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.