15 July 2008

The purloined wafer

If a man walks out of a building with a small piece of bread, is it a hate crime? Is it as bad as kidnapping? Is it a proper occasion for death threats?

Probably pretty much everyone has heard of this story by now, but to summarize:

In the Catholic Mass, a central role is played by the "Eucharist" or communion wafer which, according to Catholic belief, is "transub-stantiated" by the presiding priest into the actual flesh of Jesus. The wafers are then consumed by the worshipers in what they presumably consider an act of ritual cannibalism (a belief with some curious implications).

Well, one day an individual named Webster Cook didn't eat his consecrated wafer, but instead took it out of the church with him. Apparently this act constituted some sort of enormous cosmic crisis, because as soon as it became known, church officials and other enraged commentators were all over the guy like priests on an altar boy. You can read about the reactions here; suffice to say that, yes, Cook's action was seriously compared to heinous crimes, and he was actually threatened with death. Eventually, and not too surprisingly, he returned the wafer to the church.

Atheist PZ Myers, author of the linked report, is apparently made of sterner stuff:

Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There's no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I'm sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I'll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won't be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls, which would apparently be a more humane act than desecrating a goddamned cracker), but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web. I shall do so joyfully and with laughter in my heart.

Myers posted these words about six and a half days ago, and the enormous cosmic etc. etc. has consequently re-erupted all over the blogosphere. With the important exception of the fact that (so far) there has been no actual violence but only threats of it, the situation seems startlingly reminiscent of the ludicrous Muslim explosion over the Danish Muhammad cartoons.

Let's be clear: the only way in which what Cook did (and Myers proposes to do) can be said to violate anyone's rights is in the sense that it constitutes removing and damaging someone else's property. And since the consecrated wafer is voluntarily given to the recipient during the ritual, even this strikes me as a grey area. If you give someone a cracker on the assumption that he's going to eat it right away, but he takes it home with him instead, is that stealing? It's far from obvious.

Yes, desecrating a consecrated host is profoundly offensive to people who believe it to be the actual flesh of their deity, but this is precisely the kind of thing that the First Amendment was meant to protect. Expression which doesn't offend anyone needs no such protection. Using such symbolic actions to express contempt for religion (or for anything else) is something a free society must tolerate, or it ceases to be a free society. For those who dislike such behavior, the proper response is to use their own freedom of expression to put forth their own views of the matter, not to try to stop Cook or Myers from using theirs.

Lest anyone think I'm being specifically insensitive to religious people, I'd say the same about a comparable form of symbolic expression which is enormously offensive to me: flag-burning. The sentiment displayed by this disgusts me, but I recognize that it too is precisely the kind of thing the First Amendment must protect. Unless the flag involved is someone else's property and was stolen by the flag-burner for the purpose, no one's rights are being violated.

14 Comments:

Anonymous handmaiden said...

Expression which doesn't offend anyone needs no such protection. Using such symbolic actions to express contempt for religion (or for anything else) is something a free society must tolerate, or it ceases to be a free society. For those who dislike such behavior, the proper response is to use their own freedom of expression to put forth their own views of the matter

Very well said.

17 July, 2008 07:16  
Blogger Mary Ellen said...

In the Catholic Mass, a central role is played by the "Eucharist" or communion wafer which, according to Catholic belief, is "transub-stantiated" by the presiding priest into the actual flesh of Jesus. The wafers are then consumed by the worshipers in what they presumably consider an act of ritual cannibalism (a belief with some curious implications).

You immediately lost all credibility with this post when you made the statement that worshippers consider the consuming of the Eucharist as an act of cannibalism. If you want to argue the case of transubstantiation, I suggest you do more research.

17 July, 2008 08:29  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Handmaiden -- thanks.

ME -- I don't see how it's possible to eat something one believes to "be" human flesh without considering the act to be cannibalism, but perhaps this is one of those theological arcana incomprehensible to us infidels. If it gave offense, I apologize. In any case, the point is peripheral to the real topic of the posting.

17 July, 2008 14:10  
Blogger Mary Ellen said...

To go into a church and take something that is considered to be holy and a sacrament, for no other reason than to deface it, shows that the person not only holds no moral codes what's so ever, but is violating the property of the church. If I went into a Jewish Temple and defaced it with swastika signs, or stood up in the middle of a service and yelled "Heil Hitler!", that would be a similar offense. Does the person have the right to be there because this is a free country and there is free speech, no.

