The Line Between Blasphemy and Iconoclasm: Why PZ Myers Crossed It, and Why Atheists Should Take Him to Task for Doing So

The right to blaspheme religion—as well as mock irreligion—must be vigorously protected.


This may seem like an uncivil statement, but it is actually the opposite.


Nothing could be more corrosive to human interaction than the inability to express one’s true thoughts. Therapists have long told us that family relationships are only as strong as the amount of truth that can be safely expressed within them.


How much more so with the human family?


Of course, in our day-to-day interactions, people wisely avoid discussing religion and politics. But it must be possible to honestly speak about them somewhere. And that is one of the functions of media and the Internet: to give free expression to thoughts and feelings that may be inappropriate to display elsewhere, such as the workplace.


Thus, when a person places a crucifix in a vat of urine or draws an image of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, and displays it on the Internet, that person is saying,

I feel that religious sensibilities are treated with too much deference in the public square and I reject the concept of the sacred as such.

You may not like such a message, but it is not without intellectual content and there must be a place for sentiments like this one to be expressed publicly.


Toward the beginning of George Orwell’s novel “1984” a man living in a totalitarian society takes the fateful step of writing a diary. The moment his pen touches the paper he perceives it as the signing of his own death sentence—and yet he continues.


He begins the diary with this dedication:

“To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone.”

If we forbid cartoonists to draw Muhammad, or the creators of “South Park” to make fun of Richard Dawkins—and if we drive them into isolation by threat of violence or law, and force everyone into polite conformity in the name of respect for religious opinion, then that diary dedication cannot be addressed to our time.


Think about that.


Now having said this, why is PZ Myers’s recent call to his blog readers to “score” consecrated wafers from Catholic churches, and send them to him for Internet desecration, of a different order of seriousness than blasphemy?


Because Myers is calling on people to broach a group’s inner private worship space, and what this means is that Myers has moved from the realm of BLASPHEMY to ICONOCLASM.


Iconoclasm is the destruction of sacred objects taken from others against their will.


Iconoclasm is not just a gesture of disagreement or mockery, but an infringement upon the rights of people to practice their beliefs without expectation of harrassment.


An extreme example of iconoclasm is this passage in the Bible (2 Kings 10.26-27), in which the monotheist King Jehu, in a fit of Taliban-like zeal, had a temple to Baal destroyed, and its ruins turned into a urinal, a place to take a piss:

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.

PZ Myers’s call to his readers to steal hosts from Catholic churches is in the family of this kind of Jehu-like gesture—it is simply being concealed from full consciousness because he is asking them to obtain “a cracker.”


But we might absorb the disturbing import of his request more fully if he were to ask his followers to steal hymnals from churches, or statues of the Virgin Mary, large or small, and desecrate them, or spray paint a church wall with the word “ATHEIST.”


If Catholics sold consecrated hosts to tourists in Catholic gift shops, then desecrating a host would be fair game for Youtube video desecration (though uncivil, and in extraordinarily poor and juvenile taste).


But they don’t. There is an expectation of unharrassed privacy around consecrated wafers, and they are as sacred a symbol to Catholics as the icons within their churches.


Hence Myers asked his readers to broach the boundary between blasphemy and iconoclasm, one that no liberal society can condone and go on being liberal.


In a civil and free society, iconoclasm is every bit as bad as racism and sexism. It makes the exercise of basic freedoms impossible, and makes all of us susceptible to hooliganism. 


That’s why Myers should apologize. He shouldn’t lose his job, but he should apologize.


And if he doesn’t, atheists and agnostics should call him on it, and not defend, intellectually or otherwise, his uncivil and illiberal gesture.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to The Line Between Blasphemy and Iconoclasm: Why PZ Myers Crossed It, and Why Atheists Should Take Him to Task for Doing So

  1. Christopher Giustolisi says:

    Calm down, it’s just a wafer

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