Posted by: Ken Brown | July 25, 2008

Humanity and Symbolism

Responding to my last post, Greg Laden objected to this comment of mine:

If cooler heads were to prevail, this ought to be the take-away lesson: To view a deeply cherished religious symbol as no more than baked bread, a book as no more than ink and paper, indeed a human being as no more than chemicals and electricity, this is not a mark of sophistication. It is, rather, proof of a sadly impoverished worldview.

He objected that:

There is nothing that links the part about a cracker and a book to the human in anything PZ has said or done, and it conflicts starkly with what he has said and done in the past. This is not even quote mining, it is attributing a very improper thought to a person who has never had that thought and never would. Up to that paragraph, I thought your comments were quite reasonable for a christian, and fair. But giving PZ Myers the attribute of believing the importance of people to be in the same category as crackers [is] utterly absurd.

I want to make this clear, because I can see how my clipped phrasing could be misunderstood: My point was not that Myers considers human beings to be of no greater worth than a cracker—far from it. The whole point of his post, which I agreed with, was that compared to a human life, “a cracker” is a small thing. But he went much further than that, saying not only that the Eucharist ought to be less important, but that it ought not to matter at all, on the grounds that “Nothing must be held sacred.”

My point was that this justification for his claim that “it’s just a cracker” is based on an extreme and ridiculous form of reductionism that implies that the only thing that matters about an object is its physical composition. Since the wafer doesn’t really turn into Jesus’ body, Myers claims that no one has a right to be upset if he destroys it. My point was that, if you accept that premise it leads to absurd results, one of them being that a human is “no more than chemicals and electricity.”

I would fully expect Myers (and any sane person) to reject that conclusion, but he cannot do so without rejecting the premise. For part of what it means to recognize that a human being is far more than the sum of their parts is to recognize that we—as individuals and communities—create meaning and hold certain things as valuable and sacred. The Eucharist is not just a cracker, because it is held dear by a community of people, just as a flag is not just a piece of cloth and a wedding ring is not just a piece of metal. In making the absurd claim that “it’s just a cracker,” Myers in fact rejects a key aspect of the humanity of over a billion people who do (rationally or irrationally) place great value on the Eucharist.

He is, of course, entitled to believe and argue that Catholics are mistaken in their devotion to the Eucharist, but he cannot reasonably claim that “it’s just a cracker,” nor can he find it surprising that those who hold it dear might be upset by his willful desecration of their cherished symbol.


  1. If, as Myers suggested, it was just a cracker, then it would not have been necessary for him to have people send them to him. He could have just as easily opened up his cupboard and grabbed the nearest cracker he found. A desecration of a Ritz would have been sufficient if it is true that both a Ritz and the Eucharist are just crackers. But his actions betray his words – he realizes that the Eucharist isn’t just a cracker, but (from an atheist’s perspective) a cracker that Catholics attach a lot of meaning to (which is why he couldn’t desecrate just any old cracker that he found in his cupboard).

  2. Myers’ point was not so much that it is “just a cracker” but that transubstantiation is not real. I doubt he would take a crap on a photo of my daughter, even though it is just paper and ink. But if he did so, in my presence, who among you would argue with my extreme reaction?

  3. majorsteve,
    You’re probably right, but his rhetoric went well beyond that. When push came to shove, I seriously doubt that Myers really believes “nothing” must be held sacred, but since that is the justification he offered for his utter disregard for Catholic sensibility, it doesn’t seem out of hand to call him on the aburdity of such a view.

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