My Problem with P.Z. Myers

My Problem with P.Z. Myers February 10, 2011

Since I had some nice things to say about P.Z. Myers earlier this week, I didn’t want to post them without giving a quick overview of why I disapprove of his brand of sacrilegious confrontations. Myers takes pride in courting controversy. In his biggest stunt, he desecrated a consecrated wafer a student had smuggled out of a Catholic mass. To make it clear why I regard this kind of behavior as completely unacceptable, whether or not Catholic claims about the Host are true, consider this thought example.

I have no problem with cremation, but, personally, I find the idea of keeping the ashes of your dead relatives on display in your house to be kinda weird. Some of that is my famed lack of sentimentality, some of that is my semi-gnostic contempt for physical bodies, and the upshot is that I always have to watch my facial expressions when someone gestures reverently to a tasteful urn when talking about their grandfather.

And some people definitely seem to take the whole thing to excess, bringing out the ashes for special occasions or finding them a place at the family table during holidays. It all seems silly to me.

And if I were P.Z. Myers, I might handle my discomfort by taking the ashes of other people’s relatives, dumping them on my carpet, and then vacuuming them up and uploading the pictures to my blog.

The cremation example makes it easy to see that most of us would be ashamed to destroy something another person regarded as sacred, even if we didn’t believe in it. It’s needlessly cruel. I may disagree with urn-keepers (and plenty of other people) about whether the body deserves any respect after death, but a confrontational stunt isn’t persuasive, only offensive.

Myers can’t expect that he is persuading Catholics to deconvert, since, in Catholic teaching, desecration is tragic and tragically possible. He’s not a counterexample to any Catholic belief. After his action, it’s extremely unlikely that his more reasonable arguments will be listened to by any Christian, since he has behaved so inappropriately.

So is the stunt intended for atheists? I hope not. Because then Myers would be the champion of atheists that delight in cruelty, who respond to ignorance with mocking laughter rather than compassion.

I want no part of it.

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  • The primary purpose of his desecration of the wafer was not to arouse ire, though he certainly knew it would happen. The point was a demonstration and protest of how ridiculous it is to harass an individual (in this case, the student who removed the wafer from mass) as if they have committed an actual moral transgression. It was meant to draw the attention of the otherwise complacent atheists who would see it as a minor incident not worth of attention.

  • I concur with Ashok. 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.

    • Ted Seeber

      I always find it astounding how some atheists are utterly incapable of analyzing the assumptions of a different culture objectively.

  • NFQ

    +1 to Ashok and Ebonmuse … and I'd like to add one thing. I think there's a tricky aspect about your analogy to cremated remains. You can just buy a package of communion wafers. They mass-produce them in factories. I think it would certainly be rude to break into a church, steal their stash of communion wafers, and then destroy them and post pictures online. That seems like the analogy to your "taking the ashes of other people’s relatives." Several religions hold cows to be sacred. Does that mean that everyone else on the planet should stop eating beef (or at least stop taking pictures of and making any films that have scenes on cattle farms or slaughterhouses)? I don't think so.I still have sort of mixed feelings on the cracker desecration thing. He went out of his way to do something deliberately offensive to Catholics, and that does seem rude. On the other hand, it does seem like a fair and illustrative response to this ridiculous event. I'm inclined to see it as analogous to other newspapers' reprinting of the Jyllands-Posten editorial cartoons or Draw Mohammed Day. Would I do it personally? I don't know. But it seems like a reasonable choice, and I wouldn't step in to restrict anyone else from doing it.

  • Interesting post. I'm a bit torn. I understand the urn/ashes point… but I see some differences. For me, the ashes would represent something tangible which serves as a cherished possession to represent memories, thoughts, and the love I had for a family member. I could clearly articulate why the possession/item was meaningful.I don't see a Eucharist as the same — it's not sentimentality. The equivalent would be me insisting that you bow down before my relative's urn because his spirit still dwelled inside and he deserved reverent worship. Would that make sense?And if you said "screw you, I'm not bowing down to your great uncle," should I be offended?That's where I see some differences. I do see the point against gratuitously going out of one's way to deface something considered to be of worth to another. Ebon's description of the backstory is perhaps helpful for more context, though.

