Skepticism

Afternoon Inquisition 8.24

I seem to have missed a huge fiasco where PZ desecrated the eucharist.  Apparently the whole internet is in an uproar about how terrible it is what PZ has done. So I did some searching to see what terrible thing he did to a communion wafer and all I could find out was that he made fun of Catholics who threatened to kill a college kid who stole a communion wafer from a Catholic church and said “It’s just a frakking cracker” and threatened to “do something“. It turns out he stabbed a cracker, a Koran, and a copy of The God Delusion with a rusty nail. Holy crap. All the uproar is about that?

So my question is, do religions and religious objects merit any degree of respect? Why or why not?

P.S. If anyone can score any communion wafers, please mail them to me because I am just finishing up a project that could use a special touch.

writerdd

Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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59 Comments

  1. Yes, I think they deserve some respect — just as much as any ideas you think are incorrect or any property that another person values. You don’t scream in the face of anyone you disagree with, or chop to bits someone else’s stuff, regardless of whether any supernatural beliefs are involved. We ought to be polite to one another. That doesn’t mean we can’t express differing opinions, or point out that we think a supposedly supernatural object isn’t. But we shouldn’t be cold-blooded and mean about it.

    There’s a moral argument there (don’t let them drag you “down”) and a pragmatic one. We want devoutly religious people to treat skeptics/atheists with respect, even when they disagree with what we say or think or do. In exchange, we should treat them with respect. It’s part of the deal.

  2. “We want devoutly religious people to treat skeptics/atheists with respect, even when they disagree with what we say or think or do.”

    That’s what I’d like, but that’s not what I’ve experienced. I find that atheists are usually vilified, pronounced immoral, and discriminated against, (at least in my part of the country.)
    In my profession and current location, I can’t even admit I’m an atheist, or my job would be at jeopardy. And it’s the Christians who claim they’re being persecuted…
    While I’d never do what PZ did, I understand the point he was making – the college student shouldn’t have been threatened with expulsion over a wafer.

  3. Sure. If the congregation believes that the entire communion is spoiled if a non-believer or someone who is not in a state of grace partakes of the host, then it’s rude to deliberately go up and have yourself some eucharist, giggling into your sleeve on the way back to your pew.

    If nothing else, it’s a bloody waste of time, isn’t it? Wouldn’t you have something better to do on a Sunday morning?

    Yes, the belief is ridiculous. But there’s no need to go take a sh*t on the believers.

  4. I feel I have a rare perspective on this: religious objects are no more or less sacred than other people’s pets.

    I don’t really care about either, personally or culturally. However, I understand their importance to others both morally and intellectually. To desecrate a religious object or to harm someone’s pet is a reflection on my moral and intellectual character, nothing else.

    Would you want to spend time with someone who was willing to kick your dog?

  5. Historical artefacts and irreplaceable works of art have value whether they have a religious origin or not (of course, many of them do). Mass-produced foodstuffs given away freely by the people who “value” them have only as much value as their caloric content.

    Rolling over in the face of oppression — whether that injustice be the Spanish Inquisition or threats of personal violence and expulsion from University, such as those Webster Cook received — is a lousy way to go about earning “respect”.

    Oh, and ever since this thing started, I’ve been wondering: why do Catholics treat Jesus like Sealed Evil in a Can? If you take their statements at face value, they’re acting like the Creator of the Universe can be trapped inside a bit of unleavened bread if a human being says the right magic words. You’d think the Alpha and the Omega could absent himself from a compromising situation — after all, even the lowest of hack writers for the supermarket tabloids can say, “Our reporter made his excuses and left.”

    Also: the deal was that Jesus was supposed to be crucified, right? Him getting nailed up was all part of the plan for God to sacrifice Himself to Himself to absolve humanity from breaking the rules which He made. (Hey, it hardly makes less sense than making us suffer for a crime we didn’t commit.) Jesus’s bad weekend was, we are told, Good News for the rest of us. An event like this, the central focus of your entire theological worldview, would surely be worth commemorating. Why isn’t nailing a cracker to a block of wood a standard part of every Easter holiday? I can’t see how PZ is guilty of anything worse than a little unseasonality, comparable to the stores which start selling Christmas tchotchkes in October.

  6. Again, it is worth reiterating: they crapped all over Webster Cook first.

    Two rights DO make a wrong if you embed it into n-space, apply the appropriate transformations, and then project back into 3-space.

