Freedom of what?

September 12, 2010 • 6:19 am

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified in 1791:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

In the last few weeks we’ve heard plenty from our government about freedom of religion:  that government can neither engage in public religious activity nor treat different faiths differently under the law. This is all fine, and I agree with it.  What we haven’t heard much about is freedom of speech.  I’ve listened carefully to all of Obama’s statements (including his last press conference) about the NYC mosque/cultural center and the loon in Florida who wants to burn Qur’ans.  I’ve read General Petraeus’s statements about how immolation of Qur’ans could endanger our troops in Afghanistan.  And I haven’t heard one word about the freedom of speech also guaranteed by this Amendment. (Correct me if I’ve missed something.)

True, Petraeus said, in response to critics, that he was not commenting on free speech, and I suppose Obama would respond likewise.  Nevertheless, it would behoove them, when urging compliance with one of our bedrock principles, to remind people of another: our right to say what we want about faith—or anything else.  Would it have been too much trouble for Obama to say this?:

“Well, you know, there are some folks down in Florida who want to stir up trouble by burning Qur’ans. And our Constitution guarantees them the right to do that.  But there’s a difference between what we have the right to do and what is the right thing to do.  And this is simply the wrong thing to do.”

Instead he said this at his press conference on Friday:

The idea that we would burn the sacred texts of someone else’s religion is contrary to what this country stands for.  It’s contrary to what this country—this nation was founded on.  And my hope is, is that this individual prays on it and refrains from doing it. . .

In fact, this country stands for our right to burn the sacred texts of any religion we choose, and to criticize faith as strongly as we wish.  Obama went on:

And I will do everything that I can as long as I am President of the United States to remind the American people that we are one nation under God, and we may call that God different names but we remain one nation.  And as somebody who relies heavily on my Christian faith in my job, I understand the passions that religious faith can raise.  But I’m also respectful that people of different faiths can practice their religion, even if they don’t subscribe to the exact same notions that I do, and that they are still good people, and they are my neighbors and they are my friends, and they are fighting alongside us in our battles.

Yes, that’s a noble sentiment—in the last sentence. The rest is pandering to religious America. Shades of George W. Bush!

Remember when Obama said this during his inaugural address, which got us heathens all excited?:

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.  We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.

Apparently Obama forgot not only about freedom of speech,  but also about those non-believers.  If we’re one nation under God, I’m not part of it.

112 thoughts on “Freedom of what?

  1. “we are one nation under God, and we may call that God different names but we remain one nation”.

    Maybe it’s time, for non-believers in the USA, to follow “the American way” 21st century style? Since it seems to be the only way to remain in the “one nation”.

    You could have a non-god, name it Agod or Nogods for instance. An a-sacred book (several texts from Dawkins, Hitchens, Hawking, Einstein, Harris, etc.) and a-churches where you could eat, a-pray and drink (local “atheist friendly” bars would be fine for a beginning)

    PZ Myers would be a great a-pope, but of course a paint-ball game would decide the winner: the survivor becomes the a-leader of American atheists, like in a real theocracy (but since it would be an a-theocracy, you shouldn’t use real bullets).

    I a-pray to your success. And don’t forget: up north there is still good ol’ Canada.

    1. Well, the god in question is the great Atheismo, as invoked by Dr Farnsworth in Futurama. This is convenient as followers of Atheismo may call themselves atheists.

      1. They only put that in to appease the Albertans, who are all crazy. The rest of us just ignore them, it’s just a lot easier that way.

  2. “But there’s a difference between what we have the right to do and what is the right thing to do. And this is simply the wrong thing to do.”

    Jerry, I think you’d make a much better speech writer than Ben Stein.

    Acknowledging the right to burn a book while advising against the action would have been a subtle and effective executive tactic. Oh well.

    1. I hope future sales and marketing organizations do not employ this technique on a regular basis.

      “New and improved” will quickly be replaced with “buy or we burn.”

  3. In this context, PalMD’s open letter to PZ Myers seems to be apropos.

    I would agree with him about one quarter of the way, in that the effect of a book burning on larger crowds of would-be thugs shouldn’t be neglected. But neither—and especially in this case of a lone lunatic, if one doesn’t count the press corps (just look at the photo)—should PZ’s point that a society should learn to shrug off the lunatics and react rationally instead.

    1. I think Pal M.D. is pretty misguided here (and he should learn to spell!). Burning books and flags are powerful protests precisely because they have such symbolic meaning. That’s why the courts in the US have ruled that burning flags is legal “symbolic speech.” Would he say that it makes us “less free” to burn flags, too? What about dunking a crucifix in urine, as in the “Piss Christ?” Certainly the cross is a powerful symbol for Christians— should Andres Serrano have been forbidden to make that piece of art? What about piercing a cracker? Pal M.D. says that’s different, because it’s not perceived as a “threat,” but many religious people in fact see it just that way. Check out what the Catholic League said about the cracker when contacting P.Z.’s bosses: “It is hard to think of anything more vile than to intentionally desecrate the Body of Christ. We look to those who have oversight responsibility to act quickly and decisively.”

      The problem is that there are many things, not just sacred texts, that people “imbue with meaning.” Who’s to judge which are illegal to desecrate?

      Now Pal M.D. doesn’t go so far as to say that burning scriptures should be illegal, but he comes close when he argues that doing so makes one “less free” to practice religion. And I think he’s dead wrong when he argued, in a previous post, that “Hateful, threatening acts like book burning must be called what they are: bigoted, evil, violent.” They aren’t necessarily any of these things.

      I look forward to a reply from P.Z.

      1. I wouldn’t be surprised if P.Z. (who, by the way, should pay WAY more attention to spelling also: “that’s the usual excuse we here from defenders of Catholicism”) won’t reply at all to that slightly incoherent rant.

        I’m also puzzled by the excessively rude tone of PalMD’s responses to his commenters, considering his “aims to change the world, one reader at a time”

      2. Jerry, I can’t help thinking that you either didn’t read my piece, or just don’t understand people who don’t agree with you.

        I was very clear about the legality of burning books. That’s irrelevant.

