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Archive for July 31st, 2008

When I first read about P.Z. Myers’ decision to destroy a consecrated communion wafer (which he followed up with actual action), I was appalled at his lack of regard for the feelings of a billion people who had never personally offended him. I was inclined to agree with Andrew Sullivan’s characterisation of his action:

It is one thing to engage in free, if disrespectful, debate. It is another to repeatedly assault and ridicule and abuse something that is deeply sacred to a great many people.

Let me make it absolutely clear though: I never disputed he had the right to do it. However, having a right and exercising it are not the same thing. For instance, we have the right to be unfaithful to our spouse but we usually condemn those who indulge in such behavior. (This is why libertarians correctly distinguish between the legal and the moral.)

Thus, while I viewed Myers’ action as an exercise of his inalienable right to free expression, I did think it was an uncivil and hurtful act that did nothing for the cause of atheism or rationality. However the angry reaction of fundamental Catholics (who are now calling for a law against blasphemy) has tempered my view of the matter. Being nice to people is a wonderful trait but there can be no real compromise with those who believe in enforcing niceness through censorship. Unfortunately there is ample evidence that this kind of thinking is not limited to fringe groups (see, for instance some of the comments below Eugene Volokh’s post on the matter).

I am not sure what the appropriate reaction to religious fundamentalists is. Myers’ way — which I certainly sympathize with —  may not unfortunately be the most effective approach to quieten them.  However, I happily welcome attempts to convince me it is; anyone who succeeds in doing that earns a photo of me destroying a holy cracker. No kidding.

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Scott Aaronson has a nice post in which he plots political freedom and economic freedom on a chart and concludes that while the two are definitely correlated, the correlation seems to disappear near the high-freedom areas of the chart. In fact he hypothesises there might be a ‘Pareto curve’ fitting this negative correlation between the two freedoms near the top of the scale.

Unfortunately, as I point out in a comment on his blog, his data is suspect, especially near the top end of the scale that is relevant to the Pareto curve discussion. For instance, Canada and Sweden lie near the top of the political freedom scale according to the Freedom House survey that he uses. In particular, they both have perfect scores in “freedom of expression and belief”. Of course, this is deeply flawed as both countries have insidious hate speech laws that stifle speech, especially those belonging to the far right.

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