  7. Two rights DO make a wrong if you embed it into n-space, apply the appropriate transformations, and then project back into 3-space.

    I have no idea what I just wrote. I blame it on watching Time Bandits. Let’s try the mathematical snark again, this time not for humor, I blew that, just to see if I can get it remotely correct.

    Two wrongs DO make a right if you embed it into n-space, apply the appropriate transformations, and then project back into 3-space.

  8. Oh, and ever since this thing started, I’ve been wondering: why do Catholics treat Jesus like Sealed Evil in a Can?

    It’s like any other piece of dogma: constant repetition and community of the like-minded (not the right term…like-belief-ed?).

    Strict Catholics have a pretty complex series of rationalizations that let them believe that the host is at once “just a piece of bread” and “the body of our lord and savior jesus christ”.

    Those rationalizations break down if you don’t say within a rather close-knit community, as do most pieces of dogma.

  9. Again, it is worth reiterating: they crapped all over Webster Cook first.

    Agreed. My first reaction to PZ’s action was “how rude!”, but given some time to think about it and gain some perspective, I have to agree he acted correctly.

    I’ve been an atheist for a couple of decades now; that I’d revert to a knee-jerk catholic defense as my initial response may be an indication of just how deep the conditioning can go.

    Or maybe I’m just being too charitable to myself.

  10. Am I reading correctly? It sounds like several people are seriously suggesting that “It’s okay to be mean, because they did it first!” Please, grow up. Elementary schoolyard ethics do not belong in adult discussions between people who peg their worldview on rationality.

    I tend to support what PZ Myers did because we (humans – religious and non) need to see that it can be done. The world didn’t end; religion and religious believers weren’t harmed; and nobody’s free speech was unjustly curtailed. In other words, no actual harm was done.

    Outside of such appropriately dramatic reactions to idiotic and violent rhetoric, I think it would be worth our while to reflect on the (very secular) ethic of reciprocity (Golden Rule): If we want respect for our ideas, we need to offer respect to other ideas. Even if they hit us first.

  11. I will respect (or cherish) “religious objects” only if I conclude, subjectively, that they have some inherent value as aesthetic, cultural or historic (archaeological, etc.) artifacts.

    Beyond that, I don’t automatically “respect” ideas or symbols of religious ideas. I can come to value any idea if I find that it’s not based on nonsense and that it promotes some other value (for example, promotes human flourishing and happiness, preserves art, increases or transmits learning).

    I distinguish between (1) “respecting viewpoints,” “respecting beliefs of others,” and “respecting people” in general and (2) practicing respect for people. I can do the latter without actually respecting particular people, who may not deserve actual respect. But practicing respect is good etiquette and is character building, so that when I encounter (as I do) many people who definitely deserve my respect, I know how to behave.

    Jeff D

  12. What’s PZ’s next mission? I know, let’s all go to Mecca and spray paint our initials on the Black Stone!
    J/K. Now I love PZ as much as the next skeptic, but I don’t think these stunts have any more effect, good or bad, than to give individuals on either side an excuse to voice their positions on these issues. Nobody’s mind will be changed by these events, and neither will any ancient traditions be abandoned. However, I will still be watching very closely to learn the fate of PZ- we’ll see if “free-speech” applies to free-thinkers. He has made a great many enemies from this and I wonder if things that go bump in the night affect him a little more these days than they did pre-Frakkin Cracker…

  13. I think Timothy answered sufficiently for me, but I’ll just add my +1 to what he said. “They started it!” is a terrible reason to behave immorally. I think this is particularly important since religious people say that atheists couldn’t possibly have morals. We can say, “Step back and look at who’s making the death threats!” so long as we haven’t made any.

    Jeff D, you make an interesting distinction, and I think we agree aside from semantics. The degree of respect I think we should afford to crazy ideas is being polite to the people who hold them while trying to convince them otherwise. You’d call that respecting the person but not the idea; am I right?

  14. We can say, “Step back and look at who’s making the death threats!” so long as we haven’t made any.

    But to avoid making death threats so that you can rub into “their” faces that we didn’t is not moral. We should not be making death threats because it is wrong to make death threats.

  15. It sounds like several people are seriously suggesting that “It’s okay to be mean, because they did it first!”

    Nah. The whole thing was a bit more complicated than that, at least from what I’ve read.

