When P.Z. Myers decides to take on religion, there are no sacred cows.
Myers is a biologist at the University of Minnesota at Morris who has a national following for Pharyngula, the blog on which he regularly exposes and lambastes efforts by creationists to undermine the teaching of evolution. A few weeks ago, he wrote a blog entry in which he defended a University of Central Florida student who protested the presence of religious groups on his campus by taking a Eucharist -- the small wafer blessed in Roman Catholic services and then seen as the body of Christ -- and removing it from the service rather than consuming it. Myers, in an entry entitled "It's a Frackin' Cracker" -- questioned why this was such a big deal.
Ever since, Myers and his university have been bombarded by e-mail and other messages attacking him and calling for the university to punish him for insulting Catholic teachings.
On Thursday, Myers responded by staging what he called a "great desecration." For the desecration, he took a communion wafer (sent to him by a supporter in the United Kingdom, who removed it from a church there), and pierced it with a rusty nail. ("I hope Jesus's tetanus shots are up to date," Myers quipped on the blog.) He then threw it in the garbage with a banana peel and coffee grounds, symbols of refuse. But to show that he wasn't picking on Catholics, Myers added to his mixture some ripped out pages of the Koran. As a proud atheist, Myers isn't a member of a faith that he could desecrate at the same time, so he took a text he does cherish -- The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins -- and tore some pages out and added them to the trash.
In a blog posting that describes the attacks he has received and then features a photo of the desecration, Myers finishes with a call to question everything:
"Nothing must be held sacred. Question everything," he writes. "God is not great, Jesus is not your lord, you are not disciples of any charismatic prophet. You are all human beings who must make your way through your life by thinking and learning, and you have the job of advancing humanity's knowledge by winnowing out the errors of past generations and finding deeper understanding of reality. You will not find wisdom in rituals and sacraments and dogma, which build only self-satisfied ignorance, but you can find truth by looking at your world with fresh eyes and a questioning mind."
This statement sent his critics into a major e-mail campaign. The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights ran an article called "Myers Desecrates the Eucharist," in which it called on the University of Minnesota to "apply the appropriate sanction" against Myers. The league said that Myers was violating university rules against harassment or hostility based on religion. The league then issued another statement in which it said that since the university fired a professor for having child pornography on his computer, it should fire Myers.
"It strains credulity to maintain that Christian students can expect fair treatment by a faculty member who has publicly shown nothing but contempt for their religion," said a statement from Bill Donohue, president of the league. “It is a sure bet that UMN would not tolerate a white professor who worked a comedy club on weekends trashing blacks. Indeed, it would say that such behavior disqualifies his ability to be objective. In many respects Myers is worse, and that is why sanctions are warranted.”
Jacqueline Johnson, chancellor at Morris, issued a statement Friday in which she said that the views expressed by Myers "do not reflect" those of the university. She noted that two weeks ago, the university removed a link from the biology department's link to Pharyngula, and that the blog is on a commercial server, maintained by Myers as an individual, not a professor. Under principles of academic freedom, she said, a professor has the right "to speak or write as a public citizen without institutional discipline or restraint." That statement in turn has prompted the Catholic League to demand to file a complaint with the university's Board of Regents, demanding action against Myers. (A spokesman for the university system reiterated Johnson's statement and said he knew of no plans by regents to discuss the matter.)
In an interview, Myers called the removal of the link to his blog "a little bit bothersome." He said that the university cited a rule -- that is only sometimes enforced -- of permitting only links to sites that contain a disclaimer that they do not reflect the university's views. He plans to create a new site, with the disclaimer and a link to his blog, to restore the connection from the university to Pharyngula.
He said that he has received about 12,000 e-mail messages about his views on "desecration." Almost all of them appear to be from people inspired by the Catholic League, which posted his e-mail address. Myers said that a number of the e-mail messages threatened him, and that some appeared to go out of their way to mention the names of his children. "There are substantial number of people who have fallen off the edge of craziness," he said.
Myers said that he was pleased that the university wasn't taking action against him, but he said that he "took for granted" that his freedom of speech was protected. "That's the whole idea of academic freedom. We can criticize things society holds sacred."