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In The Happy Atheist, PZ Myers Offers One Lousy Bargain

Casey Luskin

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Most of PZ Myers’s new book The Happy Atheist is his usual stuff, seemingly borrowed from blog posts and other writings. This means, as I said here the other day, that PZ comes off as much more “angry” than “happy.” There’s an amusing dialogue he has with himself towards the end of the book about whether the most effective way to oppose religion is through reasoned argument, or extreme incivility. Have a look:

Unfortunately, right now, the atheist community is needlessly split between two poles. On one side are the softies, who complain that believers don’t deserve ridicule, that hard truths and blunt speech and laughing at fervently held beliefs simply hardens people’s hearts and drives them away. We have to be sensitive and avoid confrontation, they assert; logic and gentle persuasion will win the day. On the other side are the hard-edged ones (the current favored term for them is d***), who point out that you can’t reason someone out of a position he didn’t reason himself into, and meanwhile their fond religious beliefs are being used to hurt people, and so they must be strongly criticized and mocked. And really, religion is a clown circus, and asking us not to point and laugh is unnatural and dishonest.
Both sides are wrong, and both sides are right, and there aren’t many people standing at either extreme. You can reason some people out of indoctrination, and slow and patient instruction can win people over to atheism. … But shock also works. Ultimately, people hold their religious beliefs for emotional reasons; deep down, fear and comfort, disgust and empathy are the tools religion uses to manipulate natural human desires. We would be idiots to shun emotional appeals…

Sometimes you can reason people out of deeply held beliefs, but it helps if first you stir discontent, if you wake them up to the fact that their beliefs make them look ridiculous — and that, yes, a whole group of people are laughing at them.

Making believers and belief the butt of the joke is another form of sacrilege — and oh, they do hate that. It’s an entirely human response — so use it. (pp. 135-136)

That passage was taken from a chapter titled “Laughter as a Strategy for Diminishing Religion.” So we know which approach PZ endorses: bullying people into becoming atheists for emotional reasons. It seems that deep down, fear and comfort, disgust and empathy are the tools atheism uses to manipulate natural human desires.

However, that passage also shows that sometimes he feels it’s important to use reasoned arguments for his position. And of course you find this sort of thing, sometimes, in his book.

One argument that caught me off guard — not for its logic but for its cunning — came when PZ tries to convince religious people to agree that religion is inconsistent with science:

Science and religion are two different ways of looking at the universe and changing the world, and I believe you must set aside one to follow the other. One works, the other doesn’t. One struggles to expose the truth; the other conspires to bury it under a burden of myth. One is a method of analysis and experimentation; the other is pretense and lies. (p. 146)

I suppose that’s the “stir up discontent” method. Then he tries to make a reasoned argument. Here’s my paraphrase:

  • Religious people like to hold up the many scientists who are Christians (like Francis Collins) to show how religion is fully compatible with doing good science. We’ll call this straw man argument Y.
  • It’s also a straw man argument to claim that if some people who are serial killers call themselves “Christians,” then Christianity must naturally lead people to become serial killers. Let’s call this straw man argument X.
  • I won’t use straw man argument X, if you religious folk acknowledge you need to stop using straw man argument Y.

Or stated more briefly (again paraphrasing), PZ is saying: “I’ll be fair by avoiding straw man X, so you have to be fair by avoiding straw man Y.” To encourage Christians to be “fair,” he even concedes that “serial killing is incompatible with modern Christian thought.” (p. 147)

Because I was so astonished that he would actually be fair with straw man argument X, part of me wanted to be “fair” and not make argument Y. Until, that is, I gave PZ’s argument a moment’s thought and recalled that Y actually isn’t a straw man argument at all.

PZ has offered a peculiar, bullying sort of bargain, the kind where you create a problem for someone, whether in reality or in his mind, and then sweep in with a self-serving solution to fix the problem that you created in the first place. (Star Wars fans may recall how Senator Palpatine manipulates various factions in the Republic against one another, fomenting a civil war, all so that he can present himself as the solution and bring peace, rising in the process to become the infamous “Emperor.”)

