by Sarah Hippolitus
I usually avoid reading PZ Myers' work, as I don't care for the guy's point of view on atheism, but Sunday morning I thought what the hell, let's see what PZ's plan is to, as he puts it, "assault heaven and kill god." (Also James Croft of Harvard Humanists posted it, so I thought I better check this out -- there’s got to be something juicy here!) I've got to say his essay, Sunday Sacrilege: Sacking the City of God, pushed a hot button in me, well, more like ten. He's assaulting and killing something, but it's not the religious person's idea of heaven or god -- it's the atheist's chance of living in a religion-free world -- possibly even living safely in a world with religion -- as well as our social and political acceptance as a minority demographic. (And right after the Reason Rally! Pity.)
The first thing to note is the vitriolic language he uses, which is deliberate. Many (not all) of his loyal readers are angry atheists, and they need to be incited with regular feedings of fresh red meat. If I were a religious person and read some intellectual leader in the atheist community saying how he wanted to "assault heaven and kill god," I'd be alarmed by, and pissed off at, those angry atheists trying to ruin my life, and be ever more susceptible to church warnings that the atheists are out to get me.
In Chris Mooney's must-read essay, The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science, published in May 2011, he explains the crucial concept of "motivated reasoning," which is a scientifically-supported fact (it's science, PZ!) that explains why telling people they are wrong, when they have an emotional investment in being right, makes them cling harder to their beliefs. He quotes political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan, "We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself."
Mooney is careful to point out "that's not to suggest that we aren't also motivated to perceive the world accurately -- we are. Or that we never change our minds -- we do. It's just that we have other important goals besides accuracy -- including identity affirmation and protecting one's sense of self -- and often those make us highly resistant to changing our beliefs when the facts say they should."
This isn't hard to understand -- just think about fighting with your loved one. Tell them they are wrong, and you trigger their defense mechanisms, and it's as if they actually can't hear what you are saying, because at our core we are prideful, emotional beings. We take pride in our intelligence, and we are emotionally invested in many of our beliefs, most of all the belief that we are smart and have true beliefs! Also, studies show that when someone is insecure about their belief, and you try to spew facts at them, you'll get a big resistance, the same result as when they are convinced they are right. Why? The more emotional someone is about something, the less power any contrary facts have over them.
Mooney describes how when challenged, we may think we are reasoning, but we are actually rationalizing. He offers an analogy provided by psychology professor Jonathan Haidt, who also does great work on motivated reasoning: we think we are acting like scientists (reasoning), but we are actually acting like lawyers (rationalizing), trying to find evidence that supports our case.
Let's get back to PZ's plan to "kill god and assault heaven.” With that word choice, PZ knows he is being threatening, and not only does he not care, he likes it. PZ says:
I cannot blame them [god-believers] for being fearful; we are galloping towards the central ideas of their identity, and we aim to tear down their walls and replace their obsolete myths with change and something more vital.
Can't you just picture PZ and a cavalry of angry atheists riding through a battle field of Ancient Rome in full armor, carrying swords elegantly engraved with the word "science,” so they can literally attack their religious enemies?
He then asks the reader, "How will we sack the city of faith?"
Whoa, PZ! Now we are "sacking" communities of religious people? Theists everywhere: lock your doors! PZ and his cavalry are galloping to a city near you!
Regarding religion and god, he says he’s got the "idea-killer.” Sure he could have said "remedy,” "antidote,” "solution,” but those are positive words, and this is PZ, and he's such a badass.
Intentionally using militant language to keep his angry atheist fan base riled up, PZ says, "Science is our god-killer." Now on the one hand, he is right. The more science teaches us about how the natural world works, the more god gets written out of the story, or put another way, the more god loses credit as a natural explanation replaces a "god-explanation." What I take issue with is PZ’s claim that "science" is the answer by itself. Note that PZ is not talking about social sciences -- he is talking about physical/natural sciences. I say this because he incorporates nothing from psychology, sociology, or neuroscience into his viewpoint. Religious people hold on to god for the sake of their values, many of which secular folks share, and values can’t be fully derived from science, social or natural. The social sciences, which PZ has the least interest in, actually has the most power to “kill god” because they explain how civil societies are nurtured, and what values are most conducive to human flourishing, but PZ isn’t interested.