        The problem is that not only are we free to burn books and speak out against irrational religious beliefs, but we are also entitles to carry and disseminate irrational religious beliefs.

        Why are you, PZ, and others so concerned about focusing on the right to burn books? Since the Nazi’s marched through Skokie, we’ve pretty much settled these kind of debates (legally, at least, except for the occasional political bull about “protecting the flag”).

        But understanding that it is legal for Nazi’s to march in Skokie, and defending that legal right, is different than celebrating the act.

        And celebrating the act of the aborted Qur’an burning is what is being done, in blog posts, comments, etc, to the exclusion of condemning the act and the ideas that drive it.

        I find people’s inability to see the true existential threat such acts pose to people disturbing.

        Of course it is legal to burn a Torah, but it is hateful, because it is a quasi-violent (but legal) act against an ethnic group. It’s nasty.

        Come to think of it, I think part of the problem here is majoritarians having a tough time conflating religion and ethnicity, and the ethnic identity that religion sometimes confers.

        1. So I take it you didn’t approve PZs throwing away of the Koran?

          And hateful act? Every one of the freaking Abrahamic religions hate each other. WTF do you expect?

        2. Sorry, but neither P.Z. nor I “celebrated the aborted Qur’an burning” [sic: you probably meant “celebrating the Qur’an burning that later was aborted”]. In fact, we both condemned it as the stupid idea of a religious loon, while supporting people’s right to do it.

          And this statement is truly bizarre.

          And celebrating the act of the aborted Qur’an burning is what is being done, in blog posts, comments, etc, to the exclusion of condemning the act and the ideas that drive it.”

          TO THE EXCLUSION OF CONDEMNING THE ACT? What websites are you looking at? What I have seen is near universal condemnation of the act with some defense of the right to burn sacred texts. And a lot of people realize how seriously religious people take this stuff.

          Finally, the plural of “Nazi”, like all plurals, does not have an apostrophe.

          1. Jerry, I think that if PalMD actually DID mean that you and others “celebrated the aborted Qur’an burning,” or, more clearly, that you celebrated the abortion of Qur’an burning, which is how I read it, then the rest of his point makes better sense. Not that I agree.

            1. Well, I suppose you could be right, though I never celebrated the abortion on this website (though I thought it was a good thing). But of course I did condemn the act and its motivations here. It’s absurd for Pal M.D. to claim that there wasn’t much condemnation of the act. It was nearly universal on the scienceblogs I read.

              The problem is that PalMD writes so opaquely that it’s hard to tell what he means here. After all, an “aborted Qur’an burning” isn’t really an act!

        3. PalMD. On your blog you wrote:

          “But collecting and burning religious texts is not simple criticism, it is an attack on the people who hold these texts dear, no matter how irrational they are.”

          This is nonsense. It is not “an attack on … people”. It is the burning of books. If the people who treasure those books have their feelings hurt, then they have hurt feelings. But they could easily shrug it off: “It’s just a dumb preacher from Florida. What else would you expect?”

          If, every time a person feels threatened by criticism, another person’s freedom of speech is abrogated or abridged, criticism couldn’t even begin to get off the ground, and then all that will remain is unexamined and uncriticised belief. That’s why freedom of speech is so very very important. I think the Jones person in Florida is a loon, and I think his reasons for criticising Islam are probably intellectually negligible. So, we can criticise him right back.

          (However, it is perhaps not beside the point to point out (parenthetically) that he was, somewhat rashly, perhaps, prepared to criticise Islam, however unworthy his motives, while many professional communicators throughout the West, who have good reason, in my view, to criticise Islam, have been unwilling to do so, because of fear, and have, because of that, seriously endangered freedom of speech.)

          Back to the theme of attack. Attacks on people happen when people really get hurt, when their lives or livelihoods are endangered, not just when they have their feelings hurt. That’s why, in adjudging whether or not something falls under the First Amendment, the test of ‘clear and present danger’ is applied. And this clear and present danger does not include the responses of those whose feelings get hurt. That’s why the Phelps are still legally permitted to picket the funerals of American service personnel. Hurt feelings in plenty, I shouldn’t wonder, but no one is being attacked. In order to understand the idea and importance of freedom of speech this is a distinction you must learn. Once speech acts are thought of in terms of weaponry, freedom of speech is already at an end.

          1. Palmd: “burning religious texts is … an attack on the people ”

            Eric MacDonald: “it is not”

            I agree with PalMD in this semantic argument that it *IS* an attack on people, just like a viscious demeaning verbal tirade directed at a small child would be an attack on that child. The burning has significance because the burner knows it will enrage Muslims who learn of it, and it is *INTENDED* to enrage them. (If Muslims didn’t care, he wouldn’t be threatening to do it.)

            But the important point is that these acts are legally protected, as are many “uncivil” acts. And although it probably is not possible (due to human nature being what it is), the “victim” could remove all of the sting of the attack if they were able to view the perpetrator and their motives in a proper context.

            Just because you can (legally) does not imply that you should (morally). Just because a legal sanction cannot be imposed for an act does not mean that a moral sanction cannot (and will not).

            1. Divalent, you are missing the point. It is true that, if I verbally abuse an individual, that is an act, and not simply a criticism, and it may be construed as an attack on that person. However, if I burn a book that represents an idea shared by many people, I am not attacking individuals, not attacking people, as PalMD suggests, but criticising the idea represented by the book. (The criticism is a bit general, and may lose in effectiveness because of that, but that is not relevant here.) So PalMD is simply wrong to say that “burning religious texts is not simple criticism, it is an attack on the people who hold these texts dear.” Individuals may take it as a personal attack, but it is not one. The only suitable response to such a criticism is more criticism, not an attack or threat of attack.

              The question of whether such an act would be legal but immoral is irrelevant to what I wanted to say, and to the point that PalMD tried to make, but didn’t.

            2. Eric,

              The thing is, it’s seen as an attack on people, but by those who engage in it, and those who see themselves as victimized by it. A rational man would shrug it off as something unimportant, but there are those who have an emotional reaction to such things. If burning books or flags or desecrating holy symbols meant nothing, then books and flags wouldn’t get burned and symbols wouldn’t get desecrated.

