Thursday, March 26, 2009

Eppur si muove

Last week, I made reference to Big Love's portrayal of portions of the LDS temple ceremony. After talking with some readers and friends about the post, I determined that there was a larger issue that it would be productive to discuss. While members of a faith consider their rites sacred, what about people who don't share that feeling? This question is by no means unique to the Big Love controversy. Muslims were outraged at the negative portrayal of Muhammad in a Danish political cartoon. Catholics were upset over PZ Myers' threats to subject communion wafers to "heinous cracker abuse." All of these episodes involve behavior considered blasphemous by members of a religious community perpetrated by non-believers. That raises the question of what level of deference an outsider to a religion owes to the members of a religion with respect to their sacred rites.

At the outset, I want to make it clear that this is not a legal question. In the United States, people are free to blaspheme with impunity because of the First Amendment. Rather, I am asking this question as a person committed to a pluralist society. I believe in a society where people are free to believe according to the dictates of their own consciences. This ideal cannot be enforced only by law; even bigots have First Amendment rights. We have an ethical and social obligation to promote religious tolerance and pluralism by our interaction with each other. There are certain standards of respect that we have an obligation to uphold because we are decent people that are committed to a just and free society.

However, there is a countervailing proposition: we cannot allow respect for other people's beliefs to stifle honest religious discussion and debate. Religious pluralism gives people the "right to be wrong," but it does not mean that everyone must be treated as though they are right. Pluralism is not relativism. In a pluralist society, the statement, "the Eucharist is just a cracker," is not out of bounds anymore than the statement, "the Eucharist is the body of Christ." Turning a critical eye to the practices and truth claims of a religion is a vital part of the pluralist project. Pluralism exists in the zone between religious bigotry and unquestioning deference to religious dogmas.

The rule that I have come up with is good faith. Non-believers owe a duty to believers to represent the beliefs and rites of the religion accurately and honestly, without resorting to logical fallacies or equivocation, and to act without fraud or deceit. This allows observers to make up their minds for themselves about the claims of the religion. The religion is not being slandered, and the restriction does not slide into moral relativism.

Notice that I did not talk about the motive of the person portraying the religious rites. This is because it is frankly irrelevant. Before you object, ask yourself this: would Mormons have been OK with the portrayal of the temple ceremony if it was done in a widely televised documentary for educational purposes? Would Scientologists have been OK with the information presented in the South Park episode if it were presented in a less mocking way? Would Catholics be OK with scientists driving nails through the Host if they were doing it to show that contrary to legend, the Host does not bleed when pierced? Or is it the case that blasphemy is blasphemy, regardless of the motive of the blasphemer?

I'm interested to know what you think. Is there a better place to draw the line? I'd love to hear from my readers regarding this. I will say, however, in formulating your rule, you keep in mind the Flying Spaghetti Monster rule: Any rule you propose insulating Christianity or any other major religion from criticism must also apply to Pastafarians. If you can't do that, you aren't proposing a pluralist rule.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Related question: Large religious organizations such as the Catholic Church and the LDS Church are influential and their actions can have a significant impact on the world. From time to time, one may wish to criticize them. Is there a way to criticize an organization like the LDS Church without making adherents feel like their faith is under attack?