Friday, July 11, 2008

Taste and see the goodness of the Lord

But Jesus sticks to the roof of my mouth

I was six years old when I was inducted into the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist with my first Holy Communion. After that traditional rite of passage, I was then entitled to participate in communion at all subsequent Catholic services. I was twenty-eight when I suddenly realized that I was no longer willing even to go through the motions. I was actually on my way to church at the time. Instead of attending mass, I walked past the church, stopped at a news rack to pick up a copy of the combined Sunday edition of the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner, and paged through it while having breakfast at the counter of a nearby restaurant. Scrambled eggs and bacon replaced my Sunday morning snack of tasteless communion wafer.

As the dutiful son of a devotedly Catholic family—and, significantly, a person who falls naturally into a routine—I had picked up the habit of weekly mass attendance and reception of communion. When I was young, communion was the only opportunity to stick your tongue out at Monsignor. In those pre-Vatican II days, receiving the host on your tongue was the only permissible way to take communion.

I wasn't rigorous about it, but I certainly received communion at most of the masses I attended. With 52 Sundays in each of 22 years, I undoubtedly came close to consuming a thousand communion hosts, ranging from the dry wafers of my childhood to the torn bread loaves of the trendy Newman chapel where I went to grad school. (I'm not even trying to factor in the additional six “holy days of obligation” observed in the United States or the miscellaneous family weddings.) I've eaten a lot of Jesus.

No one will be particularly surprised to hear that Catholics have a smug attitude toward other Christian sects. How can one not feel superior to the tens of thousands of constantly splitting denominations of those parvenu Protestants? I suspect this attitude makes it a lot easier for Catholics to accept or ignore the Church's centuries of accumulated excrescences. Quite apart from the faith in things unseen (e.g., gods, angels, and demons), which is the legacy of virtually all religions, Catholics have a generous collection of traditions, some of which are officially sanctioned by the hierarchy and many others that survive as robust folklore. What Catholic kid hasn't heard one of the stories (there are several) from some priest, nun, or maiden aunt about the communion host that bled real blood, grotesque testimony to the honest-to-God real flesh-and-blood transubstantiation of the wafer into a scrap of Christ's body?

For Catholic youngsters, the ritual cannibalism of the eucharist ceremony is one of the creepy-cool aspects of the religion. Protestants, after all, think the communion bread is just symbolic. How lame! If the bread is only symbolic, then the communion service is not the intimate connection with Jesus that it is for Catholics. That's God himself you're noshing on, so don't anybody go messing with it!

It happens, though. Webster Cook of the University of Central Florida took advantage of the current Catholic practice of receiving communion in the hand, instead of on the tongue, to pocket a consecrated communion wafer and take it back to his seat to show to a curious friend. His failure to consume the host was observed, and he suddenly found himself under physical assault.

As Cook explained it in a comment posted on the Orlando Sentinel blog:
I was going to show it to my non-Catholic friend and then consume it. Although my friend attended the mass, non-Catholics are prohibited from receiving communion, explaining the need to delay consumption. According to the organization, the Catholic Church mandates this policy of using physical intervention against people who fail to immediately consume the holy wafer. Therefore, the individuals who attacked me were enforcing the policies of their organization.
Getting roughed up at mass was not the end of Cook's travails. He made his escape with the wafer still in his possession and held it captive for a while in a Ziploc bag.

Webster Cook learned to his dismay that the incident would not be quickly forgotten. Shrieks of outrage came from many Catholic quarters, including demands for his expulsion from the University of Central Florida and the occasional death threat. Professional Catholic advocate and thug Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights declared Cook's action was “beyond hate speech.” Thoroughly lacking in imagination, Donohue opines that “It is hard to think of anything more vile” than deliberately desecrating a wafer. A minor infraction, apparently involving neither ill intent nor actual defacement of the communion wafer, had now become a heinous crime, a sacrilegious assault on all that is holy. Cook later returned the host and is now hunkered down in the hopes that his assailants will manage to remember their ostensible Christianity.

Piling Pelion on Ossa

The reaction to Webster Cook's eucharistic faux pas strikes me as second-order irrationality. The first irrationality is religion itself, treating as real something that has failed time and again in all of its aspects to deliver any tangible results. If you pile the null hypothesis atop Occam's razor, it might occur to you to conclude that the best reason for a lack of compelling evidence for God is a lack of God. The most efficient explanation of why the world rolls along as if there is no God is that the world is right.

