Over the last couple of days, I've considered posting something on the controversy that's been sparked by PZ Myers' comments about the eucharist, and the reaction of Bill Donohue and the Catholic League to those comments. I've been putting it off because it's not an easy post for me to write. The entire incident has suffered from a lack of heroes. Instead, it's been a case where someone has behaved badly, but someone else has behaved worse.
I've interacted with Paul Myers on various internet forums for at least a decade now. In that time, he's done many things that I respect, and a few that I greatly admire. His recent post offering to publicly desecrate the Eucharist if someone would be so kind as to send him some does not fall into either of those categories.
To be fair to Paul, it's not like he pulled that idea out of the blue. A college student in Florida smuggled a consecrated host out of a Catholic Mass at the school. When this became widely known, a large number of Catholics became extremely outraged, and the student received a number of death threats. The college responded by supplying armed university police officers to stand guard - not over the student who received the death threats, but at Mass, to protect the eucharist from future kidnapping. The university police will apparently be receiving additional backup from a nun that the diocese is sending to help protect the Eucharist. (No, I'm not making any of that up.)
It's easy to understand why Paul - and, for that matter, any number of rational people - were outraged by that story. The kid removed something from the church that is, as far as anyone can tell from any measurements of any physical properties, a thin wafer made out of wheat. It's about the size of a quarter, costs a lot less, and has both the texture and flavor of glue. It is absolutely, completely, and utterly insane that there are people who are willing to threaten the life of another human being who failed to display proper reverence for an object that is, by all objective standards, nothing more than a Necco Wafer that's been subjected to a flavorectomy.
Regardless of what we believe about the Eucharist, we should all be able to get behind the idea that it's absolutely wrong to threaten to kill someone who treats it disrespectfuly.
Paul's offer to desecrate a host was made in that context. I'm not totally sure whether it was made in the spirit of standing in solidarity with the threatened student, to attempt to show the people making the threats that it won't work, to try to show everybody that there's no apparent difference between desecrating a host and mangling a cracker, some combination of the above, or for some reasons I've missed. To be honest, I don't think the reason really matters. Let's just say that it came in reaction to the absolutely outrageous behavior of others, and leave it at that.
Paul's response to the death threats was to turn around and threaten to do something that's guaranteed to offend (if not horrify) every Catholic who finds out about it, whether or not they were in the select group of pin-heads who wish they'd been born early enough to get an on-the-job anatomy lesson working for the Inquisition. He made it very clear that he has absolutely no respect for anyone who believes in something as irrational as transubstantiation, and absolutely no qualms about hurting their feelings.
I don't think Paul's response is remotely reasonable. He may think that the Eucharist is a cracker, but Catholics disagree. He may think that they are wrong, and he may be right. He may think that the Eucharist is worthless, and he may be right there, too. None of that matters. The Eucharist has a large amount of emotional significance to many Catholics, and it will retain that significance for most of them even if Paul thinks they're all ignorant and credulous mediaevalists.
Please note that I'm not saying that Paul can't do it, or that he has no right to do it. He can, and I think he probably does have that right (although I'd consult a lawyer first if I were him), but he shouldn't.
The mere fact that it is legal (or at least not illegal) to do something says very little about the morality involved. It's not nice to destroy something that you know has a great deal of emotional significance for someone else, and it's particularly jerky to threaten to make a public display of destroying it. This is true for items of religious significance, but it's also equally true for non-religious items that someone finds significant. It may be intended to demonstrate disrespect for their beliefs, but it will be felt as a lack of respect for them as people.
Unsurprisingly, Paul's little offer has stirred up controversy and sparked quite a few inappropriate reactions. He's received quite a bit of hate mail - much of it suggesting that instead of desecrating a host, he should use the Koran for toilet paper. He's collected four death threats so far, and he's caught the attention of Bill Donohue and the Catholic League, who are currently waging a campaign to get him fired from his academic position.
Although at least a few of Paul's commenters seem to have taken the threats and hate mail as proof that religious people in general (or Catholics in particular) are unreasonably prone to inappropriate responses, I don't think it demonstrates anything of the sort. If you insult enough members of any group - religious, ethnic, or social - sooner or later you'll probably find some who will respond to an insult inappropriately. To put it another way, there are something like ten million Catholics in the United States. It would be a miracle if none of them were assholes.
Bill Donohue, leader of the Catholic League, is the living argument against that particular miracle. The man has made a career out of his outrage, and his involvement in this whole fiasco was predictable.
His response to PZ started off over the top. His reaction to a threat that Paul made, on his personal blog, to desecrate the host has been to organize a letter-writing drive to try and get Paul fired from his day job at the University of Minnesota, Morris. Most of the threats made against Paul came after Donohue issued his first press release about the issue. The same seems to apply to the earlier case involving the student. Donohue has not, to my knowledge, explicitly encouraged these threats. He does, however, appear to be far more concerned that his beliefs have been insulted than that the lives of fellow humans have been threatened.
Donohue's second press release, on the other hand, is absolutely farcical - so much so, in fact, that I'm only bringing it up to inject a moment of much needed levity into this whole post. He accuses PZ and his followers of "hysteria", goes on to say that there better not be any threats against his own life, and demands - I kid you not - more security at the Republican National Convention because the convention is in "Myers' backyard". (With 150+ miles of backyard to mow, I'm not sure how
PZ manages find time to blog.)
Seriously, though, here's what the issues come down to. Paul was rude. He was impolite, and he said things that were absolutely, completely guaranteed to hurt and offend a large number of people. He should not have done it. But none of that makes Donohue right.
I dislike what Paul wrote, but he has the right to write it, and that right needs to be defended at all costs. If the freedom to believe (or disbelieve) what you want is going to keep any meaning, it needs to cover everyone. If you remove an atheists' right to criticize and offend Catholics, what is there to stop the Protestants from removing the Catholic's right to criticize and offend them, or the Muslims from demanding that Jews be barred from criticizing them?
As it turns out, there's really a delicious irony here. In essence, I am arguing that it's stupid for Bill Donohue to try and silence PZ, because PZ's right to be an offensive ass is ultimately the only thing that protects Donohue's right to be an offensive ass. (And, this case notwithstanding, Donohue needs the protection a hell of a lot more than Paul does.) So all let's go save Donohue from himself, by writing a letter to Paul's boss. Let him know that even if you disagree with what Paul said, you support his right to say it.
Update: While I was writing this, Wilkins went and published something that makes a lot of the same points that I was trying to make near the end. He uses bigger words, and philosophical-type terms, and stuff, but somehow or another still managed to be clearer and more eloquent than I was. So read his post before you start yelling at me.