Please note that the current kerfuffle started only when PZ noted that a university student received death threats for taking a host from a Mass. The mere fact of noting the absurdity of sending death threats for taking a host was enough for some [alleged] Catholics to send death threats to PZ. Matters have continued to go downhill since, including Dreher calling PZ a coward and Freddie completely missing the point.
Of course PZ has contempt for certain Catholics; given the conduct cited by PZ the contempt is richly deserved.
Arguments to hypocrisy, unfortunately, don’t make any statement whatsoever about the actual moral status of the thing being judged. Simply because one person or another may not have moral standing to judge someone else doesn’t make that someone else’s conduct moral, or make the question illegitimate. Meyers’s action have moral and ethical content regardless of whether judging them represents hypocrisy.
Are death threats against someone ever justified, or justified in the case of the student taking the wafer? No, of course not. Does that fact somehow make Meyers’s actions less contemptible? No. Does it make asking the question somehow off limits for Alan, or Rod Dreher, or myself? No.
Myers’ contempt is clearly for all Catholics, not some vocal minority. He took the occasion to say that anyone who believes in the incarnation of the host is a benighted, superstitious Medievalist. His offer to broadcast sacrilege is an insult to the beliefs of all Catholics, not just the hyperventilators who overreacted to the incident.
As I said before, it’s shoddy work to take the actions of a minority within a group to denigrate the group. I call it prejudice, in fact.
This all seems rather silly. A free society encompasses having to tolerate having your taboos mercilessly mocked in exchange for getting to practice one’s ridiculous taboos. There’s no difference between this and the “Mohammed cartoons” kerfluffle. It appears that Myers’ greatest “sin” is just being an ass, and I really fail to see why, unless one subscribed to the taboo being violated, one feels the need to get exercised about it.
Freddie, ever read Jonathan Swift? Myers’ request is a modest proposal indeed compared to cannabalism.
Put another way, Myers reasonably believes that religious extremism is a cancer on the body politic, and that religious moderates are far too willing to minimize the effect of the conduct of their more extreme brethren.
And brother was he ever proven correct. He set up the biggest fattest slowest-moving target imaginable, and hundreds of people have shown not only that they’re incapable of recognizing satire, but also that the satirical act is more worthy of public condemnation than the DEATHTHREATS received by him and the student.
Where are the posts here, at NRO and at your blog, Freddie, condemning the death threats, or the most recent outrages in the Catholic sex abuse scandal, or the suppression of free speech at World Youth Day? Not worthy of commentary, compared to what PZ wrote? Precisely his point.
Accomodation by rationalists with the mass delusion that is religion hasn’t worked so well. As the gay community found out, sometimes you need confrontation to make a change in society. One consequence of confrontation is the reaction of gasbags getting tweaked.
A free society encompasses having to tolerate having your taboos mercilessly mocked in exchange for getting to practice one’s ridiculous taboos.
Sigh. A free society is also one in which I have the right to get exercised about idiocy and denounce that idiocy. Vocally. See?
I don’t want to do anything to PZ Meyers or see any harm befall him. But I think he’s a self-obsessed clod who believes that merely in the commission of an act of intentional disrespect he somehow devalues the thing being disrespected. Even if I felt that there was some intellectual value to what he’s saying, he still doesn’t say it in a funny or insightful way. He’s yet another person who fails to see the difference between being provocative and merely provoking.
1) James F, sometimes it’s worth taking a moment to call an ass an ass. I wouldn’t get any more exercised than that, though.
2) Has Webster Cook, the guy who pocketed the Host, gotten death threats? I wouldn’t be surprised if he has, but the story that Myers rants about never says so: it just says that Cook “feels his life is in danger.” Myers takes that ball and runs with it, of course — “Crazy Christian fanatics right here in our own country have been threatening to kill a young man over a cracker” — and maybe that’s true, but Myers isn’t pausing to find out whether it’s true, is he?
3) It’s important to understand one more thing about Myers: he’s a troll whore. That was the simple point of my original post. He wildly, desperately wants to bring the loonies out of the woodwork. It’s a fairly common method: first, you think of a group of people (religious, ethnic, whatever) you really despise; second, you say the most outrageously insulting things about them you can think of; third, you wait for the inevitable waves of anger to roll in — and they will roll in, no matter what group you’ve insulted, except maybe the Amish —; and finally, you triumphantly declare that the trolls who have responded to your provocation prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you were absolutely right to despise said group all along. Nothing easier; nothing cheaper; nothing more contemptible.
