Other People's Icons

This week Chris Mooney wrote a post about "bridging the divide," and that predictably unleashed another round of accusations about the infamous 8th chapter of his book (with Sheril Kirshenbaum), Unscientific America. As you may recall, they told a story that made PZ Myers seem awfully disrespectful.  (Very short version: he threw some communion wafers in the trash, to protest the treatment of a Florida student, took pictures, posted them at his blog, and upset a lot of Catholics. See here.)  Some people think the book left out details and made Myers seem more disrespectful than he is. But never mind that controversy ...

What are the Respect Rules when it comes to talking about other people's deeply held views?  Then again, is that really the right question? Maybe we know those rules, and the real question is about breaking them. Humor and biting commentary are all about transgression. It can't be that all forms of transgression are completely beyond the pale.

I transgressed when I called A. A. Gill an idiot in yesterday's post. That seemed fine to me. This week Jon Stewart transgressed when he made fun of the Catholic Church's attempt to recruit Anglican bigots. That's got to be good, and I like this column by Randy Cohen saying we need more of that.

The question is how we should think about these transgressions. Are there any limits on them? What should we be thinking about when we decide whether to transgress? Here's a nice example of transgression I discovered when I dropped in on Pharyngula the other day--

Apparently Bill Donohue of the Catholic League thinks this is too much transgression and held a press conference about it.  PZ Myers' response was this--
You know, I still have a stash of holy crackers. I might just have to escalate some more, just to witness Donohue's public meltdown, and make a point: nobody, especially anyone who is not Catholic, has to revere Catholic icons, and demanding that we do is only gonna get Jesus hurt some more.
So we've got two positions carved out here.  Bill Donohue:  everyone must revere Catholic icons.  PZ Myers: nobody has to revere Catholic icons.

First point. I think the clip is pretty funny.  I don't think it's intolerably transgressive.

Second point.  I think these guys are thinking about the issues in the wrong way.  Contrary to Myers, I do think there's a prima facie duty to defer to other people's sensibilities.   "Prima facie" means--at first glance.  So the rule isn't absolute, but it's always in play.  Sometimes  a violation is "worth it" and sometimes a violation isn't.  Contrary to what Donohue evidently thinks, every transgression isn't worth a big fuss.

The duty to defer to other people's sensibilities doesn't have anything particularly to do with religion.  It's just an all purpose duty.  A case in point: the other day I was driving to school to meet a student and wound up driving behind a funeral procession.  A couple of police officers on motorcycles were keeping everyone behind the hearse and a line of about ten cars.  Probably I  could have gotten away with racing past the procession (there were a lot of lanes) and I could have honked as I passed the hearse and shouted an obscenity.  I might have self-righteously thought:  why should I have to revere other people's dead bodies?  I didn't even know the guy!  And besides, it was just his body!  It's my right to value just what I value.  Nobody can force me to adopt their point of view!

Obviously, this would be an overly individualistic stance.  The sheer fact that X matters to other people is some reason for X to matter to me.  Or rather, to be more precise, I ought to care about their feelings, preferences, satisfactions, frustrations.  And that may sometimes mean I have to temporarily pretend to have their concerns, even if I really don't.

So: there really is a prima facie duty to defer to other people's sensibilities.  Which means: no gratuitous peeing on pictures of Jesus [go back and watch the video!] or tossing out of communion wafers.  But it's just "prima facie." You can violate the duty, if you have a good enough reason.  Obviously, I could have raced past the funeral procession, if I'd been feeling chest pains.  And where speech is the issue, you've got to be able to transgress to make important points. You've even got to be able to transgress just to make the general point that religion can be criticized.  Or even just to look at something from a different angle, because that angle discloses something new and interesting. And if laughter is a fringe benefit of some new way of seeing, all to the good!

Still.  There's a rule in play. Mockery is OK when the transgression is worth it, and not because we don't have to care about other people's icons.

Getting back to Mooney and PZ Myers:  there are transgressions every day at Pharyngula.  Mooney didn't make that up.  The only serious question is whether they're worth it.  Yes...no...maybe...but it's impossible to think this through if you start by dismissing other people's sensibilities.

Note: intro paragraph was edited 8/29/10. 


Ophelia Benson said...

Yes...no...maybe...but it's impossible to think this through if you start by dismissing other people's sensibilities.

True enough – but then, we don’t. (I think; on the whole; etc.) I don’t think PZ would advocate screaming obscenities at a funeral – in fact I’m pretty damn sure he wouldn’t.

That’s exactly why I think the way M&K presented the “story” you mention is important – along with the fact that accuracy and completeness in journalism is important in general. It’s important specifically with respect to that “story” because it is, precisely, about the difference between dismissing other people’s sensibilities just for the sake of it, and doing something different – which in this case could be summed up as rebuking death threats and attempts to get a student expelled for attempting to remove a wafer from a church, by demonstrating that the threats and expulsion attempts were at bottom over a cracker.

It’s always bothered me, frankly, that you’re so casual about M&K’s incomplete account of this “story.” I don’t get it – it doesn’t seem like a philosophical view of the matter. There’s no earthly reason they couldn’t have given a complete account – ten or twenty more words would have done it – and it would have been simply a more informative, complete, fleshed-out account if they had, even apart from considerations of justice to someone they obviously dislike.

Surely that’s actually separate from whether or not PZ is all that disrespectful. I think it is. I agree with you that PZ is all that disrespectful – though I probably disagree with you about whether or not that is a bad thing! – but I still think his full reasons should be given in any account of a particular act of disrespect.

I think the prima facie duty to defer to other people's sensibilities is tricky when it comes to religion, because there is such a strong, even coercive assumption already in place that we must defer to other people's sensibilities about religion and (at the same time) because religion has such immense power over public life and over people’s minds. In the case of religion I think the duty pulls both ways – I think they’re in conflict. I absolutely don’t want to invade churches and shout mockery at the assembled worshippers. But when it comes to public religious claims – it’s another matter.

(An aside. About funerals and sensibilities – I was thinking something related just the other day. I saw a few minutes of some public tv documentary about the aftermath of 9/11 and the anguish of relatives of victims about body parts being in the landfill like so much garbage. One woman talked very passionately about the 300-something firefighters who got medals of honor yet they’re in the garbage. I told her [as one does tell the people on tv things, you know] that really they’re not. I told her sympathetically, earnestly, not scornfully – they’re not. They’re not there. The part of them that matters is gone, and they’re not there. I meant it as a suggestion for how to think about it – because given the situation, it might be the best way to think about it. That doesn’t mean I would urge everyone to put the corpses of their relatives in the garbage! Just that under necessity it is possible to realize that the dead body can be seen as not what matters now.

