Desecration Follow-up: Considering the Context

I’m reprinting a comment Ebonmuse of Daylight Atheism made on my post criticizing P.Z. Myers in full here.  I thought it needed a response so I’m treating it as a semi-guest post.  Ebonmuse’s comments are in the blockquote, my response appears below:

To understand fully why PZ did what he did, you have to be aware of the context.

In this case, the context was that a Florida college student, Webster Cook, who was raised Catholic, attended a Catholic mass on his campus, went to the altar to receive communion, and took a small piece of the Eucharist back to his seat with the intention of showing it to a non-Catholic friend who’d come to the service with him. When he tried to leave the vicinity of the altar without fully consuming the wafer, he was obstructed, grabbed and physically assaulted by other churchgoers (according to his account, one woman grabbed his wrist and tried to pry his fingers open).

He left the service with the wafer, and as word spread, he started receiving angry protests and death threats from Catholics. They posted his address, phone number and other personal information online. They demanded that he be disciplined by the school (for what?), that he kicked off the student council, that he be expelled from the university, that he be arrested and charged with theft. A local priest compared the situation to the kidnapping of a loved one. William Donohue said it was “beyond hate speech”. The area diocese called it a “hate crime”. The college dispatched armed police officers to stand guard during the next mass in order to, one presumes, enforce Catholic views as to how wafers should be treated.

Upon hearing about this deluge of insanity, PZ was outraged, as well he might have been. He invited readers to send him a communion wafer in order to demonstrate, by a symbolic act of protest, that wafers aren’t people, can’t be harmed, and should not enjoy the same degree of legal protection that we grant to human beings. It was a demonstration that Catholic religious views aren’t, and shouldn’t be, granted special or privileged status in our law.

Ok, I hope it’s obvious to everyone that the Christians who sent death threats to the kid are behaving badly.  I hope it’s also clear that bad behavior does not justify other bad behavior, even if you are technically behaving better than your antagonists.  P.Z. Myers still deliberately set out to desecrate something that other people found sacred, and he tried to do it as publicly and contemptuously as possible, in order to be maximally offensive.  I hope it’s an obvious point that Myers behaved in a cruel and generally unacceptable way.

So the question is whether his goals justified this objectionable end — whether this was the best way to oppose the threats of violence from the other side.  I still say no.

Destroying the wafer does not prove that transubstantiation isn’t real or that the wafer cannot be harmed, so Myers is not convincing Catholics that their beliefs are false.  Catholic theology doesn’t say that Myers cannot desecrate a wafer, only that he should not.  Therefore, Myers’s stunt does not change Catholic minds about the power of the Eucharist and will not forestall another strong defensive reaction if another consecrated wafer was stolen.

I don’t buy the argument that this was a great way to rebuke the legal system for privileging Catholic perspectives either.  The display clearly targeted Catholics, not lawyers or legislators.  If Myers wanted to organize support to overturn specific laws, he could point his legion of readers towards petitions and PACs, but I really doubt that a congressperson’s office saw his desecration and realized that it was time to publically oppose the use of public funds for Catholic-run orphanages that refuse to place children with gay families.  Myers didn’t cite any legal problems that his protest was meant to target, which was just as well, since I doubt those causes would have welcomed the association.

The desecration didn’t disprove Catholicism and it didn’t help atheist legal battles.  It did make a lot of crazy people crazier and deeply hurt a lot of decent people.  Not worth it.  What did this offensive act achieve in defense of Webster Cook?

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  • Myers' action was basically a Christian version of "Draw Mohammad Day".Drawing Mohammad didn't disprove Islam and didn't help any atheist legal battles, either.

  • Except that Catholics aren't saying people can't come to Mass or saying no on can depict Jesus in any way or speak of him, or even forcing the Eucharist on society, etc. – we simply ask that you respect our religion enough not to desecrate the Eucharist. I really don't think that is a lot to ask, seeing as a person would have to come to us at Mass to get one in the first place.

  • "Destroying the wafer does not prove that transubstantiation isn't real or that the wafer cannot be harmed, so Myers is not convincing Catholics that their beliefs are false."Indeed. However scientific testing does, but Catholics still call that desecration.A majority of Catholics also don't know that the Eucharist (supposedly) becomes the literal body of Christ and treat it as a symbolic event and would not lose their faith even if the scientific tests proved magic words do not affect the wafer at all. Which they have done.Julie Robinson: "we simply ask that you respect our religion"But on what basis do you think anyone should show the Catholic religion respect? Is respect not earned? Should we turn a blind eye to the crimes the Church commits so as not to offend the vast, vast majority of good people who believe? Should we concentrate on the good aspects of Catholics and Catholicism and ignore the shameful views on abortion, homosexuality and contraception (that are thankfully ignored by a lot of Catholics)?If Catholics want to believe in raising the dead (whatever happened to Lazarus?), demonic possession or transubstantiation no-one will stop you, but please don't ask us not to ridicule the sillier aspects of your belief system. And ridicule almost always entails offending sensibilities.

  • @Julie:"…we simply ask that you respect our religion enough not to desecrate the Eucharist."What do you think of my comment HERE? Perhaps with respect to the Eucharist and holy places alone, you are technically correct in your statement.But I would also say that Catholics want extremely badly for the conclusions of their theologically grounded beliefs and moral system to be imposed upon the world. So… I don't see that the larger picture can be described by "…we simply ask that you respect our religion…" I think Catholicism hopes to ask an insane amount more than that.

  • @Julie:I hope you realize that Muslims opposed to the depiction of Muhammad ask the same thing: that you "respect their religion" by restricting your behavior in unusual ways. There's no fundamental difference between what the Catholics in this situation and what the Muslims in their situation are asking. The only difference is the level of antisocial behavior that the most extreme elements displayed (death threats vs. actual murder).