Good Math, Bad Math

The PZ Cracker Mess

So my fellow SBer PZ is in all sorts of hot water with Catholics over a blog post. I didn’t really want to poke my nose into this, but there’s been so much noise about it, that it’s really unavoidable. But I think I’ve got a rather different opinion on this than most bloggers I’ve seen so far. And I’m pretty sure that I’m not going to be making any friends by posting this. But people keep asking, so I’m going to open my big mouth, and tell you what I think.

You see, I think that both sides are assholes. Obviously, the people making threats take the prize as the biggest assholes, but a huge margin. But this isn’t a situation where a bunch of wackos went on an unprovoked rampage against a blogger; PZ deliberately provoked this mess.

As you must have heard by now, the whole kerfluffle started when some student at a University in Florida got into a fight with the local church over a piece of communion wafer. That led to a lot of Catholic folks becoming very upset, because
the communion wafer is deeply meaningful to devout catholics. Some of those folks went beyond upset and crossed right over into the realm of profound insanity – claiming that taking the wafer was the equivalent of (or even worse than) kidnapping a child. And some folks went so far as to send death threats.

So far, you’ve got a typical story of loony religious types freaking out over
something thoroughly trivial. Yeah, the wafer’s got a lot of significance to them. But
at the end of the day, it’s a cracker.

Then, PZ chimed in. And in his inimitable fashion, he went way overboard,
deciding that merely flaming the stupidity of this wasn’t enough. Instead, he
flamed the stupidity of it, and then asked his readers to send him
communion wafers, so that he could desecrate them on film, and post the images to his website.

As you would expect, this caused the wackos to go absolutely ballistic. PZ has received death threats, and Bill Donohue of the Catholic League has used it as an excuse
to get lots of attention calling for PZ to be fired.

Like most other folks who’ve spoken up about this, I agree that the folks
threatening PZ are a bunch of raging assholes. And I agree that whatever your religious
beliefs, becoming violent over a non-violent action taken by someone else is absolutely, unquestionably wrong. In fact, it’s more than wrong, it’s downright batshit insane. The people making threats should, if possible, be tracked down,
and get visited by the police. Threats of violence aren’t just wrong – they’re criminal, and they should be treated as such. The people making threats should be prosecuted.

When it comes to the whole “Get PZ fired!” thing, I think it’s nuts. If you could
show that he’s discriminating against religious students, or otherwise mistreating
religious students in his classes, or in any part of his role as a professor at UMM,
that would be appropriate. But no one is plausibly claiming that. People who know PZ in
person all say that he’s a pleasant, softspoken guy, who would never abuse his students.
Privately, he might think that they’re a bit crazy; but no one has ever plausibly
claimed that he’s ever done or said anything inappropriate to students at UMM on the basis of their religion.

But: I think that PZ is an asshole when it comes to religion, and I think that
he deliberately provoked this shitstorm. He didn’t just say something offensive; he made a very deliberate effort to provoke people. I think this whole mess is the result of
a very deliberate, calculated action on his part.

What PZ did wasn’t just say “These people are nuts”. That would be offensive, but
perfectly within the realm of civil discourse. He didn’t just say that it’s just a damned cracker, and getting hysterical over it was stupid and foolish. That would be offensive, but perfectly within the realm of civil discourse. He didn’t just say
that people who compare stealing a cracker to kidnapping a child are total fucking loonies. That would have been fine. That probably still would have caused some amount of shitstorm, but nothing near the scale of what we’re seeing now.

What he did was solicit people to steal communion wafers, and send them to him, so
that he could desecrate them and post images of that on the web. Now, PZ’s a really
smart guy. It’s not like this reaction is something that no one could have predicted.
Anyone with half a brain would realize that going over the top that way was guaranteed
to create a crazy reaction. He knew when he posted it what kind of reaction it
would provoke. And he went ahead and did it – because he wanted to provoke that
reaction.

I think that people have an obligation to behave in certain ways for civil society
to function and survive. People who deliberately provoke others for no purpose beyond the malicious joy of provocation should be recognized as the obnoxious assholes
that they are.

I’m not saying that everyone should pussyfoot around in order to avoid every
offending anyone else. There are lots of things that offend people, but that are
appropriate and reasonable things to say. Saying that religion is silly is deeply
offensive to some people – but for anyone who thinks that religion is silly, there’s
nothing wrong with saying it. And if other people think that you’re an idiot for saying
it, there’s nothing wrong with them saying so, either.

But you shouldn’t deliberately provoke people. There’s a big difference between “I think it’s stupid to complain about how someone abused a cracker”, and “someone please go bring me some of those crackers from a church so that I can
desecrate them, and post pictures of it”. The latter, in my opinion, is not acceptable behavior. It’s being an asshole for the sake of being an asshole; provoking people not to make a point, but just for the sake of provoking them. It’s petty, childish,
pointless, and obnoxious.

Now, obviously, people are allowed to do things whether I think they’re acceptable or not. I’m not arguing that what I consider unacceptable should be illegal,
or in any way actionable. But when you go out of your way to provoke people, when you deliberately do something to offend and hurt them, when you very deliberately and calculatedly say something that’s going to produce an emotional response, then you shouldn’t pretend to be surprised when you get that response, and people react badly. When you do that, you should expect that people are going to react badly. You should expect it, because you deliberately provoked those reactions. PZ went out of his way to provoke a shitstorm. And now he’s complaining about the crazy things that people are doing. Well, duh… He went out of your way to
piss off and provoke a bunch of people that he knew are irrational loonies; what did he expect?

That doesn’t mean that it’s OK for people to threaten him. It’s not OK to send him death threats. It’s not OK to try to get him fired from his job. That’s all, obviously, absolutely unacceptable, and I think that the people threatening PZ should get a visit from the police, and be punished appropriately for making threats.

But when PZ did the rhetorical equivalent of walking up to a hornets nest and whacking it with a stick, he shouldn’t have been surprised when the angry bees came buzzing out after him.

So PZ deliberately acted like an outrageous asshole. The reaction of people to his outrageous assholery is completely unreasonable – over the top to the point where it would be comic if it weren’t so dangerous. The reaction of loonies to his
outrageous assholery make PZ look squeaky clean and rational in comparison. The
people reacting to him are nothing short of insane. It’s terrifying to see
such a vivid demonstration of just how close to violence many people are – that
an offensive blog post can provoke people to sending death threats is
crazy.

And then, there’s Bill Donohue. Donohue takes the term “raging asshole”, and
basically redefines it by example. Donohue is an lunatic who’s made a career out of
finding things to be offended over, and running around screaming in violent outrage
every time he finds one. He’s a vile, disgraceful excuse for a human being. It’s
an absolute crime that he’s managed to present himself as some kind of
spokesperson for the American Catholic community. It’s even worse that he
gets treated by our dreadful media as some kind of reasonable voice in the
public square. Bill Donohue belongs in a mental institution, not in front
of a television camera being presented as a respectable community leader.

But still… This whole thing is largely a manufactured uproar. You’ve got a bunch
of insane assholes on one side, like Bill Donohue, screaming threats. And on the other
side, you’ve got a guy who gets his rocks off on provoking the loonies, basically
doing the rhetorical equivalent of painting a target on his ass and handing out rocks.
It’s stupid all around.

Comments

  1. #1 Jason Failes
    July 14, 2008

    Well if recent cracker-related posts over at PZ’s blog are any indication, get ready for a 1300-comment thread on this.

    I’ll start:

    Who ever said civil discourse had to be civil?

    Let the games begin.

  2. #2 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    July 14, 2008

    Jason:

    It doesn’t have to be. But if you decide to be uncivil, you can’t expect people to be civil in return. If you go out of your way to provoke people, then you shouldn’t complain when people are provoked. That’s all that I’m really arguing.

  3. #3 Dave Munger
    July 14, 2008

    Well said, Mark.

    I agree nearly 100 percent with everything you’ve said here.

  4. #4 DrugMonkey
    July 14, 2008

    Are religious fanatics who knock on the door of the personal home of an atheist deliberately provoking?

    /file not in direct analogy but in related thought

    (and yeah, for someone who gets his knickers in a knot over the merest suggestion that some small town college professors might suffer an occupational hazard of swell-headedness…..geez, offend much?)

  5. #5 Scott Belyea
    July 14, 2008

    First item I’ve seen that brings up the notion of “civil discourse,” which I believe is important.

    “Myers on science” is excellent – well-written, clear, even elegant at times. “Myers on religion” is increasingly silly. I wouldn’t even dignify it as “dangerous” or “offensive” … it’s just silly.

    I thnk he’s lost sight of the cause he’s supposedly passionately concerned about. At this point, he’s a net negative.

  6. #6 Patrick
    July 14, 2008

    The worst thing about this is nothing is learned. We already knew these people were crazy. And we already knew that PZ (and others) like to provoke them. The Florida story demonstrated the former and is just another brick on a pretty big pile.

  7. #7 Donalbain
    July 14, 2008

    I am starting to suspect that the calls for his getting fired and the death threats were EXACTLY what PZ wanted. This just goes to add evidence to his idea that religious people are loons. Yes, what he did was rude and not very civil, but it did not involve anyone actually being hurt. The response however actually involves threats against life and limb. Therefore, PZ is able to point to this in future as an example of how much crazier religious people are than he is.

  8. #8 pg
    July 14, 2008

    Mark, I mostly agree with what you’ve said here; any surprise on PZ’s part is silly given that he deliberately stirred things up.

    That said, you make a distinction between ‘unacceptable’ (you use the word or something similar four times) and ‘legal’. It’s pretty clear what the consequences of doing illegal things are; we have them written down in the law books. But from your post, I’m really not clear on what the consequences are for doing unacceptable things. Maybe, drawing from your above comment, it is ‘no whining’? This seems pretty harsh, since it takes away half of what the internet is for — whining and, of course, porn.

    pg

  9. #9 Max Polun
    July 14, 2008

    I don’t think that the response to PZ was unexpected. He’s trying to make the religious look like zealous idiots and they played right into his hands (perhaps more so than was anticipated, but still). I agree he was a bit of an asshole, but if you can’t be an asshole on the internet, where can you be?

    Now the part that actually troubles me is that the kid who originally “stole” (they gave it to him, it’s not stealing) the wafer is getting into all sorts of trouble with his university. I actually have a lot of sympathy for that kid, whereas I don’t particularly for PZ (who will probably come out of this just fine, but even more internet-famous).

  10. #10 Ethan Obie
    July 14, 2008

    As per usual for his style, Mark give a nice balanced take on this current and most epically boring–in substance, not the passions those involved–kerfuffle. Yes, transubstantiation is one of the more plainly dumb tenets of faith and should be mocked. And, yes, PZ provokes them in a way apparently designed to hit them where it hurts, to send them into a berserker rage of illogic and raw, idiotic, criminal behavior. They fell for the bait, but we all knew they would. The cause of reason and science was not advanced, and now PZ is getting death threats. This result is not good for anyone involved. People who actually beleve in transubstantiation are too far gone to be rehabilitated and provoking their ire will do nothing to prevent those people on the fence to move away from religion.

  11. #11 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    July 14, 2008

    Drugmonkey:

    Are religious fanatics who knock on the door of the personal home of an atheist deliberately provoking?

    In my opinion, yes, they are. I certainly make no attempt to be civil when one of them shows up at my door.

    In fact, one time I actually called the police to get them off my property. This is when I was in college, staying at my parent’s place. Some Jehovah’s Witness came to our house.
    My parent’s place is set back from the street, down a hill, in the woods. It’s invisible from the street. People who lived up the street from us didn’t know there was a house there when we bought it. So it’s not the kind of place you come on accidentally.

    Anyway… The JWs showed up, and I answered the door. I did my usual “We’re Jewish, we’re not interested, slam the door thing”, and they interrupted, put their foot in the door to stop it from slamming, and said “Yes, we know you’re Jewish, that’s why we’re here”. When they wouldn’t leave, I went and called the police, who escorted them off my property, and warned them that if they came back on, they’d be arrested for tresspassing.

  12. #12 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    July 14, 2008

    No, this isn’t agreeable at all.

    PZ deliberately provoked this mess

    So far it is much like the rape defense. “She had so short skirts, that she begged to be raped, being out after dark and all.”

    Here is the real argument:

    so that he could desecrate them

    Hmm. First off, PZ’s position is obviously that those crackers aren’t sacred, so he isn’t “desecrating” them. [And, as a minor point, he adds an empirical experiment to show that nothing untoward will happen during or after his actions, that indeed there is nothing special or sacred with the bread.]

    But mainly he shows solidarity and support to the poor student that, probably unaware of the consequences, AFAIU wanted to show this bread to a fellow student. I dunno if he thought he would act as a lightning rod, and perhaps the student doesn’t get less of a number of death threats, but YMMV in these things.

    So I’m pitching in with PZ here, he did the moral thing.

    I should add that IIRC PZ has suggested such things before, for example desecrating one or the others religions religious texts, independent of any show of solidarity. But that hasn’t spawned as much as a twitch from religious quarters.

  13. #13 Anonymous
    July 14, 2008

    I just emailed Herr Pope Sturbanfuher Bendadick:

    Heil! You need to excommunicate Bill Donohue ASAP. He is one verdammt dummkopf.

    Danke Schoen,

  14. #14 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    July 14, 2008

    Max:

    I agree with you. The kid in Florida is in all sorts of trouble over something silly. And helping throw up this giant shitstorm wasn’t exactly a big help for him. It just raised the temperature, making it that much harder for him to work out his situation without getting screwed.

  15. #15 pough
    July 14, 2008

    I’ll admit, I haven’t waded through ALL of the insanity over at Pharyngula, but I don’t know if I’d describe PZ as “surprised”. I got the impression that he was unsurprised, but maybe I read it wrong.

