Walking on communion wafers

28 07 2008

When you attack the belief, do you harm the believer?

I would have thought the answer to this question was a sound and straightforward “no” . . . that there is, in fact, a difference between, on the one hand, abusive ad hominem rhetoric; and on the other, the critique, or even ridicule of beliefs, propositions, ideas and practices. We all misspeak, we all commit errors and brainfarts, we are all guilty of idiocy from time to time; but that does not necessarily mean that we are all idiots, anymore than the rhetorical tapdancing (“Not that there’s anything wrong with that”) engaged in by George Costanza and Jerry Seinfeld in the Seinfeld episode “The Outing” means that it is fair to describe these characters as Phelpsian homophobes. I would have thought it a given of the ethics of civil debate and dialogue that (i) while no belief should be immune from scrutiny, (ii) an attack on the belief does not constitute an attack on the individual who holds the belief. Disagreement over the issues (even for the sake of devil’s advocacy) is the stuff of reasoned debate. Abusive rhetoric, while entertaining in certain contexts, is just noise: both because it is irrelevant to the issues under discussion and because it tends to generate emotional heat. Abuse, then, is intended to be taken personally—that’s the point of abuse—whereas disagreement about ideas, even if it takes the form of mockery or satire, is not.

Things aren’t so simple in reality, however. As various commenters on Pharyngula, making excuses for death threats levelled at PZ Myers (here’s an example, you can trawl through the thousands of comments on the half-a-dozen-or-so relevant Pharyngula threads at your own leisure for more) because of his remarks about the Eucharist are quick to point out, “We’re only human!!” In spite of themselves, people often do mistake assaults upon their cherished beliefs as personal attacks, and respond in kind. Some, like the Catholic League, have transformed the taking of disagreement personally into a cottage industry, and have –unsuccessfully—attempted to get PZ Myers fired from the University of Minnesota. This is not a phenomenon restricted to religion, either. Two years ago, I became embroiled in a flame war that could only be explained, as far as I could tell, by the fact that my adversary was prone to taking disagreement personally. And earlier this year, I was taken to task for daring to criticise Indian protesters burning effigies of Australian cricket players in response to an unfavourable ICC decision. Still, both here and elsewhere the sufferers of the latest epidemic of misplaced hurt feelings do seem to be predominantly of the Catholic persuasion—though I cannot say whether this has anything to do with the recent Sydney World Youth Day. On a thread in which I mocked the veneration of a corpse during the WYD festivities, I have been accused of “intolerance” and “hatefulness” by one commenter. Another accused me of being able to “dish it out but not take it,” after I disemvowelled one “Jan”, in accordance with the comments policy which any visitor to the site can readily access, for engaging in personal abuse when nobody had abused him. In the opinion of this commenter, when you attack someone’s beliefs, they are justified in responding with personal abusive ad hominem. (In fact, the exact words this commenter used were “insulting people’s beliefs.” Evidently it is possible for a belief to feel “insulted.”)

I think “We’re only human” can explain why some people respond disproportionately or inappropriately—from expressions of hurt feelings to death threats and attempts to bring people to physical or financial harm—when their cherished beliefs are questioned or not taken seriously. But it does not excuse such reactions. At the same time, “being human” means that in many situations we decide to hold back on the critique, especially when the beliefs and ideas that we regard as ridiculous are held by those we hold dear. We might decide that the disagreement isn’t urgent enough to warrant the sacrifice of a valuable relationship. What worries me is this anti-democratic tendency, highlighted by the Catholic (and in some cases, non-Catholic or even non-theist) reactions to PZ Myers’ threatened wafer desecration, to close off all avenues of critique and ridicule. Diplomacy is one thing, but surely there has to be some space for the interrogation of cherished ideas and practices, and if there is such a space in a mature liberal democracy, surely the public sphere (esp. the Internet/blogosphere) is it.

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12 responses

28 07 2008
ozatheist

Some people can’t handle criticism, constructive or otherwise. Some see critiquing of their ideas as a personal attack, even when a suggestion is given to them in the vain hope of them overcoming some shortfall or other. And I’m not just talking about religion and the religious.

Some people just don’t like being told they are wrong, even when they are!

