Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Perjury, Libel, and Desecration

It is old news now that the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy has condemned PZ Myers’ act of desecrating a Eucharist, declaring:

Attacking the most sacred elements of a religion is not free speech anymore than would be perjury in a court or libel in a newspaper.

They added:

Lies and hate speech which incite contempt or violence are not protected under the law. Hence, inscribing Swastikas on Jewish synagogues or publicly burning copies of the Christian Bible or the Muslim Koran, especially by a faculty member of a public university, are just as heinous and just as unconstitutional. Individual freedoms are limited by the boundaries created by the inalienable rights of others. The freedom of religion means that no one has the right to attack, malign or grossly offend a faith tradition they personally do not have membership or ascribe allegiance.

Moral Authority

The Catholic Church considers itself to be qualified to determine the correct answer to all questions of morality for all people regardless of their religious beliefs. Their argument is that morality cannot be a matter of opinion. There is a single moral truth, and that single moral truth must be the truth of the Catholic faith. Anybody who disagrees with Catholic morality must be mistaken.

I also hold that there are moral facts. However, just as with scientific facts, any one of us can be mistaken. When I present a moral argument I present it in the sense that, "I hold that the evidence supports M. However, I may be wrong. M is not to be taken as a matter of faith, and certainly not based on decree. Where evidence supports a contrary view, please, go with the evidence."

The belief that there are moral facts does not justify the arrogance of claiming that the speaker is the indisputable master of those facts.

The statement above gives us strong reason to question the degree to which the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy has a grasp of the moral facts.

Free Speech

Let’s start with the concept of 'free speech'. Free speech is not a right to immunity from criticism. It is quite the opposite. The very idea of the right to freedom of speech is a right to criticize – the right to say, "You are wrong," without fear of being imprisoned or killed as a result. It tells people that they must endure the criticism of others and respond with, at worst, condemnation and private actions, but never with violence.

PZ Myers sought to communicate the idea that the consecrated Eucharist was "just a cracker." This he did by getting a consecrated Eucharist and treating it like one would treat a common cracker. This communicates the idea he wanted to communicate far better than mere words could have done. We see proof of this in the reaction that people had to his actions. If the words had the same meaning or significance as the act, then the words alone would have generated the same response. The fact that the act generated a stronger response proves that the act had meaning or significance that words alone lacked. Banning the act means banning Myers from communicating what he sought to communicate.

As regular readers know, I have raised objections to the act of stealing a consecrated communion wafer. However, the issue of theft is quite distinct from the issue of desecration. I have not disputed the claim that if Myers were to acquire a consecrated Eucharist legitimately (without fraud or stealth or force), that this would then become his cracker, and he may do with it as he pleases. He would then be within his rights to do to it what he could legitimately do to any cracker, including use it to communicate the absurdity of believing that the cracker is the body of Christ.

Nowhere in Myers' act or his words did he advocate that violence be used against Catholics. There is a clear difference between saying, "Your beliefs are laughably absurd" and "You should be the victim of violence." Even on the issue of theft, the argument has not been that Catholics deserve to have their property stolen. The argument has been that the act of acquiring a Eucharist is not theft since the Church is simply giving them away anyway.

However, the Confraternity is asserting that the use of violence against its critics is perfectly legitimate.

This part is important. The Confraternity is claiming that, just as it is legitimate to use violence against those who commit perjury or libel, the state has the right – indeed the duty, they argue – to use violence against those who would dare assert through actions like those of Myers that the communion cracker is just a cracker. Myers makes no call for the use of violence. The Confraternity responds with a call to bring violence to bear.

Most of those who have written on this topic have ignored or underplayed this fact. They have written about abstract rights to freedom of religion and freedom of speech without mentioning what is involved in denying those rights.

However, this needs emphasis because it is crucial to understanding the (im)moral stand that the Confraternity has taken. They are calling upon the government to bring violence to bear against its critics. Specifically, they argue that the government is not protecting freedom of religion unless the government is making threats to respond with violence against any who would challenge the Church’s most sacred beliefs.

It is true that the state may threaten violence against any who they catch committing perjury or libel. Perjury is an act of deliberately making a false statement under oath – a statement that the agent knew at the time was false. Libel involves either knowingly or recklessly making false statements about an individual or group that does them material harm. An individual can defend himself from either one of these accusations by showing that the statement was true or that the agent had good reason to believe what they said.