    I’ll agree that he caused a fuss that was tasteless and, perhaps, unnecessary. (I think it had a point, though: see nuts go even nuttier. Maybe not a great point, but still a point.)

    I think, also, that “stealing” might be a bit harsh. He said to “do what it takes” to get some. What it takes is to go through communion and have them be given to you. My impression on reading that wasn’t that “do what it takes” means “do something illegal”, it was “do something unpleasant like go into a church.” Again, I may have read it wrong.

    Nice post, overall.

  16. #16 JH
    July 14, 2008

    Mark — great post! You expressed my feelings exactly. There seems to be a vibe out there that if you don’t completely agree with everything PZ does/says/writes, then you are a deluded religious nut. I’m sick of it.

  17. #17 Nick Herold
    July 14, 2008

    Frankly, if I hit a hornet’s nest with a stick and bees came out, I would be very surprised indeed. But that’s not the point.

    Point is: I agree with you wholeheartedly. PZ posted what he did specifically to start a shitstorm, because he loves to rile up religious loonies. I myself identify as atheist, and am rapidly filing PZ into the same category as Bill Donahue–not as representative of their belief system as they’d like to think.

  18. #18 Chris' Wills
    July 14, 2008

    Posted by: Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    ………walking up to a hornets nest and whacking it with a stick, he shouldn’t have been surprised when the angry bees came buzzing out ……

    Minor quibble; wouldn’t hornets come out of a hornets nest?

    On the rest of your post, I agree Myzzle knew exactly what he was doing. His acting suprised is disingenuous at best.

  19. #19 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    July 14, 2008

    Torbjorn:

    I think that comparing my position to that of a rape apologist is seriously wrong.

    The difference is the deliberateness of the action.

    PZ didn’t just do something that would upset people. He did something in order to provoke a reaction. He went out of his way to provoke a reaction, and he got it.

    If you go walking alone through NYC at night in fancy clothes, you might get robbed. If that happens, you’re a victim. Maybe you did something dumb by being alone at night, but you should be able to go for a walk without being robbed.

    If you go walking alone through NYC at night, holding a fistful of hundred dollar bills in the air and shouting “I bet there’s no one out there with the balls to take this money from me”, they you’re *going* to get robbed, and you’re not a victim anymore.

    PZ did the equivalent of the latter.

  20. #20 John Armstrong
    July 14, 2008

    Both sides are indeed assholes, and PZ did indeed go out of his way to be an asshole here. See also the comment thread at Zeno’s weblog. I’m the OpenID “unapologetic”.

  21. #21 El Christador
    July 14, 2008

    People get really upset over desecration of corpses, which is just as irrational as getting upset over the desecration of the host, since the only harm caused is the psychological harm to people with feelings about showing respect to a bit of insensate, dead, and unconscious matter. Maybe we should encourage people to dig up bodies and otherwise divert cadavers and send them to us so that we can post video of ourselves desecrating them. And then we can laugh at how irrational and insane all these religious loonies who have feelings about that are.

  22. #22 Orac
    July 14, 2008

    “Myers on science” is excellent – well-written, clear, even elegant at times. “Myers on religion” is increasingly silly. I wouldn’t even dignify it as “dangerous” or “offensive” … it’s just silly.

    I agree. It is becoming increasingly silly–embarrassingly so, even. On the other hand, when it comes to religion, PZ strikes me these days as being very much like a shock jock. After a while, the old schtick gets boring and predictable; so he has to take it up a notch (or several notches) to keep it “interesting.” I think that’s exactly what he was doing there with the whole “cracker” incident. It was clearly calculated, and it worked.

  23. #23 idahogie
    July 14, 2008

    I look at this as sort of a Spartacus moment. PZ saw a person being singled out by a bunch of authoritarian bullies, and stood up and said “I am Spartacus.” (Of course, unlike the movie, PZ is more well known than the original kid.)

    Perhaps more of us should be standing up and demonstrating with more than just words: “It’s just a cracker, and there’s no such thing as blasphemy against a cracker.”

    Would you say that joining blacks at a segregated lunch counter was an unnecessarily provocative act, when the “civil” thing was to just denounce the injustice?

    I’m not totally disagreeing with you, but do I think that there is some value in deliberately provoking people in some instances – which you seem to rule out. Whether this was an appropriate instance is another matter.

  24. #24 Eyal Ben David
    July 14, 2008

    Mark, great post.
    If I may be allowed a criticism, though, it shows that you feel strongly on this issue, as you’ve repeated several of the points in consecutive paragraphs.

  25. #25 idahogie
    July 14, 2008

    Orac – condolences for your loss. You had me hiding my tears this morning.

  26. #26 NoAstronomer
    July 14, 2008

    Nice one Mark. I agree with PZ almost 100% of the time but this is one case where I think he blew it and he has no-one to blame but himself.

    As Torbjörn points out in #12, personally I think PZ’s mistake was to state that he intended to desecrate the crackers. If they’re just crackers then how can you desecrate them?

    Desecrate implies that PZ intended to do something vile (ie not eating it) to the cracker in question with the sole purpose being to upset Catholics.

    Mike

    PS My mom and dad used to live in a secluded house like yours. We were always bothered by JW’s – until the day they caught my father at home. They finally excused themselves after an hours ‘lively’ debate, never to return.

  27. #27 sdg
    July 14, 2008

    There seems to be a vibe out there that if you don’t completely agree with everything PZ does/says/writes, then you are a deluded religious nut. I’m sick of it.

    Posted by: JH | July 14, 2008 3:12 PM

    I’ve had similar thoughts but I’m not sure that the blame should be put entirely on PZ for this vibe. At least some of the blame has to go the the readers/commenters.

    Point is: I agree with you wholeheartedly. PZ posted what he did specifically to start a shitstorm, because he loves to rile up religious loonies. I myself identify as atheist, and am rapidly filing PZ into the same category as Bill Donahue–not as representative of their belief system as they’d like to think.

    Posted by: Nick Herold | July 14, 2008 3:27 PM

    I get a bit uncomfortable when people refer to atheism as a “belief system”. :)

    I don’t really care that PZ did this. You could make the argument that he’s just demonstrating one of Sam Harris’ arguments; moderates are “enablers” for fundamentalists. I would imagine that many moderate catholics think that transubstantiation is a silly idea but forget or choose to overlook that it is the official belief of their religion. By just “going with the flow” they allow the fundies among them to continue on with all of this crap. PZ’s words actually might serve to highlight the wackiness of transubstantiation for moderate catholics. just a thought.

  28. #28 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    July 14, 2008

    idahogie:

    If you go back and look at my post, you’ll see that what I say is: “I think that people have an obligation to behave in certain ways for civil society to function and survive. People who deliberately provoke others for no purpose beyond the malicious joy of provocation should be recognized as the obnoxious assholes that they are.”

    The key phrase there is for no purpose beyond the malicious joy of provocation”.

    Going beyond the point that there’s a lot of Catholics acting like incredibly idiots, and saying that he wants to desecrate some communion wafers and post the images – that was very deliberate. The phrasing and the intention are clear, and very deliberately provocative, not to make a point, but to make people angry.

    The contrast with sitting at a black lunch counter should be clear. In that case, you’re breaking the rules of segregation for one of two purposes. One, you’re deliberately making the political point that you believe that segregation is wrong. Two, there’s someone at the black counter that you want to sit with, and you don’t think that the rules should prevent you from sitting with whoever you want. In either case, you’re acting on principle, to make a point.

    But even so: the people who did that knew that they were breaking the law, and that they could be punished for it. It was deliberate provocation for a good purpose – but people expected a negative response, and accepted the consequences. That’s what civil disobedience is about: the rules are wrong, so you deliberately and publicly break them, and face the consequences of that. Doing that is,
    to me, a brave and wonderful thing – to stand for your beliefs, and accept the consequences. People who did (and continue to do) that faced jail, violence, even murder.

    I don’t know what I’d do in that situation. I’d like to say that I’d be one of the people who stood my ground and did what was right. But I don’t think that you can be sure that you’d really be able to do that until you’re in the situation. I’ve never been in a situation where I even thought I might be arrested. I’ve been to some protests
    before the Iraq war where people got arrested, but I didn’t even see it – I just heard about it afterwards.

    In contrast, I don’t think that PZ’s offer to desecrate communion wafers was a principled stand; I think it was just a gesture of obnoxiousness.

  29. #29 Matt Hussein Platte
    July 14, 2008

    Is it sufficient to simply declare self-professed believers in transubstantiation “batshit insane” and get back to our microscopes and Erlang or should we perhaps take a closer look?

    There’s a too-short continuum between 1-800Flowers death threats, Bill Donohue’s goon squad, Protestant fundagelicals and two world-class “leaders” — the Pope and the Preznit.

    You, me and we all should realize that lunatics are at the helm of our ship of state. You didn’t seem to care before the Cracker Kerfluffle and you don’t seem to care now.

    Remember a story that begins “When they came for…”? This is your opportunity to see exactly who “they” are this time: different agonist, different antgagonist; same old story.

  30. #30 Adrienne
    July 14, 2008

    Good post, Mark. I used to be on PZ’s side of this mess…even volunteering to get the blessed wafers. But I’ve come to your way of thinking over the last several days. Why provoke people unnecessarily?

  31. #31 tonyl
    July 14, 2008

    As a friend of mine once said, “blame is not a conserved quantity!” If you go walking through a bad part of town waving money around and get robbed, it may be the robber’s fault, but it does not mean that your actions did not contribute the the situation.

    While PZ is not responsible for the reactions of a few loons, his actions directly contributed to the situation.

    As for the kid, I would have more sympathy for him if his story was consistent and/or believable. When I first heard this story it was reported that he was holding the host hostage because he disagreed with student fees going to religious groups. The story was updated a few days later and his explanation sounds a bit far fetched to me. I mean, come on, he needed to take it back to show it to his friend? What would he see that he couldn’t from the pews when the priest repeatedly held it in the air? it’s not like the thing has magical incantations written on it or something.

  32. #32 Chris Granade
    July 14, 2008

    Whether this was intentional or not, I don’t know, but PZ’s actions made me aware of how crazy people can be, wanting to kill one another over a cracker. I am willing to give PZ the benefit of the doubt here, as he has in my opinion been a general force for elevating the level of discourse (his recent obsession with poll-bombing aside), and exposing the flaws of many “arguments” that get thrown around these days.

    Maybe he was a raging asshole on this one, but I remain supportive of him. Even if he did intentionally provoke this, the response he has received is way out of proportion to any offense which he committed. At the very worst, this incident made PZ a bitter asshole, but in no way dangerous, or anything more than an annoyance to those he disagreed with.

    Really, I think that this incident reflects much worse upon PZ’s opponents than on PZ himself. That said, I thank you for posting your thoughts on the issue. More rational and level-headed discussion of this can’t but help.

  33. #33 Adrienne
    July 14, 2008

    @29:

    There’s a too-short continuum between 1-800Flowers death threats, Bill Donohue’s goon squad, Protestant fundagelicals and two world-class “leaders” — the Pope and the Preznit.

    Well, that I can agree with.

    You, me and we all should realize that lunatics are at the helm of our ship of state. You didn’t seem to care before the Cracker Kerfluffle and you don’t seem to care now.

    That is complete BS. And Mark isn’t calling for people to capitulate or believe in wacko religious beliefs or magic crackers. He’s just pointing out that there is a difference between criticizing wackaloonery and threatening to do something just to piss off the wackaloons.

  34. #34 sdg
    July 14, 2008

    The phrasing and the intention are clear, and very deliberately provocative, not to make a point, but to make people angry.

    a. how do you know he wasn’t trying to make a point? has he written that? just saying it doesn’t make it so.

    b. are making a point and making people angry mutually exclusive? sometimes you make a point by making people angry. sometimes people get angry as a side effect of a point being made.

    you’re certainly entitled to think that what PZ did is stupid and wrong but i disagree with some of your arguments.

  35. #35 idahogie
    July 14, 2008

    You could be right about PZ’s action just being a gesture of obnoxiousness. I don’t know.

    But isn’t there a valid point to be made here regarding how Christianity dominates our culture? A “we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore” kind of thing? I think it’s possible that PZ was motivated by more than a desire to be a jerk. It may not be an issue that all of us agree deserves his uncivil response, but writing it off as just “assholish behavior” seems a little dismissive to me.

    Like some commenters have pointed out, I don’t think PZ’s at all surprised by the reaction. That is the heat that he decided that he was willing to accept for his actions, just as the lunch-counter protesters accepted the consequences of their law-breaking.

    I don’t want to say that PZ is a noble practitioner of civil disobedience here. But I do think the lunch-counter analogy is a little more apt than you seem to think.

  36. #36 Italo M. R. Guedes
    July 14, 2008

    At last, someone with a clear mind wrote about this issue, and wrote lucid words. It’s a shame that people, be they fundamentalist theists or atheists, cannot comment on this kind of topic without being irrational or offensive. Is this an American problem?

  37. #37 Bill Mill
    July 14, 2008

    When you believe that the cracker is the *literal body of your savior* as Catholics must, then their reaction becomes understandable. I think it’s very hard for people who haven’t been Catholics (I was raised Catholic, as you may have guessed) to understand that they believe that the cracker is *actually, wholly, the body of Christ*.

    I recuse myself from any debate about the issue, since I’m clearly too biased to be involved, but I thought that I’d perhaps be able to shed a touch of light on the Catholics’ position.

  38. #38 Sharkey
    July 14, 2008

    Mark:

    In contrast, I don’t think that PZ’s offer to desecrate communion wafers was a principled stand; I think it was just a gesture of obnoxiousness.

    I think it was a bit of both; the question remains how much obnoxiousness “cancels out” principle. In my case, I agree with PZ’s principle (skewering the overwhelming respect given for silly religious traditions) and PZ’s obnoxiousness is something I expect and tolerate. Others will have different tolerances for PZ’s bullcrap.

