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.


  1. #1 AL
    July 12, 2008

    “Cook’s motives for doing this are unclear.”

    Atkin’s diet, as I understand it. Body of Christ is a high carb, low protein food.

  2. #2 gwangung
    July 12, 2008

    I’m not impressed with would-be Ayatollahs, whether they’re Christian or Muslim.

  3. #3 Who Cares
    July 12, 2008

    Cook claims he didn’t want to remove the wafer from the church at first but show to a friend who came with him to the mass. He got blocked from walking away when he didn’t eat it immediately after which he put it in his mouth. Back at his seat he removed it from his mouth to show it to his friend. At this spot a person affiliated with the church tried to forcibly (according to Cook) get the wafer back. His response was to get out of the church with the wafer.

    here is the link:

  4. #4 Bill the Cat
    July 12, 2008

    In dieting, does the consecrated host count as animal protein or vegetable starch?

  5. #5 Lofcaudio
    July 12, 2008

    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 I agree with Jeff Fecke’s thoughts on this issue, your statement above is lacking. Not only is it a hasty generalization, but the evidence that exists for D, H and H would show that they may understand many things, but religion (or what it is about) is most certainly not one of them.

  6. #6 John Locke
    July 12, 2008

    As far as I am aware, Myers did not actually ask for people to disrupt mass and abscond with consecrated crackers. He asked for people to “score” him some. Disrupting church services to take one would be one way of doing so. But there are other avenues available to the creative or industrious.

  7. #7 BaldApe
    July 12, 2008

    Thank you far the most balanced treatment I have seen on this issue so far.

    On the one hand, I’m the kind of guy who would want to infuriate the instructor at an anger management class, and on the other hand I quit wearing my Darwin fish T-shirt when it was obvious that I was causing distress.

  8. #8 Blake Stacey
    July 12, 2008

    What John Locke said.

    Disrupting church services to take one would be one way of doing so. But there are other avenues available to the creative or industrious.

    Such as, I dunno, an infinitesimal amount of sleight-of-hand.

    Here is what PZ said:

    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.

    [emphasis mine]

    I’m well-known for having no sense of taste, but I respectfully submit that anyone who thinks the reaction to this has been in reasonable proportion needs to buy a new sense of scale. In addition, the emphasized portion indicates that PZ prefers guile to disruption.

  9. #9 Blake Stacey
    July 12, 2008

    Incidentally, I just came across Salman Rushdie saying this:

    Everybody needs to get thicker skins. There is this culture of offence, as though offending someone is the worst thing anyone can do. Again, there is an assumption that our first duty is to be respectful. But what would a respectful cartoon look like? Really boring! You wouldn’t publish it. The nature of the form is irreverence and disrespect.

    It’s a nice interview/story.

  10. #10 fongooly
    July 12, 2008

    The difficulty with this particular method of taunting the ignorant is the prospect of getting killed in the process. Worse, there could be chants of “who’s ignorant now” at your wake.

  11. #11 Jason Rosenhouse
    July 12, 2008

    Blake –

    In this case the distinction between guile and disruption is too subtle for me. But it was clear from what I wrote that I do not think the reaction to P.Z.’s post has been proportionate/ I think PZ is guilty of poor taste, and of going a little overboard in what was otherwise a good post. The people going after him for it (and for going after Mr. Cook in the first place) are guilty of far worse than that, to put it mildly.

  12. #12 Magpie
    July 13, 2008

    PZ was trolling.

    Not illegal, not worth death threats, not worth hysterics. I like PZ as much as it’s possible to like someone via text, but he really is an ass sometimes.

    …but as per the above, no-one has an inalienable right to not-be-offended.

    The same theology that says this cracker is the body of Christ, also says that this same Christ will have my athiest soul tortured for all eternity. So Catholics, if your theology is worth a damn, then moral outrage is the least you’re directing at me.

    Either I’m right and your cracker is meaningless, or you’re right and your god wants me to suffer unimaginable torment. Either way, why should I respect your beliefs?

  13. #13 Tim H
    July 13, 2008

    My take on this (I’ve followed it for several days) is that the church could very well argue in court that when they give the whatever-you-call-the-person-who-gets-the-cracker the cracker, they (the church) are not relinquishing all rights to it. They are giving away the cracker on the sole and express condition that the cracker be eaten immediately(like an NFL broadcast). Moreever, they could (probably successfully ) argue that everyone knows this and by participating in the ritual, people agree to the contract. Webster was guilty of Breach of Contract, and the church could have gotten a court order for the return of the cracker, since it was legally theirs. PZ got carried away and exhorted people to break contracts. He should appologize for that.
    The overall moral of the story is, however: If you don’t want people to ridicule your beliefs, don’t believe in ridiculous things.

  14. #14 Timcol
    July 13, 2008

    Thanks Jason for a balanced view. I usually agree with just about everything PZ writes; but this case I think he overstepped the mark because he called for action that could potentially disrupt those who wish to freely practice their religion in peace. It’s one thing to criticize (even strongly) a person’s beliefs and in fact this should be encouraged; as Dawkins always says, we should have free speech to criticize the content of what people belief; however, it’s another thing altogether to deny them the ability to freely practice their religion, or disrupt their place of worship. After all, the separation of church and state is intended to work both ways – protect those who do not wish any form of religion in their lives (including their government), but also allow those who do wish to practice, the freedom to do so in an uninterrupted way. So I agree with PZ on everything he said about the absurdity of the crackers, their meaning, and of course the whole medieval thinking about transubstantiation – he just went one step too far in asking non-believers to interfere.

  15. #15 Blake Stacey
    July 14, 2008

    Guile: sneaking a cracker out of church and mailing it off so that you can get your chuckles while other people’s churchgoing experience isn’t ruined. On the distant chance that the cracker’s recipient actually does anything with it, nobody even knows where in America — or, really, the world — it came from.

    Disruption: grabbing the whole frackin’ box and screaming, “YOURS IS THE HOST, MY DARK LORD!” whilst your friends rappel down from the ceiling in bat costumes and a confederate at the organ plays a catchy little number from Don Giovanni.

    I am not known for a subtle imagination.

  16. #16 Magpie
    July 14, 2008

    Disruption: grabbing the whole frackin’ box and screaming, “YOURS IS THE HOST, MY DARK LORD!” whilst your friends rappel down from the ceiling in bat costumes and a confederate at the organ plays a catchy little number from Don Giovanni.

    I would pay to see that. Does that make me a bad person?

  17. #17 Leni
    July 14, 2008

    LOL, no Magpie. It makes you a person of excellent and refined tastes.

  18. #18 Raymond Minton
    January 18, 2009

    Maybe the man wasn’t hungry and was saving Christ’s body to eat later? Just a thought.

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