            3. Sorry, Alan, you’re still missing the point. Go read something on freedom of speech, and then come back and try your luck. You cannot define a speech act as an attack by speculating about the motives of those who perform it. That’s what makes it a speech act rather than something else.

        4. » PalMD:
          Why are you, PZ, and others so concerned about focusing on the right to burn books?

          Nobody here is. (And please note that nobody has yet accused you of sub-par reading skills.) Especially PZ isn’t, who made it pretty clear that his main point was that we have a choice to remain rational, and that we would collectively benefit if everybody was more concerned about raising their intellectual game.

          Can I ask why you ignored that point in your open letter?

        5. You couldn’t be more wrong PalMD. The views you are espousing have been and will continue to protect and empower those who wish to force their belief systems on everyone else.

          It is also very telling that you seem to be falling into the same pattern of misrepresentation and intellectual dishonesty that is common among fundamentalists.

        6. “Come to think of it, I think part of the problem here is majoritarians having a tough time conflating religion and ethnicity, and the ethnic identity that religion sometimes confers.”
          Look who’s saying that. The same person who says to burn a Torah is an act against an ethnic group.
          No sir, if I have a problem with Islam, it doesn’t mean I have a problem with majority Muslim ethnic groups (turns out I actually belong to one of those groups).
          You are simply projecting your own error onto others.
          “And celebrating the act of the aborted Qur’an burning is what is being done, in blog posts, comments, etc, to the exclusion of condemning the act and the ideas that drive it.”
          I missed the balloons and cheers of celebration. But the reason I am siding with this Pentecostal preacher, with whom I have absolutely nothing in common, it the reaction to his never-to-materialize idea: the violent protests are still going on in Afghanistan, and there have been deaths and injuries, even though the Koran burning never happened.
          When I see violence I condemn it. This guy never committed an act of violence and neither was he going to. His enemies did. That is why I am on his side.
          Now if you could only tell me
          where you got the idea that someone was “celebrating” Koran burning.

    2. PalMD doesnt follow through with his argument. Regarding the book burning he says

      “Paul, the problem isn’t the legality. It does diminish people’s personal freedoms. It diminishes their sense of safety and security. If I become afraid to practice my religion because of violent bigotry, I’m less free. To tell me to get over it is some seriously fucked up victim-blaming.”

      Of course he cannot see that telling people they cannot burn a book or symbols considered holy by a group, that he is diminishing the personal freedoms of others (like atheists). This might make non-believers to feel less safe or insecure.

      I agree many Muslims will feel less safe because of these bigots, but guess what Pal, the bigots are still there even if the book doesn’t burn. So he can make Muslims feel more safe (though they aren’t) and another group less safe. Of course atheists don’t count anymore anyway.

      1. You do realize that that’s bullshit, right? Comparing classes of those at risk, atheist hardly compares to jew, muslim, black. It’s not even in the same category.

        1. Yeah, if those jews, muslims, and blacks would just shut up and bow to the christians as most atheists do their issues wouldn’t be a problem either.

          Tried getting elected to public office as a proud and out atheist? I’d like to see you build an atheist center at ground zero and see how that works out for ya.

          I suggested to my dental hygienist that I could understand a bit about how blacks felt when being discriminated against as I was an atheist. She said that was different because I didn’t have to be an atheist and could change if I tried. Being discriminated against due to skin color is surely a worse situation because you simply cannot just shut up about it but, it doesn’t change the fact that atheists in the United States are definitely hated by the christians.

          1. The first Jewish US congressional representative was elected in 1844. The first black congressional representative was elected in 1868. The first gay congressional representative came out in 1983.

            The first openly atheist congressional representative announced his lack of faith in 2007.

            1. Yes, but as an aside I think it’s relevant to note that to use the term “lack of faith” is to come at the issue from a theistic perspective. The better term would be “absence of faith.”

              The word “lack” carries the connotation of deficiency, the sense that what is lacking is something to be desired. By definition, anything that is “lacking” something is in want of what it lacks. Atheists know that religious faith is nothing to be desired.

              By the same token, “atheism” may be best defined as the absence of theistic belief, not its lack.

        2. You realize that that is bullshit Pal, right? Do you happen to have seen the polls showing atheists are the least trusted minority? Less so even than Muslims.
          Amazing.

        3. Actually Pal, the class that sticks out in the groups you noted is black. Muslim, jew, and atheist are all intellectual positions. Black is a range a skin pigmentation with associated hair texture. Im surprised you didnt know that or were you simply including “black” as a way to diminish disagreement with your bullshit point?

  4. I guess he forgot about those Hindus too, since it seems pretty clear that he’s saying it’s one nation under a monotheistic god…

    And do members of Abrahamic faiths really believe that Yahweh = Jesus = Allah (i.e. that “we are one nation under God, [but] call that God different names”)?

    1. “do members of Abrahamic faiths really believe that Yahweh = Jesus = Allah”

      No.
      But replace ‘Jesus’ by ‘God’, then yes, they do.
      They do indeed use different names to refer to the same ‘God of Abraham’ .. hence ‘Abrahamic faiths’.

        1. “there are plenty of Christians who believe that Muslims do not worship the Christian god”

          There are plenty of Christians who believe the weirdest nonsense and are completely ignorant of the history and foundations of their own religion.
          Some don’t even get that message about tolerance and neighborly love, and instead insist on burning their neighbors’ books.

          1. But who’s to say that they’re wrong? Are you saying that these people get their own theology incorrect? Are you saying that there is an objective truth to be discovered about whether the imaginary being they worship is the same as the imaginary being other people worship?

  5. On the news I saw the President of Indonesia and the Supreme Court of South Africa telling the US government that they should have intervened, either by force or by the use of law, to prevent the burning from taking place. Advice not appreciated.

    1. Right! What WERE they thinking? The U.S. would NEVER advise a foreign country to do or to not do something!
      *rolls eyes*

      1. When the US government gives advice to other countries, advice that demonstrates a complete lack of knowledge about that other countries’ foundational laws or practices, then of course other countries will not appreciate the advice. The same applies here, but in reverse.