Jean Kazez said...

Ophelia, I can see what bothers people about the reporting of that incident. So if that one incident was something of huge importance, I'd be bothered too. (And sure, it would have taken just a few sentences...and why not include them in the next edition?)

But .... I see M&K as simply using the incident as a quick, readable way to establish what Pharyngula and PZ Myers are like. The important question is whether their portrait of Myers matches the man and his blog. And there I think the answer is yes.

Portrait: no holds barred criticism of religion, gleeful iconoclasm, violation of all conventions, "shock jock". Reality (if you read Pharyngula and hear PZ interviewed): all of the above.

So--there is some incompleteness in the reporting of one incident. But no, it's not malicious or defamatory or misleading. That's what has to be the case for me to get really upset.

About respecting sensibilities-well, I could be wrong, but from reading PZ (but not often), I get the feeling that he thinks it's an unreasonable imposition on him to be asked to care about other people's icons, as if that would be just totally senseless. I suspect he is not seeing how often living in a society means having some obligation to care about what other people care about....just because they care about it (as in the dead body case). It's not just religious icons...it's all sorts of stuff. I don't doubt PZ is a nice guy who stays behind funeral processions, but does he see that respecting people's feelings about dead bodies is in the same category as respecting their feelings about communion wafers?

As I say, there's just a prima facie duty in both cases...and obviously I'm being being liberal about when it can be violated.

s. wallerstein said...

First of all, a blog seems very different than a public space.

Second, a funeral is especially touchy and sensitive. I don't know if I would shout obscenities at anyone's funeral.

Third, most of us respect other people's sensibilities up to a certain point. I'm sure that none of us would find it objectionable to laugh at neo-Nazis, perhaps not in a funeral, but in a blog. What seems to matter is how repugnant we find those sensibilities to be. I found Mr. Gill to be especially repugnant, much more than I do religion in general. PZ Myers finds ((I believe) religion to be especially repugnant and worthy of scorn, much more than I do. Hence, he ridicules it. Perhaps he would not share my indignation at Mr.Gill killing a baboon because of the hat he (Mr. Gill) is wearing.

Ophelia Benson said...

Jean, you 'see M&K as simply using the incident as a quick, readable way to establish what Pharyngula and PZ Myers are like' but lots of other people don't - some of them quite reasonable; Jason Rosenhouse for instance. I don't see them that way myself - because the incident was already notorious, and because it is inflammatory, especially when presented without the full motivation for it. I think they used it because they think it was a bad thing to do - which they say quite clearly (yet while leaving out some of his reasons). I really disagree that it's not misleading - I think misleading is exactly what it is. It's not exactly about getting 'really upset' - but it is about thinking they do some highly dubious things, which then infects what one thinks about things they do later. It's about thinking they have an agenda which looks somewhat personal, and also thinking they're not nearly careful enough to be fair to people they dislike. Add to that the fact that they keep repeating these faults - and perhaps it may seem less surprising that it all gets 'rehearsed and rehearsed.'

"I suspect he is not seeing how often living in a society means having some obligation to care about what other people care about....just because they care about it (as in the dead body case). It's not just religious icons...it's all sorts of stuff...As I say, there's just a prima facie duty in both cases..."

Yes but you're ignoring what I said in reply to that thought - the putative prima facie duty runs up against the fact that religions have huge power and influence and that we need to be able to talk freely about them partly because of that power and influence. It's not a matter of wanting to make fun of everything that anyone is sensitive about - it's a matter of wanting to be free to make fun of religions if that's what it takes.

If we have some obligation to care about what other people care about....just because they care about it, then we have an obligation to care about racial taboos, and sexual taboos (menstruating women are feelthy, god hates fags, etc), and all kinds of things that don't deserve deference.

Peter said...


"Yes but you're ignoring what I said in reply to that thought - the putative prima facie duty runs up against the fact that religions have huge power and influence and that we need to be able to talk freely about them partly because of that power and influence. It's not a matter of wanting to make fun of everything that anyone is sensitive about - it's a matter of wanting to be free to make fun of religions if that's what it takes."

- People *are* free to make fun of religions. Myers is free to desecrate as many consecrated communion wafers as he likes. The State will not stop him from doing so (I'm aware that there are some who'd like the State to stop him, but they're lunatics). The more important question, and the one I think Jean was trying to get at, is whether he *should* do things like that. It's perfectly possible for it to be true that I ought to be free to do X, and for it to also be true that I ought not do X.

Jean Kazez said...

On the last point you make--I stressed in the post that lots of times it's all to the good to violate the prima facie rule that we should care about other people's icons. So I didn't feel the need to say so again after you said it! The point of the post is that there IS this prima facie rule. I think you agree. I'm not sure if PZ Myers and others agree.

As to the way they report the cracker episode--I don't really get your interpretation. Surely the reporting on this isn't an end in itself in the book. The point is to characterize Pharyngula so they can argue that science blogging is starting to alienate religious people.
Basically, it's just exhibit A, and they've left out exhibits B, C, D, E, and F...which we can all go find for ourselves by reading Pharyngula.

To show they've been misleading in some significant way, I think you have to argue that their reporting causes us to get a general sense of PZ that is inaccurate. I don't see the inaccuracy. It makes us think he's pretty wildly irreverent, and he is.

Analogy--John wants to prove that Mary is a reckless driver. There is tons and tons of robust evidence, but he chooses to present the story that's most entertaining and colorful. Well, it just so happens that on that one occasion, Mary wasn't reckless. She just swerved to avoid a pothole. Should we really think John has misled his audience?

Ophelia Benson said...

Peter, right, I meant free in the 'should' sense - morally free. I know we're literally free and legally free. We're arguably not morally free because of all the extra, disproportionate opprobrium.

Jean, yeh, I just thought I was talking about a particular while you were talking about a general. Or something. I've been staring at this screen too long.

