Thursday, July 31, 2008

When is a cracker "just a cracker"

It's just a flag and some rope...

It's just a flag and a badge...

It's just a man and a cracker...

On a basic level, these statements are all true. However, who can be aware of history and not realize the significance of the Nazi flag and the yellow badges to those of Jewish heritage? Or what the Confederate flag coupled with a noose implies to African-Americans? In the aftermath of the incidents in Jena, Louisiana some tried to excuse the noose that was placed in a tree on high school property as a "joke", and the controversy sparked copycats on college campuses, raising concerns over historical ignorance and and racial insensitivity.

Our realities are constructed in our conscious awareness through symbols that are imbued with meaning, even for those who consider themselves rational empiricists. Even though our cognitive maps of reality may differ and our narratives of existence may vary somewhat from one person and one group to the next, we all have the capacity to appreciate and even tolerate symbols we ourselves do not empower with the same value. In fact this is the challenge of living in a pluralistic society - deciding the rules for respecting each others ways of understanding and valuing our existence.

There is of course a danger when we start to value abstractions and symbols over lived experience or philosophies and affiliations over living beings. In politics this error can be seen in the extreme rhetoric of jingoism, the distorted imitation of genuine patriotism. The symbols of the nation are conflated with the principles for which they stand and in some cases trump those principles - that is, protecting the flag outweighing freedom of expression. Slogans and judgementalism are also part of the mix, with a strong distinction between those who are "with" or "against" a group based on whether they "honor" the right symbols (which in practice is virtually idolatry) and profess the proper beliefs, at least in public.

The same kind of mentality has also been observed for some religious institutions as well. It is also recognized that sacred traditions have the power to magnify what is the human heart, giving birth to some of the worst and some of the best of which humans are capable. When these two trends merge in an ugly way, the result can be religious intolerance and persecution. In some cases, a good-humored satire, a healthy dose of comic irreverence, can defuse the tensions which would otherwise see "Commies", "terrorists", or "blasphemers" under every rock and around every corner. I deeply revere the teachings of the Buddha and Jesus, yet I find the episodes of South Park featuring these characters in absurd situations among my favorites (see "Super Best Friends" or "Fantastic Easter Special").

Of course, not everyone would agree with me and would find those episodes deeply offensive. Yet some of those folks may chuckle at milder forms of parody or criticism. In one sense, whether someone has gone "too far" in criticizing or disrespecting some aspect of another person's or groups beliefs is fairly subjective. But there are some clues which suggest one is headed in that direction, such as: blatant and blanket disrespect towards an entire group which is directed as often or more often at the people than towards their beliefs; open hostility expressed in cruel mockery such as the vulgar abuse of uncharitable strawmen caricatures; and taking pleasure in intentionally upsetting or disturbing members of the groups in question.

Which brings us to a recent controversy over a Eucharistic host, the wafer that is blessed by a priest in Christian traditions such as Catholicism during the observance of Holy Communion, the celebration honoring the Last Supper of Christ with his disciples. In Catholicism it is taught that after the blessing of the wafer it hosts the presence of Christ (hence the name) - it becomes the same in substance as the body of Christ. Only those who have received the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation and who are in communion with the Roman Catholic Church are allowed to receive and east the host. This isn't just an isolated belief among other beliefs in Catholicism. It is part of a whole in which the faithful seek to honor and obey God by honoring and following the example and teaching of Jesus.

Initial news storie concerning the controversy began by reporting when Webster Cook, college student at UCF who objected to churches holding services on the campus of a public university, removed a consecrated host from a Catholic service. After a sever over-reaction by some Catholics including reports of death threats, the student claimed he had merely been curious about the host and had not intended to cause any controversy or to upset anyone. In the end the Cook returned the host, focusing on his claims that excessive force was used in trying to keep him from taking the host and expressing an interest in a positive fruitful reconciliation of his difference with the local Diocese.

Those who threatened violence against Cook are guilty of that ugliness of putting their reverence of the holy ahead of their obedience to the holy, as Christ advocated love and peace. It is as absurd as the death threats made by some Muslims to the employees of a Danish newspaper which had published (offensively drawn)images of the prophet Mohammed. The local Diocese rightly rebuked any threats toward the young man, who in turn expressed his ignorance of the pain he had caused by his actions.

But the story does not end here. Instead PZ Myers, a college professor and blogger who regularly expresses his disdain for anything promoting or revering the sacred, especially religion, decided to involve himself by asking his readers to intentionally take a consecrated host from a Catholic service for the sole purpose of sending it to Myers to be desecrated. Myers wasted no time going through with his plan.

In describing his disrespecting of a Eucharistic host Myer's doesn't neglect to mention that the badges used by the Nazis to identify Jews (as per the pictures at the start of the post) were first used by the Catholic Church, an organization which has a tragic history of persecuting people of different faiths, and particularly those of Jewish heritage. Part of this persecution included the charge of desecrating a Eucharistic host. (As an aside, it might be possible to find Jews or Muslims who would view the image of the Pope and a consecrated host as much signs of violent oppression as the other sets of images.)

Myer's frustration and annoyance over the revelation that Catholics still revere the Eucharistic host (and that some would even threaten violence over its mistreatment) is part of a larger more generalized hostility revealed regularly on his blog, Pharyngula. Myers appears to lump religion, superstition, the supernatural, spirituality, and any discussion of appreciation for the sacred into a more or less homogeneous stew of stupidity fit for only the weak and the gullible:
There are days when it is agony to read the news, because people are so goddamned stupid. Petty and stupid. Hateful and stupid. Just plain stupid. And nothing makes them stupider than religion.

