When does a person’s religious beliefs constrain someone who is not religious? What sorts of redress can a religious person expect in a secular society?
These questions arise from the recent to-do about PZ Myers defense of the stealing of a communion wafer from a Catholic church. As a result, he got death threats, attempts to have him fired from his university position, and general abuse while the correspondents were simultaneously affirming the niceness of Catholics [see here, here and here for example]. Meanwhile, the Catholic Cardinal of Sydney, George Pell, appears not to have learned anything about sexual abuse by priests, claiming that it’s OK so long as it’s serious love on the part of the priest. We’d protest about this when the Pope arrives, but there’s a $5500 fine for doing so.
What in the hell is going on?
To answer this, one needs, I think, to see what the benefits of being a member of a religion are, in order to see what is at stake. A religious adherent can appeal to coreligionists for aid and succor as it used to be called. This is a classic case of reciprocal altruism, in which the religion acts as an honest advertisement of commitment, or “costly signaling”, which is why religions require acceptance by their adherents of absurd ideas, like the “fact” that the communion wafer is literally the flesh of Jesus [see this pdf].
So when these costly signals are challenged, the reactions get heated. There’s a lot at stake here – the unity of the entire community and the reciprocal altruism that it provides (not to mention the return on investment that each individual hopes to get on the effort already made – losing status by defecting from your community is not helpful, and so a kind of gambler’s ruin occurs). Obviously one must forcibly protect this.
But that’s the internal view; what about the external? Why should I, a non-Catholic (or, if we consider other acts of “desecration” like the smearing of pig fat on Jewish synagogues and Islamic Mosques, non-Jew and non-Muslim), give any consideration to the concerns of adherents in a secular society? More to the point, what protection should the state provide them?
First point is this: a nonbeliever cannot commit blasphemy. To blaspheme, one must be within the set of belief and ritual contrasts of the faith community. Smearing pig fat is merely unhygienic behaviour to me, and throwing wafers on the ground is merely littering (and temporary littering at that, as it will be eaten by birds and ants pretty quickly. As sins go, that act of desecration is quite ecofriendly). This means, so far as I can tell, that a secular state cannot enforce anti-blasphemy provisions, as to do so forcibly includes nonbelievers in the faith community, which automatically means the state is not a secular state. It also means that pretty quickly the state becomes a one-religion state, but that’s another matter.
So protection against desecration cannot be justified on grounds of blasphemy. What about offense? Clearly a society that lacks all respect for others will shortly fail to be a society; and it is good manners not to offend someone unnecessarily. The very term “polite” indicates this, as it literally means the rules of the city (polis). In a multi-moré society if you do not avoid constantly insulting people you will cause social disruption. But a state cannot legislate that standard either; such rules evolve rapidly and without regard to the special interests of all groups. The best one can do is have laws of disruptive behaviour and leave it to a current judge to determine if the behaviour is beyond the pale or not. When I was a kid, the term “bloody” was a very dirty word. Now it’s merely quaint.
So while I might think that the original wafer thief’s actions were disrespectful, in no way are they actions that should permit the kinds of reactions he, and Myers, have garnered. Sure, I think Paul’s reaction to religion is often over the top, but he has that right. If he doesn’t, or if that right is removed from him, the next step is for Protestants to remove the Catholic’s right to protest, and then for the Baptists to remove the Episcopalian’s right to protest, and eventually we get another Thirty Years War.
So if the cost-benefit analysis is done from a global perspective, for society as a whole as well as from a Veil of Ignorance about which religion will always be on top, it serves not only the irreligious freethinker’s interests, but also that of all religions, not to enforce or permit the enforcement of religious standards on the non-religious. And I have a question for those Catholics who are outraged: is Jesus such that being eaten also by ants and birds, who presumably are part of His Plan, is going to diminish Him? Surely it begins and ends with the thief and his moral standing? In which case, why the trouble? Or were Pink Floyd right when they sang
Far away, across the field
The tolling of the iron bell
calls the faithful to their knees
to hear the softly spoken magic spell?