Nobody really knows what a ‘Black Mass’ is. But everyone is offended by it anyway.


Photo by Flickr user Emilie, used under a Creative Commons license.

On Monday night, a much-publicized "Black Mass" planned to be held at Harvard University was cancelled amidst strong criticism from the Catholic Church and members of the Harvard community. According to The Boston Globe, members of the Satanic Temple, the organization planning the mass, retreated to a local bar instead.

Judging from the news accounts it's clear that nobody really knows what, exactly, a "Black Mass" would have entailed. The Catholic Church assumed -- and not without reason -- that the Mass would be a mockery of Catholic faith. But the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club, which was to sponsor the event, called it "part of a student-led effort to explore different cultures," and said that "many satanists are animal rights activists, vegetarians, and artists with a strong sense of community." The Church wasn't convinced, however, and a muddle of statements by the Satanic Temple's spokesman Lucien Greaves failed to clarify things.

But everyone did agree on one thing: that the Mass would have been "offensive." Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust characterized it as such no fewer than four times in a 335-word statement on the event. Cardinal Sean O'Malley called it "offensive" in a Boston Globe interview. Organizers of a petition opposing the Mass on the grounds that it "mocks and offends all who have faith in Christ" claimed 50,000 signatures in support of their demand that "President Faust and the Harvard administration speak out against this event, and do all in their power to disband it."

But large majorities of Americans support the principle of freedom of offensive expression, at least in theory. In 2013, a survey by the Newseum Institute found that 65 percent of Americans "agree that freedom to worship as one chooses applies to all religious groups regardless of how extreme or on-the-fringe their views." This number has remained fairly stable over time, and shows little variation by respondents' age, ethnicity, or political ideology.

freedom to worship for fringe groups

Since 1972, the General Social Survey has also asked whether people who speak out against churches and religion should be allowed to speak in respondents' towns, or to teach in colleges and universities. The survey shows a durable majority in favor of allowing anti-religionists to speak generally, and a substantial increase since 1972 in support for allowing anti-religionists to teach at a university.

freedom of speech and teaching

The Washington Post's own pollster Scott Clement, who analyzed these numbers, notes that "being anti-religionist is much more acceptable than being racist and somewhat more tolerable than being a communist." Moreover, "Harvard may be a surprising location for controversy - Americans with higher education are more likely to say anti-religionists should be allowed to speak and teach in college. At least 8 in 10 of those with post-graduate degrees say so, compared with just half of those who did not graduate high school."

But some of America's top colleges and universities have proven themselves incredibly thin-skinned on issues of free speech this year. Condoleezza Rice cancelled a planned commencement address at Rutgers after a week of protests from faculty and students objecting to her role in the Iraq war. Christine Lagarde nixed her Smith College speech after faculty and student protests over International Monetary Fund policies.

In short, it seems like everybody is taking offense at something these days. In the Harvard kerfuffle I hear faint echoes of the Danish cartoon controversy, when Muslims in many countries protested over the publication of images that they deemed offensive to their faith. The protests in Cambridge seem to be driven by a similar notion that the right to not be offended takes precedence over the right to offend. But the polling suggests that most Americans feel otherwise.

Christopher Ingraham is a data journalist focusing primarily on issues of politics, policy and economics. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.
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