-from "It's A Frackin' Cracker"

I'm going to need lots and lots of people to rise up and follow suit, subjecting old, dishonest institutions of hardened dogma to our chief weapon of ridicule and deris…our two weapons of ridicule, derision and laughter…no, three weapons of ridicule, derision, laughter, and skeptici…oh, never mind. You know what I mean...

Nothing must be held sacred. Question everything. God is not great, Jesus is not your lord, you are not disciples of any charismatic prophet... You will not find wisdom in rituals and sacraments and dogma, which build only self-satisfied ignorance...

-from "The Great Desecration"

So we arrive back at the question of living civilly in a culturally and religiously diverse society. For those who are not Catholic, or Christian, or in any sense devoutly religious, the idea that people would get so upset over what is presumed to be an ordinary object can seem absurd or frightening. For those who are strongly irreligious and aspiritual, this impression is magnified. Since they have no reason to see the host (or for the irreligious anything) as sacred, neither the body of Christ nor the host is an object of their reverence. But does it need to be in order to be deserving of respect? Is the desire to deflate the beliefs of others a justification for incivility?

On his former blog Even the Devils Believe Chris Tessone, a priest in the Independent Catholic Christian Church, assessed the situation thusly:
Myers' response — and that of his readers — takes much from the unhinged anti-religious movement of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. The idea is that if any religious people do something bad, all religious people should suffer. If any religious person is a bit thoughtless, blame all religious people for being superstitious fundamentalist zealots.

Attacking people, as Myers does, simply because they hold practices and beliefs you don't understand is one of the most poisonous actions one can take against those who are Other, and the body politic itself. It is disruptive to the best traditions of a pluralistic society like ours — just as abuses against the Koran have been in war zones American soldiers have been active in recently. This kind of behavior has absolutely no place in our society.

Jimmy Akin, a Roman Catholic with an eponymous blog who posted extensively about Myers' attitudes and actions concerning the Eucharist (and who has attempted to spark a campaign to have Myers fired on the grounds he is unfit to work at a public liberal arts university) echoed Tessone's sentiment...

[T]he statement that he would desecrate the Eucharist "joyfully and with laughter in my heart" unambiguously indicates that this is not a dispassionate scientific demonstration of the falsity of Catholic belief regarding the Eucharist.

[I]t's a snide jab at religious belief based on an overly simplistic understanding of that belief.

In Myers' case it is also a deliberate and cruel violation of the most deeply felt religious sensibilities of other human beings. He's not just saying he doesn't see evidence for God. He's proposing to deliberately desecrate what other humans hold most sacred, which is bound to stir passionate feelings and cause profound personal pain to every faithful Catholic who hears of it, including those who are not sending him hate mail and who have caused no harm and done nothing to bring about this situation.

Even if PZ Myers does not respect the Eucharist, he should respect those people...

-from "Bad Science"

Although he carried out his action. in his words, to support the idea that "Nothing must be held sacred" (also trashing a few pages of The God Delusion, a book with which he is in sympathy), he did not merely tell people that nothing must be held sacred. Nor did he argue for it. Claiming that nothing must be held sacred or proposing arguments for this proposition are a subject that can be discussed in a civil, respectful manner.

Instead, P. Z. Myers surreptitiously obtained and then desecrated something that is held most sacred by numerous individuals. He went out of his way to offend, to provoke the most deeply held sentiments of others, and he did so in full knowledge of what he was doing, as witnessed by the fact that he complains repeatedly on his blog about all of the outraged complaints he has been receiving from Catholics via e-mail...

P. Z. Myers has demonstrated that he will go out of his way to offend the sensibilities of anybody who holds anything sacred, to treat whatever they hold sacred with public contempt. The problem thus is not limited to Catholics and Muslims. Since, in Myers own words, "Nothing must be held sacred," ...he is willing to desecrate anything that others do hold sacred...

-from "P.Z. Meyers Must Be Fired"

One irony of this situation is that Myers is privileging his beliefs (including the conviction that nothing is or should be considered sacred) to the point of making it acceptable to treat any contradictory views held by others with total contempt. That chafes against the spirit of the secular and progressive movements' drive for democratic plurality in religious views (including irreligion and atheism), but it does not violate the personal liberty of Catholics.

The personal liberty of one citizen does not permit the subversion of another's - that is, you can believe what you want so long as it doesn't lead to unreasonable inconvenience or harm to someone else. This is the core principle behind many articles of the Bill of Rights, including the freedoms of speech and of religion, as Myers' correctly cites in his reply to a complaint by the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy:
Freedom of speech means I do have the right to malign and make fun of any religion I want. I can't interfere with your right to practice your religion, but that hasn't happened — all I've done is laugh at you.

Each person can decide for her or himself whether or not she or he thinks Myers went too far by employing gleeful derision in challenging a central element of Catholicism, but given that:
  • his actions neither prove nor disprove whether a consecrated host is sacred;
  • his actions are geared at provoking animosity as opposed to introspection;
  • his response fails to address appropriate/inappropriate relationships and responses to what we most revere and cherish in favor of being dismissive; and
  • the episode plays into the more banal stereotypes of atheists,

I have to say this has not so much been a victory for atheism so much as an indication of the failures in dialogue between those at the poles of theism and atheism. For those who are adamant that the bottom line in all of this is that "it's just a cracker", keep that in mind the next time someone gestures their strong disagreement or frustration with you. (After all, it's just a finger ;oP)

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