A friend of mine, and frequent contributor of topics for Skeptophilia, read my frequently-used tag line on the description of my just-released essay collection ("... considering why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches"), and had the following to say:
"What would you do if you saw the face of Jesus on a grilled cheese sandwich? Would you eat it? Sell it? ... (and) what happens once the faithful show up at your door to
venerate the miraculous image? Do you sell tickets? It is ethical for an
atheist to profit from misguided believers? Is it respectful to destroy
an object some see as holy?"
Which I thought were excellent questions. The veneration of objects (and places) is so common that it's taken for granted; the statuary, chalices, and rosaries in the Catholic church, the scrolls and certain items of clothing for devout Jews, the Koran to Muslims -- all are treated with reverence, and in varying ways are considered the repository for the divine.
It is an interesting question, however, to consider how much reverence you are obliged to show these objects if you don't share in those beliefs. Let's for a little while take this out of the realm of the mainstream religions, because that inevitably conjures up strong feelings of various sorts, and look at a curious situation that happened last month. (Source)
79-year-old German artist Wolfgang von Schwarzenfeld had an idea for an artistic installation in Berlin's Tiergarten Park. He obtained (legally and with permission, he claims) a large pinkish boulder from the Gran Sabana region of Venezuela, carved the word "love" in various languages on its surface, and placed it on a pedestal. It has since become something of a mecca for New Agers, and is a frequent site for offerings of flowers, incense, and so on.
The problem is, the pink rock was an object of veneration for the Pemon natives of Gran Sabana, who claim that the rock is the sacred "Wise Grandmother" of their tribe, and that they have seen drought and food shortages since the rock was taken because the "Grandmother" is no longer there to watch over them. Von Schwarzenfeld says he's not about to give it back, and the whole thing has become something of a cause célèbre for Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who always seems to be spoiling for a fight.
There have been varying accusations flying back and forth -- that Chavez and others are stirring up trouble, that von Schwarzenfeld should never have taken something that was a vital part of the Pemon's "cultural heritage," even that the Pemon are lying about the importance of the stone in order to get money. Now, I'm not an anthropologist (nor a political scientist), and I can't with authority state which of these claims (if any) is true. But let's say, just for the sake of argument, that the Pemon are telling the truth, and that the stone was a venerated object. To what extent are von Schwarzenfeld and the rest of us, not sharing those beliefs, obliged to treat the stone with reverence?
Now, first off, I'm a big believer in just being nice. There's no particular point in walking around being an asshole; if someone believes that an item is worthy of reverence, then my usual approach is to play along out of respect and kindness to the person. But here, in a sense, the damage is already done (whether knowingly or not is a matter of conjecture). Should von Schwarzenfeld destroy his art installation, and at what would be a great personal expense return the stone to Venezuela? Does it matter that he'd already desecrated the stone by carving on it?
It's all very well for free-thinking westerners to sit in our comfortable living rooms and say, "For crying out loud, it's a rock. It wasn't really protecting the Pemon from droughts, famine, and whatnot. It doesn't matter." The fact is, such things matter greatly to some people, and when different groups have competing interests, a resolution is decidedly non-trivial. Almost the reverse situation is happening right now in Mali and Egypt -- where radical Islamists are destroying historical sites in the city of Timbuktu, and are calling for the demolition of the pyramids, because they are edifices that are "symbols of paganism." (Source) This isn't the first time this has happened -- recall the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, an act that one archaeologist called "an irreparable loss to humanity."
So, what do you do when different groups have different attitudes towards the sacred, the secular, and the profane? I wish I had an answer. When my friend asked me the question about what I'd do if I found a Holy Grilled Cheese Sandwich, I responded, "I'd write about it," which was true if somewhat disingenuous. The bottom line is that I don't know that it's possible to reconcile these claims, given that they stem from mutually exclusive views of the world. In the end, perhaps, there is no answer to this question other than, "Be as kind and respectful as you can manage to be, and hope like hell that it doesn't blow up in your face."