It’s always struck me as a bit odd that the supposedly religious people are often the most abusive. I wonder perhaps if it’s some sort of guilt thing; that deep down they know they, and their beliefs, are wrong but are too stubborn or afraid to admit it?

PS. I’M BACK

28 07 2008
28 07 2008
AV

Oz Atheist:

Welcome back! I hope everything’s OK.

Iis Kusaeri:

How did you do that?

28 07 2008
Bruce

How did you do that?

That’s what I was wondering…

28 07 2008
kathcom

The concept of transmogrification has always seemed cultish and creepy to me, even when I considered myself Christian.
Lewis Lapham said that he did not owe respect to anyone who held a delusional belief. I believe he said it in the context of all the backpedalling being done after cartoons were published depicting the Muslim prophet. The media were falling all over themselves to call the cartoons offensive and disrespectful, and Mr. Lapham pointed out that a belief system does not warrant respect simply because people subscribe to it.
To me, all we’re talking about is crackers, right? I don’t accept the framework of Christian belief–it’s nothing personal. If Christians feel the need to console themselves with the belief that I will burn in Hell, so be it. That doesn’t seem like a very Christ-like thing to do on their part, but self-delusion doesn’t often include the recognition of irony, in my opinion.

29 07 2008
AV

Mr. Lapham pointed out that a belief system does not warrant respect simply because people subscribe to it.

Amen to that.

6 08 2008
the only one here who doesn't hate god

While reading a newspaper I came across an article that described how one ‘PZ Myers’ has taken it upon himself to desecrate a communion wafer. This action is indefensible. This is not the action of someone who simply does not wish to believe, not even the action of someone who wants to stop others believing but was designed to hurt every true Roman Catholic in the most awful way imaginable. The martyrs who suffered torture and persecution died for Christ, many Catholics today still suffer persecution for their faith. Even in the so-called tolerant West, children are afraid to profess their faith to their schoolmates. But no amount of persecution could be worse than the desecration of the body Jesus Christ. You atheists may talk about whether it is a personal attack or not- that doesn’t matter, what matters is that you have attacked God for no other reason than to attack God. It is not a reasoned argument, it is designed to hurt Catholics and attack God.
IF you really didn’t believe in God then you wouldn’t be wasting your only life attacking a non-existent being. You wouldn’t come on this website and talk about how ‘Christians aren’t very Christ like’ or discuss how far you can torment those who actually know that the purpose of life is to know God, love God and serve God. Do not kid yourselves, you know that there is a God and you don’t like it so you do the Devils work and attack him.
I am sickened and disgusted by what this man has done, and you should be too, because, even if you don’t believe in God you know that any civilised society must have rules and that it is evil to persecute another human because of their faith. Therefore you too should condemn what has been done as an attack on what so many people hold dearest. But you will not because as I said before you are doing the Devils work, even if you will not admit it.

6 08 2008
Bruce

It is not a reasoned argument, it is designed to hurt Catholics and attack God.

Clearly you haven’t done your reading. It was done as a protest against death threats made by Catholics and against the notion of things being sacred.

You need to learn to make a distinction between attacking a belief and attacking a person.

IF you really didn’t believe in God then you wouldn’t be wasting your only life attacking a non-existent being.

Who’s attacking a non-existent being? Myers attacked a wafer and spent little time on it.

Do not kid yourselves, you know that there is a God and you don’t like it so you do the Devils work and attack him.

Do not kid yourself. You don’t have the ability to read minds, so it’d be prudent to to base your accusations on such prognostication.

…it is evil to persecute another human because of their faith.

Time for the pot and the kettle to make an appearance.

TOOHWDHG, I’d recommend honesty over egocentric displays of piety. At the very least you’ll endear yourself to more people.

6 08 2008
AV

I don’t hate deities any more than I hate the Tooth Fairy, leprechauns, elves, orcs, griffins, centaurs, krakens, cyclops, gnomes, genies, harpies, incubi, mermaids, trolls or unicorns.

This action is indefensible. This is not the action of someone who simply does not wish to believe, not even the action of someone who wants to stop others believing but was designed to hurt every true Roman Catholic in the most awful way imaginable. The martyrs who suffered torture and persecution died for Christ, many Catholics today still suffer persecution for their faith.