    Personally, I think we (Catholics, bloggers and blog-readers all) are still underestimating how off-hand comments can explode in a globally-connected world.

  39. #39 Chris Granade
    July 14, 2008

    Mark (#38):

    Personally, I think we (Catholics, bloggers and blog-readers all) are still underestimating how off-hand comments can explode in a globally-connected world.

    I don’t think I’ve seen a single statement I can agree more with out of this whole damn mess. (Aside from “it’s just a cracker.”)

  40. #40 sdg
    July 14, 2008

    When you believe that the cracker is the *literal body of your savior* as Catholics must, then their reaction becomes understandable. I think it’s very hard for people who haven’t been Catholics (I was raised Catholic, as you may have guessed) to understand that they believe that the cracker is *actually, wholly, the body of Christ*.

    I recuse myself from any debate about the issue, since I’m clearly too biased to be involved, but I thought that I’d perhaps be able to shed a touch of light on the Catholics’ position.

    Posted by: Bill Mill | July 14, 2008 4:50 PM

    i’m really not trying to be rude but ummm, yeah, we get it. that’s what makes it CRAZY!!!

    i was raised to believe that 1+1 = 3.
    i was raised to believe that anyone who does not have the same skin color as me is inferior to me.

    at some point, you have to take responsibility for yourself.

  41. #41 Joao
    July 14, 2008

    No, that is not right, Mark. Your blog is appreciated for your centeredness, lucidity and impartiality when analyzing your topics, but you should not imply that these qualities, while very appropriate for your net persona, are necessary or even applicable in every situation.

    Simply keeping your calm while seeing, day after day, the absurdity that comes with all religious sects is, beyond unnecessary, inhuman. Come on! Blush, shout, cry when you hear one more of the lunacies that constantly flow from these people. At least, cry for the billions of new and creative ideas that are massacred everyday by the inflexible insistence of religious people of forcing ferry tales down their followers’ throats and reassuring them that there is virtue in not questioning the old and not creating the new.

    It disgusts me jut to think how many people just like yourself, whose writings I quite enjoy, are kept from flourishing. And if this disgust every once in a while erupts into a rant, I’m sorry, but I refuse to believe I’m the one who is not “behaving in certain ways for civil society to function and survive”

  42. #42 Jarrett
    July 14, 2008

    Mark,

    I wish you never would have commented on this, but I understand why you did.

    Up front: I am a Catholic. And this is a lot of the reason that the death threats sadden me even more. There are so many, even in my own faith who just don’t “get it”. All life is precious, and we are taught from an early age to show love even to those who do not believe or understand our faith. The death threats come from those who are so full of hate and have forgotten what we are put on this earth to do. I’m embarrassed to call those people my brothers and sisters.

    We should pity PZ. We should pray for PZ. We should tell him that desecrating a host is equal, in our faith, to desecrating an alter. Yes, it’s a slab of wood or marble in a big building, but would you desecrate that? Would you light our Bible on fire during a Mass? While just things, Catholics believe that Christ is present in all of them, and no different than an piece of unleavened cracker.

    We should not want for his death. Those who ask for it are just as lost in faith as PZ. I guess at least PZ doesn’t care openly. Those who claim to be Catholics and say such terrible things probably make it worse for the rest of us. If they would act during the week the way they’re taught to act on Sundays, this kind of thing probably wouldn’t happen. Those Catholics who wish him harm, in the name of religious justice or whatever, will have to pay the same price as Mr. Myers.

    /religion

    Now please. More math and programming. Thanks.

    Jarrett

  43. #43 dogscratcher
    July 14, 2008

    “In fact, one time I actually called the police to get them off my property. This is when I was in college, staying at my parent’s place. Some Jehovah’s Witness came to our house.”

    While I agree that this was odious behavior on their part, I think we should encourage everyone with a religious bent to become JWs. From my perspective, the door knocking is a small price to pay for religious people who self-select against themselves and don’t vote.

  44. #44 Nick Johnson
    July 14, 2008

    You make an interesting (but possibly unintentional point): Perhaps all of this will turn out to be useful in the sense that it highlights just how close to violence over their religious beliefs a lot of people you’d generally assume are reasonable are – and how willing the majority are to be silent about it. All of this seems like a great vindication of Richard Dawkins’ claim that religion is dangerous for exactly these sorts of reasons.

  45. #45 R. Totale
    July 14, 2008

    i was raised to believe that 1+1 = 3.

    Really? Why?

  46. #46 Spaulding
    July 14, 2008

    It’s being an asshole for the sake of being an asshole; provoking people not to make a point, but just for the sake of provoking them.

    Yeah, PZ was being deliberately provocative, and I agree that he surely anticipated the reaction he would get. “Desecration” is not an elegant form of expression, but I think you’re wrong that his purpose was not to make a point.

    Think about the Danish cartoons of Mohammed, and the newspapers that deliberately reprinted the cartoons, and the editors that defended the value of free speech in the face of violent threat. PZ’s stunt is a smaller-scale, more juvenile version of the same situation. He’s expressing solidarity with a student who faces threats of violence and disruptions of his personal life merely for violating a sect’s arbitrary superstitious taboo. PZ’s putting his money where his mouth is here, by subjecting himself to the same threats.

    Furthermore, he’s pointed out that much of the mail he’s getting falls back on the canard that “atheists only criticize Christianity because they’re afraid of violent Muslims, and they know Christians are peaceful.” (In actuality, an atheist in America or Europe most likely thinks Islam is just as misguided as Christianity, but finds that Christianity has more immediate relevance to his/her culture and life.)

    The Danish cartoon incident exposed the bankrupt hypocrisy of the masses who threaten death toward those who dispute that Islam is a religion of peace. Likewise, PZ’s stunt points in a similar direction for those who claim the mantle of pacifism or calm dialogue for Christianity and Catholicism.

    On the other hand, the difference in scale makes PZ’s point weaker. A hundred violent threats aren’t as representative as the rioting and demonstrations that followed the Danish cartoons. Still, this was deliberate provocation in order to make a point, not simply for perverse pleasure.

  47. #47 decrepitoldfool
    July 14, 2008

    So many mixed feelings about this. But my feelings about freedom of speech (including purely symbolic action as speech) and about academic freedom are quite unmixed, so that was my angle on the whole thing. Threatening someone with loss of livelihood or worse over a phantom… is unacceptable. PZ and Donohue are not equivalent; which one is threatening an actual person whose existence could be demonstrated in court?

    I hope PZ will reconsider messing with the symbolicrackers people send him. His point is made, times ten. As my dad used to say; “you’re beating your point into a blunt instrument”.

  48. #48 Jane
    July 14, 2008

    I hereby nominate Mark as the most reasonable person on ScienceBlogs.

  49. #49 Peter
    July 14, 2008

    Well Mark, it didn’t take you long to make a tremendous blunder. You said “Yeah, the wafer’s got a lot of significance to them. But at the end of the day, it’s a cracker.” Well nothing could be further from the truth. That’s like saying a $1000.00 bill is nothing more than a piece of paper. That is not true at all, and if you think about it you will have to agree. So I would suggest you just admit that. The host is not just a cracker. To over a billion people the host is a tangible connection to the same God you believe in. That is what PZ is desecrating. If this was a Muslim country he would probably be dead right now. For an offense of this magnitude a dismissal would not be uncalled for. If he made an equivalent outrage to the liberal orthodoxy he would be gone next week.

  50. #50 Nobody Important
    July 14, 2008

    In contrast, I don’t think that PZ’s offer to desecrate communion wafers was a principled stand; I think it was just a gesture of obnoxiousness.

    I think the “I think” is the key part of that statement.

    Anyway, I’m a little conflicted about the whole thing. On the one hand, I’m of the opinion that maintaining a functioning civil society requires us to respect other people’s beliefs. By that I mean we must acknowledge and abide by their right to hold those beliefs and practice them freely, within reasonable bounds, etc. I think the kid at UF failed to do this when he walked out of the church with the cracker, and so acted inappropriately. And if the Catholic reaction had been to calmly stand up, explain why the cracker is so important to them; why the kid taking it was so hurtful, and generally attempt to civilly shame the guy into giving it back, then I’d happily side with them on this issue and take my seat in the PZ Is An Asshole choir.

    But they didn’t do that, of course. They howled and screamed. They made threats (up to and including death). They’re trying to get the guy expelled from UF. In short, they’re behaving like thugs and bullies. Their reaction isn’t merely inappropriate. It’s flat-out unacceptable and frankly a little scary. So at the very least a compelling argument can be made that it’s deserving of a sterner rebuke than a few rounds of blogospheric finger-wagging.

    Which kind of creates a dilemma, doesn’t it? The state does not (and should not) have any mechanisms for imposing collective punishment. The individual people making the threats won’t be caught.** People like Donahue will be careful to limit their harassment of the guy to methods that aren’t technically illegal.

    So if you don’t have any formal recourse, you don’t do violence, you’d never harass individual people, etc., what’s left to someone trying to hold their feet to the fire?

    Stealing some crackers, perhaps?

    **Hell, I’m posting this comment from my laptop on someone’s wireless LAN connection to an apartment provided internet connection where each unit sits behind three or four layers of NAT depending on whether the resident has a router-based home network. So good luck figuring out who I am, and I’m not even actually trying to conceal my identity beyond refusing to give up my real email addy. Imagine trying to catch some asshole with a wireless device and a remailer using a spoofed address to harass someone.

  51. #51 dogscratcher
    July 14, 2008

    ” If he made an equivalent outrage to the liberal orthodoxy he would be gone next week.”

    What kinds of things outrage the “liberal orthodoxy” equivalently?

  52. #52 Aramael
    July 14, 2008

    What PZ did was expose the nutcases for the … well, nutcases that they are. Look, if I deliberately provoked a dog, and it attacked me, you would be right to blame me for the consequences. But these are people who profess to follow a religion of peace, and it’s utterly clear that they do not do so — and I can only say, screw them, I wish I had some communion wafer to desecrate.

    If you believe in your particular superstition, how can ones and zeroes on a computer hurt you?

  53. #53 Chris Granade
    July 14, 2008

    @Peter: A cracker, be it “blessed” or not, is not the same as a $1,000 bill. The main difference is that I can test a measurable effect of the latter: the $1,000 dollar will buy me a lot of very nice things. By contrast, how can I test that a cracker is a “host”? It’s not a “tangible connection” almost by definition, since I cannot in any way test or measure any difference between a blessed and un-blessed cracker. If you want to believe it has some special meaning, then fine, do so.

    What I object to is you claiming that somehow PZ’s stunt (which as I’ve said above may be an asshole stunt), however bad it may have been, insulted a cracker. Not the “host of god,” but a cracker. Maybe it’s inappropriate to do so, but it’s hardly something that he should be killed over, as you so inartfully suggest.

    Actually, that’s something else wrong with your trolling. You seem to be projecting what you think should happen to PZ onto someone else (in this case, the Muslim population of the world). There’s no doubt that in some places, the equivalent of PZ’s stunt would be a capital crime, in other Islamic-majority areas, it wouldn’t be. It’s not as if the Catholic community hasn’t shown that it has its own crazies, either. (Not that the whole community should be equated with its most violent members. Just pointing out something about those in glass houses.) Really, being an asshole shouldn’t be a capital offense, so even if you really and truly think he did something heinous, then your veiled threats are off the mark.

    We can disagree about the severity of PZ’s offenses, and we can disagree about how much respect religious beliefs should be, but let’s not dance around with such terms as “tangible connection” and let’s not be sending veiled threats around. Mark is calling for us to be more civil, and I’m willing to give it a go.

  54. #54 Blake Stacey
    July 14, 2008

    This I have learned: anything worth saying will offend somebody, and no sentence worth writing is safe. The best we can do is try and offend the right people.

    Frankly, I won’t even attempt to judge whether anything PZ Myers has said is in good taste or not. My own scale of propriety is calibrated on Bill Hicks and Warren Ellis, so I know I’m the wrong person to ask.

  55. #55 poke
    July 14, 2008

    PZ provoked them, sure. That was the point. I think you get it wrong when you say he has no right to be shocked or to complain. I’m sure he’s shocked by the inanity of it all and by some of the death threats, but overall he’s just using the responses to point out how stupid it is, he hasn’t complained about it. So I don’t think he has been hypocritical. He’s just put it all up on his blog.

    Sometimes it’s necessary to provoke. Sometimes it’s necessary to put people’s stupidity on display. Sometimes you need to prod the hornets nest so people will know just how angry and petty and ridiculous the hornets are.

  56. #56 Blake Stacey
    July 14, 2008

    decrepitoldfool:

    I hope PZ will reconsider messing with the symbolicrackers people send him. His point is made, times ten. As my dad used to say; “you’re beating your point into a blunt instrument”.

    The best suggestion I have yet heard is that he videotape himself reading a Harry Potter book to them.

    And on that note, I bow out. Enough of ScienceBlogs until all this blows over. Everybody has their own line drawn in the sand, and it’s too damn tiring to remember where they’ve all been put. Will any of these postures and counter-postures resolve or improve anything? Hah. I’ve got a journal article to write and a DVD box set of The Prisoner which won’t watch itself. Catch you all on the flipside.

  57. #57 Lettuce
    July 14, 2008

    I’m also a (former) Catholic, and those people (the Catholics) are batshit insane.

    I’ve stood with PZ before, and I’ll continue to do it now.

  58. #58 Jennifer Ouellette
    July 14, 2008

    I think there’s lots of us in the blogosphere who agree with the substance of what Mark has written here. This is what PZ does: he creates attention for his cause. He’s just gone a bit more over-the-top than usual in the present case. He can’t possibly be surprised at the shitstorm he’s created.