    2. @justsearching. You do realize that America is always telling other countries what to do and what not to do (American imperialism?). I hope you do condemn that as well.

      1. I know I do condemn it. Snotty implication not appreciated. Got any constructive criticism, or are you just here to troll?

        1. Nichole (justsearching?) Your tone kind of suggested that you are not appreciating it because other countries have no right to tell that to “Americans”. I didn’t see any hint of “no country has a right to intervene in another country’s internal affairs”. That is why I made that comment. I misunderstood you but to be honest even now when i read it, it sounds really arrogant to me. Still, I apologize for offending you (if you honestly condemn it on a more universal basis).

          When you say something on a blog you should be prepared for all sorts of comments. Don’t we all have a right to say what we want to say?

      2. I missed it the last time people died on the streets in the US during violent protests because other nations weren’t listening to us. And incidentally, that “imperialism” catchphrase is sooo
        yesterday. Its attractiveness died with Che Guevara.
        Oh, and no, I was not born here.

  6. “But I’m also respectful that people of different faiths can practice their religion, even if they don’t subscribe to the exact same notions that I do”.
    Great. The notion I subscribe to is that the world was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster and pirates are the people of the covenant. And that global warming is caused by persecution of the pirates.
    Arrrgh, any problem with that, matey?

  7. This post’s comments got out of hand pretty quickly and diverged all over the place.

    Its too bad that it did. Jerry has a very succinct message here.

  8. It seemed to me that Obama was particularly concerned about our troops in the middle east, and was trying to get the message to the Muslim population there that the proposed Koran burning was the action of an individual, not the action of the American nation.

    I disagree with you and with PZ in treating it as a threat to our right to free speech. I don’t see anything in Obama’s speech questioning that right.

    1. I understand that you disagree with “treating it as a threat to our right to free speech.” Could you now go back and reread the OP and maybe explain where and why you disagree with the arguments that Jerry put forth? You seem to not have read, or not understood what was written in the OP. Your last sentence seems particularly uninformed in this context.

    2. And I disagree with your post.
      Religious fanatics of all kinds demands that their rules hold for
      everyone, wherever they live and whatever their own beliefs are.
      Someone needs to take a stand for Salman Rushdies of the world. That is why it is important for PZ Myers, and Jerry Coyne to speak out.
      PS If our rights are held hostage to military expediency then then war is lost already. There is no point in fighting it.

      1. I have not suggested that our rights be held hostage to military expediency. I support Pastor Jones having the right to do his burning, but I am glad that he had the wisdom to call it off.

        My point was that Obama’s speech needs to be seen in context. Like it or not, Obama has less freedom of speech than the rest of us, for what he says will be widely interpreted as representing an official government position.

        1. “The wisdom not to do it”. Just like Salman Rushdie should have has the wisdom not to write the satanic verses. Why provoke a muderous ayatollah by writing a work of fiction?
          Politician have long thrown nonbelievers under the bus such that believers can mend their fences. It is the norm.

        2. I don’t get it.

          “Like it or not, Obama has less freedom of speech than the rest of us, for what he says will be widely interpreted as representing an official government position.”

          This is precisely one of the points Jerry, and others, are criticizing Obama about. The criticism is that the position that Obama chose to represent the government as holding is the same distasteful, stupid, let’s suck up to religion, position that has permeated government for decades, at least. The point being that Obama could easily have, and as POTUS should have, addressed this issue while remaining neutral about religion. Regardless of past behavior our government is supposed to be neutral with respect to religion. It would be very nice if some president, before I die, would actually behave as if it were.

          Why do you think it necessary, or okay, for the POTUS to pander to people’s religious beliefs? You don’t think it is wrong for the government to preferentially lend legitimacy to religion? That is what this kind of speech coming from government representatives does. It helps legitimize religion in politics, and enhances the political power of religious entities. In this particular case, why do you think political expediency warrants doing that?

  9. Why can’t we all recognize that religions are but mind-generated crap of a bygone age. The mind is capable of imagining absolutely anything.

    In early times, ignorance & fear of the unknown was bound to give rise to what we should all now recognize as basic fantasy.

    Sensible people have learned how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Those with less nous continue blindly along a path of futile prayer.

    If this cracker from Florida fancies a bonfire, why doesn’t he include all religious literature, Qurans, Bibles & anything else claiming to be a proclamation of God. Let’s have a real do. I’m quite sure God wouldn’t mind a bit!

    All Gods are but invisible & silent entities, dreamt up & blessed with existence only by Charlatans who have long preyed on the gullibility of the credulous.

    From Witch-Doctors / Sorcerers to Archbishops / Ayatollahs, evolution is lagging sadly in this field.

  10. “And I will do everything that I can as long as I am President of the United States to remind the American people that we are one nation under God, and we may call that God different names but we remain one nation.”

    That is really disheartening. Even if he is just “firing for effect” due to perceived political necessity. Actually, I think that would make it even more disgusting.

    Government still has its lips firmly suctioned to the backside of religion. I’m getting tired of this. I may need to relocate.

    1. Actually, I have to say, I completely agree with the concept of calling god names.
      PZ just posted a rather exhaustive list of names I would call god. In alphabetical order.

  11. We just knew that this incident would end with a “we must respect all religions” sermon. That is the real reason I felt sick when I first heard about it.

  12. Remember when Obama said this during his inaugural address, which got us heathens all excited?:

    “For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.”

    Yes, I do remember. The fact that this sentence from the inaugural address placed “non-believers” at the end of the clause was, in fact, a subtle form of emphasis. He was saying (if I may)that non-believers were part of the nation just as much as believers. This is actually a controversial sentiment for a large swath of the American public, which is why so many of us non-believers wrote admiringly about this at the time: The president was, in some small way, signaling that he was willing ruffle a few pious feathers in order to say a word in defense of non-believers. It was a small, but promising gesture. We had reason to be a little bit excited about such a presidency.

    Imagine our surprise, then, all these many months later when such references to non-believers have dwindled in the president’s speeches. As his approval rating has decreased, it seems, so has the more inclusive language. I could be wrong. I probably am, in fact, because I really have no clue why the language about non-believers has gone away, but I find it depressing.