I don't think it does just make us think PZ is pretty wildly irreverent - I think it makes us think he is so insensitive to other people's icons that he will trash a eucharist for a frivolous reason. If an incident is controversial, surely there is an obligation to report it as carefully and fully as possible? Otherwise one just adds to the controversy, in an unfair way. The fact that Webster Cook was being bullied was his chief reason, and that was left out.

s. wallerstein said...

Maybe what it means "to respect other people's icons" is being stretched here. I agree that it would be wrong to walk into a church during mass and eat a host after pouring ketchup on it. Would it wrong for me to do it in my home, if I told no one? No. Now, is it wrong for PZ Myers to do it in his home (or in whatever private space) and then to tell others about it in his blog? I don't think so.

Peter said...


I'm unsure what your talk of "morally free" amounts to. If one is morally free to X just in case it is not wrong to X, then I don't see why we should be concerned with being morally free to do things that we are, in fact, not morally free to do. That just amounts to saying that we should be able to do immoral things. And isn't that sort of inconsistent?

I guess one way of interpreting it would be to say that you wish certain facts about the world were different, such that to do a particular action (eg. desecrate a consecrated wafer) would not be immoral. For example, one might wish that Catholics didn't particularly care about consecrated wafers (and if they didn't, to desecrate one would not be wrong). That at least is not inconsistent, but seems kind of tangential to Jean's point. She says that certain atheists should not act immorally in this world, not hypothetical world where Catholics don't care about consecrated communion wafers.


Read this post by Keith DeRose:

Would it be OK for me to procure Native American remains from Native American burial grounds with the intention to desecrate, provided I did it in private? Surely not!

Jean Kazez said...

Peter, Interesting link to the post by Keith DeRose. I hadn't seen that.

I certainly don't think we have to literally revere what other people revere, but we have to give some weight to their feelings, just because they are their feelings. That's what doesn't seem to be getting any recognition in PZ's writing (from what I can see). It's not just that he sees himself as violating the prima facie duty to defer to feelings, with good reason. He doesn't seem to be aware of that duty. When he threatens that Jesus is "gonna get hurt some more" one senses that he positive delights in causing discomfort.

But I want to stress--I had lots of examples of "good transgression" in the post. I'm not saying the duty to defer to feelings should never be violated, just that it does exist.

s. wallerstein said...

Peter: The analogy of Native-American remains is forced. We all agreed to begin with that funerals (and cementeries) are off-limits, that they form a special category that no one should touch or desecrate. That seems to be a human constant: respect for the dead and respect for funeral rites. Even Achilles, hardly a sensitive soul, yields Hector's corpse to Priam so that proper funeral rites can be held.

Ophelia Benson said...

but we have to give some weight to their feelings, just because they are their feelings.

I still think that's too sweeping. People have feelings about keeping 'their' women pure - or about keeping 'impure' people away - and so on. Of course you don't need to be told that. But I guess it's the 'just because they are their feelings' part I balk at. It depends on the kind of feelings.

As amos indicates - the funeral thing is pretty much absolute, I think. That's because it's connected to grief and loss of loved others - it's absolutely the most taboo thing there is. It would be every bit as taboo to make cruel unwelcome jokes at a funeral. All that is for good, compelling, obvious, shareable reasons. It's not even a tough call.

So in that sense it doesn't really stand for other things that aren't so obvious.

Peter said...


Fine, change it to something else that is extremely important that is not remains. I think that even if we're talking about something that in normal circumstances, is trivial (eg. a wafer), if that thing is essential to someone's sincerely held conception of the good then it's prima facie a very serious moral wrong if you try and procure such an object for desecration.

I'd also like to hear yours and Ophelia's grounds for respecting bones etc. They're just bones. I actually think it'd be very tricky to draw a moral boundary between Myers-consecrated-wafer and DeRose's Native American bones.

s. wallerstein said...

I don't agree that "it's prima facie a very serious moral wrong if you and procure such an object for desecration". I can't see it as a "very serious moral wrong". I have no respect for bones, by the way: I respect cementeries. I might even say that I respect cementeries that are in use, that are visited by those who remember the dead. If archeologists want to dig up an ancient Egyptian cementery (which is no longer visited by those who recall or revere the dead) and subject the bones to a series of complicated tests which will result in their destruction, I see no problem. In fact, unlike you, I see no problem in descrating objects which some people consider to be sacred: the wrong is not in desecrating something, but in the offense done to those who consider them to be sacred. Now, if in the privacy of my home, I use hosts as poker chips, that is my business. Regarding blogs, well, no one is forced to read my blog if it offends them: so I could publish photos (as Myers did) of hosts with a nail in them without doing any wrong. It would be different if Myers were to enter a mass and begin to play frisbee with the hosts. That is, in my space I define what is sacred; in the Church's space, they define what is sacred. Now, there may be exceptional reasons for me to invade the Church's space (for instance, they are committing human sacrifice) or for believers to invade my space, but normally, what I do with hosts in my space and whether they are valued or not is mine to determine, just as what the Church does with hosts in their space is theirs to determine.

Ophelia Benson said...

I don't respect bones. I didn't even say bones - I mentioned funerals. I don't respect bones; I don't mess with people's feelings about death and loved ones and funerals and loss. I don't feel much need to explain that - I think the reasons are obvious.

I agree with amos about the object.

How about a different kind of object - say a ring or a hat that someone treasures because it belonged to a lost friend or sibling or parent. I would never mess with such a thing, and I would go to a lot of trouble to retrieve it if it fell into a river or a garbage can or similar (supposing me in a position to retrive it and its owner not). I would do the same for a child's binky - in fact I did once, when I was a zookeeper and I encountered a parent with a heart-broken crying child near the Savanna exhibit. I stopped and inquired - binky had been dropped into the exhibit. Well obviously I assured the child that binky would be safe, and I went and chased up the right keeper and she and I got a rake or something and scooped it out.

But if PZ gave me something he told me was a 'host' would I be perturbed, would I feel obliged to return it to the nearest Catholic church? No.

Peter said...

I agree with Amos' and Ophelia's comments about people's feelings that do the work, not the objects themselves. I should've made myself clearer.

Ophelia, I think you're underestimating the extent to which (some) Catholics care about the Eucharist. A consecrated communion wafer, given in good faith with the expectation that a particular ritual will be performed, really is important to them (in the same way a sacred rock might be important to another group of people). It doesn't seem so different to the treasured ring or the child's toy to me. Indeed, I'd probably put it in the same category as the ring.

