The Communion Wafer is Not Just a Cracker—But PZ Myers Shouldn’t Lose His Job for Saying So

PZ Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota, is an outspoken atheist and opponent of creationism. He has a popular website, Pharyngula, and is known to sometimes hang out with perhaps the best known living biologist and atheist in the world, Richard Dawkins.

But yesterday Myers did something extraordinarily dumb, flaming the Eucharist wafer as just a cracker:

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.

Myers was offering a mocking response to a Fox News story about a student at the University of Central Florida who left a mass without consuming the communion wafer. Some Catholics were apparently up in arms about this, and the student seems to have even received anonymous death threats for desecrating the host.

Naturally, a student receiving death threats can arouse people who believe in religious liberty to respond in solidarity with the student. But Myers response seemed, to put it in polite Freudian terms, overdetermined. Myers was obviously not just annoyed, but completely juvenile and bigoted in his response.

And now Bill Donohue and the Catholic League believe that they have caught Myers in a job-related ethical violation because it appears that Myers did not send his flaming blog missive from a private website, but from one delivered through his university’s web server. The Catholic League website made the following statement:

“The Myers blog can be accessed from the university’s website. The university has a policy statement on this issue which says that the ‘Contents of all electronic pages must be consistent with University of Minnesota policies, local, state and federal laws.’ One of the school’s policies, ‘Code of Conduct,’ says that ‘When dealing with others,’ faculty et al. must be ‘respectful, fair and civil.’ Accordingly, we are contacting the President and the Board of Regents to see what they are going to do about this matter. Because the university is a state institution, we are also contacting the Minnesota legislature.

“It is hard to think of anything more vile than to intentionally desecrate the Body of Christ. We look to those who have oversight responsibility to act quickly and decisively.”

In other words, they want Myers to lose his job, which I think would be a tragic ending to this sorry affair, and a blow to free speech. I do think it is reasonable, however, if Myers’ university wishes to disassociate itself with Meyers’s blog and not run it through its university server. The university, as an institution, should not be forced to associate with a particular professor’s expressions of free speech.

And Myers is, of course, wrong that the Catholic host is “just a cracker.” It is a symbol for many people’s contact with meaning and community, and to flame it in a gesture of disrespect is like going up to someone’s car and keying it because it’s “just a piece of metal.” People are likely to take it as a personal attack, and obviously people have in this case. Likewise, a flag is not just a piece of cloth, and a wedding band is not just a ring.

Exercising basic civility toward objects that people hold symbolically dear is called being a mature adult. If a person doesn’t do this, he or she shouldn’t be punished. We have free speech in this country, and even bigoted speech should be protected.

But a prominent biologist, using his worksite’s web server, should show better judgement than he did.

Myers’s website is here: http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/

The Catholic League website is here: http://www.catholicleague.org/release.php?id=1459

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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10 Responses to The Communion Wafer is Not Just a Cracker—But PZ Myers Shouldn’t Lose His Job for Saying So

  1. Aatish says:

    “Exercising basic civility toward objects that people hold symbolically dear is called being a mature adult.”

    I’m sorry, but I don’t agree with you. If you add the word ‘rational’ before people, then I have no problem with it. What people (especially religious people) need to realize is this: Unless ones beliefs have some basis in reality, other people have absolutely no obligation to respect them, no matter how strongly you hold them. I could very well deem eating donuts offensive as they are the living flesh of my toroidal lord incarnate, and this could inspire me to threaten people at dunkin donuts. If this were the case, a court would do well to find me insane and my acts criminal. Why should atheists and non believers respect beliefs that are by no means less absurd?

    If you can reason why your belief has any bearing in reality (personal convictions and supernatural deities aside), then you can expect it to be respected by a skeptic.

    “And Myers is, of course, wrong that the Catholic host is “just a cracker.” It is a symbol for many people’s contact with meaning and community, and to flame it in a gesture of disrespect is like going up to someone’s car and keying it because it’s “just a piece of metal.” People are likely to take it as a personal attack, and obviously people have in this case. Likewise, a flag is not just a piece of cloth, and a wedding band is not just a ring.”

