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Wafergate: Let PZ Myers Be PZ Myers

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The Wafer in QuestionLast month, biology professor and blogger PZ Myers encouraged his readers to send him a consecrated Catholic communion wafer, which he would then desecrate publicly. The volume of comments and death threats he received was huge, even by Pharyngula's standards. Myers did receive, and vandalize, a communion wafer a few weeks later.


Two of the Secular Student Alliance's board members weigh in on Myers's actions. Chris Calvey is the founder of Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Joe Foley is the president of Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics at Stanford University. The Secular Student Alliance has not taken an official position, but encourages students to discuss free speech issues and the best ways to promote secularism.


Chris Calvey:

Chris CalveyNo reasonable person can seriously entertain the Catholic League's accusations that PZ Myers' "Great Desecration" constitutes a hate crime. The interesting debate is not about his first amendment right to do so, but rather about whether PZ should have done it at all. Atheists have enough PR problems as it is, to say the least. Many have questioned whether, by deliberately acting in a manner guaranteed to piss off many Catholics, PZ has done more harm than good. I will concede that there are many more important battles to be fought than the one against transubstantiation; yet, I think it was still worth it.

Ridicule is not likely going to win over the hearts and minds of any deeply religious people… if conversion is even our goal in the first place. If it is, however, then a worthy target of our efforts should instead be the large number of nominally religious people who rarely ever give their faith much thought. One way or another, we should encourage them to examine everything more critically. When they do, they may come to realize that the religion of their upbringing is in fact nonsense. The hysterical overreactions we've seen over trivial things like crackers, teddy bears, and cartoons will only serve to guide them to this conclusion.

A communion wafer is just a cracker. If there were any reason to suppose that these crackers are literally the body of Christ, then they would be entitled to more respect, but no one can support that patently absurd belief with evidence. On the contrary, isn't the issue about respecting people - regardless of whether we accept their beliefs? Certainly, everyone should be granted the freedom to believe whatever they want to in so far that it doesn't infringe upon the rights of others. No one is advocating disrupting church services or preventing anyone from worshipping whichever carbohydrate they wish. Ironically, the only people who are actually suffering are PZ Myers and Webster Cook, who have both faced harassment, the possibility of expulsion from their respective universities, and death threats.

Of course we should try to respect other individuals, religious or otherwise, but we should not feel obliged to pretend to respect their ridiculous beliefs. Religion has been given an undeserved free pass for far too long. In every other discourse, we evaluate beliefs based upon evidence and reasoning, and if the arguments are convincing enough we accept them. Yet, the rules always seem to change to accommodate religion. Religious beliefs demand undue respect without having to withstand the scrutiny of our inquiry, because it is just so gosh darn impolite to do so. Perhaps atheists should stop being so polite. Not everyone has to be as outspoken and opinionated as PZ, but someone has to or no else one is going to listen.

Ultimately it comes down to a question of tactics. Probably the most prominent schism in the movement is the divide between the "new" and the "friendly" atheists. In reality there is no true dichotomy: most people fall somewhere in the middle of the continuum. This diversity of opinions is a good thing. As with any movement for social change, many different strategies should be employed. The "Four Horsemen" (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett , Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens) are more adept at raising the public's consciousness and garnering media attention, while the friendly atheists are better at diplomacy and improving how we are perceived. Both approaches have their merits, but the whole is more effective than the sum of its parts. Let's not waste too much of our time and energy debating it. I say we let Hitchens be Hitchens, let Hemant be Hemant, and for the love of all that isn't sacred - let PZ be PZ.

See the other side as Joe Foley tells it.

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