Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Circling around the minefield, finding Dracula

Mostly I try to ignore the science vs religion debate in the blogosphere, because it really brings out the worst in people. Now the story about PZ and the communion wafers makes me deeply uneasy (actually really sad). The short version: there is this guy PZ Myers, a scientist with the interesting hobby to make a lot of noise about anything stupid that people say or do in the name of religion (well, actually I think he claims that it is religion itself that is stupid or makes people stupid). Now he reacted to some story involving bread from the communion by asking people to send him samples of the stuff so that he can desecrate it and post videos of it. I might have some detail wrong, but I'm not going to the sources to look into it because I think it would make me upset and destroy my day.

I agree that some people act a little bit strange, maybe even stupid, when it comes to threats to things that they hold holy. Also, sending PZ death threats is a very un-Christian thing to do (other humans should also be seen as sacred, and then there is this whole thing about loving the enemies...). This in itself makes me very sad, but his whole idea of deliberately demonstrating such utter disdain for other's ways of handling and thinking about the sacred is not only distasteful but deeply in-humanistic. I could also call it mean and childish.

About the meaning that communion can have for people I really recommend Take This Bread by Sarah Miles (thank you Elliot, for bringing this book to my attention!), a story that is perfectly readable also for people with no personal connection with any church.

This said, I have to comment on Dracula, the classic by Bram Stoker. In this book the heroes bring communion bread in enormous quantities, and they bury pieces in soil to make it unusable for vampires. I always wondered about that. Getting hold of some wafers is no problem, but not all wafers carry the vampire-smothering power: they need to be consecrated. This means that a priest has to perform a little ritual, involving the reading of the story of the first communion. The wafers that are left over after the ritual, those that are not eaten immediately, are usually locked in a little cabinet (the tabernacle in the church building, or otherwise in some other place, not accessible to the public). I have heard about people stealing consecrated bread for use in witchcraft, but as I understand it they did it by going to communion and then hiding the bread under the tongue until they left the church. How do you get hold of large quantities?

There might be some anglican priests who would do mass-consecration for use in vampire-hunts, but this is not mentionend in Dracula and I have never heard about it from anywhere. I picture a hidden chapel, with mass-production and a small staff of people packing the wafers for shipping together with vials of holy water (the water is usually much easier to find, but why pass on a good package deal?) and crucifixes. Buy the small vampire-package for home use, or the club pack to share with your friends when you travel to Transsylvania! And then little unconspicious ads in newspapers, sharing the space with mail-order companies selling hygienic underwear or pictures of ladies in costume.

Hmm. This is where blogging protocol requires me to write "I digress" and promise to stay on topic in the future. And actually, I really should bring my daughter to daycare now, and get to work.


Matt said...

I agree. The whole thing just makes me hurt.

If a person is an atheist and believes Jesus is dead and gone and doesn't care what happens to the wafer representing him, then there's no cosmic significance to defiling a piece of bread. But the same thing would be true about about defiling a dead person's grave with the family around to watch. The dead person might not care, but it's still a horribly puerile and antagonistic thing to do.

Magnus said...

This is the reason I stopped reading PZ's blog about a year ago or so (and actually didn't know about this whole affair until now). Now, I'm a staunch atheist by most people's standards, but I have to agree with MarkCC that PZ is being an asshole, and quite frankly I'm not surprised. PZ writes (or did when I read his blog) very nicely about evolutionary biology, and as long as he sticks to the science, his blog is an enjoyable read. Unfortunately the science posts are almost an exception on his blog, which is supposed to be a science blog, after all. He spends considerable time writing inane, stupid and deliberatly provocative posts about politics and religion, where he basically writes off anyone who isn't a die-hard atheist and far left-wing liberal as simply stupid (and he never even bothers to try to argue his point in a way that would convince anyone other than those who already agree). And when he doesn't do that, he writes a lot about trivialities like having arrived and had lunch at Podunk University.

So what's the significance of this? In short, there are far too many PZ Myers in the so-called sceptical movements, and it spills off on everyone who tries to promote science as opposed to pseudoscience and quackery.

I was remided of this when I listened to podcast short story Those Eyes on Escape Pod the other day. The story isn't fantastic, but it does bring up this important point, and it is expanded upon at the end of the show, after the story itself.

Aaron said...

Coincidentally, I just read Dracula, and enjoyed it very much! If you read the part where van Helsing is sealing up the tomb again, you'll find that the other vampire hunters are as surprised as you are when van Helsing busts out the wafers. Van Helsing explains that he has an indulgence from church officials in his native Amsterdam, which is where he brought the wafers from.

Elliot said...

Good post! I liked how you brought these topics together. The idea of the obscure anti-vampire ads in newspapers is great! :-)

I'm very glad you liked Miles' book. She's a very gifted writer.

Have I also recommended "Gilead," the recent novel by Marilynne Robinson? Very well written, and lots of insight into the way religious concepts and ideals filter through into every-day experience. And in the non-fiction category, I just read "The Year of Living Biblically," by A.J. Jacobs, an agnostic. Very funny stuff, and a great mixture of irreverence & reverence in grappling with the Bible.

