Tuesday, May 11, 2010


Knee-jerk Atheism

PZ Megahertz has a very reasonable and good post on the mini-flap about Roger Ebert's twitter about the five racists-in-training who insisted on wearing American flag T-shirts to their high school on Cinco de Mayo. But this struck me:

Now, if I put my "Arrest the Pope" shirt on and walked down the street to the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and attended Sunday Mass, I would be acting like a jerk, attempting to irritate the church attendees just because I felt like being jerkish. I might have a serious message — the Catholic hierarchy has become an immoral defender of child rape — but that doesn't mean I should hammer every Catholic in my town with that message all the time, especially not when they are engaging in activities that have nothing to do with pedophilia, no matter how silly they are.

Provocateur that I am, I wouldn't do that. It makes the message simply random and made with the sole intent of being rude.

Say what?

PZ, in the course of the Great Frakin' Cracker Flap, sent his minions into random Catholic churches to steal (yes, that is the correct legal term) "hosts" from congregations that had nothing to do with Webster Cook:

I have an idea. 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.

I'm glad PZ has a better take today on what it means to be a jerk.

If someone hands you a cracker, then you walk off with it, can that be considered stealing?

Because, really, I should never accept pamphlets that people hand out then. If I don't do what they expect me to do with them, I could be held liable for theft, right?
Posts like this remind me why I like this blog so much, Mr. Pieret (If you'd forgive me for dropping in like this). I thought the exact same thing when I saw Dr. Myers talking about the story.

Jaryn, I think our host might have addressed your point (in a way) in some comments he left in another blog:


Read the whole thing, it's quite interesting.

I apologize to Mr. Pieret if this linkage is unwanted or putting words in his mouth or something, I just remembered coming across it waaaay back when, during the initial Crackergate brouhaha, and thought it might be edifying to bring it out again.
Wow, WIC, you have a better "internet memory" than I do! I probably never would have found that old comment thread. Thanks for pointing it out.


If someone hands you a cracker, then you walk off with it, can that be considered stealing?

So, if you hand your keys to a valet parking attendant, you've just given him or her your car? There is a clearly understood context to giving your keys to the attendant that all he will do is park your car and bring it back when you're ready to leave. There doesn't have to be a formal contract or a specific statement of the "rules" in order for the law to recognize that, if the attendant, instead, goes joyriding and smashes up your car, that he has violated your property rights in the car. Same with the ritual of communion, where the obvious intent is that the "cracker" is to be consumed by congregants as part of the ceremony and is not given out freely to passing strangers. And as to any claim that the church didn't demand proof that the person receiving the "cracker" was a Catholic in good standing, if you negligently leave your keys in your car there may be some legal consequences for that negligence, but there is no doubt that the person who takes your car without your permission is a thief.
Your rebuttal borders on nonsensical. I am not giving my keys to an attendant, I am at best loaning them to him for use during his job in the capacity of a parking attendant. I fully expect to get them back at the end of the night (or whenever I demand them).

Do Catholic Priests only loan out the crackers? Do they want them back after the individual is done with them?

The cracker falls under the same category as those people handing out free samples at the supermarket. If I am given a piece of meat on a toothpick, then throwing that piece of meat away is not stealing it.

I like this blog a lot, but you have a lot of strange hangups when it comes to PZ for some reason. I don't agree with everything he does either, but please stop being silly. A cracker is not keys to a car, nor can they be compared in any way. A cracker being compared to a free sample of food is, however, a fairly valid comparison.
...to steal (yes, that is the correct legal term)...

What complete and utter tosh. I expect better from you.

The crackers with extra mumbo-jumbo were freely handed to the recipients who chose not to eat them. At most the offense would be the breaking of an implied contract. Good luck prosecuting someone for that.

And your valet parking example is even worse (the contract is usually displayed at the drop off point).