    That said, ultimately, PZ’s is not the greater “sin.” I might not like his approach when it comes to religion — although I greatly enjoy his other posts, especially the cephalopod whimsy — but I will staunchly defend his right to say it without receiving death threats or facing the possibility of a firing.

  59. #59 charlie
    July 14, 2008

    @ dogscratcher 51
    Voting for the Telecom Immunity/FISA bill would do it nicely

  60. #60 bruno ( )
    July 14, 2008

    Ethan Obie:

    The cause of reason and science was not advanced, and now PZ is getting death threats. This result is not good for anyone involved.

    i beg to disagree. can you say spotlight? from where i stand, this whole thing started, grew and perpetuated through the internet by means of the textual counterpart to camwhores. sure some people are just giving opinion here. these are the ones we most definitely feel like calling reasonable — Mark, for instance. but whoever is taking sides in this one is just clearly craving for spotlight, and let me tell you: in that sense, the result’s been great, for everyone involved.

    sdg:

    I get a bit uncomfortable when people refer to atheism as a “belief system”. :)

    but it does make sense at times. if you’ve been enlightened with the fact that god doesn’t exist for sure, then you’re acting just as irrational as the people who show an unshakable belief in the existence of god. come again? what i’m trying to say here is, when you affirm some ungrounded belief — even when it takes a negative form — it gives you a (poor) excuse to take things for granted. ethical values, for one.

    getting out of your way and being a downright arse in order to convert people to atheism is — i feel — just as aggressive, just as violent and just as lunatic as getting out of your way to convert them to any other religion. in that sense, yes, atheism not only is a belief system — it’s a religion in its own right. that’s not to say all atheists behave religiously (i.e., irrationally). but then again, who said christians or muslims or buddhists all necessarily act irrationally? some people just realise there’s just so much they can do with their beliefs before they start crossing other people’s lines.

    in my opinion, what PZ managed to prove with his little soap opera is the exact opposite of what he’s yelling so furiously to the four winds: he managed to prove that yes, some atheists can as a matter of fact be just as lunatic as any other extremist. ha, either that or that marxist theory about how “postcapitalism” is all about “the spectacle”… really, anyone else bothered reading the posts and comments throughout? it was— it felt like that cheap kind of spectacle slapstick humour and prank tv shows are made of.

    this’s been unnecessary on so many levels…

  61. #61 Jonathan Vos Post
    July 14, 2008

    I wish that Thomas M. Disch was alive to comment on this.

  62. #62 usagi
    July 14, 2008

    It just raised the temperature, making it that much harder for him to work out his situation without getting screwed.

    You’re dead wrong about this, Mark. 180 degrees. It would have fallen out of the news quickly, been forgotten, and the kid would have probably be quietly forced out of his degree program for whatever reason the school decided they could get away with without being sued (I’m in academic administration; believe me, it happens all the time). The profile’s too high for that now. PZ raising the temprature may be the only thing that lets the kid complete his degree assmuing he sucks it up and keeps his head down till he’s done (or if he actually has two brain cells to rub together and make a spark, transfers).

  63. #63 Boosterz
    July 14, 2008

    “PZ didn’t just do something that would upset people. He did something in order to provoke a reaction.”

    I think you guys are missing the mark. You seem hung up on the idea that he is shooting for a reaction. All he is trying to do is pop the “sacred” bubble on these stupid crackers. Over zealous catholics think these stupid things are magic and they assume/demand that everyone else agree(or else). Well, here’s a news flash, there are those of us who don’t share that delusion. And more importantly we DON’T have to play along with their fantasy. The easiest way to shoot that fantasy down is to get one of the silly things, spritz it with some water then set it in a sunny window and watch it turn into green fuzz. That clearly shows that the silly things are not magic and are nothing more then crackers. If zealots lose their shit and make themselves look like idiots, well that’s just a bonus, but it’s not the goal.

    How is this any different from debunking any other silly religious claim? If I bought an “e-meter” from the church of scientology then I took the damn thing apart and showed that it’s not any kind of alien technology but basically just an ohm meter, would I be debunking their nonsense or would I be “provoking” them cuz you know they’d lose their shit. They’d be calling me a criminal and hitting me with slap suits and all sorts of nonsense. So tell me, how is busting this sacred cracker bullshit any different? How is it somehow exempt from being exposed? Somebody explain it to me cuz I don’t get it.

  64. #64 Hephaestus
    July 14, 2008

    Mark –

    Thank you for writing a reasoned response to PZ’s storm. At best, his posting was childish (your god can’t hurt me, nah, nah, nah), at worst, it was an attempt to stoke his own ego.

    For those for whom atheism is not the same as Pharyngulism, this has been a catastrophe. For years I have had to put up with people telling me that I can’t be an atheist, because I’m a nice guy. Only recently have I seen any change in this attitude and now PZ has gone and demonstrated that atheists are raving sociopaths who are dedicated to the desecration of others’ beliefs. In one blow he has unraveled decades of progress.

    Of course, PZ can’t be given all of the blame. Hundreds of rabid Pharyngulites now have their martyr. A cult of personality is rapidly becoming nothing more than a cult.

  65. #65 Hephaestus
    July 14, 2008

    Boosterz –

    In what way has PZ “debunked” a religous claim? Do you think that it’s not possible to desecrate a sacred object? People have been doing it for millenia, often with much more smoke and noise than PZ has used.

  66. #66 Chris Granade
    July 14, 2008

    @Hephaestus (#64):
    I must take issue with the idea that this incident shows that PZ runs a “cult of personality.” Someone having a bit of an ego does not mean that he runs a full-out cult. Exaggerating problems like that doesn’t help solve them. At worst, PZ showed a bit of an asshole streak, but not so much that it dooms himself or any SB community.

    Frankly, I’m in the awkward position of both supporting Mark’s level-headedness about this whole issue and PZ’s willingness to take a stand, even if some of us may feel it’s in an inappropriate fashion. I hardly think that his actions are completely damning of the atheist community.

  67. #67 Boosterz
    July 14, 2008

    One more thing. I can’t be the only one who has noticed the huge number of concern trolls that descended on this thread. All of them are basically reading from the same script, “that nasty atheist PZ is giving all the good atheists a bad name”. What they keep leaving off is that the only good atheist to a zealot is one that keeps his mouth shut and doesn’t point out the zealots faults. Apparently you can’t be a “good” atheist if you actually open your mouth.

  68. #68 Barn Owl
    July 14, 2008

    I know a couple of irredeemably sleazy greedhead personal injury lawyers who could have done a lot more good for Webster “Hamster-pockets” Cook, than any public cracker-desecration would. Mr. Cook seems to have been back-pedaling a bit on the incident, so perhaps it’s just a case of poor impulse control, typical of many people at a certain stage in their lives. A fact of human development not lost on the US military.

    I enjoyed reading Mark’s post as well, but will second Jarrett: math and programming, please. And recipes. My teenage nephew will third the math and programming vote-the recipes, not so much.

  69. #69 rmp
    July 14, 2008

    I think a lot of people are overreacting, including Mark C. Chu-Carroll. I personally don’t believe that PZ is doing it to stoke his own ego (although simply seeing my comment here feeds my ego so ….). Rather I see it as a ‘Mad as Hell and not going to take it anymore’ type of response. Obviously PZ has a problem with the whole ‘framing’ thing but sometimes you’ve just got to pop that zit, start the firestorm and get on with it.

    my $0.02 which in US money ain’t worth as much as it used to be.

  70. #70 Chris Granade
    July 14, 2008

    @Boosterz (#67):
    I happen to support PZ on this one, as I’ve said, but I don’t think that everyone being disparaging about him is a concern troll (though many are). I think (correct me if I’m wrong, please) the point is that PZ could have just said it’s a fucking cracker and left it at that, without adding the salt in the wound of asking for crackers to desecrate.

    Now, as it happens, I don’t actually mind that kind of sacrilege, but I recognize the reasons why a reasonable person would mind. PZ could have called a spade a spade and left it at that, but he chose not to. I believe that last part is what’s so controversial. Only the actual concern trolls will say that PZ shouldn’t have said anything.

  71. #71 Boosterz
    July 14, 2008

    “In what way has PZ “debunked” a religous claim?”

    The zealots claim that this cracker is magic/the body of their god/worth more then a human life. They might as well be selling the crackers and claiming they remove thetans. PZ is demonstrating that it’s just a damn cracker.

  72. #72 Boosterz
    July 14, 2008

    “the point is that PZ could have just said it’s a fucking cracker and left it at that, without adding the salt in the wound of asking for crackers to desecrate.”

    Actions speak louder then words.

    Galileo’s experiments directly contradicted “sacred” teachings of the church at his time. Should he have played nice and stopped experimenting/writing so as to not offend the zealots? If everyone “played nice” all the time where absurd religious claims are concerned we would never have left the dark ages.

    Explain to me what the functional difference is between threatening someone over heliocentrism versus threatening someone over a magic cracker. Should we just ignore everything that zealots slap the word “sacred” onto? Absurd claims don’t become un-absurd by slapping a religious label on them.

  73. #73 Chris Granade
    July 14, 2008

    Boosterz, please understand that I’m not trying to say that PZ should’ve shut up. Galileo, as far as I’m aware, did not have to add insult: heliocentrism was offensive enough, and “merely” doing the experiments and reporting on them was enough to set something about. Similarly, I think there is some validity to the argument (though I don’t agree, so I don’t think it’s perfectly valid) that PZ could have achieved a more desirable end by keeping his rant more civil and focusing on the issue at hand.

    It’s not concern trolling, even if you and I don’t agree.

  74. #74 Crow
    July 14, 2008

    Nice post, Mark.

    Yes, PZ Myers is acting like any shock jock or wingnut pundit, getting more and more outrageous to keep the attention coming. While he’s clearly acting a jerk by deliberately offending an entire cultural tradition, I guess it doesn’t bother me so much that he is doing so in his capacity as an atheist spokesperson.

    What really bothers me is that PZ is also considered by many to be an important figure in evolution education in the United States. And as someone who is passionate involved in evolution education, this is a disaster — now I have to explain to my students that both Myers and the Wedge document notwithstanding, evolutionary biology has nothing to do with assholery, angry atheism, desecrating religious items, or anything else. With friends like these, who needs the Discovery Institute?

    -Crow

  75. #75 Boosterz
    July 14, 2008

    “Galileo, as far as I’m aware, did not have to add insult: heliocentrism was offensive enough, and “merely” doing the experiments and reporting on them was enough to set something about.”

    That’s the whole point. As far as the zealot is concerned either you go along with their nonsense or you are “offending” them. They threatened to basically shove a red hot poker up Galileo’s ass because he proved them wrong(and they WOULD have done it). Now the zealots are threatening some kid and PZ over their stupid crackers(they should be glad the zealots don’t have absolute power anymore).

  76. #76 Chris Granade
    July 14, 2008

    @Crow: That’s the beauty of it. You don’t have to justify him. Assume the worst about PZ for a minute. Then, he’s just an asshole and that’s that. No one says that all evolutionary biologists or all atheists have to agree. I mean, in many ways Christopher Hitchens is an asshole, but his voice is still there. That, and PZ is far from the only public figure supporting science in the classroom.

  77. #77 Geoff
    July 14, 2008

    I largely agree with this post but I do have to disagree with the part where PZ is literally asking people to steal.

    I think that is a bit of a disingenuous interpretation of events though PZ’s wording was hardly what I would consider ‘careful.’ He recognized that people are in fact given those crackers and are only technically not doing with it as they should. It’s a subtle point but a valid one. If I physically give you a something, I don’t have the right to dictate what one should do with it.

  78. #78 randy
    July 14, 2008

    The main difference is that I can test a measurable effect of the latter: the $1,000 dollar will buy me a lot of very nice things.

    wrongo keebler. Take that $1000 bill, go to a remote part of the world that uses a bartering system, and has little to know contact with US monetary system, and try to buy a pig with it (or something). They will laugh at you silly. The $1000 bill is only worth something due to a collective belief (and full faith in) the US government. At the rate its dropping today, you might be better off with 1000 crackers than 1000 dollar bills. (esp. if those dollar bills are currently in mortage funds). So try again.

  79. #79 Chris Granade
    July 14, 2008

    @randy: Congratulations. You successfully overextended the metaphor. You’d win the thread if I had anything to do with it.

    Yes, I know that the $1000 bill has worth only for the trust placed in it by the people who use it, etc. Frankly, yes, you can extend the metaphor too far. I only used it to respond to a specific point. The trust placed in the $1000 bill is inherently different from the “blessing” of a cracker. Moreover, no one but a complete idiot would say that a $1 bill is somehow exactly the same as a part George Washington’s body, so the analogy is thin at best, yes.

    Even accepting the point that a calling a cracker a cracker is somehow just like calling a $1000 bill a piece of paper, it does not follow that somehow that piece of paper is all of a sudden important enough to kill over. If someone wants to wipe their ass with a $1000 bill, that’s there choice.

    I am trying to be civil, but I appreciate it when one actually takes issue with my argument rather than finding the one weak spot upon which the rest of the argument doesn’t even depend, defeating it and declaring victory. That’s naught but an elaborate strawman. So, yes, my civility has dropped a tad. If that offends you, then come up with an actual argument next time and don’t start off name-calling.

  80. #80 JohnB
    July 14, 2008

    Well said, Mark, and I agree with everything you’ve said.

    I love PZ’s blog and read it mostly to learn more about sciencey stuff. But in this case (although not this one alone), his reaction was incredibly puerile. A couple of people who commented over there to that effect were quickly pounced on for being morons, idiots or, most dreadful of all, “concern trolls”. They were reminded that threatening death was way worse, which it is, of course. As if that makes gratuitously assholish behavior somehow acceptable by comparison.

    Anyway, enough of this. Thanks for being the voice of reason here on scienceblogs. Well done.