  13. In the pantheon of inimical threats to constitutional protections, that represented by the Obama response to the pastor is much less troubling than this one.

    Would it help if Obama mentioned the right against illegal search and seizure (after being Tasered), too

  14. I have read that, regarding the Qur’an, Muslims regard any and all translations to be poor (if not false) representations of the original Arabic text? So, if the looney burns a ‘Koran’, what’s all the fuss about?

    1. No, no. Load that baby into a USB key that they hand out for free in conventions, then burn that!

      Draw Mo’s face on the key for better effect.

  15. The trouble with the suggestion that a better thing for Obama to have said would be “it’s legal but it’s wrong” is that that’s exactly what a lot of officials said about the Motoons, and the point of what they were saying was that it’s wrong wrong wrong. The “it’s legal” part was pro forma, and the real point was “it’s wrong.”

    I considered that illiberal and horrifying in the case of the cartoons. I’m more ambivalent about the Koran-burning. (And the stuff about the cartoons came months after they were published, not before they were.) The ambivalence makes me uneasy, because I don’t really want to defend it on principled grounds. It’s just that the provocativeness seems more deliberate, more malicious, more suspect in its motivations (my book holy your book not holy). That’s not really all that principled.

    1. Not to mention it’s pandering to the expectations of superstitious people rather than telling them to get a life and don’t go blowing shit up because someone made a drawing and said it was mohammed.

  16. I agree, Jerry. I wish our elected officials didn’t feel the need to pander to religion and poke a finger in the eye of secularists. Perhaps it’s cowardly of me but I’m more afraid of what choice the Republicans offer up come election time than I am about political rhetoric.

    I suspect the question in Obama’s mind is, “Is this going to make you vote for Romney or Palin in 2012?” He seems to me to be a securalist. He just can’t play one on TV.

    1. I’m a Brit so I can’t really offer anything of any importance here, except that from where I’m standing it looks like Obama’s going down anyway so he might as well stand up for for what he believes in instead of pandering to people who aren’t going to vote for him anyway. Then again, maybe he isn’t the man every liberal seemed to think he was and really does think religion has a privileged position and that the religious shouldn’t be offended.

      1. Did you happen to note the choices for the last United States presidential election? For me at least it was a vote against insanity and less about wishful thinking, although I had expected more/better from him.

  17. Don’t forget the “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”; I guess superstitions at that time were demanding that the government respect their authoritah.

    I’m a bit surprised at Petraeus’ concern though; does he really think that they’ll have significantly more loony problems if those folks had their book burning?

    The president of course is expected to suck up to everyone; when was the last time we had a president who would say “look, it’s just a book and you can print a million more”.

  18. “The idea that we would burn the sacred texts of someone else’s religion is contrary to what this country stands for.”
    For a start it might be useful to remember the fate of the Afghan language bibles sent by some silly evangelical group to troops for distribution to the locals. The option chosen by the US government to deal with these bibles was simple and straight forward.
    They were burned.
    No howls of rage from Palm MD on that occasion for some reason.
    For his information almost all atheists writing on this issue tend to be against book burning in general. It’s pretty classless and has echoes of 1930s Germany and Fahrenheit 451 that tends to rub us up the wrong way. The freedom of speech issue is, however, important. That said, the reaction to the threatened burning is very similar to the reaction to things that atheists DO support – such as ridiculing aspects of belief or refusing to treat religious ideas as sacred and above criticism. Are the threats on Ayaan Hirsi-Ali, Salman Rushdie and the various cartoonists really people just standing up for their rights to freedom of religion?

  19. Still think that Obama is an atheist? 🙂

    I like him, but he isn’t an atheist and he misspoke here. Remember that he was one of the few public speakers (much less Presidents) to acknowledge us.

    1. Yes,actually I do. He doesn’t go to church. I think he’s just saying all this stuff to pander to religious America.

      1. You know, having been reared myself in a non-religious family, I tend to agree with you. In “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama writes, “I was not raised in a religious household… My mother’s own experiences…only reinforced this inherited skepticism.”

        But if he’s faking it, then of course it’s conscious on some level, and on that level he must think that the opportunity to lead the world toward his vision of betterment is more than worth the fundamental duplicity (and misrepresentation of himself before his family and the world) that he has to lay out and maintain.

        That’s quite a difficult intellectual balance to strike, it seems to me. How does he do it?

        1. Less so than many politicians. For example, Sarah Failin’ and her “Obama’s a muslim” story (admittedly someone fed her that line, but she shouldn’t have used it). Then of course there’s the “Obama isn’t an American” story and the birthers and teabaggers love that one. In the last presidential election we had a choice between 2 career liars (McCain and the special Liar for Jesus, Palin), and the guy from Chicago. (Joe Biden seems to be following in the steps of Hubert Humphrey – no one seems to remember him anymore). So even though you may not like Obama, the alternative was far worse. Now if those Dumbocrats can only pass laws while they have a majority. I keep hearing the Rethuglicans blamed for laws not being approved, but for any laws that don’t require a 2/3 majority the Dumbocrats have the numbers to push it through.

      2. I think he’s just saying all this stuff to pander to religious America.

        Unfortunately, he’s not just saying; he’s acting. Look at his support for “faith-based initiatives”.
        If Obama is an atheist, he is engaging in the most galling sort of intellectual hypocrisy.

        1. Like any politician, President Obama will say or do what it takes for him to stay elected. I doubt that he has any beliefs either way.

        2. I’m aware of his support for the faith-based initiatives which again seems like a calculated move to me. Would it not seem strange for a self professed christian to defund charity work? Instead he did the next best thing and made it so that secular organizations were eligible as well. Are there other things he has done that suggest to you he has a sectarian agenda? I’m not talking about rhetoric but appointments, laws, programs, etc?

