I hate to give blog traffic to R. Joseph Hoffmann, one of the nastier and haughtier instantiations of atheism, but his recent post at The New Oxonian, “Bloody Fools,” raises issues worth discussing—or dismissing. Hoffmann writes about blasphemy, contrasting P.Z. Myers’s famous “cracker episode”, in which P. Z. skewered a communion wafer and discarded pages of sacred books in the trash, with Pastor Terry Jones’s recent burning of the Qur’an, which triggered Muslim riots in Afghanistan that led to the deaths of 21 people. Hoffmann dismisses Myers’s actions as a stunt without any conviction behind it:
. . . Myers’ action only succeeded in cementing his hard-crafted persona as a jerk. And even as a one-off expression of jerkiness, the actions of 2008 did not rise to the standard of blasphemy, which is usually understood as an interreligious act designed to malign or humiliate a religious opposite. Secular “blasphemy” against religion is more problematical, and Myers’ showpiece proved it. That is because there was no real conviction behind the act. ”Religion is sooooooo stupid” is not an impressive bumper sticker. The defense of free speech is only relevant and brave when free speech is actually abridged, not when threats to its exercise are manufactured.
But Hoffmann claims that Jones’s act, because it intended to inflame Muslims, was deadly serious—that Jones, in fact, should be arrested for murder:
Jones is a different story. A more dangerous one. He is the ugly Id unchained from the soul of an America I’d hoped had died. It is moronic, armed, and dangerous. It does not question the ontological correctness of its religious and political views. It burns a book in Lake City, Florida, and Muslims (and others) die in Afghanistan and soon Pakistan and elsewhere. Jones does this knowing they will die, praying to his defective God that they will die, in order to prove his belief that the devil is with us. He is with us, and he needs to be charged with and convicted of murder. His name is Terry Jones.
Well, I expect that P.Z. will defend himself soon, but I disagree that there was no real conviction behind his act. Of course there was conviction: the man has criticized religion for years. Was it “cowardly”, as Hoffman states, for P. Z. to desecrate the Qur’an in Morris, Minnesota but not in Lahore? Not cowardly but prudent—who wants to die that way? The fact that it’s imprudent to insult Islam in Lahore is not the fault of Myers; it’s the fault of Islam, which is so easily insulted and inflamed. But more on that in a minute.
You might well argue, as Hoffmann does, that his buring of the Qur’an was likely to cause trouble. Because it in fact led to murder, should Jones himself be indicted for murder? I don’t think so, and there are several reasons:
- First of all, Jones didn’t violate any American laws; his acted was protected by the First Amendment. He can’t be arrested for murder, so Hoffmann’s call is fatuous. However, it did inspire the murder of people in Asia. Does that make him morally culpable? Maybe just a tad, but not guilty of murder for the following reasons.
- The act does not fall under the courts’ designation of the type of speech that is not protected: speech that was intended to cause clear and imminent danger. Jones did not call for murder, nor was he performing his act in front of an inflamed Muslim mob. Hoffman recounts Jones’s own reasons: he intended “to bring the book to justice for violence and murder ‘it [sic] had perpetrated.’ Unliike Myers, who began with the view that no book is sacred, Jones is of the opinion that Islam’s holyd book and Islam itself is ‘of the devil’.” Jones’s act is not the equivalent of the classic violation of free speech: falsely shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. That is expected to cause an immediate riot, but not a riot in which people try to murder others. Burning a sacred book, even assuming that it might cause trouble, is not the same as standing in front of an inflamed, post-mosque mob and shouting, “Kill the infidels!”
- There is an obvious upside to permitting both Myers’s and Jones’s act: the protection of ideas, especially unpopular ideas like the criticism of faith. There’s no similar upside in allowing people to deceive others about fires in theaters.
- There are far more innocuous acts that also have a reasonable expectation of causing trouble, like Geert Wilders’s and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s criticism of Islam. They now need police protection because they’ve “insulted” Islam. The threats against them were absolutely predictable. If they are murdered by Muslim extremists, as was Theo van Gogh, are they responsible for their own deaths?
- In 2005 a Danish newspaper published caricatures of Mohamed that led to Muslim riots and many deaths. Should the editors of the newspaper not only be denied this kind of expression, but also be tried for murder? After all, the riots were just as predictable there as with Pastor Jones’s act.
