"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Saturday, July 26, 2008

PZ Myers, disrespecting beliefs and shooting yourself in the foot

Let's say that a friend of mine is trying to fix his computer. It runs Windows XP, but for some reason he's convinced it's running Windows Vista. This mistake is making his task even harder.

It seems fairly obvious that, as a friend, I should make him aware of this mistake as soon as I can.

Most people want their beliefs to be as true as possible. If a girlfriend is cheating on me then, as much as finding out will hurt, I'd want to know – as tackling the problem will ultimately lead to a better life than living with someone who cheats on me. The fact that I strongly believe that she is “the one” is no excuse for my friends not making me aware of my mistake – although it does mean that they should approach the issue delicately.

Respect for the individual entails disrespect for beliefs we believe to be wrong.

The same applies to religious matters – If someone believes that my atheism is a mistake then, if they care about me in any way, they should try to make me aware of this mistake as soon as possible.

Although, just as they have an obligation to make me aware of my mistake, they have an obligation (to themselves as much as to me) to do so in a productive way. Standing outside my house declaring through a megaphone that I'm going to burn in hell for my heathen ways is not only unlikely to change my mind, it will also sour my view of religious people and so make it even harder to change my mind on the subject.

Which brings me to 'Wafergate'.

My objection to PZ Myer's recent actions concerning “host desecration” is that not only will it fail to change anyone's mind on the subject, it also, by annoying and upsetting many Catholics, makes that task even harder.

If Myers is truly concerned with the threatening actions of some Catholics in response to Webster Cook taking a wafer from a Mass service then the best course of is as follows: Research the Eucharist, find arguments against its validity and then try to present these in a way that will have the most influence in Catholic circles.

As with any group, there will inevitably be some that will refuse to listen. But there are many more who will. Myers is focusing on a minority at the expense of a majority.

Most religious people want to hold true beliefs. As an atheist, I think that their current beliefs are more likely to be false. I also think that they (and ultimately everyone else) would be better off if they were aware of their mistakes. The crude mockery by Myers – and many in the comment threads of his blog – is not only going to fail in making his case, it's actually massively counter-productive.

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17 Comments:

Blogger N. Adam said...

My objection to PZ Myer's recent actions concerning “host desecration” is that not only will it fail to change anyone's mind on the subject, it also, by annoying and upsetting many Catholics, makes that task even harder.

Firstly, I do not gather that the purpose of the act was to persuade anyone to change their mind. Secondly, even if it were, there are far greater impediments to changing the minds of the faithful than actions of PZ Myers. It is not as though we were just at the edge of some mass breakdown of religion only to be foiled by the actions of Mr. Myers.

Your objection is not unlike the initial objections to the books of Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens.

2:01 PM

 
Blogger Ken Brown said...

This is an excellent post! I only wish that more people truly were concerned whether their beliefs are true. It seems to me that too many (religious and otherwise) care more about their favorite TV show than with seeking answers to their deepest questions. For that matter, we're all guilty of that (myself included) quite a bit of the time!

10:10 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

N. Adams,

I do not gather that the purpose of the act was to persuade anyone to change their mind.

Then what was the point of it all?

As an attention-grabbing stunt it's certainly been successful, but it also looks as though he wanted to challenge the idea that the wafer should be considered sacred, in which case he's achieved very little: Those who believed it to be sacred still do and those who didn't still don't.

As an attempt at consciousness-raising it's hard to judge it as anything other than a failure.

5:13 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Ken Brown,

Thank you.

We're all guilty of complacency and closemindedness at times - which is why it's so important to promote self-examination and questioning.

Now I'm off to watch some TV. :-)

5:16 AM

 
Blogger N. Adam said...

Then what was the point of it all?

As an attention-grabbing stunt it's certainly been successful, but it also looks as though he wanted to challenge the idea that the wafer should be considered sacred, in which case he's achieved very little: Those who believed it to be sacred still do and those who didn't still don't.

As an attempt at consciousness-raising it's hard to judge it as anything other than a failure.


Well, I do not think that the success or failure of this stunt should be measured in terms of who changes their mind about the sacredness of the cracker. It is certainly a measure worth discussing, and to that end I find much to sympathize in your post, but points about what constitutes a hate crime, the consistency of stances with respect to the Danish-Muslim cartoon controversy, what qualifies as legal ownership, the value of death threats, and the particulars of Catholic dogma all have value too.

5:04 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

My problem with Myers' actions is that I don't see them dealing with those points though: Religious nutcases made threats and atheist commentators sat back and laughed. Anyone interested in a serious discussion of those issues seem to have stayed away.

