Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Moral Responsibility and Snake-Poking

Many, many voices have criticized the Pope for quoting a 14th Century Byzantine Emperor who called Islam a violent religion. The church bombings, riots, and death threats which have followed have been blamed on Benedict. This is a perspective which can be called "Don't poke the snake!" (h/t)

You see, the paramedics at our local fire department here on the front range of the rocky mountains treat a number of snake bite cases every summer. The story fronted by the cyclist/jogger is always that they were peaceably cycling/running past and said snake just jumped out and bit them.However, the bite wound is always on the hand or arm, implying that the venom recipient had picked up a stick and was poking at the snake.


My point is, people can very be very touchy about their religion, xians and muslims alike. I am not validating the riots and the murder, those are so wrong. But perhaps they were avoidable, not in the sense that we should let others dictate what we say, but in the not-poking-the-snake if the act of snake-poking has little intrinsic value.So, perhaps benedict's comment was rather ill-advised?

This seems to be the basic argument that Joel Thomas is making in this comment thread. Jockeystreet, in this long and thoughtful comment seems to advance a similar position:

You lose me, though (and I may be responding in part to the next post you put up on the topic, it's kind of a two for one here), with what I would call your "broad strokes." While I certainly agree with you that there are barbarians and murderers out there, you seem to too often be too quick to apply that tag to everyone who belongs to a certain faith or culture.

Understood. My rhetoric has been heavy handed when talking about Islam:

I really don't care if clitoris-slicing, adulteress-stoning, homosexual-hanging, hostage-beheading medieval barbarians like us. In fact, I take their hatred as a mark of pride. If our civilization was actually admired by such people, it would be a sign that something had gone gravely wrong. As far as Islamofascists go, oderint dum metuant.

The Pope's speech, however, is very tame. It is merely an academic lecture about the relationship between reason and theological exploration. So Jockeystreet's analogy of pissing off the disgruntled ex-coworker with the bomb on his chest doesn't apply. In any reasonable interpretation, this speech does not poke at any snakes.

Not that it would matter if the Pope's speech was inflammatory. He could have stated my comment and not poked at any snakes. Why? Because Muslims are not snakes.

This argument launched against the Pope presupposes that Muslims are subhuman; that they are unthinking, reactive animals that respond instinctively to certain stimuli as a snake will instinctively lash out at a perceived predator hovering above it. One may not like being bitten by a snake; one might get angry at snake for biting, but one cannot blame a snake for doing so because it is incapable of moral reasoning. Those who wish to place the responsibility on Benedict must, logically, conclude that Muslims are incapable of moral reasoning. Joel Thomas and those advancing similar arguments are necessarily dehumanizing Muslims by freeing them of moral responsibility.

Can we then say that the Pope's comments are ill-advised? No. His rhetoric is in no way, shape, or form, inflammatory. Nor should the West even consider restraining inflammatory rhetoric, such as the Danish cartoons because free expression is one of the crown jewels of Western civilization that make living in it worthwhile. We should not make this radical accommodation to suit the tastes of the Islamic culture. We have learned to live on the same planet with their bizarre rhetoric; they are capable of doing the same with ours.


jockeystreet said...

Should speech be restrained because some people don't like it? No way. Should we take the view that certain groups shouldn't be held responsible for their actions once provoked? Nope. Is all speech a wise choice? No. It's foolish to blame the Pope, more foolish to wish to censor him, but not foolish, I think, to say "did you think that would be helpful right now?"

For some reason I think of Paul's "all things are lawful for me, not all things are beneficial." You can say it. Does that mean it's a good idea to say it?

Perhaps my judgment is clouded. I think Popes are silly, curious things (inflammatory hate speech meant to rile up Catholic readers).

Joel Thomas said...


If you are claiming that I blame Benedict for the violent reaction, then you are making something up out of thin air. Those who engage in violence are responsible for their own actions.

Are you capable of moral reasoning? You seem to be so full of hate toward Muslims in general as to approach the irrational. No, I think it is you, not I, that consider Muslims incapable of moral reasoning.

Further, most Muslims didn't react with violence to what the Pope said. After 9-11, there were significant numbers of attacks on Muslims in the U.S., but most Americans remained calm.