  • After reading NFQs post, it makes me wonder what you, Leah, would say to Catholics who kneel outside of abortion clinics and, essentially, heckle those coming to receive counseling or a consultation?I see Catholics as one of the most organized and powerful voices against many, many things in other realms, particularly in things like health care, sexual issues, and politics. They want their say. They go out of their way to pass off theologically-founded beliefs as secularly/rationally supported principles to try and get them into nation-wide and world-wide enforcement.Where do you stand on that type of behavior and the force with which the Catholic church hopes to impart it's entire behavioral system on the universe?While different in nature, I don't see the two issues (going out of one's way to clearly display a view toward something in the Catholic sphere vs. those in the Catholic sphere trying to engulf everyone else) as unrelated.

  • I'm with Leah with this one (obviously, if you know me). I think that not only does the analogy hold (after all, he wasn't buying a mass-marketed wafer from a wholesaler, he was using a consecrated one, which then does have the sort of emotion attached to it that ashes would), but, more importantly, so does Leah's observation that this frustrates dialogue. Deliberate provocation of this sort does not work. Please note that I say, "Of this sort." I do recognize the need to make some sort of statement in light of the events Ebonmuse points out (I'm not Catholic, but as a Christian I am horrified by the response this church gave), and that that statement should provoke (hence provocation) response. But you need to gauge what response you want and how you could acheive it. Desecration of a consecrated wafer would (could) only provoke outrage and hurt. Are those constructive? Surely there is some other method of communication he could have used?I don't feel comfortable commenting on Leah's concerns about what this does to atheist activism more than to say that I agree with her.

  • Anonymous

    Leah, I'm on PZ's side. Your analogy would be more true if the urn contained sand but was treated as "grandfather's ashes". Clearly the catholic transubstantiation is even disproved by Christ's words "This is my body" as he shared,not having sliced off a piece of his arm. The rest of the passage suggests eating bread as a reminder of him, not an invitation to cannibalism.Tip the sand out if you want to expose nonsense.Bill Dyas

  • Matt

    It always upsets me when I see atheists hate on P.Z. without having any sense of context or being able to properly carry out a sensible analogy.

  • Wow. Um, okay. I'm going to guess I'm one of the few people who understands Leah's phenomenal analogy as an apt comparison to how Catholics view the Eucharist. It does not matter if that person was raised Catholic; he should have known better. I'm sorry he received uncharitable death threats; those are never, ever appropriate.But, if I may: "The point was a demonstration and protest of how ridiculous it is to harass an individual (in this case, the student who removed the wafer from mass) as if they have committed an actual moral transgression."This is bigger than the individual. The wafer had become more than a wafer: during the liturgy, it had been transformed into the Body of Christ, which was Jesus' gift to us. It is to be immediately consumed, unless you are taking it to someone too ill or unable to go to Mass. Here's the thing: that student almost did commit a moral transgression. People who are not Catholics are going to see this as goofy. Wrong. The Eucharist is the most serious part of Catholicism. The Eucharist is not a piece of art or a piece of bread or something to be passed around to look at. Once it has been consecrated, it is the Body of Christ. I'm not sure how everyone knew he was going to take it out (re: the woman who tried to open his hand) since it is pretty small and I've never really paid attention to what everyone else is doing with their host. Then again, I've only seen people eat it. Let this be said though: to second Leah, to desecrate a host is a horrible and terrible thing, and a mortal sin in the Catholic Church.So PZ Myers wanted to show how ridiculous it was? And we Catholics care about his opinion why? He doesn't believe it. For everyone else and, presumably, most of the commenters here, they don't believe it either. So it just becomes a show to mock Catholics. I mean, golly, it's just a wafer. Whatever! You can buy those in supermarkets in vanilla, strawberry or chocolate! But the complete lack of respect for the Catholic religion is phenomenal. Christ gives us his body through an unbloody sacrifice. It is not cannibalism or different pieces of his body– but it is his body. Through the Mass, it becomes so; this is what he gave to us. It's not fully explainable, and no amount of logic is going to convince anyone. It's Scriptural. The Church Fathers wrote much more eloquently on it. The point is this- what happens during the Mass is what makes Catholics different from the rest of Christendom and the rest of world. Catholics are re-participating in the Last Supper. I can't explain the Eucharist or the power of the Eucharist and the communion of the Church because we share this sacrament to people who are not a part of it. The joy and the comfort is beyond words; receiving the Eucharist is literally God giving life into us, and to this I can only testify based on my own experience. There is a lot more I could address, but this isn't the time or the place. You don’t have to agree with Catholic theology, but desecrating a host is beyond acceptable, leagues worse that "rude" and it is positively insulting to suggest otherwise. Leah, again, especially for a non-believer, nice job on the analogy. I wish I would have thought of it! 🙂

  • Catholics give away the eucharist. Once they have freely given it away ownership resides with the holder. At that point they (PZ) can do whatever they like with it. This is why the analogy is flawed.Here is why it is misguided:People who believe in the power of ashes and urns do not try to alter the laws, do not claim special rights the rest of us aren't entitled to and don't, by and large, impact the education of our minors.