  81. #81 Tom
    July 15, 2008

    I support PZ in this brouhaha. The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation is so ridiculously crazy (and the insane response to the original incident) that it deserves acts of defiance as provocative as this, as it just might cause at least a couple of Catholics to reflect upon the reasonableness of this particular piece of dogma that they are supposed to believe.

    I think this is just as relevant, and amusing, as when people named their teddy bears and pets “Mohammed” in the wake of the ridiculous situation where the British teacher in Africa was arrested for allowing her students to name the teddy bear.

    There is a place for civil discussion and also for provocation in these matters, especially in the context that PZ’s post was made, that of “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” as previously mentioned by rmp.

  82. #82 Russell Miller
    July 15, 2008

    I think what PZ did was very deliberate. I think it was obnoxious, and I think he was being an asshole. And I think that was deliberate too, and I think he had valid reasons for doing so.

    Look, PZ has never been bashful about the fact that he is a militant atheist. He thinks religion is stupid, he thinks God is stupid, and I believe (though I don’t want to speak for him) that he believes that those things are causing a net negative effect on society. He saw an opportunity to make them look like fools here and he took it. He knew that it would probably result in a bit of drama in his life, I think he even knew to what degree, and he tossed himself into the fray and succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

    He’s going to get some popularity out of this, more sympathy than anything else, and he’s going to come out of this looking like a martyr. The religious people, on the other hand – they suffered a lot, a LOT of damage to their reputation here, and it was all done to them BY them.

    PZ won this hands down. He knew what he was doing, he knew why he was doing it, and he was prepared for the results. Frankly, my respect for him has gone up a bit, because he’s willing to fight for what he believes, and damn the consequences.

  83. #83 Anonymous
    July 15, 2008

    “The host is not just a cracker.”

    Looks like a cracker, breaks like a cracker. Made with flour and water. Uhm, yeah, it’s a cracker.

    “If this was a Muslim country he would probably be dead right now.”

    Are you suggesting Catholics are somehow more moral for so far only threatening to kill him, or bemoaning their inefficiency?

  84. #84 Jeff
    July 15, 2008

    crackers made from humans= soliant green (movie)
    crackers made from a god = ?

  85. #85 AK47
    July 15, 2008

    Mark,

    You should do a little more editing of yourself. I don’t mean censoring, I mean editing. Your post was quite repetitive and about twice as long as it needed to be. Perhaps this remark also places me in the category of “asshole” but I think if you re-read it, you might agree with me.

    Personally I think PZ found a highly effective form of protest.

    I note that cows are sacred to Hindus. I can only assume that those who think that PZ should not desecrate a cracker would themselves never eat beef, right?

  86. #86 Arno
    July 15, 2008

    Mark C. Chu-Carroll: “for no purpose beyond the malicious joy of provocation”

    How do you know there is no other purpose? Have you asked PZ Meyers himself? I haven’t, but personally I think there might be a purpose of showing how utterly insane some religious idiots can be. With that respect PZ completely succeeded.
    Have the crackpots ever considered what the “desecration” might be? I think PZ may just have in mind to have the cracker eaten by a heathen. That happens to millions of crackers daily, so how is that bad? Just because some loons think it’s more than a cracker because their imaginary friend (or his self-appointed spokespeople) has told them so?

    Provoking the mentally ill just to have them publicly show their mental illness can be a good purpose. Although perhaps not all together very smart to do it on this scale.

  87. #87 Arno
    July 15, 2008

    Oops, so much effort to make sure I spell your name right and then I mess up PZ Myers’. Solly!

  88. #88 ac
    July 15, 2008

    Most Catholics I know don’t particularly care about PZ’s stunt, or the kid for that matter. It’s not our place to stand in judgement. In Catholic doctrine it’s just as much of a desecration to take communion with unrepented sin, and scores of catholics do that every day. In my reading of scripture, making physical threats against PZ and friends is commiting a far worse offense.

  89. #89 John Morales
    July 15, 2008

    Mark, you wrote

    Now, PZ’s a really smart guy. […] He knew when he posted it what kind of reaction it would provoke. And he went ahead and did it – because he wanted to provoke that reaction.

    with which I agree. But why stop there?

    Could it be he has a goal in mind, and this was purposeful?

    PS I note you didn’t address the e-mail headers kerkuffle here – it has been argued in the thread there that PZ was again acting purposely.

  90. #90 mickkelly
    July 15, 2008

    Mark, I agree!

    I can’t claim to have read all the posts and comments on all the various scienceblogs blogs, however it seems to me that PZ made a mistake and instead of really reflecting upon the situation, he escalates as a defense strategy. Yes the wafer is just a cracker, and even a blessed wafer is still a cracker physically (AFAIK the church does not claim otherwise). But just saying this will create no frenzy.

    Free speech is not really the issue here because if someone just would have said (even PZ) that a wafer is just a cracker no one would have cared. If I remember correctly somebody went to mass and deliberatly violated the rules of the ceremony. It’s OK to say it’s silly (mass), but if you think it’s silly, why attend? If you’re interested (out of curiosity) what a wafer looks like, I think there are ways to get hold of one that was not blessed (in the end, it’s just a cracker).

  91. #91 Jake
    July 15, 2008

    I think this is a case where the initial context really matters. If PZ had just observed that Catholics have this insane belief about some crackers, decided to make a dramatic point about that belief then I would agree. But that’s not what happened. A student, upset about the fact that his publically-funded school was sponsoring a religious event, went to the event to see what was up. While there, he made an innocent faux pas, and the religious community that shouldn’t have been there at all in the first place overreacted so dramatically that it was obvious no rational discussion was possible. Maybe it’s a little childish, but I believe that in cases like this, often the only reasonable reaction is to repeat the behaviour that provoked the overreaction as loudly and often as possible.

    I’ll give an example: The LGBTQ group at my school, in conjuction with the university administration, which has an official positive-space policy, has a poster campaign. The posters depict implicitly LGBTQ people going about their lives as students and faculty on campus and include the slogan “everybody’s campus.” One of the posters depicts two girls, sitting at the top of a prominent staircase on campus, on the verge of kissing. This poster was torn down twice, and when we put it up a third time, this time behind glass, the same vandals removed the glass and set fire to the bulletin board on which the poster hung. I won’t get into it now, but there is compelling evidence that the same people committed all three acts of vandalism, and that their hatred of that one poster was the motivation.

    My feeling is that the only proper response is to turn around and plaster the whole entire campus with this poster. It would appear that your response would be to meekly leave the poster down. You’ll probably claim that the situations can’t be compared, but i think they can. I’m sure there are students on my campus that find the image of two girls kissing every bit as offensive as Donahue and his ilk find the desecration of the Eucharist, and their reasons are equally sane and reasonable.

  92. #92 sdg
    July 15, 2008

    Jake,

    I think you make an excellent point about the initial context. I agree that it is very important.

  93. #93 Jason Failes
    July 15, 2008

    So in summary:

    Catholics threaten kid with homicide.
    PZ threatens Catholics with crackercide.
    Catholics threaten PZ with homicide.
    Commenters on ScienceBlogs call PZ an asshole.

    Bruno: “yes, some atheists can as a matter of fact be just as lunatic as any other extremist.”

    Yeah, right: saying that someone’s beliefs are bullshit is so close to threatening them with homicide they might as well be covered by the same law…

    NoAstronomer: “Desecrate implies that PZ intended to do something vile (ie not eating it) to the cracker in question with the sole purpose being to upset Catholics.”

    Honestly, I bet he does eat it, maybe with a spray-cheese smile and pimento eyes, maybe with two Jesuses, I mean crackers, around a slice of meat and a leaf of salad.

    Whatever, it will be small and symbolic; he’s not going to wipe his ass with it.

    Peter: “liberal orthodoxy”

    What is that, and how do I join?

  94. #94 RP
    July 15, 2008

    I love that the example of a piece of paper that’s not just a piece of paper is a thousand-dollar bill.

    Um… yeah, it is just a piece of paper. At best, it’s an attempt to defraud some innocent who’s insufficiently wise in the ways of the world to know that there’s no such thing as a thousand-dollar bill (in US currency, at least.)

    Feel free to draw your own analogies to the other issue under discussion. I have, and it’s making me giggle madly.

  95. #95 Nick
    July 15, 2008

    Religion and religious absurdity often receives a pass from critics and ridicule simply because it is religion and it’s one of those special topics that we don’t talk about because it might offend someone; however, this is the 21st century, where science and technology continue to open our eyes to new possibilities, new ways of understanding the world. We owe it to ourselves to question those things that seem absurd. PZ Meyers saw the Eucharist ritual as absurd (as a former Catholic, I can attest that it is indeed absurd) and called them out on it, albeit aggressively.

    Unfortunately the evangelical movement in America threatens the foundations of education and funding for scientific research and religious bigots propagate their particular brand of intolerance on a national platform. If now isn’t the time to aggressively confront them, then when? Will it be when your children are being taught intelligent design in the classroom?

  96. #96 Gingerbaker
    July 15, 2008

    “In contrast, I don’t think that PZ’s offer to desecrate communion wafers was a principled stand; I think it was just a gesture of obnoxiousness.”

    I disagree. P.Z.’s position was taken in response to Donahue’s contention that the removal of the wafer from the school cafeteria (the service was not held in a church) was kidnapping(!)

    Screwy on so many levels one must chuckle, but it also illustrates Donahue’s smug assumption that what he considers sacred must also be held sacred by society as a whole.

    Viewed in this light, P.Z.’s vow to “desecrate” that which is not sacred to him demonstrates an important principle about the proper place of religion in our society and the dangers of theocracy.

    So, it was a principled stand. That it was somewhat obnoxious is just an added benefit as far as I am concerned. :D

    It is important to remember just who the villians are in this whole escapade. P.Z. is not one of them, I think.

  97. #97 z
    July 15, 2008

    personally I think there might be a purpose of showing how utterly insane some religious idiots can be. With that respect PZ completely succeeded.

    uh, there are already plenty of examples of that, which would be superfluous to enumerate. Myers added nothing with this.

    “hahaha, I proved that you get mad when I make fun of your very personal beliefs, I win!”

  98. #98 Eamon Knight
    July 15, 2008

    Geez, this must be like the longest comment thread Mark has ever got.

    Hearing of the further developments back at UCF brings back recollections of my undergrad days: at any university, there’s always a bunch of idealistic youngsters in poli-sci or setting up for a career in law or politics, taking high-and-mighty principled stands over issues no one else really gives a damn about, and creating a tempest in a teapot. In this case, the tempest escaped ;-).

    (Me? I was in engineering and working too damn hard to get involved in “issues”, be they truly important or merely overblown).

  99. #99 Pocket Nerd
    July 15, 2008

    Hi, Mark. Thanks for this post. It’s nice to see that I’m not the only one who thinks PZ’s action was ill-considered.

    Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think PZ has done anything evil or unlawful, and I wouldn’t argue against his right to do it (after all, they ARE just crackers). I think his zeal and frankness have been assets to the cause of rationality. I just think this particular item is a foolish stunt that won’t accomplish anything worthwhile.

    I’m also a little concerned that it has become impossible to say anything even mildly critical of the good professor’s actions without immediately being labeled a concern troll. (Hi Boosterz!) I’ve always thought the attitude of “either you agree 100% or you’re not REALLY one of us” is more typical of the other side of the fence…

  100. #100 Chris Bell
    July 15, 2008

    “People who deliberately provoke others for no purpose beyond the malicious joy of provocation should be recognized as the obnoxious assholes that they are.”

    You’ve already pointed out how important the italicized part is. I think these are weasel words.

    I have no inclination to draw a Mohammad cartoon. (I’m not even a cartoonist.) But when I learn that crazy people will threaten to kill me if I do draw a cartoon, it makes me want to draw one. I don’t want to do it because I am an asshole. I want to do it because THEY are being assholes. How DARE they threaten me with death for doing something I am personally allowed to do if I choose.

    Did you know that laws against flag-burning actually result in more flags being burned? Same psychology.

    Of course PZ knew he would get death threats. That’s the point.

  101. #101 MartinM
    July 15, 2008

    I look at this as sort of a Spartacus moment. PZ saw a person being singled out by a bunch of authoritarian bullies, and stood up and said “I am Spartacus.”

    …at which point, a surprising number of usually-intelligent bloggers posted mindless screeds about the evils of identity theft, while, somewhere in the stratosphere, the point sailed quietly by.

  102. #102 MissPrism
    July 15, 2008

    Donahue, or someone like him, was clearly going to attack PZ eventually, simply because he’s getting well known enough to be a threat (look what happened to Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan).
    So PZ’s only options were to wait and see what Donohue flipped out about, or give him a juicy quote and choose the timing of the battle. So while I agree that PZ was being deliberately provocative, and that’s Not Nice, there’s no point playing nice with some people.

    Also, there’s the Overton window thing: if it weren’t for the strident types like PZ, we’d be the extremists, and we’d be getting the death threats.

  103. #103 Kilo
    July 15, 2008

    As I just mentioned on his blog, this is the most transparent example of an attention whore since Paris Hilton took over distribution of her own sex tape.

  104. #104 DamnDirtyApe
    July 15, 2008

    Donahue has a blog?

  105. #105 Jonathan Vos Post
    July 15, 2008

    I have recently been elected President of the Humanists Association, an official student organization at California State University, Los Angeles, having previously served as Secretary. We are affiliated with the American Humanists Association, which has at least 120 local chapters and affiliates (and had my friend Isaac Asimov as President, as well as Kurt Vonnegut), with the Secular Student Alliance, and with various other organizations on and off campus.

    I feel that it is too simple to say that PZ either helps or hurts these causes, as they are heterogeneous. I do think that the level of interest is a positive indicator.

