2008 sacred wafer scandal/John Pieret vs. Woozle

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This is an attempt to map out the territory covered in a long discussion between science blogger John Pieret and Issuepedia editorial despot Woozle in the comments section of the En Tequila Es Verdad blog, where blog author Dana Hunter fired the opening response to Pieret's opening shot (on his blog) in her post.

Ultimately, it should be adapted into a generalized breakdown of the issues surrounding the wafer scandal, but that should go on a separate page; this page is mainly to represent the JP-Woozle debate for reference purposes, though it may bring in points made elsewhere by either of them in order to clarify their positions.

The Debate

Although there are some areas of the debate which have not yet been covered here, this does show the areas which came up the most often.


These are points on which there was agreement:

  • The issuance of death threats by supporters of the Catholic church is insane and anyone who made one is "a demented fuckwit and a criminal" (JP's words; Woozle prefers to stick to "guilty of a criminal offense", but wouldn't say no to "demented fuckwit" if pressed).
  • The church has the right to dispose of its property with whatever conditions it chooses.
  • The wafers are given out for the purpose of being eaten as part of the Communion ceremony.
  • Feelings do deserve some consideration on their own. [Mainly NP's point]


right-arrow debaticon PZ's request is not ethically justifiable.
up-arrow debaticon 1 "The arational nature of the symbolism that Catholics attribute to the eucharist does not mean that others should be able to violate those symbols with impunity." In other words, PZ's request is a violation of the rules of larger society, not just religious rules.
up-arrow debaticon 1a Specifically, it is wrong with respect to secular law; it is receipt of stolen goods, which is technically theft.
up arrow debaticon 1a1 Eucharists are personal property belonging to the church and it is the church's right to dispose of them with whatever conditions it chooses. The wafers are given out for the specific purpose of consumption in the Communion ceremony; using one in any other way after having been given it in this context is a violation of that agreement, and is therefore illegal.
up-arrow debaticon 1a1a Eucharists are personal property belonging to the church.
down-arrow debaticon 1a1a1 They are the church's personal property until they are given away, as happens in the Communion ceremony.
up-arrow debaticon 1a1a1a It is understood that each wafer is given out specifically with the intent that it be consumed immediately.
down-arrow debaticon 1a1a1a1 Regardless of that understanding, the wafer is no longer the property of the church once it is given to someone else to eat.
up arrow debaticon 1a1b Agreed: The church has the right to dispose of its property with whatever conditions it chooses.
up arrow debaticon 1a1c Agreed: The wafers are given out for the purpose of being eaten as part of the Communion ceremony.
up-arrow debaticon 1a1d Accepting a wafer as part of Communion and then doing something other than eating it is a violation of an implicit agreement and is therefore illegal.
down-arrow debaticon 1a1d1 Violation of an implicit agreement may be rude or immoral, but not illegal.
up-arrow debaticon 2 Catholic outrage regarding PZ's request is completely understandable (as long as it is strictly verbal and not threatening his safety).
up arrow debaticon 2a Metaphor: Supporters of science and evolution would feel comparably distraught if a well-known creationist issued a request to his followers to get hold of a copy of Darwin's original notebooks, by whatever means, so that the creationist could deface or destroy them. [Partial rephrase of JP1:] Our feeling of loss if this were to happen would not be due solely to the material or rational worth the notebooks might have; it would be due in large part to the feeling of emotional and intellectual connection through those notebooks.
up-arrow debaticon 2a1 These two acts (wafer misuse and Darwin-notebook-theft-and-destruction) are morally equivalent, and everyone agrees that the latter would be heinous, therefore the wafer misuse is similarly heinous.
down arrow debaticon 2a1a The act of destroying or defacing Darwin's original notebooks is actually harmful; misusing a Communion wafer is neither hurtful nor destructive.
down-arrow debaticon 2a1a1 Defacing or destroying Darwin's original notebooks would be hurtful and destructive.
up-arrow debaticon 2a1a1b What rational value are you placing on Darwin's notebooks?
down-arrow debaticon 2a1a1b1 They are unique [reader comment on JP's blog post] -- significant and irreplaceable. [added for clarity - I might worry that this was cheating, but I think it's implied by the definition of "unique": "being the only one, being without a like or equal"]
up-arrow debaticon 2a1a1b1a My grocery list is unique. So what?
down-arrow debaticon 2a1a1b1a1 Your grocery list has no particular significance to anyone except you. If you (a) became really famous, or (b) commit a crime involving things you may have bought at the grocery store, then your grocery list might become significant and valuable. Even so, destroying it wouldn't be bad because of "desecration"; it would be either pointless destruction of an historical artifact, or illegal destruction of evidence.
up-arrow debaticon 2a1a1b1a1a "In 100,000 years my grocery list could be the only evidence of early 21st century diet and may be priceless."
down-arrow debaticon 2a1a1b1a1a1 In which case, yeah, it would be pretty damn significant, and hence valuable, under those circumstances. How does this support your point?
down-arrow debaticon 2a1a1b1a2 The notebooks have value as original manuscripts, i.e. historical evidence for which there is no way to ensure that any copies would be of sufficient fidelity to support as-yet-undiscovered analysis techniques.
up-arrow debaticon 2a1a1c The value of Darwin's notebooks and the wafers lies mostly in their symbolism. Just because you don't understand that symbolism doesn't make it any less real or important. [JP2]
down-arrow debaticon 2a1a1c1 I disagree that the importance is largely in the symbolism; you identified this as the reason why destruction of Darwin's notebooks would be a travesty. I agree that the reason you cite is true, but I assert that it is not the main reason and would not justify an outraged response on its own.
up arrow debaticon 2a1a1d "...you're right about context determining value. But the context is what is interesting to people. Thus, historically "valuable" merely means that people think it's valuable and, last time I looked Catholics are human too. What right do you have to dictate that they are wrong?"
up-arrow debaticon 2a1a1d1 Historical value/significance is determined by what people believe to be valuable or significant.
down-arrow debaticon 2a1a1d1 [added] There is generally some kind of transparent process by which this occurs; it isn't arbitrary. The reason for the value is thereby understood and documented. Why do Catholics believe the wafers to be significant and valuable?
up-arrow debaticon 2a1a1d2 Catholics believe blessed wafers to be very valuable and significant.
