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The Great Cracker Conflagration of 2008 12 Jul 2008

Posted by Jessa in Religion.
Tags: , , , , , ,

Regular readers of this blog (hi to all four of you) probably already know about this – PZ Myers has found himself in a bit of an internet uproar over a communion wafer.

A condensed timeline:

  • A student at the University of Central Florida takes a consecrated communion wafer home with him.  Much outrage ensues, including accusing said student of a “hate crime” and “kidnapping”, and e-mailed death threats.
  • PZ writes about it, and includes a call for people to send him wafers to desecrate.
  • Bill Donohue (of Catholic League fame) gets wind of it, and acts typically by issuing a press release calling for people to write to the University of Minnesota president to demand that PZ gets fired.
  • PZ responds and fights back.
  • Meanwhile, he’s getting his own batch of hate mail, some with death threats.
  • The Catholic League issues another press release calling for extra security for Catholics at the upcoming Republican Convention in Minneapolis, despite the fact that Morris is 150 miles away from Minneapolis and PZ has not threatened anyone.

Whew. What drama.

I’m somewhat undecided about PZ’s pledge to desecrate a cracker.  On one hand, I think it’s a fairly juvenile stunt.  On the other hand, actions like his can open up a dialog (if somewhat heated) about important issues.  Some of the most important insights I’ve had in my life have come from getting offended and then examining why I was offended.

But what I did find interesting was the thread that ran among the comments from those supporting the Catholic outrage.  Most of them either implicitly or explicitly included the idea that an individual has a right to have their beliefs respected.  Um, no.  Your right to hold a belief should be respected, but the belief itself has no right to be respected.  The idea of respecting beliefs sounds like a good one at first blush, but it’s totally unworkable.  There are some sincerely held but genuinely silly beliefs out there.  Anyone who has spent any time on the internet can come up with at least 5 examples off the top of their head.  By the rationale of the “respect beliefs” argument, we must respect the belief that aliens built the Great Pyramids.  Or that the moon landing was a hoax.  Or that the US government was behind 9/11.  There are people out there that believe these things just as deeply as Catholics believe that a priest can, with appropriate hand gestures and incantations, turn a wafer into the Body of Christ.  See how respecting all beliefs just won’t work?

But the “respect beliefs” commenters don’t really believe that all beliefs should be respected.  A great number of them are calling for PZ to desecrate a Koran instead.  So apparently they have no problems with disrespecting the beliefs of Muslims.  I guess “respect beliefs” really means “respect the beliefs with which I agree”.

Mmmm…I love the smell of hypocrisy.



1. Daniel - 12 Jul 2008

Good point. We respect the right of others to hold beliefs. Many beliefs are unsubstantiated ideas. Taking the Eucharist literally seems to miss the symbolic mark that by consuming the tasty symbols you are to so identify with Christ as to become one in beliefs, values, and mission. Cannibalism was part of the idea. Seeing scientist say they are clueless about 90% of the universe, the claim that the universe evolved Darwin-like is an unsubstantiated belief. Life began as a single cell rather than as simultaneous multitude of cells. Know one really knows except for their creator maybe. Another unsubstantiated belief is that Obama will make a real difference if elected. The substantiation for such a faith is if one can substantiate that the Democratic party and its legislative members are not a major part of our past and present social and economic problems.

What I have yet to discover is what exactly are the supposed fees for religious service that so upset the FL student enough to protest? Were fees charged to all students. Were they fees to cover costs of expenses incurred to accommodate students religious interest? (User fee, instead of voluntary tithes?)

2. duke - 12 Jul 2008

I have another view of the respect issue. Everyone should imnmediately list a least 5 opinions they hold on any subject whatsoever; here are five of mine:

