(x-posted on Skepchick)
I really wanted to give one final comment on the whole PZ vs. the Cracker debacle, and then I decided I wouldn’t because the whole thing just annoys me to no end and has been beaten into the ground. Then at the last second I changed my mind again. Here we go.
The reason why it’s still on my mind is because we talked about it on the most recent episode of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, prompting a flurry of activity on the message board and in our in-boxes. In our discussion of the topic, we basically reported the facts (boy takes eucharist out of church, some Catholics freak out, PZ offers to desecrate the eucharist to prove it’s just a cracker, some Catholics freak out even more and physically threaten him) and added our commentary about how we all agree that some of the Catholics in question really did totally overreact.
The responses we’ve received fall into two basic categories:
wtf: Most people seem to think the whole thing is funny, and it’s just a cracker, and let’s all just calm down. I happen to agree.
omgrude: Some people have written to us (or on the message board) to tell the world they think PZ is rude. Most start with, “I’m not a Catholic but . . . ” and go on to say it’s just rude to go out of your way to piss off a bunch of hardcore theists. I agree, it is rude, and also sometimes necessary. But, I understand why some people find it not to their tastes.
A percentage of the omgrude crowd is upset because they do not think PZ’s words help further the skeptical movement because he won’t convince any of the hardcore group that they are crazy. I agree that he probably won’t convince many true believers, but I disagree that he doesn’t help rational people. Just about any time someone dares to point out the absurdity of irrational thinking, he does a great service to many other rational thinkers who were too scared or unsure to say so themselves.
Did Trey Parker and Matt Stone convince any true believers when they called John Edward the Biggest Douche in the Universe? Probably not many, but I bet they influenced a lot of young people who might have been on the fence. There’s no one right way to communicate skepticism, and for every Trey & Matt we need a Carl Sagan. For every PZ, we need a Julia Sweeney or a Hemant. If one isn’t to your taste, you’re free to ignore him, but it’s short-sighted to claim that person is hindering the “skeptical movement” just because he’s not your bag.
My point in all this is that there are several legitimate ways to disagree with the way I and my fellow skeptics feel about the whole deal. What really annoys me, though, are the (few) people who have written to us to tell us that we have no right at all to mock the beliefs of these Catholics. Here’s just a portion of one we got the other day:
I just endured ten minutes of you mocking a belief that, I assure you, is not solely held by “fanatical Catholics.” The (admittedly) irrational belief in Transubstantiation is ingrained and at the heart of our faith. . . . It was not pleasant to hear a group of normally irreverent-but-humorous skeptics whom I have come to enjoy engage in deliberate mocking of my faith for an extended period.
I had to read the full email several times, because I just could not comprehend it. I understand and happily accept that many readers of this site and listeners of the podcast are theists, but I suppose I always assumed that they were the most rational kind possible. People who pare away all the testable claims their particular brand of religion makes, ending up with a fuzzy, generic kind of belief in something bigger than us that cannot be tested. That’s okay with me — I have plenty of good friends and family who are into that. On Skepchick, we have people who disagree on the existence of gods, the efficacy of organic farming, the value of libertarianism, and I love that they all are are open to having their beliefs challenged.
I figured that if anyone who is a regular listener or reader holds on to an irrational belief, once it is pointed out to them they examine it critically and give it up if necessary. If they accept that their belief goes against all reason and want to keep it anyway, they could at least have the good sense to gloss over criticisms and not get involved in discussions about it.
But to admit that you hold a provably irrational belief and then to get upset when rational people joke about it on a podcast that regularly features rational people joking about irrational beliefs? That blows my mind. I can’t even understand how someone could seem so normal and yet blatantly ask that we give his weird belief special treatment. Hell, I could at least start to understand had his argument been that we should avoid tackling that weird belief because it’s so widely held (I’d still disagree, but I’d get it) . . . but no.
It’s the email quoted above that finally convinced me to write just one more time about this topic. That email convinced me that on the podcast, where we pretty much just gave an overview of what happened, we didn’t spend nearly enough time mocking the belief in transubstantiation. I’d like to correct that right now.
Transubstantiation is a ridiculous claim. Basically, the idea is that during communion, bread and wine literally become the flesh and blood of Jesus even though to all appearances it still seems awfully bready and winey. These days, “to all appearances” seems to mean that even if we put someone in an FMRI while he chows down on Jesus, we won’t be able to tell that he’s eating anything other than bread and wine. His system will digest these items at exactly the same pace as any other bread and wine, and in a few hours he will pee and poop substances that don’t look in the least bit Christ-like. But it’s still Christ! Gosh, that sounds an awful lot like every pseudoscientific claim in which the effect disappears when under a microscope because “science can’t detect it!!!” like Chi or homeopathy or The Secret or dowsing or psychic kangaroos (I made that one up but I bet someone, somewhere believes it).
You probably think that there’s no evidence for transubstantiation, but you’re wrong. See, at the Last Supper, Jesus handed his guests some bread and said, “This is my body,” and then handed them some wine and said, “This is my blood.” Had Jesus sang “I’m a Little Teapot,” then today we’d see Catholics worldwide carefully choosing communion vessels of appropriate height and stoutness, ensuring that each one has both handle and spout for the dispensing of His Holy Oolong. Metaphor: not the fundamentalist’s strong suit.
To anyone who wasn’t raised believing something like that, it’s obviously total BS. To people who are raised believing that junk, it might take them some time to mull it over before seeing that it’s total BS. Like the emailer I quoted above, it might not be pleasant to realize that your specific paranormal claim is not off limits just because it falls within the bounds of your religion. If you enjoy laughing along with us when we’re talking about other silly paranormal claims, I hope you learn to accept the fact that one day we might just spend ten minutes talking about your paranormal claim. If you can’t handle that, I suggest you find a more reverent group of people to entertain you.