In all of this Hoffmann misses the real problem, which is not the inimical effects of protected speech, but the fact that Islam is such a violent faith that even the mildest criticism, like naming a teddy bear “Mohamed,” can inflame Muslims and lead to murder. Sam Harris, in his essay “Losing our spines to save our necks” (reprised in a post on Sam’s new “blog”), hits the nail on the head:
Wilders, like Westergaard and the other Danish cartoonists, has been widely vilified for “seeking to inflame” the Muslim community. Even if this had been his intention, this criticism represents an almost supernatural coincidence of moral blindness and political imprudence. The point is not (and will never be) that some free person spoke, or wrote, or illustrated in such a manner as to inflame the Muslim community. The point is that only the Muslim community is combustible in this way. The controversy over Fitna, like all such controversies, renders one fact about our world especially salient: Muslims appear to be far more concerned about perceived slights to their religion than about the atrocities committed daily in its name. Our accommodation of this psychopathic skewing of priorities has, more and more, taken the form of craven and blinkered acquiescence.
There is an uncanny irony here that many have noticed. The position of the Muslim community in the face of all provocations seems to be: Islam is a religion of peace, and if you say that it isn’t, we will kill you. Of course, the truth is often more nuanced, but this is about as nuanced as it ever gets: Islam is a religion of peace, and if you say that it isn’t, we peaceful Muslims cannot be held responsible for what our less peaceful brothers and sisters do. When they burn your embassies or kidnap and slaughter your journalists, know that we will hold you primarily responsible and will spend the bulk of our energies criticizing you for “racism” and “Islamophobia.”
Pastor Jones is a religious nutcase, and I have no respect for him. He’s nearly as nuts as Islamic extremists, though I doubt that Jones will be killing anyone. But he did nothing illegal or, I think, immoral. I agree with Harris’s conclusion, which is that we need more criticism of Islam, not less. And not just Islamic extremists, either, but criticism of those Islamic “moderates” who, by refusing to speak up against the violence and insane hypersensitivity of their coreligionists, create a climate in which Islamic extremism is tolerated.
Hoffmann seems to be one of these coddlers too. Nowhere in his post will you find him indicting the murderers themselves for the murders! He spends all his time blaming Pastor Jones instead. In fact, he spends more time criticizing atheists (he just can’t resist that) than criticizing the kind of faith that makes people kill:
Re some of his readers’ assertions that Jones and the murderers are “cut from the same cloth”, and that neither is culpable, Hoffman says this:
I find that kind of response both uninformed and worrying. Very worrying coming from nonbelievers, and maybe because it raises in my mind questions about whether a certain level of atheism isn’t also an impediment to moral reasoning–specifically that kind that finds all religions “naturally” guilty of atrocity and hence no one at fault and no one innocent of crimes.
Which atheists, by the way, think that? I don’t know of any. And there’s this:
Myers’ antics made him the dark darling of full frontal atheists, those who hold to the curious view that the angrier you make people who believe in sacred books and objects, the likelier you are to win over people who hold a weak or no opinion on the subject.
Desecration, confrontation, Yo-mama style insult and blasphemy are tangible blows for reason, the commandos believe.
And, showing his characteristic hauteur, in which he assumes his readers are dumb, Hoffmann adds this:
To my atheist colleagues, I say: please, before you snipe, try to understand. We are not yet at the point where atheism is the “cure” for anything, least of all for the kinds of violence these acts have made manifest.
When I first read Hoffmann’s piece, I thought that he was offering food for thought. And he did, for we constantly need to rethink the vital issue of free speech, and how or when it should be curtailed. But on rereading the post I see that it’s also an excuse for Hoffman to attack atheism, to tout his superior wisdom (really, the man is quite arrogant), and, most important, to exculpate Islam. He proffers not a word of criticism of the kind of faith that sees criticism as grounds for slaughter. If Hoffmann thinks that the Muslim murderers themselves were guilty of murder, why didn’t he say so? He lays the whole issue at the feet of Pastor Jones. That, I think, is simply one more attempt of liberal faitheists to excuse and coddle the Religion of Violence.
The inevitable next step: Hoffmann will appear and assure us that of course he believes that the murderers are guilty of murder—that it was implicit in his post. But I don’t see it, since he spends all of his time whaling on Jones and Myers. For an atheist, Hoffmann is curiously reluctant to criticize Islam.