Would You Give Your Life For a Symbol? September 12, 2008

Would You Give Your Life For a Symbol?

Last night, I met up with an acquaintance of mine — A pretty hard core Christian, even compared to many of the devout religious people I know.

One of the topics that came up was PZ Myers‘ recent desecration of a communion wafer.

I’m not condoning everything PZ did, but I told my friend I thought he made a good point. That is: A communion wafer is not actually the body of Christ, regardless of your religious beliefs. It’s a symbol. And symbols only possess whatever meaning you give them.

My friend seemed to agree here. He’s a Christian after all. He thinks the wafer is a symbol, too (as opposed to the actual body of Christ).

As it turned out, my friend had a Bible with him. So I asked him a hypothetical question: How much would it bother him if I ripped a page out of his book? I mean, I would be pissed off if you ripped a page out of any book I own, but outside of that destruction of one’s property, would that torn page actually offend him?

Or, how about this: Would he ever be willing to rip a page out of his own book? Not because he wanted to mock his God or show any disrespect, but because it’s just a book and his faith was stronger that that.

His response really shocked me.

“I would rather die than purposely destroy this Bible.”

“What?… but it’s just a book.”

“It’s the Word of God.”

“But you have several other copies of the Bible. There’s nothing all that special about this particular copy.”

“It doesn’t matter. If someone put a gun to my head as I was preaching and told me to spit on the Bible or he would shoot, I hope I have the courage not to do it.”

“… but doesn’t your God know what you’re thinking? He would know your faith is strong and you’re just in a bad situation. Plus, it’s just a book. You still know God’s Word whether you have this Bible or not…”

“I wouldn’t want my congregation seeing me spit on a Bible even in that situation.”

And it went from there.

In case it’s not clear, I’m not making fun of my friend, and the conversation isn’t verbatim. But the idea remains. He considers a symbol of his faith worth dying over.

On my way home, I was trying to think of whether there was anything in my life similar to that — a reproducible symbol — that I would give my life for.

I couldn’t come up with anything.

I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Though I feel that holding symbols in such high regard can’t lead to much of anything positive…

What do you think?

Is there anything symbolic and reproducible — in other words, we’re not talking about your loved ones — you hold that dear?

Is it a good thing to put a symbol on such a pedestal?

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  • Pseudonym

    Nope, can’t think of anything.

    I’ve thrown out a few copies of the Bible in my time. They were old, ratty and of no sentimental importance.

  • I don’t think there’s any way to know if your friend, or others like him, really would do as they say if faced with a do or die situation. It’s much easier to make blanket statements about such things over a cup of coffee than to actually act them out when one’s life is on the line.

  • Tyson

    Fabulous blog, a first time poster. No, I can’t think of anything that’s symbolic and reproducible that I would die for. I agree with you — symbols only have as much meaning as you give them.

    Your friend willing to die for The Bible, what surprises me is that he didn’t rationalize that perhaps his god would want him to live, as he could do more work as a Christian on Earth that way.

    The PETA Vice President, a diabetic I believe (citation needed) opposes animal testing, but uses insulin, which was created as a product of animal testing. She has rationalized that she needs to live in order to save more animals.

    Anyway, yeah… what if it were a Bible in another language? I wonder if that would still have the same meaning to your friend? What if you, an atheist, had transcribed a copy of the Bible? What if you had typed it up on your computer, printed it up, and bound it together? What if a few words are missing from the Bible? Or a few verses? I’d be very curious to what point your friend draws the line.

    But something tells me he hasn’t actually thought about this. (When people think, they usually don’t come up with answers like this.)

  • My bible hit the trashcan almost 20 years ago, although I made no special effort to desecrate it. What do folks who feel it is the inviolate word of god do when the word gets a bit too ratty to read? Do they have a stack of unreadable bibles in their attic, passed down from generation to generation?

    To me, symbols are never worth dying for. Physical things in general are not worth dying over (avoiding for the moment scenarios like who gets the last bit of water in the middle of a desert). You want my car, house, money, whatever – as long as you don’t kill anyone for it, it’s yours.

    Human life is always more valuable than anything else. That seems a point missed by many religions, especially the ones that promise glory after death.

  • My life is my most highly prized possession, and without it, I’m pretty worthless. And, after a few days, I’d probably smell pretty bad.

    So, with that in mind- no, I wouldn’t die for any symbols. I wouldn’t die for anything, if I could help it. Oh, sure, one could construct a plethora of hypothets “X or your own death”, wherein dying for something is the better option.