On the other hand, I don’t particularly care for whining, hysterical hyperbole and persecution-mania.

Even in the so-called tolerant West, children are afraid to profess their faith to their schoolmates.

Or unsubstantiated claims.

But no amount of persecution could be worse than the desecration of the body Jesus Christ.

Did I mention the hyperbole?

You wouldn’t come on this website and talk about how ‘Christians aren’t very Christ like’ or discuss how far you can torment those who actually know that the purpose of life is to know God, love God and serve God. Do not kid yourselves, you know that there is a God and you don’t like it so you do the Devils work and attack him.

Strawman. Is it . . . erm . . . “Christ-like” to tell lies about people?

I am sickened and disgusted by what this man has done, and you should be too, because, even if you don’t believe in God you know that any civilised society must have rules

Non-sequitur. Why should societies have special “rules” protecting your cherished supernatural beliefs from criticism or even mockery? Why do you think you have a right not to be offended?

it is evil to persecute another human because of their faith.

Sorry, nobody has been persecuted, except of course for those on the receiving end of death threats and threats against their careers, perpetrated by theocratic morons who mistakenly believe that they have a right not to be offended.

Therefore you too should condemn what has been done as an attack on what so many people hold dearest.

You haven’t even come close to making a case for this.

But you will not because as I said before you are doing the Devils work, even if you will not admit it.

Armadas of microscopic green men are currently waging war on each other in orbit around the invisible third planet of the Alpha Centauri system, even if you will not admit it. Wow, this “making shit up” thing is fun!

6 08 2008
the only one here who doesn't hate god

From reading the comments it is evident that you have missed my point entirely, (I am referring to the actions described in this report http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/2505953/Church-holds-service-over-communion-wafer-desecration.html)

“You need to learn to make a distinction between attacking a belief and attacking a person”

An attack on beliefs would be ‘Christianity is a bad idea’ an attack on a person would be ‘you are stupid for being a Christian’ this is neither; it is an attack on God specifically designed to hurt Catholics. No other reason.

“Who’s attacking a non-existent being? Myers attacked a wafer and spent little time on it.”

Again missing my point, you all come on this website and talk about how God doesn’t exist, my point was ‘why bother?’ if you really simply don’t believe then you would simply ignore religion altogether, you certainly would not put a rusty nail through a communion wafer, if he simply did not believe, then he would discard it or accept that it was sacred to some people even if he didn’t understand why and return it.

“Do not kid yourself. You don’t have the ability to read minds, so it’d be prudent to to base your accusations on such prognostication.”

I don’t have the ability to read minds but I do have the ability to read, and I’ve read your comments, again why would you bother to spend YOUR time on this website attacking a non existent being, I am fairly certain that you have other things to do therefore I suggest that far from not believing in God you just hate God.

” I’d recommend honesty over egocentric displays of piety”

I don’t suggest that I am pious, rather I am aware that I sin, I wrote not to feed my ego but to protest at the actions of P.Z. Myers, which are seemingly endorsed by you and which have deeply offended me.

“On the other hand, I don’t particularly care for whining, hysterical hyperbole and persecution-mania.”

If you are suggesting that there are no Catholic martyrs who suffered for their faith then you know you are wrong. If you, as I think, are suggesting that Catholics aren’t persecuted for their faith today then I know you are wrong. Many Catholics, indeed many Christians suffer persecution, particularly in Muslim countries but also as we see at the hands of Atheists who have taken it upon themselves to attack the Catholic Church for no good reason. The desecration of Christ’s body counts as persecution to me and undoubtedly to the people who suffer for their faith. For example a martyr who is willing to die rather than give up their faith is likely to see this as an attack upon them.

“Or unsubstantiated claims.”

Actually they are afraid most likely because people like yourself who hate God and will attack their beliefs.

“Did I mention the hyperbole?”

Yes you did, and it is not, putting a rusty nail through a communion wafer is the same as nailing Jesus to the cross. Clearly you are too self-centred to understand how something else could be so important, but let me assure you it is.