  • dbp

    I am suspicious of the explanation of the student's actions. If his action was so innocent, why did he not merely apologize and give up the Host when confronted? That isn't to say I condone the death threats, naturally– the response may well have been extreme, if the commenter's story is accurate. But it seems fishy.As for Leah's analogy, I think it is on the money. The reverence given to the Eucharist is made explicit in writing (and often verbally) for visitors, and if this young man had been raised Catholic then he knew how serious his actions would be considered.Furthermore, there are all sorts of regulations about how you can use things that have been given to you, both in the context of food and otherwise. You aren't allowed to take home food from an all-you-can-eat buffet, or airline food off an airplane in some cases. If you went to a person's house for dinner and asked to take some home to put up a mocking review of it on YouTube, everyone would just consider you an unbelievable jerk and if you still tried to do it you might well wind up in a fistfight.Cameras can be confiscated for taking pictures against the rules (and in fact people can be subject to enormous civil damages), and that isn't even a physical object being taken.In fact, the only reason you are all being so cavalier about this is because you don't share our regard for the sanctity of the object. Why that makes theft of the Host anything less than repugnant, and even less of an issue than any of my examples above, is not clear at all.

  • NFQ

    If I went to a person's house for dinner and asked to take some home to put up a mocking review on YouTube, my university would at no point threaten to expel me, nor would the community try to pressure my university to do so.

  • Right! So that should be an indicator to you about how seriously we take the sacrament of the Eucharist; it's not just dinner. It's our Lord made present in a wafer, and that is not to exploited or desecrated.

  • dbp

    NFQ: Since I was not defending any of the responses to Cook's action, trying to bring that up is simply an evasion.The fact is that the action was offensive, and deliberately so, in ways that anyone would realize if presented in any other context; Myers' action was similarly so. If there were Catholic responses of the sort that Ebonmuse mentioned above, then some of those were certainly out of line, too, but that's a strawman. It's irrelevant, and doesn't exonerate the desecrators.

  • dbp, you make some good points about the ability to do what you like with a gift, but I think you overstep the mark on a couple:An all-you-can-eat buffet is all you can eat, not all you can carry. However, even if you were to shovel the food into a purse and try to take it home I would imagine that you'd be barred from that establishment rather than arrested for theft. But I don't know the law in your state.Airline food? No idea.Taking food from someone's house to post a damning review is a bit of a dick think to do, but the home owner is in the wrong for trying to start a fist fight.I think Leah makes the great distinction between a morally wrong thing and an actually wrong thing. Taking the Eucharist is, at worst, morally wrong. But it's not morally wrong if you don't believe in what it is claimed to be.People's superstitions should be challenged, especially if they're dangerous ones. When people touch wood for luck, or pray for help rather than acting, or don't leave the house on a Friday the 13th then mocking that superstition is one way to shake people free from their comfort zone. It's not the only way, and certainly not always the best way, but reducing the amount of evidence-free belief in society can only be a good thing.

  • To claim ignorance is the wrong method. To say that, because I do not believe, I am not required to respect x, y and z. To say "Catholics give away the eucharist. Once they have freely given it away ownership resides with the holder" is a secular way of looking at it. You need to try to understand the Catholic point of view, even if you do not agree with it. You're looking through the wrong lens. Catholics freely give the Eucharist to other Catholics. But not even Catholics have a "right" to it. Even fallen away Catholics do not take it if they have not been to confession in a while; they knoe its power. We say together, "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the Word, and I shall be healed" (Mt 8:8) because if our soul has, for example, a mortal sin on it, we should, out of our free will and good conscience, NOT take communion. Why? Because we are not in communion with Christ and his Church. A serious sin has put up a barrier. It is the same reason politicians get denied communion if they are publicly going against the Church and her teachings.Furthermore, the Eucharist is not a superstition. Going to daily Mass and taking communion is one way of acting and asking for God's assistance. It is not irrational to go to Mass, admit we have weak human natures, and so seek the guidance of our Lord, and need him to fortify our spirit and body. I don't know one Catholic who would only go to Mass and then throw themselves on the couch and say, "I'M WAITING!!" Our lives are according to God's timetable, but we still must act. Life is not passive, which is why we believe in faith and works go together.Look, I say this kindly, but non-Catholics can't understand communion if they are looking at it from the outside, without seeing that our reasons stem from Christ. We did not make this up arbitrarily. It's sacred. It's a sacrament, a grace, and a gift. No one is knocking on the pews for luck. There is thousands of years of theology behind it. You don't have to believe in it, but don't dismiss it as folly and farce. It is so, so much more than that!

