Posted by: Ken Brown | July 11, 2008

Fundamentalists Come in All Kinds

A minor explosion occurred this week in the “culture wars,” started by a surprisingly small fuse. It seems a certain Florida college student attended Catholic Mass at a local parish and, instead of consuming the consecrated bread (which Catholics believe is literally the body of Christ), he took it home with him. When he initially refused to return the wafer, he unleashed a storm of protest that might shock anyone unfamiliar with how seriously Catholics take the Mass. Among the hysterical reactions to the incident, a spokeswoman for the parish was quoted saying “if anything were to qualify as a hate crime, to us this seems like this might be it.” Bill Donohue, President of the Catholic League, even called this an attempt to take “the Body of Christ hostage,” which was “beyond hate speech.”

In response, outspoken atheist scienceblogger PZ Myers wrote a blistering rant against “Dark Age superstition and malice,” mocking Catholics for even comparing the theft of “a cracker” with true hate crime:

Wait, what? Holding a cracker hostage is now a hate crime? The murder of Matthew Shephard was a hate crime. The murder of James Byrd Jr. was a hate crime. This is a g——-d cracker. Can you possibly diminish the abuse of real human beings any further?

Now if he had stopped there, I’d probably be agreeing with Myers, crude and disrespectful though he was. In fact, the student in question eventually returned the wafer because, he claimed, he felt his life was in danger. Ironic. Maybe it’s just me, but I tend to think death threats ought to be considered a more serious crime than disrespect of a religious ceremony. Jesus, I am sure, can handle the disrespect towards his Body shown by an ignorant college student “stealing” a consecrated wafer. But death threats against a student? How do you think Jesus views that? The Church, after all, is also believed to be Jesus’ Body, and I have a hard time accepting that a stolen piece of the consecrated bread can possibly be considered to do greater harm to that Body than the kind of vitriol some have leveled against this student.

Besides all that, I think the concept of “hate crimes” is seriously out of hand anyway, coming dangerously close to criminalizing thought. As I see it, if a crime is committed, the criminal should be punished for the crime itself, not for some presumed motive that the court attributes to him. Why should a crime be punished more severely just because it was motivated by hate rather than, oh I don’t know, spite, or greed, or lust, or even boredom? (For that matter, I’d think a person who can kill merely out of boredom ought to be considered a greater threat to society than one who kills out of hatred, but that’s just me.) Intention should be relevant to crime, not the particular motive, or else we open the door to punishing beliefs and motives themselves, even where no actual crime is committed. In fact, that is precisely what has happened. Now that the concept of crime has been stretched in that way, simply saying certain politically incorrect things (like homosexuality is a sin) is now viewed as a “hate crime” by certain groups, which is not only absurd, but a serious threat to our freedom of speech. In short, “hate crimes” are ridiculous enough as it is, without adding disrespect for a religious ceremony to the list of illegal activities.

So like I said, if PZ Myers had stopped with defending the student and mocking Donohue’s absurd claim that the incident was “beyond hate speech,” I’d probably agree with him, though not with his abusive and vulgar tone. But Myers did not stop there. His post went on to encourage the willful desecration of the Eucharist:

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 g——-d 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.

As you might expect, his horde of sycophants have added a few thousand comments offering more of the same. Apparently they are all so blinded by disbelieving indignation that Catholics would consider “a cracker” so important, that they fail to notice how Myer’s own response is quite as absurd and over-the-top as Bill Donohue’s, indeed, much more so. But it seems there are Fundamentalists everywhere, and in the sequel, both Donohue and Myers have found their inboxes flooded with vile and hypocritical hate mail.

All I can say is, if hate were a legitimate crime, there seem to be a lot of people guilty of it right now.


  1. I wonder what would happen if the Eucharist was allowed to go moldy.

    Would it return to freshness 3 days later?

    This thing just points out how far from relationship with Christ those people are who truly believe that religious rituals are more important than people.

  2. It reminds me of when the Pharisees were critical of Jesus for, inter alia, allowing the disciples to eat the heads of grain on the Sabbath – and so they went out and plotted to kill Him (….also on the Sabbath…..)

  3. Alex and SCL,
    It’s true that a lot of this sounds suspiciously Pharisaic–straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel–but I don’t want to join the throng of those disrespecting Catholicism. If you truly believed that the bread and wine become the real presence of Jesus, you would take its desecration pretty seriously too. Though I disagree, they do have a legitimate basis for their view in scripture, so I can’t fault them for taking the Eucharist seriously. In fact, one result of all this is that I’m rather ashamed at how little concern we Protestants hold for it, myself very much included.

    But, as you say, some of these people have seriously lost perspective, and to turn a foolish act of disrespect by a college student into an international incident only makes Christianity look ridiculous, not to mention hypocritical.

  4. Nice, balanced response.

  5. Just to be clear… I was really commenting on the death threats and not the Catholic view of the Eucharist — for which I have a great deal of respect.

  6. Don’t worry, I wasn’t accusing you (or Alex) of disrespect, merely trying to clarify my own position.

  7. What stands out to me is the incredible cowardice of those who openly and gleefully mock the Christian religion in order to make a point about freedom of speech. If their concern for freedom of expression were as great as their fear they might try drawing some cartoons of Mohammed. I remember a university newspaper somewhere in Oregon was so very proud that they had offended a few Christians by depicting Jesus as a homosexual. They huffed and crowed about how bad ass they were in the fight for free speech. I wrote them a letter and called them pussies for not depicting Mohammed as a gay. I have very little patience with these kinds of cowards.

  8. Great post, and I share your concern about hate speech laws. But in terms of how hate crime laws are usually used in the US, they are to show intent for another crime being committed. I think you see the same dynamic in our differing definitions for other crimes; pre-meditated murder is worse than a crime of passion because we recognize intent.

    In any case, we can expect the non-Christian to have more outrageous statements, but we should hold ourselves to a higher standard in public discourse. Meyers was outrageous, but the reaction to him has been outrageous too.

  9. Majorsteve,
    I can’t comment on cowardice, as PZ is in this case responding to a particular incident (involving Christians), not to religion in general. But it’s hypocritical to accuse him of disrespecting Christianity while simultaneously suggesting that he do the same to some other group. And even if that is not your intent, that is how such comparisons are usually interpreted.

    I have no problem with using an analysis of motive (hate or otherwise) to establish the severity of the crime, I’m just uncomfortable with punishing the motive itself.

    As for those who sent Myers death threats, however, that’s another matter entirely, and is rightly illegal.

  10. I wasn’t commenting on PZ, I’m talking about all those who find Christianity an easy mark for their very public ridicule while conveniently overlooking Islam’s current crimes against humanity. Some people hate all religion equally, but they are too afraid to say anything about the diabolical religion of Islam.

  11. Ken, I just wanted to voice my support for your comments on hate crime. I tend to agree.

    As an atheist, I am embarrassed by stunts such as Myers is pulling now – particularly because I feel that he so often gets things very right (for example, in exposing the great dishonesty and hypocrisy of the makers of Expelled).

    I have to remind myself of Niven’s Law (number 16 on this list): “There is no cause so right that one cannot find a fool following it.”

    Although Myers is not a fool, he certainly is good at playing one when he chooses.

    It is worthwhile for someone to occasionally mention to Catholics how bizarre their belief re trans-substantiation seems to non-Christians (particularly atheists). But there is nothing productive (or rational) about Myers’ declarations in this affair.

    However, as others have said here, threatening to actually do violence to a person is certainly a more criminal act than threatening to do violence to a symbol.

  12. Thanks Timothy, I agree completely. And I like that “Law”!

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