    But those situations don’t arise in real life. It’s a pretty rare occurrence to be in a life or death situation to begin with. Even more so to be in an either-or-dilemma. By the time you’ve reached that point, you’ve gone so far off the tracks of common experience that I’ve gotta wonder if the whole situation could have been avoided someplace in a previous chain of decision-making.

    In short: the chances of you being in a situation where you must die for your cause/thing are very slim; most causes/things are better served by you staying alive. There are no noble sacrifices, only sacrifices.

  • I wouldn’t not die for any symbol. I agree that symbols can be important, but I’ve yet to encounter one worth killing or dying for.

  • Stephen

    Since he wasn’t a catholic the wafer was just a symbol. I am sure the Koran is just a symbol to him. But his symbols are not just symbols to him. Maybe the American flag?

    Remember the only special interests are the other guy’s special interests, yours are advocates for the cause.

  • Kevin

    I’m willing to test whether he would do it or not.

  • Paul

    I thought “the word of god” was ethereal, something that is supposed to be kept in one’s heart. What the friend did—claiming to be willing to place a physical object in such high regard that it supercedes a human life—sounds an awful lot like idolatry.

    I’m sure, though, that pointing that out to him or others like him would result in emphatic denial.

  • James

    A communion wafer is not actually the body of Christ, regardless of your religious beliefs.

    Except, of course, if your religious beliefs are Roman Catholic, then you believe that the communion wafer is actually the body of Christ. Not a symbol, but actual flesh (and the wine is actual blood). Of course, the rest of us point out that it doesn’t taste like actual flesh or blood, but the RC claims that it really, really is, at least in the important spiritual senses, and that if you (say) poke a nail through it, you are physically harming the creator of the universe.

    As Myers pointed out in his Great Desecration post, entire communities have been massacred on accusations of harming Christ in this way.

  • WJW

    No symbols – books, flags, crackers, miniature replicas of torture devices, or whatever – are worth dying for.

    The best thing P.Z. Myers did during his desecration ‘ritual’ was to include pages from The God Delusion in the mess – I sort of wished he’d thrown some from The Origin of Species in there, too. Not because I disagree or dislike these books, but because it was a great display of how worthless symbols really are. I’m sure it confused the hell out of a lot of his opponents.

  • Interesting. I can imagine someone willing to die to protect something of historical or personal significance, the original declaration of independence, for example. I can’t imagine dying over a common or garden book. Especially a bible. You know you that people give them away by leaving them in hotel rooms? They are hardly irreplaceable.

    Perhaps the Jefferson Bible with it’s many amendments and omissions so that it makes more sense. That might be worth protecting with your life. Not mine, but someone else’s. I can accept that it would be worth dying for a principle but I can’t think of one that I would die for. Even life as a slave is better than no life.

  • I think all these comments have been slowly meandering to your friend’s point. He’s not Catholic, so he sees the wafer as just a symbol; however, the bible is not a symbol. It’s his lord’s ethereal voice. In your scenario, it would be like spitting in God’s mouth. He’d rather die now than die later and have God say, “Dude, you spit in my mouth; you’re so going to hell!”

  • What t3knomanser said.

    Also, it sounds like your friend sort of shifted the goal posts of the original question – being coereced into desecrating the Bible in front of a congregation is entirely different than just privately ripping a page out on a whim. The former would make him a martyr if he refused, but there’s no such gravity to the latter.

  • Jeff Satterley

    As George Carlin said:

    “[It] is a symbol, and I’ll leave symbols to the symbol-minded.”

  • Skunque

    No. Destroying an object (no matter how symbolic) does not destroy the idea. I *might* die to save a person I cared for dearly, but not for objects or property. I notice your friend is concerned about how he’d look in the eyes of his congregation. Public scorn can be a powerful motivator.

  • Jeff Satterley

    I wonder what he would say if ripping out the page would prevent something other bad thing from happening, or if the page could be used to save someone’s life. I can only think of silly examples, like if someone was bleeding and the pages could be used to bandage a wound or something, but you get my point. Would damaging an account of God’s word still be worse than letting someone else (or perhaps multiple people) die? Is there a quota that has to be reached before desecration is OK?

  • No – any reproducible instance of a symbol is less important than my life. The importance in a symbol is what it points to, not what it is, itself.

    I think some of the other commenters are on the right track here, in saying that your friend seems to be treating the book as more than a symbol. What does he say?

  • Lost Left Coaster

    I would probably punch somebody in the face if they tore a page out of one of my books. But that’s because I love my books. I hate it when people fold the corners over on pages to mark their place (get a bookmark, dammit!)