If I put up a sign in my front yard proclaiming Christianity to be a false religion or Jesus to be a fraud, I truly believe that not only would the sign be down in short order but that I'd likely have windows broken out of my home and perhaps my tires flattened.

John said...

Joel, look at the comment thread -- you consistently blamed the Pope for the Muslim response.

Are you capable of moral reasoning? You seem to be so full of hate toward Muslims in general as to approach the irrational. No, I think it is you, not I, that consider Muslims incapable of moral reasoning.

Hardly. I'm holding the Muslims responsible for their moral actions because I regard them as human beings fully capable of making decisions should they choose do. You, on the other hand, evade giving Muslims this moral responsibility. Why, Joel? What is your reasoning for stripping them of moral responsibility? What makes them, in your view, inferior beings?

John said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
John said...

Here's an example, Joel. You compare Muslims to gasoline. Gasoline is a chemical which will inevitably ignite under certain conditions. It has no mind, soul, or conscience, and therefore no moral responsibility. I've said that Islamic culture is, on the whole, rather barbaric. But barbarians are at least human and have the human capability to make moral decisions. Your comparison suggests that Muslims are subhuman. Why is that?

John B said...

I fear Joel is correct in his analysis of what would happen if he put anti-Christian signs in his yard.

Though I believe the difference between the Muslim reaction to what they perceive to be offensive and the would be the "Christian" reaction is that if Joel's fears came to pass and he and/or his property were attacked, Christian leaders would condemn the attacks. Among most of the Islamic world rather than condemning violence, it is applauded.

It is this lack on condemnation which leads me to agree with the Pope in portraying Islam as a violent religion and not just a few fanatics.

Jason D. Moore said...

If I may, I would agree with Jockeystreet and Joel. And I think an important point that Jockeystreet made in his comment from the other post is getting lost. He, rightfully, talks about how generalities are getting thrown around when the "barbarians" make up only a small segment of the population of Muslims all over the world.

From an episode of the West Wing that aired just after 9/11 ("Isaac and Ishmael") they made a good point. The more violent strands of Islam can probably be compared to the KKK in that they are a small segment that certainly gets a lot of press whenever they are publicly acting with violence and hate.

Since the violence that does exist is what gets aired or printed, if that is your only exposure to Islam of course you're going to think Muslims are barbaric in as much as if you were only exposed to the Klan your view of Christianity would be equally skewed.

How many Muslims have you interacted with? And were they these barbarians that you see on the news? I would venture to say that the majority of Muslims are just faithful, peaceful, followers of their religion and are not being wrongly influenced by radical imams in their local mosques.

It's one thing to hold the individuals responsible for their own acts of violence, it's something very different to hold an entire segment of the human family responsible for the acts of people with a similar characteristic or broad affiliation.

I studied the Qur'an in college - along with Mideval Islamic Law, Islamic Literature, and the Islamic expansion - and while there is evidence of violent policies of rulers, the religion itself is a lot closer to Christianity and Judaism than some people would like to admit and is a lot more peaceful too. As with Christianity there are different schools of thought, some demanding stricter adherence than others. Likewise, there are leaders who are more radical than others who manipulate their followers into doing things that your average person wouldn't even consider. Not all Christians interpret the Bible the same way, so isn't it fair to say that not all Muslims interpret and follow the Qur'an in the same way?

So let's stop blaming all Muslims for the twisted interpretations of a small, very much publicized group, shall we? And I wouldn't go around calling Islam a barbaric religion until you really learn about it and meet and see the real humanity in the hearts of the majority of them.

(Here's my 2 cents...)

Anonymous said...


If hatemongers like the KKK were allowed to represent themselves as typical of western Christianity you might have a point...

Fortunately for us this is just not so... Any KKK atrocity that was publicized would be denounced from virtually every pulpit in America... Immediately and without restraint... Fred Phelp's "Christian" protests are counter protested by hundreds and thousands of caring Americans at every venue he in which he appears...

Where is the public outcry from the overwhelming majority of peaceful, loving Muslims?... Where are the counter demonstrations in support of the victims of the jihadis?... If their good name and the reputation of their Faith is so important to this vast majority why don't they reclaim it from the small well publicized group of militants?...


j2 said...

Wow. Another thread meltdown. Okay, that can actually start another battle so that may not be the wisest thing to say at this time. Kind of like what the Pope SHOULD have known as mentioned by Jockeystreet.