  20. You might be right. If the economy doesn’t pick up in a big way by 2012 he is almost certainly not going to get a second term. That’s not really something he has much control over, though. His actions (or inactions) and rhetoric suggest to me that he is playing a game of political chess in the hopes of getting a second term. I can construct a script in my head where pretty much everything he has said and done regarding religion is an attempt at navigating the minefield of American religiosity. As long as he doesn’t give the religious “undecideds” a clear reason to vote Republican he might just win a second term. I never thought Dubya would be our President for even one let alone two terms because I didn’t take the religious vote seriously. I don’t think this President is making that mistake but neither do I think he feels beholden to them.

    1. …except, of course, for the part where the Moroni-in-Chief sez: “The world needs more voices not fewer. More faith not less.”

      Oh durp-de-durp.

  21. I’ve listened carefully to all of Obama’s statements (including his last press conference) about the NYC mosque/cultural center and the loon in Florida who wants to burn Qur’ans. I’ve read General Petraeus’s statements about how immolation of Qur’ans could endanger our troops in Afghanistan. And I haven’t heard one word about the freedom of speech also guaranteed by this Amendment. (Correct me if I’ve missed something.)

    Your wish is my command…

    http://blogs.abcnews.com/george/2010/09/president-obama-to-pastor-jones-stunt-endangers-troops-full-transcript-of-exclusive-interview.html

    STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me ask you about Pastor Terry Jones. He gave a press conference today. Says he’s going to go through with burning the Korans. Is there anything you can say to him to convince him not to?

    OBAMA: If he’s listening, I just hope he understands that what he’s proposing to do is completely contrary to our values of Americans. That this country has been built on the notions of religious freedom and religious tolerance. And as a very practical matter, as commander of chief of the Armed Forces of the United States I just want him to understand that this stunt that he is talking about pulling could greatly endanger our young men and women in uniform who are in Iraq, who are in Afghanistan. We’re already seeing protests against Americans just by the mere threat —

    STEPHANOPOULOS: What more could happen?

    OBAMA: –that he’s making.

    STEPHANOPOULOS: What are you worried about?

    OBAMA: Well, look, the … this is a recruitment bonanza for Al Qaeda. You know, you could have serious violence in places like Pakistan or Afghanistan. This could increase the recruitment of individuals who’d be willing to blow themselves up in American cities, or European cities. You know and so you know, I just hope that, he says he’s … he’s someone who s motivated by his faith.

    STEPHANOPOULOS:And he says he’s praying on it.

    OBAMA:Yeah. I hope he listens to…those better angels.

    STEPHANOPOULOS:Well, let me–

    OBAMA:And understands that this is a destructive act that he’s engaging in.

    STEPHANOPOULOS:I wonder what this must feel like from behind your desk. You’re President of the United States. You have to deal with the fallout. And he’s a pastor who’s got 30 followers in his church. Does it make you feel helpless or angry?

    OBAMA: It, well it is frustrating. Now, on the other hand, we are a government of laws. And so, we have to abide by those laws. And my understanding is that he can be cited for public burning. But that’s the extent of the laws that we have available to us. You know, part of this country’s history is people doing destructive or offensive or harmful things. And yet, we still have to make sure that we’re following the laws. And that’s part of what I love about this country.

    My 2 cents:

    Burning the Koran is on the same level as the KKK burning crosses. It shouldn’t be illegal (well, the KKK would burn them on other peoples’ lawns, often as a specific threat, so that part could be illegal), but it’s immoral, illiberal, hateful, and stupid as a practical matter, to boot.

    There is absolutely zero reason to object to the president and the generals and everyone else (a great many evangelical leaders) turning the moral and rhetorical screws on this pastor to try and dissuade him from being an inflammatory, hateful moron. They aren’t violating his rights by putting him in jail or something, they are just expressing their own free speech rights, which is exactly how that whole free speech thing is supposed to work. And, wonder of wonders, it worked in this case.

    Any tolerance of book-burning beyond the bare minimum of supporting the constitutional right to do it is just not a good idea. Like Obama said, it’s against everything we stand for. Like Indiana Jones said to the Nazis, we should try reading books instead of burning them.

    Things worth reading:

    http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2006/10/from-darwin-to-2.html

    …and for a quick review of why book-burning leaves such a bad taste in American mouths, see comments by Heinrich Heine, Hellen Keller, Kurt Vonnegut, Dwight Eisenhower, etc., etc.:

    http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=UkAXPuObVBUC&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=%22Helen+Keller%22+to+nazi+book+burning&ots=BOzuU79dBr&sig=qRi0mz1cbY6Uw2rAyj77PjC3Prk#v=onepage&q=%22Helen%20Keller%22%20to%20nazi%20book%20burning&f=false

    We aren’t knuckling under to radical Islam by lobbying against the burning of the Koran, we are defending liberal values.

    1. Sorry, Obama didn’t say anything about freedom of speech here, much less affirming it. He’s referring to it only very obliquely, and only by saying that there aren’t any laws that allow the government to stop the Qur’an burning.

      Is P.Z.’s action of tossing the Qur’an in the trash (along with the Bible and other stuff) also on the level of the KKK’s cross-burning.

      1. “Is P.Z.’s action of tossing the Qur’an in the trash (along with the Bible and other stuff) also on the level of the KKK’s cross-burning?”

        No–it isn’t. His action was thoughtful, and thought-provoking. It’s purpose was to make people think about what, if anything, is sacred. It was a jumping-off point for genuine discussion.

        The KKK burning crosses is fear-provoking, and also potentially physically dangerous. The cross-burnings were never meant to start a dialogue–they were intended to frighten people into silence.

        1. That pastor’s planned book burning wasn’t “meant to start a dialogue either.” It was just an ignorant, hateful act. Once he started getting flack for it he apparently realized just how idiotic it was, and stopped.

          Academics or artists or whatever burning a single copy or a few pages, as in Australia, in an attempt to prove some more subtle point e.g. about the publics’ inconsistency, is, I agree, a different sort of thing. (Although I think doing a thought experiment and writing an essay about it would be more effective in conveying the point.) And the Australian university which has now suspended that guy really is violating laws and human rights, and that’s despicable.