    I wouldn’t die for my books, though…not even my first edition signed copy of Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut.

  • TheDeadEye

    I wonder what his response would have been if the hypothetical was either saving his bible or saving his child? Would he have let a gunman murder his child rather than hand over his bible to be desecrated? Sadly, I can guess what his answer would be…

  • ubi dubius

    I’m a military veteran and I’m well read on history. Military history is full of soldiers willing to risk life and limb for symbols. In the US Civil War, there was no worse loss of honor for a unit than having their flag captured. Soldiers with the flag would be shot and another would catch it before it hit the ground. That one would be shot and somebody else would catch it. It would go on and on sometimes, I read of one incident where a regiment lost 14 flag bearers in a few minutes, one after the other. Units that lost their flag weren’t issued a new one, they had to capture one. It was a very strong rallying point for esprit de corps. It was a symbol of bravery. Virginia is still trying to have a flag returned that was captured by a Minnesota unit! Minnesota won’t give it back.

    In World War II, our most famous photograph is not a picture of a medic saving a wounded soldier or a soldier entering a pillbox, but a group of Marines raising a flag. That flag did raise the spirits of the soldiers and marines fighting on Iwo Jima.

    When horror is all around you, being able to focus on something (a symbol, a task) may be the only way to continue functioning.

    Will people die for a symbol? At least in the case of our flag, the answer is a clear yes. Would I die for the flag? Probably not.

  • @TheDeadEye: Interesting, isn’t it? It’s easy to be hypothetically cavalier about your own life, but the lives of others?

    Instinctively, we balk. It’s the people who don’t balk at sacrificing others for their beliefs that scare me.

  • Brian E

    ubi dubius made the point that I was going to make. So I second his post.

  • penn

    When wafergate was going on, I always thought of the original Declaration of Independence as the symbol I hold in the highest esteem. The original isn’t reproducible, but I would still spit on it rather than die, and I wouldn’t threaten to kill anyone who did desecrate it. I think the founders would agree. It’s the values and ideals enshrined in the Declaration that make it valuable. I can do more to promote those values alive then I can as a sacrificial lamb dying to protect a piece of paper. I also don’t think the founders would find death a suitable punishment for vandalism.

  • Sarah T.

    Meh, I knew a few Christians with this mentality. On the other side, I knew tons of Christians who actively worked to dissuade their brothers and sisters from putting so much faith in what is essentially a commercial object. It’s not the book itself that should be important – it’s the ideas contained within. If someone was holding a gun to the head of your young Christian friend, I know few Christians who would fault him for recognizing that a Bible is just a book.

  • Christophe Thill

    Giving a mere object such a great respect has a name : superstition. Don’t damage a Bible because… well, something bad might happen. No, god won’t punish you, but there will be… something.

    This only works with objects that you’ve been taught to respect since you were a little child.

  • Meg

    If the ideas and concepts a symbol stands for are strong enough, what happens to the symbol itself should be of no consequence. I can’t think of any mass-produced symbols whose destruction would terribly upset me, although I wouldn’t want to see any great works of art with religious themes or religious landmarks destroyed.

    Hemant, it might be interesting for you and your friend to read Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence together. It’s a moving and intriguing story with a lot of relevance to this question.

  • I’d die for my wife or child, for a few of my family members, for other people’s children – maybe even for a few other people. Those things – people’s lives, especially children’s lives – matter enough to sacrifice oneself over.

    One of the evils of religion is that it made human life cheap – so what if you die now, you’ll have eternal glory in Heaven/72 virgins in paradise/another shot in your next incarnation. This Bible/Wafer/Flag/Cross/Koran/Whatever goes on forever! That’s why you must give your toil/money/life in order to save it.

    Once we began to think that our lives were worth more than what we were being granted by those in power, it was only inevitable that we begin to think the same thing about those who hold power over us spiritually. Which is why leftist movements saw such a huge influx of non-believers, and why those in power were so afraid of them. Here were people not willing to die for a cause – but willing to live for it. Trust me; that’s way more dangerous.

  • Miko

    I’m going to say no. The closest I can come is the following (often attributed to Voltaire): “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” But I’d argue that that doesn’t quite qualify as a symbol.

  • TXatheist

    This is why we need to do it. The muslims went nuts over a drawing. They went nuts and killed Theo Van Gogh over a short movie. I can’t remember a xian saying he’d die for me tearing up his bible and I think what David Mills did was very childish but when we cherish books to the point of dying for them somethings wrong.

    Good for Minnesota not giving back a southern flag, the south lost!

