Main Site

This is Gem Newman's blog. Return to the main site.


24 August 2010

Russell Glasser Joins the Fray

Russell Glasser, co-host of The Atheist Experience television show and all-around cool guy, has waded into the rapidly expanding mire that is swirling 'round Phil Plait's "Don't be a Dick" speech. From the AE blog:

We do attack ideas, but we attack them in a way that sometimes offends people. The point, though, is that the people who are taking offense are often doing so due to unreasonable beliefs. Like PZ Myers and his "frackin' cracker." It's less about the offensive language and more about the fact that certain people believe the cracker is the body of Jesus -- which it clearly isn't -- and they are willing to terrorize and intimidate people who don't treat it with the respect due to a magical cracker -- which it isn't. It's about the fact that people should be allowed to draw cartoons with Mohammed as a character -- clearly an activity that harms no one except by annoying them -- without receiving death threats.

Agreed. If you have unreasonable expectations in terms of "politeness" (i.e., expectations that are not based upon reason), then you're liable to be offended. Enjoy! You're welcome to follow whatever tenets and strictures that your religion imposes upon you—but the moment that you try to force someone else to abide by your religious doctrines, you're being an ass, and you're wrong. You can't prevent a person from drawing your prophet. You can't prevent a person from sticking a nail through a wafer of wheat. You can't prevent two people who love each other from marrying. You just can't do that.

But Phil Plait would also like to strengthen his case by sneakily conflating two things. On one hand, we have posts that say "All Christians are Retards," a statement which is both dickish and false. On the other hand, we have PZ Myers throwing his cracker in the trash. By conflating the two, we can be left with the impression that PZ Myers calls all Christians retards, when in reality the two acts are not equivalent.

It just seems to me that way too often, saying "Don't be a dick" is actually code for "Shut up and accept it when other people are dicks to you."

Now, I like PZ Myers a lot. He can be a little dickish at times—I think that this is true. But, as I said in my response to Phil's talk, there is a difference between being blunt and being a dick:

I've seen people being fairly blunt, but I think that that definitely has its place. I don't think that the phrase "God is imaginary" should be considered especially offensive, for example (and if it offends you, I quite frankly don't care), but it certainly is blunt.

The problem is, as far as I can see, Phil didn't actually "strengthen his case by sneakily conflating" PZ Myers' desecration of a communion wafer with posts that call Christians offensive names. This was the only post by Phil Plait that turned up when I did a cursory Google search for "myers wafer" against the Bad Astronomy domain:

The Vatican has released a previously secret list of sins. The list itself is not terribly surprising, of course. What shocked me was the way it listed relative importance of these sins: desecrating a Eucharist (the cracker Catholics believe is the transubstantiated body of Christ) is considered a worse sin than murder or even genocide.

I had to read that part twice to make sure I had understood it, but the meaning is pretty clear. What PZ Myers did was worse, according to this doctrine, than what Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot did.

I understand that if you are a devout Catholic, you truly and fervently believe the cracker has become the actual body of Christ. But honestly, is spitting it out — an example specifically stated in the article — or even driving a rusty nail through it a worse sin than actually murdering millions of living people? I’ve read the Bible, and from the Sermon on the Mount it doesn’t sound to me that Jesus was someone who would think that way.

Maybe I'm reading that wrong, but Phil doesn't seem to be coming down hard against PZ. It's quite possible that Russell has some information that currently escapes me, but I can't find any reference to Phil calling PZ's desecration "dickery", and I frankly don't understand why Russell thinks Phil is being sneaky.

As I've said previously, I agree with a lot of what Phil said, but I don't think that we're overrun with dicks:

I don't really doubt Phil's premise, but I would have liked to hear a few substantive, representative examples of such discourtesy. I understand that he intentionally didn't single anyone out, but such examples would prove beneficial to ensure that everyone is on the same page. The problem, I think, is that "being a dick" is fairly subjective.

In terms of "vitriol and venom", I honestly haven't seen a lot of it firsthand.

Perhaps dickery is a problem among rank-and-file Internet skeptics, but I don't think that it's a major issue with the well-known voices in the skeptic movement.

So, where do we stand?

It seems to me that Phil make several good points with regard to tone and I find his endorsement of Wheaton's Law fine and laudable—these are things that are important to keep in mind during discussions with believers of all stripes. That said, I agree with Russell that we may have a bit of a tempest in a teapot on our hands, for while Phil gives good advice the implication seems to be that we have a dangerous proliferation of dicks on our hands. (Did I mention that this post would have mild NSFW content combined with bizarre imagery? Well, I should have.) And that doesn't seem quite right, either.

For the record, not only do I support PZ Myers' right to desecrate that communion wafer, I think that given the context it was actually the right thing to do.


  1. Hey there Gem,

    First I have to disclose that I found your post by googling my name, an activity that I admit is extremely vain and I rarely partake in it. :)

    I'm glad to see that my points were mostly well received, and that I'm a cool guy. I see you've taken issue with some wording that I think was intended to make a general point and was seen as too specific.

    I wasn't trying to say that Phil Plait specifically criticized PZ Myers for desecrating the communion wafer. What I meant was that, Phil Plait spoke in a fairly general way about what he was seeing as dickery "in the skeptical movement." Rather than being specific by implicating (for example) PZ Myers, he indicated that dickery was endemic to skeptics in general.

    When most people hear "The Skeptical Movement," it conjures up the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens, and so forth, and those people in fact DON'T go around calling people idiots, but there is a popular image that says they do. I think a little more active distinction is in order.

    I THINK that's the thrust of what was go through my head when I wrote that.

  2. Hi, Russell.

    Thanks for the clarification. I don't think that we have any remaining points of contention! I am always perplexed when the "Four Horsemen" are indicted for their "dickery" when they seem in fact to be fairly reasonable.

    On an unrelated note, there hasn't been a post from EEA in quite some time—her blog is a favourite of mine, and I hope that she'll have time to post more often soon. Either that, or she'll become a Non-Prophets regular.

  3. She's been really busy working on her entry in the Interactive Fiction competition. The deadline for entry is today. I will tell her that her fans await. ;)

  4. Thanks for the nudge! As Russell said, I have been working on my IF comp game, right to the very end. It's been submitted, it's processing now, and it's quite a weight off my shoulders. I'll pick up the blog again in a few days, I have talking 3 points floating around - my game, my family shenanigans and the TV trope of "playing God".

    I read through some of your archives, and I have to say top-notch blogging, it's enjoyable to read through.

  5. Ooh, "playing God"—I love that one! And by "love", of course I mean "hate". Isn't that what physicians do, as a profession?

    I'm reminded of that awful episode of Enterprise in which Dr. Phlox refuses to cure an entire sentient species of a plague because he has a hunch that some other species might evolve to take their place.