1. I believe the South built cooler looking “ironclads” than the North in the American Civil War.

2. I believe that country folk are nicer than city folk.

3. I think there *might* be intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

4. The Germans lost, rather than the British won, the Battle of Britain.

5. Preserving antique farm equipment is a worthwhile hobby.

Okay. Now if you look at all of that. I have been condemned as a “nut” for believing those things by some people, “cool” by others, and plain “who gives a rats tail” by others. Regardless of what opinion anyone holds about anything, there will *always* be those that label things and/or opinions as crackpot, offensive, cool or visionary. SO where does that leave us in regard to PZ Myers and “crackergate”? 99% of the population will never hear about it. 95% wouldn’t care if they heard about. But, given that PZ uses the F-word frequently when responding to things he dislikes, what response exacly was he expecting? Did he, in his heart of heart expect that Catholics would say “Hey, so what? Got a problem with the way we do things? No problem.” (Rolls over and goes back to sleep). PZ is either one of two things; he knows exactly what he’s doing and what to expect, or he’s plain deluded. I say it’s more of the latter. Here’s a real world example; I used to work with a fellow who was more arrogant than you could imagine. The arrogance extended into nearly everything you can imagine that he could possibly criticise; work, choice of women, heritage, college of choice, where you were born and raised, and, of course, religion and politics. What made me finally believe the guy was clinically delusional was what happened when anyone questioned anything about *his* background, likes and disilikes and so forth. You know how he reacted? He got very, very angry, even to the point of near violence. Lesson to be learned? Sure, some people are not to be questioned, everyone else is fair game. It seems like something you learn when you are 12 years old. If your going to hurl insults about any topic, even ones in which you are educated and may have a valid point, your going have to expect that every now and then, *someone* is going to fire back. If PZ was really about reason and all that, he would start by cleaning up his website. Otherwise, as smart as he may be in his own field, he is seriously deluded when it comes to human nature.

3. duke - 12 Jul 2008

Hi Jessa,

“Your right to hold a belief should be respected, but the belief itself has no right to be respected.”

I agree with the first part of your statement, but have a question about the last part. How should one deal with a belief itself that, in your opinion, “…has no right to be respected”. After you have made this call, does this then entitle you to hurl a string of insults at the holder of the opinion? Do you somehow gain the right that after you have decided (on whatever basis) the opinion is not respectable, to verbally or otherwsie abuse the person who holds the opinion? I know most of the regular posters over at Furangula would disagree, but I think there is a third option that one can employ when dealing with what are deemed to be “unrespectable” opinions; you can simply remain neutral. I do it all the time. My mother-in-law thinks Army of Darkness is “the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen in my life”. Well, okay.
Also, you should I respect your “belief” that some other “beliefs” have no right to be respected? Your statement is, after all, simply a “belief”.

4. Jessa - 12 Jul 2008

Come on, Duke. You’re setting up a strawman. You’re conflating speaking out against a belief with an ad hominem attack against the person who holds the belief. They’re not the same thing. Saying that the concept of transubstantiation is absurd is not the same thing as saying that people who believe in transubstantiation are morons.

And yes, there is the option to remain silent. I do it frequently, such as when the opinion being expressed is a matter of personal taste (as in the example of your mother-in-law). But when people start forcing their beliefs on me, it is time to speak up. Such is the case with the recent push to re-introduce creationism (in its thinly-veiled disguise as Intelligent Design) into science classrooms. I don’t have a problem with people believing that the Biblical God created the universe. But I don’t want it taught to my children in science class. Science class is for testable hypotheses, and “God did it” is not a testable hypothesis. Therefore, I speak out, and I try to do it in a civil way, restricting my criticisms to the idea rather than the people who hold them. I guess you could consider that another option – disagree without personal attack.

And I don’t think that the concept that beliefs are open to criticism is a personal “belief” of mine. I’m not a lawyer, but I’m pretty sure that such a concept has withstood judicial scrutiny. So if it’s a “belief”, it’s one that’s also held by the Constitution.

5. duke - 12 Jul 2008

Hi Jessa,

No one is suggesting you don’t have a right to criticise beliefs you disagree with.. Although you appear to make a distinction bewteen an attack on the person (ad hominem), and an attack on their beliefs, PZ apparently does not.

“I’m somewhat undecided about PZ’s pledge to desecrate a cracker. On one hand, I think it’s a fairly juvenile stunt.”

Yep, I agree here. The key word is “juvenile”, which I mentioned in an earlier post. You honestly don’t have a problem with a 60 year old man engaging in this kind of stuff?

“On the other hand, actions like his can open up a dialog (if somewhat heated) about important issues.”

Jessa, your idea of “opening up a dialog” with someone is to begin with an insult? Surely you kidding, right? What if someone were to post over here something like “…look, you stupid atheist…”. Are you telling me that would open up some kind of constructive dialogue?

“Some of the most important insights I’ve had in my life have come from getting offended and then examining why I was offended.”

I agree. But tell me, why were you offended, merely at another’s opinion, or the way it was stated to you?

Anyway, although we might disagree, we are good examples of how we can still be civil 🙂

PS: “Jessa” is a very pretty name…sounds “Southern”.