  • dbp

    March Hare:I disagree that taking and desecrating the Eucharist is "only" a morally wrong thing to do. To use your words, it's a dick thing to do. You're knowingly trampling on a cherished institution to which some people, literally, give their lives. You think it's a worthless institution, we get it. Go ahead and say so. But desecration isn't just disrespect of the institution, it's disrespect of the men and women who devote themselves to it, for no other point than common meanness. Because as Leah points out, what point does desecration serve? None– it's just a dick thing to do.

  • @Julie: "You don't have to believe in it, but don't dismiss it as folly and farce. It is so, so much more than that!"What, then, is the recommended position? If I don't have to believe in it… what should my mental state be toward someone who says that a piece of bread turns into flesh, regardless of how many thousands of years of theology are behind it?What is your stance toward literal creationists? Surely their position is so, so much more than a ridiculous proposition that deserves ridicule, right? Isn't a saddled dinosaur a deeply sacred extension of cherishing every word of god's book?Also, what do you say toward the huge disagreement among Christians about which to emphasize: "This is my body" or "Do this in memory of me"? There are plenty of Christians who think that their "in remembrance" once-per-month celebration has reasons which "stem from Christ."Lastly, if one cannot understand the Eucharist from the outside, how does an outsider ever get "inside." Isn't there a chicken-or-egg situation?

  • Because as Leah points out, what point does desecration serve?The point it serves is demonstrating to Catholics that their religious beliefs, however sincere or passionately held, do not constitute binding secular law. Since there were so many Catholics demanding that Cook be expelled, impeached, imprisoned, etc., this was obviously a point that had escaped many people, hence the reason for PZ's demonstration.

  • @Ebonmuse: I don't generally feel the desire to commit moral transgressions for the purpose of demonstrating that they're not illegal. The protesting Catholics are wrong to call for the boy's arrest, but Myers repeating and amplifying the offensive act doesn't isn't likely to make them understand the finer points of jurisprudence.

  • Well, I can't deny that. But if we decided to cease any act of speech or protest that didn't convince religious people to change their minds… suffice to say that a lot of atheist websites, including mine, would just have to be shut down entirely. 🙂

  • @JulieThere's really no more polite way to say this: belief that a cracker can somehow turn into the flesh of a man that died 2,000 years ago is a farce, no matter how much tradition is behind it. Arguing that a belief is legitimate because many people have taken it as legitimate for hundreds of years is a fallacy. I cite geocentrism.

  • One point that I see nobody making is that PZ's audience is not the irreligiously curious –, Ebonmuse's site and serve that purpose. No, it seems to me that PZ's purpose in the atheist movement is to keep atheists engaged, not convert new atheists (though some few are receptive to his style of argument).Now, we can argue as to whether or not PZ's antics serve that purpose or not, but it doesn't take a whole lot of reading Pharyngula to realize that he's not trying to convert people or get theists to listen to him.

  • If I can step outside of my own (ir)religious beliefs and just state that I am 100% behind the right of PZ to take whatever non-illegal stance he wants on religion and quite frankly I am shocked and appalled by everyone who would diminish his right "to be a dick" on the basis that they are offended by his Constitutionally protected First Amendment Rights.And yes, I am aware this same right applies to Fred Phelps. Sorry, but I am secular and have no sacred cows, Phelps' views are less valid than most people's but they are equally protected.Leah, can you please explain why mucking about with a piece of bread can ever be immoral? Please explain your basis of morality that calls something immoral that technically harms no-one, cannot be proven to have happened, and is done to a person's own property.

