Science & Faith
10/22/13 at 09:35 PM 118 Comments

The Happy Atheist: PZ Myers' Book Tries to Modify His Own "Angry Atheist" Persona

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Wikimedia Commons: Photo of PZ Myers by Larry Moran

"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. I’m also a scientist, and think reason and evidence and scientific thought aren’t just good ideas, but the best ideas humanity has ever had, and also the essential ideas that we need for survival and progress. I want a strong atheist movement, because that’s how these ideas will get advanced into the mainstream. We’re not going to conquer the world by scattering into a rabble of divided loners." (emphasis mine) --PZ Myers, Pharyngula Blog, September 6, 2013

I cruised PZ's Pharyngula blog hunting for specimens of "reason and evidence and scientific thought." Most of what I found in several weeks of his most recent postings had little to do with "reason and evidence and scientific thought." Had I just picked an atypical sample of his blog? I'd like to believe the best about a person, until it becomes clear otherwise. Sure, he uses good arguments to knock down the very dubious claim that aliens creatures visited earth in the past (curiously Dawkins takes this kind of view seriously to possibly explain the origin of life on earth, as he testifies near the end of the documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed). But clearly, the prominent theme of PZ's blog is captured by one of PZ's own self-identifying labels: "an angry anti-theist." PZ is fond of ridiculing religion, especially theism, and most often Christianity.

This brief adventure in PZ blog territory might make one curious about why PZ recently published a book called The Happy Atheist. Casey Luskin has a plausible explanation:

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.

Luskin notes:

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. Read more here.

After you read Luskin's highlights of PZ's angry rhetoric (and, as I did, visit PZ blog-land yourself), then you might reflect upon what is going on here. PZ is free to hold his atheistic views and to exercise free speech in an uncivil (angry?) manner. If PZ hopes to convince most people that Christianity is anti-scientific and otherwise unreasonable, he would do better to seriously engage the actual arguments of its leading defenders. He rarely does that.

Does this sound familiar? Do you know folks like this yourself? I truly care about their well being, and wish that they would come back to their senses and open themselves up to the truth. Please be patient with them and don't ever attack them as persons (just confront their weak arguments patiently). Although they may be uncivil to you, don't heap this sort of treatment back on them.

Don't miss how Luskin puts this in the essay linked above:

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."

In a sequel essay on the happy-angry PZ, Luskin writes:

There's an amusing dialogue he [PZ] 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.

Luskin later responds to PZ's claim that religion (Christianity is his usual target) 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.

PZ appears to be in the dark about the real history of science. Maybe he is happier that way. He invokes the history of science as the servant of atheism, despite the well documented supportive role Christianity played in the formative years of impressive scientific growth. Does anti-theistic anger and a fervently held commitment to materialistic naturalism cloud his reasoning capabilities at crucial junctures like this one? If so, then we should not be happy with that.

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