    I also care deeply, as a scientist, Mathematical Biologist, and teacher, who believes that Evolution by Natural Selection is the core theory in Biology. However, PZ as a Biologist is not identical to PZ as an activist Blogger.

    I excerpt, below, the beginning of an article recently available on the web.

    The Return of Religion

    By Roger Scruton

    Faced with the spectacle of the cruelties perpetrated in the name of faith, Voltaire famously cried ‘Ecrasez l’infâme!’. Scores of enlightened thinkers followed him, declaring organised religion to be the enemy of mankind, the force that divides the believer from the infidel and which thereby both excites and authorises murder. Richard Dawkins is the most influential living example of this tradition, and his message, echoed by Dan Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, sounds as loud and strident in the media today as the message of Luther in the reformed churches of Germany. The violence of the diatribes uttered by these evangelical atheists is indeed remarkable. After all, the Enlightenment happened three centuries ago; the arguments of Hume, Kant and Voltaire have been absorbed by every educated person. What more is to be said? And if you must say it, why say it so stridently? Surely, those who oppose religion in the name of gentleness have a duty to be gentle, even with – especially with – their foes?

    There are two reasons why people start shouting at their opponents: one is that they think the opponent is so strong that every weapon must be used against him; the other is that they think their own case so weak that it has to be fortified by noise. Both these motives can be observed in the evangelical atheists. They seriously believe that religion is a danger, leading people into excesses of enthusiasm which, precisely because they are inspired by irrational beliefs, cannot be countered by rational argument…. [truncated]

  106. #106 Chris Granade
    July 15, 2008

    @MissPrism (#101):
    Thanks for introducing the idea of the Overton window. I’d not heard about that, but I’ve had similar (if much less refined and fleshed out) ideas, but didn’t know quite how to communicate them. I’ll have to look into that ore when I get a chance.

  107. #107 DrmChsr0
    July 15, 2008

    Both sides need etiquette lessons. EXTREME etiquette lessons.

    And they have to pay for it themselves.

  108. #108 Norman Doering
    July 15, 2008

    This isn’t over.

    Yes, PZ deliberately acted like an outrageous asshole, but he got himself a lot of attention (more than the rest of us can get – I wish my blog got read so much, don’t you?) — the question is if he can do anything useful with that attention.

    PZ has a chance to redeem himself if he does something smart with the crackers he gets (if any). And he doesn’t really need to get any – he can buy unconsecrated crackers from any number of online suppliers and just say they’re consecrated. Even if he does get crackers, how can he be sure they’re consecrated?

    He could challenge Christians to tell which crackers are consecrated and which aren’t. He could do scientific tests on them — which might involve burning them. He could do a comedy bit where the cracker talks like Mr. Bill: “Eat me! Eat me! I’m your savory Lard — Oh nooo!!!”

    I sure hope he doesn’t merely stomp on a cracker — that would be so pointless.

  109. #109 Scholar
    July 15, 2008

    Well spoken MCC.

    Even with all you have said, I still consider PZ to be my hero.
    I think the INTERNETS is a proper forum for exposing people to different viewpoints.
    Its a GOOD thing that the Crazies are hearing that they are Crazy.
    PZ is performing us all a service, by poking them from afar.
    Better that they (Crazies) know we exist, and that we are not going anywhere.

  110. #110 Anonymous
    July 15, 2008

    PZ simply exemplifies a disturbing trend, one I see all to often on this site and elsewhere, namely using the irrationality and hostility of our opponents on the other side of the fence as as an excuse for bad behaviour and asinine discourse. Yes, the cracker situation is crazy. Yes the Catholic League froth at the mouth. That would be just as true if PZ had remained civil, and his arguments would have carried just as much weight with his audience. Instead he chose to be a dick. The fact that his opponents are crazy does not mitigate his dickishness.Unfortunately this is a very common response here and elsewhere amongst those promoting rationalism in the blogosphere. These little rants might be cathartic, but they just show that insanity is not limited to the religious.

  111. #111 Anonymous
    July 15, 2008

    http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/transub.htm

    The wheaten wafter thingie is a cheat. One must begin with a clay wafer and blow life into it (ignoring that human flesh is bereft of silicon and aluminum).

    Roman Catholics die then suffer Eternity surrounded by Irish. Everybody else just dies.

  112. #112 Norman Doering
    July 15, 2008

    Anonymous wrote:

    That would be just as true if PZ had remained civil, and his arguments would have carried just as much weight with his audience. Instead he chose to be a dick. The fact that his opponents are crazy does not mitigate his dickishness.

    The arguments may be just as true or untrue, but the attention that PZ and Bill the Shrill Donohue of the Cat-lickers League gain by being Dicks is something to consider. The trick may be to use that attention constructively.

    None of the polite people are getting that much attention.

  113. #113 Richard Simons
    July 15, 2008

    Mark, I think this is one of the most reasonable posts I’ve seen on the subject. The thing that troubles me about PZ’s proposed desecration of a cracker is that I see very little benefit from it (the ‘desecration’ itself bothers me not one jot). PZ’s rah-rah gang will love it, the loonies on the other side will be furious and most people in between are likely to say ‘Yes, we knew that RC beliefs are loony and that atheists are insensitive dolts.’ The best outcome I can see is for PZ to award any cracker he gets to the person with the most outstandingly irrational defence of the RC reaction, or to publicly hand it over to a senior official in the RC church after performing a ‘de-transubsantiation ceremony’ over it. I think any outright desecration of it would be counter-productive (does this make me a ‘concern troll?).

  114. #114 sdg
    July 15, 2008


    There are two reasons why people start shouting at their opponents: one is that they think the opponent is so strong that every weapon must be used against him; the other is that they think their own case so weak that it has to be fortified by noise.

    Posted by: Jonathan Vos Post | July 15, 2008 12:25 PM

    which side is doing more shouting?

    also, is this story as big as we think it is outside of the “SB bubble”? search google news (or yahoo news, or whatever…) for “pz myers” and see what you think.

  115. #115 Antoni Jaume
    July 15, 2008
  116. #116 Trey
    July 15, 2008

    Simply stated I think that you have missed the very point Mark. Through history there are examples where a radical group will react strongly to an overt or even minor slight.

    When a moderate reaction occurs, they feel that they won because there is no balance to the situation. Drop a rock on the middle of a see-saw and one on the end and see which way things swing.

    In order to adequately point out the sheer insanity of the original action, there has to be an equal, but opposite reaction in order to allow the situation to balance at all. The catholic loonie squads attacked an all but defenseless college student, forcing the university he was attending to attack him as well, or at very least not defend him. It required someone to step up to the plate with sufficient clout and visibility to not only bring the idiocy of the situation to light, but to bring sufficient fire to the situation to balance the actions brought about by raving cannibals, out for this poor kid’s blood.

    The Chinese knew about balance thousands of years ago.
    This is just a new version. The man came to the defense of someone who was being radically and unjustly attacked by a particular group who was wholly in the wrong. Is his tactic one I would agree with? No. Was it perhaps necessary to generate some measure for us to judge just HOW crazy the radical attacks have become? Quite possibly yes.

  117. #117 chris
    July 15, 2008

    Whacking a hornet’s nest with a stick and observing hornets coming out of it does make one point: there are *hornets* in that nest!

    Some people seem inclined to paint religion as a nest of harmless pretty butterflies. But when PZ comes along with a stick, he demonstrates what’s really in that nest.

    In other words, I think it was a deliberate provocation to taunt religious nuts into showing their otherwise-concealed nuttiness, with the ultimate goal of discrediting them before whatever witnesses aren’t already committed to one side or the other.

  118. I would go farther than you did: PZ advocated desecration of a house of worship. It is not funny when the Klan suggests doing it to black churches, when neo-Nazi scum suggest doing it to synagogues, or when PZ jokes about it. It is hateful.

  119. #119 Steve P.
    July 15, 2008

    @chris #116

    I think you’re spot on.

    Although several of his readers and commenters get ridiculously argumentative and childish over the slightest disagreement, and PZ encourages that, I find that his own personal level of argumentation and childishness are often timed perfectly to resonate and actually make sense. Such is the case here.

    Also, all I’ve heard from the very rational people opposing PZ’s actions is that “it’s an asshole thing to do”. That may be so, but that doesn’t make it wrong. The only semi-logical argument I can think of that would make this wrong is that the church hands out the wafers with the agreement that only church members will take them. They never say “come one, come all” for free Jesus. Of course, they don’t verify your identity in any way, which constitutes gross negligence on their part if they really wanted to protect it.

  120. #120 Steve P.
    July 15, 2008

    Mike the Mad Biologist:

    Utterly ridiculous. When Nazis and other white supremacists burn or threaten to burn a church, it is to threaten the lives of the people they hate. There is significant historical context here and I’m surprised that you’re completely missing it.

    Further, they are destroying significantly valuable private property. The law does not care whether it’s a ‘house of worship’ or not. If you get caught burning a building, you’re going to get punished.

    On the other hand, the Catholic church handed out those wafers to anyone who stood in line. They may have intended a certain outcome, but the outcome is not specifically stated during mass, nor are they very careful about who they give the wafer to.

  121. #121 Citizen Z
    July 15, 2008

    Good post, Mark. I used to be on PZ’s side of this mess…even volunteering to get the blessed wafers. But I’ve come to your way of thinking over the last several days. Why provoke people unnecessarily?

    Posted by: Adrienne | July 14, 2008 4:29 PM

    I’ve gone in pretty much the opposite direction. People who send death threats should be insulted. Civility should not be extended to people who send death threats.

    What PZ did wasn’t just say “These people are nuts”. That would be offensive, but perfectly within the realm of civil discourse. He didn’t just say that it’s just a damned cracker, and getting hysterical over it was stupid and foolish. That would be offensive, but perfectly within the realm of civil discourse. He didn’t just say that people who compare stealing a cracker to kidnapping a child are total fucking loonies. That would have been fine. That probably still would have caused some amount of shitstorm, but nothing near the scale of what we’re seeing now.

    What he did was solicit people to steal communion wafers, and send them to him, so that he could desecrate them and post images of that on the web.

    I’m sorry, I don’t get that much of a difference between the two. First of all what he did was certainly tongue in cheek, he mentioned smuggling the crackers out from “under armed guards and grim nuns”. I don’t understand why that crosses the line. Why on Earth is calling people “nuts” and “fucking loonies” considered “within the realm of civil discourse” in the first place? And then to argue that a half-joking suggestion that he would desecrate crackers somehow puts him outside the realm of civil discourse? I think that’s a rather flexible definition of civil discourse. (I’d also like to note that, and this is going off on a slight tangent, that PZ hasn’t even touched a cracker.)

    I believe this incident has been very illuminating. I would also argue that it will probably help head off criticism of Mr. Cook as a deliberate agitator. The argument could have been made, and probably has been made that Mr. Cook lied about receiving death threats. Just look at the reaction to PZ’s modest proposal. About harming a freaking cracker.

    Maybe that’s just me. In a weird coincidence, I happened across the following two posts just after this cracker incident. I was genuinely surprised to see people refer to them being “dicks” in their behavior.

  122. Steve P.,

    you’re the one splitting hairs. If you enter a house of worship with the goal of desecrating a religious object, it’s the same damn thing. If somebody went to a synagogue shop to purchase a prayer book (siddur), supposedly for personal use, and then made a point of burning it, how would that be interpreted?

    It was a hateful comment, period.

  123. #123 Escuerd
    July 15, 2008

    I’m surprised at how many people think that whatever PZ plans to do will involve someone eating the wafers. In general, it’s incredibly stupid to eat something that someone sends you through the mail (unless you know the person well enough to trust them, but I don’t think it’s worth the risk in this case given the public and controversial nature of his solicitation).

    PZ even posted something to the effect that, whatever he does, it won’t involve eating the damn things.

  124. #124 Tyler DiPietro
    July 15, 2008

    “you’re the one splitting hairs. If you enter a house of worship with the goal of desecrating a religious object, it’s the same damn thing.”

    The same damn thing as threatening people’s lives and property with the explicit intention of intimidating them as a group?

    I usually like what you have to say, but you’re full of shit here Mike.

  125. #125 Seth Manapio
    July 15, 2008

    People who deliberately provoke others for no purpose beyond the malicious joy of provocation should be recognized as the obnoxious assholes that they are.

    And this is where you go off the rails, Mark. Because you have no idea what PZ’s motives are. So your entire post is based on your theoretical ability to divine someone else’s motives. This is a crazy thought, but perhaps you should seek out some evidence of what PZ’s motives might have been… perhaps by asking him. Then you can pass judgement on them.

    Otherwise, you aren’t attacking PZ, or even commenting on PZ, you’re commenting on a story you made up about PZ. Which is cute and all that, but hardly relevant.

  126. #126 rmp
    July 15, 2008

    Interesting point Seth. Has Mark asked what PZ’s motives were? PZ can be an ass, I don’t think many would argue that point. However, Mark’s post is more than ‘PZ is acting like an ass’ but rather ascribing motives.

  127. #127 Anonymous
    July 15, 2008

    Mike writes

    “I would go farther than you did: PZ advocated desecration of a house of worship. It is not funny when the Klan suggests doing it to black churches, when neo-Nazi scum suggest doing it to synagogues, or when PZ jokes about it. It is hateful.”

    Word.

    -Crow

  128. #128 Bert Chadick
    July 15, 2008

    I’ve been reading PZ for a couple of years and I think he is so exasperated at religious people trying to do science with their mumbo jumbo, and demanding scientific respect for their inane mummeries. Cracker whacking is just one bit of PZ’s litany of disrespect toward spiritual nebulosity. The Catholic League are the sort of Catholics that spirited SS officers out of Europe after WWII and are sitting there waiting to be offended.

    I would love to offend the Catholic League, but don’t know where to get the magic crackers so am stuck offending fundies and new-agers.

