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