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It Matters Whether It's Really Just A Cracker

(This post was written a couple weeks ago, but I never got around to publishing it.)

It seems to me that claims about religious tolerance* often depend on a sort of relativism that does a disservice to the actual content of the religions being tolerated.

Take, for instance, the comparisons being drawn between the Danish Mohammad cartoons incident (in which some Muslims were outraged at Danish editorial cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammad) and the recent communion "cracker" controversy (in which some Catholics were outraged that a kid walked out of Mass with a consecrated host, and even more outraged that P.Z. Myers announced his intention to desecrate more "crackers"). Andrew Sullivan, a Catholic, came in for criticism for thinking the outrage was justified in the first instance, but not in the second. Others attempted to find content-neutral differences between them, such as Mike Dunford's proposal that the Mohammad cartoon outrage demands greater restrictions on nonbelievers than the cracker outrage. The presumption in both cases is that if there is no such content-neutral difference between them, then it's hypocrisy to treat them differently.

The hypocrisy charge would make sense if all that were at issue were interests -- Catholics' interest in not feeling offended and Muslims' interest in not feeling offended should be given equal weight. But the offense in question is premised upon factual claims -- about, for example, the holiness of Jesus or Mohammad. And it's not hypocritical to give more weight to truth than to falsehood.

So surely it's a relevant fact whether the consecrated host actually is the body of Jesus (and that Jesus is a worship-worthy divinity), or whether it actually is still just a cracker. If Catholicism is correct (and hence Islam is wrong except where it overlaps Catholicism), then it really is a bad thing to play a prank with a host**, but it really isn't a violation of any divine command to draw cartoons of Mohammad (and vice-versa if Islam is correct, while if atheism is correct neither is very bad). And the truth of one religion's doctrines seems like a perfectly good reason to believe that one act is horrible sacrilege while the other isn't. Presumably the outraged Catholics and Muslims have some sort of reasons which they believe establish the truth of their doctrines. It's strangely enervating to Catholic and atheist belief alike to demand that they confine their arguments to those which presuppose that the truth of Catholicism or atheism is entirely undecidable or outside the bounds of discussion.

Governments may certainly be restricted to content-neutral tolerance of differing viewpoints. But most of the people discussing these issues are not governments, and are not even proposing governmental action. As private citizens, we are well within our rights to say "playing pranks with a host is very bad because it actually is the body of Jesus," or "playing pranks with a host is no big deal because it actually is just a cracker." The catch, though, is that to win that argument you then have to convince others of the substantive truth of your beliefs in order to get them to change their ways -- and I'm sure finding some substance-neutral rule that would block host-desecration is going to be a lot easier than converting Myers to Catholicism (and vice-versa for substance-neutral permission versus getting outraged Catholics to give up their religion).

Obviously arguments depending on the truth of the doctrines involved aren't the only considerations. I think there's generally a duty to avoid gratuitous causing of offense to others purely for the sake of causing offense to others even if you're certain that the basis for their taking offense is groundless, and I think Myers crossed that line somewhat. (It's along the lines of the juvenile "for every animal you don't eat, I'll eat three" anti-vegetarian bumper sticker.) And outrage to the point of (real or attempted) intimidation -- the original host-stealer and Myers have received death threats -- is also not acceptable.

* I think my point here does not necessarily apply to other forms of tolerance, or even to what are roughly called "ethnic religions." My argument depends on the fact that Christianity, Islam, and atheism inherently make universalistic claims -- if God exists, he exists for everyone. On the other hand, there's nothing contradictory to the principles of, say, same-sex marriage to believe that a same-sex marriage is the right family structure for Bill and Steve, but not for me and my wife.

** Or at least I'm assuming so for the sake of argument, though I've seen some people say that within the context of Catholic doctrine, taking a host home without eating it is not actually a big deal. I wouldn't know how to adjudicate such a dispute, since even in my most religious days I never believed in transubstantiation.


Blogger Alon Levy said...

In some sense, all religions are ethnic. The reason Jyllands-Posten printed the Muhammad cartoons wasn't to make a theological point about Muhammad; it was to harass Muslim immigrants.

Myers' case is more complex. He's against all religions; Christianity is just the one that's important where he is. But even with him, part of the issue is political: he has a very mandarin view of society, wherein religious people are ignorant and deserve mockery.

2:35 PM  

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