Francis, I’ve always thought it a given in rational discourse — the kind that, I think, we practice at the Scene and Freddie practices at his blog — that none of us holds with threatening to kill people we disagree with. Aren’t there some things that Go Without Saying? If not, please let us know which death threats in particular we are supposed to repudiate, because there are a hell of a lot of those in the blogosphere, and if we have to track them all down it’s going to take more time than I really have to spare. . . .
I tend to think that we don’t need to spend much time belaboring the obvious — for example, that it’s wrong to threaten to murder people — but instead should focus on matters that (for some people anyway) aren’t so obvious — for example, that P. Z. Myers is an ass.
Freddie writes about the vulgar, “Do they really want to convince anyone? No. What they want is to feel that they are better than others.”
Yes, yes. They’re no better than the fundamentalists who gathered at World’s Fair Park to tell my 16 year-old self that I’m doing the Devil’s Work by attending Governor’s School for the Sciences. Sideshows, all of ‘em; and who cares?
Of course, as to Freddie’s complaint that they aren’t “trying to convince anybody,” I don’t think it’s possible to reason an adult into or out of a religiously held belief. If they’re dumb, they won’t appreciate the force of your logic. If they’re smart, they’ll bob and weave and lay down tangential suppressive fire until both parties call it quits from exhaustion, annoyance, or some combination of the two.
Of course, if they’re really smart they’ll point out that logic is itself ungrounded and theory-laden, floating, just like religious beliefs, on a sea of untestable assumptions whose truths “force themselves upon us” through some mysterious kind of intuition.
JA, I certainly know a number of people who claim that they were persuaded by rational argument to become Christians, and a number of others who claim that rational argument caused them to abandon faith. People do change their minds, and I suspect that reason sometimes plays a role in those changes.
Question: how does one going about getting very large numbers of people to shed a mass delusion? In America we’ve had several. Up to the 1860’s, slavery was acceptable. Until the 1910’s, women had no suffrage. We declared war on alcohol, then a War on Drugs. At a state level, women were considered too weak to practice law; Chinamen were untrustworthy.
PZ and other rationalists like myself think that the views of religious fundamentalists on their religion should be treated with about the same respect as the views of slaveholders on their slaves — as utter idiocy. Non-Overlapping Magesteria is futile, because religious people keep insisting on relying on their religious beliefs as the basis for public policy.
And the things that fundamentalists succeed at! Teaching creationism, or that evolution is “just a theory”. Blocking stem cell research. Restricting the availability of family planning services, including abortion. Abstinence-only sex ed. Blocking gay marriage. Toleration of child molestation and rape. Approval of authoritarian approaches to eduation and dismissal of critical thinking. To name a few.
It’s not hard to see why a professor of biology could reasonably believe that religious fundamentalism causes substantial harm and therefore requires a pointed response. Ridicule, as J.Swift discovered, is a powerful tool for afflicting the comfortable.
Alan, I know this is an impossible request, but have you any idea how that happened?
It’s just . . . I don’t doubt that people can be converted one way or the other, for what are, subjectively, really good reasons. But using “reason” itself? In my experience that just doesn’t happen without some kind of irrational preparation.
The best I’ve ever read was Rosenzweig’s, which opens by stipulating “Of God we know nothing; this is not a conclusion, but rather the beginning of our knowledge of God.” But even that is vulnerable to the deeper unknowables which circumscribe our world and underwrite our language, out of which, as Wittgenstein observed, we climb the ladder only to pull it up behind us.
This leaves the strictly rational in a kind of Uroboros-loop of infinite resignation, at least when the big questions are considered.
“Do they really want to convince anyone? No. What they want is to feel that they are better than others.”
But that is what everyone wants. Their tribe, their team, their ideology is the best.
What PZ and Sir Richard[Dawkins] an their cohort absolutely don’t get is that a lot of people NEED that old-time religion.
And that religion can be good.
The people that aren’t ever going to get Feldman or Cavalli-Sforza or Atran. How much more gracious and well….kind! to respect belief in the-god-of-the-gaps….or…could it be perhaps that PZ just doesnt quite have the IQ and g to reconcile the AND proposition?
“…most people just aren’t inclined or able to hold, not the easier either/or, but much more difficult both/and of scientific materialism and doctrinaire belief….”
truth is, like Paglia says….
“It is nature, not society, that is our greatest opressor.”
With sufficient IQ and g one can rise above tribalism and fear-of-the-other. Rise above the hardwiring.
To acknowledge membership in tribe homosapiens sapiens.
Religion can be that membership too.
And HAS TO BE for the 40percent that aren’t ever going to get quantum mechanics or evolutionaly biology.
