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Barbara O'Brien

The Cracker Case

By July 11, 2008

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PZ Myers is biologist and professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris, and he doesn't care much for religion. I enjoyed meeting PZ at a blogger conference a couple of years ago. Although I don't agree with his view that religion is entirely without merit, I understand how he came by that view.

Today PZ is in a heap o' trouble because of some comments he made on his blog, Pharyngula. A young man had admitted to smuggling a blessed communion wafer out of a Catholic church, for which he was receiving death threats. PZ, incensed, promised to treat a communion wafer with "profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse" if readers could send him one. Now, PZ is getting death threats and hate mail, and Bill Donohue of the Catholic League has organized a campaign to get PZ fired.

This situation has a whole lot of wrongs that don't add up to a right. Although it's not my religion, I respect the belief that the communion wafer is the Body of Christ, and not just a symbol, and the young man who smuggled the wafer out of church was disrespectful. But death threats?

Awhile back I wrote that religious license plates were an example of religion as tribal identity instead of, you know, religion as religion. This can happen in any religion, including Buddhism. And, frankly, I think most of the really absurd things done in the name of religion, things that help PZ make a case against religion, go into the "tribal identity" column.

And while I understand people taking offense at communion wafer theft and PZ's "cracker abuse," death threats and a campaign to have PZ fired smack of tribalism, not devotion.

Certainly, in ancient times religions were, primarily, artifacts of tribal culture. But since the Axial Age, I believe all of the world's great religions have emphasized the surrender of ego to religious discipline. I argue that religion as a projection of ego and personal/group identity is either a regression to the most primitive level of religion, or it is not religion at all but some form of social pathology dressed up as religion.

There are various perspectives on PZ and the Cracker Episode on the Web today. Some chide PZ for taunting believers, others take PZ's side. Although essentially this is a case of Everyone Behaving Badly, religious people especially need to think about what religion is and at what point religion turns into fanaticism.

July 11, 2008 at 4:04 pm
(1) felicity says:

You got it. “This is a case of everyone behaving badly.” What we have to avoid is tarnishing a whole religion because of bad behavior by some of its members. Afterall, it would be rather odd to tarnish the entire teaching staff of the UofM or the UofM itself because of bad behavior by one of its faculty.

Admittedly (religion) and the religious are easy targets because they’re supposed to be more moral than the non. It’s an invalid assumption.

July 11, 2008 at 4:05 pm
(2) Virginia says:

As a non-theist and former Catholic myself, I detest O’Donohue and have enjoyed PZ Myers’ blog. However, he needs to watch himself; he has been sounding a bit like an eccentric crank lately. I’m afraid his association with celebrities like Richard Dawkins is going to his head.

For many years, the main atheist figure in the U.S. was the eccentric Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who was easy to dismiss as a whacko. We secularists don’t need this – we need to be the resonable ones. PZ needs to cultivate a dry British-style wit (like Dawkins) rather than using the bludgeon approach.

July 11, 2008 at 7:09 pm
(3) Lauren says:

I am also, a non-theist but I respect others and their needs. Yes, some need religion in whatever form it takes for them. Disrepecting anyone’s beliefs leads to more intolerance not less.

July 11, 2008 at 7:28 pm
(4) Delany says:

You got it, Maha. I often think that some of the ranting atheists (esp. PZ) do themselves no favors by foaming at the mouth and engaging in ridicule. As you said, tribalism. Glad you mentioned the Axial Age and selflessness… Karen Armstrong’s book about the Axial Age (and, really, all her stuff) is wonderful, clear, literate, intelligent…

And, I came over from the other blog, just as you asked me to.

July 11, 2008 at 8:58 pm
(5) William says:

Saying merely that ‘both sides were behaving badly’ is glossing over an important point. While PZ’s comments were clearly meant to be offensive, I don’t think you can equate them to the hostility and threats of violence that have poured from the other side. And he only made those comments because of the hostility shown to the student in the original incident. Sit down and compare what PZ is saying and compare that to the vitriol pouring out from so-called Christians. While both sides may be behaving poorly, one side is clearly behaving much more poorly.

July 11, 2008 at 10:18 pm
(6) Barbara O'Brien says:

Sit down and compare what PZ is saying and compare that to the vitriol pouring out from so-called Christians.