  • Davis

    I agree with John. To desecrate the Bible on threat of death could be seen as denying one’s faith. But there’s nothing holy about the printed pages. They’re just ink and wood pulp, to oversimplify. The holiness is in the message.

  • Polly

    My conservative youth pastor in the past once surprised me by putting his Bible on the floor and stepping on it. That was one of the most open minded things I’d ever seen him do. His point was that the physical object itself wasn’t the point.

    Still, refusing to do wht you’re told at gunpoint could also be resistance and rebellion. It shows that you can’t make me turn against my principles just becuase you have superioir physical force.

    As for me, not only would I NOT give my life for any symbol, but I would not even risk it for many of the other things people fight for – country, “freedom”,honor, courage, duty, the Flag…etc.

    I’d die for my wife. If we ever have kids, I’d be willing to die for them. That’s it. Everything else is somebody else’s bullshit purpose.

    Who lives to collect the martyr’s praise?

    Who does the dying and who collects the spoils of war?

    Giving up your life for anything other than the defense of family or lots of innocent people, is a waste.

  • Ubi Dubium

    Good for Minnesota not giving back a southern flag, the south lost!

    Besides, here in Virginia we have tons of Civil War artifacts, and Minnesota doesn’t. I can walk to old earthworks from my house. We don’t need that flag, and it’s nice for them to at least have something for their museums, even if it’s just an old piece of fabric.

  • Polly

    I hadn’t read the other comments before posting (as usual).

    @ubi dubius,

    That flag thing was interesting. I included flag in my list, but I didn’t think there were real life examples that were so direct and literal.

  • Of course, your friend does exactly that on a regular basis. Rips pages right out of his Bible. (I use this as a metaphor in a one-person show on the subject.)

    This is especially true if your friend is politically conservative. It is impossible to reconcile the teachings of Jesus with conservative ideology, so if your friend thinks capital punishment is acceptable, for instance, then he’s tearing out the part of the Bible where Jesus says it isn’t. If he’s opposed to universal health insurance, you could argue that he is tearing out the plethora of parts of his Bible which insist on taking care of the sick.

    If his shirt has two fabrics, he’s torn out the verse that says he’s not supposed to use two fabrics.

    The list can get pretty long, but basically if he’s not trying to live exactly the way the Bible says to live then he’s tearing out the pages.

    Symbolically, of course.

  • yah…Christian and in ministry here. Wouldn’t require a gun…if it was a huge guy who threatened to break my toe, I’d spit in a heart beat.

    It’s not God. It’s the Bible. And I could clean it up, or get a new copy.

  • Siamang

    I can’t think of any symbol I would protect with my life. If it has symbolic value at all, that means that its essence to inspire isn’t contained in the physical instance that’s in my hands.

    Elevating symbols over human life cheapens human life. It’s a tool the powerful use to control the weak and the easily led.

  • If he was trapped in somewhere with nothing but a box of bibles and a box of matches would be burn them to stay warm and, more importantly, alive?

    Would a Muslim burn a box of Korans? A Jew, Torahs?

    Would a patriotic person burn a box of flags?

    Would an atheist burn a box of perfectly edible babies?…and then eat them….like a baby barbecue..

    The last example doesn’t work too well but you get the point. A book is paper and ink. A flag is cloth. The only value they have is how you use them. I think that’s true whether you need them to survive in the short term or not.

  • Gabriel

    Symbols are just that symbols. It is what they symbolize that is important. The constituion is a symbol of freedom. The freedom is important. Not the symbol.

    I always liked the George C. Scott movie Patton where he stands in front of the giant flag and says “Don’t die for your country. Let the other poor bastard die for his.”

    The dead are useless. Live and do good.

  • Jamie G.

    In prisons inmates use the paper from the Bibles they are given to make all sorts of things, like paper mache shanks and even roll their contraband for cigarettes. Others use it to hide said contraband or shanks. When prison officials began denying inmates Bibles for the offenses, Christian groups began crying foul. I know of one incident locally at my county jail, but I have heard of this in various news services around the country.

  • SarahH

    One of my favorite Survivor contestants (Roger, season 2) brought a Bible as his “luxury item” to Australia, but gladly ripped out the blank pages at the front and back to help with starting a fire. He said in a confessional that he’d have torn the other pages out too, if necessary, and I was impressed.

    So many people have killed over symbols – no one should volunteer to die for one.

  • Grimalkin

    I had a similar conversation with my husband the other day. We were talking about whether it’s worth giving up a little of your values/ideals if it means winning – for example, is it worth catering to the Christian right a little if, in the end, you win the presidential race and can do a lot of good while in office.