Remember, Y is PZ’s claim that religion is completely inconsistent with science. What’s the truth about that? In the latest issue of Salvo magazine, historian of science Mike Keas does a great job of showing that science grew out of a Judeo-Christian religious worldview, with theology providing the ideal fertile ground that was necessary and natural for that development:

Are Christianity and science at war with one another? Not according to leading historians. “The greatest myth in the history of science and religion holds that they have been in a state of constant conflict,” wrote historian of science Ronald Numbers in 2009. Even though he and other historians of science have documented this conclusion thoroughly, many myths about the alleged warfare between science and religion continue to be promulgated in the popular literature and textbooks.

The truth is that science and biblical religion have been friends for a long time. Judeo-Christian theology has contributed in a friendly manner to such science-promoting ideas as discoverable natural history, experimental inquiry, universal natural laws, mathematical physics, and investigative confidence that is balanced with humility. Christian institutions especially since the medieval university, have often provided a supportive environment for scientific inquiry and instruction.

Why have we forgotten most of the positive contributions of Christianity to the rise of modern science? This cultural amnesia is largely due to the influence of a number of anti-Christian myths about science and religion. These myths teach that science came of age in the victory of naturalism over Christianity.

Dr. Keas then goes on to debunk these myths, and explain in detail why Judeo-Christian theology providing the ideal fertile ground that was necessary and natural for that development. You should read Dr. Keas’s essay to get the full argument — it’s free online.

PZ addresses none of Keas’s logical arguments. Instead, what PZ is really saying comes down to this (again, my characterization): “I won’t make the crazy claim that Christianity is compatible with serial killing, if you won’t make the reasonable and justified claim that Christianity is compatible with science since, after all, it pretty much gave birth to science.” That seems like a pretty lousy bargain.

Unfortunately, this is par for the course with PZ Myers. Rather than addressing strong arguments for theism head-on, PZ fills his book and his blog with ridicule for the worst behavior and zaniest ideas from self-identified religious believers. Meanwhile, he ignores good arguments made by religion advocates. His whole portrayal of faith, in other words, is itself largely a straw man.

True, not everyone that PZ ridicules is a nut. Sometimes he takes reasonable people and misrepresents what they say or do to make them appear ridiculous. For example, there’s what PZ says about intelligent design in his book. ID isn’t religion, but theism prompts the expectation that design should be evident in the cosmos. In arguing for atheism, therefore, PZ should address the claims of ID.

He does not do this directly, but only responds in his typical fashion. He calls ID an “intellectually flaccid position” and proves it to his satisfaction by saying, among other things, that during the 2005 hearings in Kansas over teaching evolution in public schools, Stephen Meyer “refused to answer” (p. 178) a question about how old he thought the earth is. Even if Meyer really had refused, pointing that out would hardly count as a response to the arguments for ID in Meyer’s books. But never mind that. What really happened in Kansas?

When asked about the age of the earth by a hostile attorney, Meyer asked for a clarification of the question, but he didn’t refuse to answer. Meyer said, “I’m happy to answer your question. I’d like to know why you’re asking about [the age of the earth].” It was the attorney examining him who refused to answer Steve Meyer’s question. So Meyer proceeded to clearly and squarely answer:

I think the age of the earth is 4.6 billion years old. That’s both my personal and my professional opinion. I speak as someone who is trained as a geophysicist

Clear enough for you? It ought to be.

Alas, this is all typical of PZ Myers, whose advocacy of atheism keeps his readers carefully in the dark about what religion really is, what smart, sincere religious people believe, and what other ideas (like intelligent design) that he doesn’t like are truly about. I’m not an atheist, but if I were, I think I would feel that the case for my view had been very poorly made in this book. If there’s a really thoughtful, candid, serious defender out there of the New Atheism that folks like Myers and Jerry Coyne champion, let’s hear from him, please.

Image credit: syslfrog/Flickr.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



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