Francis, how was slavery a “mass delusion”? Nature makes some fit to rule, and others to be ruled. Slavery was the rational consequence of this fact for thousands of years until the practice was ended by religious fanatics.
JA, I think the question of how people change their minds is one of the most interesting questions there is — and one of the least understood. But there’s no doubt it happens, and whether the causes are “rational” or “irrational” depends on how you define those terms. Plenty of people have left accounts of how they moved from one state to the other, though one need not believe them, I suppose. My guess is that, in most cases, people emphasize one cause of change when in fact there were others at work as well.
Alan, on that question I take my cues from Charles Peirce, specifically the following (culled from his essay The Fixation of Belief):
“Doubt is an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves and pass into the state of belief; while the latter is a calm and satisfactory state which we do not wish to avoid, or to change to a belief in anything else. On the contrary, we cling tenaciously, not merely to believing, but to believing just what we do believe . . . Hence, the sole object of inquiry is the settlement of opinion.” […]
“That the settlement of opinion is the sole end of inquiry is a very important proposition. It sweeps away, at once, various vague and erroneous conceptions of proof. A few of these may be noticed here . . . Some philosophers have imagined that to start an inquiry it was only necessary to utter a question whether orally or by setting it down upon paper, and have even recommended us to begin our studies with questioning everything! But the mere putting of a proposition into the interrogative form does not stimulate the mind to any struggle after belief. There must be a real and living doubt, and without this all discussion is idle.”[…]
The four broad methods of fixing opinion are
1. The Method of Tenacity — “Still oftener, the instinctive dislike of an undecided state of mind, exaggerated into a vague dread of doubt, makes men cling spasmodically to the views they already take. The man feels that, if he only holds to his belief without wavering, it will be entirely satisfactory. Nor can it be denied that a steady and immovable faith yields great peace of mind.”
2. The Method of Authority — “Let the will of the state act, then, instead of that of the individual. Let an institution be created which shall have for its object to keep correct doctrines before the attention of the people, to reiterate them perpetually, and to teach them to the young; having at the same time power to prevent contrary doctrines from being taught, advocated, or expressed. Let all possible causes of a change of mind be removed from men’s apprehensions. Let them be kept ignorant, lest they should learn of some reason to think otherwise than they do. Let their passions be enlisted, so that they may regard private and unusual opinions with hatred and horror. Then, let all men who reject the established belief be terrified into silence. Let the people turn out and tar-and-feather such men, or let inquisitions be made into the manner of thinking of suspected persons, and when they are found guilty of forbidden beliefs, let them be subjected to some signal punishment. When complete agreement could not otherwise be reached, a general massacre of all who have not thought in a certain way has proved a very effective means of settling opinion in a country.”
3. The Method of Natural Preferences (a.k.a., the a priori method): “The most perfect example of it is to be found in the history of metaphysical philosophy. Systems of this sort have not usually rested upon any observed facts, at least not in any great degree. They have been chiefly adopted because their fundamental propositions seemed “agreeable to reason.” This is an apt expression; it does not mean that which agrees with experience, but that which we find ourselves inclined to believe . . . It makes of inquiry something similar to the development of taste; but taste, unfortunately, is always more or less a matter of fashion, and accordingly metaphysicians have never come to any fixed agreement, but the pendulum has swung backward and forward between a more material and a more spiritual philosophy, from the earliest times to the latest.”
4. The Method of Science — “To satisfy our doubts, therefore, it is necessary that a method should be found by which our beliefs may be determined by nothing human, but by some external permanency — by something upon which our thinking has no effect. Some mystics imagine that they have such a method in a private inspiration from on high. But that is only a form of the method of tenacity, in which the conception of truth as something public is not yet developed. Our external permanency would not be external, in our sense, if it was restricted in its influence to one individual. It must be something which affects, or might affect, every man. And, though these affections are necessarily as various as are individual conditions, yet the method must be such that the ultimate conclusion of every man shall be the same.”