  129. #129 Margaret
    July 15, 2008

    chris #116: Whacking a hornet’s nest with a stick and observing hornets coming out of it does make one point: there are *hornets* in that nest! …

    Exactly! The religious “moderates” claim that religion is all so kind and generous, and that “it’s not meant to be taken literally” and “we don’t believe in that anymore,” etc. They need to be shown that religion is as nutty and violent as ever. The religious moderates are protecting and enabling the religious nuts. They need to be shown just how dangerous the nuts are so that they will stop protecting them.

  130. #130 NP
    July 16, 2008

    I don’t think PZ had any idea he’d catch Donohue’s attention and get national media attention with this.

    His post was funny if you understand it was more satire than anything else. And I don’t mean Michael Richards funny.

  131. #131 False Prophet
    July 16, 2008

    Bill Mill @37:

    When you believe that the cracker is the *literal body of your savior* as Catholics must, then their reaction becomes understandable. I think it’s very hard for people who haven’t been Catholics (I was raised Catholic, as you may have guessed) to understand that they believe that the cracker is *actually, wholly, the body of Christ*.

    Sorry I have to disagree with you Bill, but most Catholics of my acquaintance (ie, my family) can’t even articulate the doctrine of transubstantiation. If it looks like a cracker, and smells like a cracker, and tastes like a (very dry and bland) cracker, it’s probably a cracker. Not many people are actually convinced by the magic show that is Mass.

    I recuse myself from any debate about the issue, since I’m clearly too biased to be involved, but I thought that I’d perhaps be able to shed a touch of light on the Catholics’ position.

    Let me shed some light from another (lapsed) Catholic position:

    -Most Catholics in my experience know very little about specific Church doctrines. They are just as likely to confuse the concept of Immaculate Conception with the virgin birth as anybody else, when the two concepts are quite different (but linked). They have no idea who Tertulian, Origen or John Chrysostom are, nor can they name any Pope between Peter and Pius IX. They might have heard of Augustine or Aquinas but have never read them.

    -Most Catholics are aware of the stance the RC Church takes on broad issues like abortion, birth control, divorce, the death penalty, etc. Most of them also ignore RCC doctrine that is in opposition to their own politics: liberal Catholics are generally not committed to the Church’s teachings on abortion, birth control, or homosexuality, while right-wing Catholics tend to ignore the Church’s opposition to the death penalty, the war in Iraq and globalization and its acceptance of (theistic) evolution.

    -Frankly, for most Catholics their faith is more a matter of cultural identity than any actual understanding of doctrine. The RCC doesn’t go out of its way to encourage the study of Scripture or doctrine: just listen to your priest, go to Mass and put some cash in the collection plate and you’ve done your duty as a Catholic. As a product of Catholic schools, I think it was even worse for my schoolmates. Nothing slips the memory so easily as something you’re forced to learn for school.

    Basically, I feel that the clergy and laity who overreacted to the student’s actions represent the small minority of Catholics who would actually give a damn about such an action. Bill Donahue is a Republican stooge who gets paid a hefty salary to act the martyr when the Church’s conservative positions are publicly attacked, but stays silent when Republicans and conservatives act in defiance of the RCC’s more liberal stances. I think most Catholics are either going to just chalk this up to the normal bashing their faith gets from everyone else (not always unjustified, and some of them know it), or will claim offense more out of a sense of identity politics than because they actually understand what has happened in doctrinal terms.

  132. #132 Arno
    July 16, 2008

    Mike the Mad Biologist #121:

    If I buy a book, whatever it’s contents and whoever it’s author, I may do whatever I wish to do with it. After all, it’s just a bundle of paper. Nothing more, nothing less. I rightfully bought it, it’s mine, so I can burn it if I want to. Unless of course I bought it under the condition that no harm be done to it but I haven’t yet found the bookstore that enforces such restrictions on the goods one buys at it. Although I have never been to a religious bookstore, of course…

    Just the mere fact that *some* people regard the writing in it, and therefore the book itself, as holy has no meaning for me since I don’t believe in their fairytales. The fact that I’m being labeled hatefull when I burn the book (as you suggest) says nothing about *me*.

  133. #133 Joe Max
    July 16, 2008

    PC World reports that Melenie Kroll, whose corporate e-mail account was the source of one of the most hateful death threats, has been fired.

    Apparently PZ was not lodging complaints himself, but after he published the text of a few of the worst e-mails, including full headers, some of his readers tracked down the source.

    The article includes a comment by PZ.

  134. #134 jaytee
    July 16, 2008

    I very much doubt that even the most gullible, superstitious, sincerely devout catholic has lost a single moments sleep over the thought that PZ might ‘desecrate the host’.

    This is not about any genuine anguish on the part of catholics – it is about Bill Donohue cynically exploiting an opportunity to indulge in an orgy of ‘righteous indignation’. He is encouraging people to act as if they were the victims of some dreadful personal injury, when in reality they are merely suffering from a self-inflicted and morbidly sentimental religiosity.

    It is also about Bill Donohue cynically raising a rabble of religionists to try to deprive PZ of his livelihood. How disgusting.

    I think PZ, rather than getting a communion wafer by ‘unfair’ means, should ask Bill Donohue to donate one of his stools (collected 18 hours after mass) for scientific analysis; then PZ cannot be accused of doing anything worse to that cracker than Donohue did by subjecting it to his gastro-intestinal system.

    After all, desecration can only take place if the host actually becomes the body of Christ when the priest has said the magic words. And since this idea is silliness in the extreme, desecration is clearly not possible. If some people insist on believing stupid things, they have to expect some flack. That’s why Muslims must learn to live with cartoons.

    Bill Donohue has surely scored an ‘own goal’. By drawing attention to the Church’s ‘Doctrine of Transubstantiation’. Many wavering catholics, who were unaware of this absurd doctrine and its cannabalistic basis, now have one more excellent reason for dumping faith altogether in preference for a rational and realistic understanding of the world.

  135. #135 Stephen Wells
    July 16, 2008

    @Jonathan vos Post: There’s a third easily identified reason for shouting. It’s when muttering quietly gets no response except when they tell you to be completely silent.

    People who think that PZ’s suggestion that people might leave a church without eating their cracker is equivalent to desecrating a church really, really need to get some perspective.

  136. #136 trrll
    July 16, 2008

    What PZ has done (or more accurately, stated his intention to do) is incredibly rude and disrespectful, and people are entitled to feel offended. Nevertheless, it seems to me that it is a valuable demonstration. It wasn’t that long ago that many people in the US were viewing with alarm the Muslim reaction to the Mohammed cartoons, and suggesting that it revealed that Islam is inherently a violent religion. PZ has demonstrated that there is a large number of Christians who react just as violently when their own ox is gored. So I think that PZ has landed a blow against religious prejudice. And I think that the value of that justifies the offense that many believers understandably feel.

  137. #137 Whateverman
    July 16, 2008

    In this particular case, people on both sides have a *right* to offend and be offended, as long as those offenses don’t include boldily or real life actions (beyond typing and clicking “send”).

    Yep, I think PZ deliberately or carelessly provoked the very people who were already in an uproar. I personally wish he would have been a bit more respectful, but the reality of the situation involves people who perceeve disrespect where it was not intended.

    To wit: the Catholic community went nuts over this, and PZ’s reaction didn’t help the situation. I’m not sure I’d portray him as having landed a blow against religious persecution – more like tweaking a very big and overly sensitive nose. It wont change things, and provided a bit of (entertaining? obnoxious) drama.

    The catholics who reacted have as much faith in their perception of the situation as they do their God. I think it would have been better to ignore their outrage rather than give it voice…

  138. #138 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    July 16, 2008

    Whateverman:

    You’re making one big mistake with that argument, and it’s one that I’ve seen constantly made by both the religious and the athiest sides. You’re asserting that “The Catholic community” went nuts over this. No, the catholic community didn’t go nuts over this. An extremely small number of irrational lunatics in the catholic community went nuts over it.

    Of course, the media likes irrational lunatics. Bill Donohue throwing a temper tantrum is interesting to cover. Ten thousand reasonable Catholics saying “That guy is a total lunatic who doesn’t speak for me” doesn’t make the news.

    That’s part and parcel with one of the common anti-religion arguments: that moderate, reasonable religious folk are “enabling” the lunatics.

    There are thousands of reasonable Catholics for every lunatic like William Donohue. There are thousand of reasonable Muslims for every Osama bin Laden. There are thousands of reasonable Jews for every Baruch Goldstein.

    But reasonable people don’t make for exciting news coverage. So what you get to see are the lunatics, frothing at the mouth on camera.

    And they are just lunatics. If there wasn’t religion, they’d be insane over something else. Look at some of the crazy fanaticism in Mainland China over people protesting the olympic torch relay. There are hordes of crazies ready and willing to kill people over a stupid gas-torch. Religion has nothing to do with it: fanaticism and insanity are endemic in human beings, and the people prone to lunacy will always find something to be crazy about.

  139. #139 johannes
    July 16, 2008

    It is ironical that PZ and his arch-enemies, the protestant evangelical fundies, are actually on the same side when it comes to the Catholic Doctrine of Transsubstantion.

  140. #140 Tatarize
    July 16, 2008

    Death threats to people = bad.
    Death threats to crackers = silly.

    — It seems a pretty clear way to point out how silly transubstantiation is as a belief. I’m not sure that I could really whitewash all of the brouhaha with a plague on both their houses. I don’t think the two offenses are in the same league. Showing no respect for a fracking cracker or the beliefs which supposes that the cracker becomes the flesh of a first century wish-granting Jewish zombie to be consumed by followers (while tasting exactly like a cracker) and showing no respect for a person and threatening them with physical harm. — The former doesn’t hold a candle to the assholiness of the latter.

  141. #141 jayh
    July 16, 2008

    MMB “you’re the one splitting hairs. If you enter a house of worship with the goal of desecrating a religious object, it’s the same damn thing. If somebody went to a synagogue shop to purchase a prayer book (siddur), supposedly for personal use, and then made a point of burning it, how would that be interpreted?”

    Once you buy it, it’s YOUR PROPERTY (unlike damaging the church which is not yours). If you choose to burn it, you are free to do so.

  142. #142 MartinM
    July 16, 2008

    That’s part and parcel with one of the common anti-religion arguments: that moderate, reasonable religious folk are “enabling” the lunatics.

    Well, isn’t that precisely what’s happening here? If PZ had been engaging Scientologists, or if the doctrine of transubstantiation was limited to a small group on the lunatic fringe of Catholicism, would we be having this conversation? If the moderates had condemned their own lunatics, do you think PZ would have made the same response? Had he done so, would he have had the same level of support?

  143. #143 Clare
    July 16, 2008

    Well, the whole episode taught me something when I looked up the less than charming history of how the church has dealt with perceived insults to the host in the past.

  144. #144 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    July 16, 2008

    MartinM:

    My point is that there are a large number of moderate Catholics who have condemned their lunatics. But reasonable people don’t make interesting coverage. Drooling lunatics get press; people condemning drooling lunatics don’t.

    Bill Donohue manages to find something to be outraged about at least once a week, and every time, he manages to get his leering mug on CNN. But the thousands of normal people who think he’s a jackass can’t get that kind of attention.

    To give another example: in the NY area, there’s a lot of pervasive racism. Every time that something happens that is (or that might be) an instance of that racism, Al Sharpton winds up on every TV channel, and on the front page of every newspaper to talk about it. In my experience, almost all NYers, black or white, think that Sharpton is a self-promoting asshole who exploits every situation to generate publicity and attention for himself. He’s not exactly a well respected figure in NYC. But *every time* there’s an incident, he’s brought in as a “community leader” or “civil liberties advocate”, where he claims to speak on behalf of the black community. Is the black community in New York to blame for the fact that the most visible public face of that community is Al Sharpton? Or is he just an opportunist asshole who manages to get a lot of press by being entertainingly obnoxious/insane?

  145. #145 Armchair Dissident
    July 16, 2008

    But reasonable people don’t make interesting coverage.

    Bingo. It’s also true of Muslims; whenever someone is killed or threatened in the name of Islam, the news outlets (and this is just as true in the UK as it is in the US) want the extreme reaction. They’re not going into the houses of the many, many moderate muslims, they’re just repeating the press-releases of the press-savy lunatics.

    However, it works both ways. With PZ’s “desecration” stunt, you’re seeing this as a simple provocation with no purpose, ergo PZ is an arsehole. However, I would like to cite the recent example of the “Jerry Springer the Opera” theatre show which lead directly to the end of the blasphemy law in the UK.

    “Jerry Springer the Opera” is, for some hyper-sensitive christians, a highly offensive piece of work. It also happens to be extraordinarily funny if you’re not christian, or not offended by such things, but it is – nevertheless – extraordinarily offensive to some christians.

    When the BBC broadcast this show three years ago, it was met with outrage by these certain christians, even before they actually broadcast it (and even though many had never seen it, but I digress). It could – therefore – be argued that the BBC deliberately set out to offend these christians, and the BBC board were just being arseholes.

    The group most outraged was a group going by the name of Christian Voice, and they did something that – in retrospect – was spectacularly stupid. First they wrote to dozens of theaters threatening to sue them for blasphemous libel if ever the show was hosted there; this indirectly lead to the show being closed after its stint in the West End, and in Brighton. They then also decided to sue the BBC and the producers of the show for blasphemous libel, such was the extent of the outrage the BBCs deliberate provocation caused.

    The case was thrown out of the High Court, and the idiocy of the blasphemy law was finally abolished, as a direct result of the – arguably – deliberate provocation by the BBC.

    The thing is, yes, it is extreme actions, and extreme reactions that get press attention. But that doesn’t necessarialy mean that the eventual outcome is wholly bad. Of course I’m not saying that PZ is going to single-handedly bring down the Catholic League, but then again the BBC never set out to bring down blasphemous libel.

