Saturday, July 12, 2008

Stealing the Eucharist

If you haven't heard the news, here's a brief summary. Webster Cook, a student of the University of Central Florida takes a communion wafer in mass, but doesn't consume it. He claimed that he wanted to show it to a curious non-Catholic friend. Now, he is receiving death threats. Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, whose business is to be professionally offended on behalf of conservative Catholics, declares it "beyond hate crime", and calls for expulsion of the student. PZ Myers, major science blogger and atheist activist, expresses dismay at all the fuss over a "frackin' cracker." To cap off his post, he suggests that people go out and get some wafers for him, which he will treat with "heinous cracker abuse". Bill Donohue responds by directing attention to PZ. Now people are sending PZ death threats, and calling for PZ to be fired from his tenured position.

You got that?

First, allow me to consider the whole issue emotionally. As in, who has my sympathies. I am sympathetic for Webster Cook. He's, what, my age? He wasn't intentionally trying to piss anyone off or anything. The Catholics just seem springloaded to make him or anyone into a pariah. As for the Catholics, I have very little sympathy at all. I was Catholic too, of course. I've searched the back of my mind for any way I might have been offended were I still Catholic. I just can't find anything. Transubstantiation? Jesus will be fine. Witchcraft? That doesn't exist.* I think the offended Catholics are just being silly. He was, no doubt, not the first person to smuggle out a wafer, so it's just arbitrarily hateful. So maybe I just wasn't ever a good Catholic?

*Sigh... Yes, I am aware of Wiccans, but Wiccans don't care about communion wafers, and are probably nice people.

As for PZ, I have a mixed relationship as always. PZ is actually a really nice, softspoken guy in person. Even when the Intelligent Design folks made a dishonestly editted interview of him, the worst part they can show is when PZ compares religion to knitting. If you look to his blog, Pharyngula, it may seem really shrill, but I think that's just an internet persona. Everyone looks angry on the internet, and PZ just puts a little extra effort into it. It's a way of making things more interesting. In other words, he's mostly just talk. And on the internet, talk is cheap.

Of course, that doesn't excuse PZ. He hasn't done any heinous cracker abuse yet, but he did ask his minions to smuggle out crackers. That's really the part that worries me. PZ isn't nearly as bad as some of his minions. All these people are going to go out to churches everywhere on false pretenses, and they're going to steal the Eucharist? That sounds like a bad idea.

Now, allow me to consider the issue pragmatically. (The voice in the back of my head is saying, "Between pragmatism, idealism, rationalism, and emotionalism, you can justify whatever conclusion you already had." Well, too bad, voice in the back of my head, because I'm continuing anyway.) What will be the effect of PZ's cracker desecration? Will Catholics realize the error of their ways? Will they see how silly they're all acting? Uh, no. Not going to happen. Look, the whole atheist blogosphere is split over whether PZ is doing something wrong. Catholics will not hesitate a moment to take the side against PZ. Is it really "silly" for Catholics to get angry at PZ if they think PZ's goal is to make Catholics angry?

Supporters may think this event is making a clear point about something or other, but they forget how easy it is to read one's own biases into a story. Everyone thinks their previous view was confirmed by current news. That's just confirmation bias. People who think PZ's actions send a clear message about the silliness of rituals are being affected by confirmation bias. Catholics, too, will be affected by confirmation bias, and read whatever they want into PZ's actions.

But since I'm in pragmatic mode, I must also consider this: I have absolutely no power over PZ's actions. None at all. He will do what he wants when he wants to. Sitting here and complaining about it just isn't pragmatic.

So allow me to wonder out loud what PZ might do. He might, of course, do nothing: it was all a joke, you know. Or he might do something really vulgar (which seems to be what everyone expects). I thought maybe he'd just eat it, but someone pointed out the problem with eating stuff sent to you by mail. I hope he does something funny, to make light of the whole situation. Or something totally innocuous, to show people that there is little to be afraid of. Let's see how it plays out.