When Does Sensitivity Override Outrage?
People either love PZ Myers or they think he is a jerk. Some wish that he would just go away, so they wouldn’t have to deal with the sensitive subjects he brings up in an insensitive matter.
I count myself among his friends, but this is not an automatic even for an atheist. Many atheists consider that he antagonizes the religious just to be a jerk, and refer to his followers as “Screechy Monkeys.” The perception is that we hate the religious and will use any excuse we possibly can to ridicule their beliefs. The truth is a bit more subtle.
I first ran into PZ Myers as a frequent contributor to the newsgroup talk.origns. Without giving a full history of talk.origins, the group was started in the effort to draw creationists out of serious biology and cosmology newsgroups to a place where the discussion would be a bit more “raucous” than the charter for the serious science groups allowed. It was moderated to elevate it slightly above the spamming that infested alt.talk.creationism.
Several scientists contributed frequently to the threads at talk.origins and PZ was among those whose topics lended clarity to complex explanations of evolution through all of its theories, and especially in the area of his specialty – evo/devo. Only rarely did he join the fray to engage in one-on-one threads with creationists and rarely did he attack them individually through a flamewar. Now that I think about it, I have trouble remembering any flamewars involving PZ.
I picked him up again at the original Pharyngula.org and at the Panda’s Thumb, while he was still only a mildly famous atheist. With his blog, he was a bit more free wtih his attacks on creationism, and more actively promoited his liberal politics and disdain for Intelligent design on scientific grounds was often very important. He also wrote more often of his views of religion and atheism. I never imagined that he would incite a firestorm such as the one that emerged when he referred to a communion host as a “frackin’ cracker.”
The post arose as a response to the threats that were aimed at a college student at the University of Central Florida, Webster Cook. PZ was incredulous that Catholics had treated a student so horribly; threatened bodily harm and called for the University to suspend or expel the student. The Catholic League accused Cook of kidnapping their Savior. I fail to understand how this could be, since Jesus and God are everywhere.
Here’s an excerpt from the “Frackin’ cracker” post:
Got that? If you don’t like what Webster Cook did, all you have to do is complain to the university, and they will do the dirty work for you of making his college experience miserable. And don’t assume the university would support Cook; the college is now having armed university police officers standing guard during mass.
I find this all utterly unbelievable. It’s like Dark Age superstition and malice, all thriving with the endorsement of secular institutions here in 21st century America. It is a culture of deluded lunatics calling the shots and making human beings dance to their mythical bunkum.
This is what we are used to with PZ; I agree with him btw. It’s ridiculous for a religion of “peace,” the religion in which I grew up and eventually discarded, to resort to armed guards to protect their religious concept of the transubsantiated host. It is reminiscent of the accusations against Jews that they would desecrate hosts and make them scream and bleed. These accusations were used as justifications for torture and murder. It is an example of the excess of religion and the intent to resort to the civil authority to enforce respect for a religious tenet.
That was not the segment that caused the stir, however. This was:
So, what to do. I have an idea. Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There’s no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I’m sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I’ll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won’t be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls, which would apparently be a more humane act than desecrating a goddamned cracker), but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web. I shall do so joyfully and with laughter in my heart. If you can smuggle some out from under the armed guards and grim nuns hovering over your local communion ceremony, just write to me and I’ll send you my home address.
Just wait. Now there’ll be a team of Jesuits assigned to rifle through my mail every day.
I admit that even I was uncomfortable reading this. I often wonder if my own Catholic background lingers and causes guilt and anxiety when I read this. What came next hardly should surpise anyone. If I had written somethihg similar at Tangled Up in Blue Guy, few would have noticed. PZ, however, brings more hits to ScienceBlogs in one hour than I have brought to my own blog since it opened last year.
And The Catholic League took notice. And the Virginia Republican delegation took notice of the fact that PZ lives in Minnesota. They suggested that the local constabulary provide armed security for Masses during the RNC in September to protect their hosts from an attack by PZ and his hordes of catholic-hating pharynguloids. The Catholic League encouraged a write-in campaign to have PZ reprimanded or even fired. Its a big kerfuffle that is only now dying down.
So, How Much Harm Did it Cause?
I sympathize to a certain extent with people who were upset by what PZ suggested; as I said, my Catholic roots run pretty deep and the concept of desecrating a religious symbol that some hold more dear than they value people makes me a bit queasy, emotionally.
The rational part of my brain agrees that in reality, it is just a cracker. I certainly don’t accept the whole transubstantiation idea. To me it is unleavened bread and not the flesh of Jesus transformed. I have no attachment to the Host, as I have no attachment to any vestments, any chalices, crucifixes, etc. Yet, I understand that Catholics do.
Defacing a church, a synagogue or a mosque with a burning cross or a swastika is a crime because it implies a threat of religious violence on a cultural symbolic home to people of a specific religious or cultural heritage. Does a host deserve the same protected status because of the beliefs of a single religion? Just because it has no value for me, does that mean that it should hold no value for anyone?
Without inviting a huge discussion over whether PZ is a jerk, a bastard or a right-on dude, I am curious about whether or not all people should be held to respect the symbols and beliefs of one religion even when the religious concept seems to hold more value for some than do living people. Is dismissal of the host as a “cracker” a hate crime? (Is the freedom to burn a flag more important than the symbol of that freedom?)
PZ has not yet desecrated any hosts; it’s quite possible that what he has in mind wil be more humorous than anything else; meant to tweak sensitivities. I doubt that he will drop the host in urine. Whatever he has come up with, I hardly think it will merit death threats after all.
Group, what’s the consensus? Is the attack on a person more heinous than wafer-baiting?