More on PZ Myers & the Kidnapped Communion Wafers

July 18, 2008

We’ve been debating the fallout from Florida student Webster Cook taking (and then returning) a communion wafer, atheist blogger PZ Myers’ aggressive reaction to the blacklash, and Andrew Sullivan’s lame defense of double standards when it comes to defending the infamous Muslim cartoons, but condemning Myers’ proposed symbolic wafercide. In the process, I had an exchange with Murder of Ravens on the subject that I think helped clarify my position on the whole mess, and was worth expanding on a bit. MoR wrote:

In the case of the Danish cartoonists, they were mocking specific actions of fundamentalist Muslims, namely, their proclivity towards blowing things up and killing innocent people in the name of Allah. Sure, the cartoonists’ approach was injudicious and heavy handed, but then, surely no more heavy handed than the actions of their subjects. And besides, political cartoons have never been known for their subtlety.

In this case, the cartoons were not intended to depict at ALL Muslims, simply an odious minority who engaged in violent and, one might daresay, sociopathic behavior. I think most people will agree that this sort of behavior is rightly condemned by all right thinking people.

On the other hand, taking communion is a benign expression of faith that is partaken of by almost all Catholics. Even if you don’t believe it has any benefits, I think you’ll agree that it harms no one. Unlike the Danish cartoonists, Myers is deliberately antagonizing an entire faith for participating in a harmless act of faith.

Read the rest of this entry »


Double standard: Andrew Sullivan on Catholic Wafer Controversy

July 14, 2008

Blogger and liberal Catholic Andrew Sullivan was a hearty defender of the infamous Danish cartoons that depicted and poked fun at the Islamic prophet Mohammed. But now, the sacred cow is, er… on the other foot, or something. Sullivan Sullivan tells a very different story when it comes to the recent hubbub about PZ Myers merrily threatening to desecrate Catholic communion wafers:

It is one thing to engage in free, if disrespectful, debate. It is another to repeatedly assault and ridicule and abuse something that is deeply sacred to a great many people. Calling the Holy Eucharist a “goddamned cracker” isn’t about free speech; it’s really about some baseline civility. Myers’ rant is the rant of an anti-Catholic bigot. And atheists and agnostics can be bigots too.

“Atheists and agnostics” is just another word for “some people,” and yes, people can be bigots, especially towards groups of which they are not a part. Whether or not you think Myer’s jab is bigoted or not depends quite a bit on whether you think attacking and parodying beliefs can be a form of bigotry or not. I’m open to the argument that it can be in some cases.

But I’m not so open to the argument that it’s bigotry when done against Catholics, but not when basically the same thing is done against Muslims.

Sullivan, however, thinks he can dig his way out of this double-standard:

Thanks for the defenses. My objection to PZ Myers – even as I defended his right to say whatever he wants and wouldn’t want him punished in any way – is not, in my view, a double standard. Printing a cartoon for legitimate purposes is a different thing than deliberately backing the physical desecration of sacred objects. I’d happily publish a Mohammed cartoon if it advanced a genuine argument, but I would never knowingly desecrate a Koran purely to mock religion.

But Sullivan’s distinction here is nonsense. In Islam, creating images of their prophet is inherently very much a form of physical denigration, no different than physically denigrating a consecrated wafer (in this case, oddly, by NOT destroying it!), or improperly treating a written name of God is for some observant Jews. All of these are, of course symbolic acts done to unfeeling objects, and it is a matter of religious belief as to whether it causes any real harm to anything other than people’s feelings or not.

Sullivan’s definition of “legitimate purposes” is also a form of special pleading. Myers and the Danish cartoonists were both seeking to mock religion for precisely the same reasons: to puncture presumptions of special authority in matters metaphysical. Either you think that’s a legitimate purpose or not: but you can’t have it both ways depending on how much you like the target.

I certainly think it fair to object to these sorts of showy, trolling criticisms as unproductive, or rude, or aggressive. But as even Sullivan’s readers have pointed out, the same can be said about people, himself included, attacking or making fun of Scientology. If it were really “about baseline civility” as Sullivan claims, he’d treat this incident as a case of reconsidering his own bigotry when it comes to anything but Catholic doctrine, rather than trying to pin it exclusively on Myers.

Update: Commenter Terry points out that Sullivan’s concern for the desecration of the host is potentially problematic for him. For any number of reasons, if Sullivan himself has taken communion in what his church could consider a state of sin (i.e. unrepentantly defending and/or engaging in gay sex), then he himself would have desecrated the Host.

