PZ Myers, A Frackin’ Cracker, and the Neoatheist Movement

I’ve been an atheist literally just about as long as I can remember — since sometime when I was 6 or 7. My family was neither particularly religious nor particularly irreligious, and I remember concluding at a very young age that God was just one of those stories like Santa Claus that people passed on because it made them feel better even if it wasn’t true.

At the same time I’ve never particularly felt the need to evangelize for atheism. When I see people pray or ascribe some natural phenomena or another to God or a miracle I think it’s kind of silly, but certainly the world is filled with all sorts of irrational beliefs and no one has time to stamp them all at. I, for example, have an extremely irrational fear of heights, and I wouldn’t be particularly welcoming if people got in my face challenging me to overcome that fear. Similarly, I assume haranguing people over their superstitions would be similarly ineffective. So, in general, I just don’t talk to people about their religious beliefs or mine, and everyone gets along.

Neoatheism is a term that has been used to describe the approach to atheism advanced by folks such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. Broadly speaking, the claim is that religious ways of thinking are a net negative to society and atheists need to more openly affirm their atheism and point out the problems that religion creates. Note that although the fundamentalists and evangelicals are frequently the targets of the neoatheists, their critique is much deeper — it is the form of any religious doctrine rather than the specific contents of said doctrine that Dawkins and others attack.

For the most part, I’ve thought the neoatheists have been on the right track. For example, I think Dawkins is absolutely right in attacking the commonly held middle ground position that science and religion are compatible. As Dawkins rightly notes, it is rather the case that science has completely undercut religion and why so few scientists are believers — the more you know about the naturalistic workings of the universe, the more absurd religious myths become.

But just how far should atheists go. I think PZ Myers offers us a good example of crossing the line in, of all things, a controversy about crackers.

A University of Central Florida student started a bizarre scandal when he attended a Catholic Mass held in June on the UCF campus. To make a long story short, the student received The Eucharist from a priest but rather than swallow it, took it with him when he left the church. Somebody spotted him and tried to stop him from leaving. At that point, the incident became a minor story in Florida, complete with an idiot priest comparing the kerfuffle to a kidnapping. A spokesperson for the Catholic diocese where this occurred said the student’s failure to consume the wafer should be treated as a hate crime. You just can’t make this shit up. Bill Donohue suggested the university might want to consider expelling the student.

I thought Myers did a good job of highlighting the idiocy entailed in those sorts of statements. He was on a roll making fun of silly superstitions and then he had to write this,

So, what to do. 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.

I think publicly asking for a religious symbol so that you can desecrate it for everyone to see on the Internet is possibly the stupidest thing I’ve heard an atheist who wasn’t Madalyn Murray O’Hare say. Myers post reminded me most of the sort of far left activist who thinks the best thing to do for this or that U.S. failing is to burn an American flag which, after all, is just a frackin’ piece of cloth.

In both cases, the only thing being communicated is an incredible lack of disrespect that generally tends to harden opinions on the other side rather than persuade anyone that this is just a cracker/piece of cloth. For me at least, Myers’ asking others to sneak out wafers so he can desecrate them is just as extreme as saying that the student who walked out with one committed a hate crime.

Post Revisions:

7 thoughts on “PZ Myers, A Frackin’ Cracker, and the Neoatheist Movement”

  1. LOL. I’ve been meaning to write a follow-up. I thought Meyers actual desecration ended up being fairly clever, and now his opponents seem intent on going to absurd extremes.

  2. Great post in general. I disagree regarding PZ myers actions.

    The desecration of the wafer was done to highlight the illogic behind getting too upset about the fate of dried wheat. The person doing the desecration sees no symbolism in the cracker or the act, and is mocking those who do. “So you say you have to do all that every time I say Macbeth? MACBETH!”

    Burning flags in response to a government’s actions is different, as it indicates that YOU see symbolism in the piece of cloth. This is dumb.

    Unless of course you’re protesting an anti-flag-burning law or some such. In which case it is an act of civil disobedience, to highlight the illogic behind getting too upset about the fate of a piece of fabric. I can get behind that.

    I am interested though in the question of whether or not Webster Cook should have been expelled from the University of Florida for his actions. Is it (or should it be) against a university’s code of conduct to “disrespect” someone, if no harm is done physically or monetarily? Does the “stealing” of the cracker count as vandalism? Does the cost of the item stolen factor into the decision? Is the fact that it was given freely to him by the priest relevant? However absurd PZ Myers’ actions, should he be fired from his professor’s position (or does tenure prevent that)?

    It seems to me that the Catholic Church has authority to throw Cook out of the church, albeit nonviolently, and has the right to call the cops if he won’t leave, but that there are no grounds for expelling him from school. He broke no law, and simply not following Church doctrine, however blasphemous the infraction, however much “disrespect” it shows, however pissed off it makes anyone at all, is not an expulsion-worthy offense.

    If schools can expel people, or employers fire people, merely because they say or do controversial or disrespectful things and not harming anyone physically or in their pocketbook, then doesn’t that kind of restrict free speech? Like, completely 100% eliminate it from everyone except the self-employed?

  3. I never wrote a follow-up post to this, but I have to say that PZ Meyers pleasantly surprised me with his final desecration throwing in part of the God Delusion, etc. I think he really made his point with that final demonstration and allayed most of my concerns.

    I still am concerned with him actively encouraging people to go to a Catholic church with the intention of swiping a cracker, however. That still seems to me to be over the line.
    The university decided to take no action, but the student government body he was part of voted to kick him out of their ranks which seemed a fairly craven thing to do.

    It’s bizarre that this episode became such a big deal, especially as the student seemed to have a fairly innocuous reason for his actions.

  4. Hey, thanks for the response.

    I hadn’t heard about the inclusion of God Delusion parts in the desecration, that is a nice touch that reinforces the point.

    While I’m not sure how I feel about the ethics of urging people to steal even very inexpensive communion wafers, even to do so discreetly, I am certain that I don’t think he should be fired from his university position for doing so on his own time and without using channels owned or operated by the university (despite an accidental link to his blog found in an old cache of the university’s website I gather).

    I wasn’t being rhetorical in asking some of the more specific questions in the middle paragraph of my above post however. I’ve been having a long drawn out conversation with a friend and he’s brought up a ton of interesting points like these that have made me re-think my positions, but I’m very eager to hear what answers you or any atheist would have.

  5. I’ve never read a text before with so many “particularly” ‘s 😉

    I believe in god and I think it’s un-American not to believe in him.

    That’s all I want to say! 😉

    Sven

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