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 »

First Review of Expelled!: An all around pan for Creationist cinema

December 17, 2007

The first major review of a preview screening of Expelled! has hit the net, and the reviewer basically confirms all our prophetic jeers and boos.

In keeping with what I’ve pieced together about film’s likely approach, it apparently never really even defines what Intelligent Design is, or really even explains what evolution is. Informing your audience about the basic ideas so they have some context to work with (and some way to understand the ideas and positions under debate) apparently got cut out of the film in the final edit.

In other words, this is not a film written by even someone like Michael Behe, who at least understands the basics of evolutionary theory and evidence to some extent. It’s a film written by pop creationists, who virtually never have the first idea what evolution is, how scientific evidence works, and so on. Instead of any serious discussion of biochem, genetics, or anything else, it looks like we get a heap of phony outrage generated by flat out lying and misleading the audience about cases like Richard Sternberg.

Fair warning though: one unfortunate part of the review is the discussion of junk DNA, which is just too simplistic to be anything other than misleading.

Note: My own final and detailed review/fisking here, finally. And there’s a whole host of much more in-depth Expelled-related content around here than you’ll find in just this short post.

Related: Another review casts more detail on the Hitler-happy nature of the film, as well as Ben Stein’s history of celebrating crazy conspiracy theories.

More: One of the best and most comprehensive accounts of the film, along with my debunking of one of its bizarre claims. And a review that sums up the film in a single picture. You should also check out Expelled Exposed, the official NCSE response site to the film’s claims, and I, of course, have plenty more to say on the subject.

CNN covers the Scientology takeover of Clearwater, Florida

September 24, 2007

An interesting story today on CNN covers the gradual transformation of Clearwater Florida into a sort of mecca for Scientologists, the religion invented by science-ficton author L. Ron Hubbard (the town’s non-scientologist mayor, amusingly, is coincidentally named “Hibbard.”)

Notable about it is its discussion of some of aspects of the religion that are often publically treated as “secret” such as the claims of alien Body Thetans, past lives, becoming “clear” and so on: things which mainstream media sources generally do not report on or discuss. It’s good to see CNN doing at little work educating people about what Scientology actually entails: too often this material is left to rumors and skeptic sites, treating the secrets of the religion with an air of undue protection and respect. The article even covers “Operation Snow White,” the bizarre criminal case in which many senior leaders in the religion, including Hubbard’s wife, infiltrated the US government on a mission to destroy incriminating documentation on the Hubbard’s organization and its activities.

It also mentions something I wasn’t aware of: that the church at least claims that it ditched the “it’s morally ok to destroy our critics by any means necessary” rule back in the 70s. I couldn’t be more skeptical on that, but it is one of the rare times I’ve even heard from an actual Scientologist talking about or defending the religion directly. In all my days on various messageboards and skeptical websites, I’ve never come across even a single live Scientology adherent willing to answer, explain, or defend some of the kookier and sinister aspects of the religion. That’s always struck me as sort of odd: I know there are many many of these people out there, but even celebrity adherents like Tom Cruise only seem to tangentially say things based on church dogma (like their alternative medicine and anti-psychiatry claims) without really putting the religion and its beliefs front and center.

Anyway, bravo to CNN for being this frank and detailed about the subject.