PZ Myers, Illiberal Iconoclast: Why Catholics, Agnostics, and Atheists Who Value Freedom Should Be United in Their Opposition to What PZ Myers Did

When University of Minnesota biologist, PZ Myers, in a blog to his readers, asked them to “score” consecrated wafers from Catholic churches, and send them to him for Internet desecration, a line was crossed that no sensible liberal, secular or religious, should condone.

Mockery, parody, and blasphemy are forms of speech that should always receive vigorous and outspoken protection. But what PZ Myers did is of a very different order of seriousness. Myers called on people to broach a group’s inner private worship space, and what this means is that Myers 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, Catholics, atheists, and agnostics should call him on it, and not defend, intellectually or otherwise, his uncivil and illiberal gesture.

I’d like to offer one more analogy.

If Myers was an anti-Semite, and his call went out to his readers to pretend to be Jews, and visit synagogues, and steal symbols of their worship, and con rabbis, under false pretenses, into giving them something from their synagogues, so that Myers could get the objects in the mail and desecrate them on the Internet, we would have moral clarity on this.

We would recognize immediately that anti-Semites are harrassing Jews in their private religious practice, and we would condemn it in the clearest possible terms.

That’s what we need to do here.

This is what we need to do with regard to PZ Myers.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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12 Responses to PZ Myers, Illiberal Iconoclast: Why Catholics, Agnostics, and Atheists Who Value Freedom Should Be United in Their Opposition to What PZ Myers Did

  1. Ron in Houston says:

    You’re right, people need to speak out against PZ and his insanity. He has this online persona going of a tough uncompromising atheist, but instead he just looks like some stupid fraternity boy.

    I think you hit the nail on the head with your analysis.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Ron,

    I agree. PZ Myers’s Rush Limbaugh-like posturing is authoritarian in style, and ill-befits a person supposedly devoted to reason, intellectual vulnerability, and nuance.

  3. brooksfield says:

    Hi,

    I’m afraid I have to disagree with you there.

    There’s a slight, albeit essential nuance between stealing, say, an icon from a synagogue and what PZ Myers suggests.

    Legally speaking, any object that is wilfully given to someone for good is his/hers. PZ Myers does not ask people to dismantle icons or statues etc. from churches, he merely asks his friends not to eat the cracker provided to them, and send it by mail afterwards.

    Granted, apparently one who does not consume the cracker immediately after it is given to him is ipso facto excommunicated. Yet, especially when being excommunicated is their choice, I do not believe the church should have any say in this.

    In this particular case, Cook could perfectly have avoided detection and concealed the cracker in his pocket until he has left the church/chapter and then show it to his friend. Correct me if I’m wrong, but even then this would have been sacrilege, but not a crime. PZ Myers does not call for dismantling churches and selling what’s left as junk brick. He successfully points out that he can get a few packs of wafer and pretend as if they’re already consecrated and burn them on YouTube.

  4. Thomas A Nagy says:

    Myers presumes to be intellectually superior to all who came before him and those who have believed or do believe in transubstantiation.

    However, has he written a logical proof of his conclusions, or his positions? Where is his proof?

    Has he proven the non-existence of God, or merely boasted of his personal viewpoint?

    Does Myers also negate the beliefs of those who believe in an “astral body” or the “body double” that Robert Monroe spent decades studying in North Carolina? What of the conclusions that Monroe recorded as to Out of Body Experiences (oobe)? Can Myers, if he accepts OOBEs, prove that one is true and transubstantiation is not? And if Myers rejects the existence of a body double, can he prove this?

    Rather than get all worked up over the rantings of a delusional clown like Myers, one should put him in perspective along with others who males claims they cannot back up. The shame of it is that he is allowed to teach, but this says more about the state of education thatn it does about theology.

  5. brooksfield,
    The reception of Eucharist under false pretenses, by a Catholic or non-Catholic, is wrong. Just like it would be morally wrong to receive aid from a charity under false pretenses, or to collect money on behalf of the American Cancer Society but use it to buy beer (or worse, cigarettes).

    Failure to eat the body immediately does not, to the best of my knowledge, result in latae sententiae excommunication. Desecration of the Eucharist, or conspiring to do so, does (as do a handful of other acts). The Church does have a say in it, and your belief that it shouldn’t is immaterial. The Eucharist is give to be eaten immediately by the person receiving it.

    There is an exception to that last part. I’ve brought my wife the Eucharist after the birth of a couple of our children. I have a Pyx I use to transport the Body of Christ in such situations. Again, the Eucharist is given by the Church under the understanding that the Eucharist will be treated with respect and be eaten in the near future.

    Cook’s story has changed too much to accept it was a mere desire to show a friend…there are easier ways to show a friend what the communion wafers look like, such as going to a local Catholic supply store…or just asking the priest outside of Mass. One doesn’t need to attend Mass to get an unconsecrated host to show a friend.

    The desecration of the Eucharist is worse for us Catholics than desecrating an icon or statue…or even ridiculing the Church. That’s because it’s not the desecration of a symbol or a building, or mockery of the Church, but an actual desecration/defilement of the actual Body of Christ.

    If Myers were to desecrate a truck-load of unconsecrated communion wafers…well, I doubt there’d be a reaction. He knows that.

  6. brooksfield says:

    Anyone who believes in transubstantiation is fully entitled to hold that belief, but it’s still false.

    When discussing the existence/absence of a god or gods, the onus is on the person who claims there is a god. There’s a multiplicity of things that cannot be disproved, including the Flying Spaghetti Monster and Russell’s Teapot. The Judeo-Christian god is but one amongst that multiplicity.

    I don’t think PZ Myers would dispute a fact when it’s scientifically examined and proven. However, neurological studies examining people’s brains when they’re asleep is one thing and a cracker becoming a full-blown homo sapiens when subjected to the HCl in one’s stomach is totally different.

    Proving transubstantiation is false is quite easy. One can easily access ten million Catholics, make them eat the crackers and examine their stomachs, and as a control group, another ten million could be fed a consecrated cracker. Any observation and elaborate testing will prove that the crackers do not turn to a human being while inside someone’s stomach.

    It’s quite ironic that you refer to people who can’t back up their claims when you’re ranting on about a scientist whose first principle is to seek and present evidence for any claim he makes. Tsk tsk…

  7. santitafarella says:

    brooksfield,

    A little humility would suit you better. You do not exist outside of the universe, but within it. In other words, you cannot critique, with finality, a system that you are embedded in.

    This is why I am an agnostic, and not an atheist. It’s always possible, if I could ever step outside my embeddedness in the universe, that I would find something dumbfounding (such as being part of the dream of Krishna, or part of a universe created by a scientist embedded in another universe etc.).

    All human beings have factoids (things that they accept as true, without positive evidence, but that others do not). This includes Catholic transubstantiation and your belief that there is no transcendent intelligence outside of the cosmos.

    I realize that you cannot prove a negative, but the reality is that diverse human beings have to live in community together—and that means, at minimum, respecting each other’s private space.

    This is what Myers has violated. He is treating a group within the American community with disrespect. And your defense of him shows a sort of authoritarian impatience with diversity, and your own unwillingness to admit that you too possess factoids that you cannot formally prove, but must presume.

    All of us are embedded in the universe, and as such we do not have access to the whole story. Let’s give one another a little slack here.

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  12. Miss B. says:

    PZ Myers is an anti-Semite, plus a transphobe, sexist and misogynist. Go check out his online history.

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