Look, I am a rational gal. I love science, especially psychology and neuroscience, which PZ seems to know little about. Science transformed our world for the better -- undeniable. Ignoring good science is tragic, and brings negative consequences for all. He seems to want to sell us a story that science is not only reality's best friend, but can be yours as well, as if science has a personal side.
Science bridges differences: I can find common ground with American scientists, Canadian scientists, Mexican scientists, Chinese scientists, Iranian scientists, Australian scientists. Maybe you aren’t a scientist, strictly speaking, but you’ve read the latest book by Dawkins or Hawking, or you love David Attenborough’s TV shows, or you’re a bird watcher or like weekend hiking in the Mountains. You are my people! We are one, united in an appreciation of the natural world!
Science bridges differences? I'm not a hippie, but I thought what bridges differences is love. Caring? Compassion? Humanism? Science theoretically can bridge differences in opinion if presented in a way that it can be received by another (as Mooney and Haidt are saying), but it doesn't bridge personal differences, not by itself. Science can't prescribe that we ought to be patient, loving, and forgiving towards each other, or that we ought to value science, by the way. Science can't tell us that friendship, care, and human rights, and science itself, are valuable.
(I'd like the reader to note PZ's vast network of community -- scientists from any country!)
The next section of PZ's blog is about the power of science to help us discover our world, which of course most people are quite aware of, yes, even the religious. He offers the elementary claim that science tells us what reality is, not what we want it to be (duh).
You know, I kinda wish peach pits actually cured cancer, but I think it’s more important to do the experiments and measure the results and see if they really do…because if they don’t, I think it would be a good idea for people to move on to more effective treatments.
Yes! That's why PZ can want science to kill religion and god all he wants, but the reality is that it only dismantles specific religious tenets -- theologians are waiting in the wings, paper and pen handy, ready to rewrite the religious tenets to keep up with scientific discoveries. The theologians can relax about one thing: science can never impact the idea of god by itself because that idea is designed to avoid science altogether -- it's called supernatural for a reason -- science on its own can never touch it. No matter what science reveals that is inconsistent with religious beliefs, theologians can always just rework them to make doctrine fit science's findings. They always have, and we have to wait and see if they'll ever give up this project. They might, but it won't be science that puts a stop to it -- it will be an alternative secular humanist community that demonstrates morality, love, compassion, tolerance, etc. PZ does surprise me when he touts community as a value near the end of his essay -- but don't get excited, it's for atheists only, and they must love science.
Not only are religious people not invited into PZ’s exclusive community for ideological reasons, but it’s also personal:
Now wait, there might be some people saying (not anyone here, of course) that that’s no fair. Maybe you’re a liberal Christian, and I’m picking on the extremists (although, when we’re talking about roughly half the United States being evolution-denying, drill-baby-drill, apocalypse-loving christians, it’s more accurate to say I’m describing a representative sample). Perhaps you’re a moderate, you support good science, education, and the environment, you just love Jesus or Mohammed, too.I’m sorry, but I don’t like you. I’ll concede that you are doing less direct harm, and I will thank you for your support of shared causes, and I’ll also happily work alongside you in those causes, but I also think you are still doing indirect harm to foundational principles of a rational society.
"I'm sorry, but I don't like you."? Then, two thoughts later he says "I'll happily work alongside you. . ." Such insincere dribble -- I've got news for PZ: THEY DON'T WANT TO WORK ALONGSIDE YOU. Fun psychology fact: When you call that which people most sincerely and emotionally believe in stupid, they don't like it. (E.g., when he writes, “You believe in some outrageous bullshit.”) PZ just doesn't respect the social sciences like he does the "hard or physical sciences,” and it's a real shame.