Now, when it comes to people making negligently or deliberately false statements that cast whole groups of individuals in a negative light – harming their interests, subjecting them to state-run violence, and putting them at risk of private harms – the Catholic Church has a very poor track record. Even today, it is involved in campaigns that are harmful to the interests of homosexuals, women in the early portion of their pregnancy, atheists and agnostics, and others. And they do so on the bases of absurd and entirely unfounded beliefs.

Yet, even here . . . even where we can identify specific groups of individuals suffering real-world harms as a result of the carelessly formed beliefs of others . . . we have many and strong reasons to stop short of calling for the use of violence those who promote these prejudices. When people come to reject these ideas, it is far better that they come to reject these ideas by a judicious application of reason than that they be reject them as a result of coercion. The former allows the individuals to understand why the ideas deserve to be rejected, allowing them to apply the same principles to other ideas that also deserve to be rejected. The latter leaves individuals wallowing in ignorance, perhaps embracing the truth, but void of understanding.

So, even though the Catholic Church promotes bigotry that does real-world harm to real-world people, it is still best that they be granted the freedom of speech, and that the reaction to their bigotry be limited to words and private (peaceful) action. However, this is only possible as long as the critics of Catholic bigotries are permitted to respond to Catholic beliefs with words and private action. When those are prohibited, few options remain.

Unfortunately, the Catholic Church has a long and disgraceful history of calling upon the state to violence to its critics. This long and colorful history is why wise people a few hundred years ago argued that this must end – that the Church shall be prohibited from using the violence of the state to secure its ends and silence its critics, through a mechanism that we know as the First Amendment. Those who passed this Amendment wisely sought to tell the religious institutions of this country, “From now on you are limited to your means of persuasion to words and private actions. You are hereby barred from using the violence of the state.”

Yet, as the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy has now informed us, the Church finds old habits very hard to break.

The Catholic Church tells us that it is the top authority when it comes to all things moral. It would do a better job of making its case if its members could actually tell the difference between right and wrong. When it summons up traditional practices of the Church calling upon the state to violence against its critics, it tells us that it does not have the understanding of moral facts that it claims to have. Indeed, its understanding of its moral limits is really quite poor.


Anonymous said...

I could not have made this argument any better myself.

Well analyzed and well stated. I truly enjoy your blog.

The advocation of violence by the church against atheists is nothing new, though. If the church had it's way, I would burn for heresy.


Anonymous said...

"However, the Confraternity is asserting that the use of violence against its critics is perfectly legitimate."

Whoa. They are? Could you point out that statement or statements?


Emu Sam said...

Anonymous may be thinking of an argument that lawsuits are not violence - that violence requires physical harm instead of social or monetary harm or incarceration, or other effects of being found in the wrong by the legal system.

Alonzo's point is, I believe, that when the government takes you to task in the legal system, this is a form of violence because the government is much more powerful than an individual or most groups. A private lawsuit is not violence because both parties are equal, so it is more along the lines of settling an argument without violence.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Emu Sam

Actually, my point is that trial verdicts are backed by people with guns who will use them unless you obey. It's the guys with the guns that get people to hand over the money or to go to jail or otherwise do what the court decides they should do.

This applies to civil courts as well as criminal courts. If the court decides that you owe somebody $100,000, and you refuse to pay it, you have to deal with they guys with the guns.

A private lawsuit is violence - an act of going up to the guys with the guns and trying to convince them to use those guns on your opponent to force him to behave in particular ways.

Emu Sam said...

I stand corrected.

Sheldon said...

While I agree that being taken to court for perjury and libel can be considered "a form of violence", I think it better to say that it is coercive. Which means to say that there is either an explicit or implicit threat of actual physical violence. It is better because it says recognizes the qualitative steps between the two. You suffer the form of violence in the threat, but you still have the chance of avoiding the physical pain and injury.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Your statement is true.

Just as you can avoid the violence of the robber who puts a gun to your head and demands, "Your money or your life" by giving him your wallet, or the Jew can avoid the Nazi death camps by hiding in an attic for 5 years.