The Sciences


Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollJul 16, 2008 4:31 PM


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PZ Myers has gone and gotten himself embroiled in another one of those imbroglios. For those of you who don't trouble to read any other blogs, the story began with the report of a student in Florida who smuggled a Communion wafer -- the Body of Christ, to Catholics -- out of Mass. This led to something of an overreaction on the part of some local believers, who referred to the stunt as a "hate crime," and the student even received death threats. (You remember the part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says "Blessed are those who exterminate those who insult Me," right?) PZ was roused to indignation by the incident, and wrote a provocative post in which he volunteered to do grievous harm to Communion wafers, if he could just get his hands on any.

Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There's no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I'm sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I'll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won't be tempted to hold it hostage ... but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web. I shall do so joyfully and with laughter in my heart. If you can smuggle some out from under the armed guards and grim nuns hovering over your local communion ceremony, just write to me and I'll send you my home address.

But the thing that took the whole mess to another level was the intervention of Bill Donohue, whose Catholic League represents the very most lunatic fringe of the Church. Donohue, who specializes in being outraged, contacted the administration at the University of Minnesota, as well as the state legislature. Later deciding that this level of dudgeon wasn't quite high enough, Donohue soon after upped the ante, prompting a delegate to the Republican National Convention to demand additional security, as the delegates felt physically threatened by PZ and his assembled hordes. (The Republican convention will be held in the Twin Cities, about 150 miles away from PZ's university in Morris, Minnesota.) There is a lot of craziness here. People are sending death threats and attacking someone's employment because of hypothetical (not even actual) violence to a wafer. Even for someone who is a literal believer in transubstantiation, threatening violence against someone who mocks your beliefs doesn't seem like a very Christian attitude. Donohue and his friends are acting like buffoons, giving free ammunition to people who think that all religious believers are nutjobs. But it gets him on TV, so he's unlikely to desist. However. We should hold our friends to a much higher standards than we hold our adversaries. There is no way in which PZ is comparable to the folks sending him death threats. I completely agree with him on the substantive question -- it's just a cracker. It doesn't turn into anyone's body, and there's nothing different about a "consecrated" wafer than an unconsecrated one -- the laws of physics have something to say about that. But I thought his original post was severely misguided. It's not a matter of freedom of speech -- PZ has every right to post whatever opinions he wants on his blog, and I admire him immensely for his passionate advocacy for the cause of godlessness. But just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. And there's a huge difference between arguing passionately that God doesn't exist, and taking joy in doing things that disturb religious people. Let me explain this position by way of a parable, which I understand is the preferred device in these situations. Alice and Bob have been friends for a long time. Several years ago, Alice gave birth to a son, who was unfortunately critically ill from the start; after being in intensive care for a few months, he ultimately passed away. Alice's most prized possession is a tiny baby rattle, which was her son's only toy for the short time he was alive. Bob, however, happens to be an expert on rattles. (A childhood hobby -- let's not dig into that.) And he knows for a fact that this rattle can't be the one that Alice's son had -- this particular model wasn't even produced until two years after the baby was born. Who knows what mistake happened, but Bob is completely certain that Alice is factually incorrect about the provenance of this rattle. And Bob, being devoted to the truth above all other things, tries his best to convince Alice that she is mistaken about the rattle. But she won't be swayed; to her, the rattle is a sentimental token of her attachment to her son, and it means the world to her. Frankly, she is being completely irrational about this. So, striking a brave blow for truth, Bob steals the rattle when Alice isn't looking. And then he smashes it into many little pieces, and flushes them all down the toilet. Surprisingly to Bob, Alice is not impressed with this gesture. Neither, in fact, are many of his friends among the rattle-collecting cognoscenti; rather than appreciating his respect for the truth, they seem to think he was just being "an asshole." I think there is some similarity here. It's an unfortunate feature of a certain strand of contemporary atheism that it doesn't treat religious believers as fellow humans with whom we disagree, but as tards who function primarily as objects of ridicule. And ridicule has its place. But sometimes it's gratuitous. Sure, there are stupid/crazy religious people; there are also stupid/crazy atheists, and black people, and white people, and gays, and straights, and Republicans, and Democrats, and Sixers fans, and Celtics fans, and so on. Focusing on stupidest among those with whom you disagree is a sign of weakness, not of strength. It seems to me that the default stance of a proud secular humanist should be to respect other people as human beings, even if we definitively and unambiguously think they are wrong. There will always be a lunatic fringe (and it may be a big one) that is impervious to reason, and there some good old-fashioned mockery is perfectly called for. But I don't see the point in going out of one's way to insult and offend wide swaths of people for no particular purpose, and to do so joyfully and with laughter in your heart. (Apparently the litmus test for integrity vs. hypocrisy on this issue is how you felt about the Mohammed cartoons published in a Danish newspaper a couple of years ago; so you can read my take on that here, and scour the text for inconsistencies.) Actually, I do see the point in the gratuitous insults, I just don't like it. Like any other controversial stance, belief in God or not divides people into camps. And once the camps are formed, the temptations of tribalism are difficult to resist. We are smart and courageous and wise; the people who disagree with us are stupid and cowardly and irrational. And it's easy enough to find plenty of examples of every combination, on any particular side. There is nothing more satisfying than getting together and patting ourselves on the back for how wonderful we are, and snorting with derision at the shambling oafishness of that other tribe over there. My hope is that humanists can not only patiently explain why God and any accompanying metaphysical superstructure is unnecessary and unsupported by the facts, but also provide compelling role models for living a life of reason, which includes the capacity for respectful disagreement. I say all this with a certain amount of care, as there is nothing more annoying than people who think that professions of atheism or careful arguments against the existence of God are automatically offensive. Respectful dialogue cuts both ways; people should be able to explain why they don't believe in the supernatural or why they believe. Even if both atheists and believers are susceptible to the temptations of tribalism, that doesn't make them equivalent; the atheists have the advantage of being right on the substance. Richard Dawkins and his friends have done a great service to our modern discourse, by letting atheism get a foot in the door of respectable stances that one has to admit are held by a nontrivial fraction of people -- even if they stepped on a few toes to do it. But stepping on toes should be a means to an end; it shouldn't be an end in itself.

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