Pissing on Baal’s Temple, Burning the School of Socrates, Breaking Icons in Calvin’s Geneva, Blowing Up Buddhas, and Desecrating Crackers: Why PZ Myers Should Apologize—and Why He Probably Won’t

Iconoclasm is the destroying of what is held to be sacred by others.

And given the disturbing history of iconoclasm throughout human history, it raises the question of how troubled thoughtful people should be by the University of Minnesota biologist, PZ Myers.

This past week, Myers, in a bizaare, but mercifully brief, anti-Catholic rant, asked his readers at his popular blog, Pharyngula, to sneak a consecrated Catholic host out of a Catholic church and send it to him. He said that he wanted to record himself desecrating it, and then post it on the Internet:

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.

When we typically think of iconoclasm, we perhaps think first of the destruction of temples or the smashing of idols, as in this fearful gesture of iconoclasm, under the Taliban-like reign of the zealous monotheist Jehu, recorded in the Bible, in II Kings 10:26-27:

And they brought forth the images out of the house of Baal, and burned them.

And they brake down the image of Baal, and brake down the house of Baal, and made it a draught house unto this day.

A “draught house” is a polite way for the King James translators to tell us that the ruins of Baal’s temple were used by the Judeans as a place to take a piss.

Iconoclasm has disturbing precedents not just on the “Jerusalem” side of Western cultural history, but also is represented on the “Athens” side as well, as when Aristophanes, in his comic play, Clouds, ends his play with the gleeful burning of the school of Socrates. Plato famously attributed at least part of the reason for Socrates’s death to the popular prejudicial passions inflamed against him by Aristophanes’s play.

What I think Myers is not yet acknowledging is that the destruction of cultural symbols typically forebodes the marginalizing and destruction of people, and that a civil dialogue between people is rarely possible in an atmosphere of iconoclasm.

Iconoclasm, in other words, is an ancient form of prejudicial expression that ought to draw as much horror from contemporary people as racism and sexism.

Am I saying that Myers’ gesture is in the family of historic iconoclasm—even though it’s just against “a cracker.”

Yes, I am.

If, for example, Myers had asked his readers to smuggle out of a church an icon of the Virgin Mary, of whatever size, large or small, so that he could desecrate it on a Youtube video, we would recognize more vividly the nature of Myer’s gesture, and its ugly emotional primitiveness.

Myers, in his call for his readers to assist him in an act of iconoclasm, has thus dishonored himself and ill represented secular humanism, to which movement he imagines himself to be a member in good standing.

But no one, religious or not, knowing the history of our species in general, and the history of iconoclasm in particular, should advocate it against one’s opponents today. And unfortunately, Myers joins a dishonorable list of figures by doing so.

Here are some of iconoclasm’s crasser practitioners and advocates:

  • Jael in the Book of Kings
  • Aristophanes in his play, Clouds
  • John Calvin, in his destruction of Catholic art and icons in Geneva
  • Nazi book-burners in Vienna
  • Anti-Vietnam War American flag burners in the 1960s
  • Taliban fundamentalists in Afghanistan gleefully dynamiting the Bhamian Buddhas
  • Fundamentalist Pakistanis burning Danish flags
  • PZ Myers calling for people to enter Catholic churches and sneak out consecrated hosts for Internet desecration

Will Myers reconsider the rashness of his actions, and apologize, or will he become the embarrassing George Wallace of the secular humanist movement?:

Secular iconoclasm then, secular iconoclasm now, secular iconoclasm forever!

As of this writing, Myers appears to be digging in his heels, and at the RichardDawkins.com website, there is a call for letter writers to defend Meyers, and assure that he doesn’t lose his job over this.

I agree that Myers should not lose his job. We have freedom of speech in this country—and that includes the freedom to indulge in offensive speech and gestures.

But Myers’ call for engaging in iconoclasm should not be justified intellectually. And people who self-identify as secularists should not, in a knee-jerk fashion, defend his stupidity, and like lemmings, follow him off his cliff.

In short, Myers should not be held up as a free-thought hero.

He’s not.

Instead, he’s playing the fool, and playing his admirers and supporters for fools.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Pissing on Baal’s Temple, Burning the School of Socrates, Breaking Icons in Calvin’s Geneva, Blowing Up Buddhas, and Desecrating Crackers: Why PZ Myers Should Apologize—and Why He Probably Won’t

  1. Pingback: Confidence Theists, Confidence Atheists, and Bayes’ Rule | Prometheus Unbound

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s