hate speech? Casting moral blame on ALL people who subscribe to ANY religion??? That sign doesn't blame ALL religious people for 9/11 that's absurd. Are you purposely setting up a strawman or just don't get it?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

vaporz

The sign says (said) NO religion. Thus, it applied the 9/11 attacks to all religion (or religious belief in general).

There is another sign that some organizations use that has a pattern like stained glass with the phrase "Imagine no religion." Plus, there is the original John Lennon song itself. But neither associates all of religion with a specific immoral act. So, those expressions do not commit the same mistake.

Gregory Earl said...

The sign says (said) NO religion. Thus, it applied the 9/11 attacks to all religion (or religious belief in general).

No. The logic of the sign is the following: the 9/11 attacks were carried out by followers of a violent, fundamentalist Islam. Their version of fundamentalist Islam is a subset of all versions of fundamentalist Islam, which are a subset of all versions of Islam, which is a subset of all religions.

The message of the sign is that if there were no religion, none of its subsets could exist, hence no violent fundamentalist Islam could exist, hence no one would have carried out the 9/11 attacks. This does not in any way blame the attacks on "all people who subscribe to any religion".

Vaporz said...

Yeah, what he said.

sapphoq said...

The sign "Imagine No Religion" (with the stained glass) is in fact a project of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and in was not directed nor intended to be directed at anyone who was involved with 9/11. It is a statement that the world would be better off without religion of any sort.

P.Z. Metz can in fact obtain communion wafers legally. A reader can "score" him one by purchasing some through a Catholic Supply store. There are also recipes on-line to make them.

Bill Donahue qualifies as a Catholic fundamentalist. I offer him the same basic respect that is due to any human being. I do not respect his beliefs. Particularly when a wafer is the cause of an uproar vs. the priests who have RAPED kids and then were transferred to other parishes as a cover-up, leaving them free to RAPE again. Where were the Bill Donahues when that was made public?

Hate speech? Finding a gay man dead after having been severely beaten for a state of being-- that is the sort of hate crime that concerns me.

Since the wafer has been returned, perhaps it can be sold on e-Bay and the proceeds used to pay off a few more folks who were RAPED by priests as kids. Or, the monies can be donated to G.L.A.D.D. (Gay Lesbian Anti-Defamation) in light of the suffering undergone by g.l.b.t.i.q. people everywhere when a religiously inspired gang decide to act.

spike

Oz said...

The wafers you can buy in bulk are not considered to be the Body of Christ, so any demonstration involving them would be even more symbolic than the ritual actually is. They have to be prayed over in the right way at Mass before they transform. (Former Catholic here)

Ron in Houston said...

For those who don't know:

PZ is a former alter boy. He knew exactly what he was saying when he asked for a consecrated wafer.

Alonzo is right. If, hypothetically, he could obtain such a wafer without going into a Catholic church, no one could fault him for doing whatever he wanted. (Well, I suppose we could fault him for poor taste.)

Emu Sam said...

sapphoq,

Alonzo was referring to a specific sign that does relate the 9/11 attacks with the phrase "Imagine no religion." It replaces the stained glass with a picture of the World Trade Center. He talks more about it here: http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2007/12/connecticut-valley-atheists-imagine.html

It is not clear from your comment if you were aware of this version of the sign.

Eneasz said...

Vaporz/Gregory - did you notice how many subsets you had to go through to get from "Followers of a violent, fundamentalist Islam" to "all religion"?

Would you approve of a picture of Hiroshima pre-nuclear detonation and the caption "Imagine: No Scientists"?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Besides . . .

A black person commits a crime.

A black person is a subset of the group black people.

So, would we be justified in a sign that says "Imagine, no black people?"

People should not be held responsible for a crime they did not commit. Only the subset that is actually responsible for the crime should be identified with that crime.

Anonymous said...

