As I was mulling over what I wanted to say about the PZ Myers / William Donohue kerfuffle, I came across this post (via Bora) by Jeff Fecke, that said perfectly exactly what I was thinking. Go read it.
The basic story line here is that Webster Cook, a student at the University of Central Florida, accepted communion at a Catholic mass. Rather than eat the wafer, he removed it, unconsumed, from the Church. This is a rather serious breach of etiquette, seeing as how the consecrated wafer is said to be a portion of the body of Jesus Christ. Cook’s motives for doing this are unclear.
Mentally healthy people respond to this sort of thing by shrugging their shoulders and saying, “A college student doing something obnoxious and immature, so what else is new?” Alas, the legions of the religious have always included more than their fair share of the mentally unhealthy, and Cook quickly found himself confronting the predictable death threats, in this case egged on by the hyperbolic statements of various church officials.
P. Z. Myers weighed in with his customary nuance and subtlety. In the course of an otherwise very good post pointing out the evident absurdity of being moved to make death threats over an incident of wafer abuse, he overstepped the bounds of good taste and encouraged other people to remove the consecrated wafers from Catholic masses and pass them along to him, whereupon he would treat them very badly indeed. Ahem. You can mock the doctrine of transubstantiation all you want and I will cheer you on. But encouraging folks to go into other people’s religious ceremonies for the sole purpose of behaving disrespectfully is not something I can endorse. P. Z., consider yourself scolded.
At this point professionally offended Catholic League President William Donohue went apoplectic, and, no doubt after asking himself “What would Jesus do?”, decided that it was time to wage a smear campaign against Myers, and attempt to get him fired from his position at the University of Minnesota, Morris. Now Myers is facing the familiar death threats.
That’s the precis. Go read Mr. Fecke’s post for links and quotations.
In his book The End of Faith, Sam Harris has a section on the misery meted out by various church officials over the years for the crime of host desecration, that is, mistreating the communion wafer. Harris made the usual remarks about the insanity of this, especially in light of the fact that muttering a few Latin words over a wafer simply does not alter it in any significant way. I have seen more than one critic excoriate him for this, using it as a prime example of his unsophisticated understanding of theology. Of course, he was lectured, no one really takes the ritual literally.
Well, a lot of people do. A lot of people take their religious doctrines very literally indeed, and that is something the rest of us need to worry about. What we have in this sorry incident is one more example that it is Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens who understand what religion is really all about, while their overeducated academic critics are the ones promoting caricatures.