    My take on things: PZ offered them (an extreme faction of catholicism) another target, one more capable of defending himself. To attract their ire, he went out of his way to make sure what he was doing was an order of magnitude more disrespectful than what Watson was being accused of doing. Doing so put Watson’s actions in better perspective, and so took some of the edge off the attacks that were headed his way.

    Could be I wrong, but that’s my take on it…”They went after Watson first.” is, at least for me, shorthand for the above.

  16. @slxpluvs: I agree with you, but I think the pragmatic reasons as well as the moral reasons are still worth noting. (See my earlier comment at the top of this thread.) If someone disagrees with your moral derivations (and there are many different moral systems out there), they should at least buy into the pragmatic justifications.

  17. If someone disagrees with your moral derivations … they should at least buy into the pragmatic justifications.

    I disagree. If one needs to justify one’s morals, then they are not morals but principles based on morals. In the case of your scenario, the moral seems to be based on the cultural perspective of what it is to act justly. Morals are based on your own experience and culture is based on other peoples’. The moral would be the fair rectification of transactions (as opposed to the mean of sportsmanship). The moral I tried to suggest was the courage to act with tolerance.

    The rectification of transactions guides our actions. Tolerance is the result of our actions. Thus, the pragmatic justification shows the true motive behind actions. In this case, it was not choosing an act for it’s own sake.

  18. I agree with Blake Stacey and Timothy: if the religious object has intrinsic, non-religious value, of course it should be respected; AND it’s just stupid to be mean for the sake of being mean… but PZ was making a point, so his actions were appropriate.

    Sorry for not contributing anything new to the conversation, but thought it was worthwhile to voice an agreement. …for posterity. ; )

  19. To answer the OQ, not to a greater degree than similar secular objects. For example, I’m a bibliophile, so I wouldn’t tear up my copy of the Koran any more than I would tear up my copy of “Head Rush Ajax”. But I would definitely throw away a wheat thin.

  20. Thus, the pragmatic justification shows the true motive behind actions. In this case, it was not choosing an act for it’s own sake.

    No, it would be noting that other positive outcomes can come from a morally good act besides nebulous moral goodness.

    At any rate, I’m not sure what you mean by “not morals but principles based on morals.” Where do you think morals come from? Are they things we can just posit out of nowhere?

    Even if you don’t need practical outcomes to choose your morals, it’s worth noting indisputably good practical outcomes when making your argument to a third party (who might find those outcomes good for other moral reasons that don’t forbid the disputed act).

  21. The concept of communion, as we understand it, has its roots in other traditions, where the breaking of bread and the sharing of food and drink is symbolic of friendship, and trust. It’s a symbol of community. Catholics, and other Christian denominations have taken this ritual, expanded on it, and made it their own, but it still caries that symbolic root.

    I participated in a similar ritual last night. We went to a barbecue. We brought pop and chips, we had hamburgers and hotdogs, and we played video games. We didn’t bless the macaroni salad, and claim that it was the noodley appendage of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but the intended meaning is the same. The sharing of food and drink, and the sense of belonging, and friendship.

    The communion is celebrated at every Catholic mass, and pretty much every mass for any denomination that shares a similar ritual. The eucharist is given freely to everyone who attends and chooses to participate, as a sign of trust that it will be used for the intended purpose. To them, it’s sacred. To us it’s just a cracker, but as guests in their midst for whatever reason, we can choose to instead see it as a symbol of friendship; that we are welcome among them, even if we don’t believe as they do.

    As far as Webster Cook is concerned, what he did was clearly accidental, at least what we know of it. And he should most certainly be excused for that. But what PZ did was a violation of that trust, and for that reason, I maintain that it was out of line.

    If Webster Cook had shown up to our barbecue last night, scooped up a spoonful of macaroni salad, missed his plate and dropped it on the ground and said “Oops!”, we would have said “Oh well, the ants get to enjoy our barbecue too.” But if PZ Myers had come along behind him, scooped up a big ‘ole spoonful of macaroni salad, went on a tirade about how nothing is sacred before spiking the spoonful to the ground and stomping off in a huff, we would have said “well, that was kind of rude.” And of course, the person who put the effort into making the salad would be understandably offended.

    And it’s true; no one has a right to not be offended. But you know what else? Everybody has the right to be offended.

