PZ Myers spoke at Town Hall in Seattle last Thursday night and I attended with a couple of friends and co-workers from Discovery Institute. If you’re not familiar with PZ, he’s an evolutionary biologist and New Atheist blogger who is notorious for his incendiary remarks about religion, intelligent design, conservative politics, and much else. He blogs at Pharyngula.
Given this background, PZ’s lecture was partly just what you’d expect. For reliably delivering what his fans want, he got lots of appreciative laughs from the audience — which, according to an informal poll taken by PZ, was approximately 99 percent atheist.
But there were also some surprises. For example, PZ made various comments about proper ethical behavior which were often quite reasonable, and he should be commended for them. But in the same lecture, he seemed to violate some of his own standards. Indeed, he violates many of them on his blog on a regular basis. After the lecture, one of my friends mentioned the “cognitive dissonance” he observed in the man. It’s almost as if there were two PZs.
Now it’s part of the human condition that we set goals or moral standards for ourselves, and but then fail to live up to them perfectly. This is true for everyone, myself included. So it’s not any form of special judgment against PZ if he doesn’t always practice what he preaches. In fact, I wish only the best for PZ as he strives — imperfectly, as all humans do — to live up to his own ethical code.
Nonetheless, it was striking how often during his lecture he paid lip service to standards of conduct that seem so disconnected from his customary behavior.
PZ Preaches: Don’t Mislabel People
During his lecture, PZ said, “Don’t try to impose a label on people who disagree with it.”
That sounds very noble. But how many times has he called intelligent design “creationism” and intelligent design proponents “creationists” when we’ve made it clear that ID is different from creationism and its proponents shouldn’t be stuck with that label?
The disconnect between PZ’s stated ethic and his usual practice is striking.
PZ Preaches: Don’t Try to Convert People
At a couple points in the lecture, he talked about Christians who try to convert people, calling them (the undesired label) “evil ghouls.” He directed his comments in particular at Christians who seek to convert people on their deathbeds, but he also attacked those who try to convert others in other contexts.
I don’t have a problem if people of any faith (or no faith) try to win over people to their views. PZ’s opposition to conversionary activities, however, seemed a bit odd since one of his main purposes in blogging and writing is to gain converts to atheism. As he said in his talk, “You can win people over to a rational point of view and that ought to be our goal.” PZ said that realizing God doesn’t exist is “the good news.”
PZ’s vehement opposition to deathbed conversions also raises an interesting point about the mixed messages from atheists on this topic. Some atheists who understand Christian theology say they wouldn’t respect any Christian who wasn’t trying to convert people. But PZ calls them “evil ghouls.” Well, you can’t please everyone.
PZ Preaches: Respect Other People’s Cherished Beliefs
PZ said, “We have to respect the fact that people are not always rational and have emotional attachments to ideas.” Again, this is completely reasonable. The context was a discussion of how to treat people on their deathbeds. But should we only respect cherished beliefs when whose hold them are about to die?
I’ve written before about PZ’s harsh rhetoric in commenting on religion — see this post of last year. This sort of harsh rhetoric of course continued in his lecture. He said “I really detest creationism,” and added that liberal religious people are “almost as obnoxious” as “creationists.” He opposes old earth creationism, which he calls “bothersome” because it invokes a “magic man in the sky.” He said, “Religion is really silly. Religion is kind of pathetic and doesn’t give us any answers.” He commented that when Christians say humans were “created for God’s pleasure,” this is like saying Christians are “dildos.” (That last line got huge laughs from the audience.)
Evidently for PZ, such disrespect is acceptable so long as it’s not directed at people at death’s door.
PZ Preaches: Be Tolerant and Reasonable
In the Q&A, PZ was asked to identify the biggest internal threat to atheism. He answered that atheists being intolerant could really hurt atheism. Later, he said he fears “extremist views in our own movement” and even said: “I want to see atheism emerge as a rational voice of compromise.”
This again sounds eminently reasonable. But is PZ really willing to peacefully co-exist with those he disagrees with? Does PZ represent the “compromise” position in atheism, the “rational voice”? I sure hope not!
Indeed, at the beginning of the lecture PZ admitted that he’s known for being a “weird,” “loud,” “radicalized” “firebrand” of a “New Atheist.”
