If the events of the past week are any indication, clearly I should have extended my vacation. It was really quite pleasant not to wake up every morning to further grim economic and political news, and to stay in touch with things that really matter--like friends, and nature, and good food. Unfortunately, as is always the case, time away ends and we have to come, willy-nilly, back to what we are pleased to designate the "real" world.
It seems that one of the things that happened while I was gone was a brouhaha between PZ Myers and William Donohue and his so-called Catholic League. (No, I am absolutely not linking to either one of them: I categorically refuse to drive any more traffic to either place. Use teh Google if you want to get more details.) The brouhaha actually spilled over into last week, and since I've been commenting on it all over Left Blogistan, I figured I might as well write about it here where at least I can keep track of all the comments a little easier.
To reduce a great deal of sound and fury that might have signified little or nothing had not two ginormous egos gotten involved into something a little less cumbersome, here's a quick summary of the events as I understand them. A college student in Florida (who may or may not be Catholic; I haven't seen any clarification on that point) went to Mass and took Communion. But instead of consuming the Eucharist, he held on to it to show a friend (or so he says). This action upset a few people at the parish in question, and apparently there was some remonstration with the young man, who did, eventually, give back the host in question. Had it stayed there, no one not involved in the parish in question would likely ever have heard about it.
It did not, however, stay there. Bill DonoWho, blowhard and media-hog extraordinaire, got involved. I don't know how he found out about the incident, but he did, and he and some of his minions began calling for disciplinary action against the student in question. It is at least alleged that some of the people from DonoWho's group made death threats against the student--he has gone on record as saying that he felt his life was in danger. DonoWho himself merely called for the student to be disciplined, and hoped that expulsion would be on the table as one of the possible penalties.
That this reaction on the part of DonoWho and his minions is over-the-top is self-evident. But here, too, this mess might have stopped--had the other supersized ego not gotten involved: to wit, PZ Myers. PZ, for those of you who are not familiar with him, is a biology professor at a small state institution in Minnesota. He is also an avowed atheist. I want to make it very clear before continuing that I have absolutely not the slightest problem with PZ's atheism. I could wish, however, that PZ could manage to find a similar level of toleration for my Catholicism, as further details will more than amply demonstrate.
At some point, PZ got word of this flap-in-the-making, and decided to write about it on his blog. And that's the point at which the fertilizer hit the ventilator. Apparently feeling more than usually frustrated with theists, Catholics in particular, and after apparently receiving death threats of his own after coming to the defense of the Florida student, PZ followed up on his original post by asking his readers to "score him" some consecrated hosts, which he would then desecrate in some unspecified fashion. Much sound and fury ensued, including calls from DonoWho and his minions for PZ to be fired from his job. Numerous postings, ranging from pro to con to somewhere in the middle, have gone up all over Left Blogistan in the last few days.
PZ Myers's defenders' arguments boil down roughly to the following:
- PZ was only kidding, or being sarcastic when he called for people to collect the Eucharist and send it to him for desecration.
- PZ only wrote words: he didn't actually do anything wrong.
- PZ has had to endure years of abuse from so-called Christians, and he finally snapped.
Personally, I find no merit in any of those arguments. The attempts that I have seen to parse PZ Myers's posting to make it come out looking like a joke have had to stretch the usual and customary rules for parsing English prose well past their breaking point--and even then, their argument falls flat. Same thing for the sarcasm approach. Not to mention the well-known fact that the internet (or at least blogs, which rely solely on text) is a terrible medium for conveying irony, sarcasm, or humor. Even if PZ Myers's intent was to make a joke, he could have had no reasonable way to be sure that none of his readers would take it seriously.
The "it's just words" crowd fare little better. As the Supreme Court noted as far back as 1919 (in Schenck v. United States, the case in which Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. famously wrote that the First Amendment's protection of free speech did not extend to someone "falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic"), speech (or, in this case, words on an electronic page) can incite actions. And when those actions present a clear and present danger of an imminent lawless act, the Court has ruled repeatedly, said speech may be regulated or restricted by the government. I am not, contra DonoWho and his minions, arguing that the government (or PZ Myers's employer) should institute criminal proceedings against PZ for his threat. But I do think his words in this incident represent the sort of thing that the Supreme Court had in mind when it argued that the government could place restrictions on an individual's right to freedom of expression.
But it's the third "defense" of PZ's actions that I find least credible (and the one I have the most difficulty believing that it was raised at all). It's a tu quoque argument. Or, to put it less formally, it's a kid brother (or sister), on being punished for doing something to another sibling, saying, "S/he hit me first!" I have little doubt that PZ Myers's parents, like my own, never fell for that argument--and I doubt the parents of the people making it on PZ's behalf did so, either--so I cannot for the life of me understand why they think it should make any difference that other people attacked PZ Myers before PZ Myers decided to encourage some of his readers to help him commit sacrilege.