I believe I already did that, which is why I was more critical of the “religious” side of this mess than I was of PZ. However, I’m not letting PZ off the hook entirely. “The other side is worse” is not exoneration.

July 12, 2008 at 1:51 am
(7) karen marie says:

i’m pasting in here my last and, hopefully, final comment posted in the comment thread of pz myers’ update post which includes the text of a sampling of the irate mail that has been directed at him. please read it in full. some of you may have a better understanding of the entire situation as a result. my comment:

apparently the writers of many of the letters pz myers posts above never bothered to look into the story which provoked his original remarks.

if they had, i think the discussion would necessarily include such topics as the appropriateness of physical assault upon congregants by church leaders in any location but most especially inside a church, the appropriateness of circulating incomplete or misleading stories in order to assassinate the character and credibility of the victim of such an assault or perhaps even a discussion of the reasonableness or unreasonableness of and reasons why catholics feel frightened and threatened in regard to their wafer.

but no, none of them apparently bothered to do what was actually very simple — even i was able to do it — track down details, including statements issued contemporaneously by various parties directly involved, and compare those to the wild claims being made about the seminal event. bingo, i’m no longer suffering from false and/or mis-impressions. although now instead of feeling disgusted by the obvious — people who direct death threats at a kid who, theoretically, “pulled a prank,” “behaved disrespectfully toward a common, replaceable object which, regardless of it’s extraordinaily nominal financial value, is nonethelss an important symbol to members of the catholic faith,” i am feeling something more akin to loathing toward an expanded group.

my sense of loathing is now extended additionally to those directly responsible for orchestrating a faux scandal for the sole purpose of covering up and/or excusing the remarkably poor self control of a “church leader” who committed an assault on an individual attending a church service in order to avoid responsibility.

these people continue to assassinate mr. cook’s character and credibility with demonstrably false yet unwithdrawn claims that he is a thief, a liar, a desecrater of sacred objects and a hostage taker. not content with that, they are additionally attempting to disrupt his life further by demanding he be expelled from school, making him defend himself against their libelous and false accusations.

as a result of this outrage, mr. cook has become the center of a firestorm not of his creation but of theirs, including threats against his personal health and well-being.

but is that enough for this dangerously irresponsible group? noooo.

just when you think they can’t make your head explode yet again, they have the temerity to get hysterical vapors when pz myers writes a snarky post about people who are so astonishingly stupid or willfully malicious as to deliberately mislead and provoke others into believing that mr. cook had misappropriated a wafer, a thin cracker, a bit of baked flour and water and then declared this made-up act “a hate crime” — nay, more than a hate crime — this was the worst possible thing you could do to a catholic, worse even than killing them.

“holy crap! what say you? you are advocating the murder of any person ‘caught’ violating wafer etiquette? are you kidding me? are you insane?”

personally, i think pz myers’ response was appropriate and rational, if you believe that life is a precious thing and not something which should be forfeit over a difference of opinion with regard to disposal of baked goods.

once you have the facts to replace the fictional “some guy stole a communion wafer and was holding it hostage and some smarty pants college professor who’s an atheist is promising more wafer theft and desecration,” the only reasonable response becomes “oh, crap, they assaulted the guy? inside the church? and then they lied and accused him of stealing a wafer and holding it ransom because he doesn’t like the school fees policy? and they did that after they learned he had filed a complaint with the school about having been assaulted inside the church, by a church leader? are you kidding? how much do you think they’ll pay to settle with him? will bill donahue and the catholic league have to kick in some cash given his/their significant participation in smearing mr. cook’s name as a desecrater, a hostage taker and a disrupter of church services? man, that’s going to be one big settlement!”

pz myers’ part in all this? he attempted to bring people’s attention to the fact that self-identifying catholic leaders are advocating murder of perceived violaters of their idiosyncratic religious beliefs revolving around the handling of tiny, unseasoned, cheese-less baked goods.

if you search out and read the various “news” reports (primarily found at websites of various fox news affiliates and at least one florida abc affiliate) you will discover that mr. cook is directly quoted fairly extensively, explained himself clearly and comes across as an intelligent and thoughtful person, quite the opposite of the vicious caricature church officials, bill donahue and the catholic league and their supporters would have you believe.