Dueling Hypocrisy Update: Andrew Sullivan still hasn’t addressed his own lame defense of his cartoon blasphemy apologia, but he has thought to check in on PZ Myers’ take, and implies that Myers wasn’t as enthusiastic about bashing Muslim beliefs as he was about Catholics. But Sullivan is pretty clearly quote-mining here. Myers says immediately after the supposedly damning quote:

So on the one hand I see a social problem being mocked, but on the other—and here comes the smug godless finger-wagging—I see a foolish superstition used as a prod to mock people, and a people so muddled by the phony blandishments of religion that they scream “Blasphemy!” and falsely pin the problem on a ridiculous insult to a non-existent god, rather than on the affront to their dignity as human beings and citizens. Religion in this case has accomplished two things, neither one productive: it’s distracted people away from the real problems, which have nothing at all to do with the camera-shy nature of their imaginary deity, and it’s also amplified the hatred.

In short, there doesn’t seem to be any less willingness to attack sacred beliefs here. Myers’ reservations were, if you read his post, mainly about his feeling that the cartoons traded in racial stereotypes of what he saw as a powerless minority.


Student “Kidnaps” Eucharist: Catholic Controversy Conundrum

July 9, 2008

As Webster Cook, a student at the University of Central Florida, tells it, he was attending a Catholic Mass with a friend, was given the communion wafer, and wanted to show it to the friend in order to help explain Catholicism. He was accosted as he attempted to walk back to his seat with the wafer uneaten, and in defiance decided to leave the service with it (he later gave it back). Church officials tell it differently: Cook was never physically restrained, and he basically absconded unprovoked with what they believe is the body of Christ, holding it hostage just to make point about the public funding of religion (the service was held at a publicly funded school).

Worldwide controversy ensues. Bill Donahue calls his act “beyond hate speech.” The local priest calls it “kidnapping.”

PZ Myers has his usual blistering take of course, mostly agog at the seeming absurdity of the whole matter: it’s just a cracker!

I guess I have more sympathy for the outraged Catholics than he allows. Read the rest of this entry »


Defending Obama’s “Faith-Based” Funding Changes: Special Rules for the Religious?

July 7, 2008

I’m by and large indifferent to Obama’s promised expansion of “faith-based” funding, which like most government programs that target certain groups, is likely to boil down to patronage, just as it did in the Bush administration. Maybe he’ll do better, enforce some actual standards of quality and non-partisanship. In fact, given the outright disdainful incompetent way many of these programs have been run, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could do as badly. But politics has a certain gravity, not unlike economic markets, that quickly washes away one’s original intentions when it comes time to make policy. I can’t really celebrate or decry Obama on this stuff.

There are, however, some broader important church/state principles here, and a lot of people making arguments that I just don’t think hold water.

Most prominently, there’s the religious folks who are horrified that Obama is suggesting that they might have to play by the same rules as everyone else who receives government grants. The NYTimes calls it the “six little words” that threaten to throw a wrench into his overture to religious groups

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Blog Shorts: Bush Smears Jefferson, Colson Smears Atheists, Cthulhu Smears Your Entrails Across Campaign Trail

July 5, 2008

The web is a wondrous place, isn’t it? From just the last week:

Ed Brayton and Timothy Sandefur catch George Bush “honoring” Thomas Jefferson by altering his actual words to avoid any hint of anti-religious opinions.

From the “Theists Are Far Ruder to Atheists than Atheists Could Be in Return” File comes Chuck Colson, the convicted felon who thinks he’s better than you. Hemant at the Friendly Atheist is having none of it. Hemant’s also not buying the idea that requiring students to actually act out Islamic prayers is a legitimate way to teach them about world religions, even if the teacher is a Christian.

Over at Catholic and Enjoying It, Mark Shea manages to be more far more outraged about a story in which Muslims are supposedly outraged by a puppy than anyone in the story is actually outraged. But he makes up for it by his hearty endorsement of Cthulhu’s 2008 run for the White House. No More Years!

And finally, Orac over at Respectful Insolence bemoans yet another loss to the forces of woo: apparently some states, with Vermont the most prominant amongst them, are starting to require insurance companies to pay for the “evidence-free medicine” of naturopathy. Lest you think that such errant nonsense couldn’t possibly hurt you, Orac points out that it’s a move that will kick you right in the pocketbook:

I don’t know about you, but if I were paying into an insurance plan, and the company administering that plan were wasting money paying for woo, I’d be mightily pissed. This can only serve to drive up the costs for everyone, as patients with non-self-limiting diseases pursue non-science-based modalities, think they feel better for a while, and then find that their disease is progressing, at which point they seek out science-based medical care–which their insurance companies will have to pay for, too.


Ancient Jewish Tablet Ignites Controversy: Another 3-Day Messiah?