    I certainly don’t condone the overreaction in either case, and most certainly not to the point of death threats, and disciplinary action. It was at best a waste of time, and at worst, rude. But there’s still a huge difference between accidentally walking into a hornet’s nest, and deliberately whacking it with a stick. You’re going to get stung either way, but in the former case you have my sympathies. In the latter, you were asking for it.

    It’s a sticky situation where we have to walk on eggshells around them, and they around each other, while no one gives any consideration to the eggshells around us. But the fact that there aren’t very many eggshells around us in the first place is one of our strengths.

    But the fact remains, that we are demonized, we are vilified, and we’re not going to change any of that by behaving badly.

    We need allies and sympathizers among the believers if we are going to make any headway into changing these misconceptions. And I think that PZ did a great disservice to the cause by acting in a way that most likely won’t win any allies, and might even alienate some of the sympathizers we have. We can’t make a big show of desecrating their sacred artifacts one week, and then call for moderates to stand up and take back their faith from the hatemongers the next. They’re not going to listen.

    If we want to be included as contributors to the greater good, if we want to be included in the ongoing duologue, if we want to change these misconceptions, then we’ve got to realize that there’s a protocol involved. A Christian, trying to extend the olive branch to a Muslim, knows that desecrating the Koran is probably not a good way to open a duologue. It’s a violation of protocol, and it’s not going to be received very well. There are going to be assholes who get deployed to the Middle East and use a Koran for target practice, but… there’s just no accounting for some assholes. Likewise, if we want to live in peace with believers, and forge a better understanding with them, we’ve got to meet them halfway. Understanding and accepting that they have sacred items that we should be considerate of is a necessary first step. Deliberately desecrating them is not going to win us any favours.

    I know that saying that we should “respect” certain items considered sacred to others is a bit of a landmine, because of course respect is supposed to be earned, and not just freely given. But maybe another word can be chosen to get the point across. Reverence is clearly the wrong word, since it’s certainly not necessary that we share their belief. Perhaps Acknowledgment. Understanding. Consideration. Some kind of general idea that we get what they’re saying, and realize that it’s important to them, even if its meaningless to us. We might not like that this protocol exists, but if we show them that we make the effort to understand them better, even if we don’t necessarily agree, they might just make the effort to understand us better.

  22. There’s a fundamental difference between disrespecting an arbitrary representation of a religious ideal and disrespecting religion itself.

    I think PZ’s whole point was that it’s relatively ridiculous to hold any object with such reverence as to treat it with the same rights as a human being (i.e., comparing stealing a eucharist to kidnapping Jesus and threatening to kill the “kidnapper”) and it’s even more ridiculous for religious people to think they have the right to force everyone else to revere those objects too.

    I don’t think religious people have a right to force me to respect Jesus, or a cracker representing him, on their level any more than a 12-year-old girl should have the right to force me to worship Britney Spears on her level. And if I choose to bin a eucharist, or a Birtney CD, it’s the same meaning for me – nothing. In my mind, I haven’t done anything disrespectful because it means nothing to me. So, in the end it’s all about other people getting offended and people don’t have the right to not be offended.

  23. PS…Being offended is personal, and by saying “no one has the right not to be offended” I don’t think anyone is saying that offense is off the table. What *I* mean when I say that anyway is that it’s not ok for the people who are offended to shout and whine and threaten people. I sometimes have little twinges in my head when people say something that “offends” me, but I keep it to myself generally and remind myself that THEY ARE NOT ME.

    Reasonable: “I found that offensive and would prefer if you didn’t do that in the future.”

    NOT reasonable: “I’m offended so you can never do that again and if you do I’ll kill you and/or ruin your life.”

  24. Where do you think morals come from?

    Aristotle outlines the development of morals. He posts that there are eight levels of morals, but two don’t have names. The levels were different based on three factors and one trait (for example the courage to act). The three factors are:

    knowledge vs. ignorance
    choosing act for its own sake vs. another reason
    the act develops the actor vs. does not develop

    So, for the courage to be, the development goes like:

    *Irascibility
    –ignorance, for its own sake, not developing
    *Frustration
    –ignorance*, for the sake of something else, not developing
    *Tolerance
    –knowledgeable, for its own sake, developing
    *Obedience
    –knowledgeable, for the sake of something else, developing
    *Submission
    –ignorance, for the sake of something else, developing
    *Spiritlessness
    –knowledgeable, for its own sake, not developing

    *may be for the sake of no longer being ignorant

    Morals develop in a Piaget-esk way, which is to say that there is an order to the development and that order is the same in all people. Some people stop or are incapable of development of morals (these are the two unnamed categories that our culture acronyms to death; EBD, SPAN, ADHD, etc.). I believe the list I gave you would develop 3+,1+,2+,3-,1-,2- were + and – separate rational and irrational moral perspectives (I don’t understand why, but rational and irrational morals are different when considering their development).