  146. #146 rmp
    July 16, 2008

    Nice post armchair!!

  147. #147 Jonathan Vos Post
    July 16, 2008

    I see related linguistic and philosophical problems in the reasons commented for the “value of a dollar” and the “value of a [consecrated] cracker.”

    I refer you to:

    arXiv:0806.3710 (replaced) [pdf, other]
    Title: How Is Meaning Grounded in Dictionary Definitions?
    Authors: A. Blondin Masse, G. Chicoisne, Y. Gargouri, S. Harnad, O. Picard, O. Marcotte
    Comments: 8 pages, 3 figures, TextGraphs-3 Workshop at the 22nd International Conference on Computational Linguistics, Coling 2008, Manchester, 18-22 August, 2008
    Subjects: Computation and Language (cs.CL); Databases (cs.DB)
    Abstract:
    Meaning cannot be based on dictionary definitions all the way down: at some point the circularity of definitions must be broken in some way, by grounding the meanings of certain words in sensorimotor categories learned from experience or shaped by evolution. This is the “symbol grounding problem.” We introduce the concept of a reachable set — a larger vocabulary whose meanings can be learned from a smaller vocabulary through definition alone, as long as the meanings of the smaller vocabulary are themselves already grounded. We provide simple algorithms to compute reachable sets for any given dictionary.

    My friend George Hockney and I, when not watching last night’s 15-inning record-length (nearly 5 hours) All-Star Game in baseball, have been arguing about the underlying mystery of the US economy. This was stimulated by the run on IndyMac, whose HQ is in Pasadena, and where I have several times driven by to look at the line of worried depositors and the cops keeping them in check. And that Wasington Mutual, our motgage-holder, is rumored to be the next big bank to crash and burn. Also, that Zimbabwe has run out of paper to print new currency with more zeros than the current 500 million Z$ = Dollar (ZWD) notes. Also, on Terry Tao’s recent discrete derivation of Black-Scholes.

    What is a cracker worth? Something different than PZ thought, for those who threaten to kill PZ.

    I was proud of my son when he was 12, and I asked him “what is this one dollar bill worth?” and he answered “whatever someone will give you in exchange for it.”

    Remember the punch-line in Robocop: “I’d Buy That for a Dollar!” One can google for the acronym IBTFAD.

  148. #148 APP
    July 16, 2008

    To those who doubt that similar offenses are possible to the “liberal orthodoxy”, consider these thought experiments:

    A blogger asks readers to send him Torah scrolls or Stars of David to smear with pig fat.

    A blogger encourages his white readers to make displays of nooses and flaming crosses on their own property.

    Can we agree that both of these hypotheticals would be encouraging (even without actually committing) acts that “liberals” aren’t necessarily comfortable with? Even if no physical violence has been [explicitly] threatened, or private property destroyed? It’s “just a piece of rope” after all, or “just a piece of parchment”. This is why I agree that PZ crossed a line in civility.

    It is just a cracker. But it represents something important to a billion or so people. Also, there is an ugly history of anti-Catholicism in this country. I don’t think you can ignore the historical context.

  149. #149 Anonymous
    July 17, 2008

    Once again religion is being abused by both sides believers and non believers, How far will the pendulum swing this time? I suppose that depends on the press. Remember Rodney King? The press just kept (pressing) until there was civil disobedience by some of the black community.

    Many objects in religion are a literal analogy for those who find it hard to understand the proposed meaning.
    The forbidden fruit= Knowledge
    the sacred cracker= Body of Christ
    Etc.

    For those who cling to the belief that it is the actual body of Christ, I say their priest has done them a miservice by not teaching them that it is an act of faith and the cracker is just a cracker.

    Last time I looked we were still in America, and both sides could show their discontent (within reason).

    I would also agree with the writer who acknowledged that this kids academic career might have been cut short by the ivory tower even tho he committed no crime. (the cracker was given to him) Perhaps the abuses of authoritarian establishments is the underlying issue here.

    So in conclusion God Bless America (whatever God ya got)

  150. #150 Jeff
    July 17, 2008

    sorry the anonymous was I

  151. #151 Stephen Wells
    July 17, 2008

    Guys, we’re talking about crackers. They give them to you in the church and they’re intended to be eaten. Comparisons to less ephemeral and more expensive objects such as books and religious symbols are off the mark. The hilarious thing is the sight of people who want the cracker _eaten and digested_ insisting that carrying it off is somehow a terrible crime. Cake or death! Choose now- Cake or Death!

  152. #152 jayh
    July 17, 2008

    “Can we agree that both of these hypotheticals would be encouraging (even without actually committing) acts that “liberals” aren’t necessarily comfortable with? Even if no physical violence has been [explicitly] threatened, or private property destroyed? It’s “just a piece of rope” after all, or “just a piece of parchment”. This is why I agree that PZ crossed a line in civility. ”

    Actually both your examples are essentially the same thing (well the noose thing could be considered a physical threat because of history, so it might be legally somewhat different) as PZ, and I think that is the point. Going bonkers over the pigfat thing is as stupid as going bonkers over the cracker bit.

    I see no point in treating mystical bullcrap with kid gloves.

  153. #153 Margaret
    July 17, 2008

    APP: “Also, there is an ugly history of anti-Catholicism in this country. I don’t think you can ignore the historical context.

    Also, there is an ugly history of anti-atheism, anti-rationalism, and anti-intellectualism in this country. I don’t think you can ignore the historical context.

  154. #154 Daithi
    July 17, 2008

    I was raised Catholic (although I am now athiest). I rembering learning the doctrine of transubstantiation and thinking it was flat out looney even when I was kid. I suspect most Catholics don’t really believe that the consecrated wafer is actually the body of Christ — but that is the position of the Catholic Church and some actually believe. But even if a Catholic doesn’t really believe in transubstantiation, he still knows that PZ is purposely disrespecting his religion.

    What PZ is doing is absolutely no different from flushing a Koran down the toilet, covering the Star of David in pig-fat, hanging Santa Claus from a tree during Christmas, or any other vile thing you care to imagine that is designed to hurt those with whom you disagree.

    I think PZ is an asshole. However, I also think he has the right to free-speech, so if he wants to use his right of free-speech to declare, “Look at me! I’m an asshole!” then let him.

  155. #155 APP
    July 17, 2008

    I am in no way suggesting that PZ did not have the right to say what he did, or that anyone else has the right to threaten him with physical harm for it.

    I am merely exercising my right to stand up and say that he was an asshole for doing it.

    It would be nice to aim for civil discourse. Those of us who would like to have discussions on a rational basis would probably have better luck if we do so with some respect. In my mind, it made a valid rhetorical point to say “it’s just a cracker”, but does not advance rational discourse to offer/threaten to desecrate said crackers.

  156. #156 Peter
    July 17, 2008

    This is hate speech through and through. PZ would not threaten to descetrate the remains of the relatives of the president of his university, even though they are just inanimate calcium formations. PZ should be forced to undergo sensitivity training. If he refuses, or continues his hate-speech, he should be fired. He is afterall not treating all inanimate objects equally.

    Also, what evidence is there that he was threatened? He is smart enough to invent a cover story. PZ does not seem to me to be someone who can be trusted. There is evidence of only one bigot in this story, and that is PZ.

  157. #157 Wry Mouth
    July 17, 2008

    (1) Well said, I think.
    (2) I find it troubling when certain folk are set up and set themselves up as spokespersons for large groups of people (think Jesse Jackson, or Bill Donohue), and then are accepted as such by the larger media. The Pope? That’s a different matter, as he (like the president) sets the tone and law for the group. But who’s Bill Donohue, in the Catholic administration?
    (3) People who say the host “is only a cracker” sound, to people like me, about the same as people who think a book “is only a flammable bunch of paper and glue,” or a flag “just a piece of cloth.” It’s not dismaying, necessarily — but it does fuel the growth of a certain stereotype of the scientist or rationalist incapable of seeing anything deeper than the surface of the material world. I try and leave that to the physics grad students (yes; that’s a humorous jab)…

  158. #158 Bill Mill
    July 18, 2008

    @False Prophet

    Pretty weak-sauce to not give an email. I’m glad that you have friends and family who claim to be Catholics, but don’t know what transubstantiation is; how does that matter to my description of what Catholics are required to believe?

    The wikipedia article on transubstantiation’s not half bad:

    the Council of Trent declared subject to the ecclesiastical penalty of anathema anyone who “denieth, that, in the sacrament of the most holy Eucharist, are contained truly, really, and substantially, the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the whole Christ; but saith that He is only therein as in a sign, or in figure, or virtue” and anyone who “saith, that, in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denieth that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood – the species only of the bread and wine remaining – which conversion indeed the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation”[7].

    Just because people ignore the fact that their religion requires them to believe something (which they certainly do) doesn’t make it not so.

    @sdg:

    I really *don’t* think that a lot of people understand what is going on here, or have enough knowledge about catholicism to understand that they *literally believe christ is in the eucharist*. If you don’t understand that, their actions seem insane. Once you do, their beliefs seem insane, but their actions are much more understandable.

    How many people in this debate are surprised that Catholics’ beliefs are incompatible with reality? I just think a little understanding of their beliefs goes a long way to explaining their behavior.

    And of course, I never argued that anyone doesn’t deserve to be responsible for what they’ve done; I explicitly declaimed participation in any such argument.

  159. #159 melior
    July 18, 2008

    I come down on PZ’s side on this one. Perhaps one man’s raging asshole is another man’s long overdue breath of fresh air.

    Or perhaps one should ask, as we do down in Texas, was this someone who needed mocking?

  160. #160 John Morales
    July 18, 2008

    Bill Mill:

    I really *don’t* think that a lot of people understand what is going on here, or have enough knowledge about catholicism to understand that they *literally believe christ is in the eucharist*.

    I doubt that. I think it’s more that Catholics don’t understand why we fail to respect their absurd belief.

    In fact, judging by all the calls by such for PZ to abuse the Koran to prove his point, they themselves have no respect for others’ absurd beliefs. And judging by the reaction, Catholics have no respect for atheists’ disbelief either.

    They’d get more sympathy from me if they dropped the hypocrisy.

  161. #161 Bemused
    July 18, 2008

    If Catholics, being righteous people, believe that the Eucharist is literally the body of their Christ why, immediately after Communion, do they not hand themselves in to the police for committing the horrendous crime of cannibalism? I can understand the police not going to arrest them in their churches as they realise that the cracker is just a religious symbol, something that their Christ told them was not to be worshipped. How many ways do they want it?

  162. #162 Jonathan Vos Post
    July 18, 2008

    Robert Anson Heinlein commented on this in great depth in “Stranger in a Strange Land.” The title title refers to the Biblical Book of Exodus. After Heinlein’s death in 1988, his wife “Ginny” (Virginia), whom he correctly always said was the better Engineer of the couple, arranged to have the original uncut version of the manuscript published in 1991 by Ace/Putnam.

    In that best-selling 1961 Hugo Award-winning science fiction novel, Michael Valentine Smith, raised by Martians, minds/souls live in another world (woo!), came to Earth, started a commune (in the enclave owned by Ben’s friend and fellow gadfly, Jubal Harshaw, an eccentric millionaire writer and Mary Sue) that grew into a cult and then a religion (the “Church of All Worlds” — an initiatory mystery religion, blending elements of paganism and revivalism with psychic training and instruction in the Martian language). Grok?

    Heinlein accurately predicted the existence of gigantic Evangelical/Fundamentalist megachurches as corporate entities controlling their own television networks and other businesses. In other fiction, he explained how they led to the USA becoming a Theocracy, albeit he died before writing the novel of the life of Nehemiah Scudder, the First Prophet, a backwoods preacher turned President (elected in 2012), then dictator (no elections were held in 2016 or later). THAT is what PZ is fighting stridently and shrilly to prevent, perhaps.

    When Michael Valentine Smith died, he (consistent with the Martian government of “old ones” in their disembodied afterlives) had his followers eat a stew made from his corpse. Now, THAT’s a sacrament!

  163. #163 Skidoo
    July 18, 2008

    Religion is fair game, and sure, whacking it’s like whacking a hornet’s nest. So what? Let the hornets take over your garage?

    For your wafer-desecrating pleasure:
    http://www.catholicsupply.com/chURCHS/wine.html

  164. #164 John Morales
    July 18, 2008

    BTW, PZ has had a chat with a priest.

    PS – JVP: “If This Goes On–” was one of my favorite reads as a teenager (and it was old then). To this day I’m influenced by my interpretation of his version of enlightened self-interest as expressed in his corpus.

  165. #165 Bill Mill
    July 21, 2008

    If Catholics, being righteous people, believe that the Eucharist is literally the body of their Christ why, immediately after Communion, do they not hand themselves in to the police for committing the horrendous crime of cannibalism?

    It’s all in the wiki article I linked, although be warned that logic doesn’t work on it really:

    The Roman Catholic Church considers the doctrine of transubstantiation, which is about what is changed, not about how the change occurs, the best defence against what it sees as the mutually opposed interpretations, on the one hand, a merely figurative understanding of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (it teaches that the change of the substance is real), and, on the other hand, an interpretation that would amount to cannibalistic eating of the flesh and corporal drinking of the blood of Christ (it teaches that the accidents that remain are real, not an illusion, and that Christ is “really, truly, and substantially present” in the Eucharist,[5] not physically present, as he was physically present in the Palestine of two millennia ago).[6]

    I also believe that I’ve heard that the Romans persecuted Catholics for their “cannibalistic” beliefs, but a very brief search didn’t turn up any references for that.

  166. #166 John Morales
    July 23, 2008

    Bill, it’s theophagy not cannibalism (anthropophagy).

  167. #167 Andy
    July 24, 2008

    I never thought it would happen, but I think that PZ has finally jumped the shark. . .

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.