  • March Hare: no one is arguing that P.Z. ought to be jailed or making any case that would infringe his rights. Saying someone ought not is different than saying they will not be permitted to. I ought not hold grudges after a problem has been resolved or wish evil on others because I am currently in a fight with them. If I behave this way, I hope people will chastise me, and they have plenty of ways to do it that don't involve police.As to the moral question, if my position isn't clear by now after all these posts, I'm not sure how much more I can offer you. I don't think it's legitimate to acquire property through fraud as Myers did. Whether or not you think Catholic claims are correct, it's not controversial to say people were hurt and distressed by Myers's action (meeting the harm criteria). This kind of harm could be justified if it were the unwished-for side effect of a greater and necessary good, but I don't believe Myers's action was well tailored to any good that offset the harm. As we discussed, his desecration was not evidence against Catholic claims and did not help the student he originally referenced. Sadly, I believe the distress he caused was an essential part of his goal.

  • I wouldn't say no-one, but I obviously recognise that nothing could be further from your take on this.We have no way of knowing how Myers acquired the piece of bread. i think this is important. He may have solicited illegal goods by illegal acts, but that's a whole different 'crime' than what he's being accused of. And I am very much in disagreement that taking a communion wafer, freely offered, can possibly constitute a crime, moral or otherwise."it's not controversial to say people were hurt"Alas it absolutely is. I want evidence of any hurt that anyone could have conceivably suffered by this heinous act. I'll give you distressed, but only because people are idiots. (self included)I will also cede that upset was an intention in his actions – not necessarily distress though.The more I think about it, the more I get towards the central problem – the only people affected are Catholics or communion takers. The have to know what has happened, they have to discover that the wafer was consecrated, and they have to believe that the Eucharist can be damaged. This is belief upon belief upon belief. On top of a willingness to take offense at something that has absolutely no impact upon them. I started out as seeing thing as a bit of a dick thing to do, but based on showing up the overreaction of certain people, I have now come to the view that it is a necessary thing that we should do repeatedly until the religious finally get it into their heads that their silly rules are only sacred for themselves.

  • @Roger3: I think, to keep atheists engaged, it's better to do what Friendly Atheist does (and Pharyngula does plenty of the time, too) and report on political church/state problems and link to petitions or other actions to take. That's a positive, healthy way to keep energy high and fight for our side. What Myers did here was to pump up energy by celebrating the distress of the other side, and that's unnecessary and unworthy of our movement.

  • @March Hare: If I strike someone's friend or viciously abuse someone's friend verbally in their hearing, they experience distress which causes them pain. My actions hurt them (and probably the friend to). That I hurt them is not a controversial question. That is how (to the best of my knowledge) Catholics feel when they see the Eucharist/Jesus assaulted by others. They feel pain and hurt for the assault and they feel pain and hurt for the person who (either through ignorance or malevolence) is choosing to hurt others.To write off their hurt because it relies on a chain of belief is bizarre. So, too, do all pains. My pain when a friend is turned out of his house by homophobic parents is premised on by belief that he will suffer by this action which is premised on the belief that he is capable of suffering which is premised on the belief that suffering can be bad for him. Belief on belief on belief. Do you dismiss this my willingness to take offence at an event that has no direct effect on me?

  • Leah, I think you are taking a very dangerous line in your definition of harm/hurt.We have to take a view on what a reasonable person would expect.Would a reasonable person expect a Catholic to be offended (I will even give you harmed)? I would say so. However, we do not assign blame/punishment based on a reasonable view on what unreasonable people will do – otherwise you blame the cartoonists for the dead people caused by the Muslim over-reaction to them.We have to ask if a reasonable person would be expect to be harmed by the desecration of a wafer? No, absolutely not. This should be our standard for harm (with exception of protected members of society e.g children and the mentally disabled).I was looking to take a run at your last sentence, but I am not comfortable with the (probably unintentional) switching from offence to harm and back again.

  • By every reasonable account it was a hideous, hateful thing to do. Circumstance does not absolve an act of innate hatred; more popularly, two wrongs cannot make a right. That is the most basic moral theology ever.Is it bad that my entire adult life I've rejected atheism because these stunts seemed the whole empty core of the movement? I shouldn't judge a message by the messenger, but when that message is solely to rile distress and delight in it, what decent person would want any part?Leah, I admire you for not being a slave to arrogance and mockery. There's far too much frivolous cynicism out there — as I'm sure you're familiar, Screwtape is a great fan of flippancy. If atheists want to be something other than the most distrusted demographic in America, they must, as a whole, eschew tactics which inflict harm to others. And yet because there is no central authority to atheism — as you've noticed —it, like the Protestantism which made a public shift to the secular inevitable, almost certainly can't make that change.(Not even mentioning the inevitable dimension: What if PZ Meyers really is desecrating the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ?)

  • Joycey

    PZ Myers is a 2-bit biologist who spews hate against theists. He is also an attention and media whore!