    Because morals are developmental, not cultural as norms are, one is able to expect moral behavior to be the same cross-cultures. More or less, it is. That is because most successful cultures base their norms on morals and moral thinking. These norms ,and the cultural beliefs that result, are the “principles based on morals” of which I was referring. These are different because they are irrational (are a way of acting in our environment), whereas morals are rational (are a way of understanding our environment).

    My source is Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. He discusses development most heavily in his conversation on eudaimonia (human flourishing / good fortune).

  25. Reasonable: “I found that offensive and would prefer if you didn’t do that in the future.”

    NOT reasonable: “I’m offended so you can never do that again and if you do I’ll kill you and/or ruin your life.”

    By no means do I intend to excuse or condone the “un-Christian” behaviour that Cook and Myers experienced in the wake of all this. But let’s consider that for a moment.

    PZ said that “nothing must be held sacred” or words to that effect. He wanted to demonstrate that we, atheists, don’t attach undue importance to things. He wanted to convey the idea that nothing is sacred to us, and their special items are meaningless to us.

    But he’s wrong. Life is sacred to us. Any decent human being would risk their own life to save someone else’s, even a stranger’s. Our own life is sacred to us, and certainly the lives of our families and friends.

    So in a way, these death threats, which range from inconsiderate to criminal, serve to demonstrate that something is sacred, even to atheists. Our homes, our properties, our books, our trinkets, our knowledge, sure these things are important, but they’re just things. Nothing is more uniquely sacred to any human being, believer or not, than “life”.

    So death threats, while deplorable and uncalled for, are pretty much the only meaningful way they have of responding in kind.

    Not to excuse such behaviour… Just a thought.

  26. The eucharist is given freely to everyone who attends and chooses to participate, as a sign of trust that it will be used for the intended purpose. To them, it’s sacred.

    To Catholics (and possibly to Orthodox denominations, I don’t know), it is sacred. But to Protestants, it’s also “just a cracker”…. it’s a symbol. But the bread itself is not holy, therefore it cannot be desecrated. This is basically a sin against Catholicism.

  27. “Do religions and religious objects merit any degree of respect? Why or why not?” No. They are objects and have only the value that people give them. Therein lies the problem.

    How much do you respect the value that other people assign to things? My children has drawn me pictures that,by any standard but my own, are utterly worthless. I would still be annoyed if someone defaced them. My attachment is irrational and when that is demonstrated I can be convinced to part with the scribblings of infants. It is key that I am shown the irrationality first or I become emotional and invested in the destruction rather than the value of the object.

  28. I agree that religious objects are important to some people, and as such they deserve the same degree of respect any other “important” object deserves – but not to show this respect, while potentially rude, is not an excuse for retaliation of any type.

    What I mean to say is that respect to religious objects should not be enforced – requiring that non-religious people show respect for religious objects fits into the category of applying the rules of a club to people who are not members of the club. You _can_ talk about Fight Club if you’re not a member. The fact that I know any Bible is sacred to Christians would not stop me from using one as a door stop or a fire starter, if I had one in my possession; I wouldn’t deface someone else’s Bible, but out of respect for property rights – not because it is sacred, because to me it isn’t.

  29. To Catholics (and possibly to Orthodox denominations, I don’t know), it is sacred. But to Protestants, it’s also “just a cracker”…. it’s a symbol. But the bread itself is not holy, therefore it cannot be desecrated. This is basically a sin against Catholicism.

    That’s true. To most (as far as I know, all) Protestant denominations, it’s mostly symbolic. But that’s really between them and Catholics. The question is about us and them.

    Protestants, I’d imagine, would also be aware of protocol. They probably would show a certain degree of “respect”, or at least understanding, if they were being mindful of maintaining good relations.

  30. The question is this: who was hurt by the binning of the cracker?

    No-one? Right. That shows up the religious whining all the more for what it is…

    It is entirely excusable behaviour to make a point. Like burning the flag. Or dancing on someone’s grave. People may not like it, but who does it hurt, and what point does it make?

    Think about it.