I also remember being impressed and a little baffled when van Helsing busted out those wafers. The way I remembered it, he had an indulgence, not just from the church authorities, from the Pope. Maybe I assumed indulgences had to come from the Pope. Which I thought was pretty hardcore, laying a papal smackdown on the undead.

I think the questions you raise point to a literary problem, though. In a sacramental Christian culture, it made at least some sense that unnatural/unholy creatures would be banished or afflicted by holy sacraments. So with those assumptions it works OK as a literary device representing the power of goodness and holiness. But making the holy power so dependent on this technical action begins to create many awkward questions. Say, why would God permit such unnatural creatures to exist at all? Or what is the effective range of the wafer's anti-vampire action?

The problem, I think, from a literary point of view, is that depicting that symbolic action in an overly literal fashion makes it into just another technical solution, which drains it of its symbolic meaning. Like, exactly how many mega-watts or hit points of holy fire did Gandalf have to emit in order to stop the Balrog? In story terms, his self-sacrifice was what really mattered. I think the first Exorcist movie was playing with these questions, since in the end it's not technical religious ritual that saves the day, but an act of (Christ-like) self-sacrifice.

Anyways. This whole thing reminds me of the album I've been listening to lately. The cover features a self-proclaimed scientist and his Rastafarian friends using the sheer power of reggae music to banish vampires and their horror-movie compatriots: http://members.shaw.ca/dublp3/scientistridstheworldA.JPG

Åka said...

Aha, thanks for the explanation! I must have read that part too quickly, because I never saw any explanation for the wafers. I had also forgotten (it was about four years since I read the book) that van Helsing was from Amsterdam, and not from England.

The Year of Living Biblically is good, indeed. I gave it to my husband for Christmas, and he laughed a lot! I haven't read it yet, more than a few paragraphs, but I like the whole absurdity of it.

Brandon said...

For those who are interested, this post at a Catholic blog discusses Van Helsing's use of the Host from a Catholic perspective.

Daisy said...

Some time ago, I was being roasted alive on Pharyngula, being called all kinds of classist, sexist epithets. I even wrote a post about it, since the harassment continued for awhile. Examples of the insults: I'm just another low-class southerner who likes to make babies with my brother; white trash like me exist merely to clean the toilets of the high-class scientists on Pharyngula; "nasty as mammy" (whatever that means); and my personal favorite, "nipple rubbing herbalist."

During this brawl, I asked PZ by email if he was going to intervene, or what? Mind you, I was consistently civil in my arguments and never said anything out of line or obscene at all.

PZM wrote me back that all believers take their chances on Pharyngula, and basically, that I deserved whatever I got for showing up there and daring to argue.

Wow. And I had believed he was a civilized person. This showed me that he is simply a swine, and doesn't care about social justice. Haul out the industrial-strength classism and sexism, and if it drives me away--well then, mission accomplished! YES! There is no question he personally approved of the treatment I received, and basically told me as much.

And of course, by driving me away, the Pharyngula groupies can continue patting each other on the back and telling each other how wonderful they are for being atheists. (You call that a discussion?)

In short, I submit that PZ Myers simply has no respect for believers, or probably anyone else who doesn't think exactly like he does. Any atheist who thinks those insults properly represent his side, or any other side in an argument, is a pig and sorry to be so blunt about it. But I would certainly never permit those kinds of insults on MY site, and I don't care WHO such remarks are addressed to. Such language directed at people is simply not acceptable. But it is to Myers, and he told me so himself.

And so, I ask: what did you expect from him? He just wants to get his name in the paper with Richard Dawkins. And who cares how many old white trash mamas (another insult directed at me that he endorsed) have to be made examples of in the process. OF COURSE he will offend as many people as he can. That's part of the Big Blogger fame-game he is playing.

If this is what atheism leads to, no wonder they have such bad public relations. They're some nasty pieces of work. They will not make the world a better place.

Part of the problem, people, not the solution.

And "death threats"? Oh gollee gee, my goodness gracious. Question: Why didn't anyone mind when I was threatened by email by deranged groupies from HIS site? Oh yeah, he's important and I'm just a white trash mama who deserves to be taken down a notch.

Speaking of class, the fact that so many of you seemed "pained" that this is happening... shows me that Myers may have spoken to you with respect at some point. Keep in mind, we all don't have that privilege, and he thinks SOME people are expendable and laughable. If this is the world he wants to create with his (ha!) "progressive" ways, I daresay us poor white trash will pointedly NOT be included. Gulag? Firing squad? Re-education camps? I figure it will be something like that...

And thank you for letting me vent here. Aside from mentioning this event twice on my blog (and, it should be noted, earning the Redneck Blogging Award for my performance, which is at least worth something!) I have been too ashamed and silenced to mention this incident publicly anywhere else except on a private email list. Those insults hurt, as they were meant to. I would never go to Pharyngula again, and I am always very careful in posting on any blog that links to that site. It quietly lets me know: we hate white trash and approve of ridiculing poor people.

See, when I see the word PHARYNGULA I don't even think "atheist" anymore, I think "high class scientists who hate poor people"... which is what he and his site really are.

This little stunt is another way to collect emails from "dumb" (probably poor and uneducated) believers, so he can make fun of them publicly. That's all it is.

monster paperbag said...

I agree with Elliott. Gilead is simply profound.