Actually, going back to the communion host, only Catholics who have been through sacramental preparation are supposed to have communion. Why? Because you are saying, yes, this is the Body of Christ - that's why the response is required: "Amen." You are required to consume the host right away. So the student committed a theft that Catholics consider to be a huge sacrilege. There is no LEGITIMATE way that the professor could get a consecrated host. He would have to lie or to get someone else to lie in order to get the consecrated host. Nobody expects him to believe, but even the "do unto others rule" doesn't apply to atheists in this type of case, because atheists don't consider anything SACRED. There is nothing to compare this type of theft to in the atheist worldview. This is one reason why a moral atheist should at the very minimum show respect for others who do hold this belief. There is no reciprocity for an act of this type - nothing to really compare it to in the atheist world, except possibly a nuclear attack on the entire earth. If this professor was outraged by the supposed death threats to the student - if they really existed - then he should have denounced those who made the death threats, which are illegal, and he should not have proposed an action that is considered an attack on all Catholic people and worse, on God Himself. Like most of you have correctly pointed out - you can't hold a whole group responsible for the individual acts of its members. This includes gays, blacks and Roman Catholics. This professor should not be in a position to teach. He is a really bad example of an atheist and certainly not a moral man. Hopefully, Catholics will not blame all atheists for this type of outrageous behavior, and in fact, this is a unique case, proving that the vast majority of atheists do have respect, even if they don't share the same beliefs. The fact that he called on others to do this is seriously wrong. (Think back to the nuclear example - it is a huge threat to Catholics that he said this, inciting others publicly. It is irrelevant if anyone thinks Catholics are crazy - this is one of the key points of the Catholic faith and 25% of Americans are Catholic - worldwide a billion.)

Sheldon said...

I am posting this here in relation to the question of Myer's attitude brought up in an earlier post in this series. Thought it might be of interest.

http://minnesotaindependent.com/view/mnindy-interview

"Myers: There's a subtle difference there -- maybe an important difference. I don't favor the idea of going to somebody's home or to something they own and possess and consider very important, like a graveyard -- going to a grave and desecrating that. That's something completely different. Because what you're doing is doing harm to something unique and something that is rightfully part of somebody else -- it's somebody else's ownership. The cracker is completely different. This is something that's freely handed out."

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Sheldon

Thank you for the reference.

The 'subtle difference' that Myers presents has no moral significance.

Consider, for example, the food given by a restaurant at an all-you-can-eat buffet. You can take the food on the condition that you consume it on the premises. You have no moral right to take it with you off the premises.

People can and do regularly transfer property under conditions. If the recipient does not agree to the conditions, he does not get the property.

The conditions for receiving communion wafers and food at an all-you-can-eat buffet are that you consume them on the spot.

Taking the item off the premises constitutes theft.

caiuscamargarus said...

"A black person commits a crime.

A black person is a subset of the group black people.

So, would we be justified in a sign that says 'Imagine, no black people?'"

I thought of exactly that example, Alonzo, but on further consideration, it's not perfectly analogous. There is a direct causal link between the hijackers' religion and their willingness to perform a suicide attack.

Religion is, of course, not the only motivator to terrorism, but I'd be equally comfortable with a poster that replaced "religion" with, say, "class identity", "nationalism", "racism", etc.

Furthermore, a world with no religion would not require the destruction of any people. In fact, I think people would be better off without religion, even, possibly, the 9/11 hijackers.

I think the word "blame" is operative here. I don't think about it as placing moral blame at all. It just illustrates the argument that is often put forth that religion can be a force for great evil that has few parallels in human history.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

caiuscamargarus

There is a direct causal link between the hijackers' religion and their willingness to perform a suicide attack.

There is no direct causal link between all religion and a willingness to perform a suicide attack.

So, the inference from the specific to the general remains invalid.

I agree that the world would be better off without false beliefs and invalid inferences (though there are a great many false beliefs in addition to those having to do with religion). This includes the fallacy of hasty generalization - the illegitimate equating of 'the hijackers' religion' with all religion.