I think Peirce’s penultimate paragraph is particularly germane to this discussion:
“It is not to be supposed that the first three methods of settling opinion present no advantage whatever over the scientific method. On the contrary, each has some peculiar convenience of its own. The a priori method is distinguished for its comfortable conclusions. It is the nature of the process to adopt whatever belief we are inclined to, and there are certain flatteries to the vanity of man which we all believe by nature, until we are awakened from our pleasing dream by rough facts. The method of authority will always govern the mass of mankind; and those who wield the various forms of organized force in the state will never be convinced that dangerous reasoning ought not to be suppressed in some way. If liberty of speech is to be untrammeled from the grosser forms of constraint, then uniformity of opinion will be secured by a moral terrorism to which the respectability of society will give its thorough approval. Following the method of authority is the path of peace. Certain non-conformities are permitted; certain others (considered unsafe) are forbidden. These are different in different countries and in different ages; but, wherever you are, let it be known that you seriously hold a tabooed belief, and you may be perfectly sure of being treated with a cruelty less brutal but more refined than hunting you like a wolf. Thus, the greatest intellectual benefactors of mankind have never dared, and dare not now, to utter the whole of their thought; and thus a shade of prima facie doubt is cast upon every proposition which is considered essential to the security of society. Singularly enough, the persecution does not all come from without; but a man torments himself and is oftentimes most distressed at finding himself believing propositions which he has been brought up to regard with aversion. The peaceful and sympathetic man will, therefore, find it hard to resist the temptation to submit his opinions to authority. But most of all I admire the method of tenacity for its strength, simplicity, and directness. Men who pursue it are distinguished for their decision of character, which becomes very easy with such a mental rule. They do not waste time in trying to make up their minds what they want, but, fastening like lightning upon whatever alternative comes first, they hold to it to the end, whatever happens, without an instant’s irresolution. This is one of the splendid qualities which generally accompany brilliant, unlasting success. It is impossible not to envy the man who can dismiss reason, although we know how it must turn out at last.”
Let’s review. Alan Jacobs called PZ a puppy-killer. He also linked approving to Freddie who wrote “Do they really want to convince anyone? No. What they want is to feel that they are better than others. They want to insult for the joy of insulting. They want a sense of superiority, one I imagine is often denied in their lives, and by ridiculing something others find sacred, they find their method. … atheism has expelled me.”
I see. Alan and Freddie know atheists. They know us better than we know ourselves. They know that we are weak, pathetic creatures searching for meaning through contempt for others.
yah right. You couldn’t be more wrong if you worked at it.
My atheism is derived from a very simple fact — I see no evidence for the existence of any god, much less a Christian one. My contempt for religious fundamentalists exists entirely separate from my atheism and comes about largely from (a) the harm they do and (b) the contempt in which they hold me and people like me.
If you’ve read PZ consistently for the last few years, as I have, you’d know that his ever-more aggressive atheism is driven by the idiocies of organized religion. His “cracker” post was a response to a student writing about receiving death threats. As a result of writing that post, he has himself received death threats. And what happens here? Look at this thread alone! Hardly a mention of the death threats, except to challenge the premise, but plenty of writing about just how contemptible PZ is.
The discussions at oh-so-thoughtful places like this one continue to prove his point; this country has a serious religion problem and moderates are contributing to it.
* some religious fundamentalists do things that you find hateful;
* therefore you hold contempt for all religious fundamentalists, and
* you therefore support posts like Myers’ that are offensive even to religious people who are not fundamentalists.
Perhaps you could explain why you feel justified in extending the blame for the actions of a few to the wider class, and also explain why that same sort of extension shouldn’t be done for, say, liberals, based on the vile hate mail that some of them send to some conservative bloggers.
Alan: I’m sorry; since the post was entitled Killer of Puppies I thought the attribution was fair. Apparently I was mistaken. Please feel <i>free</i> to enlighten me.
KenB: Not even close. My reasoning starts with Alan discussing PZ in a post entitled Killer of Puppies and Freddie making wild accusations about a new generation of atheists. A brief review of their respective blogs fails to reveal even a hint of reprobation toward those whose conduct lead PZ to write what he did, but a great deal of contempt toward PZ.
My point remains: the recent political and public activism of religious fundamentalism in this country is doing great harm, and PZ is one of the few voices pushing back loudly against this theo-idiocy. Somehow, the pearl-clutching, handkerchief-wringing moderates (both religious and not) are more outraged by PZ’s righteous contempt than by the conduct leading up to it. I think the outrage is mis-directed.
For example, PZ was a leading voice in challenging the movie “Expelled” which, among other things, linked the study of evolutionary biology to Naziism. Who deserves greater contempt — PZ for his treatment of the movie, or the makers of it? I thought that was an easy answer, but apparently I’m in the minority here for backing the scientist.
On Mr. Jacobs comment about how people change their minds, I listened to an interesting interview on KQED’s “Forum” show with Professor Roger Burton about his new book “On Certainty.” It gets in to some of the really interesting neuroscience around belief and certainty — for example, a physiological reaction nearly identical occurs when one has a “religious” experience and a moment of “certainty.” Truly fascinating.