If it's people's feelings that are doing the work, as Amos suggests, then there really is no distinction between the consecrated wafer and the ring or binky, so far as I can see. There can only be a difference if you think the rationality of the emotional attachment is important (maybe it'd be claimed that the religious are violating some sort of epistemic obligation, whereas the child with her toy is not). But if that's right, then it's not people's feelings that are doing all the work.

s. wallerstein said...

Let's put the eucharist in the same category as the child's toy.
No decent person is going to break the child's toy or even a similar toy (a Barney doll or whatever the latest doll is) in a child's presence. However, if I dedicate a blog to bashing Barney (I'm not up-to-date on toys), I may be adolescent or even childish, but I haven't done anything wrong or immoral. There must be several million (or hundreds of thousands) of blogs: so if PZ Myers dedicates his blog to trashing eucharists (I dedicate mine, ironically, to remembering a dead loved one), people who consider a host to be sacred can click on another website.

Peter said...

There's a distinction between a generic Barney toy and a Barney toy that belongs to a particular child (and hence holds special significance). I think the Eucharist is more like the particular Barney toy. Catholics don't care about unconsecrated communion wafers, because they're just wafers. They care about particular wafers - in this case the consecrated ones that PZ Myers has gone out of his way to procure.

It is true that those who don't like Myers etc are free to read another website. But Myers' blog isn't small - it gets several *million* hits per day. And, it is reasonable to assume that plenty of Catholics, even if they don't read Myers' blog, will hear of his desecration. Myers knows this. Indeed, that's the point of this latest stunt. He actively wants Catholics to know. So, it's more like procuring a particular Barney toy (say, one that belongs to Jenny, that she cares about very much), ripping it to shreds, and then making sure Jenny knows what you've done. That looks morally suspect to me.

s. wallerstein said...

Peter: Yes, there may be some kind of conscious or unconscious sadism behind Myers' destruction of eucharists, but then again, those millions of people who hit on his site daily (according to your figures) are not just philosophical atheists: they include lots of people who want to be shocked or to be outraged by Myers' transgressions. There are lots and lots of sites which offend me (I'm a very moralistic person in my own way), but I avoid them. Lots of people feed on outrage, and Myers serves the meal.

Jean Kazez said...

Let's see--while I was busy watching a movie, everyone seems to have moved on. Possibly (?) the consensus is that funerals are a special case because the bereaved are very upset. So--we should defer to their cares and do things we personally might consider silly, but that's just because they're upset. We don't have to defer to the cares of the religious, because they aren't in that special category of the grieving.

I would just say that that makes Peter's example of Native American feelings about bones very helpful. Those people aren't grieving, so it's not a matter of trying to show extra sensitivity to people at special times. They just care about something deeply--and that seems to be at least some reason for everyone else to be accommodating.

Actually, there are lots of very trivial examples like this. If you go to a fancy event like a symphony, you might think it's silly to put on special clothes, but out of deference for the cares of other people, you do it.

Likewise with the cares of religious people--it seems there's a prima facie duty to respect them, even if we personally think they're silly. Again, it's really important to emphasize that this is just a prima facie duty. So transgressions are sometimes OK.

One of the reasons I like this way of thinking about things is that it captures an important thing about anti-religious commentary and humor. Even when it's legitimate and defensible, it feels transgressive--that seems to be what makes it exciting and provocative.

Ophelia Benson said...

There's a distinction between a generic Barney toy and a Barney toy that belongs to a particular child (and hence holds special significance). I think the Eucharist is more like the particular Barney toy. Catholics don't care about unconsecrated communion wafers, because they're just wafers. They care about particular wafers - in this case the consecrated ones that PZ Myers has gone out of his way to procure.

I think precisely the opposite – I think ‘the eucharist’ is more like the generic Barney toy. After all, there must be millions of them at any one time – they are obviously about as generic as it gets. The equivalent of a Barney toy would be (at most – because the element of attachment over time is missing) the one ‘eucharist’ given to a particular person. Sorry, but I just can’t sympathize with Catholics caring so much about all the millions of ‘consecrated’ wafers so much that PZ’s action (given the motivation for it) is a real violation of important feelings. I certainly don’t think it’s ‘a very serious moral wrong.’ I think the outrage is worked up.

For that matter, all the supposed special feeling about the ‘eucharist’ is also worked up. It’s not the same kind of thing as people’s love for other people and sentiment about things connected to them, or as a child’s love for a personified toy or other object (like a blanket). I can accept that it’s important in some sense, and that one shouldn’t mess with it for no reason – but I think there’s a mixture of pomposity and self-deception in trying to claim that it has the same moral standing as these more visceral, needy kinds of love.

(The issue of Native American remains is hugely complicated by history, and it’s also not completely a slam-dunk – cf. Kennewick Man. It’s too complicated by other factors to be a good analogy to either funerals or the ‘eucharist.’)

Ophelia Benson said...

Actually, there are lots of very trivial examples like this. If you go to a fancy event like a symphony, you might think it's silly to put on special clothes, but out of deference for the cares of other people, you do it.

Except of course when you don't.

I just don't think it's possible to erect this kind of thing into a general principle, when so often the exact opposite is the case. That looks like some kind of overarching Rule of Conformity, and do we really want such a thing? I don't! Conformity is exactly the kind of thing that's hard-to-impossible to make binding rules about - because it always depends. Conformity to norms about not airing racist views, good. Conformity to norms about excluding gays, not good. Conformity is a case by case kind of thing, and so is paying attention to the things that people 'care deeply' about - because people can so easily 'care deeply' about awful things. The mob outside Little Rock High School cared deeply.

I don't think the symphony example works at all, because there's a whole range of possible thoughts. You might think it's silly to put on special clothes but do it anyway for all sorts of reasons, including enjoying the sense of specialness and festivity - or you might think it's silly and not do it anyway, because (for instance) you're pretty sure it's not nearly important enough to anyone to trump that thought. (That seems to be how it works in Seattle, at least - there's a huge range of what people wear, though I think it mostly doesn't include shorts or sweats or dirt - I think everyone aims at some minimal standard - and it always seems to me that everyone's happy with that. The glam rub shoulders with the relatively casual, they kind of share the advantages of each - the glam feel relaxed, the casual feel festive - and that's how it is. That's just an intuition of course - but then presumably so is your idea that the cares of other people are straightforwardly in the direction of Everyone Should Put On Special Clothes.)

s. wallerstein said...