  31. Sorry, late night last night…

    What I mean is: the binning of the cracker is an entirely excusable, harmless symbol, and the religious are just whining because they don’t like the *idea* of it.

    Actually, that brings me to another point. Who of us actually physically witnessed the binning (because I refuse to call it desecration) of the cracker? I could photoshop a eucharist in a bin with a nail through it. Or I could get a regular ol’ unholy store-bought cracker, and throw it in a bin with a nail through it. The point is, there was a photo produced and it got a lot of people hot under the collar.

    You might not even need photographic evidence! You could just TELL people you did this stuff. You could say you pissed on it too, or worse! (omigosh)

    The point is, the religious don’t like the IDEA of what was done to this stupid insignificant arrangement of molecules. Mission successful! And we should not be sitting on this blog fussing over whether it was a very NICE thing to do, or NECESSARY, or COURTEOUS, or RESPECTFUL.

    It’s a frackin’ cracker, folks!

    Please, let’s all not taint our enjoyment of seeing religi-nuts go ape-shit about a photo of a low-fat wafer in a trash can by silly little ideas like propriety…

  32. Nobody was hurt by the YouTube video of you taking a sledge hammer to the Hanna Montana box set that Aunt Ingrid gave you last Christmas. But don’t be surprised if she gives you a lump of coal this year instead.

    … Oh, and you’re out of the will.

    I take karma more metaphorically than others, but it’s still a bitch.

  33. But I would definitely throw away a wheat thin.

    Sigh, I wouldn’t, I mean, not unless it were real old and lying on the floor or something. I’d look for some cheese and coke, or some onion dip. I’m pretty sure there’s some onion dip around here.

  34. Religious objects may not deserve our respect, but it goes without saying that religious people revere them.

    Their reverence may be unreasonable, but one has to ask onself — in each instance — whether showing disrespect to a religious item will help or hurt the cause of skepticism.

    By way of example, if a certain religion required that each of its adherents own and care for a very expensive object (even if they’re poor), lest Bad Things Happen; then by demonstrating that desecrating the object causes no real harm, one could be helping free poor people from a particularly nasty form of oppression.

    On the other hand, desecrating, say, a statue of Mary is likely to only be seen as a horribly disrespectful thing to do, and cause lots of people to start dismissing everything skeptics have to say. Though there’s nothing “wrong” with that, it’s not very useful — in fact, it’s counter-productive.

  35. P.S. If anyone can score any communion wafers, please mail them to me because I am just finishing up a project that could use a special touch.

    You can buy communion wafers online from places like EChruchDepot, seriously I couldn’t make a name like that up.
    http://www.echurchdepot.com/index.php?cPath=500_689_692

    As for the respect don’t respect. The stunt shined a big spot light on exactly how crazy some of the Catholic beliefs are. That won’t un-convert any true believers but it undermines Catholic ethos in the minds of any non-true believers.

  36. do religions and religious objects merit any degree of respect?

    The key to the answer is in “any degree.”

    Peeing in the holy water is almost certainly a no no.

    However, we should feel free to respectfully, print, study, and discuss details of Catholicism, Judaism, Scientology, and Islam.

    Treating religions and religious objects with respect should not include refrain from expressing our thoughts about those religions or objects in our literature and art.

    Is there a difference between PZ Myers actions and those of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ or Last Temptation of Christ or Sherry Jones’ “The Jewel of Medina?” I am not sure.

    Myers “desecrated” actual religious artifacts. Serrano used an actual cross in what is clearly Art. The Last Temptation of Christ is pure fiction in a movie. The Jewel of Medina is a novel. If Serrano can use an actual cross in what is clearly art, why can’t Myers use an actual wafer in what he might consider a performance piece? If Serrano should not have used a cross in his Art, why should Jones have been able to expect to write about Aisha in her artistic work?

    I always try to fall on the side of free speech. But as I said earlier, pissing in the punch bowl is rarely a great idea. To desecrate a wafer seems pretty minor. And to me, hardly a desecration of a religion. But still doesn’t seem like a productive demonstration.

    Also to consider: in Northern Arizona there is ongoing debates and court cases regarding the use of reclaimed water to produce snow at the local, and pretty small, ski resort. Both sides agree that the water is a) not fit for consumption, and b) will only be used on 1% of the mountain. Still the local native americans claim this will desecrate the mountain they consider to be foremost in their religion, and so the various courts, most recently the full 9th circuit have had to consider this very question. A year ago, a 3 member panel of the 9th decided the mountain would be desecrated. A few weeks ago, they decided the reclaimed water would not desecrate the mountain and that even so, there were other reasons why the tribes should not dictate the use by their religious beliefs.

