P.Z. Myers: Jerk or Criminal?

P.Z. Myers: Jerk or Criminal? July 24, 2008

Over the past couple of weeks, the blogosphere has been ablaze with controversy ignited by biologist and blogger P.Z. Myers’ threatened (and later claimed) desecration of a Eucharistic host. Myers’ actions were met with many a forceful rebuke, and rightly so. Curiously, though, there were no calls among Myers’ critics for him to be jailed or fined for his actions, nor was there much discussion about how it was too bad that people were free to engage in this sort of offensive behavior without the threat of legal sanctions.

What do I say this is curious? Because it is the position of the Catholic Church (or, at least, of Her current leadership) that the sorts of acts Prof. Myers claims to have performed ought to be against the law. Pope Benedict, for example, said the following back in 2006:

I do not wish to enter into the complex discussion of recent years, but to highlight one issue that is fundamental to all cultures: respect for that which another group holds sacred, especially respect for the sacred in the highest sense, for God, which one can reasonably expect to find even among those who are not willing to believe in God. When this respect is violated in a society, something essential is lost. In European society today, thank goodness, anyone who dishonors the faith of Israel, its image of God, or its great figures must pay a fine. The same holds true for anyone who dishonors the Koran and the convictions of Islam. But when it comes to Jesus Christ and that which is sacred to Christians, freedom of speech becomes the supreme good. This case illustrates a peculiar Western self-hatred that is nothing short of pathological.

Similarly, during the controversy over the Danish Mohamed cartoons, the Vatican press office issued a statement declaring that “the right to freedom of thought and expression, sanctioned by the Declaration of the Rights of Man, cannot imply the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers,” and that governments “might and should intervene eventually according to the principles of national legislation.”

Not only that, but the reluctance I suspect most Vox Nova readers would have at criminalizing blasphemy or religiously offensive speech is, if not a uniquely American trait, then at least a particularly American one. While Americans are generally speaking more religious than Europeans, they are also less likely to think that religious blasphemy should be against the law. And while no break down is given by religious denomination, my guess is that American Catholics would not favor such laws at a higher rate than the general population.

Nevertheless, I’m inclined to think that the Pope is simply wrong on this one (and I suspect that deep down even those who often accuse American Catholics of “Americanism” wouldn’t disagree). Criminalizing speech because it might be offensive to some religious group is just a really bad idea, and while the double standard the Pope notes is real, the solution is not to simply add Catholics to the list of groups one is forbidden to criticize, but to get rid of the list altogether.


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  • Desecration isn’t criticism. Slander isn’t free speech. Inciting a riot isn’t free speech. Just because thought is sometimes required to distinguish the two acts and said conclusion may in some people’s opinion cross the line doesn’t mean that we can’t speak substantively on the topic.

  • Donahue stress level

    Ignoring him would have been the best punishment. Were criminal law to eventually punish this, the punishment would be so trite as to actual time served… as to further insult the Eucharist but this time from the state’s direction. Ignore such people. I fear the Catholic League thru always fulminating… sometimes gives life to things that would die of non interest within days.

  • A. Nonny Nonny

    Had the person who provided Myers the Host been caught by ushers, couldn’t Myers face trouble for encouraging the disruption of a religious service, especially if that person is a minor?

    I do wonder why, say, the Catholic League hasn’t looked in to that possibility.

  • ben

    Clearly Prof. Myers has violated the highest commandment, and justice demands punishment.

    I expect the Vatican’s stance on protecting the religious sentiments of all believers is an attempt to balance the real duties the state owes to true religion with the V2 declaration on religious freedom.

  • Europeans aren’t really familiar with free speech. Simply speaking badly about someone, a religion etc. can get you into legal trouble. “Insult to one’s honor’ is such an offense. David Irving, that Nazi creep, spent a year in prison in Austria for Holocaust denial.

    Don’t forget that the vatican was also pretty sympathetic with Muslims in the Danish cartoon riots (yes, that’s how far we’ve come).

    One might have a case for disruption, if some kind of scuffle breaks out, but ‘mis-using a wafer’ is not a criminal offense. As a conservative european AND the head of the Catholic church, it’s no wonder the pope doesn’t believe in free speech. Religious leaders disagree on all kinds of things, but they still are birds of a feather.

  • dhconway

    The answer is not just “criminal” vs. “commendable.” In a functioning community, there are other ways to indicate community disapproval. The discussion tends to flow towards legislating our way to community-perhaps hyperlegislation is a problem and discussion and aribitration is a good. A larger topic, however.

    How does one engage an enemy other than lobbying for legislative reforms to box them in in terms of behavior or box them into a jail? Is the ability to make tough laws the summit of our Christian experience and societal influence?

    Perhaps the “top-down” “legislate morality” motto of one flavor of Christianity and religion needs to fall away and another form take root in society.

  • Kurt

    Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons:

    Margaret: “Father, that man’s bad.”

    More “There is no law against that.”

    His son-in-law, William Roper: “There is! God’s law!”

    More: “Then God can arrest him. . . . The law, Roper, the law. I know what’s legal, not what’s right. And I’ll stick to what’s legal. . . . I’m not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can’t navigate. I’m no voyager. But in the thickets of the law, oh, there I’m a forester.”

    Bolt, then has More say when assailed by his son-in-law with the charge that he would give the devil the benefit of law:

    More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the devil?
    Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
    More: Oh? . . . And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? . . . This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down . . . d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? . . . Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

  • Nate Wildermuth

    On the deepest level, Jesus doesn’t need us to defend him. Jesus knows what he’s doing, allowing himself to fall into the hands of a disbeliever. He’s done it before, and look how that turned out.

