28 July 2008

Of course there's a double standard!

Bilbo has become a regular commenter here, and he is a very welcome addition. He is a semi-regular contributor to the ID blog Telic Thoughts, and I've had the pleasure of meeting him in person. A layman who is willing to acknowledge his limited understanding of evolutionary science, he's thoughtful and direct.

I'll address his comments and questions regarding Michael Behe's The Edge of Evolution in a separate post. Here I'll tackle his peevish accusation that I employ a double standard when I lambaste the punk Dembski but (allegedly) give a pass to the Atheist Ayatollah PZ Myers. The reference is to Crackergate, the brouhaha surrounding Myers' effort to desecrate a Roman Catholic communion wafer. (Greg Laden put together some good links, and the good folks at the Boar's Head Tavern are discussing the saga and its recent conclusion.)

First, it's not true that I haven't been critical of Myers' behavior. Over at Clashing Culture, where I blog on science and belief with three others, Mike (who also blogs at Tangled Up in Blue Guy) started a discussion of the then-unfolding dustup, focusing on the juxtaposition of Myers' offense with the death threats he subsequently received (one of which cost someone her job). The ensuing conversation was quite interesting, I thought, and included three comments by me. I didn't re-post them here, for various reasons, and I don't think it's necessary to do that (in full) now, especially since some of the references to other comments will be confusing. Instead, I'll just summarize with some excerpts.

On why PZ's "desecration" is not mere "criticism" or even "ridicule":

If PZ’s behavior is notable at all, it isn’t notable for being critical or dismissive of the beliefs of others. In fact, I would be opposed to an ethos that discouraged the critical appraisal of “beliefs” or that considered any kind of “desecration” to be somehow anti-social or hate-inspired. Some of the things I believe are nothing short of outrageous in the eyes of certain other kinds of believers. No, there’s nothing notable about attacking religious belief.

What would make PZ’s statements disturbing would be if it was apparent that he wasn’t aiming to attack or criticize ideas – or at least not solely intending such – but was plainly hoping to hurt people. [...] I’m afraid that I found PZ’s words to look too much like hate, too much like the kind of thing that is specifically and solely intended to cause harm. That the harm is not physical in nature is only relevant when comparing it to, say, a death threat...

It’s a fact that PZ’s denunciations occasionally veer into territory that is reasonably construed as hate speech, and his lusty participation in the Culture War (TM) necessarily leads him into questionable conduct. Truth, after all, is the first casualty of war, and Crackergate is incomprehensible outside the framework of Total Culture War.

On why mere unbelief can't justify desecration:

What’s worse, a death threat or a desecration threat? The answer is obvious, but the question is a lot more interesting than it appears, because (in this crowd, so far) the combination of transubstantiation and sanctification of mass-produced wafers is considered to be ludicrous. [...]

But let’s change the sacred cow, and see what happens. Let’s try a picture of Dr. King, or an account of his legacy, or a transcript of the “I Have a Dream” speech, and let’s do our desecration on his birthday, on the spot where he was assassinated. Or let’s try a Holocaust memorial, or a Jewish graveyard in Poland. Don’t worry: we’ll use water-based spraypaint for the swastikas so the desecration will be temporary. And of course no one will be injured. Can you think of anything else? I sure can.

On why, specifically, I thought PZ's stunt was reprehensible:
...my problem is with the occasional lapse into something more plainly destructive. PZ’s proposed desecration was not designed to “ridicule” an idea. It was meant to enrage, to hurt, to do damage. It wasn’t merciless criticism. It was hate. It wasn’t aimed at an idea. It was aimed at Catholics. People.

Now, for the record, I’m a Christian and I think transubstantiation is codswallop. I think it’s incorrect, and I could even explain why I think it might be a non-innocuous incorrect belief. If I had the time or inclination, I could write a lot of things about the Catholic eucharist that would be scandalous at best in the eyes of a good Catholic. If I was in a bad mood, I might ridicule the idea - I certainly don’t give it high regard.

None of those things, in my view, is even comparable to the stunt that PZ was discussing.

Mike, the vast majority of PZ’s brutal criticisms of religion are legit. They’re the kind of bare-knuckled roughing-up of ideas that I think is not just tolerable, but welcome. But every now and then, he steps in it. It’s one of the hazards of Culture War. The only way to win…is not to play.

So yes, Bilbo, I did condemn PZ's actions, and I was quite specific about why. I should add that PZ's recent post in which he announces the "desecration" (and shows the results) is worth reading. The desecration, in my opinion, was unnecessary and ultimately contemptible. But Myers' commentary is illuminating. As I've said before, the critiques and attacks of the New Atheists are good for the church.

But much more importantly, I assert that it doesn't matter whether I ever said boo about Crackergate. Because Bilbo, there is indeed a double standard, and the moral distinction I see between Pharyngula and Uncommon Descent is hard to exaggerate. (Not to mention the scientific difference: Myers has recently posted superb summaries of snake segmental development and evolution, and of epigenetics; UD just put up a hilarious pseudonymous post in which the writer extrapolates from a misattributed abstract about fruit fly gene formation to a calculation about how "man" could have "evolved from the monkey." Just posting the link is savage mockery.) Briefly:
  1. As DarwinCatholic has already noted, the bloggers at UD are largely (if not exclusively) Christian, and Dembski is a professor at a Baptist seminary. These folks aren't just Christians; they're public Christians and apologists. PZ Myers is an atheist. Does anyone need a list of proof texts for why I think Christians should be held to higher – much higher – moral standards than pagans?
  2. The sickest crap at UD isn't the usual dishonesty and shoddy pseudoscholarship. It's the religious propaganda, a toxic mix of normal everyday bullshit (about "Darwinism") and the pearls of our lives as Christians: scripture, our confessions, even the name of Jesus, the chief cornerstone. What's worse, I ask: Myers' desecration of a piece of matter that he reckons a mere cracker, or Bill Dembski's malicious use of Christ as a lame polemical device? I'm sure you already know where I stand.
Uncommon Descent is a moral cesspool, a festering intellectual ghetto that intoxicates and degrades its inhabitants. Kudos to you, Bilbo, for denouncing Dembski's idiotic post, but let's have no more talk of "double standards" when it comes to criticism of the ID movement's pervasive pathology. I'll see you at Telic Thoughts.

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