    So, this is a very real and current question in the courts, in publishing houses, in law, regarding the Internet, and on and on. (Another reason to think that discretion is the better part of valor, and to consider just what is to be gained by peeing in punch.)

    (Regarding Snowbowl, I would suggest the ski resort partner up with the native americans, put a casino at the base of the mountain, and use some of the proceeds to clean the water to drinkable standards that would seem to be a win win. (However, others have told me they suspect that there is probably some law prohibiting casinos on National Forists….)

  37. Exactly. Mostly we’re going for the middle-of-the-roaders here. There are the softly-softly popularizers, there are the Darwinian bull dogs, and there are the appeasers who have feet on both sides (and a fence firmly wedged in their crack….) All are necessary approaches.

    I’ll reference flag-burning again. It sends a message. We don’t sit around burning flags, or desecrating wafers, but then we don’t have to to make a point. Once has been plenty to bring up the Jesus method of “How dare you throw out that cracker, now I’m gunna come to your house and CUT you!!!”

    Or whatever they blather on with. Sometimes you can almost see the spittle forming in the edges of their hostile little mouths, hammering away on their keyboards with no punctuation, and poor spelling and grammar.

    It’s sad really. But it’s necessary.

  38. AgnosticOracle said:

    That won’t un-convert any true believers but it undermines Catholic ethos in the minds of any non-true believers.

    Equally it undermines the idea of skepticism and free thought when something that they find sacred, no matter how stupid like a cracker, is insulted and abused.

    Rather than attack the symbols shouldn’t we attack the misplaced reverence that they have in the symbols? It might be less provocative but surely it’s more effective?

  39. To Thoughtcounts-Z:

    Yes, I can practice respect for another human being without respecting (or even pretending to respect) a particular idea or belief held by that human being. In actual speech-practice, observing this distinction might sound something like “As a human being and a fellow citizen, you have the right to hold any belief or idea that you want, and I’ll stand with you to defend that right so long as you aren’t expressing that belief or idea in an action that violates someone else’s safety or liberty. But I, as another human being and citizen, have the right to tell you that I don’t share your belief or idea, and also the right to tell you that I think your belief or idea is nonsense.”

    No one has the “right” to “not be offended” by such a statement or criticism.

    Further, I prefer to distinguish “practicing respect” from actually respecting. This is based on Gregory Bateson’s account of an interview he held with a young Japanese girl who explained how members of a Japanese household are traditionally taught to practice respect for the father of the house. She describedall of the specific actions and mindets involved in practicing respect, but then added that “in Japan we do not respect the father.” The point was to engage in a practice in order to change yourself, to build character.

  40. Respect is earned. On the other hand, respect is mutual.

    I would never want to be the first to show disrespect to something that someone holds sacred, but I’m not above disrespect that someone shows nothing but contempt for me first.

    In the case of PZ, I think it’s a shame that there wasn’t some way he could show Phil Donohue the disrespect he deserved while not offending the billion or so Catholics in the world who didn’t send him a death threat.

  41. I think what someone asked above is very interesting: Is there a difference between something that is done as art and something that is done purely to be offensive and to make a point. Is PZs pierced wafter art? What makes one thing art? It is just the intent?

  42. Offensive for the sake of offensive is tacky. I don’t agree with PZ’s “performance”, and I probably would have tried to come up with something different in his place, but at least he was trying to make a point. At least he didn’t go out and get a wafer for no apparent reason and jab a nail through it.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to call it art, but even failed attempts at art can be considered defensible as art.

  43. Is PZs pierced wafter art? What makes one thing art? It is just the intent?

    ———————–

    I actually have an answer to the question, “What is art” that makes good sense. But I doubt we’re going to solve that age old debate here in this thread.

    But yeah, by most definitions of art, the whole thing is a performance piece. A sincere one, but performance.

  44. Peregrine, yeah sorry if I sounded accusatory there, I didn’t mean it that way. I guess to bullet point what I was trying to say is that there’s a difference between having an opinion and imposing that opinion on others, not that you were justifying threats or anything. :)

  45. Kimbo, I didn’t take it as accusatory. It was just a thought. I do tend to gloss over the fact that death threats were uttered against both Cook and Myers, and I have no problem being called on it.