    In his mind, it’s totally worth it. You do whatever you can to win and, as long as you do good once you win, it’s excusable. For me, however, I’d rather maintain my integrity even if it means losing. As far as I am concerned, once you debase yourself in an attempt to win, the other side has already won – regardless of the outcome.

    So to answer your question, I don’t have an object that I would be willing to die for. There are no physical things that I think are more important than anything else. That being said, I can think of quite a few ideas that I would be willing to die for.

    Personally, I think that being willing to die for an object is misguided and materialistic – even if the thought behind it, which I share, is a good one.

  • As an atheist, I can’t think of any symbol I’d die for; the question reminds me a bit of a reader in Ray Comfort’s blog who recently asked atheists if they would renounce their non-belief if they had a gun pointed at their head (and seemed to believe he had made some sort of point when atheists replied, in essence, “Of course!”).

    As for your friend…from a Christian point of view, isn’t showing this much reverence to the actual, physical book (as opposed to the ideas contained within) technically idolatry? It seems like the reverence for the deity has been projected onto the materials of the book; as if the book being “The Word of God” elevated it to something more than a mere book, something “Holy”, which would suggest to me that the book is detracting from the reverence for the deity it allegedly speaks for. Did this occur to anyone else? Do any Christians have any thoughts on this?

  • sc0tt

    What about the Bible on CDRom? Would breaking the disc be equivalent to tearing a page out of the book?

    Will we ever see Kindles loaded with the Bible being waved around by evangelists?

  • Harknights

    Couple of things.

    1. If I gave him another translation of the Bible (If he had a King James and I gave him a Catholic.) would he feel the same?

    2. Does he know that the printing company that prints his bibles on Tuesdays prints Mags like Penthouse on Thursdays?

    3. Doesn’t that break a commandment? Thou shall not have idols before me. The Bible, while the word of god, is not god.

    4. Would he give his life for a statue of Jesus? How about a painting?

    I think this says alot about what he believes in…and more importantly I think it shows that, like most religious people, he wants to show others how he believes more than anyone else. This idea that if I can turn my believe in god up to 11 I get to move to the front of the line when I die.

    As for giving my life for a symbol. Um no because by definition a symbol replresents an idea but in not that idea.

  • This is very similar to the religion of Empire; people are willing to die (or kill) for a flag.

  • Sarah

    Harknights, my thoughts exactly. All I kept thinking was that both the outrage over the cracker and this conversation are akin to idolatry. I honestly cannot think of a single “thing” that I would be willing to die for. People, absolutely. Ideas, quite probably. But a thing? Nope.

  • N

    Wick made me giggle.

    I remember when I would not even set something on top of a Bible. Even though I was raised in the Church of Christ, where symbols and such were strictly prohibited as false idols.

    Should that surprise anyone? No. As I continue to mature in my path toward reason, I see that Christianity is made up entirely of contradictions.

    I’m still stuck in the old grammar rules of capitalization, though. I’m a grammar nerd. 😛

  • Rachel

    No, I can’t think of anything. The most important symbol in my life is my wedding ring. I’d be incredibly upset if it was stolen or destroyed, but to die over it? No. I’m still married with it or without it. It’s a thing. You can replace things.

    A thought: we’re all atheists, and we all think we get one life and that’s it. I wonder if it’s different for people who do believe in an afterlife? Is life a little cheaper for them? I have a hard time imagining the answer is “yes”, but then I have a hard time imagining dying for a thing, too.

  • Polly


    My wedding ring WAS stolen, right off my finger…at gunpoint. I DID put up some resistance, but when the muggers “insisted” I took it off and handed it to them.

    I can buy another ring – even if it did end up costing DOUBLE. It’s just a piece of metal.

    Is life a little cheaper for them? I have a hard time imagining the answer is “yes”, but then I have a hard time imagining dying for a thing, too.

    Let me answer your question definitively about whether life is cheaper: YES.

    I even had a conversation with my wife after the mugging that really irritated her. I was a xian at that time and I told her I wasn’t afraid in the least because I knew I’d go to Heaven if they shot me. In my heart, I really didn’t care about this life ’cause eternal glory was awaitin’ me.

    Had I been confronted with the choice to convert to [Islam or whatever] or die, I would have chosen death rather than even externally “deny the faith.”

  • I spent the last few months in Africa and came home with a hand-carved sculpture of a lion. I’ve made it a symbol both of my own strength and that of teamwork; two concepts which were very important to me on this trip. It’s a symbol of everything I learned and everything I dreamed while over there, a reminder of how I was changed. I look at it and I remember, I look at it and I am reminded- but it’s a carved lion, not the teamwork or strength or dreams it has come to represent, and destroying it would not affect the lessons I learned on the trip. It’s a symbol.

