Face of the New Atheism
MORRIS, Minn. — I never expected to become the one Catholic journalist to be granted an interview with Paul Zachary (PZ) Myers, the notorious professor who profaned the Eucharist for his Internet audience.
After having him on my Internet radio show, The Heart of the Matter on Catholic Radio International.com July 10, I asked for a follow-up interview with him by phone.
“Professor Myers, there is a palpable level of hatred towards religion on your blog,” I told him. “What’s the source?”
“Oh, it’s not hatred,” he said. “It’s contempt.” So began my conversation with PZ Myers, the University of Minnesota, Morris, biology professor and self-proclaimed “godless liberal,” who will be forever known as the man who took the Blessed Sacrament, pierced it with a rusty nail and threw it in the garbage — all photographed and displayed on the World Wide Web.
Myers is, as Bill Donohue of the Catholic League described him to me, “the face of the new atheism: irrational, dogmatic and hate-filled.”
Working closely with professor Richard Dawkins of Oxford University, Myers is a rising star among atheists. Writing several times a day on his blog Pharyngula, Myers influences thousands worldwide. His reach should not be underestimated. Nature magazine voted his blog the No. 1 science blog in 2006. His posts routinely draw thousands of comments.
Myers, 51, is unassuming-looking and, despite his raving blog posts, is soft-spoken and careful in choosing his words. He moved from semi-celebrity among atheists and evolutionists to widespread notoriety when he blogged a tirade about the University of Central Florida student Webster Cook, who stole the Blessed Sacrament and held it hostage.
In his blog post, titled “It’s a Frackin’ Cracker,” Myers raged that if someone would send him a “cracker” he would “show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare.” Myers’ “Cracker” post was tracked by Blogpulse.com (Nielson’s online rating service) as the No. 1 read and discussed blog post in the world. Two weeks later and again on his blog, Myers desecrated the Eucharist and proclaimed, “Nothing is sacred.”
The Catechism teaches that “Sacrilege consists in profaning or treating unworthily the sacraments and other liturgical actions, as well as persons, things or places consecrated to God. Sacrilege is a grave sin especially when committed against the Eucharist, for in this sacrament the true body of Christ is made substantially present for us” (No. 2120).
The Confraternity of Catholic Clergy July 31 proposed a national day of prayer and fasting in the wake of Myers’ desecration of the Eucharist. The group’s statement condemned Myers’ actions as “reprehensible, inexcusable and unconstitutional. His flagrant display of irreverence by profaning a consecrated Host from a Catholic church goes beyond the limit of academic freedom and free speech.”
Portrait of an Atheist
I began my interview by asking him about his religious background.
“I was brought up as a casual Lutheran and left the church when I was 14,” he said. “I was not fervent in my beliefs. It was one of those things where you go to church every week.”
That Myers has the equivalent of a junior high school education in religion is glaring. He understands little about the history and function of the Catholic Church and even less about the place of the Eucharist in the lives of Catholics. When I told him that many have laid their lives on the line to protect the Blessed Sacrament, he recoiled in disbelief, saying, “Really? People really do that!?”
This premeditated ignorance toward religion doesn’t seem to bother Myers, however. He is an empiricist and counts as “true” only knowledge that arises from experience.
“Religion,” he continued, “has been selling everybody a bill of goods for so many years; it’s about time somebody spoke up and said that it’s a load of nonsense.”
I decided to call his bluff. “Has Christianity contributed anything to humanity?” I asked him.
“Well,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone, “there is this general property of religion — it’s great at building community. Religion has been a good thing for many individuals; it has brought them together and given them comfort. But over all, religion … holds back humanity.”
What, I asked, about the Church’s role in founding the first Western hospitals, universities, banks and even many breakthroughs in science? He interrupted me, irate and incredulous:
“No, people made those contributions to Western Civilization.”
That the Church was involved in the very foundations of our Western culture is, according to Myers, irrelevant.
“That’s like saying,” he continued, “that because for so many years people got smallpox, smallpox is to be credited for all the virtue men have done.”