Jaryn has it right with his supermarket example...if you take a free sample the tacit (and weak) contract is that you will eat it. It may be in poor taste to mail to someone who then photgraphs it in the garbage, but it's certainly not theft.
You're missing the point. You are, in fact "giving" the keys to the attendant. You have, however, an understanding that they will be used for a certain purpose. There is an agreement, even if not formally stated, that the "giving" is for a limited purpose. A breach of that understanding is what is called in the law a "misappropriation" of the property (or "stealing"). Consider if you gave money to a group who said it would be used for charitable purposes but, instead, they kept it for themselves. You didn't intend to get the money back but their keeping it for themselves is still misappropriation of your property.
Good luck prosecuting someone for that.

I see, it is only wrong if you get punished. A murder is not a murder if you get away with it?

And your valet parking example is even worse (the contract is usually displayed at the drop off point).

And if it isn't, you couldn't prosecute an attendent who took the car and kept it? Who's talking utter tosh?
"If someone hands you a cracker, then you walk off with it, can that be considered stealing?"

But, of course, Jaryn omits critical context. If someone hands Jaryn a Ritz biscuit on the street, it is not the same thing as if Jaryn attends a Catholic mass and presents himself at communion and I don't for a second believe he doesn't know it.

Now, the church situation wouldn't actually be stealing. However, walking off with the 'cracker', if the recipient were aware that she is being given it for a particular purpose, would be be fraud. Fraud is not held in higher esteem by the law than theft.

By presenting oneself for communion at a Catholic mass, pretty much anyone (and I'm sure both Jaryn and Martin DH know this perfectly well) knows they are not just being given free crackers to use in any way they wish. If they thought they were given the 'cracker' to do with as they please, then they would be open and honest about it and inform the person about to hand them the 'cracker' that they intend to take it away and use it in some other way. Of course, Jaryn and Martin DH know that if they were that honest, they wouldn't be give the 'cracker', just as Webster Cook knew he would't get one if he'd said what his purpose was.
"Who's talking utter tosh?"

That would be Jaryn and Martin DH.

In Canada, this would best fall under 'False Pretences' (S362) though the way the Criminal Code is worded, it could be theft (S322). It doesn't really matter, since the punishments are the same for both in a case like that of the 'cracker' con.

Rather than futz about with analogies, why not apply a bit of actual law to the situation of a person presenting himself at communion with the intention of using the 'cracker' for a purpose other than that for which he knows it is given.

"362. (1) Every one commits an offence who (a) by a false pretence, whether directly or through the medium of a contract obtained by a false pretence, obtains anything in respect of which the offence of theft may be committed or causes it to be delivered to another person;"

Put that together with S361's definition:

"361. (1) A false pretence is a representation of a matter of fact either present or past, made by words or otherwise, that is known by the person who makes it to be false and that is made with a fraudulent intent to induce the person to whom it is made to act on it."

and I'd like to see how Jaryn and Martin DH come to the conclusion no offence has been committed.

And it might well be prosecuted, especially if it wasn't a pure one-off, since such things are apt to lead to a breach of the peace if the con man is arrested by a participant in the mass and resists.

I'd be rather suprised if any US state has laws that allow one to misrepresent oneself in order to obtain something without any risk of punishment, but I'm not about to hunt around in 50 state criminal codes.

I love folk like Jaryn and Martin DH who think that merely being subject to laws means they know something about law.
"The cracker falls under the same category as those people handing out free samples at the supermarket. If I am given a piece of meat on a toothpick, then throwing that piece of meat away is not stealing it."

I love such confident pronouncements unaccompanied by any indication the person knows what he is talking about. And I'm certain Jaryn isn't simply making the distinction between theft and false pretences.

As with the 'cracker', the meat is given out with a particular purpose in mind. Jaryn knows the purpose is that he should ead it as a sample (it is well known in our society). Jaryn also knows the person handing it out expects those taking it will eat it. Jaryn also knows, and I'm sure he does, that if he tells the person handing out the meat that he intends to just toss it away, for instance, he will not be given the piece of meat. In these circumstances, by taking the piece of meat, Jaryn would be giving the meat giver to believe that he will eat the meat and doing otherwise with it would be obtaining the piece of meat by the false pretence he will eat it.

