Saturday, July 12, 2008


The latest internet dustup is between PZ Myers and Bill Donahue of the Catholic League, over actual and imaginary desecrations of the Host. Very entertaining stuff, for about five minutes. Since I am apparently a fount of anti-Catholic prejudice I thought I should chime in.

Some random reactions: Yes, it shows that some Catholics are as capable of irrational violent fury as some Muslims (see, for instance, the reaction to the Danish Mohammed cartoons). Why is anybody surprised by this?

It's quite obvious that Bill Donahue is a world-class asshole, and is primarily trying to gin up controversy to enhance his own status. But Myers doesn't really come off much better. I find his pose of "It's just a cracker" disingenuous. Obviously, it isn't just a cracker, because people don't get this upset over what you do to a box of Cheez-its. It means something, it's a symbol. He's wilfully pretending that humans aren't symbol-users. The category of the sacred is pretty much a human universal, and one of the things religions do is create and maintain some category of the sacred, often identified with particular objects or places. And if something is sacred, it can be desecrated.

In Judaism, the closest analog to the status of the host is the Torah scrolls and their surrounding containers and apparatus, which were favorite targets of Nazis and other to this day:

Vandals broke into a synagogue in the Midwood section of Brooklyn early yesterday and set on fire at least five Torah scrolls, the most sacred objects in Judaism...''It was like you were walking in on a murder scene with six victims,'' a member of the synagogue, Volvie Herman, said. ''It is an undescribable feeling of horror.'' One of the temple's six Torahs is missing.

Like the wafer, these Torahs would be just wood pulp and ink if not for the symbolic ritual significance that has been projected onto them. But that projection is just as much a part of reality as is their material makeup. Religions, for better or worse, manage to imbue ordinary objects with highly charged meaning. Catholicism has probably elaborated this process further than any other religion, or at least further than Judaism. Jews venerate the Torah but don't, as far as I know, have an elaborately ridiculous philosophical infrastructure to justify it.

I find the New Atheists enormously irritating even when I agree with them, because while their critiques of religious belief are valid as far as they go, they seem to have some equally unjustified beliefs of their own, namely, that people are rational. People aren't rational, and it is irrational to expect them to be. To mock people for being irrational makes about as much sense as mocking a computer for not being a good football player.

And to mock people's sacred beliefs and then to act surprised when there is a violent reaction is both foolhardy and unconvincing. Myers is an intelligent human being and knows full well what he is doing. He and Donohue are feeding off of each other.

Let's hope the death threats remain empty. And what did Jesus say? "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you."


Anonymous said...

Um, how many people have been killed by those irrationally violent Catholics furious about disrespect to their religion in recent years?

mtraven said...

Sigh. Why can't I have some commenters who actually respond to the point, rather than picking up some irrelevant tangent and misinterpreting it?

PZ Myers has been receiving death threats. Whether or not those threats are actually acted upon is really not that germane to my point, which is that people will often experience attacks on sacred objects as very personal attacks that justify violent reaction. The subject is not Catholicism but religion in general. Catholics are tamer than Muslims at the present time, but mostly due to accidents of history -- both religions have a long history of violence.

I also note you framed your question rather narrowly. There has been plenty of Catholic violence in recent years (against abortion providers, and in Northern Ireland), although it is not for the exact reasons you specify. And of course in centuries past there were whole wars fought over it.

goatchowder said...

"...they seem to have some equally unjustified beliefs of their own, namely, that people are rational. People aren't rational, and it is irrational to expect them to be."

One of the most succinctly-put, cogent statements I've heard about human nature in a while. Nicely done.