July 10, 2008

What You Can Do To Fight Unhinged Religious Hysteria

P.Z. Myers is a well-known biologist and outspoken critic of intelligent design theory. And a second-tier light in the godless blogosphere. Two days ago, he wrote about a number of Catholics becoming upset when a nutcase held a consecrated communion wafer hostage, in a post entitled "It's a Frackin' Cracker!" Death threats were levied against the kid who stole the wafer, which is what set Prof. Myers off on a rant, which included an immoderate language in which he indicated a willingness to desecrate a consecrated communion wafer himself.

Now, I bear in mind that to a very devout Catholic, that wafer stops being an unappetizing, stale cracker and literally becomes the very body of Jesus Christ, which is then literally eaten by the Catholic in a ritual called "Holy Communion." I myself have participated in this ritual back when I practiced Catholicism but even then I had a real, real hard time with the literalness of the ritual. It just plain was obviously not human flesh that I was eating, it was quite obviously a piece of flat, stale bread. The heels-dug-into-the-ground insistence of the priests that no, my senses deceived me and that was indeed the flesh of Jesus, was probably one of the first things that really got me doubting what all those religious folks were trying to tell me. And I wasn't really very keen on the idea of eating human flesh anyway, so the immense mental strain of convincing myself through the exercise of "faith" that this bit of stale bread was really a bloody lump of human muscle tissue seems like a decidedly disadvantageous effort-reward proposition.

So I'm a little bit sympathetic to Prof. Myers' point of view that death threats are more than a little bit out of proportion for stealing a cracker. (It's not even really "stealing" the cracker, since the priest gave it to the guy who subsequently held it hostage.) The right reaction to this would have been to ignore it. "Oh, go ahead and destroy the body of Christ. Won't be any worse than what the Romans did, and we'll just make more the next time we say Mass; besides, the bakery rolls these things out by the gross every couple of minutes."

But such cavalier and indeed sacreligious remarks will likely get me condemned by Bill Donohue, President of the Catholic League, the same way he condemned Prof. Myers. So maybe I should take them back. Especially because Donohue's minions have not contended themselves with pressuring the University of Minnesota to fire Prof. Myers (who has tenure, as far as I know) for his remarks but they have taken it upon themselves to issue death threats to him, too.

I'm not particularly worried about Prof. Myers' life. (Although you never know, and Prof. Myers should be consider exercising his Constitutional right to pack heat for his own self-defense if he's going to be as outspoken as he is.) But I think there may be cause for some concern (moderate, because he has tenure) for his job. University administrators are an astonishingly weak-spined subspecies of humanity and they have been known to take the easy way out of politically heated disputes. So, I hope that all of you will join me in writing to the President of the University of Minnesota letters not unlike this one:

President Robert H. Bruininks
202 Morrill Hall
100 Church Street S.E.
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, MN 55455

Dear President Bruininks,

I have recently read about the threats against one of your professors, P.Z. Myers, made in response to some remarks Prof. Myers has made on his personal blog concerning a bizarre incident that seems to have offended a number of people. I trust that by now, you have read Prof. Myers’ original remarks as well as the various complaints.

The only thing Prof. Myers can even remotely be said to be guilty of is hyperbole – and his accusers are hardly innocent of rhetorical excess themselves, having (among other things) actually threatened Prof. Myers’ life. While some people react to strongly-worded arguments with distaste, even immoderate remarks are part of what moves social debate forward, particularly in a nation and a profession that values the liberty of speaking one’s mind and academic freedom. Even if Prof. Myers had shared his thoughts in a university classroom while lecturing students, he would be well within his rights to express his opinion on the issue.

I urge you to resist calls to discipline or otherwise take adverse action against Prof. Myers. He is well-known in his field of study and is a popularizer of science of no small repute; it is a credit to your university that a member of your faculty has obtained such prestige. While it is clear that Prof. Myers was expressing views that were solely his own and no reasonable person could interpret him as claiming to speak for the university, it will be to your institution’s further credit for you to position the prestige of your office behind Prof. Myers’ right to express his opinions rather than give in to the short-term pressure of an easily-offended and immoderate group of professional victims.

Seriously, I think a number of letters would do a lot of good here. Especially if you are Catholic and can see past the immediate religious controversy to understand why it's important to have members of the academy given some license to be critical of social practices (like, say, abortion?) that they find worthy of criticism, without fear of losing their tenured positions -- or their lives.

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