Not owning any special clothes, not having put on a tie in 30 years, not having any pants except jeans (some in more mint conditions than others), I for one don't see that dressing up is part of respecting others. I go to a concert to listen to music and I suppose that others do too. If others go to a concert to see a fashion show, they're in the wrong place.

Jean Kazez said...

I think the point of all these different examples is merely to show there's a general duty to care about other people's cares.... that's all. It's just a prima facie duty, so overridable. So this is really a very weak thing to say.

To be clear: I'm not not making an argument by analogy, as in--the funeral procession case is exactly like the communion wafer case, so therefore PZ is just like someone who ignores a funeral procession. It's just the basic underlying duty to be concerned about other people's (possibly silly) cares that's similar.

I think you're probably right that some of the caring in the wafer case is not naturally existing, but hyped up for purposes of protest. As to the clothing example...

Well OK, it does seem weird to think Everyone Should Put on Special Clothes. But hey, "prima facie" helps. The point is just that other people's cares do count. They should be given some weight in your decision making.

You say I'm promoting a Rule of Conformity, but it could just as easily be called a Rule of Care. You ought to care about other people's cares, if only to the degree that you take them into consideration. That's all.

What worries me about PZ is that he seems to be putting people's religious cares in a "I don't have to care at all" box. Plus, he seems to think there's something unique about situations involving religion--as if these were the only cases where there's an expectation that we should care about other people's (possibly silly) cares.

s. wallerstein said...

Not respecting others in a concert would involve talking loudly or eating popcorn, not wearing simple clothes.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, It sounds like you're making up your mind about that a priori, and without taking into account what other people actually care about or feel. How can that possibly be respectful?

s. wallerstein said...

There are certain reasonable expectations that one can have about others. One reasonable expectation is that making noise in a concert will be bothersome and show a lack of respect for the desire of others to hear the music. I can't go through life taking into account all of people's hangups, tastes in clothes (most of them imposed by the fashion industry) and prejudices. Life is too short for that. Since a concert is a place where music is performed, I should respect the desire to hear music.

Ophelia Benson said...

I don't know, Jean - the clearer we get about what this entails, the less it seems to me that PZ is any different. I think he thinks it depends too. He may well draw the line in different places, but I doubt he would say we should never care.

s. wallerstein said...

We all seem to agree that everyone has legitimate needs which we should respect: for example, Jean's funeral or Ophelia's toy.
What we see as a legitimate need depends on our vision of what is a good life. For me, listening to music in silence is a legitimate need, while making others go to a concert with special clothes is not a legitimate need, but one imposed by the fashion industry, with the end of increasing sales.
Now, for Mr. Myers, respect for consacrated hosts is not a legitimate need, but one inculcated by the Catholic Church. We have no obligation to respect the illegimate needs of others. I'm beginning to sympathize with Mr. Myers for the first time.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, That's not how I'd summarize my own view..

Ophelia, Here's this morning's fantasy. There needs to be a book in the philosophy and pop culture series called "Pharyngula and Philosophy" (estimated sales in the 100s--wow!). I'm going to contribute an essay called "Nietzsche and PZ Myers." In it I will argue that PZ has a sort of gleeful disregard for "lower types" with their idiotic religious ideas, just like Nietzsche does. There will be parallel quotes, etc. Wouldn't it be an amusing volume? Wanna contribute?

s. wallerstein said...

I'm not Ophelia, as is evident, but the difference between Myers and Nietzsche is that Nietzsche considers lower types to be the product of what he calls "physiology" and thus, incapable of living a higher life. Perhaps Nietzsche's constant moralizing and preaching in some way contradict his idea that what one is is fixed by physiology, but in any case, the new atheists, as I read them, seem to believe that religious stupidity is the product of education and that it is necessary to open people's eyes. The idea that people do not understand their true wants and needs seems to be a constant in Western philosophy from Plato's myth of the cave to Marx's concept of false consciousness to 20th century concepts of alienation.

Ophelia Benson said...

Hahaha - sure, Jean - I'll do Mill and Myers.

Meanwhile, if we're all heeding other people's deep feelings, here's one of mine: profound loathing of being forced to overhear other people's telephonic intimacies in public places (if I've accidentally stumbled into their living room I can't very well complain). That's one that gets zero respect!

Jeff Chamberlain said...

"It's just the basic underlying duty to be concerned about other people's (possibly silly) cares that's similar."

What if those "cares" are bad, or dangerous, and not just "silly?"

Josh Slocum said...

Jean, I'd really like to return to the "cracker incident." I don't think you've paid sufficient attention to the backstory that motivated it (I know that you think you have, but you really haven't).

You're making a case that there should be a prima facie rule not to casually disrespect other peoples feelings. Let's stipulate, for argument's sake, that we agree on that. You write,

You can violate the duty, if you have a good enough reason.

Yes! Absolutely. Very reasonable, and I think most of us would agree with it.

That's why it frustrates me that you appear to be taking pains to avoid applying that standard in the cracker incident. Jean, Webster Cook got death threats from some Catholics. That's really important. That's really salient. That's the whole nub of it right there.

PZ's outrage (and though he's capable of hyperbolic posturing, I think this was real) and subsequent "desecration" was sparked by that. If that is not an example of a good reason to transgress your prima facie rule, I can't imagine what is. I really think that you'd agree with that (though I might be wrong), but please address this directly in any case. Honest conversation insists that it be addressed, because it goes to the very point that you're arguing pretty persuasively above.

Something else is at play here, I think, for all of us - those more inclined to like or approve of outrageousness and those who are not. We have emotional biases that cause us to too reflexively defend critics of the position we don't like, and to too reflexively fail to give our "opponents" the credit that intellectual honesty and consistency demand.

I'll cop to that. My bias is toward more "PZ-style" rhetoric. I have actual reasons, too, but I'll admit an emotional investment in that style triggers a reflexive defense of it. I have to watch that, I have to take extra pains to try to be dispassionate because of that. And I don't always succeed.