    You’re totally off base here. A flag is just a piece of cloth just as a wedding band is just a ring. And a cracker is definitely just a cracker. The fact that it is symbolizes something to someone does not change its empirical reality. There is no reason to respect flags nor crackers, just because some other people do. However, there are very good reasons to respect personal property. Please don’t conflate the issue here, not every claim need be respected.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Aatish:

    I think you are being naive about what it means to broach a person’s symbolic space.

    I’m an absolutist with regard to free speech and gestures. I wouldn’t want to see anyone punished by the law for burning a flag or desecrating a host.

    But there is a difference between allowing such things, and intellectually defending the practice of broaching people’s symbolic space.

    If you know that someone has a symbol that they hold dear, however irrational that symbol is to you, basic civility suggests that you write a blog about its absurdity, or a book about it—or attempt to have a dialogue with people about it.

    But to snatch the symbol from the person, or sneak the symbol from a person’s church, and piss on it, or otherwise symbolically attack it, is a form of gross incivility and inhumanity. It is simply not the gesture that furthers dialogue. History suggests that when people start destroying one another’s symbols, they start fighting.

    Let’s not be coy here. Iconoclastic gestures are not forms of reasoning. A bullet shot through a host or a match put to a flag is not an argument. Spitting and kicking a symbol is not an argument. It’s a form of agression directed at the person who identifies with the symbol. It’s a form of humiliation. And it is more akin to a grunt and a screetch than to reason.

    I think that we are taking a step backwards if secular people, and I include myself among their number, act like hooligans.

    Reason and dialogue, please.

  3. Aatish says:

    santitafarella said:
    “But there is a difference between allowing such things, and intellectually defending the practice of broaching people’s symbolic space.

    If you know that someone has a symbol that they hold dear, however irrational that symbol is to you, basic civility suggests that you write a blog about its absurdity, or a book about it—or attempt to have a dialogue with people about it.”

    And basic civility has its bounds. Tolerance for irrational religious beliefs is acceptable as long as those beliefs do not hamper the life and liberty of others. I’m all for respecting people’s private symbolic space, and I’m sure PZ would agree, as long as that symbolism is not being used to oppress or being forcibly inflicted on others. That was not the case with Webster Cook. His life was threatened, and by taking this issue up with his University, his educational opportunities were placed in jeopardy. All this on the basis of a symbolism that has not the slightest basis in reality. This is NOT acceptable to a skeptic, neither should it be acceptable to any sane human being.

    Posting on your blog about the absurdity may be the prudent thing to do, but it is also rather ineffectual as a response directed to the perpetrators. In that regard, it makes about as much sense as does a candlelight vigil to stop genocide in Darfur – sure it might spread awareness to some degree, but it doesn’t actually affect the criminals in the slightest.

    Where is the reason and dialogue in religious intimidation? Why is the secular response invariably to overlook their threats and respond with platitudes? The university president’s response was to praise the importance of the Catholic Church. This is so typical that it doesn’t even surprise anyone any more. PZ’s words may be considered rude, but that does not make them any less pertinent.

    What PZ did instead was suggest an act of protest against this campaign of intimidation and hysteria targeted against Webster Cook for no good reason. One that was noticed by Bill Donohue and the rest of the thugs at the Catholic League. They need to be aware that there are people out there whose respect for their beliefs does not extend to allowing for thuggish intimidation.

    I agree it’s not an argument, but the argument has already been made many times before. It’s difficult not to feel frustrated and helpless if you actually care about the issue. This is an act of civil disobedience. Nobody was threatened or harmed by PZ (the same can certainly not be said for the Catholics) You may not agree with the approach, and that’s OK. But the tone of your article seems to indicate that we should tolerate baseless death threats.