    As, in my mind, symbols serve as reminders and reinforcements of aspects of life, it seems kind of pointless to die for them. Life gives the symbol meaning. If I die, the meaning is lost- there’s no one to serve the ideals the symbol professes.

    Maybe the difference is that I make my own symbols (it’s fun!), whereas this is a symbol backed by the (in my opinion, misguided) belief and faith of what, billions of people? If one person dies for the symbol it still has meaning to the rest of the multitide, and indeed those deaths may make said meaning all that much more dear to those who live. Maybe, if you really believe in those ideals that lie behind the symbol, if you believe those ideals are greater than yourself, strengthening the hold of the symbol on other people is worth dying for. I don’t know. It’s not to me -I’ve got too much living to do to even consider dying for something that is not itself alive- but I’m an odd one.

  • I wrote about this a few years ago: http://www.beginningwithi.com/oped/symbols.html

  • Siamang

    Had I been confronted with the choice to convert to [Islam or whatever] or die, I would have chosen death rather than even externally “deny the faith.”

    That’s crazy.

    If given the choice, yes, yes I would lie to a murderer.

    Here’s a question, would Hemant’s buddy kill to protect a bible?

    Why or why not?

    Here’s another one… suppose I’m going to throw a bible into a pool of lava. Will he jump in to try and deflect it out?

    Here’s another, suppose nobody THREW the bible into the lava, suppose it was dropping out of someone’s backpack while hiking at Yellowstone, and it was about to hit boiling mud. Would he jump in at that moment if there WASN’T a bad guy challenging him?

    See, I think Hemant’s buddy is just doing some macho posturing for Jesus. I remember being 20 and full of testosterone myself. Young men get a thrill out of imagining scenarios where they bravely stare down the barrel of a gun and flip the bad guy the bird.

  • I agree with John/T-rex that being coerced into tearing out a page is entirely different from tearing out a page on a private whim.

    When we talk about coercion by gunpoint in front of an entire congregation, we’re just putting ourselves into dramatic mode. It’s just like in the movies! If that really happened, you’d be part of something that is bigger than you. It’s not about the object itself, but about how your action will reverberate among the international community. This hypothetical fails to separate the object from the ideas it represents.

    If we really wanted to separate the object and the ideas, it would be better to have a more earthly hypothetical. What if a friend inadvertently tears out a page of Psalms? Would you regard it as a tragedy, worse than losing your own life? Would you be very angry at your friend? Or would you just tape it back in? Or would you, in a kindly gesture, allow your friend to keep the page?

  • jonathan

    When PZ tossed the wafer in the trash, one of the commenters said something about nothing being sacred; toss the wafer, rip up Dawkins’s book or the Koran, burn the American Flag…

    I have to admit, my reaction was, no, not the flag. Put a gun to my head and I’d burn it in a heart beat… But, the comparison of the wafer to the flag as symbols gave me a little twinge of how the Catholics must have felt.

    That said, if someone burnt a flag, I wouldn’t try to get them kicked out of college or punished, which was PZ’s point.

  • Siamang

    I’d burn a flag if I thought it had the potential to make a point about the first amendment.

    Often inflammatory (!) speech is made useless by the fact that people are turned off to your message.

    I don’t feel any negative thing about burning a flag, providing it’s your own. I may strongly disagree with the point you’re making, but burning the flag says more about you than about America.

    We’re free to burn the flag. That alone says something about America and about freedom. Burn the flag all you want, everytime you do so you make yourself look worse, and America look better, IMO.

  • cipher

    I remember when I would not even set something on top of a Bible

    Tibetan Buddhists I’ve known wouldn’t put anything on top of a copy of one of their sacred texts, either – or put it on the floor, or under a seat, or walk over it, etc.

    Hemant, if he’s that hardcore a Christian, he thinks you’re going to hell. And if he thinks you’re going to hell – he isn’t your friend.

  • Polly


    That’s crazy.

    Of course it is! But that’s what xians are taught. All those xians getting fed to lions in Rome or those Left Behind latecomers who refuse to accept the “Mark of the Beast” and instead get beheaded were held up as examples to emulate. Jesus himself taught this:

    “If you deny me before men, I will deny you before my Father.”

    Plus, it’s inconsistent to claim to believe that the very second you die you’ll be transported to Heaven and then be afraid to go there.

