Wednesday, July 09, 2008
Knowing full well I'm taking on an 800 pound gorilla with nothing more than a popgun, let me explain why I think PZ is only partly right -- and the smaller part -- about this.
First, the background: a student at the University of Central Florida, for reasons not made clear, apparently took communion at a Catholic church, a ritual supposedly reserved for members in good standing in the faith. This involves being given a small piece of unleavened bread officially dubbed "the Eucharist" -- what PZ calls "a cracker." Instead of swallowing the bread, which is a part of the ritual, he carried the eucharist away, supposedly to demonstrate to a friend "what it meant to Catholics." The student apparently succeeded in that objective beyond his wildest expectations, in that Catholics the world over are furious and the young man has even received death threats, despite his having returned the eucharist.
PZ is, of course, one hundred percent correct about death threats being insane and anyone who made one is a demented fuckwit -- though I prefer the more correct technical term "criminal."
Where I disagree with PZ is the notion that the arational nature of the symbolism that Catholics attribute to the eucharist means that others should be able to violate those symbols with impunity. PZ goes as far as to propose to obtain, no questions asked, eucharists for his own purposes:
Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There's no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I'm sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I'll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won't be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls, which would apparently be a more humane act than desecrating a goddamned cracker), but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web. I shall do so joyfully and with laughter in my heart. If you can smuggle some out from under the armed guards and grim nuns hovering over your local communion ceremony, just write to me and I'll send you my home address.
Quite apart from the fact that eucharists are personal property belonging to the church and it is the church's right to dispose of them with whatever conditions it chooses -- making what PZ proposes technically theft and the receipt of stolen goods -- let's try running another scenario to see if symbolism is meaningless:
Say someone -- Kent Hovind, just for fun -- sent a message to his considerable number of supporters asking them to do what it takes to get him Darwin's notebooks, which Hovind promises to joyfully and with laughter in his heart to treat with profound disrespect and heinous notebook abuse resulting in their destruction. Remember that THEY'RE NOTEBOOKS -- pieces of paper smeared with ink. They have as little intrinsic value as those crackers. Before you start telling me that the notebooks have "historic value," give me a rational definition for that notion. You can't even argue that any of the information would be lost, as the notebooks have all been copied and translated (from Darwin's bad handwriting) and photographed and scanned. Despite all that, when I saw some of Darwin's notebooks at the American Museum of Natural History a few years back, I nonetheless felt a deep emotional and intellectual connection to the man and his work that was not diminished by the fact that I was fully aware the feeling was arational.
Think of all the things we value in our lives far beyond any rational worth they have -- a wedding ring, a deceased parent's picture, an old book. We are a symbol-creating species and, if we have any such thing called "rights," we have as much entitlement to be reasonably secure in our symbols as we have to be secure in our other metaphorical "possessions," such as our "dignity" and our "honor."
I'm just going to say that PZ's response is somewhat proportional to the response shown by the Catholic church and all of the secular authorities they've commandeered to protect their sacred crackers, and leave it at that.
It's a given that Bill Donahue and the Catholic League will act hysterically. And one spokesperson for the diocese probably overstated the case in calling it a "hate crime," simply because there is (as far as I know) no evidence of intent on the student's part, just thoughtlessness. The only secular authority that seems to be involved is TCF, which has merely stated that people who feel agrieved by the student's acts have a right to access the school's disciplinary procedures, presumably in the same fashion a store could if the kid was caught shoplifting.
But what PZ is proposing to do is of the same category of action as burning a swastika in a synagogue's lawn -- minimal damage intended to inflict emotional injury on others. The fact that PZ would see the importance of the symbolic act in one case but not the other, based only on a subjective judgment of "degree," is not a very good excuse.
At the same time, I can definitely see your point.
Still. You'd best be taking a good, sharp machete with you into the shower tomorrow morning. ;-)
Eucharists are made by the millions every day as some guys in dresses mumble some magic mumbo-jumbo over yeast free crackers. If one (or two, or a thousand) get ripped off they just have to cast another spell and, voila, more Jesus bread.
Darwin's notebooks are unique...once they are gone they are gone for good. Somewhat akin to the extinction of a species.
Perhaps your allegory would hold more weight if you had used Xeroxed copies of Darwin's notebooks.
The value of a wafer is derived from some outmoded bits of Aristotelean philosophy, the ideas of essences and accidents. We've rejected these ideas for centuries, but they live on here as a kind of magical thinking.
I guess I'll start saving my grocery lists then, since they're all unique and will be worth big bucks some day then.
... the notebooks have tremendous historical value ...
No, as I said in the post, no information will be lost if the notebooks themselves are destroyed, since they have all been photographed, scanned, copied and so forth. The only "value" the originals have is what we symbolically place on having the things that Darwin himself touched and wrote in. That "artifactual value" is no more rational or logical than the "bits of Aristotelean philosophy" that you find outmoded and that you've rejected.
Frankly, people who think it's okay to emotionally hurt others simply because they don't share the same beliefs have a lot in common with the worst sort of religious people.
I'm glad you posted about this, because it crossed my mind as well, but I think you're wrong.
You're travelling down the slippery slope into absurdity. Where do you draw the line between symbols worthy of protection, and those not so? If communion wafers are worthy of protection, then what about the rusted-out Ford on my front lawn that reminds me of my grandpa? What about revving my Harley-Davidson motorcycle at 3 in the morning, which is a symbol of my American freedom? What about my AK-47, a symbol of strength?