6. omcdurham - 13 Jul 2008

To Jessa and Wank: I once lost a very special relationship over beliefs, or more correctly, the lack of respect for one another’s beliefs. I had always been one to question the Bible and it’s telling of how things were/are. Never really made sense to me, so I asked questions.
The woman I was with at the time had been brought up to just accept that the “Word of God” was the Truth, because the Bible (and her parents) said so. I won’t get into specifics, because I’m sure you’ve both heard most of the popular arguments.
Anyway, after 3 years of us being together, and her fully aware of my beliefs, and of my disdain for organized religion, we got into a heated discussion about her beliefs versus my beliefs.
She never followed the teachings of the Commandments; she drank, smoked, had premarital sex, lived with me while we weren’t married. You name a sin, she (and I) committed it several times.
Yet, one night, her and I had an argument about each other’s belief structure, and she called me a faithless pig for not believing the story of Creation, the story of Moses on the Mount with his tablets, and what it all meant. I called her a sheep for allowing herself to be spoonfed a bunch of stories that seemed to me to be mathematically, biologically, and mentally impossible. She said i didn’t know what faith was, and I told her that she didn’t know what common sense was.
I don’t want to engage in a religious debate with you two, but the issue is one of respecting another person’s beliefs. We neither respected each other’s beliefs, nor each other at that point. That is sad. An almost perfect (edenesque) relationship went in the sewer because neither of us would compromise with the other.
I say, let everyone state their inklings up front, and just enjoy each and every moment with either a chuckle, a wrinkled frown, or silence. Because sometimes you can’t tell people anything.

7. Duke - 13 Jul 2008

omcdurham at #6:

“…but the issue is one of respecting another person’s beliefs”.

You’ll get no argument from me as I completely agree with you. When I was younger (born in ’63) I remember feeling some urge to “set people straight” when I disagreed with them. I honestly didn’t know what “live and let live” meant. And of course, I alienated alot of people. PZ, and others like him somehow feel a compulsion to save all of us from our delusions (in his eyes:religion). It’s a self-imposed task. Personally, one of the things I respectfully disagree with Jessa about is the idea that one can separate a particular belief from the person. PZ agrees with me here. He’s called religous folks:

-“…extorsionists and witch hunters…”



-“…flakey and weird…”

-“…purblind ideological idiot…”

-“…posturing frauds…”

All this only from the last few weeks, but you get the picture. There is no reasoning with people like that. It’s perfectly okay to disagree with people, it’s how it’s done and perhaps more interesting, *why* in some cases. You mentioned a ruined relationship and that brought back a painful memory for me. It was 1981 and I was with my very first girlfriend on our second date. Standing on her front porch about to say goodnight, she looked and me and said “I want you to know that no one owns me. No one except Jesus.”. “That’s okay” I said, “I don’t believe in Jesus”. She looked stunned because she’d never met an atheist before. She told me years later she cried that night abou that, but it took years for me to understand it, and by then it was to late and we’d gone our seperate ways.

8. Jessa - 13 Jul 2008


What if someone were to post over here something like “…look, you stupid atheist…”. Are you telling me that would open up some kind of constructive dialogue?

You’d be surprised at the number of e-mails I receive that start out that way (or something similar to it). They also always end with “I’ll pray for you”, which I have learned in this context is a euphemism for “Fuck you”. But I digress…

No, I don’t take seriously people who start out with an insult. To clarify, I was trying to say that the teachable moments come when someone shocks me to offense, not by insults. Some of the best examples of this in my life are personal, so I’d rather not share them right now. Maybe sometime in the future. And if you read the original post by PZ, he doesn’t start with the insults until halfway into the post. I still think the insults were not necessary, but it’s his blog and nobody can dictate what he can and can’t say on his personal blog, save the Seed Overlords.

And although I support his right to say what he wants on his blog, I won’t speak on behalf of PZ. I think he’s capable of defending himself. But I’m pretty sure he knew exactly what kind of response to expect – he’s a confrontational type, and he has been in situations like this before. Is it effective? Maybe, maybe not. You’ll have to ask his readers.

This whole brouhaha has taught me something new – that people take transubstantiation a lot more seriously than I had previously thought. So you could say that that was my teachable moment out of this.

9. Duke - 13 Jul 2008


Agreed about the “teachable moments”. By almost all accounts PZ seems to be an effective classroom teacher and a skilled debater. It’s to bad he doesn’t act the same way on his website; he would have plenty of teaching moments. My guess is the site would not be as popular as the people who take potshots at everyone would no longer have any fun over there.

10. Neonryosteor - 10 Aug 2008


11. Justin Thought - 27 Mar 2010

How much easier this world would be if we would just follow the principle attributed to Voltaire: “I disagree with what you say, but I would fight to the death for your right to say it.”

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