Sunday Sacrilege: Respect is not the same as obedience


Religion’s voice is that of a spoiled child having a temper tantrum.

I have been accused by PalMD of lacking empathy for believers; that’s not quite right. My response to the Islamic uproar over the Florida preacher who was planning to burn the Koran on 11 September was to say that that’s too bad, we have a right to destroy our own property, and that the responses people were making to this trivial event were hysterical and inappropriate.

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. The Abrahamic religions are all about fostering that feeling of oppression, even when it isn’t there, and hearing yet another one of the more deranged members of the People of the Book whine that we show insufficient respect for their mythology gives me the same feeling of exasperation I felt when my small children would wail about not getting a candy bar in the grocery store. Fine, you can be mad about your deprivation, but that does not obligate me to serve your whims.

Islam has been particularly petty and overly sensitive to these slights, and seem to be even more narrow and provincial than other religions in lacking any awareness of the fact that the majority of the people on the planet do not hold their beliefs in any great reverence, and that they don’t get to respond by demanding that we treat their superstitions as sacred. Their leadership seems to have decided that rather than recognizing their own minority status and appreciating (perhaps, dare I say it, empathizing with people who hold very different beliefs) that they have to tolerate the existence of the infidel, they’ve increased their demand to enforce Muslim piety on non-Muslims.

Following the uproar over the threatened burning of the Quran by a small Florida church, a leading international Islamic body said Thursday that the United Nations should outlaw “all forms of offense against religions.”

“It is a blot on humanity that such discriminatory attack against Islam and Islamic holy sites is continuing in the absence of deterrent legal measures, local and international.”

No one gets to accuse me of privilege when I defend others’ right to practice their faith, while these intolerant thugs for Allah want to criminalize any criticisms of their beliefs and practices. This is about intolerance and lack of empathy — but the offenders are the goons who want to force people in distant lands to respect their peculiar beliefs.

I’m not joking when I say they want to criminalize free speech.

In Iran, senior Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Saafi Golpayegani said Jones should be arrested immediately and his church permanently shut down.

Imagine that.

I’ve seen enough videos of Middle Eastern protesters setting American flags on fire that I do have to wonder…how would they feel if we informed those countries that people who disrespect the United States ought to be arrested and their demonstrations shut down by force? The people Jones has offended feel no compunction about offending other Americans right back — and that’s OK. It is not a crime to offend others, and in fact, it’s pretty much a natural consequence of having diverse cultures.

Grown-ups compensate for differences between people that cause no physical harm. There is a principle of tolerance at work here, of real tolerance, where we permit others to do as they will, as long as it does not infringe on the freedom of others … and being offended or desiring to impose your morality on others is not an excuse to violate that principle. I am still at a loss to comprehend why this is so hard to understand.

Swaddling somebody else’s stuff in ‘meaning’ does not justify treating it as yours, either. I have a couple of bibles in my house; to me, they’re just reference books, and not very good ones at that, and I often prefer to pull up a searchable online version to digging into my shelves. These same books may be sacred objects to someone else, they may invest their precious bibles with significance and reverence, but that does not mean I am obligated to regard mine with the same perspective. If you tell me, “My Bible/Koran/cracker/icon must be treated with respect,” I’ll agree — it’s yours. I’ll respect your right to revere it however you want. But nobody gets to dictate to me how I should handle my Bible/Koran/cracker/icon — I get to do as I will with it.

PalMD draws a bizarre analogy that makes my point for me.

Whether or not you think it appropriate, people imbue objects with meaning. Why else try to save your house from burning down? You have insurance, don’t you? But most people don’t want to lose a house and the objects it contains because they have meaning. Religious objects are no more or less irrationally revered than family photos. People give them meaning.

Errm, my house is my house — I live in it. Burning it down would cause me danger and discomfort. My family photos are my family photos; they do have meaning to me. But the so-called holy books on my shelves are trivially replaceable, and I’d leave them behind in a fire, without hesitation. Should I risk my life to run in and rescue them because some fundy somewhere thinks they’re precious? Should I grab the bible off the shelf instead of the photo album? What right do others have to rank the importance of my possessions to me?

This seems to be a difficult concept for some people to grasp. 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.

One final point: the irrational adoration of religious trash does people harm. I’ve seen the news about marching Muslims howling about some nobody in Florida threatening to burn copies of their book, and it brings to mind Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). These are people who have been manipulated by the lies of faith, who have been duped into thinking the most important determinant of their happiness and status in life is their dedication to religious abstractions…and it leads them to work against their own interests.

The Middle East is a region rich in mineral wealth, wealth that is being used to prop up a medieval hierarchy or a corrupt dictatorship/monarchy or a theocracy. It should be rich, prosperous, and with a growing middle class and declining poverty — without the handicap of its religion and historical traditions, it should be more like Norway economically. It’s a region wracked with wars and the relics of colonialism. 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. (I should also add that the Muslim world also protests rightfully and vociferously against the military atrocities committed against them — and I think much of the news about the Koran-burning protests overhypes the reaction, in part to make the Islamic world look ridiculous. It’s a distraction on both sides).

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.