Posted by: Ken Brown | July 12, 2008

UPDATED: Reactions to PZ Myers and the Catholic League

UPDATED July 24: Myers did indeed carry out his threat to desecrate the Eucharist.

The PZ Myers debacle has spawned an inordinate amount of blog commentary (two weeks ago, someone claimed more than 1300 blog reactions had been posted, most defending Myers—one can only guess how high that number must now be). Here are a number of worthwhile responses that I’ve seen. I may add more as I find them:

Prof. Myers, Webster Cook, and the Eucharist
This is the most comprehensive analysis of the series of events that preceded Myers’ actions, written from a Catholic perspective.

The Case of the Communion Cracker
This atheist doesn’t address Myers’ own role in the controversy, but he does offer a clear-sighted analysis of the events that preceded it.

Is there anything to the Catholic League’s complaint against PZ Myers?
Analyzes the University of Minnesota-Morris regulation against linking offensive material from the university website. Myers is a tenured professor there, and, until it was removed under pressure from the Catholic League, his blog was linked by the website.

I should add at this point that I would consider it a tragedy if Myers lost his job for this. Don’t get me wrong, what he said and did was reprehensible, and a reprimand is probably in order, but to fire him (which seems pretty unlikely, given that he is tenured) would not only be a serious blow to free speech and the tenure system, it would only confirm the hysteria of Myer’s supporters, turning him from an outspoken atheist into a martyr, and doing terrible damage to Christianity’s reputation.

P.Z. Myers Must Be Fired
Though I disagree, this post provides the most compelling case for Myers’ firing:

He also is in violation of the University of Minnesota Code of Conduct, which holds that faculty members “must be committed to the highest ethical standards of conduct” (II:2) and that “Ethical conduct is a fundamental expectation for every community member. In practicing and modeling ethical conduct, community members are expected to: act according to the highest ethical and professional standards of conduct [and] be personally accountable for individual actions” (III:1).

It also stresses that faculty members must “Be Fair and Respectful to Others. The University is committed to tolerance, diversity, and respect for differences. When dealing with others, community members are expected to: be respectful, fair, and civil . . . avoid all forms of harassment . . . [and] threats . . . [and] promote conflict resolution.”

P. Z. Myers has done none of these things. He is in fundamental breach of the University of Minnesota’s Code of Conduct and must be discharged.

The Institution Of Science Is Going To Keep Losing Prestige
Links to Richard Dawkins’ show of support for Myers, which proves that he is equally clueless about the Christians he criticizes:

Readers of yesterday’s thread “It’s a G——d Cracker” will be aware of somebody called Bill Donohue, whose grasp of reality is so poor that he can’t tell the difference between a wafer and Jesus. The shrieking hysteria of Donohue and other Roman Catholics over the temporary removal of a communion wafer from a church service epitomizes all that is ridiculous in the religious mind.

On PZ, Don Imus Atheism, and “”?

What alarms me the most about the incident, however, is the major perceptual hit that the community and brand continues to take because of PZ’s antics. The Seed sponsored blog portal is supposed to be a place that attracts new audiences to science, but in fact, it has turned into the Web’s leading echo chamber of anti-religious rants and sophomoric discussions of atheism, what the physicist Chad Orzel refers to as the “screechy monkey” problem.

Why the Eucharist is Not Simply a “Frackin’ Cracker”
Ben Kepple offers a helpful explanation, his unfair swipe at Protestants notwithstanding (thanks Alex):

The Eucharist, as all Christians know, is the Body and Blood of Christ, stemming from the Last Supper, when Christ took bread, blessed it and told His disciples, “Take, eat; this is My body,” and took a cup of wine and blessed it, telling His disciples, “Drink ye, all of it; for this is My blood of the New Testament”….

Now in the Protestant tradition, the practice of communion is a symbolic one. The congregation is, perhaps once a month, served some stale white bread and grape juice and the story of the Last Supper is recalled. Communion is given, the worshippers take it, and then leave, some annoyed at having had 15 minutes added to their Sunday worship.

But in the Catholic tradition, Holy Communion is a far more serious and central affair. The giving of Communion is the central act of the Mass. Far from being symbolic in nature, the Eucharist is transformed, through the mysterium fidei, into the Body and Blood, and through taking it one’s sins are forgiven and one is reconciled with God. The Church does not pretend to understand how this works — it is the Mystery of Faith — but as other writers have pointed out, Catholics believe Christ harrowed Hell and in dying defeated death, rising three days later from His tomb. If Christ did that, they argue, then this is a small matter in comparison.