July 5, 2008

When the Drudgereport first posted an unlinked story “BIBLICAL STONE CAUSES STIR; re-evaluation of Jesus story?” this morning, it caused quite a stir and much speculation. And while it remains unlinked at the moment, it likely refers to this NYTimes story: Tablet Ignites Debate on Messiah and Resurrection.

The tablet of this story contains what appears to be a sort of Judaic sect’s apocalyptic gospel, ostensibly transmitted to man by the angel Gabriel. That in itself is not so controversial, since such literature was well known in the era. What’s stunning is that some scholars have made what seems to be a decent case that the text proves the pre-Christian existence of a cultural motif of the suffering messiah: one who, no less, is killed and then perhaps even comes to live again three days later. If this is so, it means that this idea was not, as most scholars believed, original or unique to Christianity, but was in fact a known cultural theme that predates the life and ministry of both Jesus portrayed in Gospel texts as well as any historical Jesus.

As with all such finds (such as the famous Ossuary of James, now widely believed to contain partial fraud), a significant amount of skepticism is warranted. But for many reasons, including the length of time the tablet has been around in scholarly hands, it seems like few doubt the legitimacy of the stone and its text, at least insofar as their dated origin. The debate instead revolves around what precisely that text says (much is illegible or missing) and what that means for the cultural and religious beliefs of the time.

“Some Christians will find it shocking — a challenge to the uniqueness of their theology — while others will be comforted by the idea of it being a traditional part of Judaism,” Mr. Boyarin said.

On the face of it, the use of past events to flesh out the Christian story is not exactly unprecedented: many of the Gospels and other early Christian writings seemed concerned with showing that their religion echoes, and thus is legitimately rooted in, Jewish scripture and history (i.e. the idea that Jesus was in some respects analogous to the lamb of Passover). This could simply be one more example, and whether or not this demonstrates post-hoc justification and embellishment or prophetic harmony is a matter of subjective opinion.

However, while some believers may indeed decide that the tablet is actually just another prophecy predicting the life story of Jesus, that line of argument is complicated by the fact that the story of the tablet seems to concern very different events and characters (and if it is a real prediction, then the Bible seems to be missing a rather amazing and key text!)

And the idea that the Christian idea of martyrdom was so culturally “out-of-the-blue” that it just has to be true (i.e. true because it’s too absurd and out of the mainstream for the Gospel writers to have dreamed up) is still decisively undermined. To be sure, atheist critics of such apologetics have dealt with these sorts of arguments quite convincingly in any case. But if the translations and interpretations of the tablet pan out, it will be yet another case in which the comfortably certain claims of evangelists are later overtaken by real history, which seems to have no particular inclination to validate such apologetic assertions after the fact.

Will this turn out to be another James Ossuary scandal, where over-competitive scholarship drove breathless conclusions and media stories far beyond what skeptical scholarship should have allowed? Or will this find ultimately alter our understanding of the pre-Christian world and the context in which Christianity took hold?

You were expecting me to have any clue? Nope. We’ll have to wait and see!


More Misleading Atheist/Theist Surveys

July 4, 2008

Tiny Frog has an excellent post taking a look at a recent poll being shopped around by several Christian news outlets purporting to show that atheists are less moral and sociable than theists.

Putting the subject matter completely aside, it’s a very insightful look into the way that survey results can give highly flawed or misleading pictures of people’s attitudes, both depending on what data you choose to report (and the sociologist in question, Reginald W. Bibby, does seem to make some rather suspicious choices), how you present it, and the questionable implications one might want to draw about causality (as far as I can tell, the survey doesn’t even include any statistical controls, making the claimed social implications nigh meaningless).

I actually wouldn’t be surprised to find that atheists and theists differ significantly in many respects (though I doubt this sort of uncontrolled study, even sincerely undertaken, could reveal much about them). Given Western society’s mixed and highly diverse attitudes about religion, theists and atheists likely have some fairly different experiences. Might be nice if theists and atheists spent more time comparing notes, rather than comparing statistical flufferies.


Being a Buddhist is the Hardest Job in the World

July 2, 2008

If this is what I need to do to earn inner peace, then I just don’t know if I can cut it:

What do you think about when you meditate?

Usually, some form of trying to excavate any kind of negative thing cycling in the mind and turn it toward the positive. For example, when I am annoyed with Dick Cheney, I meditate on how Dick Cheney was my mother in a previous life and nursed me at his breast.

Only by resorting to Family Guy can I fully capture the horror of this image:

HT: The Agitator


Texas Legalizes Abusive Exorcisms… Or Does It?

June 28, 2008

There’s been much dismay in the rational-o-sphere about a recent ruling by the Texas Supreme Court. The ruling concerns a case in which two “exorcisms” were performed on a minor, leading her to be injured and psychologically traumatized. The original jury held the church accountable, awarding the girl a few hundred thousand dollars. The Texas Supreme Court, on the other hand, found that the actions of the church were protected under the 1st amendment.