  • Hmm… Its odd that so many religious people assume that we’re so materialistic, when we’re only materialistic when we want proof for something.

    These religious types seem to be more materialistically shallow than atheists, as they assume crackers and books are equal to life of any sort. Scary.

    We made those things.

  • krun

    I think I probably started my path to atheism by rejecting symbols. I couldnt rationalize places of worship or venerating books/idols etc.

  • Polly

    I’ll add one more thing (boy am I chatty today)

    I shiver, literally shiver, when I think of the risks I might have taken with my life or the huge financial commitments I might’ve made(even more so) based on faith that an all powerful deity would work it all out for good – either here or in the afterlife.

  • I want to weigh in on a couple of points here that are at least relevant to this discussion. I am an active Christian, a Lutheran pastor, and a friend of all who share their thoughts without malice.

    1. A communion wafer in many theological systems IS THE BODY OF CHRIST. In others IT IS NOT. But, just as you desire people not to impose their beliefs on you and show respect for your perspective, I urge you to show similar respect for the viewpoints of others. It is not as simple as many of the comments in this strand would define it.

    2. The Bible contains the Word of God in almost all Christian thinking. It is not the actual Word of God for many Christians but a bearer of that Word. However, for more fundamentalist Christians it has taken on an almost divine status – which is actually more how Muslims view the Koran than most Christians view the Bible. I have a talk where I tear up a Bible for the audience (usually with gasps) and then share stories of persecuted Christians in China who tear their Bibles up so that pages can be distributed since getting a whole Bible is so difficult. People who are angered when I start often have softened, even cried when they rethink what the Bible is. The paper means nothing. The message is important.

    I post this to say that Christianity is very diverse and holds and teaches a wide variety of viewpoints. Often people pick the view they find most clearly able to be argued and then pick and choose other views to make other points. In the end, what appears to be incoherent and incongruous is that way because of which disconnected viewpoints have been selected for the polemic. We all need to be more careful about simplistic statements (including we who are Christian!).


  • Richard

    Not for a symbol. Never for a symbol. But for what that symbol stands for, hell yes.

    I would burn the American flag as many times as it takes to get my point across, but i would hope that i would not hesitate if such a time came when i would have to give my life for the Freedom and Liberty that the Flag stands for.

    The symbol itself doesnt mean anything. It is just a symbol, people have used, regurgitated, and reused symbols over and over (the swastika used to be a good luck symbol). It is not the symbol that you die, or live, for. It is the beliefs, the purpose, and the reason behind the symbol.

  • Allie G

    Hemant, you could point out to your friend that he is worshipping his book rather than the god described within the book.

  • Siamang

    Hi Dave, welcome!

    Often people pick the view they find most clearly able to be argued and then pick and choose other views to make other points.

    You’ve noticed that too, eh?

    I just wanted to say that there is no real shorthand way to have the “pz myers desecrated a cracker” discussion again in this thread. To give it short shrift is to do what you warn against, which is to pick the small parts of the whole torrid saga as the ones most easily to be argued. Nuance and context, and the chain of events leading up to the act, are lost.

    But, just as you desire people not to impose their beliefs on you and show respect for your perspective, I urge you to show similar respect for the viewpoints of others.

    If I may say something… we seem to be dealing with some fuzzy language here.

    I respect other people. I respect the right for other people to hold viewpoints other than mine.

    I do not necessarily or automatically respect the actual VIEWPOINTS of other people. Tell me a viewpoint, do your best to persuade me, and then I’ll tell you whether or not I respect that idea.

    Doesn’t a moral and intellectual honesty demand that we disrespect certain ideas? Even ideas popularly held at times?

    Reading what you wrote, I can’t tell if you’re clearly saying that we must respect other people, their right to hold their own opinion… or something else, which is that you are demanding that I respect THEIR opinions.

    Could you be clearer? Must I respect the actual ideas of other people not based on the content of the ideas, but rather based on the fervency with which they hold them?

    Anyway, thanks for posting here.

    a friend of all who share their thoughts without malice.

    Appreciated that.

  • I would give my life to save my son’s life and my husband’s life. But there isn’t any “thing” on earth that I take with such seriousness or hold with such devotion. It seems the seat of madness to equate any item or symbol, even one of extreme importance or sentiment, as anything more than the work of another human’s hand, glorious as that work may be.

  • Sudo

    Why would anyone put a gun to his head to make him tear pages out of his Bible if they weren’t trying to force him to make a statement about his faith?

    I don’t know about your friend’s reason, but to some people being forced to take an action like that would be the same as denying Christ.