    Also, please get your facts right.
    Pharyngula is not, and never was, run on the university server. For the last two years it’s been hosted at scienceblogs.com

    And I think it’s a bit rich that you criticize Myers, and then consider an appropriate response to irrationalism to be to blog about the absurdity. Have you ever read Myers’ blog? He has been one of the most tireless and well-informed voices of reason and skepticism that I’ve ever seen. He picks apart the claims of creationists case-by-case (and those of other groups with political agendas that are equally divorced from reality), and presents strong scientific evidence to back his case. What could be a more prudent and enlightening response?

  4. santitafarella says:

    Aatish,

    I appreciate our dialogue here, and I’m glad that neither of us has resorted to name-calling. I’d like you to read my blog post (which I put up today) talking about the distinction between blasphemy and iconoclasm. I’d like to see if you accept the distinction that I make.

    As to what you say above, I’m glad to hear that Myers’s blog is not in any way associated with his university. I’m not sure, however, if that is the case, why the Catholic League says that it is, and is quoting to the university its website policy statement.

    As to your conflation of what happened to the North Florida student and what PZ Myers did in response, I must say that the one does not follow from the other.

    If somebody phoned and sent emails to the North Florida student, flaming him with death threats, the appropriate response is to call the police. Death threats constitute a crime. There is no evidence that a priest from the student’s parish called in the death threats, and if one did, he would not have done so with the approval of his superiors.

    But what PZ Myers did was use the North Florida student’s ill treatment from obviously emotionally disturbed lay people as a pretext for encouraging iconoclasm.

    To dignify Myers’s iconoclasm with civil disobedience of the Thoreau variety is simply mendacious, to put it politely.

    It is like saying that neo-Nazis who spray a swastika on the side of a synagogue, or break in and steal books from its library, are just practicing a form of civil disobedience because they are mad at something they read in the newspaper.

    Make no mistake—what Myers is advocating is grossly illiberal and unworthy of defense from his fellow atheists and agnostics.

    As an agnostic myself, I certainly will not defend him.

    And yes, I read his blog.

    But his stock with me is plummeting by the hour. And that goes for Dawkins, as well (who has been defending him).

    Every hour that Myers stays dug in on his position is a black mark upon the agnostic and atheist community.

    And I’m watching Myers’s and Dawkins’s narcissism here and wondering how long their sheep will keep bleeting behind them.

    I, for one, am trying to be like Cher in “Moonstruck,” telling the zombified Nicholas Cage to snap out of it.

  5. Mike says:

    We should clarify that Pharyngula is at ScienceBlogs, hosted by Seed Magazine and not on university servers.

  6. roger says:

    “To dignify Myers’s iconoclasm with civil disobedience of the Thoreau variety is simply mendacious, to put it politely.

    It is like saying that neo-Nazis who spray a swastika on the side of a synagogue, or break in and steal books from its library, are just practicing a form of civil disobedience because they are mad at something they read in the newspaper.”

    PZ Myers didn’t spray a swastika on anyones church or synagogue. Or steal from their libraries. He nailed up a cracker to make a satirical point. Provocative? Sure. Offensive? Definitely
    But not the same thing in kind. And we all know it. Look at some pictures of that woman who was stoned to death for adultery. Compare them with pictures of the offending nailed up communion wafer, and tell me what constitutes an example of real intolerance and oppression.

  7. santitafarella says:

    Roger,

    With all due respect, what you are saying is total bullshit. Myers exercised deceit in the aquisition of a consecrated host from a Catholic church. It’s not something that Catholics distribute to nonbelievers. Period. In a liberal and civil society, you don’t want the privacy of religious people broached in this fashion. Nazis should not be entering synagogues to obtain for internet desecration synagogue objects (obtained by deceit or otherwise) and likewise atheists should not be entering Catholic churches, obtaining “crackers” under false pretenses, then throwing them in the garbage and posting them on YouTube.

    —Santi

  8. IanK says:

    It’s Bill Donohue, not Phil. We’re talking about the douchebag head of the Catholic league, not a retired talk show host. And it’s still just a cracker. A cracker that silly people think turns into human flesh when you eat it, but just a cracker nonetheless.

  9. Pingback: Monday Modern Art Madness Special Edition: The Wokest Trad-take on a Modern Art Monstrosity. – Gio's Content Corner.

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