When religious people take the shaky foundations of their faith and build huge structures on top of it (the Catholic church being a case in point), heroic efforts are needed to keep things from toppling over. Doubt must not be permitted to enter the sanctuary. The wafer looks like bread and is bread, but it's the actual flesh of Jesus Christ, so death to those who don't worship it! Although it may sit like a scrap of food in a Ziploc bag, don't be fooled. It's God in there!

The overreaction begs for mockery, but it's dangerous territory. Ever willing to stick his thumb in the eye of those who believe without evidence, PZ Myers suggested on his blog Pharyngula that he might like to have fun with a few communion wafers of his own. Silly Professor Myers! Now he's getting his own deluge of abuse and death threats from hyper-religious correspondents who actually believe PZ has nothing better to do than perform rituals of desecration on tiny bits of dried-out bread. PZ is nothing if not obstreperous, and being treated like a Danish cartoonist has gotten his back up. If people are going ballistic anyway, he might as well go ahead and toss some wafers into one of his zebrafish tanks. Or subject one to DNA testing to see if Jesus was actually an XY male or perhaps a cross-dressing XX female parthenogenetically born of a virgin; that latter case would make more sense than most Bible stories! So many possibilities!

But not going to happen.

It seems likely to me that PZ will, in fact, receive a number of communion wafers in the mail. They're not that difficult to obtain. A slight sleight of hand suffices. But I predict the loony religionists are going to be disappointed that Professor Myers will deny them the opportunity to plunge themselves into a further lip-frothing frenzy by conducting an elaborate public desecration of anything. Don't you get it? In his own special undiplomatic way, PZ has been expressing his utter contempt for people who attack and threaten living human beings on behalf of stale food fragments. If you're in this category, you are the target. Not your holy bread. Sheesh!

My recommendation to the offended faithful is simple:
  1. Act like the Christians you purport to be and follow the teachings of your ever-loving messiah, who told Peter in Matthew 18:22 to forgive his brother not seven times, but seventy times seven times. So get with it and obey Jesus.
  2. Get on your knees and pray ceaselessly to God to save the soul of Paul Zachary Myers. Pray for me, too, while you're at it. Why the hell not?
  3. Keep praying. I'm very much in favor of prayer by the devout. You don't cause anyone else any trouble while you keep praying. It lets the rest of us go about our business without your interference. Pray more. Prey less.


Anonymous said...

Cliffs Notes version for anyone who stumbles upon this blog:

"I too, am just an asshole."

You're welcome, I just saved you from reading several banal paragraphs.

Zeno said...

Very clever, Anonymous, but guess what? The comments are at the end of the post.

You're clueless about a lot of stuff, aren't you? Now go pray!

Anonymous said...

At least maybe PZ will draw attention away from Cook, who just wants to be left alone.

I say PZ should do something when he receives the wafers, if only to keep the religious from crowing that they've scared him into backing down. Still, even that would be allowing them to dictate his actions…

K said...

Nice summation of the whole ordeal.

Anonymous said...

Great post! Well written narrative of the insanity that's going on right now.

My favorite parts, looking back at my own Catholic upbringing and reading this, include how ridiculously dressed up girls now get for their first communion. Hello! It's not their wedding! Ease up on the makeup on the 7 year olds, please. Also, I have a vivid memory of a host being dropped on the floor by a priest, and the devout patron quickly picking it up and consuming it. I couldn't help being disgusted by the uncleanliness. God or not, have you any idea how many dirty shoes have been in that spot?!

Anonymous said...

Yes, these vocal Catholics are overreacting, but that doesn't mean that PZ isn't being an asshole here.

Seriously, if their religion makes them happy then why go out of your way to stomp all over it? Sure, when they go being jerks to other people call them out on that. Pointing out that those castigating Cook are being shrill and reactionary suffices, but taking the extra step and desecrating what someone else considers holy just makes you an asshole.

And then the stakes just get ratcheted up over and over and over again. Theists point to assholes like PZ and say "see what awful people atheists are", and then the fringes act like assholes themselves. Atheists, in turn, point to that fringe and say "see what awful people theists are", and these fringes act like more assholes. And around and around it goes.

If atheists and agnostics are so smart, why can't we recognize this vicious cycle and end it ourselves; work towards understanding and detente, rather than continually proliferating and gearing up for war.

Anonymous said...

derek, please try actually reading what I wrote. I started off by saying that the Catholic Leaguers are overreacting, and I continued later by referring to them as being on the fringes. I didn't castigate them here because they're not here. When I see them I tell them the flip side of the same thing, so don't go accusing me of some sort of imbalance here.

And, for your information, I don't actively practice any religion, but I have friends and family who do practice and hold various beliefs. My point is that everyone around the table, theists and atheists alike, need to cut this shit out and start looking for what we have in common rather than what divides us. And assholes like PZ Meyers don't help a damn thing when they go looking for ways to piss the other people off.