I don't think PZ Myers should lose his job over that call to illicit action. I certainly don't think there's any possibility of bringing legal action against him--the closest to that I could see would be an action for incitement to disturb the peace, but the odds that a prosecuting attorney would be able to make it hold up in court seem awfully long to me. I do think, however, that PZ's employer should encourage him to take some time off--either from his blogging or his teaching, or both--to reflect on his actions and hopefully to resolve to amend his behavior in the future.
Because whatever the provocation, and whatever PZ Myers may personally believe about my religious beliefs, he has absolutely no right whatsoever in the world to send people into my parish church (or any other Catholic Church in the world) for the express purpose of committing sacrilege. That's roughly the same as if I were to encourage my readers here to go to PZ's house and steal something from him that he values very highly, and then send it to me for me to destroy, just to show that I don't value it in the same way he does. Again, I don't think it would be possible to make a legal case against PZ for conspiracy to commit burglary or robbery, but that's about the best analogy I can come up with.
PZ is certainly entitled to feel any way he choses about Catholicism: just as I am free to feel any way I choose about atheism. But common decency, common sense, and common courtesy all suggest that when one is in the presence of a Catholic, it is probably not appropriate to mock Catholicism or its beliefs. Similarly, when one is in the presence of an atheist, it is not appropriate to mock atheism. And I know that people at both ends of the theist-atheist spectrum can do that. How do I know that? Because I've taken several graduate courses in the philosophy of religion from a man whom I have every reason to believe is an atheist. He also happens to be a damn fine teacher, a superb thinker, and an incisive critic. When I made a point in his class or in an assignment for him, I had no doubt that he would analyze it critically and critique it if there was anything amiss in it. I never once felt like he was belittling me or my beliefs, however, and I certainly never had any reason to complain about his scrupulously fair grading practices.
PZ Myers and his defenders would have me believe, however, that because PZ has been attacked for his atheism, and because he is alleged to have received death threats because of his support for the Florida student whose prank or experiment or whatever started this whole sorry mess, I am somehow supposed to let pass his incitement to sacrilege. Or, they say, while it may be sacrilege to me and my fellow Catholics, it's "just a cracker" to PZ and everybody else, and I can't force them or him to accept my way of thinking about it, so this is just a tempest in a teapot.
I call bullshit.
As I said previously, PZ is entitled to think and say whatever he likes about my beliefs. He is not required to accept them, and I can't force him to do so. But neither can he force me to accept his beliefs, or prevent me from saying whatever I like about his atheism. But I draw the line when he starts encouraging people to come into my church under false pretenses to mess with something that I and my fellow Catholics consider to be one of the most holy and sacred things in our faith tradition. It's just not something a nice person would do. I don't care what kind of provocation led him to make such an invitation, and I don't really care whether or not he was in fact serious when he made it. He shouldn't have done so at all--and the proper thing for him to have done once he made it and calmed down would have been to retract it and to apologize.
I feel reasonably certain that's what his employer would have liked him to do. I can't help but wonder whether they're not going to have a little more difficult time recruiting Catholic students (and maybe even students from other faith traditions, on the principle that hostility to religion in general would eventually lead PZ to take on something they considered sacred, too) in the wake of this brouhaha. And that's one reason why I think his employers should give him a little time-out. Let him think about the fact that his words and actions (since he makes it very clear on his website where he works and what he does there) reflect very badly on his university--something which it can ill afford these days, when competition for every student is fierce and more and more students are getting more and more of their information about potential colleges and universities from the internet. He may not have been speaking on behalf of his employer in any official capacity when he made this invitation to sacrilege, but it is nevertheless indelibly linked to his employer--and that could, it seems to me, reasonably be construed as a breach of his fiduciary responsibilities. That is, however, about as far as I would think his employer could reasonably go.
That such a course of action would completely fail to satisfy Bill DonoWho is, of course, self-evident--and irrelevant, at least according to my lights. DonoWho has no standing in this matter--unless, of course, it can be proven that he lit the fuse that led to death threats or other harassment directed against either PZ Myers or the Florida student. If that can be proven, then by all means, haul his sorry arse to court and lock him up upon conviction. I have little doubt that there will be private "Hosannas!" being sung from many cathedral churches around the United States, given that DonoWho and his flock of fanatics are an inflamed boil on the arse of American Catholicism and nobody--apart from a few fanatics among the hierarchy--wants anything to do with him.
As for PZ, I'm awarding him the Wanker of the Week award. Dishonorable mention goes to Bill DonoWho.