up-arrow debaticon 2a1a1d3 You don't have the right to dictate that something is insignificant if a group of other people thinks it is.
down-arrow debaticon 2a1a1d31 I don't have the right to "dictate" anything, and I can hardly be accused of it since my word is not generally considered law in this area. I can, however, state my opinions firmly. I submit that the "dictate" accusation is an appeal to guilt, not a valid argument. --Woozle 19:49, 20 July 2008 (EDT)
down-arrow debaticon 2a1a2 Defacing or destruction of Darwin's notebooks would have to involve a criminal act of some sort -- either theft by breaking-and-entering, or some bizarre scenario involving falsely befriending a security guard at the museum (the security guard would certainly lose her/his job, for obvious reasons), or even working one's way into a position of trust in the museum and then making off with the notebooks (misappropriation). It is not at all clear that wafer misuse is a crime.
down-arrow debaticon 2a1a3 Catholics cannot show how "wafer misuse" is hurtful or destructive.
down-arrow debaticon 2a1a3a Individual Communion wafers have no demonstrable worth or value.
up-arrow debaticon 2a1a3a1 Yes they do!
down-arrow debaticon 2a1a3b "Proper" use of a Communion wafer involves destroying it completely by eating it; any other use falls short of destroying it, and is therefore certainly no more destructive or hurtful.
down-arrow debaticon 2a1a3c Communion wafers are easily and cheaply replaceable.
down-arrow debaticon 2a1b This metaphor is not a good analogy; it compares the abuse of a hand-written, historically-significant artifact with the misuse of a mass-produced artifact, of only circumstantial significance, which is given out for the purpose of being eaten. The "Darwin notebooks" metaphor would be more appropriate if Mr. Cook had abducted, say, an original Biblical manuscript of similar vintage.
up-arrow debaticon 2a2 Our feeling of loss if this were to happen would not be due solely to the material or rational worth the notebooks might have; it would be due in large part to the feeling of emotional and intellectual connection through the notebooks.
down-arrow debaticon 2a2a Upsetness does not by itself demonstrate the unethicality of an action; if that were the only explanation offered for being upset at the destruction of Darwin's notebooks, then there really wouldn't be sufficient cause to accuse the creationist of anything more than inconsideration or rudeness. As it is, though, there are rational reasons for being upset should this scenario occur.
down-arrow debaticon 2a2b The specific emotional feeling described with relation to the notebooks -- a feeling of connectedness -- goes some way towards explaining the upset. No explanation has been offered for why Communion wafers -- mass-produced as they are, and given away for eating as they are -- evoke a similar feeling.
down-arrow debaticon 2a2c The reaction of the scientific community to this hypothetical event would probably not be anything like the reaction of those claiming to speak for the Catholic community. There would be no death-threats. There would be cries of outrage, but they would be very pointedly argued and well-defended and not at all vague. Most of the pursuit of justice would take place through the court system, as one or more crimes would clearly have occurred – unlike the tremendous ambiguity in the wafer case.
down-arrow debaticon 2b Counter-metaphor 1: A much fairer comparison would be if creationists were to purchase a copy pose as scientists and somehow obtain mass-produced copies of the manuscripts being given out as a gift at some event. Although this scenario still differs in that the copies were not intended to be eaten or destroyed, it certainly would be no crime if someone threw one away after being given one. It would be inconsiderate and possibly wasteful, but no worse than that.
up-arrow debaticon 2c Another metaphor: PZ's request for people to obtain blessed communion wafers is just as bad as if he requested someone to "do what it takes" to get a copy of your personal diary or family photographs so he could destroy or deface them.
down-arrow debaticon 2c1 This metaphor doesn't work either, because I didn't give anyone those items to eat.
up-arrow debaticon 2c1a Giving someone food does not always mean surrendering all right to it. When the waiter brings the check at the end of the meal, you still have an obligation to pay for the meal.
down-arrow debaticon 2c1a1 The meal has value, and payment is expected. No payment was expected for the cracker, and its value has not been specified.
up-arrow debaticon 2ca1a1a If payment is "expected", and this can be enforced, then surely consumption of the wafer can be "expected" too.
down-arrow debaticon Yes, it can -- but the seriousness of the "crime" is proportional to the value lost. $10 for a meal is worth making a fuss over, especially since it's how the restaurant pays its bills; what is the loss in the case of the wafer?
down-arrow debaticon 2c Counter-metaphor 2 (the "pageant" metaphor): The communion wafer is like prop-food in a play. If you are in a play or pageant (the latter seems a closer fit) and you are given food to eat on-stage, this doesn't mean you have a choice of eating it now or eating it later or not eating it; your script tells you what you are supposed to do, and if you don't do it you are "breaking character" and probably ruining the pageant for everyone. By this metaphor, the church would certainly be entitled to a good deal of finger-wagging and cries of "for shame!" -- but, of course, no more than that.
"i" debaticon This seemed like a good metaphor to me, as it results in the most severe level of crime I've been able to justify for Mr. Cook's act -- but JP rejected it for reasons unstated.
down-arrow debaticon 2d Counter-metaphor 3 (the "buffet" metaphor): The communion food was given with an understanding that it was to be eaten under certain circumstances -- much like at a buffet, where you are not supposed to take leftover food home with you. The idea at the buffet is that if you can take home your leftovers, what's to stop you from piling your plate with stuff and then suddenly not feeling hungry? The restaurant would have to set its prices based on the assumption that a lot of people would do that, which would make them too high for people who just wanted to eat quickly and go, which would be bad for business and lead to spiraling price-increases and the restaurant probably could not stay in business.
"i" debaticon This also seemed like a good metaphor to me because it makes the removal of the wafer a crime even though it was supposed to be eaten. One could expand it further, e.g. if you walk out with the communion wafer, you miss the rest of the service -- which is how the church "sells" itself and stays in business. JP nonetheless summarily rejected it with no reason given.
up-arrow debaticon 2e [Partial rephrase of JP1]: We need to be able to feel that things which are solely of emotional significance to us are safe from arbitrary abuse by others. PZ's actions threaten that safety.
down-arrow debaticon 2e1 Secular law and interpersonal ethics already protect our personal possessions from arbitrary abuse.