The Communion Wafer is Not Just a Cracker—But PZ Meyers Shouldn’t Lose His Job for Saying So

Meyers is, of course, wrong that the Catholic host is “just a cracker.” It is a symbol for many people’s contact with meaning and community, and to flame it in a gesture of disrespect is like going up to someone’s car and keying it because it’s “just a piece of metal.” People are likely to take it as a personal attack, and obviously people have in this case. Likewise, a flag is not just a piece of cloth, and a wedding band is not just a ring.

Indeed, several of the angry emails Myers received suggested that he perform some similar act of desecration against a Koran or Torah scroll, which is a terribly hypocritical thing to say, but it does illuminate how strongly Catholics feel about the Eucharist. To willfully (and “joyfully”) disrespect that is despicable, almost as despicable as sending death threats.

He Doesn’t Speak for ME.

Although I don’t have the stature of Obama, I can totally relate to his disentanglement with Rev. Wright right now. Although PZ has been a hero to me in the past year or so, I really have to point out right now that although I’m an atheist, PZ Myers doesn’t speak for me. I found his comments to be not only inflammatory, but extremely disrespectful… not only of religion and the ‘cracker’ but of people. I also found it to be inconsistent with his promotion of rationalism. After all, what is rational about asking people to remove consecrated hosts from the churches and send them to him so he can desecrate them on video?

Religion’s Everest
Finally, for the other side, fisking Donohue’s claim that :

“[Myers had] better be careful what he says, because if I get any death threats, it won’t be hard to connect the dots.”

Let’s see … yesterday Donohue issued his fatwah … er … press release and by that very afternoon PZ had received 4 death threats.

Now, Bill, go ahead and show off your dot-connecting prowess!

Thanks Richard for highlighting Insulating Religion, which helpfully analyzes Andrew Sullivan’s response:

Who gets to decide what constitutes “mocking religion”? To the Muslims who objected to the Danish cartoons, they constituted an unacceptable “mocking” of their religion, just as Myers’ advocacy of eucharist desecration constitutes an equivalent “mockery.”…

That is to say, just as Myers has a right to be a dick, so did the newspapers. But the fact that they had those rights does not make their mockery and denigration of the sacred symbols of widely held religious faiths any less offensive or worthy of criticism.

Santi Tafarella, who also penned one of the above, adds some historical perspective:

What I think Myers is not yet acknowledging is that the destruction of cultural symbols typically forebodes the marginalizing and destruction of people, and that a civil dialogue between people is rarely possible in an atmosphere of iconoclasm.

Iconoclasm, in other words, is an ancient form of prejudicial expression that ought to draw as much horror from contemporary people as racism and sexism.

I’m not sure (truly) whether I would go quite that far, but it’s got me rethinking the issue.

Also, in case there was any doubt, please recognize that those sending hate-mail and death threats make up only a tiny minority of Catholics. Francis Beckwith provides just one example of a more balanced and respectful Catholic response:

Professor Myers, Academic Freedom, and Intellectual Virtue in a Civil Society

Professor Myers should not be punished by his employer for what he said. Because he teaches at a state institution, Professor Myers has many protections at his disposal that insure and secure his academic freedom, which I wholeheartedly support. Having said that however, there is absolutely nothing wrong with those citizens who are drawing public attention to Professor Myers’ imprudent and thoughtless comments. If, for example, I were to insult a colleague’s mother by suggesting that he has had intimate relations with her, I should not be shocked if he were to punch me in the nose or not invite me to the faculty party he is hosting at his home.

Civil society requires that we treat others with respect, and that means that if we find their beliefs unreasonable, we should offer our arguments against those beliefs in a winsome and attractive way. When it comes to Catholic theology, we are talking about a complicated, rich, and sophisticated theological and philosophical tradition that has wrestled with a whole array of challenges, concepts and ideas during its two millenia. It stands to reason then that detractors such as Professor Myers have an obligation to study what they reject with the depth and diligence such a tradition demands of a truly curious and probing mind. “It’s a Frackin’ Cracker” is not the prose of an adult. It is the ramblings of what G. K. Chesterton said of the atheist, “who is often a man limited and constrained by his own logic to a very sad simplification.”

John Pieret:

It’s more important to find out what the Catholic authorities do once the emotions cool, rather than the words they used when emotions ran high (just as I’d be more interested in what PZ actually does if he happens to come into the possession of some consecrated hosts, rather than what he said he’d do when this story first broke).

Poking peoples’ emotions with a sharp stick is likely to make ’em squeal and it’s no use pretending to be surprised.