The reason I pointed out that you took Catholic doctrine and twisted it to make your point, without having the knowledge to understand what the Eucharist is was important, IMO...and it was insulting, but I will forgive your obvious ignorance.

This post has nothing to do with trying to understand what it was that Webster Cook did wrong in the eyes of Catholics, but only to throw your sarcastic hateful remarks around to get a pat on the back from your atheist or satanic friends. This is the stuff that comes from fundamentalist atheists...I thought you were smarter than that, apparently I'm mistaken.

17 July, 2008 14:39  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

ME -- I almost didn't post that (see comments policy: "no insults") but it plays into the point.

I freely acknowledge that this posting was not an attempt to understand why Catholics think what Cook did was wrong. That was not its purpose. Its purpose was to express my own view of the question, as being a freedom-of-expression issue despite the fact that it caused offense (as the flag-burning analogy makes clear, I hope). If my primary intent had been to understand how Catholics feel about it, I would have asked one instead of writing a posting.

In response to your analogy, obviously I would not defend it as freedom of expression if someone defaced a Catholic church or disrupted the ritual by shouting obscenities, but that is not analogous to the case here.

To go into a church and take something that is considered to be holy and a sacrament, for no other reason than to deface it, shows that the person not only holds no moral codes what's so ever

An objectively false statement. I'm sure Cook and Myers hold most of the same moral codes as most other people in our society do with respect to most forms of interpersonal behavior. They simply don't believe that defacing or even stealing a piece of bread is a terribly serious transgression.

fundamentalist atheists

A fundamentalist is a person who believes in the absolute literal inerrancy of a particular sacred text. By definition, there is no such thing as a fundamentalist atheist.

I find it interesting that you express no outrage over the death threats that Cook was subjected to. Which is worse, stealing a piece of bread or terrorizing a person?

17 July, 2008 16:07  
Blogger Mary Ellen said...

For one thing, I saw no insult in what I wrote, unless you consider someone saying that you showed your ignorance on the subject of the Eucharist an insult. I don't think of that as an insult, just a fact, you have no knowledge of what the Eucharist is.

That said,


An objectively false statement. I'm sure Cook and Myers hold most of the same moral codes as most other people in our society do with respect to most forms of interpersonal behavior. They simply don't believe that defacing or even stealing a piece of bread is a terribly serious transgression.


Wrong...if Cook was going to "get a piece of bread and remove it from the Church, that would be something. If he was hungry and wanted bread, he could have bought some from the store or stolen it from a store. He did this for one reason only, to deface what is holy in a church to prove his point. That show a lack of morality. You may not see it as a terrible transgression, but those who are Catholic do. You may consider it "moral" to do so, but in fact, your insensitivity or Cook's insensitivity to what others hold sacred shows a lack of morality.

You can decide not to print this comment if you consider it an insult, that's up to you.

17 July, 2008 16:51  
Blogger Mary Ellen said...

Oh, and I didn't address the reactions that others had to Cook's behavior because I didn't think it was relevant to what I was addressing, which was that you were ignorant on the facts regarding the Eucharist and what it is and what it means to Catholics. Oh..and saying you are ignorant of the facts and suggesting you actually do some research before you write a post is not an insult, IMO, just a suggestion.

17 July, 2008 16:53  
Blogger FranIAm said...

I just want to acknowledge that I have been here. Infidel, you know me I suspect you read my post and know how I feel about the affair in general.

If I may say this, while I think Webster Cook was an idiot (sorry) in his pursuit, it should have been handled with more finesse at that end.

It should have not become national news and the rest of it wouldn't have happened.

Sadly the death threats are the ugliest and sickest parts of the whole mess... and they come from the "religious."

I am shutting up now.

Your religious friend.

17 July, 2008 17:57  
Anonymous handmaiden said...

I was honestly surprised that religious people were so incensed over this. But on reflection I realize I shouldn't of been. I've always figured that all religions are basically the same but this reaction to the desecration(?) of a cracker, by Christians blows my mind. It's not even like he pissed on it or anything. The Church has gotten away with so much for so long. Just because they believe they are representing God Almighty & have kowtowed so many people by their arrogance.
The pity is the Clergy can so easily work the congregation into a froth over a cracker.

17 July, 2008 21:34  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

ME -- you have no knowledge of what the Eucharist is.

Aside from the cannibalism thing (about which I'm reserving judgment), what, specifically, did I say about the Eucharist that was factually inaccurate, and how, specifically, was it factually inaccurate?

That show a lack of morality.