“Strawman. Is it . . . erm . . . “Christ-like” to tell lies about people? ”

I have already said why I think that you do in fact believe in God, I simply cannot understand why you would spend your time attacking him so much unless you hated him.

“Non-sequitur. Why should societies have special “rules” protecting your cherished supernatural beliefs from criticism or even mockery? Why do you think you have a right not to be offended?”

I believe that I have the right to practice my religion free from persecution, and I believe that a decent human would have the courtesy to treat what I consider sacred with some respect. There is no reason why you would do otherwise unless either you wanted to hurt me for some reason or you wanted to attack God. What harm is there to you in respecting another’s beliefs?

“Sorry, nobody has been persecuted, except of course for those on the receiving end of death threats and threats against their careers, perpetrated by theocratic morons who mistakenly believe that they have a right not to be offended.”

So someone who attacks another’s deepest held beliefs and finds that those people do not like him and he is the one who is persecuted? Many Catholics have died for their faith, many today receive death threats because of it, but they do not respond by attacking others.

“You haven’t even come close to making a case for this.”

Well either you support what he has done or you condemn it. I guess from your comment that you support it, so I ask you what is it that you get from supporting such actions? What is it that you get for hurting others? Why is it acceptable to do something like that, I can see no reason for it, perhaps you can explain why, If it was to make a point then that could be done through writing and debate. Nothing positive has been achieved by these actions at all. Therefore if you are a reasonable person you will condemn the actions.

“Wow, this “making shit up” thing is fun!”

I haven’t made up the devil he’s mentioned a few times in the Bible, that’s like saying that I made up God, as I already mentioned people have died because they believe in God, it is hard to think that someone would be more willing to die than to renounce their belief in “Armadas of microscopic green men are currently waging war on each other in orbit around the invisible third planet of the Alpha Centauri system”
Finally I will ask you all again to condemn these actions.

11 08 2008
arthurvandelay

An attack on beliefs would be ‘Christianity is a bad idea’ an attack on a person would be ‘you are stupid for being a Christian’ this is neither; it is an attack on God specifically designed to hurt Catholics.

The notion that one can “attack” something one does not believe exists is as absurd as the notion that one can “hate” something one does not believe exists.

Again missing my point, you all come on this website and talk about how God doesn’t exist, my point was ‘why bother?’ if you really simply don’t believe then you would simply ignore religion altogether,

We live in a world in which individuals fly planes into buildings because of their religious beliefs, threaten violence and/or death against individuals because their religious sensitivities have been “offended,” and attempt to impose their doctrines upon non-adherents through the legal and educational apparatuses of the state (e.g. creationism in the science classroom).

It is difficult, under such circumstances, to ignore religion. It has nothing to do with your strawman assertion that we somehow secretly believe in God.

I don’t have the ability to read minds but I do have the ability to read, and I’ve read your comments, again why would you bother to spend YOUR time on this website attacking a non existent being, I am fairly certain that you have other things to do therefore I suggest that far from not believing in God you just hate God.

A more non-sequitous chain of reasoning you will struggle to find, folks!

I don’t suggest that I am pious, rather I am aware that I sin, I wrote not to feed my ego but to protest at the actions of P.Z. Myers, which are seemingly endorsed by you and which have deeply offended me.

You don’t have a right not to be offended. And P.Z.’s actions were justified, in my view.

Incidentally, are you equally offended by those who make death threats in defence of the doctrine of transubstantiation?

Many Catholics, indeed many Christians suffer persecution, particularly in Muslim countries but also as we see at the hands of Atheists who have taken it upon themselves to attack the Catholic Church for no good reason.

That’s ridiculous, and dare I say it, offensive to those Catholics in certain parts of the world (Northern Ireland, certain Muslim countries) who have endured genuine suffering and persecution because of their religious affiliation.

There is simply no comparison to be made with the “persecution” “suffered” by poor little you.

In any case, Myers wasn’t attacking the Catholic Church, and had no particular beef with Catholics until some of them took it upon themselves to physically assault a student they found trying to remove a communion wafer from the church, then attempt to have him disciplined or expelled from his university, and also issue death threats against him. (All the while wailing and screaming about how “persecuted” they are.)

The desecration of Christ’s body counts as persecution to me and undoubtedly to the people who suffer for their faith.]