As I talked with Myers I was struck by an irony: For a scientist whose job it is to observe cause and effect, he has a poor understanding of the cause, Catholicism, and its effects on world culture. He does not see Christianity as an elevating force in the world, but rather as a strange superstition — akin to banging a pot to scare away the moon.
Father Thomas Loya, a Chicago Byzantine Catholic priest, spoke with Myers and me on my show The Heart of the Matter.
“PZ Myers would have you believe that faith is a crutch, something that makes you feel better but in the long run holds you back,” said Father Loya. “This is an old saw. Faith, and not the trappings of faith [religiosity], is no crutch. It is a lifelong process that holds us accountable to a person, a personal God, and not some abstract philosophy.”
The Men He Hates
When discussing religious leaders like the Holy Father, Myers is insulting, dismissive and even bigoted — though he insists the demeaning ways he describes the Holy Father are legitimate criticism.
Myers seems to be tormented by a number of perceived persecutors. Mark Mathis and Bill Donohue rank high on the list.
Mathis, the associate producer of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed starring Ben Stein, interviewed Myers in the spring of 2007 for the film, which was initially called Crossroads.
Myers claims he was interviewed under false pretenses and the footage was used (in Expelled) as “creationist propaganda.” He has undertaken a private crusade to torment Mathis at public gatherings, even calling on his followers to inundate radio stations with phone calls when Mathis is on.
I spoke with Mathis about Myers’ charges, and Mathis said, “PZ knew that we were making a film about evolution and religion. He even signed the release that gave the filmmakers the right to use the footage as they saw fit.”
But as much as he opposes Mathis, Myers has an even more intense dislike of Donohue.
“He is a professional demagogue,” says Myers, “out there to stir up outrage and make money for himself. He is there to play the martyr and feed the persecution complex.”
Donohue and the Catholic League have sounded the alarm, and loudly, about Myers, especially concerning his antics with the Eucharist.
For his part, Donohue called Myers “part egotist, part bigot — his behavior is clearly designed to insult, hurt and intimidate Catholics.
“We want to know what the University of Minnesota [Morris] is going to do about professor Myers,” Donohue continued. “Clearly, the university would act in a situation in which someone was burning a cross to harass African-Americans or spray-painting swastikas to intimidate Jews. Why will they not act in this case?”
I called the university and spoke with Daniel Wolter, director of the news service in the Office of University Relations.
In response to my questions, Wolter e-mailed me a prepared statement in which Jacqueline Johnson, chancellor at the university, said that the school had deactivated the link from the university’s website to Myers’ blog, but would not take any action against Myers because the university and Board of Regents “affirms the freedom of a faculty member to speak or write as a public citizen without institutional discipline or restraint.”
What’s Going on Here?
I asked Myers, “You have, throughout your blog, described Catholics as stupid, stupider, scary, dark age fanatics” and words that we can’t print. This language doesn’t strike you as bigoted?”
“Why should it?” he replied. “I am making honest characterizations of individual people.”
“But in desecrating the Eucharist,” I continued, “you have insulted and hurt thousands of Catholics. What do you have to say for that?”
Myers’ answer was true to form: “The whole silly part of this whole episode is that I’ve got so many people writing me and saying that I have seriously hurt them. But what have I done? I have thrown away a cracker.”
Father Loya also pointed out that in desecrating the Eucharist, Myers’ real target might be the Church — “like a little girl trying to hurt another little girl by pulling the head off her doll.”
“His ‘contempt’ for religion reveals some wound, some hurt,” suggested Father Loya. “Is it evil? Yes. But having said that, know that he is acting out of anger, some hurt.”
Noting that the Eucharist, as a sacrament, is a visible sign of the invisible reality of our unity with Christ, Father Loya said Myers has performed “his own sacrament in reverse,” by making the invisible reality in his life — his anger — visible.
“But even in this inverted action, don’t you see what Christ is doing? He is, once again, going to the cross so that we may draw nearer to him,” said the priest. “Rather than coming down on us with fire, as we might deserve, he is loving us through his humiliation and suffering, turning us back to him.”
Jeff Gardner is CEO of
You can reach him at [email protected]
- August 10-16, 2008