Friday, July 25, 2008
Well, as is known now by all ("all" being that small subset of humanity familiar with the science blogosphere, instead of the truly important cultural news, such as that surrounding Paris Hilton's latest outing), PZ Myers has carried out his stated intention to destroy a supposedly "consecrated" (i.e. solemnly intoned over) eucharist/cracker.
I've already explained, here and elsewhere, why I think it was legally wrong for PZ to obtain the cracker in the manner he indicated he would. However, I have not attempted to locate it on any scale of wrongness beyond noting that it pales in comparison to death threats, explicit or merely subtly menacing.
Instead, let me tell you about my own act of eucharistic sacrilege. I was raised a Catholic, meaning I was forced to spend a portion of every Sunday in extreme boredom and most of every schoolday being moderately terrorized by nuns. It never seemed to take, however. Despite a few brief bursts of halfhearted piety, I felt neither close to any of the manifestations of the Christian God nor particularly terrified of them.
Indeed, my earliest memory* of personal involvement in religious ceremony was standing in a line in a classroom waiting to be marched off by the nuns to our "First Confession" to have our tender souls shriven in preparation for our "First Communion." As I stood there, I was considering what sins I could lie about committing so that the priest would think I had a "good" confession.
You might say that I never saw the point of religion.
Fast forward some 40 years to when I received a rather desperate call from a close relative. Her daughter was about to undergo her own First Communion and she needed a "sponsor," which required an adult who is not the child's parent. For various reasons, there was no other family member who could serve and the mother was begging me to do it because otherwise the girl would be the only one in her class who would have to have some unrelated stranger "assigned" to be her sponsor. I remembered enough about childhood to know that being the one singled out is rarely a good thing and, in any event, the mother was of the semi-hysterical type who could not help but convey the sense of something being wrong to her child.
I could manage to stand spending some time in church for reasons other than a funeral and I was genuinely fond of the girl. Even if I was not particularly in favor of initiating children into anything before they were close enough to adult to make up their own minds, I knew that nothing I did or refused to do was going to stop the ceremony and I saw no reason it should be a time of stress for the child. The problem was that part of the ceremony is to take communion with the sponsoree. Quite apart from my own rejection of the faith, I had long ago failed to meet the minimum requirements permitting someone to receive the sacrament of communion. In effect, I had been excommunicated by default.
Why should I care? I probably had even less reason than PZ to respect the eucharist, having seen the whole rigmarole up close and having had the medieval scholastic metaphysics drummed into me by oh-so-solemn clergy. The eucharist meant nothing to me. But I had to think long and hard before I would agree.
If you need to wonder why, imagine someone accepting an invitation to a Jewish friend's house for a Seder with the intent of waiting until no one was looking and spitting in Elijah's Glass. I have no need to share in the beliefs of other people to respect them and their persons and their places. I'll be happy to argue with them about theology or public policy or just about anything but, if there is anything such as secular morality, going into peoples' homes or other places of sanctuary and defiling them is wrong ... not to mention counterproductive to the maintenance of a free society.
So, did I do it? Yep.
I don't try to excuse it ... it was wrong. It was a type of desecration, in which I went into a church that was no longer mine, if it ever had been, and made a deliberate mockery of the right of those people in that place at that time to practice their beliefs in peace. But I did it for the most human of reasons: kin. And I saw it, and still see it, as the lesser of two evils -- a judgment I take responsibility for.
I wonder, if someone as clever as PZ had put his mind to it, he could have done better.
* Caveat: Like all early memories it is quite possible that this one is distorted by later wish fulfillment but it is, I think, substantially true.
In this case, the care for the youngster -- whether she is doing this under peer pressure or for more complex reasons -- is more than sufficient to make your participation (most especially for the motives you adduce) the kind of support that it seems to me is mandated to Christians (and the sort of thing that any well-socialized atheist/agnostic would also approve). That the "sacrament" is meaningless to you -- or maybe even less than meaningless -- does not bother me (nor would it likely bother any Jesuit I've ever known :-)) Helping the girl _is_ of very considerable "meaning", and overwhelms most of the "theology" or doctrine-mongering some uptight congregants might want to indulge in.
"Well, as is known now by all ...PZ Myers has carried out his stated intention to destroy a supposedly "consecrated" (i.e. solemnly intoned over) eucharist/cracker.'
