“I want to be really clear about something. I am an atheist. I care deeply about the atheist movement. I’m also an angry anti-theist, and I want to see religion kicked off its pedestal.”
–PZ Myers, Pharyngula Blog, September 6, 2013
After decades of cultural blunders, atheists are increasingly aware of the need to improve public relations. Last year we saw that Sean Faircloth, Director of Strategy and Policy for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, wrote a book advising atheists to hide the more radical aspects of their agenda, the ones that don’t win them any goodwill from the public, and instead focus on “marketing” concerns that result in good PR. As another example, many atheists are aware of the old negative stereotype of the “angry atheist.” Evolutionary biologist PZ Myers, a leading New Atheist, thought he could help reverse that perception by titling his first book, released earlier this year, The Happy Atheist. At the beginning of the book, he tries to frame himself as a happy-go-lucky guy who can’t help but laugh at all the silly superstition that’s around him:
I’m an atheist swimming in a sea of superstition, surrounded by well-meaning, good people with whom I share a culture and similar concerns, and there’s only one thing I can do.
I have to laugh. (p. 6)
Actually, I have to laugh at PZ Myers’s attempt to tell us that the “only one thing” he does in response to religion is “to laugh.”
In fact, PZ’s popular blogging and now his book serve as a tragic, but constant reminder that unfortunately the “angry atheist” stereotype sometimes fits reality all too well. Even the New York Times couldn’t stomach his nasty rhetoric. Let’s take a look at what PZ writes in his book, and on his blog, so readers can decide if he seems more like a “happy atheist” or an angry one.
From his new book:
- “religion is a parasite of the mind that makes people do stupid things and think stupid thoughts.” (p. 8)
- “I detest the Koran as well, and also the Bible and every other holy book out there” (p. 39)
- One of his chapters on the evils of religion is titled “It’s so easy to be outraged.” (p. 31)
- Christ’s death on the cross is “the action of a psychopath with a grudge over a petty slight; it’s what a demented monster would do.” (p. 61)
- Many arguments for God are “the misconceptions of a few hundred million deluded Christians, who are all under the impression that they’re defending the existence of an invisible pink guy in the sky who we must believe in because he has a fantastically imaginative torture chamber.” (p. 120)
- “Religions are the lies we tell ourselves to justify our biases.” (p. 157)
- “We simply do not accept the shortcut of magical thinking that allows the lazy-minded to follow the path of religious escapism.” (p. 186)
- Many atheists think “religion is a clown circus, and asking us not to point and laugh is unnatural and dishonest” and therefore “Making believers and the 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)
Does that sound happy or angry to you? Whatever the answer, PZ is clearly sensitive about what readers will think about him, as he titles one chapter “I am not a spoiled child having a temper tantrum,” which he opens by saying:
Some have accused me of lacking empathy for believers; that’s not quite right. (p. 34)
So does PZ exhibit empathy for believers? Let’s continue, looking at some comments he’s made on his blog over the past few months:
- On liberal Christians like Rachel Held Evans (and Christians in general): “We’re still going to jump on you all for the nonsense and bull**** you do believe. And boy oh boy, there is a lot of that. … when you look objectively at the goofball ideas that you consider to be essential core beliefs of your religious philosophy, it’s a fair cop to say that you also look like freakin’ idiots.” (link, emphasis in original)
- On Christian groups that want to give glory to God: “Stupid to the point of evil … And he’s being sponsored by Baptist Campus Ministries, which claims to be bringing ‘honor and glory to the Lord Jesus Christ through Bible-based thoughts, words, and actions’. Honor and glory. F*** your honor and glory, Christians.” (link)
- At some creationists expressing their views: “Isn’t there a dank dark hole you should be crawling into somewhere?” (link)
- Upon learning that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia believes (like most Americans) that the Devil exists: “Jesus f***ing christ. I’m speechless. … Scalia is a mindless ape. Why is he on the Supreme Court again? Oh, yeah, he was appointed by that senile evil goon, Reagan.” (link)
- Or consider a post from earlier this year which PZ titled “What does evil look like?,” where he posted a picture of the Pope, writing, “That’s the face of evil, neatly coiffed, smiling, seemingly benign.” (link) The screenshot below of PZ’s blog’s listing for his “F***brained A***oles” category-tag shows what I’m talking about:
- On a prominent creationist: “I know that Ken Ham is an ignorant fool, and I know that his museum is a craptastical pile of lies” (link)
- On explaining the way many atheists view the world: “Fellow atheists! We have truth on our side, and science as a powerful tool. The other side is full of lunatic ideas and stupidity; they cripple our country with their corruption of education and denialism. We are unstoppable. We shall be eventually be victorious.” (link)
- On explicitly calling himself an angry atheist: “I want to be really clear about something. I am an atheist. I care deeply about the atheist movement. I’m also an angry anti-theist, and I want to see religion kicked off its pedestal.” (link)
Wait! — I thought that PZ assured us in his new book that he’s “the happy atheist” whose “only one” response to religion is “to laugh” and that he has “empathy for believers,” but here he is on his blog, just last month, calling himself “an angry anti-theist,” and posting all kinds of other angry tirades. What’s going on? I suspect that in his new book, marketed for wider consumption than his blog, PZ is posturing himself for PR purposes — a posture that is betrayed by piles and piles of ink and electrons he’s spilled over the years. Apparently for PZ Myers, when your goal is “to see religion kicked off its pedestal,” such non-credible posturing is permissible.
