In case you missed it, PZ Myers has created quite a stir by taking a consecrated wafer from a Catholic Church with the express intent of desecrating it. He has a point, naturally:

By the way, I didn’t want to single out just the cracker, so I nailed it to a few ripped-out pages from the Qur’an and The God Delusion. They are just paper. Nothing must be held sacred. Question everything. God is not great, Jesus is not your lord, you are not disciples of any charismatic prophet. You are all human beings who must make your way through your life by thinking and learning, and you have the job of advancing humanity’s knowledge by winnowing out the errors of past generations and finding deeper understanding of reality. You will not find wisdom in rituals and sacraments and dogma, which build only self-satisfied ignorance, but you can find truth by looking at your world with fresh eyes and a questioning mind.

Does the idea that “nothing must be held sacred” include the notion of individual liberties such as the one Myers utilized ought be protected? Just asking.

But never mind. It was interesting to me that Meyers was surprised not by the overwhelming reaction by Catholics, but that there are Catholics at all!

Catholicism has been actively poisoning the minds of its practitioners with the most amazing bullshit for years, and until recently, I had no idea that a significant number of people actually believed this nonsense, or that the hatred was still simmering there, waiting for an opportunity to rise up in misplaced defense of absurdity.

Apparently, Mr. Myers doesn’t get out much.

Catholics, of course, are unamused at his theatrics–the eminently reasonable Jimmy Akin is calling for his job. The university may actually have some grounds for corrective action, given that its Code of Conduct requires that all university employees be fair and respectful to others. Whatever Mr. Meyers has done, it clearly has not been that.

Question for the non-religious readers: what make you of Myers’ actions? Anyone want to rush to his defense?

(Update:  Stupid spelling error corrected.  Good heaven’s, it’s becoming a trend!)

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

16 Comments

  1. Sacrilege isn’t a crime. It may be boorish, but it is protected speech, unless it is made with the express purpose to intimidate or threaten members of a protected class–burning a cross, for instance, in order to terrify a Black neighborhood. (Some folks think even hate crime laws are too restrictive; I’ll leave them to make the absolutist defense.)

    I do see an interesting point of comparison: what are we to make of a Christian missionary who desecrates a “pagan” shrine, for the purpose of showing the powerlessness of the local deities? It’s the kind of scene that used to be lauded at missions conferences. “We helped some of the villagers tear down their idols, and they were shocked and amazed to see that the crops didn’t fail. Many converted as a result.” From Myers’ perspective, what’s the difference? Do we only protect the symbols of “real” deities?

    It should be pointed out that Myers didn’t destroy someone else’s property. He didn’t spray-paint a mosque or litter in a cathedral. He didn’t tear out a page from someone else’s Quran or The God Delusion. He took what he was given, a cracker, and desecrated it in a fairly silly way. Once you’ve given someone a gift–in this case, the consecrated host–you have no legal authority to stop them from doing anything non-criminal with it, even if it is offensive.

    As far as I can tell, Myers isn’t a nihilist. Holding nothing sacred means holding nothing above suspicion, not holding nothing of value. You can argue with that claim, but don’t put words in Myers’ mouth.

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  2. Jim,

    For one, I didn’t accuse Myers of committing a crime. I don’t think anyone thinks he’s a criminal–the question is whether he should be subject to any corrective action by the University of Minnesota.

    I don’t remember any such stories from the mission field like the one you suggest is so frequent. Perhaps there’s a link missing? That aside, notice that your sentence is interesting–the missionary says they “helped” the locals tear down their idols. Such collaborative action changes the scenario considerably, don’t you think?

    I didn’t claim that Myers destroyed someone else’s property. Surely you don’t think that’s what it takes to be disrespectful at the University of Minnesota?

    I didn’t claim Myers is a nihilist. In fact, I don’t think I put words in his mouth. I certainly wasn’t intending to. I was simply trying to identify the limits of his “idol-smashing.”