Anonymous said...


Almost all the people I know are catholics, and many of them still believe in it. I still criticize their beliefs, if and when it comes up. One of my cousins went into priesthood a while ago, and I was the one calling out the bullshit (he is much younger than me and those sleazebags took advantage of him -- long story).

It is important to call them out because their stupid beliefs do have real-world consequences. Homophobia, women as inferior, stem-cell research, abortion, etc. All these people's extreme position on those issues comes solely from their "knowledge" of their faith.

About PZ, he was just calling the nutcases out of the woods to point out the insanity. Both the overreaction and PZ's comment (and possible action) are ridiculous, but only PZ's is purposefully ridiculous.

Anonymous said...


You do realize that PZ didn't actually desecrate anything, don't you?

Zeno said...

Andyo comments that PZ's response to the communion wafer incident was "purposely ridiculous." I think that's right, but it was taken as dead serious by many. PZ ended up with more than he bargained for. He can speak for himself, of course, but I suspect he thought his over-the-top comments would be instantly recognized as hyperbolic. He forgot to reckon with the hair-trigger reflexes of the god-ridden, who have devoted a lot of effort to investing the objects of their veneration with supernatural significance.

PZ grew up as a Lutheran and lacks first-hand knowledge of the Catholic mindset. I know people in my Romish family who regard hijinks with a consecrated host as a crime of the utmost seriousness (though I hope even they, unlike some of PZ's correspondents, would stop short of advocating summary capital punishment for it). Prudence, politeness, and self-preservation argue that one tread more lightly than PZ was inclined to do so. It's not so much needing to show "respect" for a wacky idea as dialing back the overt rudeness. I didn't call PZ any names in my post because I am more mild-mannered than he is and I agree with all of his basic points. Still, he didn't hit the center of the target with his barb. Or maybe it was a shotgun loaded with too much rock salt.

David Carson said...

Zeno, nice post - always interesting to hear the perspective of someone who was previously embedded in the Crazy Club. You amply demonstrate the hypocrisy of the god gang in their reaction.

unapologetic, you believe Jesus is your god? You believe the bible is his word? Why don't you do what it tells you - forgive, turn the other cheek, etc.? Instead of ranting here, why aren't you condemning your fellow faith heads who are issuing death threats? So much for that moral superiority over those filthy Muslims!

You believe prayer works? Go do it. Get on your knees and have a good old pray. The Jesus / god combo is always listening, isn't she?

Of course, the shrieking hysteria that has resulted from Crackergate really demonstrates the depth of conviction in the religious that their god is omnipotent - she can't defend herself, so her mortal flock of sheep need to.

I suspect a large part of the hysteria is generated by the fact that this incident begins to expose that nagging, smothered doubt that your god doesn't exist. If she did, she'd have smoted all us nasty atheists long ago.

Jesus / god: created the universe, but can't retrieve a cracker.

Anonymous said...

What if I declare that desecration of hosts by PZ Myers is holy to me? Will unapologetic stop criticizing it? Or does he not really believe that something is off-limits just because someone announced it was holy?

Anonymous said...

Something interesting to me, that I haven't seen anyone else comment on, is how quickly the Catholics turned on one of their own. I wonder if Cook still considers himself a Catholic...?

The Ridger, FCD said...

You can't let anybody question, because once it's started, it's hard to stop - see Martin Luther for just one example. Catholics maintain their Church by not allowing any questioning, just like anybody else with a thoroughly domineering and falsely based worldview: if it were demonstrably true, questions would be welcome. And then there's the Us vs Them element to the equation. Poor Cook. He only wanted to satisfy someone's curiosity, not run a molecular analysis. But what if he had? Catholics, at some level, know their beliefs are as much under siege from reality as any pre-millennial fundamentalist's are. When you pin your faith on things unseen, you have to keep your eyes closed pretty tight.

Anonymous said...

/me sighs

How many times do I have to restate that I do not practice any religion, and that I do not think that the Catholic League are behaving well either. If I read one of their weblogs cheering Bill Donohue on, then I'll say isomorphic things to them.

Yes, andyo, I agree that some of their beliefs have real-world consequences, and it's important to confront them on those. Transubstantiation is not one of them.

Hans, I know that he didn't yet. Some jokes just aren't funny, though. All this threat does is piss off the other side rather than bring people closer to any sort of understanding where the issues andyo brings up can be reasonably discussed.