In any case, it’s no secret that for years, his fellow atheist activists have witnessed the negative effects of PZ’s uncivil rhetoric, and have begged him to tone it down. Sometimes I’ve sensed that he’s tried to change things — at least a little tiny bit. So what you just read might be the newer, slightly milder PZ. So let’s take a small sample of some older comments from PZ, before he was potentially reformed:
- Q. When someone says that religion should be respected, what is the gist of your response to them?
PZ: “Am I allowed to use profanity here? OK, simply put, NO! You don’t get to declare that an idea is to be respected by default, especially not when that idea is patent bull****.” (link)
- “We need widespread social stigmatization of religion to eradicate religion” (link)
- Q: “What’s your take on Chaplains, US Military officers who are basically paid federal pastors, rabbis, etc?”
PZ: “Welfare for the intellectually deficient.” (link)
- “The Discovery Institute is such a haven for lying phonies” (link)
- “creationists are liars, and … they’re also nasty litigious scumbags who deal in bad faith” (link)
- “The only appropriate responses should involve some form of righteous fury, much butt-kicking, and the public firing and humiliation of some teachers, many school-board members, and vast numbers of sleazy far-right politicians.” (link)
I could go on and on, and on and on, and on and on — this only scratches the surface. Readers can decide for themselves: Does PZ Myers seem more like a happy atheist, or an angry one?
A Redemptive Conclusion
Here’s my take: PZ is clearly concerned about the bad PR from his incivility, but if his new book is an attempt to counter that perception, then it’s an incredibly tone-deaf attempt. Nonetheless, PZ is welcome to hold his atheistic views, and vigorously advocate them with reasoned arguments. He also has free speech to be uncivil, if that’s what he wants to be. But PZ is a very intelligent and charismatic person, and I wish he would model and endorse civility for the many people he influences. It might even lead to a more fruitful dialogue over the goals the new atheist movement is trying to accomplish. On the other hand, if he had taken the kinder, gentler approach, he probably wouldn’t have become the prominent spokesperson that he is for a New Atheist culture that encourages, craves, praises, and feeds on ridicule and incivility.
In that sense, the problem goes much deeper than PZ. There’s a reason why the incivility of atheists, and their constant demonization and dehumanization of fellow humans, is so prominent a feature of their culture that the highly secular NY Times had to condemn it. It goes back to the question of worldview. Our Discovery Institute colleague Wesley Smith argues in the new documentary The War on Humans, that materialism seems to have a strong correlation with disgust and contempt for fellow humans. There seem to be real-world implications for how you treat people once you reject the idea that humans have fundamental value because they are made in the image of God. Whatever the cause, the widespread epidemic of atheism’s uncivil rhetoric is a well-documented behavior that you can’t sweep under the rug through public relations maneuvers like calling yourself “happy.”
Thankfully, because human beings were designed for a purpose and do have fundamental value, and because PZ is a fellow human being, we know he’s capable of much better. That’s why, while most folks would probably find his methods repugnant, I genuinely don’t feel contempt for PZ, and hope for something better from Dr. Myers. I know he’s capable of it.