Perhaps Jaryn is one of those people who think that a false pretence can only be verbal.
Here is New York's law in relevant part:

1. A person steals property and commits larceny when, with intent to deprive another of property or to appropriate the same to himself or to a third person, he wrongfully takes, obtains or withholds such property from an owner thereof.

2. Larceny includes a wrongful taking, obtaining or withholding of another's property, with the intent prescribed in subdivision one of this section, committed in any of the following ways:

(d) By false promise.

A person obtains property by false promise when, pursuant to a scheme to defraud, he obtains property of another by means of a representation, express or implied, that he or a third person will in the future engage in particular conduct, and when he does not intend to engage in such conduct or, as the case may be, does not believe that the third person intends to engage in such conduct.

In any prosecution for larceny based upon a false promise, the defendant's intention or belief that the promise would not be performed may not be established by or inferred from the fact alone that such promise was not performed. Such a finding may be based only upon evidence establishing that the facts and circumstances of the case are wholly consistent with guilty intent or belief and wholly inconsistent with innocent intent or belief, and excluding to a moral certainty every hypothesis except that of the defendant's intention or belief that the promise would not be performed;

Clearly in the context of a Catholic Mass, the host is given with the understanding that the person receiving it is a Catholic who will use it as part of the communion sacrament. That entails consuming it on site. And going into a church and actively asking for the host (by the act of going up for communion) amounts to an implied representation that they will adhere to the communion sacrament. There can be no doubt that PZ and his minions knew what was being proposed violated such an implied promise, since he specifically said that he believed he couldn't get a host for the purposes he intended if he went to a local church himself. That is clear evidence of guilty intent on PZ's part and, necessarily, anyone who answered his call.
Looking over the entry again, it occurred to me that Dr. Myers might make a defense of stealing the Eucharist on the bases of the fact that "It wasn't simply random and made with the sole intent of being rude. It was made to make a point about the Webster Cook controversy and to show support to Mr. Cook."

IMO, though, the defense fails on two points--first off, as you said, he probably got that cracker from a congregation which had "nothing to do" with the brutal assault and persecution of Webster Cook. All this may have started over a ridiculous belief in magic crackers (for what it's worth, I don't believe in it either) but more likely than not that cracker had been taken from the hands of a priest who had nothing whatsoever to do with Cook's mistreatment, or was even aware of it for that matter.

However, even if one doesn't agree with that argument, it's hard to claim Dr. Myers had any 'higher' motivation like helping Cook either. As far as I can tell, besides showing ~*solidarity*~ with Mr. Cook, nothing Dr. Myers did actually helped the guy--as far as I know, nobody at his college, the student government, etc. went any easier on him because some professor over in Minnesota disrespected a consecrated cracker. It's not easy to see much of a 'higher motivation' for Dr. Myers besides, indeed, just being a jerk.
As I said ... somewhere ... back then, it would have been much more helpful to Cook if PZ made a trip to Florida to highlight the case and raise money for Cook's defense or even just urged his commentariat to set up such a fund.
Wait, are you seriously stating that I can be prosecuted for not eating a free sample when given one? Is there a EULA equivalent posted nearby that I automatically assume responsibility to use the cracker in this and only this fashion or face potential legal prosecution? I mean, after all, I acquired the free sample under false pretenses, according to your statements. They gave it to me assuming I would eat it, and I didn't, nor did I ever plan to, thus I'm committing fraud and can be arrested for not eating a free sample..

Supermarkets could have a lot of fun with this if they were so inclined. I'm sure they wouldn't, but 'wouldn't' is never the point, only 'can'. This country is going to need a lot of legal reform if this is actually possible.
Wait, are you seriously stating that I can be prosecuted for not eating a free sample when given one?

