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Wafergate: PZ Myers Crossed the Line

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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.


Joe Foley:

Joe FoleyPZ Myers is becoming one of atheism's public faces, and he certainly deserves the prominence - Pharyngula is an entertaining, educational, wonderfully written blog that I read religiously. His militant, uncompromising assaults on religion may draw countless freethinkers off the fence and into activism, where we need them desperately. Perhaps he's even shown a few theists the absurdity of things they didn't realize they're supposed to believe. But there's a fine line between the playful satire that slyly defuses our undeservingly serious institutions and the masturbatory condescension that alienates those whose respect we need most.

PZ Myers has crossed the line.

Soon after Myers declared he would publicly desecrate a Catholic communion wafer, Bill Donohue of the Catholic League called for his termination as a professor at the University of Minnesota - Morris. Donohue was factually, legally, and ethically wrong - as usual - but a flood of e-mails from both sides inundated university administrators, who would never seriously consider firing a tenured professor for something he said on his blog. Once Myers had carried out the awful deed with devastating nonchalance, the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy followed up with a condemnation that lapsed into unfortunate clichés ("freedom of religion, not freedom from religion"); but inadvertently or not, their demand for contrition touched on an important point: this is more than a free-speech issue.

Had he simply bought an unconsecrated communion wafer, or exercised his artistic license to create a lookalike, Catholics would have no more right to tell him what to do with it than Muslims to ban a cartoon. In a free society, people are allowed to express opinions that others find offensive; no one has to listen to them. However, by encouraging his readers to enter a Mass and abscond with the "Eucharist," which Catholicism teaches is the actual flesh of Jesus once the priest has performed a certain ritual on it, PZ Myers trampled on another fundamental right: consenting adults should be able to practice whatever religious beliefs they want in the privacy of their own church, without having to worry that one of the faces in the pews could be a Pharynguloid infiltrator who's come to steal the Savior.

That's the bargain of a secular society: believers won't bring their rituals into the public square and force nonbelievers to participate, and nonbelievers won't intrude on whatever faith communities do on their own time. Many religious people understand this, and don't want their church to impose itself upon the state any more than they want the state to dictate to their church. Americans United for Separation of Church and State is run by an ordained minister, and the Secular Coalition for America often lobbies alongside religious groups on Establishment Clause issues. Though more and more Americans come to secular worldviews every year, theists remain such a large lobby that we can't afford not to set aside our differences and work with them when our values align.

The damage is done, in the theological sense, and some Catholics fear for their immortal souls because they allowed this to happen. Now secular students urgently need to show our peers that we respect religious people, even if we find their beliefs fanciful or vaguely disturbing, and we must also remember that Bill Donohue does not speak for all Catholics any more than PZ Myers speaks for all atheists (though at least Myers doesn't claim to). Myers' style of "New Atheism" has an important place in our movement, but religion is more than a set of beliefs, and many who practice it would rather belong to a community than win an argument - we must respond to these people too. Conversion should not be our mission any more than we want it to be theirs, but if open-minded believers are willing to join us in polite dialogue, we need to be ready to welcome them with more than ridicule and pranks.

See the other side as Chris Calvey tells it.

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