Catholics believe Eucharist wafers are valuable

right-arrow debaticon Catholics believe Eucharist wafers are the literal Body of Christ.

down-arrow debaticon 1 So... what kind of value are we talking about, here? You can't have something that is both tremendously valuable and easily replaceable.
down-arrow debaticon 2 My resident ex-Catholic informs me that as a very non-skeptical child attending Catholic school weekly without fail, she always got the idea that transubstantiation was intended metaphorically, imbuing the cracker with only metaphorical significance. Who is claiming that it is literal?
down-arrow debaticon 3 What evidence do they have that this is so?
down-arrow debaticon 4 Even given this belief, how is it more harmful to not eat the cracker than to eat it?

Relevant Quotes

Any misinterpretation of John's position is completely unintentional. For reference, here are some of the original words which seem most likely to have been misinterpreted as they were being rephrased for clarity:

  • JP1: ...when I saw some of Darwin's notebooks at the American Museum of Natural History a few years back, I nonetheless felt a deep emotional and intellectual connection to the man and his work that was not diminished by the fact that I was fully aware the feeling was arational. Think of all the things we value in our lives far beyond any rational worth they have -- a wedding ring, a deceased parent's picture, an old book. We are a symbol-creating species and, if we have any such thing called "rights," we have as much entitlement to be reasonably secure in our symbols as we have to be secure in our other metaphorical "possessions," such as our "dignity" and our "honor."
  • JP2: The simple fact is that you are placing some special "value" on the notebooks and the original King James Bible based on symbolism. Is the fact that you don't share the symbolism Catholics hold sufficient justification to intentionally damage the things they hold dear knowing the pain it will cause them?