6:24 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Matt,

Re Hugh's remark
"The Roman Catholic Church claims the Creator of the Universe as their CEO. The boundaries of the biscuit incident go beyond a spat at your local golf club."

No, they really do not. No more than a fracas between two Scientologists on the nature and holiness of body Thetans is of any immediate concern to a non-scientologist.

The wafer incident was only of concern for secular bodies in so much that there may or may not have been a secular law broken during said incident. Beyond breaking a law, the thoughts, beliefs and actions of the people involved are well protected by the US Constitution and its sundry amendments. The issue was between a Catholic and, apparently, a Catholic. If it had been an atheist getting beaten up by a group of crazed Papists... well, clearly then we can start talking about bigotry and the need to take action against it.

It this instance, the only bigotry I see is that being leveled toward, rather than perpetrated by, a religious organisation. It's a hatchet job replete with all the usual elements of fallacious reasoning that one would, with bitter irony, can usually expect from ideological zealots.

"Some As are Bs, thus all As are Bs!"

"A perpetrated C in the past, which means that all As must condone C!"

And my peronsal favourite,

"A perpetrated C against X in the past, so Cs are justified in perpetrating C against A in the present!"

Personally, I have a higher degree of tolerance for an irrational religious zealot than I have for an irrational atheist. The atheist that embraces fallacious and incendiary rhetoric (talk about defiling one's own sacraments) in the name of expedience does far greater harm to the integrity of reason than any zealot ever could.

"Ah, but the ends justifies the means, and by extension the meanness of the means!"

10:15 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

EDIT "A perpetrated C against X in the past, so Ds are justified in perpetrating C against A in the present!"


The Child was on rare form in the early our of this morn. She has muddled my ability to think alphabetically.

10:17 AM

 
Anonymous peter parker said...

Good post.

Strangely, in writing about Catholic beliefs, Myers sounds more like a fundamentalist Protestant than anything else. The "cracker" talk is straight out of the Jack Chick/Ian Paisley School of Rhetoric, and as for the behaviour - well, let's just say that as someone who spent a considerable part of his life as a critical agnostic, and yet still managed not to behave like a prize clown, I struggle to make sense of what Myers thinks he is achieving. I can't see Voltaire, Hume or Russell engaging in such antics.

6:17 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

It's interesting (well, to me) to compare Myers' post on the wafer situation with his posts on creationist claims, such as this one:

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2008/07/hitchens_luskin_lion_mouse.php

...where he makes the effort to show exactly what's wrong with their statements.

When he's on biological, as opposed to purely theological, grounds, he does good.

6:18 AM

 
Blogger mutleythedog said...

I am setting up my own religion with myself as God! Follow me people for free sex and choccy!

3:05 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Hey Matt,
Disagree as we may regarding ultimate reality, our paths sure do seem to run close when it comes to our methodology in discussing the topic. A well composed post if I don't say so myself! It just so happens that I was also lamenting a similar situation not but one day before you posted this. A theologian (who's views I sympathize with) was going about responding to another theologian and even though he had plenty of strong arguments in his arsenal he couldn't seem to keep himself from tainting his entire essay with an air of smug superiority mixed with paternalistic condescension. Sadly I'm finding this sort of thing more often than not.

Here's to bucking that trend!

p.s. hoping to get back to the meaning conversation. I've just found life to be pressing in and yada yada yada. excuses, excuses. Seriously though. I'll be back. (even if it's a month from now when I finally get a month long break!) Hope all's well.

7:49 PM

 
Anonymous Hugh said...

Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...
Re Hugh's remark
"The Roman Catholic Church claims the Creator of the Universe as their CEO."
No, they really do not.
-----------------------------------

What is, in your opinion, the view of the Catholic Church about its relationship with the Creator of the Universe?

11:06 AM

 
Anonymous Hugh said...

peter parker said...
I can't see Voltaire, Hume or Russell engaging in such antics.
----------------------------------

You're setting a high standard for PeeZee. However, if these great names had blogged, they might have been more informal on occasion.

11:31 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Hugh,
"No, they really do not."

was in response to the latter part of your comment:

"The boundaries of the biscuit incident go beyond a spat at your local golf club."

5:09 PM

 
Anonymous Hugh said...

"The boundaries of the biscuit incident go beyond a spat at your local golf club."

Unless your golf course is co-terminous with the universe and has a membership of more than a billion, claims about a bicuit being your Creator have greater impact.

3:54 AM

 
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8:31 AM

 

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