Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Sullivan on PZ’s Sacrilege Threat

Andrew Sullivan replies to PZ’s threat to do something horrible to a communion wafer:

It is one thing to engage in free, if disrespectful, debate. It is another to repeatedly assault and ridicule and abuse something that is deeply sacred to a great many people. Calling the Holy Eucharist a “goddamned cracker” isn’t about free speech; it’s really about some baseline civility. Myers’ rant is the rant of an anti-Catholic bigot. And atheists and agnostics can be bigots too.

Andrew Sullivan is someone I really have a lot of respect for, but I think he’s mostly wrong here. Yes, there are things PZ could do to a communion wafer that I would likely consider just plain stupid and juvenile (not that he has done any of those things, or plans to), but Sullivan seems to be bothered merely by PZ’s strident and loud mockery of those who are losing their minds over a kid taking a wafer with him from mass rather than eating it. And if that’s the case, I think he’s wrong.

He’s certainly right that atheists and agnostics can be bigots just like religious people, but I don’t think mocking this absurd situation makes one a bigot at all. The mockery is perfectly justified by the absurd behavior of Bill Donohue and his cohorts, who are claiming that the student who did this engaged in kidnapping (!) and that he should be expelled from school. For taking a cracker. I’m sorry, if that isn’t deserving of mockery, what is?

To his credit, Sullivan also posts a couple of long replies from readers on the subject and I think the second one really hits the nail on the head:

For an Atheist like Mr. Myers, the idea of transubstantiation is just as absurd as Xenu stacking nuclear weapons around volcanoes, reincarnation, taking up snakes and baptizing the dead (or living). Why shouldn’t Mr. Myers “ridicule” something he knows to be a cracker? It’s a cracker, for goodness sake. Which religious tenets is he allowed to ridicule? Xenu’s bombs? Christians that take up snakes? None of the above? What about young Earth creationism? One of Mr. Myers’ more frequent attacks is on the idea of young (6,000 year old) Earth creationism that’s espoused by many Christians and other believers. He’s equally crude with his attacks on those beliefs. Where is your outrage with respect to those lines of attack? Is your lack of outrage due to the fact that you actually agree with him that the Earth is much older than that? Who decides which silly beliefs are worthy of ridicule, sarcasm, etc.?

Sullivan does not reply to this, but he does print it in its entirety. I suspect, though, that his emotional reaction to PZ’s ridicule has more to do with his own sometimes difficult relationship with the Catholic Church than it does with any general ideas about civility. He did, after all, cheer on the Danish cartoons of Mohammed. In another quick post on the subject, he attempts to defend what looks like a double standard:

My objection to PZ Myers – even as I defended his right to say whatever he wants and wouldn’t want him punished in any way – is not, in my view, a double standard. Printing a cartoon for legitimate purposes is a different thing than deliberately backing the physical desecration of sacred objects. I’d happily publish a Mohammed cartoon if it advanced a genuine argument, but I would never knowingly desecrate a Koran purely to mock religion.

But I don’t think this argument really flies. Not only do I think PZ is advancing an argument – in a crude way, admittedly – I think he’s advancing essentially the same argument that the cartoonists and newspaper in Denmark were advancing. That argument is about the danger posed by the absurd and hyper-emotional reactions of, respectively, (some) Catholics and (some) Muslims to anything that criticizes their religion. And in both cases, the subsequent reaction only proved the accuracy of that argument. I think Jason Rosenhouse summed it up perfectly:

The reality is this: In both cases religious attitudes in desperate need of goring were criticized in provocative ways. Also in both cases the bounds of good taste were crossed, and both the Danish newspaper editors and P. Z. Myers would probably have done better to find a more tactful way of making their points. But, again in both cases, the insane reaction from many religious people and institutions was so out of proportion to the offense that it made the point far more powerfully than any blogger or newspaper editor could hope to do on his own.

And while I don’t think Sullivan’s argument is a valid one, I do think that he recognizes that the overreactions in both case were utterly insane. As I said in my previous post, I’ve got no problem with someone arguing that PZ’s actions are in bad taste, that he should have found a better way to say what he said, that he could have stopped at just mocking the overreaction and pointing out its absurdity (that’s where I would have stopped).

But I’ve got a serious problem with the Bill Donohues of the world demanding all but the lynching of both the student who started this and PZ. Sullivan, though, is in the former group and certainly not the latter, so this is a minor dispute between two possible reactions, both of which are reasonable under the circumstances. But I do think that his argument distinguishing between the Danish cartoons and PZ’s behavior here falls flat.


  1. #1 The Christian Cynic
    July 14, 2008

    This is a huge mess. I tend to think Mark Chu-Carroll got it right on the matter.

    And even though I’m not Catholic and don’t buy the doctrine of transubstantiation, I’m not going to minimize its significance to others by saying “It’s just a wafer.” That doesn’t change the significance of the thing any more than telling a married man or woman that his or her wedding ring is just a band of metal and stones (credit to Dr. X for the thought, even though the exact analogy is my twist). Regardless of whether one thinks the idea is crazy or not, you’d think that a little basic consideration could be exercised. (But it doesn’t get as much attention, certainly.)

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