    On a more practical level, MZ rightly points out that Myer’s action is akin to yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded room. Moreover, it is plainly theft. I would support some sort of special legislation that relied upon restorative justice – leading Myers to attend weekly meetings with Catholics hurt by his actions, or perhaps leading him to volunteer at a local Catholic charity. Justice without mercy betrays itself.

  • Brian D.

    “Donohue Stress level” – amen.

    Let’s not try to use the State as a response to this activity, or any others like it. Catholics trying to use the force of the State plays right into the atheist suspicion we have no qualms about using power to suppress our enemies.
    You know, what I find most outrageous not his alleged desecration, but how any Catholic could send some kind of threat as a response. Even a spiritual threat. Its obvious that this guy harbors a deep hurt that comes out as an irrational hatred for all religion and religious people. This kind of childish behavior is to be expected. In his mind he thinks he’s doing us all a favor.
    It makes me want to punch a wall on how stupid fellow Catholics can be in their response to such behavior. What kind of Christian thinks he’s doing the the Eucharist a favor by leaving him hateful comments or threatening his life?

    And Christ died for P.Z. Myers too. I will pray for the dude.

  • Nick

    Because the liberals in the Church have successfully removed all outward and inward recognition that a concecrated host is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, is it any wonder that non-believers regard it as a cracker? Next time you approach to receive our Blessed Lord, kneel and receive Him, hands-free, from the hands of a validly ordained minister. If that is no longer possible at your local parish, then insist that it become so.

  • I agree with you that it is as well that we do not have laws against blasphemy — for the reason that I have little confidence in the making and enforcing of laws being done by those who are reasonable and correct in their beliefs. (And have no desire to see such laws used as weapons by those who are neither.)

    Myers is a particularly nasty case, I must say. Even a couple years ago when I started reading ScienceBlogs (and briefly followed but quickly abandoned his blog) he was a bit over the edge, and these days he’s pretty much crackers. (No pun intended…) He almost never blogs about science at all anymore, but spends all his time spewing hate against Christians. And from what those who follow his career say, he’s effectively ceased doing any academic writing in favor of his blogsphere ranting.

  • heinrich

    In the United States of America Mr. Myers has the right to throw his cracker in his trash.

  • Benjamin Franklin

    Nate WIldermuth-

    What sort of special justice would you require for Bill Donohue, who cannot imagine anything “more vile” than the UCF’s missappropriation of the eucharist, which apparently included the threats of physical harm incited by the fatwa issued by the Catholic League calling for the suspension of the student?

    Wouldn’t you say that those actions are more vile?

    Myers, whose actions I feel were not the best way to handle the situation, were primarily done to show Donohue the stupidity and the moral vacuity of his, and the Catholic Leagues’ statements.

    So I say that Myers, Donahue, the UCF student, and the worthless vermin who sent threats of assault, and death to Cook and Myers were all jerks, but Myers is certainly not a criminal.

    To make heresy and blasphemy of particular religions criminal, is to desecrate the true freedom of America.

  • Jack Picknell

    The Law has been broken several times through Mr. Myers actions.

    It starts with the fundamental Contract principle of exchange. The ministers of the church are the original property owners, having in their possession consecrated Eucharistic wafers. The church offers these in exchange for your agreement to her holy teachings, your intent to abide by those teachings, and to consume the host.

    That is as clear a transaction enforceable under the rules of contract exchange. As the price clearly demanded by the church in exchange for the host was not given, the right of ownership does not transfer to the holder of the Eucharist, but is a theft of property.

    Let us assume a nominal value of the original item at 1 penny. Is the theft of a penny not still a theft?

    Mr. Myers incited the perpetrator to commit an actual real-world crime. By counseling another to commit a criminal offense Mr. Myers is also guilty of a criminal offense.

    There are laws against using the mail to move stolen goods, and there are laws against exporting and importing stolen goods. There are also laws against receiving stolen goods, as well as laws against deliberate property destruction.

    Regardless that the nominal value enforceable in various world courts would be about one penny, Theft, transporting stolen goods, receiving stolen goods, and willful destruction of property are real enforceable crimes.

    He has thoroughly documented, and displayed the evidence of his crimes, and has publicly posted confessions of his acts. If we charge him in the courts of earth, in the end, Mr. Myers would have a well earned criminal record and we would be offered a penny as restitution.

    Unfortunately for Mr. Myers, it is Simony to accept the Caesar’s image in exchange for God’s. The Church is in no way beholden to accept any monetary court award as restitution, and in adherence to her own teachings, cannot consider such recompense as of any where near equal value.

    Mr. Myers is in an impossible legal position here.

    In eye for an eye terminology, Mr. Myers owes one, in-tact, consecrated host to the Catholic Church, which creates a problem of infinite insolvability for Mr. Myers. He cannot replace what he destroyed, and he cannot in any possible way obtain another host without repeating the same crimes again.

    Mr. Myers has confessed and pleads guilty. It is fair to insist that Mr. Myers find, repair, and return the property that he counseled to have stolen, received into his possession, then willfully damaged, and discarded. I perceive that as a fair sentence that he be made to paw through the Garbage Dump until he finds the God he pierced.

    Luke 12:59
    I tell you, you will never get out of there until you pay back the last penny!

  • Dominic

    I should have expected gerald to come up with yet another of his non-committal and patently non-Catholic responses to a spiritually dire issue.
    I have to admire his consistency however.
    He really should consider bowing out before this blog turns into another Cafeteria due to his actions.

  • If Jesus forgave the people who nailed him to a cross, then surely his true followers who were sincerely committed to following his example of how to behave in this world would do their best to follow his example and forgive this action.