    I absolutely agree that they could have handled the whole situation better, and I sincerely hope that there are some Catholic blogs out there somewhere with people pointing out that death threats were out of line and unjustified.

  46. Rather than attack the symbols shouldn’t we attack the misplaced reverence that they have in the symbols? It might be less provocative but surely it’s more effective?

    Uhh, no it isn’t surely more effective. Did you preform some object measure of effectiveness you’d like to share? If so please share. If not saying something would be “surely more effective” is unsupported.

    I know of no perfect measure of effectiveness One measure that we can do is the amount of media (and internet splash) the event received. Cracker-gate received a lot of publicity.

    Do you honestly believe that a harshly worded blog post discussing the absurdity of crackers being people would have been read or discussed by as many people was it not for the nail and coffee grounds?

  47. This discussion is making me wonder if the Bush administration’s two terms in power have been just one 8-year long piece of performance art. No encores please :(

    I remember in my college there were painting majors and other “fine-artists” who looked down on the entire illustration department because they believed that illustration was not art. I was never entirely sure what the reason was for that. Perhaps the painters felt that they were superior because the work they produced was exactly what they wanted to do, and not a commission. But then Rembrandt took commissions too, and I’d doubt they would snub The Night Watch if it was exhibited at the school’s gallery.

    My unsophisticated take on this is that if you see something as art, then it’s art. Of course, this definition gives everything the potential to be art… including things too horrible for me to think of. But I can’t be held responsible for the opinions of others.

  48. The picture of the bin makes a point, and while the picture may not be aesthetically beautiful, it is often the case that art is very ugly.

    I would say the act and the photograph are both works of art. I’m surprised by so many on here with such delicate sensibilities…

    Pseudonym, the point was to rock the average catholic’s world, it was never about the death threats. PZ saw an opportunity and he took it. Now he could have done many things with that wafer, but at the end of the day he did with it what he was always going to do – he just threw it away with the garbage. He just happened to photograph it. The POINT he made was he threw pages of the God Delusion and the Qu’ran with it. But tossing the cracker was inevitable. What’s he going to do, keep it? Eat it? Bury it?

    The nail through was an added touch, just to prove that it wouldn’t bleed.

    No this was ABOUT the billion or so catholics he offended. It was all very intentional. Again I’m surprised at the few people here upset that we might have hurt some religious folks feelings out there….

  49. You could consider the act and picture art, but I think they would be better classified as an expression of political speech. The freedom to express ideas was more the point to me than the act itself or the way the picture looked (though it was kinda funny) .

  50. Actually, we know exactly what “art” is. This question was settled over a century ago by the Dadaists. Art is anything that an artist says is art.

    This depends, of course, on a definition of “artist”. This also has a well-understood definition: An artist is anyone who is called an artist by other artists.

    If you think this sounds a bit circular, it is. It’s no different from similar words like “intellectual”, “lawyer”, “engineer” and “scientist”.

  51. anyvainlegend:

    No this was ABOUT the billion or so catholics he offended. It was all very intentional.

    So it wasn’t about Webster Cook, then? It was all about the billion Catholics who have never been anywhere near the University of Central Florida, have never heard of Bill Donohue, and have never done anything to PZ?

    I’m surprised by so many on here with such delicate sensibilities…

    If by that you mean that I don’t want the typical Catholic to think that the typical Atheist is an arbitrary arsehole, then yes, I guess I do have delicate sensibilities.

  52. As an ex-fundie, there was a time when I had a knee-jerk reaction against anything religious. I’ve gotten to the point now that I don’t consider religion in and of itself a threat to rationality, but religious extremism, or for that matter, ANY sort of ideological extremism, as the problem. That being said, the U.S. constitution guarantees, to a greater or lesser degree, freedom of speech, but not freedom from criticism. Yes, the religious nut-cases have the right to bray as loudly and incoherently as they want, and we rationalists have the right to call them batshit, as WE want. ’nuff said.

  53. BTW, one thing I’ve noticed is that it’s the radicals of any ideology that terrify the moderates into a conspiracy of silence, because it’s the nutcases that get all the air-time in the media, despite being in the minority. This could be one of the reasons that the moderate religious don’t give the extremists the proverbial smack-down: because they don’t want to be made an example of by said extremists for speaking out or otherwise making waves.

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