Don't try to evade responsibility for what you said. You said that "To go into a church and take something that is considered to be holy and a sacrament, for no other reason than to deface it, shows that the person not only holds no moral codes what's so ever". That is an objectively false statement. Cook and Myers probably hold to the same moral codes as most other people do, on everything from murder to cheating at cards. Their actions in this one case give no reason at all to think otherwise.

Fran I Am -- while I think Webster Cook was an idiot (sorry) in his pursuit

It could certainly be argued that what he did was not very intelligent, in the sense that poking a rabid dog would not be very intelligent. My main issue, though, is with the people who reacted to what he did with rage and threats. They were not necessarily stupid to do so -- threats often work -- but they do constitute a serious problem.

Sadly the death threats are the ugliest and sickest parts of the whole mess... and they come from the "religious."

It does seem to be a pattern. People like Hitchens and Dawkins get threatened too. On the other hand, it seems that religious people can insult atheists as much as they like without provoking similar threats from our side.

Handmaiden -- I was honestly surprised that religious people were so incensed over this.

They never seem to realize that they're their own worst enemies. Exploding with outrage and threats because somebody stole a cracker or drew a picture of a 7th-century Arab merchant, does a far more effective job of making religion look both silly and dangerous than Dawkins or Hitchens could ever do. I wonder how many of the Christians who got so worked up over this have ever expressed such outrage over the actual persecution of actual Christians in southern Sudan or Iraq or China. Outrage should be reserved for things like that, or like 9-11 or Beslan -- things that are actually, you know, outrageous.

18 July, 2008 05:20  
Blogger Mary Ellen said...

infidel-

Don't try to evade responsibility for what you said. You said that "To go into a church and take something that is considered to be holy and a sacrament, for no other reason than to deface it, shows that the person not only holds no moral codes what's so ever". That is an objectively false statement. Cook and Myers probably hold to the same moral codes as most other people do, on everything from murder to cheating at cards. Their actions in this one case give no reason at all to think otherwise.

I can speak to what I know...the man has shown himself to be lacking in morals of respect for others. If he cannot show such respect for something that is considered a Sacrament and Most Holy to others, why would I believe that he would have respect for anyone at all? It seems to me that his ego and "self" are more important than anything, which shows he lacks morality. I am only pointing out the obvious, that he is a man of little or no morals.

If a man murdered someone, but then left the murder scene and walked an old lady across the street, would that mean he is a man of morals? I don't think so.

It could be that the man would murder someone he didn't like if it were possible to do it without punishment by the laws of this land. Who knows how far a person like this would go if he didn't fear for his own skin. After all...it's all about "self" according to the Satanic philosophy, right?

Regarding what you know or don't know about the Eucharist cannot be covered in a comment on a blog. The cannibalism remark, of course is insulting to Catholics, as is the term "cracker", but that doesn't seem to matter much to your ilk. I suggest if you really want to know the teachings of the Catholic Church and the Eucharist, you look up the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

18 July, 2008 06:57  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

OK, so you've demonstrated (1) that you can't specify anything I said about communion wafers that was factually inaccurate (telling me to look things up doesn't count -- you're the one who claimed I know nothing about it, you defend the claim), and (2) that you seriously think desecrating an inanimate object is comparable to murder in what it says about a person's moral qualities.

And you still have nothing to say about the threats and hatred directed against Cook and Myers, which are the actual issue here, and were the actual subject of the posting.

I rest my case. Discussion terminated.

18 July, 2008 07:29  
Anonymous handmaiden said...

Don't terminate the discussion. It's just getting interesting. The question of what or what doesn't constitute morality is worth pondering.
Statements like this: It seems to me that his ego and "self" are more important than anything, which shows he lacks morality. I am only pointing out the obvious, that he is a man of little or no morals.
This is the philosophical dividing line between the morality of the atheist & the religious. What I find interesting is that the religious use God as a way to stand outside themselves & condemn the human race to be totally lacking in morals if said human race doesn't believe in a morality higher then themselves. This is interesting stuff.

18 July, 2008 09:08  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Sorry, but when I say "discussion terminated", I mean it. I am not interested in continuing to argue with someone who insults me, who comes here and challenges me on my own site and then accuses me of picking a fight, and who refuses to address the actual issues. The purpose of this posting was to express an opinion about the campaign of threats and intimidation waged by religious fanatics against Cook and Myers. It was not an "attempt to understand" the absurd superstitions motivating their belligerence.

18 July, 2008 09:53  

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