I think Mike is over interpreting there. But there is a considerable difference between getting a commercial enterprise, handing out samples to anyone passing by for advertising purposes, to give you a piece of their advertising material and invading a church that you are not a member of and deliberately intruding into their services, knowing full well that that they would not give you the object if they knew your intent. You'd have to do more in the case of the advertiser ... say, take the whole tray of samples and throw it in the garbage in front of everyone in the store (with or without a rusty nail), before it could be held that there was a interference with the advertiser's property rights in the samples. The difference is in the intent of the people giving out the property. The advertiser wants the most people possible to try their product and the church wants only its members to share in a religious rite.
But there is a considerable difference between getting a commercial enterprise, handing out samples to anyone passing by for advertising purposes, and invading a church that you are not a member of and deliberately intruding into their services

I'm no expert in either the law or Catholic doctrine, but if I may be forgiven for adding yet another 2 cents in, might Jaryn also be missing the distinction between who the free samples and the Eucharists are given to? Free samples and pamphlets are given to *anybody.* The *only* assumption their dealers are making is that people will eat them/read them. If I take somebody's free sample or pamphlet and then throw it in the trash, the *only* thing I've lied about is my intention.

However, in the case of the Eucharist, I was under the impression it was given *only* to Catholics. I mean, didn't a bunch of people get pissed off when some non-Catholics received it at Tim Russert's funeral? Therefore, when an atheist (or whoever) "scores" a magic wafer off of a priest, he has not only lied about his intentions but also his identity (he's not a Catholic, but pretending to be one--if the priest knew he was an atheist, he wouldn't give him the cracker).

Thus, it seems to me the 'false pretenses' involved in filching a Eucharist, even if it is (as I believe) an ordinary lil' cracker, are still somewhat more problematic than those involved with filching a single pamphlet or free sample.
"... knowing full well that that they would not give you the object if they knew your intent."

That is the key, from the legal point of view. The rest are merely going to quetions of the severity of the crime or the practicality of prosecution. If you obtain something under false pretences, it's a crime. This isn't 'over-interpreting, it is actually looking at the thing in the most straightforward way.

And yes, taking a pamphlet being handed out by his supporters at a talk by PZ Myers with your purpose not being to read it but to discard it so it isn't read by someone else is also a crime. It might not be prosecuted, but it isn't a moral, ethical or legal thing to do even if not prosecuted.

Getting back to the original business, regarding folk being jerks, taking a pamphlet under those circumstance makes you a jerk. PZ and the PZites who took part in his 'cracker' campaign reckon being a jerk is OK for the greater good, as they kindly define the greater good for us. You can make such an argument, but you can't make a reasonable argument that what folk like Webster Cook and the PZ 'cracker' con men got up to was legal.
It's not a "magic" cracker, either. Magic is the belief that a material thing has a power not proper to its nature, such as that a mirror, by breaking, will cause bad luck. But the communion wafer, qua wafer, has no powers that any such wafer might have. The Orthodox, Roman, and other traditional churches believe that the wafer becomes substantively Christ, but this does not endow the wafer itself with any magical properties. Otherwise, we would regard a ventriloquist's dummy as "magic" because "it" can talk.
And btw two of the five "racists in training" said that they themselves are of part Latino heritage.

Of course Latino (or Hispanic) isn't a 'race', so is racist even the right epithet to use? Perhaps a more generic 'bigot' might be apropos.

Then there was the fact that the following day (May 6th) 50 to 100 of the Latino kids marched (several waving Mexican flags) from the school to the school district administration building to protest that the five boys had not been further punished for the crime of wearing American flag themed clothing, in America.

This seems to be more of a cultural clash, stoked by the recent controversy over the AZ illegal immigration law, between those who self identify as Americans and those who self identify as Mexicans (despite most probably being American citizens themselves) rather than a racial or ethnic one (though ethnicity may play a part for some individuals on both sides).
Late to the discussion.

What is the value of the wafer?

It must be valued at less than $0.10. I've stolen pens that cost more.

I don't think doing this sort of thing is right. But, at the same time, it's too small to bother feeling guilty about.
What is the value of the wafer?

Petty theft is still theft.

But, at the same time, it's too small to bother feeling guilty about.

The whole thing was about the moral superiority of "rationalists" who find the "cracker" ridiculous over the benighted theists. If you are going to try to take the moral high ground, you better know where it is.
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