For such heated debate I sense more personal acrimony unrelated to the actual subject at hand. Trully all of us have only the same small looking glass to look through and make an opinion of this recent event. That looking glass belongs to a self-serving media machine which wants to polarize the issue to capture our attention.

I have seen this drama played out many times, have participated in it many times with regret, and observed that it invades all of us independent of our social, political, or theological dispositions. It goes like this:

Party X posts their opinion on their blog. Party Y moves fast to comment on the post to offer a contrary argument to Party X. Both party X and party Y lose sight of the issue or subject matter and what they actually have in common on it. Party Y's sole objective is to discredit any reasoned argument of party X because party Y categorizes party X as generally being the nemesis of party Y personally. Party X feels as though they have no choice but to vindicate themself in the comment thread since it was their own post and blog site that party Y is really attacking.

And then party Y posts on their blog...yada...yada...blah...blah. I will let everyone else decide who is Party X and Party Y here or on any other blog. What I will say is that after the heat has dissipated either party might look back and realize that they didn't really mean a lot of what they actaully said and they really did agree more with the other, but personal pride would not permit either to accept reason for reasons sake. No, if reason gets in the way 50% of the time in proving the real point, that the "Other" is wrong, than reason at that step of the discussion must go the way of the dodo bird.

So, who wants to step up first and admit where they may have stated something contrary to what they might really think and believe to be true. You know, some extreme statement made that you know would be terribly difficult to truly defend. And what is our bias towards either the blogger or their critic? My bias is probably obvious, but I can admit that there is room to back up and see the point that the Pope perhaps did make a serious blunder, regardless of his intent or foreknowledge. I cannot defend the Pope's speech 100% simply because I need to see any other person discredited completely. But, bias or not, I could not sympathize nor justify the reaction we are seeing.

I guess I wish to add that the view through this looking glass has most likely been distorted intentionally to give us all something to argue over. There my very well be a large outcry from moderate Muslims against the violent reaction and in defense of the Pope, but we just are not seeing it. For that who should we judge?

Stephen said...

Agreeing with J2, the media is the only winner in this situation. Blood sells newspapers, drives news, increases ad space. Fox News makes a killing off people glued to their TVs 24/7 watching this radical muslim group or that radical muslim group. The muslim groups that denounce these actions don't make the news because that doesn't sell. Went to school with a guy from Saudi Arabi. He attended prayers regularly at the mosque and he and his frequently complained about these radicals. It does about as much good as me complaining about Pat Robertson. I don't make the news, he does.

John said...

You have a point, J2. And the last comment that I left in this thread was needlessly savage and graceless. I apologize, Joel.

Dana said...

Stephen -

Complaining about the situation probably won't make news, you're right. But counter-demonstrating will, at least to some degree. If I weren't so swamped with teaching duties, it would be interesting to see what sort of organized public support there was for the victims of the various terror attacks, and who it came from.

Any takers?

Dan Trabue said...

"Among most of the Islamic world rather than condemning violence, it is applauded."

Among MOST of the Islamic world? Your source? I've never seen anything to indicate that this is not an opinion held by "most" of the 1 billion + muslims. More than I'd hope? Yes. But if 1 billion people were applauding bad behavior, we'd know it.

Joel Thomas said...


Your statement that I compared Muslims to gaoline sis wrong; I think you misunderstood.

What I was saying is this:

Islamic extremists have started a fire. They are responsible for that fire. However, for Westerners to throw gasoline on that fire instead of trying to put the fire out is not wise. I'm pleased that the Pope is trying to address extremist religious violence. I just think he went about it in the wrong way because he focused on the Muslim religion per se instead of the extremists.

John said...

So does the primary responsibility for the violent response to Benedict's remarks lie with Benedict or the Muslims who committed them?

Joel Thomas said...


I already answered that question in a previous comment:

"If you are claiming that I blame Benedict for the violent reaction, then you are making something up out of thin air. Those who engage in violence are responsible for their own actions."

What isn't clear about that? If someone burglarizes my home, they are solely responsible for that act. However, if I left my doors unlocked, perhaps the wiser course would be for me to keep them locked. That doesn't change who is responsible, however.

John said...

I find that hard to reconcile with the vast bulk of your criticism being directed at the Pope.