Madeleine Bunting, writing in The Guardian, has sharply attacked the Regensburg address of Pope Benedict XVI. Among the points that she makes, there is one that deserves special attention, because it expresses the sentiment of all those who have criticized the Regensburg address for being inflammatory and provocative.
"An elderly Catholic nun has already been killed in Somalia, perhaps in retaliation for the pope's remarks; churches have been attacked in the West Bank. How is this papal stupidity going to play out in countries such as Nigeria, where the tensions between Catholics and Muslims frequently flare into riots and deaths? Or other countries such as Pakistan, where tiny Catholic communities are already beleaguered?"
"Papal stupidity" is strong language. But a few paragraphs before this harsh phrase, Madeleine Bunting has prepared us for it by arguing that "even the most cursory knowledge of dialogue with Islam teaches...that reverence for the Prophet is non-negotiable. What unites all Muslims is a passionate devotion and commitment to protecting the honor of Mohammed." A Pope who did not know that "reverence for the Prophet is non-negotiable" must, therefore, be guilty of egregious stupidity.
The argument underlying this attack may be summarized as follows: Morally responsible speech or writing must take into account the consequences that such speech or writing may have on others. If it is bound to inflame certain groups, to cause the death of innocent people, to increase tensions, and to endanger whole communities, then it is morally wrong to engage in such speech or writing, and anyone who does so deserves to be attacked by all morally responsible people.
The ethical issue that is raised by Madeleine Bunting is no trivial one, and it should gravely concern us all. Morally responsible human beings should always be aware of the consequences of both their words and their actions on others. Yet morally responsible human beings also have another duty, and it is an equally solemn one -- it is the duty that they owe to their intellectual conscience. For example, when Charles Darwin published The Origins of Species, he was painfully aware of the consequences that his revolutionary theory would have on other people. Indeed, this awareness led him into delaying the publication of his theory for many years, and his moral seriousness does him no dishonor. Yet, ultimately, Darwin knew that he also had a duty to his own intellectual conscience. He could not simply suppress his theory, because in his mind that would be suppressing the truth.
This leads me to the question that I would like to pose to Madeleine Bunting and all those who have attacked Benedict for his lack of moral responsibility in making the Regensburg address. Suppose that the eminent English biologist Richard Dawkins delivered a speech at the University of Regensburg in which he attacked supporters of Creationism and Intelligent Design theory as "ignorant boobs" -- words that he has already applied in them in a written article. Now, let us imagine that Christian fundamentalists all over the United States, outraged by this inflammatory language, went on a violent rampage. Suppose that they lynched an elderly professor of biology, and attacked biology departments at several universities. Suppose that teachers of high school biology went about in fear of their lives, while many simply quit their jobs.
What kind of article would Madeleine Bunting write about such a hypothetical incident? Do you think she would violently condemn Richard Dawkins, writing something along the lines of:
"Even the most cursory knowledge of dialogue with Creationists teaches...that reverence for the Biblical account of man's creation is non-negotiable. What unites all Christian fundamentalists is a passionate devotion and commitment to the inerrancy of the Holy Bible."
Would Madeleine Bunting refer to Dawkins' speech as illustrating professorial stupidity? Would she imply that he was personally responsible for the death of the elderly American professor of biology, and describe the brutal murder as having been done "in retaliation" for Dawkins' remarks?
What fools the American Creationists have been to write books, give speeches, and attend the tedious meetings of School Boards, when by rioting, murdering, and running amok, they could have earned the sympathy and respect of enlightened intellectuals like Madeleine Bunting. Instead of being ridiculed as "ignorant boobs," even such prestigious left-leaning papers as The Guardian would rally to their defense, reminding us all that for Christian fundamentalists the teaching of creationism is "non-negotiable."
In the European past, many men were given the choice between death and speaking the truth. Socrates was given this choice, and chose death. So did Giordano Bruno, Michael Servetus, and many others. Today, however, those who wish to speak the truth about Islam, as they see it, are confronted by a far more wrenching choice. A man who is prepared to die for his convictions may be effectively silenced by the thought that if he speaks his mind some unknown innocent may be killed in Nigeria or in Somali "in retaliation" for his words. Those who blame the man who speaks the truth as he sees it, instead of the man who commits murder in retaliation, would be wise to ponder well the moral consequences of their own words.