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On Robin Williams’s Death, a Revealing Dispute Between Atheist-Evolutionist Spokesmen

David Klinghoffer

At Why Evolution Is True, evolutionary atheist Jerry Coyne is disgusted — rightly — by comments from his evolutionary atheist colleague PZ Myers on Robin Williams’s tragic suicide. Writing at Pharyngula, Myers seems to think Williams’s death is noteworthy not as a source of heartbreak for millions who loved his art, but as a suspiciously convenient distraction from racial violence in St. Louis.

Says Professor Coyne:

This is one of the most contemptible and inhumane things I’ve ever seen posted by a well-known atheist. It reeks of arrogance, of condescension, and especially of a lack of empathy for those who loved and admired Williams not because they knew him, but because he brought them happiness and made them think.

What Coyne doesn’t seem to recognize, though — and maybe I can help clarify — is what Myers has been trying to do with his writing of late, why he would come up with such a statement in the first place. After mostly losing interest in blogging on controversies in science of the kind we discuss here, PZ’s current mission appears to be to convince himself and others that the New Atheism has a credible moral perspective.

I don’t follow PZ Myers’s writing all that closely anymore, but from the occasional quick scan you’ll notice that he does a whole lot of fulminating on moral themes. In about half of this material, he hammers away at points that should be and are blindingly obvious to just about everyone, whether theist or atheist, so obvious they shouldn’t need extended discussion.

In the other half, he takes up positions that are fairly described as vile. For example, his defaming Israel for the crime of seeking to defend her own citizens from attack, or the post about Robin Williams.

No information I’m aware of would suggest that Myers himself, in person, is anything other than a perfectly pleasant, kind, trustworthy and reasonable man. However, as a moral philosopher he leaves a lot to be desired.

Every serious worldview needs to address some big questions: What is good? How do we know what doing good requires? Why seek to do good to begin with? Not every fine and moral person possesses a coherent philosophy that sheds much light on any of that. Many don’t. PZ Myers is trying to suggest that New Atheists have the answers, that they can tell us more uplifting and beneficial things than just that God doesn’t exist.

Is he right? On that, judge for yourself whether his writing is a vindication, or an illuminating failure.

I’m on Twitter. Follow me @d_klinghoffer.