          But burning a huge pile of Korans and making it as public as possible? It’s not an argument ad Hitlerum to compare this to the Nazi book burnings of books by Jews, liberals, etc. in 1933, it’s the same damn thing. And book burning goes right back to the Inquisition, it’s one grand history of mob rule and trying to destroy ideas you don’t like through physical violence, fear, and intimidation.

          Read about the ugly history of book burnings on wikipedia or elsewhere. It’s legal, as it should be, but it ought to be considered uncivilized behavior.

          Re:

          Sorry, Obama didn’t say anything about freedom of speech here, much less affirming it. He’s referring to it only very obliquely, and only by saying that there aren’t any laws that allow the government to stop the Qur’an burning.

          No, you’re wrong. Re-read the last paragraph. He doesn’t say the words “First Amendment”, it’s a short interview, but that’s clearly the law he’s referring to which the government has to follow. He refers to this rule of law several times and explains why it means he can’t do anything about the pastor, and further says that this is the way it ought to be, since dissent and unpopular speech has always been protected in America.

          And anyway, shouldn’t you be glad that the president supports the First Amendment and said so clearly on TV? The initial worry in this thread was that he hadn’t. Don’t reject the data just because annoying ol’ Nick Matzke posted it.

          1. > And anyway, shouldn’t you be glad that the president supports the First Amendment and said so clearly on TV?

            Eh? Clearly? He may have been obliquely supporting free speech, but that is far from “clear”. In context, Obama said this:

            And my understanding is that he can be cited for public burning. But that’s the extent of the laws that we have available to us. You know, part of this country’s history is people doing destructive or offensive or harmful things. And yet, we still have to make sure that we’re following the laws.

            It is a very opaque phrase, and I could see it being taken in two very different ways. The first is that we have to follow the 1st Amendment and protect even terrible speech. But on the other hand, it very well could mean “Ooops! We have to follow fire code laws! If he burns the Koran then he can be arrested! But alas, we have no other recourse than fire code laws! A pity…” On careful consideration, I think he probably meant the former but was trying his best to avoid any clear statement on the issue. Obama’s an intelligent person who is an extremely effective communicator. This statement is far from a clear statement supporting the freedom of speech outlined in the 1st amendment. Instead it is appears to be obfuscation designed to dodge being seen as supporting this guy.

            Yeah, the pastor is a hateful nut. Isn’t it simply enough to say that rather than bringing up the specters of the KKK and the Nazis? I can’t possibly imagine why one would consider burning any holy text as anymore hateful than burning anything else in political speech, all else being equal. For the KKK and the Nazis, it is clear that part of the ideology is subjugation of “others” as it is clear for the pastor’s own history (“other” here being non Christian). But when one burns a leader in effigy, burns symbols of the opposition, even >gasp< religious texts, etc., no such assumption need be made. Unless of course you think that the Green Revolution activists in Iran or Iraq-War protesters in the U.S. were being “hateful” by abusing effigies of Ahmadinejad and Bush respectively? Or is it a general principle that it is less hateful to burn a representation of an identifiable human being than to burn a text that unarguably contains many pernicious falsehoods and detestable ideas?

            My stance:
            1) The Florida pastor is a hateful person before he even threatened to burn the Koran;
            2) Burning the Koran would not make him any more or less hateful, unless you a) think flag burning or effigy burning is also inherently hateful OR b) you think that religious criticism deserves special censure.

            Thoughts?

            1. Interesting points, and I agree with most of it. I hadn’t thought about it in depth before, but for some reason book burning bugs me more than flag burning or burning in effigy. Part of it is the Nazi thing. Part of it is that burning a symbol like a flag is itself a clearly symbolic act. That’s what symbols are for, you manipulate them to make statements, it’s free speech, no harm, no foul. Burning a book, on the other hand, has traditionally been a way to attempt to extirpate dissident ideas, critiques of authority, and even people and languages and entire peoples. A large number of protestants, jews, etc. were burned by the Inquisition on pyres made of their own books.

              So it takes a pretty impressive amount of hate/ignorance to disregard that history and support book burning, and it takes another big dollop of those things to burn a book instead of reading it — reading the book carries the danger that you might actually learn something, that you might be open-minded enough to at least entertain other points of view, that it might not be as bad as you’ve heard (as many people have learned when they actually read the Koran), that people who value the book are reasonable human beings also, etc. Fundamentally, book burning is an attack on the core ideas of the Enlightenment and of societies that are (or try to be) based on Enlightenment values.

              Re: Obama’s statement — I saw the Good Morning America video (which was a day or two before his press conference last week, I think) before I read the transcript. The transcript is plenty clear IMHO, but the video is pretty unambiguous, there is no sense that he’s being evasive, Obama and Stefanopoulos are just having the discussion within the added context of “Isn’t it funny you’re president and some moron in Florida with a tiny church can cause such headaches for the president with a stunt like this.” And Obama says, yeah, it’s frustrating, I wish he wouldn’t do it, but this is America and protecting freedom of speech is more important.

          2. Well, there is are several points of agreement.

            Try as we might, it is impossible to avoid guilt by association, and Nazi book burnings are pretty bad to be associated with. I’d be lying if I didn’t say book burning doesn’t evoke (involuntary) revulsion for the very reasons you point out (as well as for the religious inspired incarnations of the same).

            And the next point is, that as far as physical artifacts go, there are few things I revere (insofar as I revere anything) as much as books. A home doesn’t quite feel like a home to me until you have a shelf stuffed full of books. So on an entirely different level, I hate burning books.

            But I think it is worth taking a stand in this issue in particular. We should vociferously support the principle of burning books as a protected form of free speech and simultaneously criticize the mouth breating pastor for the hypocritical bigot he is. I do think we should always qualify such criticism, as I think otherwise the “terrorist veto” (don’t offend us or we’ll kill you) will have too much power.

            I forget who said it, but the strongest antidote to bad speech is more speech.

          3. “That pastor’s planned book burning wasn’t “meant to start a dialogue either.” It was just an ignorant, hateful act. Once he started getting flack for it he apparently realized just how idiotic it was, and stopped.”