[BTW: Tut, tut. The wafer/cracker/host is not "the eucharist" -- that is the rite in which the priest consecrates the elements to become the Body and Blood of Christ.]
No one with a positive IQ and the slightest education could have any doubts that PZ could "destroy" the "cracker." But what the hell is the point? Why indulge in such a gratuitous insult knowing full well that it _would_ be insulting? Just because some moron waxed apoplectic about such things? Whatever the legalities, that is just horridly childish, in all of the worst senses of the word.
I've generally had a great deal of respect for Myers; it will be a while before that can be re-established.
I was an atheist altar-boy and thought nothing of it. It was either do it (i.e. lie) or face opprobrium from my family and community.
And I know for sure I was not the only one.
I had and have no real qualms that my solution was the best possible under the circumstances. Nor would I fear any Jesuitical judgment on my act ... though being sloppy in my sacremental terminology would be another matter altogether. ;-)
About PZ, I only point to the legalities because I think (Hey! I'm a lawyer!) they establish the nature of the act as petty theft, even under totally secular criteria, as the starting point of any moral analysis, as opposed to the claims by so many that the hosts were being "freely given away" and, therefore, it was somehow okay to desecrate them.
I held out hope to the end that PZ would come up with some clever way to "abuse" the host(s) without actual harm and then return them to some church or to the moron-in-chief, establishing, if not necessarily his moral superiority, at least his greater maturity. I thought the involvement of the nail to be a particularly bad choice under the circumstances.
You do know, don't you, that when I was a kid we were told if we were in some place without a Catholic church and we couldn't attend Mass, we could go in good conscience to an Episcopalian/ Anglican service. I just wanted you to know that you're almost as good as Catholic!
Well, if you don't, why bother to have them in the first place? ;-)
Practicing them, on the other hand ...
Michael: I'm not sure it was so gratuitous, by the time all was said and done (and I see that it aint't over yet, at UCF). Normally, I would agree with the practice of respecting other folks' "meaningful objects" (eg. religious symbols, family mementos, whatever) as a matter of social courtesy if nothing else. I think we all have a right to a personal sphere where we can do whatever we like, without having to justify it on rational grounds to anyone else. On that view, Webster Cook's original offense was a purely ecclesiastical matter to be settled between him and his church (and in a sensible world, it would have been, and the rest of us would never even have heard about it).
However, it didn't stay in the private sphere. The local Catholoonies -- subsequently abetted by Donnyhoohaw -- didn't only engage in rhetorical overkill (though that was bad enough): they agitated for the university to take action against Cook -- which they are now doing, and also against Cook's companion, who seems to have been an entirely innocent spectator. (And I'll merely note in passing the similar attempts to get PZ in trouble with UMinn).
This is an outrage. The attempt to second the secular authorities to enforce their purely religious rules is an intrusion into the common public arena -- one that must be opposed without compromise, just as we oppose attempts to teach creationism in the schools, or to apply the Sharia code to disputes of family law.
In that vein, I interpret the Great Desecration as a political statement: No, the rest of us are under zero obligation to respect your rules or your symbols. And if you try to force that on us, then you can expect some pushback.
Granted, that doesn't quite match with PZ's stated intent (to show that "Nothing is sacred"). But the worst I can charge PZ with on that score is doing the right thing for the wrong reason. (That, and one can quibble about whether the details of what he did convey exactly the right symbolism).
One minor point about Myers cracker frackin' episode that it could have been a tactical error. While it was just the Case of The Purloined Wafer, Webster Cook was perceived as the victim and local Catholics were seen as irrational and oppressive, probably to the embarrassment of most Catholics elsewhere. Myers solicitation of other wafers to desecrate was taken as a direct attack on the beliefs of Catholics everywhere. It gave them something against which they could unite in oppposition and obscured the original incident which was the more damaging to the public image of Catholicism.
I understand the atheist revulsion against some aspects of religion but attacking all believers because of the actions of a few is unjust in my view.
Now, hold on. All I've seen is that Cook and the campus organization, Catholic Campus Ministries, he has had a running dispute even before this incident have filed mutual complaints against each other with the student conduct court. Now, apparently, CCM has also filed charges against Cook's buddy. This is the same as saying two sides in a fight both filed assault charges with the police. It doesn't imply that the university is moving against Cook or that there is any liklihood of significant punishment of him by the school. The only action against Cook I am aware of is that the school senate, which he is a part of, has impeached him and may remove him from his office, not for the cracker incident but for allegedly representing himself as part of the student government, though, as with all aspects of this story, the details are not clear. The story about Cook's buddy implies that Cook may have lied about who he was to a university official (a security guard, perhaps?).