    If a gun was held to your head and you were forced to recant atheism and bow down to Jesus / Buddha / Allah, would you hesitate?

    Sometimes it’s just the point of being forced to do something that makes it worth resisting.

  • stephanie

    You know if someone put a gun to my head, I’d be very likely to hand them my wallet if they asked, despite all the administrative and financial woes that would entail. Why on earth wouldn’t I destroy something that really wouldn’t create any more grief than the actual act?
    It’s a silly question anyway, even when I did believe I wasn’t dumb enough to think that God’s very word was in an anthology picked over by a group of officials two centuries after his son’s death. People can’t keep facts straight ten years after an event, why on Earth would I think two hundred years was more accurate?

  • Siamang Says:

    Doesn’t a moral and intellectual honesty demand that we disrespect certain ideas? Even ideas popularly held at times?

    Reading what you wrote, I can’t tell if you’re clearly saying that we must respect other people, their right to hold their own opinion… or something else, which is that you are demanding that I respect THEIR opinions.

    I understand the fuzziness point you make, in part because I believe that both statements are true in many (most?) cases. Respecting people includes respecting their thoughts – even if you disagree with them. That doesn’t mean you can’t disagree with them. It doesn’t mean you can’t state you disagree with them. Of course you can. But it also means that generally some of the mocking tones we often take (and I include myself in that)around ideas we disagree with quickly descend to personal mocking by default.

    At least until you understand another person’s thought well enough so that you can articulate that person’s reasons for holding a viewpoint (which is rare) then while you may still disagree with them, you (and I)have no basis to disrespect them. A few years ago I taught a class in Christian ethics in Nebraska. I asked people to tell me whether they were for or against the death penalty as a part of the first class. I then made them research and write a paper on all the reasons supporting the OPPOSITE opinion. Students hated the assignment. It caused huge angst for them. But what I hoped they would learn is to not just disagree with others but to try to understand them. After checking and listening – some ideas are still wacky and worthy of little attention. But we tend to decide that based on lack of information and curiosity because we let our world view speak for us rather than thinking them through in a more intellectually honest and open way.

    Take for example, the tone about how a specific small group of Roman Catholics handled the presence of someone who didn’t think what they thought about communion. It quickly included a somewhat mocking disagreement about the presence of Christ in communion (which is actually a distraction from the central issue which is how the Christians and the atheists treated each other during the incident). Rather than comments on church and state, public funding uses in state universities, treatment of guests in public settings, etc. more than few comments easily descend into what a foolish thing it was to think what Catholics think and so it wasn’t a big deal anyway.

    The truth is that disagreeing with the idea doesn’t automatically give us the right to be disruptive in the midst of it. It may in some cases involving intentional civil disobedience. Nor does the presence of outsiders as visitors in public settings give the Catholic Church the right to make a mountain out of a molehill in a campus worship service(which I believe they did in the campus incident and they were wrong to do so).

    Anyway, at the moment those are my thoughts as a lurking “friendly Christian.” I hope it clarifies what I meant a bit.

  • Does your friend have family, maybe even children? I guess this means his family comes second to God. I hope his family is OK with this.

  • I can’t imagine the thinking of anyone that puts symbols above human life.

  • Desert Son

    Zen tenet: “a symbol is like a finger pointing at the moon. Don’t look at the finger, or you’ll miss the beauty of the moon.”

    I don’t happen to think this particular symbol points at any tangible moon (i.e. god as real), but it certainly could point to things like service, charity, hope, love (unfortunately this particular symbol could also point to things like exclusivity, murder, incest, bigotry, and so forth).

    Sounds like maybe the person in the story isn’t seeing the moon.

    But history is fraught with examples of people, over time, coming to revere the symbol, long after they’ve forgotten about the moon.

    No kings,


  • Jed

    Do you really expect believers to be rational?

  • There is nothing wrong with him putting his own life on the line. It’s when he’s willing to put others’ lives on the line for his symbol that there’s a problem, and I think all to many people have taken that dangerous step.

  • This is why the belief in life after death is dangerous: people become willing to die for stupid shit.

  • Maekern

    Note that those who believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation believe that the wafer becomes literally the body of christ, and that it is not just a symbol. This would certainly have an effect on how a person viewed the wafer issue.

  • Rowan

    Quick question: If the communion wafer is the body of Jesus Christ, and poking through it would harm him, what happens when you chew…? >.> Perhaps they should all swallow it whole, and let Christ burn in the acid of millions of stomachs… >.>

  • I-r-Steve

    It’s a shame he’s probably a creationalist, evolution could’ve provided him with so many bible protecting qualities!

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