You're never going to convince Bill Donohue that abortions should be "safe, legal, and rare", but you might convince J. Random Catholic to break from the official line. However he's not particularly inclined to listen to the likes of PZ. More flies with honey, and all.

David Cognito: I never said that I believe anything. In fact, as above, I specifically said I don't follow a particular religion. Of course, it's more convenient for you to set me up as a religious straw man to knock down, rather than to treat me as someone who's begging both sides to sit down and talk rather than to dial up the invective. I mean, if you actually listened to what I wrote you might have to change your views in the face of evidence, and we can't have that now, can we?

Josh: I didn't say it was off-limits. I even said he could do it. I just said he's an asshole for it.

Of course, I know that none of you read what I said before, so none of you will read this. You'll continue to think of me as some blind apologist for the religious side, when I'm really nothing of the sort. You just want your two minutes hate.

Zeno said...

Well, I read your comments, Unapologetic, and I thought your vantage point was pretty clear. You weren't making excuses for the wacky religionists, you were simply pointing out that PZ was unnecessarily asking for trouble by dialing his rant up to 11. I don't disagree.

Keep posting and I'll keep reading. I appreciate your comments here.

Anonymous said...

Why would it necessarily make someone a jerk to do something that would upset other people? A lot of people need to be upset because they are behaving stupidly. If PZ had decided to desecrate a cracker just to upset Catholics, I would agree that it was overstepping the boundaries of good taste. That is not what happened.

eProf2 said...

Professor Zeno: Off Topic -- Our local library showed the film, The Island, this week. The film is from Russia and a part of the international film series. Have you seen it?

BrianX said...

As an ex-Catholic myself, I support and endorse PZ's actions. And when he gets the wafers (they really aren't crackers, at least not the ones used in my part of the US) he should eat them, with a nice glass of wine (something kosher I should guess -- I had Baron Herzog from California not too long ago, and I hear there's some great wines coming out of Israel too). Maybe do a host tasting, if he's a foodie.

Anonymous said...


How can you criticize only some beliefs, when all of them come from the same faith and authority? It's not like they have a reason to believe one and not the others. You can criticize their position, but without calling bullshit on the source, you're not in good grounds for making them actually realize why those "bad" beliefs are wrong. They may agree with you on more extreme ones like homophobia, but every time something stupid and new comes from that authority, you'll have to debate again why it's wrong. It's just better to discredit the source and break that blind trust (a.k.a. "faith").

Personally, I don't think any kind of superstitious belief is benign in the long run. But that's my opinion.

Interrobang said...

I've said this before -- all the well-meaning stuff about how the loud, outspoken ones should stop being assholes is a kind of crap, because they're not in it to convince the squishy middle; they're in it to expand the boundaries of the acceptable discourse. That's kind of how it works. If everyone tiptoes around moronic professional shit-disturbers like Donohue because nobody wants to put off the mushy middle, then the shit-disturbers just get to move the bounds of acceptable discourse a little further away from the possibility of there being opposing shit-disturbers espousing the other side.

Which is also why the US has no existing political left; as soon as anyone, even self-identified liberals, express anything that's further left than what would be a centre-right position anywhere else in the world, the far right (which has managed to move the acceptable bounds of discourse so far to the right the US public has actually started to debate the merits of torture and things like capital punishment go completely unquestioned by the politicians at least) starts screaming about "socialism" and "communism" and other things that are laughable on their face, but which get a lot of traction because of the way the discourse is.

PZ isn't writing to convince the mushy middle. PZ is writing to rile up the base, and make out-and-proud atheism and irreligionism a viable personal and political position in the United States. (Goodness knows you need it.) If you're expecting him to tailor his message to a group he isn't writing for, you're looking in the wrong place.

Anonymous said...

andyo: I know plenty of Catholics who diverge in pretty much all the same progressive ways that I'd hope they would. That is, it's possible to fuse a progressive, liberal worldview with the Catholic background. Your thesis is basically that that's impossible, and converting people to atheism is the only option.

Again, you're looking for ways not to sit down at the table and talk. You're just spoiling for a fight. There's no sense of a happy medium here, just "the slightest drop of religion taints the whole".

Interrobang: I agree with you about Donohue. He's also being an asshole here, and deserves to be called out for it. But not all Catholics are Bill Donohue, and acting like an asshole back to him doesn't advance the cause of peace.

You didn't say so explicitly, but you're right. Bill Donohue and PZ Meyers are opposite sides of the same coin. Each one of them is acting like an asshole in order to preach to their own converted.

And Zeno, thanks. I wouldn't even bother reading if I didn't think at least you were reasonable. Which is why I don't read Pharyngula.

Anonymous said...