July 12, 2008 at 8:36 am
(8) Bill says:

Unskillful behavior on everyone’s part, without doubt. Disrespect nearly always engenders disrespect, and vitiates the original point — whatever it may be.

Speaking to the issue of the threats, however, I am always amazed how the followers of an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving deity seem to believe that (a) their particular transcendent being needs their help at anything, and (b)that he, she, it or they care at all what one intelligent monkey thinks or says. Seems to me that’s disrespecting your own deity, implying that it can’t take care of its own business.

But, hey, logic really has no place in this discussion anyway, does it?

July 12, 2008 at 10:24 am
(9) Lynne says:

I appreciated your oalm dissection of this emotional brouhaha.

July 12, 2008 at 3:23 pm
(10) abiodun says:

Both sides behaving badly? When does threatening death or bodily harm against anyone become “behaving badly”? I thought that was a crime.

And where was all this outrage when all those priests in the catholic church were sexually abusing children, and the vatican was busy covering it up?

July 12, 2008 at 3:59 pm
(11) Barbara O'Brien says:

Both sides behaving badly? When does threatening death or bodily harm against anyone become “behaving badly”?

I believe I made it clear that I placed more blame on the people making threats than on PZ.

And where was all this outrage when all those priests in the catholic church were sexually abusing children, and the vatican was busy covering it up?

There’s been quite a bit of outrage about that since it became known, as I recall. People haven’t been quiet.

Please note that this is a Buddhism site, and not an anti-religion site. Please stick to the issue at hand.

July 12, 2008 at 6:38 pm
(12) karen marie says:

dear ms. obrien:

i did not post my comment because i thought this was an “anti-religion” blog, i posted my comment because this site came up in google results on the topic of webster cook and when i looked at the posted content here i believed that the readers deserved to learn the underpinnings of this faux scandal.

i was surprised that this tale of catholic faux outrage was discussed here in the first place and i posted based on the assumption that buddhists prefer to know when they’re being rooked.


July 13, 2008 at 2:38 pm
(13) radical sapphoq says:

Webster Cook has explained himself.
What he did was perhaps tasteless.
There is also the question of whether or not he was manhandled by a woman at the chapel.

The very idea of the Host being Heisted and held Hostage being called a hate crime nauseates me as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. When the stories first broke about (a minority of) Roman Catholic priests who RAPED kids and then were routinely given transfers to other parishes, we were treated to a bunch of Catholic apologetics and some dioceses appealing for an increase in monetary donations in order to pay off the lawsuits. Where was the outrage then?

P.Z. Myers can buy communion wafers at a Catholic Supply Store if he wishes to. He can also bake his own with one of the many recipes that can be found on-line. As for Richard Dawkins, the dude rocks!


July 13, 2008 at 10:28 pm
(14) Barbara O'Brien says:

i did not post my comment because i thought this was an “anti-religion” blog, i posted my comment because this site came up in google results on the topic of webster cook and when i looked at the posted content here i believed that the readers deserved to learn the underpinnings of this faux scandal.

That’s fine, but I believe the “underpinnings” were covered in the original post. Note that I’m mostly in sympathy with PZ, whose blog I’ve enjoyed for some time.

However, the topic of the post is not the Catholic Church, which is why I object to commenters dragging in all of their resentments and dislikes of Catholicism beyond what happened to PZ. The topic is the tendency of religion to become tribalistic. This is something that can happen to any religion.

July 15, 2008 at 9:51 am
(15) Fallenmonk says:

While death threats are way out of line PZ should be smart enough to know that his rhetoric was going to inflame some of the fringe. You reap what you sow.

July 15, 2008 at 6:06 pm
(16) DrmChsr0 says:

If PZ Myers wants to desecrate a friggin Sacrament cookie, he should. Under the law, he has the right to.

But he should do it all in good taste. After all, cookie porn is pretty tasteless, even for Sacrament wafers, and they’re already pretty tasteless as is.

July 31, 2008 at 9:52 pm
(17) Chris mankey says:

I believe that the corn flakes I eat every morning are the transubstantiated body of Julius Cesar. You should respect that because it’s my religion! You must never make fun of my spiritual beliefs or your an intolerant bigot! I deserve to be taken seriously! Respect me!

November 10, 2009 at 1:23 am
(18) stephen sollnersawyer says:

yes the body is everywhere celebrate him when you get to eat and especially if you have wine

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