    I’m genuinely interested in the argument for why Myers shouldn’t lose his job, or why his actions were appropriate for a professor at a state-funded university. Does this mean that Christian professors at religious universities can actively proselytize while disparaging other religions? Is that fair game in the name of academic freedom?

    I’m really not angry about Myers’ actions, nor do I necessarily think that Myers should lose his job. I’d caution you to not lump me in with those to whom I link.

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  3. I don’t know how far the right to boorish behavior extends, especially in a state-run university that has a Code of Conduct, which raises First Amendment issues that a fully private institution might never encounter. Each university is idiosyncratic in that respect, barring or encouraging whatever behaviors its community agrees upon. If Myers violated that code, then within the limits of the law, the university has every right to discipline him. I raise the criminal point not for your benefit, but for the benefit of those who started this whole “hate crime” and “speech code” business in the first place: the liberals, who have made boorishness a matter of jurisdiction. (Remember when conservatives found speech codes constricting, rather than useful? Dinesh D’Souza and David Horowitz, I await your vigorous defense of Myers’ actions.)

    That said, I have read books (such as the Bible) where Hebrews and Christians are ordered or otherwise encouraged to destroy idols; whether their own or others is hardly a concern. I’ve also heard (Protestant) missionaries talk about–and have read some exciting similar accounts about–destroying idols to destroy the “demons” that inhabit them. (In some cases, missionaries helped converts destroy “their own” idols, which didn’t seem to make the locals any happier, for good reason.) I don’t have a specific citation, but the history of iconoclasm, from ancient to more modern forms, is not exactly obscure, though, in the majority of contemporary religious practices, it is seen as extreme. (We can probably thank liberals for that.)

    Here’s a classic example from the 1500s.

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  4. Jim,

    You said: “I raise the criminal point not for your benefit, but for the benefit of those who started this whole “hate crime” and “speech code” business in the first place: the liberals, who have made boorishness a matter of jurisdiction.”

    This argument reminds me of the distinction between the political and the legal that I highlighted some time ago. I don’t think liberals are the only ones who have too quickly resorted to legal action.

    “That said, I have read books (such as the Bible) where Hebrews and Christians are ordered or otherwise encouraged to destroy idols; whether their own or others is hardly a concern. I’ve also heard (Protestant) missionaries talk about–and have read some exciting similar accounts about–destroying idols to destroy the “demons” that inhabit them. (In some cases, missionaries helped converts destroy “their own” idols, which didn’t seem to make the locals any happier, for good reason.) I don’t have a specific citation, but the history of iconoclasm, from ancient to more modern forms, is not exactly obscure, though, in the majority of contemporary religious practices, it is seen as extreme. (We can probably thank liberals for that.)”

    What should I make of the similarities between Myers and religious iconoclasts? Is it too much to claim that secularism has more religious impulses than it cares to acknowledge? It’s funny, but if your analogy holds, then Myers is really no different than the people he is trying to insult. That counts as irony, no?

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  5. “If your analogy holds, then Myers is really no different…”

    If an analogy holds, what does it hold? If, for example, paying taxes is sufficiently similar to visiting the dentist that “the analogy holds,” does that mean the paying taxes “is really no different than” a visit to the dentist?

    The similarity, as far as I can see, is that Myers and those who destroy pagan idols are coming from the same empirical starting point: this “god” you worship has no power, as demonstrated by a little experiment we’re about to perform. If it/she/he doesn’t strike us dead, then it/she/he isn’t real. If that means that anyone who makes a truth-claim about religion is religious, then anyone who makes a truth-claim about science is a scientist.

    I hope that analogy holds.

    But I don’t think Myers even intended to take his demonstration that far. He was baiting, and Donohue and many others took the bait. The whole thing is just stupid on all sides.

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  6. Jim,

    Sometimes analogies “hold” (i.e. hold together) better than others. I think that’s pretty evident and not in need of further comment.

    The dissimilarity between Myers and those who destroy pagan idols is that no Catholic I know thinks anything will happen to Myers for his behavior. Pagan idol worship tends to be more magical than anything–bring offering, rain falls.