Is PZ Myers an Atheist Supremacist?
I have to answer No, but the post is interesting:

I have in my mind the image of a small frail women I once saw in a small parish church in England. Dressed in black and wearing a communion shawl over her head, she knelt at the communion rail to receive. “Amen,” she said as she struggled to her feet. You could see in her face how meaningful this was. She probably knows little about molecules and atoms and cares nothing about arguments of substance about substance. It is, for her, the body of Christ. It is the moment of receiving the elements that for her is important.

Myers thinks this is mere superstition. He is entitled to this opinion. He is entitled to his belief in scientism, for ultimately that is his philosophy. Myers, who frequently argues intellectually, scientifically and rationally well, now wants to make a point with a stunt that has none of those redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Myers wants to shake the silly woman and explain to her that her belief is “silly superstition.” On his blog he repeatedly tries to do this. His attacks on creationism and Intelligent Design and the existence of God have often been formidable and well articulated. But that is not what this is about now. He seems to have lost it, emotionally and intellectually.”Okay, woman,” he now seems to say. “Since I can’t convince you I will trample on your holy bread, on your holy moment, on your faith.”

P.Z. Myers Thinks Like a Bronze-Age Pagan
Responding to Myers’ claim that:

The point of desecrating the host isn’t to make people angry–it’s to demystify and desanctify nonsense. It’s how we wake people up–by showing that their beliefs are powerless.

Jeff Martin retorts:

That’s quite right. In this enlightened age, we do not settle religious and philosophical questions of inestimable importance by reasoning, examining the historical evidences, or any such recondite activity, but by subjecting the participants, or symbols dear to them, to the ordeal, to the end that Fate, the womb of possibility, the numinous power of whatever, might speak and deliver its verdict… let a singular communion wafer represent the entirety of the Christian claim, and let his sacrilege represent the claims of enlightenment, and if no bolt of lightning or pillar of fire descends from the heavens to smite him, Christianity stands exploded as rank superstition.

Finally, see my own posts on the subject here, here, here, here and here.

Now contrast all of that with Myers’ latest, in which he destroys a Eucharistic wafer, along with copies of the Koran and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, all to prove that… well, that he really doesn’t believe anything is sacred.


  1. Nice summary of all this hub-bub!

  2. There’s also this:

  3. Thanks Drew! PZ has always been a bigot, but the level of rage on both sides of this thing really caught me off guard.

    Richard, thanks for the link, that’s a good one! I’ve added it to the post.

  4. You know, I’ve been a Christian 11 years now, I only found out about the Eucharist 3 years ago, and I actually found it a bit hard to believe at first.

    Sure it makes sense if you were to take a literal interpretation of the bible but it sounds ridiculous to me.

    Not that I agree with PZ Meyers reaction or the Catholics response but I am also of the sentiment “it’s just a cracker”.

    I also find Ben Kepple’s assesment of the protestant communion offensive since the symbolism of communion is very important to me but am I really going to get riled? nah, I don’t believe Jesus is bothered, neither am I.

    Think about this, would Jesus have insisted on sticking to the rules of the Eucharist, or would he be the one taking a piece to go show his friend and discuss it.

    Rarely do I read in the New Testament of Jesus getting angry at people who have broken the rules, however plenty of times he gets angry at those who enforce rules and create new ones.

    I see Jesus as against the Catholic Church stance in this instance. I actually see the Catholic Church as more insulting to Jesus than PZ Meyers.

    As though Jesus died to ensure that the Eucharist was fully consumed and that half-Christians and pagans didn’t have any.

    The Eucharist is the new circumcision.

    Sorry Ken if my post goes beyond the pail but as a Christian who doesn’t appreciate religious dogma I thought I should say so.

  5. Hey Alex,
    I tend to agree with much of your sentiment. I too can’t help but find the idea of transubstantiation quite unbelievable and strange. I don’t believe the wafer truly turns into Jesus’ flesh any more than I believe that the Koran was inspired by God, but either way it is not “just a cracker,” and I can no more condone desecrating the one than the other. To dismiss, even ridicule, the belief is one thing, but to “joyfully” desecrate it is something else. Jesus’ flesh or not, the Eucharist is a dearly held symbol to Catholics (as to Protestants), and willfully desecrating it, or encouraging others to do so, is beyond insulting.

    Still, the idea that taking a wafer home to show a friend could be viewed as a desecration (much less a crime) is absurd and, I think you’re right, quite contrary to the picture of Jesus I find in the Gospels. After all, when he was on earth he seemed to spend more time with the “sinners” than with those demanding strict adherance to the Law.