            *Exactly*

            This was, quite frankly, a textbook case of the way the First Amendment is *supposed* to work. Granted, it wasn’t the usual romantic image people get of the lonely Hero, braving the firestorm of Public Criticism to express an Unpopular Truth holding firmly all the while to his Integrity and gradually persuading others of the Inherent Rightness of his views…

            Nope, this case is inside-out and opposite. A christian pastor prepares to burn the Muslim’ Holy Text on the very anniversary of the WTC attacks. Is it a brave act of vengance? A powerful moral message? An invitation to the dialogue? Nope, this time the American people–bless their ever-lovin’ hearts–saw right through the motives of this 15-minutes-of-fame seeking douchbag and freely told him to put a sock in it before his juvenile action got American soldiers killed *for no good reason*. No need for the government to step in, no need for courts or lawyers.

      2. “Sorry, Obama didn’t say anything about freedom of speech here, much less affirming it.”

        Matzke, still matching patterns with the best of them.

        yokohamamama said it better than I ever will, but the burning cross analogy attempt is distasteful, clearly on the pale next to the attempt to toe the line to an argumentum ad Hitlerum. Especially distasteful here since one party of the discussion, Obama, and his followers have been a victim to it.

        The link goes on to paint very clearly a) KKK and similar political cross burnings are for intimidation b) except when they are used as a declaration of war, the original use, and c) they are possible to outlaw under the Constitution. (But funnily, US citizens doesn’t seem interested in driving that possibility home.)

        And did it “work” well enough? Here is an australian burning a qur’an and a bible both, inspired by Jones. Regardless, there were demonstrations and flag burnings (IIRC), especially in Afghanistan.

        What remains of Matzke’s comment? The usual nigh to zero content, I would say.

  22. Jerry’s right–this is about freedom of speech, not freedom of religion.

    The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religious expression, and freedom of speech. Also freedom of peaceable assembly. It guarantees that the government will never tell you what you can and cannot say (within reason–defamation and fightin’ words are right out).

    Having had your say, however, that amendment does not in any way protect you from criticism from other individuals. That’s the *point*. That’s the dialogue that the First Amendment is there to protect. It’s up to individual citizens to put forth their ideas to be considered, approved, and, yes, criticized and called silly, stupid, or worse. That’s *our job* as citizens. If you, as an individual, think the Florida pastor’s proposed act was dangerous, merely fame-seeking, or (as I do) a juvenile prank–say so! And *don’t* apologize! That is both our right and our duty–to speak our minds about it. It is also his right. Yes, that’s right. It is his right to hear what others honestly think of his act (or words).

    It is the right of citizens in a democracy to discuss any and all ideas and opinions–that is fundamental to a healthy democracy. The First Amendment holds open a space for public dialogue on ideas and opinions. It’s an open space into which the government cannot step to say, “this idea, or that idea, is off limits–you can’t talk about it.” It does not in any way say that all ideas are equally true or right–only that all ideas need to be heard and discussed so we, the citizens, can decide via discussion whether an idea or an act is right or wrong, worthwhile or a waste of time, amazing or silly. That’s *our* job. The government is just a doorstop to keep the door from slamming shut on the discussion.

    p.s. I’m voting for Jerry next election:)

    1. “voting for Jerry”. If I thought politics could evolve, so would I. And I’m not even US citizen! Take that, politicians.

      [*Scratches head.* “OK, so I _know_ which party I will vote the coming Sunday in the next swedish election. I’ll may as well go whole hog for once and vote for the best person too: who’s most like Jerry in person?” *Looks at list of anonymous grey politicians.* “Oh, pake!”]

  23. PZ’s reply to PalMD’s open letter re lacking empathy is now up:

    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.

  24. I am a bit bothered by the inconsistency in the atheist community about this. Where we bristled at the suggestion that the cartoons should not be published because they would offend or cause violence, suddenly many are becoming accomodationist, deciding that offending violent fanatics is not a good thing and that somehow, while publishing the ‘toons was right, this is very much wrong.

    The principle is the same, even if we disagree with the motives of the kook involved. Surrendering to threats of violence over the burning of a freakin book (a book full of violent obscentiy) is cowardice of a major order.

    1. @Jay. I agree with everything you say. However have you read the Koran yourself? I have to disagree with you there. I have researched on the so called “violent verses” in the Koran for a project and didn’t really come across much “violent obscenity”. When quoted without the background there are verses which come across as violent but when I read the whole chapter I realized it is a different story.
      The only violent obscenity i have seen associated with the Koran is the misinterpretation on many Christian and Atheist websites.

      I don’t follow Koran but I don’t believe in misguiding people by misinterpreting it as well, either by non-muslims or extremist muslims who (mis)interpret it in more or less the same ways.

    2. @jay–I think the reactions are inconsistent because what is happening now is really very new. Up until very recently, Free Speech issues were hashed out within the US (or Europe, Australia–other countries with similar constitutionally protected free speech/free press/free religious expression). Now it’s a global conversation, and countries without those constitutionally protected freedoms are suddenly sitting at the table, too. Like a bunch of city-dwellers jovially making fun of country bumpkins until the quiet guy at the end of the table says he’s from the country…and everybody stops talking, and suddenly the weather becomes an extremely interesting topic. Kinda like that.

      1. I think you are mostly correct there yokohamamama. I would add that we should not be too complacement in thinking that the sort of constitutional protection that freedom of speech has in the US is either understood sufficiently or supported by a majority of the population. I tend to view it as an ‘accidental right’ – whatever the constitution writers had in mind for this amendment, it has turned out to be a very important tool to keep us informed and thus to improve the process of democracy. Perhaps the original intent was simply to allow different sects of christianity to co-exist peacefully – rather than protecting extremist or hated minority viewpoints. In societies where there is no constitutional protection of free speech populations seem only too willing to outlaw these ‘extremist’ views – for instance the anti-nazi laws in Europe or the blasphemy laws in Ireland.

        1. Thanks–I think about this stuff a lot. It’s pretty confusing. I agree–we’ve exapted many things in the Constitution to different purposes than the framers probably originally had in mind, simply because the world we inhabit is so different from the one they did.

  25. It’s a thin red line, recently. I feel the urge to defend a religion from the nutcases of another religion, too, rather than let them burn each others holy books….

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