There have to be some sort of criteria for determining whether a symbol holds any value, otherwise everything's priceless. Which then means everything's worthless.
Except your examples all deal with public nuisances or potential threats. I agree that a big stack of consecrated wafers left out on the church front yard would not be due respectful handling if they were duly declared a nuisance--but that doesn't apply at all to private, out-of-public-view use.
I think if a guest at your home took a sledgehammer to your grandpa's truck, and then defended their action by saying "it's just a hunk of metal," that would be equally condemnable and disrespectful...with the caveat that a truck with special value to one or a few people is a different order of magnitude than a religious artifact with special value to millions of people.
Before you start telling me that the notebooks have "historic value," give me a rational definition for that notion.
Intrinsic value, yes.
Monetary value, not at all.
At a first approximation, the historic value would correspond tohow much the item would fetch at open auction.
Where do you draw the line between symbols worthy of protection, and those not so?
As I noted, I'm proposing that people should be reasonably secure in their symbols, just as we are reasonably secure in our personal rights. We determine that in the same way as we do in the law, by balancing a collective determination of what counts as "important" rights, the impact exercising those rights have on others and including all other rights (as in this case, the right to private property and the right to set membership qualifications and rules for private organizations such as churches).
That's not to say this argument relies on enacting a law -- many of our agreed social relations apply the same balancing test without legislation -- but that it is, to me, the default template to be applied to social interractions.
The choice of religious beliefs (or non-beliefs) are widely admitted, even by atheists, to be important to individuals and are rightly considered a basic right. Catholic belief in the indwelling of god in the eucharist does virtually no harm to others (as opposed to, say, jihad). Despite this highly unusual instance, there is no serious impact on the rights of others growing out of that belief.
Your example of revving a Harley-Davidson motorcycle at 3 in the morning is an instructive one, but you've drawn the wrong lesson from it. The Catholics passing out eucharists to people they had no reason to believe were other than their co-religionists in their own church are like the people minding their own business trying to get some sleep in their own home in the middle of the night. It is PZ who wants to break into their "space," disrupt their peaceable activities, disturb their peace and assault their sensibilities, all in the name of exercising his "right" to make a point. Whether or not we pass a law to prevent PZ from doing a "wheelie" down the center aisle of St. Patrick's, reasonable people can say it is wrong.
At a first approximation, the historic value would correspond tohow much the item would fetch at open auction.
Paid in dollars or euros or yen? Cash or check or plastic? You know, all those symbols that we use to represent how much we assign "worth" to something? Is a baseball hit by a drug-inflated cretin rationally worth hundreds of thousands of otherwise under-utilized dollars that could be better spent feeding hungry children? Is the market "rational" or is it just the collective irrationality of populations? Is collective irrationality of that sort any more worthy of respect than religious irrationality?
I just think that when people contend for something, surely that something is in some way "valuable", and you seem to me to be minimising that aspect of value; it might be reasonable to compare Darwin's notebooks to a Gutenberg Bible, but to a wafer?
I grant you it's all about symbolism, but still think your comparison is not apposite, even though I agree with your point that deliberately violating something held sacred by some group (without good reason) is boorish.
PS I wish to clarify that John sans surname above is not I.
I'm slow, but I get it. I'm too literal sometimes.
As to whether PZ is being gratuitous in this case, well that's a judgement call I think.
I realise that he has something against religions and faith. Was he struck by a cross when young?
I'm sure that he wouldn't like it if someone snuck into his lab and took a zebra fish, it's not the value of the fish it is the violation of space.
In this case the space violated is in two parts; the private space of the church and the emotional space of the congregants.
It of course seems trivial to Myxylplix, then again it isn't his worldview being offended against.
To me, the main story of interest here is the hysterical reaction from the Catholic side. If they'd just said: "Please don't do that; it hurts our feelings" I'd be inclined to respect that in the same way as I would like my feelings about my family mementos to be respected. But the howlers go well beyond that, in rhetorical hyperbole that is revealing of their values (swiping a Host is objectively comparable to hate speech? To kidnapping? WTF?!) -- they're essentially asking the rest of us to respect their *claims* about the Host, not just their *feelings*. And any hint of taking secular actions against Cook is strictly beyond the pale: if he is Catholic they can excommunicate him, or make him say a zillion Hail Marys or whatever -- but they have *no* right to expect the secular authorities (including the UCF admin) to back up their hurt feelings with real-world penalties.
Seems they are trying to outdo the US Baptists, in that regard Myzlle is correct to cast aspersions.
Not to excuse any overreaction, but fearful and hurt reactions are exactly what you'd expect from people whose most important symbol has been "attacked" or "defiled" in one way or another. It was no accident that segregationists were bombing and burning black churches to cow the African-American community (no, I'm not saying that's what PZ is proposing), precisely because those churches were such a powerful and unifying symbol.
It's more important to find out what the Catholic authorities do once the emotions cool, rather than the words they used when emotions ran high (just as I'd be more interested in what PZ actually does if he happens to come into the possession of some consecrated hosts, rather than what he said he'd do when this story first broke).
Poking peoples' emotions with a sharp stick is likely to make 'em squeal and it's no use pretending to be surprised.
One more time: *no they don't*.
They are supposedly given only to members of the church in good standing who are expected to treat them in a certain fashion (though they usually rely on an honor system -- they're in freakin' church after all!).
They have the right to impose conditions on who they are given to and what those people do with them. Nor can the kid involved claim any ignorance of the rules, since he was raised Catholic himself.
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