The crowning achievement of the blogosphere — instant access to like-minded communities — is also a two-edged sword. In writing for his “in-group,” like Prof. Myers does, he also cannot help but fan the flames of their polar opposites. While there may be virtue in simply calling an ass an ass, I think Freddie’s post is, well, sanctimonious in the extreme. If one believes, as men like Myers and Sam Harris do, that “live and let live” is too dangerous to the future of society, then they will act in confrontational ways. Does Freddie agree (I know I don’t, or at least, not entirely) with Myers and Harris about the danger religion presents to society?
I found Mr. Jacobs’ earlier post, and the juxtaposition proposed in this one, condescending. It’s of a piece with a lot of anti-atheist writing I’ve seen over the past few years. “Oh, those foolish atheists and their anger.” It’s dismissive, like one does when a child threatens to hold their breath until they get what they want. Instead of delving deeper, or even engaging the topic, it’s the presentation that gets the ire. It’s totally off-putting for those atheists who would like to engage in dialog (though how useful dialog can be between two parties with diametrically opposed axioms is an open question).
JA: That essay of Peirce’s is a great one — it was a revelation to me when I read it in grad school. I don’t think I can get into these questions any further in this thread, but thanks for bringing that essay to mind.
Francis: I don’t think that enlightening you is within my powers, me not being a “rationalist,” but it may be worth noting that Saturday Night Live is a comedy show and the skit I was referring to was intended to make people laugh. But I would recommend that P.Z., just to be on the safe side, post a statement on his webpage: “No puppies were killed in the making of this blog.”
James F.: Sometimes, I think, you just have to try to lighten the tone a bit, even at the risk of sounding condescending. For instance, when someone says that I accused P. Z. Myers of being a puppy-killer, I think I just have to laugh at that. I’m certainly not going to say, “I resent that! I made no accusations of puppycide!”
Similarly: in Myers’s original post, he refers to Catholics who believe that a consecrated Host is a sacred object as “so goddamned stupid,” “petty and stupid,” “hateful and stupid,” “just plain stupid,” “kooks,” “demented fuckwits“ (emphasis his), and “deluded lunatics . . . making human beings dance to their mythical bunkum.” Oh, and he also criticizes Catholic authorities for failing to have a “considered, measured response” to the controversy, which coming in the midst of that post, you must surely agree, is pretty darn funny.
The only proper response to a screed like this is to be “dismissive.” It deserves to be dismissed. Myers’s whole rhetorical approach is, as I said earlier, easy, cheap, and contemptible. Do you really think it would be profitable to approach Myers and say, “I beg your pardon, sir, but I simply must protest your description of me as a ‘demented fuckwit’”? Serious, thoughtful critiques deserve serious, thoughtful responses; semi-articulate yawping deserves far less attention than I’ve given Myers here.
James F, you keep acting like that — making reasonable criticisms in an unthreatening tone, conceding points you think are valid, admitting imperfection — and we’ll have to ban you. That’s worse that Freddie saying he doesn’t like Pixar movies.
So the appropriate response to the cracker post is to be dismissive. All of it or just parts? Because to me there are parts of the post that cry out for comment and further discussion, like the following:
on hate crimes, from a spokeswomen for the diocese:<em>if anything were to qualify as a hate crime, to us this seems like this might be it</em>
on turning the host into a person and the removal of it from the church to a felony, from a diocese priest:<em>Imagine if they kidnapped somebody and you make a plea for that individual to please return that loved one to the family</em>
on the canonical nature of the crime, from the same priest:<em>Gonzalez said intentionally abusing the Eucharist is classified as a mortal sin in the Catholic church, the most severe possible.</em>
and, best for last, this:
from the Catholic League, on the University’s appropriate response:<em>For a student to disrupt Mass by taking the Body of Christ hostage—regardless of the alleged nature of his grievance—is beyond hate speech. That is why the UCF administration needs to act swiftly and decisively in seeing that justice is done. All options should be on the table, including expulsion.</em>
Nope, nothing worth discussing here. Just another day in Catholic America.
But that a biology professor would get outraged and engage in hyperbole, now that’s worth writing about!
Francis, it seems to me that all the “comment-worthy” portions of Myers post which you quote are actually quotes from people other than Myers. Those quotes may and probably do raise topics that are worth discussing seriously and thoughtfully. However, Myers doesnt’ do so in his post and therefore his post is worth dismissing.
Francis, death threats are pretty easy to come by, from what I can tell. If Catholic clergy receive death threats for their advocacy of their own faith, will that cause you to repudiate non-Catholicism?
Myers’ stunt is an adolescent call for attention, and Freddie’s post on the subject is very nice. I’m not sure why Myers deserves any more attention than that.