The purpose of this post is to briefly explain the background to PZ Myers's involvement in Crackergate. This is a quick post, and lacks both links and detail. As an atheist ex-Catholic who posts regularly on PZ's site and has followed the story, I'm reasonably informed, but I'm not unbiased.
The reason for this post is to inform the staggering number of Catholics who are indignantly posting on PZ's Pharyngula blog without understanding the background. It's as if they're assuming that PZ woke up one morning and decided to piss off Catholics for no reason.
A 19 year-old Catholic student at UCF went to a mass organised on campus. He brought a non-Catholic friend, who was interested in Catholicism, to the mass. During the mass, he explained various aspect of the proceedings to his friend. His friend was curious to see the Eucharistic host, so at communion, Webster tried to bring the host back to his seat to show it to his friend before consuming it in the usual way. In Webster's church, this wouldn't have been a big deal as, apparently, in some Catholic traditions, it is quite normal to pray back in the pew before consuming the host.
Another student, with whom Webster had had some previous disagreements, spotted him walking away from the altar without having immediately consumed the wafer, apparently the norm in most Catholic congregations, and grabbed hold of him, creating a scene. Webster shook off his assailant and went back to his seat. She pursued him, trying to take the host from his hands. Webster tried to fend her off, putting the host in his pocket to prevent her getting it, and subsequently fled the church.
Webster demanded an apology from the other student, holding on to the host in his student dorm for almost a week before returning it.
Now, there's no doubt that Webster had a rush of blood to the head and behaved unwisely in his anger, but who can say they never made a mistake?
In the mean-time, the offended student made complaints to the university authorities, the student council, and the Catholic League. Bill Donohue weighed in with a fatwa condemning Webster Cooke. As a result, Webster received 1000's of condemnatory emails including threats of violence and a couple of death-threats from the lunatic fringe of the Catholic church. Ultimately, Webster believed that he was in real danger, which contributed to his decision to return the wafer.
A couple of media outlets picked up on the story.
PZ blogged about this crazy storm-in-a-teacup. Now, one may think that what Webster did was wrong, but it was a religious wrong and the penalty should be religious. If his priest had given him a dressing-down for his behaviour, no problem, but Webster did not deserve threats of violence and death, nor did he deserve to be subject to a witch-hunt in his secular life, with people demanding that he be dismissed from the student senate at UCF and expelled from the university. Separation of church and state: remember?
PZ was, I guess, pretty angry. In defence of this kid, he said (paraphrasing) “You think that's desecration? I'll show you desecration!”. Not being a Catholic, he said “if anyone can score me some crackers, I'll desecrate them”, which was interpreted by some as inciting disruption of religious services, but the point is that ruining a kids life over a magic cracker is grossly excessive.
Now all hell breaks loose as Bill Donohue issues a second fatwa against PZ. PZ himself now receives thousands of condemnatory emails including a number of threats of violence and even a few death threats.
A fairly common feature in the tens of thousands of posts at Pharyngula was “you wouldn't dare desecrate the Qur'an, you pussy” from Catholic posters. PZ received several communion wafers and two Qur'ans in the mail.
Today, PZ posted a photograph of some communion wafers, some pages from the Qur'an, and some pages from Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion in the bin. He held off on posting the photograph until after the garbage collection, presumably so there would be no question of the religious artifacts being anywhere other than the city landfill.