Alex Stewart has had his 15 minutes of fame, but may live to regret it. Earlier this week he posted a video on Youtube. It showed him smoking lawn-clipping cigarettes that were fashioned out of pages torn from the Bible and the Koran. He compared the taste “scientifically” and was statistically astute enough to regret not having smoked a page of Bertrand Russell’s complete works as a control.
Who is Alex Stewart? He is a prominent member of Brisbane Atheists. But he pays his bills as a lawyer associated with QUT. The MSM have described him as a “staffer” at QUT, as a “legal researcher”, as a QUT commercial contracts lawyer and even as a “professor.” I could not locate him on the QUT law school website. But whatever his role, he is certainly on the QUT payroll. Because QUT have announced that Stewart “has since decided to go on leave for an unspecified period”. On the Brisbane Athesits website, Stewart says he expects to be sacked.
The video has been deleted from Youtube but you can see it HERE. He seems like an intelligent enough and reasonably spoken fellow. Though the video is a little slow moving. I was expecting something more confronting.
So why did he do it and why did he post it? Clearly he posted it to reach a wide audience with his views. However, the video does not contain a coherent explanation of why he is doing what he is doing. However, one might reasonably infer from his membership of Brisbane Atheists that he thinks both sacred texts are bollocks. After rating the Bible a better smoke than the Koran, he points out that they are both “just books” and that people who get offended should “just get over it”. But in a less dogmatic comment that was not reported in the MSM, he also says that
“I don’t think (smoking holy books is) completely appropriate unless it’s done for a good purpose, which I would say I’ve done today.”
So, he is not being offensive just for the sake of it. I surmise that the whole purpose of the stunt is to challenge the authority of holy text per se, which is to assert the primacy of informed personal analysis over received wisdom. You would reckon that University’s would be predisposed towards a similar view. You would unfortunately be wrong.
QUT Vice-chancellor Peter Coaldrake, in classic damage control, said:
“The university is obviously extremely, extremely unhappy and disappointed that this sort of incident should occur…”
without analysing exactly what sort of incident this was. I suspect that it is the sort of incident that might be reported in certain countries that QUT source full fee paying students from. Registrar Dr. Carol Dickenson released a statement that “QUT is tolerant of all religions and does not condone damage to any religious artefacts.” This is a tricky misuse of words. No “artifact” is being destroyed. We are not losing anthropological heritage. The books Stewart smokes are legally bought and sold copies owned by him and there are hundreds of millions of copies in existence.
The reaction of the Anglican Church was more sanguine than QUT. Spokesman Dean Peter Catt labeled it a stunt that on one level was humorous and also encouraged people not to take offense. God bless him. Sheik Muhammad Wahid, president of the Islamic Association of Australia said the actions were “deeply hurtful to Muslims” but urged them to “turn the other cheek”. The blessings of Allah on him also, though it is a worry that he feels it necessary to counsel against retaliation.
Did Stewart break any anti-vilification laws? The fact that he desecrated books from two religions would seem to narrow the potential victim group to all people of faith, rather than one ethnic-religious group. Queensland Council for Civil Liberties President Michael Cope says that, in his view, nothing he did contravenes the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Act. He also offers the opinion that Stewart’s stunt should not be an offense. Queensland police are not investigating the matter.
People will argue that he has shown a lack of respect for the views of people of faith. This argument mangles syntax. How can you show respect for a view? Respect is applied to people, not views. At some point, the verb respect started being applied to abstract nouns (like the “war on terror”). I have no respect for views that I consider wrong. I just think they are wrong. How can anyone respect falsehood? Moreover, if someone has enough views that I think are wrong, I lose respect for the person as well. I might still pretend to have respect, simply because society has to function with the minimum amount of friction. But if someone asks me my opinion about them, I will offer a negative one. So saying that atheists should respect religious views is, by my analysis, an abuse of language.
Neither is disrespecting someone for their religion a form of unfair discrimination. Orwell lives. Discrimination seems to have lost any qualifier such as “racial” or “sexual”, and discrimination itself is now considered unethical. How did we move away from the core issue of racial discrimination to the general fear of giving offense? Acting negatively towards black people is wrong for several reasons. First, it makes no difference whether someone is black or not. Second, even if it did they cannot help being black and cannot change it. Third, no one can argue that blackness hurts anyone. Religion is not like that. It is relevant to someone’s character and core beliefs. It is voluntary. And it can at least be argued that it has hurt people in the past and even that it continues to be a focus of violence in the present. When did it become discriminatory to not respect a set of beliefs for an articulated reason? Carried to its logical conclusion, if you do not respect extreme libertarians you are a discriminatory bigot. If you burn the works of their prophet Hayek you are a discriminatory bigot.
A commenter at the SMH who was critical of Stewart said:
“No one burns a Koran because they want to burn ‘pages printed with ink’. They burn it because they want to challenge or violate the ideology behind the book.”
Quite so, and there is nothing wrong with that in my view. We are allowed to challenge ideology. More to the point, Stewart burnt both the Koran and the Bible, so he is challenging the ideology behind sacred books in general. If this is not publicly acceptable, then we are in very, deep trouble.
I really hope that the PR consultants at QUT do not convince the university to sack him. However, I suspect they will. If they do, can I encourage all Tropodillians to send an email to the principle policy advisor to the Vice Chancellor of QUT, Dr Lawrence Stedman, whose email is [email protected]? I certainly have mine composed and ready.
Just for the record, I would not label myself an atheist. Nevertheless, I am very much with Voltaire on this one. Stewart should not face any consequences so that we can all feel free to challenge cherished notions. Finally, it is a sad comment on our times that I feel obliged to add the following: The views expressed in this post are the author’s own and in no way represent the views of Melbourne Business School.