What evidence is there that a disc of bread, upon consecration by a priest, magically transforms into “Christ’s body?” Why should the rest of us take such an absurdity seriously?

This is a classic example of the appeal to pity fallacy. People who genuinely suffer physical harm, legal discrimination, etc. because of their religious affiliation–which is what I would consider persecution, as opposed to the injured feelings of comfortable and perpetually-offended types in the West–are still capable of holding absurd beliefs, and still bear the burden of evidence if they want their beliefs to be accepted by others.

Actually they are afraid most likely because people like yourself who hate God and will attack their beliefs.

I don’t know how you personally feel about it, but we live in a liberal democracy, and in liberal democracies it is always only a matter of time before our cherished beliefs will be attacked, questioned or criticised from some quarter. If these people are afraid of having their beliefs subject to scrutiny, this bespeaks a great deal of insecurity regarding their beliefs. To which I respond: deal wth it. Or explain why your beliefs require special protection, and why the rest of us are obliged to tiptoe on eggshells around them.

Yes you did, and it is not, putting a rusty nail through a communion wafer is the same as nailing Jesus to the cross.

Why? What evidence is there that a disc of bread, given the utterance of some magic words, transforms into human, sentient flesh?

I have already said why I think that you do in fact believe in God, I simply cannot understand why you would spend your time attacking him so much unless you hated him.

I don’t spend my time attacking deities. I do spend my time attacking magical thinking and fundamentalism, often religion-inspired. It seems as if you are equating the two.

I believe that I have the right to practice my religion free from persecution

Attacking a set of beliefs does not amount to persecution, nor does it infringe your religious freedom. Otherwise, no set of beliefs would be open to scrutiny, whether you’re talking about Marxism, astrology, creationism, Brain Gym, Nazism, and so on. Unless you’re able to make a case that it is OK to have a go at these beliefs, but your beliefs are sacrosanct.

I believe that a decent human would have the courtesy to treat what I consider sacred with some respect.

Do you eat beef? Any decent human would have the courtesy to treat what the Hindus consider sacred with some respect. Have you ever trodden on an ant? Any decent human would have the courtesy to treat what the Jains consider sacred with some respect.

There is no reason why you would do otherwise unless either you wanted to hurt me for some reason or you wanted to attack God.

I can think of a couple of reasons. (1) I don’t believe that beliefs are “sacred” or should be treated as such, nor do I equate attacking beliefs with attacking people (a distinction you seem unable to recognise). (2) People motivated by a need to defend the cracker have threatened harm, or perpetrated harm (physical harm) against others, and this I strongly object to.

What harm is there to you in respecting another’s beliefs?

Where these beliefs inspire death threats and attempts to ruin careers, as the belief in transubstantiation has done in the Myers case, then there is great harm in giving such beliefs a free pass.

So someone who attacks another’s deepest held beliefs and finds that those people do not like him and he is the one who is persecuted? Many Catholics have died for their faith, many today receive death threats because of it, but they do not respond by attacking others.

I find it disturbing that you have not uttered a word in condemnation of these death threats, and indeed you appear to be justifying them here.

How are death threats compatible with Jesus’ teaching or Catholic theology?

“You haven’t even come close to making a case for this.”

Well either you support what he has done or you condemn it.

I don’t condemn PZ’s actions, as should have been clear from the outset. What I meant was that you have not made a case for why I should condemn them. And you still haven’t.

I haven’t made up the devil he’s mentioned a few times in the Bible,

So what? You accuse me of doing the devil’s work without admitting it, even though you ought to be aware that as an atheist I am as unlikely to believe in the existence in the existence of devils as i am in the existence of deities. How could it be possible, then, for me to “admit” doing the work of a fictional character?

that’s like saying that I made up God, as I already mentioned people have died because they believe in God,

In the 90s, as the comet Hale-Bopp approached the Earth, members of the Order of the Solar Temple committed mass-suicide. Does this mean their beliefs should be taken seriously?

Finally I will ask you all again to condemn these actions.

Why?

11 08 2008
AV

Shorter the only one here who doesn’t hate god:

“Come and see the violence inherent in the system . . .”

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