As I mentioned, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has a sign with the same message over the background of a stained glass window - with no attempt to associate all religion with 9/11. I do not object to that sign.

I object to the assocation of all religion with 9/11 when, logically, only the hijackers' religion (and all religion that motivated people to cheer the hijackers) can legitimately be associated with that event.

Eneasz said...

Despite protests to the contrary, I can think of several ways to get a consecrated cracker that would not involve fraud. There are a large amount of liberal, open-minded Catholics out there (despite the extremist dogma of the church, I've found that the average catholic is much more reasonable and down-to-earth than the average evangelical protestant) and at least some of them must be priests (again, there are quite a few catholic priests who said they don't actually believe in "God" (their own words)). With the amount of publicity this has received, it's possible (tho unlikely) that one of these priests will have heard of PZ's request and voluntarily consecrate and send him a cracker.

A former priest could consecrate a cracker as well, altho I'm sure the church would claim that former priests lose all their magic powers when they leave the church.

Also -
There is no reciprocity for an act of this type - nothing to really compare it to in the atheist world, except possibly a nuclear attack on the entire earth.

This is downright ghastly. If this is truely the case, then I think one of the most important missions of the entire human race would be to create such an intense aversion to holding things as "sacred" (in the sense you describe) that only a complete monster would ever do so. This feeling you describe is not a feeling that a good society would ever want one of it's members to have.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Hume's Ghost

Interestingly, since we are working within the realm of fantasy here, the Catholic Church can make up whatever rules it wants regarding consecrated hosts. They can apply a time limit (after 5 seconds it reverts to a cracker again). They can impose some sort of spiritual qualifyer (a host taken by a person not of pure heart becomes a mere cracker).

This would solve all of their problems.

After all, there is no test that can be performed that would allow one to determine whether this was a cracker or a living, breathing, human being. Of course, the reason there is no test is because this transubstantiation claim is pure nonsense.

Yet, the absence of a test gives the church the liberty of creating whatever make-believe story they like. "Let's make-believe that this is the body of Christ unless it comes within the possession of PZ Myers - in which case it becomes a cracker again."

Still, I agree with the second sentiment.

People who put the well-being of a cracker, or the naming of a teady bear, or the drawing of a cartoon, on the same level as "a nuclear attack on the entire earth" are a frightening group of people. I imagine a person thinking, "Save the cracker or save the earth? Save the cracker or save the Earth? I DON'T KNOW!"

In fact, that's a significant problem - people calling things 'sacred' that have no real-world value, and allowing things that have real-world value to be lost for the sake of that which is thought to be sacred.

Gregory Earl said...

So, the inference from the specific to the general remains invalid.

No, it doesn't. The hijacker was motivated by his religion, which is a subset of all religions. His religion could not exist if religion did not exist.

The black person in your example is NOT motivated by his blackness (at least I assume that you are not suggesting it is). Thus, he would still have committed his crime if there were no black people.

Would you approve of a picture of Hiroshima pre-nuclear detonation and the caption "Imagine: No Scientists"? (eneasz)

The issue is not whether I would approve. Clearly, the inference suggested by such a sign would be valid -- no scientists, no nuclear bombs. And clearly such a sign need not be interpreted as blaming Hiroshima on all scientists and would not constitute hate speech.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry I'm so late to this, but I'm new here.

I think the CVA sign is merely an attempt to get people to think about the consequences of the irrational things they give a free pass to, specifically, religion. I don't think it is hate speech, but if you substitute "Arabs" for "religion" I think it would be.

Arabs cannot help being Arabs. Innate characteristics such as race are not moral factors since they are not freely chosen. Religion is freely chosen. Also, it invariably requires accepting a large bolus of irrational nonsense, and training minds to accept such irrationality turns out to very often have severe moral repercussions for humanity.

The desire to be rid of religion is just that, and not a desire to get rid of its adherents. There is such a thing as persuasion, and the CVA sign is a an attempt at it. Reasonable people may disagree as to its efficacy.