But you, too, have these biases, and you, too, have an obligation to reflect on them. I don't mean this provocatively (truly and honestly), Jean, but I think you have an emotional bias in favor of the sort of positions M&K take, and it causes you to overlook or avoid shortcomings in their position. I think it causes you to spend a lot of time talking around the cracker incident, and failing to address the starkest elephant in the room - that reacting against religious death threat is perhaps the best example of a "good reason" to violate your prima facie rule. It's hard not to get very, very frustrated with that, Jean, because you're a serious person, a smart person, and a reflective person.

As respectfully as I can, I'm asking you to own up to a bias and consider how it may be compromising your objectivity, even when it comes to your own formulations. I'm not accusing you of anything but being human - this happens to all of us.

Peter said...


You have no evidence at all that the outrage over the consecrated communion wafer was just faux outrage or "worked up". It was genuine outrage. Keith DeRose (a reasonable man) genuinely thought that PZ Myers was committing a serious moral wrong. Was he just pretending? Give your opponents some credit.

Josh Slocum,

Like Ophelia, I'd be in favour of some defeasible commitment to not offending people etc. You think that in the consecrated communion wafer case, the prima facie commitment was defeated. Fair enough. But why? After all ... Myers' desecration clearly didn't do any good. No Catholic has stopped believing in transubstantiation, and no Catholic has stopped partaking of the Eucharist because of what PZ Myers has done. On top of that, no crazy and immoral person who sends death threats will stop doing that.

PZ Myers did do some good. He expressed solidarity with Cook, and that's a good thing. But it's obvious that there are many ways of expressing solidarity with Cook that don't involve the offence or desecration. Given that, I don't think the prima facie rule can defeated in this case.

Peter said...


In the above post, for "Like Ophelia", read "Like Jean". My bad.

Jean Kazez said...


I don't see the point of getting into the issue of personal biases. It makes sense to think someone is unusually biased when they're being irrational. But then, to make the case, it really makes sense to focus on the irrationality. I fail to see any irrationality in my post (of course!).

As I said over at B&W, I'm not taking any position about the cracker incident in particular. I just have none. The post is about a more general issue. If I was forced to take a position about some PZ-item, I'd take a position on the passage I quoted. When he talks about Jesus getting hurt some more, it seems gratuitously offensive.


I think there's something to the point about faux rage. Are you sure Keith DeRose really had any feelings about the desecrated communion wafers? It sounded to me like he was concerned about other people's feelings. So then the question is about those feelings--how genuine were they? How strong? I wouldn't be surprised if there's some exaggeration in cases like this.

Jeff, I'm prepared to give weight to any cares and feelings, even when they're bad or dangerous. The thing is, the duty to consider them is just "prima facie." It's overridable. For example (re: Jon Stewart and the Catholic church), the cares and feelings of bigots do count, but we have to call them bigots anyway.

s. wallerstein said...

Peter: You might take a look here: http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/notescomment4.php?id=2969&numcomments=21

Ophelia Benson said...

Peter, I didn't say I did have evidence, and I said 'I think' the first time I suggested the outrage is worked up. I should have said 'I think' the second time too - consider it supplied retroactively.

But you just made quite a large factual assertion yourself, without any qualification. How do you know 'No Catholic has stopped believing in transubstantiation, and no Catholic has stopped partaking of the Eucharist because of what PZ Myers has done'? How would it even be possible to know that?

OB said...

I posted simultaneously with Jean there, by the way - that is, I hadn't read her reply when I wrote mine. Not that it makes any difference, just saying it's not cumulative in that sense.

Ophelia Benson said...


"As I said over at B&W, I'm not taking any position about the cracker incident in particular. I just have none. The post is about a more general issue."

But you are taking a position, actually - you take quite a strong position in your first two paragraphs. Look at them again - all that sarcasm - that's a position! "that predictably unleashed another round of accusations about the terribly, terribly unfair things he and Sheril Kirshenbaum said about PZ Myers in the infamous 8th chapter" - and so on. That's a position. You can't very well be convinced that M&K were not all that "terribly, terribly unfair" in what they said unless you have a position about what others - many many others - say they were unfair about. Or if you are, you shouldn't be. If you really don't know enough about the cracker incident to have a position on it - then surely you have no business being so dismissive about the accusations. On the basis of those first two paragraphs, I would decidedly not describe you as a neutral uninvolved observer who has no opinion about the cracker incident because she knows too little about it.

And then of course I read this post in the light of previous posts, as well as comments on the M&K blog (and Josh Rosenau's and others) and I'm sure so does Josh S. You have been very supportive of M&K and very sarcastic about their critics, here and also there, many times. Just the other day for instance, here - at the M&K blog -


"Chris, Maybe you should book at cheap hotels in Copenhagen and use the savings to hire a psychiatrist…not for yourself, but to look into the amount of intensity that surrounds this debate. I personally find it baffling as well as fascinating. What is going on here? Somebody really ought to delve into it."

If you really don't have a position on the cracker incident, because you don't know enough about it...How can you be so confident that you've been fair to both sides?

(We've talked about the 'intensity' here in the past, and I've tried to explain it, or some of it - it is indeed about things like the incomplete account of the cracker incident and the steady repeated refusal to correct it or to admit the misrepresentation in public or to stop making sweeping accusations in major media - etc etc etc. I don't think it's at all mysterious. I have a position on the cracker incident...but so do you.)

Faust said...

How many death threats did Webster Cook get?

1? 2? 10? 100? 1000?

Yes it makes a difference. 3 death threats is very different from 100 is very different from 300 is very different from 1,000.

Just curious if anyone knows the answer.

In any case in terms of justification is this the formula:

When X number of members of a different group make death threats against members of your group for a percieved transgression against one of their idols or icons, do you have good justification to repeat that transgression?

I wouldn't mind a general principle to apply in future cases.

OB said...


I don't think it does make much difference. I think the difference that counts is the difference between no death threats, and any death threats.

M&K didn't mention the efforts to get Cook expelled.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Peter: "PZ Myers did do some good. He expressed solidarity with Cook"

Well, he tried to anyway. The problem is that Myers effectively eclipsed Cook and looked less like he was doing a protest of Cook's mistreatment and more like he was doing something to offend Catholics for the sake of offending Catholics. His transgression ended up being largely useless except as a way of associating him and atheism with dickishness.

Jean Kazez said...

"But you are taking a position, actually - you take quite a strong position in your first two paragraphs. Look at them again - all that sarcasm - that's a position!"

