Posts Tagged ‘crackergate’

Mike has brought up the question of “respect” for religion again, this time drawing some interesting parallels between a fictionalization of the life of Muhammad and the desecration of a Eucharistic wafer by atheist blogger PZ Myers.  We had an interesting discussion of the desecration a month ago, and I emphasized my view that there is a very important difference between respecting beliefs or ideas and respecting people.  It seems to me that this distinction is being missed in the comparison of PZ’s stunt and the Muhammad novel, and I’d like to try again to put issues of respect into a more complete context.

Here’s the section of Mike’s post that got my attention:

When we recoil in fear from offending the beliefs of another group, we give religion a power it doesn’t deserve.  We let it control even those of us who don’t share the religion.  The people who bugged me the most in the crackergate fiasco were not so much the rabid catholics who wanted to see him destroyed and humiliated, the people who made me most angry were the equivocating atheists who said we should excoriate him because he wasn’t showing the proper respect to a religion he didn’t believe.

Now, I don’t know who these “equivocating atheists” are, but if they are bashing Myers for not “showing the proper respect to a religion he didn’t believe,” then Mike is right to be annoyed by them.  I’m not an atheist, and I’m sure annoyed by that kind of talk, because I want to reserve the right to be critical of beliefs, ideas and religions, without being harassed by bogus accusations of intolerance.

I’m not sure, though, that this is the issue.  Specifically, I don’t think Myers is being excoriated for merely failing to show “respect to a religion,” and I sure don’t think that this captures the reason why I and others found his stunt repugnant.  Let me offer a few case studies to illustrate why I don’t buy the juxtaposition of Crackergate and the effective censorship of a historical novel about Muhammad and his marriage bed.

1.  Suppose a friend of mine in Minnesota – we’ll call him Mike – ran a website that regularly criticized, in the most dismissive of terms, my religion.  The usual stuff: comparisons of God to fairies or the FSM, baldly dismissive descriptions of Jesus of Nazareth, regular updates on the most embarrassing and outrageous antics of my fellow believers.  Then suppose one day that his website featured a picture of the church I attend, digitally altered to look like a crematorium and emblazoned with swastikas.  Or suppose that when Mike and I eventually met in person, he continually used the name of Jesus as an expletive and ignored my requests to stop.

In my opinion, Mike’s website is appropriate criticism of ideas and religion, but his personal smear of my church (even if it reflects his honestly-held beliefs about Christian complicity in the Holocaust) and his contemptuous attitude toward my personal convictions (even if he thinks ‘Jesus’ is just another collection of phonemes) represent something else.  Treating religion or tradition with complete disrespect – even contempt – is just not the same as treating a person that way.  I think that should be obvious, even if the finer demarcations in practice can get tricky.

2.  One protester burns an American flag at a public rally against American policy.  Another burns an American flag in front of a graveyard during the funeral of a WWII veteran who was murdered in front of his wife.  Is there a difference?  Why?

3.  Cultures have various traditions and rules pertaining to “respect for the dead.”  I happen to think that corpses are morally insignificant chunks of meat, ripe for biochemical recycling, and I don’t have a particularly high regard for practices that seek to provide comfort or preservation to corpses.  If I nevertheless choose not to, say, walk on graves while people are watching, am I “recoiling from offending the beliefs of another group,” and thereby giving “respect for the dead” a power it doesn’t deserve?  Or am I taking steps to show respect for other people?

And this final case study is the one I want to hear PZ’s defenders discuss.

4.  Once there was an outspoken critic of Catholicism and many other religions who was well known for his bare-knuckled attacks on beliefs he considered ridiculous.  He ran a website that was known throughout cyberspace and was occasionally the subject of mainstream news reports.  One day he desecrated a religious worship service, specifically to protest what he perceived to be the outrageous nature of the beliefs of those present at the service (which was held in a public place).  Those in attendance at the service were outraged, and began a campaign against the critic, hoping to destroy his organization and his livelihood.  The critic insisted that he didn’t intend to hurt people, and pointed out that no one had been injured in any significant way.  His position is clear: he doesn’t accept or respect the religious beliefs of nearly all of the people in world.  Although most of those close to him defend him vigorously, he is regularly excoriated for his behavior, and many people are angered by the fact that he wasn’t showing the proper respect to a religion he didn’t believe.

His name is Fred Phelps, and in my opinion he’s the guy to look at when trying to put PZ’s stunt into a moral context.  He and his sick followers believe that homosexuality has doomed the inhabitants of the planet to damnation, and he feels compelled to raise the nation’s consciousness regarding this moral tragedy.  So he applauds the deaths of soldiers, at their funerals, holding signs that say stuff like “Thank God for dead soldiers.”  I won’t desecrate our blog with links to his hate speech.

In my opinion, thinking about Fred Phelps and his obscenely misnamed church helps bring into focus the reason why respect, in the context of religion, does make sense.  It’s not because any set of beliefs should be respected.  It’s because people should be respected.  I’m not saying that the distinction is always easy to make.  But I think it’s a mistake to continue portraying behavior like PZ’s as merely disrespectful toward religion.  At least give some thought to the ways in which decent people continually show respect for others who hold divergent – even wildly, irrationally divergent – beliefs.

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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?

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