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Crackergate, Mon Dieu

I elbowed a bit of a wasp's nest yesterday, in briefly recounting the story of Paul Z. “PZ” Myers, the biology professor who put out a call for Catholics to mail him consecrated hosts for public desecration. There's backstory that fairness requires me to relate: Webster Cook, a student at the University of Florida, went to Mass at a Catholic Ministries liturgy held on campus, took Communion, and went back to his pew without consuming the host. Why he did this is unclear—I had a great deal of trouble sifting facts from hearsay in this case, which exists mostly in the blogosphere—but he took the host out of the building even though some of the people from Campus Ministries noisily demanded that he either swallow it or give it back. He refused, and the host went home with him in his pocket. Thus began…Crackergate.

I may catch some flack here from my Catholic readers for saying this: The church should have left it at that. But no, the well-known William Donohue, head of the Catholic League, got into the act, and suddenly it's a category 5 barroom brawl. Donohue has made a career of jumping on anybody and everybody who says something that puts Catholicism in a bad light. How effective he's been is open to debate. He was certainly instrumental in getting ABC's warm-hearted but liberal-slanted Catholic sitcom Nothing Sacred canceled back in 1997; beyond that it's hard to tell. He's gone after solid milk-chocolate statues of Jesus and tried to organize a boycott of the film version of The Golden Compass. I'd suggest that there are other, better places where that sort of energy might be spent, but let it pass. Most moderate Catholics would love to find another village that would take him.

Webster Cook returned the undamaged host to the church about a week later, but not before the Catholic lunatic fringe had begun sending him death threats. And then Prof. Myers jumped into the game, eager to play the dozens and keep the pot at a full boil. Here are his exact words, posted on his blog:

I have an idea. Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There's no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I'm sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I'll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won't be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls, which would apparently be a more humane act than desecrating a goddamned cracker), but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web. I shall do so joyfully and with laughter in my heart. If you can smuggle some out from under the armed guards and grim nuns hovering over your local communion ceremony, just write to me and I'll send you my home address.

Here's the full post on Pharyngula.

Ok. Does any of this sound to you like a pack of seventh graders mixing it up on the playground? It sure does to me. The detailed facts seem to change depending on whom you read, but Cook is claiming that he was “restrained” by a woman who turns out to be about half his physical size. He is now filing charges against the Campus Ministries for violating university hazing rules that prohibit forced eating. And Bill Donohue is trying to get PZ Myers fired. So far, as best we can tell, no desecrations have taken place.

My primary comments on all this:

  • Genuine death threats are illegal and actionable. If you get one, don't just bitch. Go to the cops. That's what laws are for.
  • If your opponents are insulting you, meeting them insult-for-insult is precisely the wrong thing to do if you want the moral high ground, or to simply avoid looking stupid.
  • Respect is an inner virtue; less something you show than something you are. Desecration happens in the man (or woman) and not to the host, flag, book, shrine, or image.
  • Allowing people to make you angry gives them power over you.

Atheists who are cheering on Myers seem blind to the fact that Myers is making atheism look bad. Which leads me to ask: What is atheism actually for? If its goal is to win people away from religion, making sane arguments in a respectful manner would seem more effective than insults and ridicule. If (as seems to me at times) it's a sort of tribal venting society, then go for it, keeping in mind that few people recognize therapeutic venting for what it is, and you won't get a lot of converts from ordinary folks who are not axe-grinders by temperament. You'll just look churlish.

I'm sure I've already given this more attention than it really deserves. I've begun wondering if Webster Cook was challenged over a drink to come up with the college prank to end all college pranks (judged by the ratio of effort required to publicity generated) and he may have succeeded. I've also heard that PZ Myers is considering desecrating a copy of the Qur'an as well. I'll believe that when I see it.

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