On the surface, this sounds like a pretty scary ruling: basically saying that a group can claim religious warrant for forcibly restraining someone against their will, injuring them, traumatizing them, and then get off scott free. But as I read through the full text of the opinion, the case looks decidedly more complicated.

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NRO’s Mary Eberstadt Pouts in the General Direction of Atheism

June 24, 2008

Thanks to Ed Brayton, I’ve recently been made aware of a rather sad spectacle. Apparently National Review scribe Mary Eberstadt has been laboring away in obscurity for the last month or so, penning what her editors seem to think is a clever take on C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters (in which a demon instructs his nephew in the business of inspiring human sin).

I’m not a fan of Lewis’ quaint, preening writing style to begin with, but at least the man gave off the air of erudition (even if he did indulge in embarrassing apologia like the “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord” gambit). Eberstadt, on the other hand, very literally (perhaps even intentionally) writes like a gossipy teenage girl from the 80s gushing about Corey Haim. Except of course, that she employs hip-to-be-square terms like “BFF” and “Oh snap!”

Lewis’ Letters worked because he employed the creative conceit of professional demon tempters to expose and explore universal human failings… and, by amusing proxy, revealed how human beings could actually avoid the demonic designs on their souls. Screwtape, the narrative voice of the tale, was a master manipulator. It was a satire, to be sure, but Screwtape himself was not played as a fool: he was meant to illustrate precisely how dangerous sin and temptation could be.

Eberhardt, on the other hand, has no higher purpose than to first pretend to be an atheist then act as mindbogglingly stupid as possible. It’s the literary equivalent of a schoolyard “you’re all like this: duhhhhhh.”

Like Brayton, I feel compelled by my profession to dissect the sorry affair point by point, but I can’t quite bring myself to actually read more than a shuddering gasp at a time. What few coherent points she does appear to be making are either trivial straw men, endless harping on substance-free matters like “Brights,” or bringing up classic controversies to which she adds nothing new. So if anyone can please extract a coherent argument from this right-wing bestseller-to-be so that I can address it directly, I’d much appreciate the service.

And while I won’t have much credibility in saying so, I honestly don’t see any comic wit or incisive satire at work here. Maybe someone a little more patient than I can point some out. Because here’s an example of the sort of stuff you have to endlessly wade through in search of a point…

I’m not even sure why I still feel them myself, so long after my own Turn to atheism. It’s true that when my ex-boyfriend, Lobo, got stoned, there was nothing he liked better than opening all his Dad’s coffee-table books on Renaissance art and eyeballing the paintings and sculptures. And it’s true that this was one of the few things Lobo did that I enjoyed doing with him when I wasn’t stoned myself. That was before his Dad kicked him out and we moved to Portland, You know. I’m not saying Lobo was all bad, by the way. Just mostly. That’s what happens when You pick up Your boyfriend in rehab I guess!

Whooooaaa! Girlfriend went there!

And it just goes on and on like that: in this case, pages of that sort of stuff all essentially to make the single, exceedingly bland non-point that believers have made a lot of great art and that Sam Harris (a non-artist) hasn’t. Great. Thanks for the five minutes worth of literary agony.

I’m honestly embarrassed for her. If this is really a “serious work of Christian apologetics” then atheists have quite little to fear.

Christians often complain that atheist critiques of religion are simplistic and carelessly dismissive. But as Eberstadt aptly illustrates, atheists are a model of polite, interested commentary compared to how they are often treated in return.


Atheists Should Stop Believing in God So Much

June 24, 2008

Seriously, what’s up with this?  According to a new Pew study on religion, 21% of atheists believe in God: either a personal or impersonal force.  And 8% are absolutely certain that a God exists. 12% even believe in heaven, and 10% in hell!

Either we have here a very lousy study, a heck of a lot of joke answers, or a fair number of people who are remarkably confused about what “atheist” means.  I very much doubt that the bulk of these contradictory responses represent the sort of sophisticatedly confusing theologies of people like Paul Tillich.


“Theophobia” in Academia and Elsewhere

June 19, 2008

A number of thoughtful interchanges today between Rick Hills at Pawfsblog and the Volokh folks.

Hill starts everything off by recounting an exchange with a former colleague that disturbed him: his colleague seemed shocked to hear that a mutual friend was a Christian. The friend goes as far as to worry that “if a serious academic could believe in God, he was capable of believing in, or attempting, anything — attempting to walk across the East River unaided by a water taxi, gunning down students in hallways, speaking in tongues at a faculty meeting, you name it.”

Hill thinks that this reaction is a sign of, well, mental illness:

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