In any event, if PZ's real concern was Cook, wasn't there an even lesser evil (or even a positive good) that PZ cvould have pursued? How about a visit to the campus in positive support of Cook (instead of multiplying the emotional heat already there) and/or fundraising so Cook and his buddy could have the best counsel to represent them and prevent any unfair consequences?
That was the real point of my post. There is no evidence that PZ, who supposedly represents the "rational" atheistic community, did anything but go off on a self-indulgent emotional jag and whip up an irrational frenzy among his sociological group against a disfavored "outgroup," the exact same conduct he complains so bitterly against when religionists do it.
As far as I can see, all PZ did is take a situation where immature people were acting irrationally and multiply it by several tens of thousands. And desecrating sacred objects is to "poilitical statements" what painting swastikas on synagogues is to political campaigning.
Re: I wonder, if someone as clever as PZ had put his mind to it, he could have done better.
It may be arguable that to not putting his mind to it, he demonstrated his disdain of that artificial respect that is demanded.
There's no question that PZ wanted to demonstrate his disdain for religious practice. He has the right to hold that belief and to express it, within the same limits placed on everyone. The question is what he really showed disdain for by his action. I maintain that what he showed disdain for was the right of people unconnected with Cook or any action the university may (or may not) take against him to be free in their persons from unwarranted intrusion by others. If the right to the security of our own persons and places is only "artificial" and can be violated with impunity by anyone who merely happens disagrees with us, then none of us have any rights, PZ included. You do not protect your own rights by gratuitiously violating the rights of others ... you just just wind up making "rights" synonymous with "power."
In my personal opinion no religion merits respect. That does not mean that I don't respect some of the people or some of the actions (e.g. charitable works, disaster relief) that religions inspire.
I do believe that religions merit tolerance and courtesy as long as they do not try to control what I (or society in general) do. This works reasonably well in England.
Elsewhere, unfortunately, many religions try and impose their dogma on non-believers. If you don't share those beliefs this comes across as other people trying to control your actions for nutty, arbitrary, reasons.
So although I agree that PZ's activities were intolerant and offensive (in themselves) to certain religous factions, I can see why he apparently decided to push back against the creeping imposition of theocratic 'respect'. After all, once you can demand respect as a right, you can eventually demand punishment for those failing to show it.
...as in the British cases of the protestor threatened with prosecution for holding a placard describing Scientology as a cult or those threatened with prosecution or actually prosecuted for wearing clothing that bore the slogan "Bollocks to Blair"
First - Don't you mean Confirmation? Our kids had FHC and no sponsor was needed (JAR - I'm agnostic, my wife is RC).
Second - From a purely dispassionate perspective, PZ was a letdown. From someone who was promising all the whizbangery of some new unforeseen desecration-ness, he resorts to millennia old sameness? C'mon.
He says something rhetorical. His groupies goad him into actually doing it. They have to repeated request it. He realises he opened a bigger can of worms that he intended and he has to "please" his groupies without overly offending his bosses at UMM, so he falls back on a tried and true sacrilege. For those of his followers claiming this was the next best thing to sliced bread, they need to read up on their history as it pertains to RC sacrilege.
If Bill D had any brains, he'd play it off as "Is that all you can come up with? Atheists have been doing that for centuries and the RCC hasn't folded." It would give BD the chance to: a) edumacate his flock about their own history & b) possibly take some of the luster off of PZ's cred by pointing out he has no imagination and boxing him ino a corner.
Aside - Hi John M. Looking forward to more discussions with you!
Ah! Indeed you are almost undoubtably correct! That shows how little I was interested in the actual ceremony ... or the continued deterioration of my brain, whichever explanation you prefer.
BTW, I do think (though reading between the lines is a dangerous occupation) there was some reluctance on PZ's part to carry through but Donahue won't do as you say because he is an idiot ... which is one point in PZ's favor, I guess.
The curse of lawyers. "But then again ... " is never far from our lips and annoys our clients no end sometimes.
Thanks for the kind words anyway.