True, sometimes (mostly in more recent memory) PZ has defended free speech. Good for him. But is he truly moderate, non-extremist, and compromising in the way he treats those he disagrees with? Some choice samples of his thinking and speaking:
- “I’m on the radical side of things. I think there is a very strong conflict between religion and science, and if you are doing religion, you’re not thinking scientifically, and vice versa. And I think really the only way we can resolve it is for some day religion to be reduced to little more than a hobby, or a little eccentricity that some people practice.” (Podcast with the Infidel Guy)
- “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.” (Panda’s Thumb)
- “[The government] should take aggressive legal action to exclude religion from government. We need widespread social stigmatization of religion to eradicate religion, not external compulsion.” (Raving Atheists)
- “I’d rather fight to get the churches taxed. I look around my town and see that the most elaborate, largest buildings here are the churches, and I see a vast unexploited opportunity.” (Raving Atheists)
- Q: “What’s your take on Chaplains, US Military officers who are basically paid federal pastors, rabbis, etc.?”
PZ: “Welfare for the intellectually deficient.” (Raving Atheists)
Is this what it means to be tolerant and a “rational voice of compromise”? Of course tolerance doesn’t just mean paying lip service to free speech. A form of de facto censorship can also occur when, through abusive rhetoric, you try to intimidate people from feeling free to speak their views. For example:
- Writing about liberal Christians, PZ states: “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.”
- Discussing Christian groups that want to give glory to God, he writes: “F*** your honor and glory, Christians.”
- Discussing some creationists, he asks: “Isn’t there a dank dark hole you should be crawling into somewhere?”
- Or there was the post from last year that PZ titled “What does evil look like?” He included a picture of the Pope, writing “That’s the face of evil, neatly coiffed, smiling, seemingly benign.”
I could give innumerable similar examples. I’m not saying PZ shouldn’t be free to say these things. He should. However, if this is the “rational voice of compromise” among the New Atheists, it’s troubling to consider what the extremists in the movement are like.
PZ Preaches: Don’t Drop the Ball While Educating the Public About Science
In his lecture, PZ called the widespread acceptance of creationism a “signal of failure” on the part of science education, which he said is “pretty sad.” The problem for him is that lots of Christians reject evolution.
But has PZ himself contributed to the situation he laments?
During his lecture he explained that he received a grant to bring science talks to his local community in Morris, Minnesota. He wanted to reach out to the public, including religious people, with lectures on scientific topics including evolution. This is commendable. PZ wants to be a science educator not just at his university but also in his city, and even to Christians.
But he said that when he tried to solicit local coffee shops, including a Christian-operated establishment, seeking partners for these lectures, the Christians were hesitant. As PZ explained it, “Apparently I have a reputation.”
Atheists, please take note: PZ’s tone hinders his and your own goals of bringing the science of Darwinian evolution to the public. Is he part of the solution in science education, or part of the problem?
Which Is the Real PZ Myers?
It seemed there were two PZs on display on Thursday night. But which is the real one? Is it the one who doesn’t impose labels on people that they disagree with, who stands against trying to convert people or disrespecting cherished beliefs, who is the non-extremist “rational voice of compromise,” and who attracts people of all backgrounds and beliefs to come listen to him teach about science?
Or is it the PZ who regularly uses labels and epithets to demonize those he disagrees with, who seeks to convert people to atheism by harshly attacking cherished beliefs, the one whose style turns away religious people who might otherwise want to learn about science?
The answer is that probably both PZs are real. As human beings, we’re all a bundle of contradictions, and as I’ve mentioned, no one is perfect in the pursuit of ethical ideals.
Maybe PZ would say that he can’t be blamed for aspiring to ideals that he does not reach. That would only make him human, but I found it notable that he was asked in the Q&A whether free will exists, and he deliberately dodged answering the question. But he did say, “We are naturalistic machines. We are biological robots.”
Interesting. Perhaps PZ really is a “naturalistic machine,” programmed to desire things he can’t achieve. Or perhaps believing you’re a “biological robot” makes it difficult to transcend your own human limitations. For myself, I neither believe he’s merely a biological robot, nor that it’s impossible for PZ to do better.