Sure, I take a position in the first two paragraphs, but it's not a position on the legitimacy of PZ's wafer desecration. I don't have a position about that.

The position I take is about the ongoing accusations that M&K viciously misrepresented PZ Myers. I don't think so, and here are my two reasons--

First of all, they only used that one incident as a …quick way of painting a general picture of PZ Myers and Pharyngula. The general picture is accurate, as anyone can see by visiting Pharyngula on any random day. The picture is of a guy who gleefully expresses contempt for religion. Well, he does. There's piles of evidence that he does.

Secondly, their representation of the wafer incident strikes me as reasonably balanced. They do talk about the death threats against Webster Cook. So the reader can see that PZ had good reason to want to stage some sort of protest. Jason Rosenhouse complains that they quote Myers as calling believers "demented fuckwits," without making crystal clear he was talking about the people who addressed death threats to Webster Cook. OK, if that's correct then it would be better to have made that clear. Yet how much of a fuss is it worth?

Not much, I would say. It’s not true that PZ is really a restrained guy who would only call someone a demented fuckwit if they'd first issued a death threat. He has similarly scathing things to say about religious people in lots of his posts. He’s unapologetic about that.

For example, on October 28, the very day when Jason was complaining about how M&K misrepresented Myers in their book, Myers was writing about how he has some more communion wafers and Jesus is gonna get hurt some more. That was in response to Bill Donohue having complaints about the "Curb Your Enthusiasm" clip. No death threats.

As to my sarcasm and my sense of humor about psychiatry—I don’t see why religion critics should be the only ones who get to have some fun.

Josh Slocum said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jean Kazez said...

I have a comment policy. Either comply with it or don't comment here.

Ophelia Benson said...

But Jean, all that is a position - it all does include and partially depend on an evaluation of the cracker affair. It can't help it, because that's what M&K wrote about. You can't deliver an opinion about whether or not M&K misrepresented PZ in the cracker affair without having a position on the cracker affair - that makes no sense.

It may be true that PZ is unpologetic about having scathing things to say and all the rest of it, but that still doesn't make it okay to misrepresent one incident in order to make - or even while making - that claim. It's not scrupulous, it's not accurate, it's not fair - it's just no good. Again - I can't understand why you keep defending it - especially when you assure us that you have no bias on the subject.

I have no objection to sarcasm as such, my point was that it was evidence of having a position! I don't think that any less now...

Ophelia Benson said...

Let me try a little alteration in those first two paragraphs. Imagine it's October 2008 again...we've dropped in on Rush Limbaugh...

This week Sarah Palin talked again about palling around with terrorists, and that predictably unleashed another round of accusations about the terribly, terribly unfair things she said about Obama at her last rally. As you may recall, she told a story that made him seem utterly anti-American and irresponsible. She did refer to some real people and events, but she didn't mention that Obama was 7 years old at the time. Thus....thus, what? Did she make him look more anti-American and irresponsible than he really is? Or is it just that she doesn't get the Girl Scouts Award for pristine campaigning?

Whenever these accusations get rehearsed (and they've been rehearsed, and rehearsed, and rehearsed), I drop by at Obama's campaign site and see what's going on. Is Obama really anti-American and irresponsible? And what I find out, usually, is that the answer is yes. Plus, I find out that there are many Girl Scouts Awards he's not going to be getting any time soon. And so the whole brouhaha doesn't make much sense to me.


Does that sound any different?

Jean Kazez said...

This thread's about to wrap up, because the tone has changed. You've started to use all sorts of inflammatory language--"It's not scrupulous, it's not accurate, it's not fair - it's just no good. Again - I can't understand why you keep defending it - especially when you assure us that you have no bias on the subject."

That generates all sorts of tension that I find a waste of time and energy.

MouthAlmighty said...

Jean, why would you consider Ophelia's comments to be "inflammatory?" She was referring to C&K's behaviour. If you get inflamed by that, well... it kinda makes her point.

Jean Kazez said...

Ah, you're right. I read that too quickly. In any event, I just don't have time to respond to the arguments in the last couple of comments. I think my previous arguments are getting ignored, but I have to call it quits. Work, family, etc., need attention.

Ophelia Benson said...

Yes, I was definitely referring to M&K's reporting there; I should have added a pronoun or their names again to make that clearer, especially since it was a new paragraph.

Anyway I didn't ignore your arguments, Jean, I just don't agree with them!

Jean Kazez said...

My 2:03 pm arguments seem ignored by your subsequent points.

I think I've made a good case that the "dimwitted fuckwit" sentence is a very minor problem, if a problem at all. Thus your analogy can't possibly be valid. Thinking a tiny problem is no big deal is not like thinking one of Sarah Palin's huge blunders is no big deal.

As to thinking they have their facts right while withholding judgment about ethics, surely that's commonplace. I read lots of books that contain both factual reporting and moral analysis. I can like the reporting while still making up my mind about the moral analysis. It happens all the time.

Ophelia Benson said...

Ah - I didn't ignore your points, it's just that it would take so much detail to explain why I disagree, plus (as you say) we've been over the ground before - so I left them alone (having not ignored them first). You give M&K the benefit of the doubt throughout, and you give PZ whatever the opposite of the benefit of the doubt is - you understate M&K's omissions and overstate their accuracy (they don't "talk about the death threats against Webster Cook" - that's exactly what they don't do - they dismiss it as briefly and skeptically as possible, saying his removal of the wafer "spark[ed] a flurry of media coverage and even, apparently, some death threats. As the controversy escalated, Cook soon returned the wafer...") and at the same time you overstate PZ's contempt and you understate his overall seriousness. Anyone unfamiliar with Pharyngula would get the impression from what you said that contempt for religion is all that PZ does - which is very far from the truth! And then you conclude by asking how much of a fuss it's worth. Well I don't know, I don't know how to calibrate such things - but since they've never even admitted error, and since they continue to say very harshly critical things about "new" atheists - I certainly think it's worth some fuss. I certainly think it's worth not just shrugging off as if it doesn't matter. And I think what you say about all this indicates that you do indeed have a position, about all of it, including the cracker affair. (So that's why the judgment about the facts seems to be connected to the moral analysis.)

Jean Kazez said...

Honestly, I don't see the skepticism in that sentence. It just seems factual to me.

As to my having a position--really, I don't. Let me try to make that more believable. I don't have a position because I feel pulled between two positions. That happens to me a lot.