    I didn’t suggest that anyone making a truth claim about religion is religious. My question is whether Myers’ iconoclasm is rooted in the same sort of religious impulse as the iconoclasts you mentioned. As best I can tell, it is. Myers, after all, is doing a bit more than making a truth-claim. It’s one thing to say the idol has no power–it’s quite another to tear it down as a demonstration of its impotence.

    That this whole thing is stupid is something we definitely agree upon. That said, it’s raised some interesting questions for me.

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  7. If Myers were really trying to make an empirical example of the folly of Catholicism, and not just rabble-raising, how would his impulse be in any way “religious?” Is all passion religious? Is patriotism religious? Is sports fandom? Selling Amway? I guess I’m trying to delineate a criterion for “religiosity” as opposed to fervor or enthusiasm.

    Maybe religious iconoclasts, turning the anthropologizing around and borrowing a thought from Stephen Roberts, harbor an unconscious atheism that tries to stop at one.

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  8. I don’t know that the university’s Code of Conduct would apply but I think that Jim’s characterization of Myers’ actions as “boorish” is exactly right.

    About Myers’ host desecration, it does make his point but serves only to provoke those to whom his act was directed. And let’s not forget how certain Protestants feel about the Catholic sacrament of the communion.

    Or Catholics in general.

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  9. What is this? Censorship?
    Or just a glitch?

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  10. Your posts are appearing just fine, prufrock.

    I also wonder, Matt, what separates “magical thinking” (give an offering, rains come) from “prayerful thinking” (say a prayer, and a wafer transubstantiates), if there even is a clear demarcation possible, and it’s not just a matter of degree.

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  11. Jim,

    The problem of the criterion is lurking everywhere. Necessary and sufficient conditions for religious? Call me a particularist–I know it when I see it, and Myers seems to have it. :)

    As to what separates “magical” from “prayerful,” for many people, not much (unfortunately). I didn’t make it explicit, but in my own mind the willful response of a being separates prayer from magic. The laws of cause and effect are broken in prayer.

    Prufrock, I would hardly take Jack Chick’s tracts as exemplary of Protestant thought on the matters of Catholics. And no, it wasn’t censorship–for some reason, those few posts showed up in our moderation queue. Apologies.

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  12. I know Chick’s views are not representative of Protestants–I did say “certain Protestants”–but I just wanted to point out an extreme example that would likely cheer Myers’ actions, although not his intent.

    It’s easy to disbelieve a self-caricatured version of Christianity but that is not my concern here.

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  13. “Pagan idol worship tends to be more magical than anything–bring offering, rain falls.”

    This sounds itself like a caricature of “pagan” religions, where magic plays a role, but usually at the behest of a special practitioner, while personal worship is more directed toward a “willful” being. Even the phrase “bring offering, rain falls” itself gives no clue to the implied link the causal chain.

    When I was an undergrad, I wrote a paper arguing that much of the Old Testament could be described as totemic and “magical,” especially the parts where the Ark of God does freaky things, like making Dagon’s idol topple, or causing an outbreak of hemorrhoids.

    I would strongly recommend that you read Things Fall Apart, which, though fictionalized, is at least a researched and sympathetic and nuanced view of “pagan” beliefs from an insider’s perspective.

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  14. “This sounds itself like a caricature of “pagan” religions, where magic plays a role, but usually at the behest of a special practitioner, while personal worship is more directed toward a “willful” being. Even the phrase “bring offering, rain falls” itself gives no clue to the implied link the causal chain.”

    Perhaps it is a caricature. The pagan religions of Ancient Greece and Rome fit the description fairly well, though.

    Also, I recognized that I didn’t make the causal chain explicit, which is why I said I implied it, but didn’t spell it out.

    As for the Old Testament, I am doubtful that such elements comprise “much” of it.

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  15. […] not alone.  There are any number of bloggers and other commentators who are willing to wink at the death threats and stand up for the communion […]

    Reply

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