    You also make a good point about Ben’s implication that many (all?) Protestants don’t take communion seriously. I almost added a qualifier when I cited his post, and perhaps I should have. For us, it is “only” a symbol, but it is still a very important one, and not to be taken lightly.

  6. I think a lot of people are failing to understand that PZ is expressing his (and our) anger. Non-religious Americans and scientific Americans (who strongly overlap each other) have good reasons to be very angry with organized Christianity. One is GWBush (all of it). The constant bombardment of the wall of separation between Church and State is another and it includes the ongoing effort to take over the military and the prosletizing to captive audiences in prisons.

    The attempt to pollute science classes with a theory of the supernatural is a desecration at least as meaningful to scientists and science educators as sticking a nail in the Eucharist is to Catholics, and it is being done not by one person on one occasion but continuously by a well-organized overfunded gang. I know the Catholic Church does not deny evolution but She does use egregious abuses of science to promote bad laws and policies in accordance with Church Doctrine. See for instance

  7. somg,
    And desecrating a host does what, exactly, to improve that situation? What, exactly, does this stunt prove about George W. Bush, or the state of American science education, or abortion? That atheists can be as irrational as religious people?

    That’s the message you want to send, really?

  8. Ken, I agree with you that the usefulness of desecrating religious symbols is (at least) questionable. On the one had it alienates potential converts to non-religion; on the other hand sometimes a shock wakes some people up.

    I don’t think PZ did it because he thought it would be constructive. I think he’s very angry and he likes to express anger by teasing. I understand this because I am the same way. I don’t know but I’d bet PZ grew up with a younger sister.

    I can tell you for sure that if PZ loses his job (it’s extremely unlikely–he’s got tenure and he brings $$$ into the University and in the end the university loses this sort of thing–they couldn’t even fire Professor Ward Churchill, remember the guy who called 9111 victims “little Eichmanns”, until they caught him plagerizing) a lot of wafers will be desecrated by a lot of people, some publically.

    I actually think–just a guess but if I had to make a prediction–that there will be a delayed (maybe not very long delayed) reaction from muslims, which will be much more dangerous to PZ than anything so far. I don’t really understand why it hasn’t started yet–didn’t Donahue say he was contacting CAIR? I guess it’s still Day One. I would not be at all surprised if a muslim attempt were made on PZ’s life or if he had to hire bodyguards for the rest of his life like Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Ibn Warraq or Ali Sina or the Danish cartoonist.

    “Religion of Peace” means they kill everyone who disagrees with them and then there’s peace. Why would the two-year-old child in the world’s family of religions (or rather, the psychotic teenage son) fail to follow its usual pattern on this occasion?

  9. And Ken, I wasn’t complaining so much about right-to-lifism but about its systematic use of bad science to trick people into supporting it.

    Fortunately, the fake epidemiology is still pretty obvious but it is evolving rapidly and I hope you can see that it is offensive to scientists especially epidemiologists and to scientific educators just because of the misuse of science, separate from the offensiveness of right-to-lifism itself.

  10. SoMG,
    Abuse of science crosses all party lines, but you wont get any argument from me that the Right seems to be guilty of it particularly often these days. But for a tenured biology professor and one of the leading opponents of pseudo-sciecne to set himself up as an anti-religious iconoclast (which, to many people, will mean “bigot”) is worse than unproductive. If there was one thing he could have done to convince the fundamentalists that mainstream science really is anti-God, PZ Myers has done it. And you guys are cheering for him?

    As for Islam, I don’t know what their reaction will be. The Danish cartoons took several months to percolate into the riots and murders that they eventually resulted in. I pray that the same does not happen (I’ve noticed that the mainstream media has, thankfully, mostly overlooked this whole affair–hopefully it will stay that way), particularly because if it goes anything like last time, it is likely to hurt a lot of people other than Myers.

  11. Is PZ Myers an Atheist Supremacist?

    I have to answer Yes, as is Richard Dawkins, and this post presenting ‘The Atheist Supremacist’s Song‘ is interesting too if I say so myself. 😉

  12. I had a bit of an epiphany yesterday. I discovered that my submission of The Atheist Supremacist’s Song to the ‘Am I Right?‘ musical parody website was accepted so now you and others get to vote on it.

    Happy belated New Year,

    Robin Edgar

  13. Enjoy!

    Feel free to spread it around a bit too. . . 🙂

  14. Robin,
    With all due respect, I don’t think personal attacks are helpful, even if they are tongue-in-cheek.

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