Position #1: What he did was wrong. Just because there are death threats against someone doesn't justify repeating the act that elicited the death threats. That original act certainly didn't warrant death threats, but I do think it was wrong. Nobody should be walking out of churches (and the like) with "other people's icons." So protests against the death threats should have taken another form. Bad, bad PZ.

Position #2: Can I sincerely disapprove, if I myself found his behavior amusing? I confess that I did. Plus, I do think it's important not to 100% defer to other people's views of the world. It shouldn't be taboo to openly say "it's just a cracker." That's a legitimate message! And what more effective way to send that message than to treat the wafer like "just cracker"? Bravo PZ!

Since I have each of these positions 50% of the time, they cancel each other out. Hence, I have no position.

Ophelia Benson said...

The skepticism is more obvious in the whole context (the whole two pages) - but there are various ways to say that something is reported, hearsay, not known to me first-hand, and 'apparently' is a pretty skeptical-sounding way of saying it.

Ahhhh, about the two positions canceling each other out - that's interesting - do you think that's really how it works? (The 50% of the time is very dubious, for one thing - can you be sure of that?!) I bet it isn't. I'm pretty sure that's not how it works with me. I think they're both there all the time and they just jostle each other. Sometimes one has more weight than the other - but I don't think it's generally a duck-rabbit. I think it's more like...what...just a tangle. And there's also the possibility that you estimate their equality incorrectly - it may be that one does convince you more than the other.

And in any case I think they don't cancel each other out, I think they remain two incompatible positions.

I suspect that I'm being a tad too literal here...

Nobody should be walking out of churches (and the like) with "other people's icons."

Hmmmmm. Nobody should be walking out of churches and the like with crosses or other shared icons and objects. But does that cover a communion wafer that is in fact one's own? Custom and ritual say it's for consumption on the premises, yes - but is X's communion wafer really everyone else's icon? I suppose that's up to other Catholics, but if that's the case, should we be concluding that it's wrong? I don't think so.

Jean Kazez said...

Right--50% wasn't really accurate. The two perspectives jostle with each other. I try to have just one and then the other butts in. Really--I've tried to just disapprove, but the fact that I am also laughing makes me think maybe I don't....not really, not entirely.

Taking wafers seems very naughty. Not quite like stealing the cross from behind the pulpit, but not a good thing to do. Call me old fashioned...

Ophelia Benson said...

Exactly; the other butts in. Maddening, sometimes. Other times more like The Richness of Life.

I can agree to naughty. Stuff done inside a church/temple/mosque is fraught. (That's one reason I'm afraid to set foot in the damn things!)

I was once between trains in Peterborough - wandered over to the cathedral and wandered in - there was not one other person there. I had the unusual experience of being able to bumble around in tourist mode without thinking I might accidentally blaspheme in some way. Weird though - magnificent cathedral - totally empty.

Peter said...

Apologies for not replying to some of the points raised in response to my comments earlier, I've had work on.

On the "faux outrage" point that Jean has some sympathy with:

I must admit, I can see (slightly) where you are coming from. After all, to me, a non-Catholic (and not even a Christian these days) getting het up about consecrated wafers does seem very strange. Ridiculous even. But then, I think a principle of charity (and I think that charity is an incredibly important philosophical virtue) would have us take the Catholics who were offended at their word. Fair enough if Ophelia or Jean or whomever don't want to extend that charity. But extending that charity is kind of a precondition of having this debate - if you don't extent the charity you're basically saying thar your opponents (who are just pretending, apparently, to be outraged) aren't worth talking to. That's no basis for a productive dialogue.

Back to the cracker. Ophelia wants to use property rights in order to justify what Cook did. "He was given the cracker, and so he can do what he want with it", so the argument goes. However, rights can be conditional. There is no incoherence in saying "I give you this consecrated wafer, provided you do X, Y and Z" with it. I think that's the sort of giving that's at work in Communion. You are given the consecrated wafer with the legitimate expectation that you will partake of Communion (outwardly, at least). If you aren't going to do so, you shouldn't accept the wafer.

s. wallerstein said...

Of course, a Christian, truly motivated by the principle of charity, instead of being outraged, would pray for the soul of Mr. Myers and forgive him.

Josh Slocum said...

Peter wrote,

"You are given the consecrated wafer with the legitimate expectation that you will partake of Communion (outwardly, at least). If you aren't going to do so, you shouldn't accept the wafer."

That may well be true, Peter, and I suspect many people here would concede that point - *except* for the fact that it was eclipsed in moral significance by the fact that Webster's Cook's actions (be they wholly innocent, naughty, rude, or unmannerly, take your pick) provoked death threats on his life.

That, to me, is the salient point. I find it frustrating that the conversation keeps coming back to what seems to be a hypothetical scenario, in a hypothetical world, sans death threats. That's not the world this incident actually occurred in. Good manners? Yes, I'm for them. Dwelling on etiquette when one offended party escalates to death threats? No, I can't. That's not justified, and it's not proportional.

Ophelia Benson said...

Ophelia wants to use property rights in order to justify what Cook did. "He was given the cracker, and so he can do what he want with it", so the argument goes.

No it doesn't. Come on. Principle of charity, wasn't it? That is obviously not what I meant. Jean said "other people's icons" and I was trying to tease out the meaning; I was suggesting that each person's wafer is just that (though not in a property rights sense for crying out loud - it's a gift, for one thing - and its giftness is part of the whole point - it's about as remote from property rights as it's possible to get) and so not "other people's icons" - more like one's own icon. (Again not in a property rights sense - more like that child's binky - which was just a tatty old blanket, but belonged to that child in a peculiar and particular way.)

And then I ended up saying that custom and ritual say it's for consumption on the premises, so I was explicitly not saying 'his to do whatever he liked with.' I was trying to think about it.

Property rights, indeed. Phooey.

Peter said...


Fair enough if I misinterpreted you, I apologise (though I did sincerely think you were trying to make an entitlements move).

(though I don't see how it's being a gift would invalidate a property rights view of it ...)

Ophelia Benson said...

Peter - that's all right; sorry my tone was crabby. I regretted that afterwards - so often the way.

(I don't necessarily think its being a gift would formally invalidate a property rights view of it, but I just wasn't thinking in those terms. At all. I do still think that is fairly obvious...)

Anyway. A harmonious finish all around.