Protestants, after all, think the communion bread is just symbolic.

Actually, some Protestant sects have much more nuanced beliefs like the Sacramental union. As a confirmed Finnish Lutheran, I was mildly surprised to learn what I was once supposed to believe in. (IIRC, our religious education classes consisted mostly of watching Charlton Heston movies.)

Porlock Junior said...

Unapologetic has an ability, to an extent uncommon even on the Intertubes, to be grossly and stupidly misinterpreted in contradictory ways when he writes utterly clear and well-reasoned prose. Are congratulations in order?

Seriously, though, I wonder if he himself is misreading Derek. On my second reading of that short piece, I thought it was sort of a shorter shorter: summary of U's summary of what the Donohues are saying; and quite right, that is what they are saying. But I too could be misreading.

Anyway, unapologetic may take some comfort in Shorter Jesus:

Woe unto you when all [persons] speak well of you.

NB: This is a *positive* reaction to U's excellent comment. Today it seems necessary to be explicit about these things.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Porlock. You may well be right about Derek meaning "unapologetic" as an adjective instead of in reference to my comment. If that's the case, I'm sorry for the mistake, but the content of my later remarks still stands.

I wish that the OpenID let me use my name instead of the third-level part of my website (, but it's just another of my laundry list of complaints about Blogger.

Pirate Alice said...

Zeno, thank you for this post. When I was a practicing Catholic I never once had believed my communion wafers were actually God, it was always a symbol in my head. So when I read this story at BitchPh.D., I was so confused as to why people would get so bent out of shape about someone taking one out of the church. Reading your post has cleared up much confusion for me.
I had no idea "true" Catholics were that sensitive about communion. Although I grew up surrounded by Catholics (My brother even joined the priesthood) I had never encountered anyone who would attack someone in church over not consuming his wafer.
I think the whole thing is ridiculous, and everyone involved is acting in a completely "unchristian" manner.
Yes, they should all kneel down and pray, perhaps that will help shed some light on their behavior.
Again, thank you for this.

Anonymous said...

pirate alice -

As I wrote in Bitch's blog, I think the southern baptist neo-con rightwing fundies have infiltrated the minds of the Catholic Churchgoers in the South.

Why else would they Kill for Jesus?

electrichalibut said...

Shorter unapologetic: look guys, we all know 2+2=4, and I know it's kind of annoying that these guys say 2+2=8 because it says so in their holy book, but can't we agree on some sort of compromise value, like, I dunno, 6? Live and let live, yeah? Guys?

No. 2+2=4. A cracker is a cracker. A false dichotomy is just that. And people wonder why us uppity atheists get all snarky and aggressive. Sheesh.

Anonymous said...

And a false analogy is just that, electrichalibut.

If you say 2+2 is anything other than 4 and try to build a bridge with it, it falls down. Tell me a realistic situation where someone is harmed by the doctrine of transubstantiation.

Besides which, I'm not saying to come to an agreement on belief. I'm saying to come to an agreement on outcomes. Find what we have in common rather than where we differ.

Go look up "red-letter Christians" and "liberation theology". Do you agree with their theological motivations? Of course not. But you might find that there are Christians and Catholics with a drive for social justice that puts many secular liberals to shame.

Anonymous said...

Shorter version of the above:

"2+2 is 4, not 8, and I think you're being more than a little silly if you take it literally that it is, but that's as maybe. Now let's talk about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, and all that other stuff we both value."

electrichalibut said...

"2+2 is 4, not 8"

And a cracker is a cracker, not a slice of zombie Levantine prophet. That analogy seems pretty sound to me.

Anonymous said...

Of course it seems pretty sound to you. You were the one who proposed it. However, you're casually stepping around my challenge: tell me a realistic situation where someone is harmed by the doctrine of transubstantiation.

See, when you just come back repeating your same points and not responding to my arguments, you're falling into the same trap as you accuse your enemies of. You take your correctness as given, and you refuse to brook any discussion which might moderate your position in the slightest.

Anonymous said...

However, you're casually stepping around my challenge: tell me a realistic situation where someone is harmed by the doctrine of transubstantiation.

Webster Cook at UCF. And now his non-catholic friend, Benjamin Collard, who is being prevented from signing up for classes because of the violently nutty believers in transsubstantiation.


Anonymous said...

Margaret, I've previously agreed that those sort of people are overreacting in the extreme. However, their reaction to his actions is clearly not the doctrine itself. In fact, Church doctrine is pretty clearly against the sort of threats they've made.

The harm is being caused by their skewed sense of justice (theirs, not the Church's). It is not being caused by their belief in the doctrine itself.