As I alluded to already, PZ concludes with a list of values for atheists: truth, autonomy, and community. It's a sad little list of three because he says, “We’re a diverse group, and we never agree on everything.” Frankly, I think his list is so superficial and short because he's afraid to piss off any one of his atheist readers by providing anything substantial or specific. He says:
I have to be very careful to keep my description of values general, and be clear that I’m not dictating them to you, but describing what I see emerging as a consensus, because otherwise I’ll be pilloried by my own kind. We’re a pitiless bunch.
What a good reason to not state what you really value -- because your “own kind” (are you a different species from the religious person?) as you call it might censure you. How cowardly. And what kind of people are you hanging out with that would censure you for what you truly believe? Doesn’t sound like a friendly bunch I’d want to associate with.
Moreover, if he did list more values, we’d find that many of them would also be shared by religious people (the horror). That acknowledgement of consensus detracts from his project of demonizing the religious as morons. Yes, religious and secular people share common values: honesty, respect, forgiveness, patience, compassion, etc. They do so for the simple fact that we are all people. This fact actually supports the atheist's case that you don't need god to be good because religious or not, you'll have many of the same values (because we are all human beings with the same basic emotional needs.) So instead, leaving substantial values aside for fear of being “pilloried” for listing the “wrong ones” he settles on truth, autonomy, and community. Apparently “truth” is only an atheistic value. PZ asks, “Don’t Christians say they value truth, too? Unfortunately, they say it, but they don’t practice it.”
I’m not even a Christian, and I’m offended by this. He is not only accusing them of being stupid, but for being willfully so -- that’s quite the unfair overgeneralization.
His second value for atheists is autonomy. He says, “What that means, though, is that many atheists are nonconformists, boat-rockers, weirdos, and outcasts. And we like it that way. We are not sheep.”
Wait a minute. I may be a non-conformist, a boat-rocker, and a weirdo -- and I’m fine with those traits. But I don’t want to be an outcast. What kind of person “likes it that way”? That remark is so telling -- he “wants” us to be a separate group. So on the one hand he talks like he wants the religious to see the light of reason, and come join our atheist club, but how can he sincerely mean it if he flat out says that he likes being an outcast? If religion eventually goes away, he won’t be an outcast anymore -- so what does he actually want?
I'm glad “community” made his list of values, albeit last -- it came as a surprise after his stated pleasure with being an outcast. Of course, the reader should have already sniffed out that by "community" he means a tight in-group of religion-bashing friends of science. Paragraphs later he opens up his club to other oppressed minorities, feminists, and LGBT, as long as they are atheists and love science. Then he makes a very strange move when he announces:
Our ranks are swelling with fierce independent women who are changing us, making us stronger and louder, and standing up for their causes and making all of us fight for women’s rights, reproductive freedom, and equality of opportunity. This is atheism, too.
So now progressive political and social agendas equates to atheism? Where is he coming up with this stuff? He then says that if you are gay and want equal rights, you are an atheist: "Are you LGBT, wanting equality and social justice? You are atheism." Are all LGBT people really atheists?? I didn’t realize.
Is PZ unaware that many liberal Christians have long fought on such social justice issues too? What is this bizarre, historically-unsupported conflation of atheism with humanism/progressivism? So is it that real atheists have to agree with these social issues (although I will grant real humanists do, but that’s not his claim), and genuine LGBT and feminists have to be atheists too? Lack of belief in god does not get you anywhere but godless. You need humanism to give you a progressive stance on any political or social issue. (No, I don’t think anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage folks are real humanists.)
He says, "If you are a human being with real world concerns, who wants to change the world, who wants to contribute in a unique way that encourages those diverse views, then you should be one of us."
So get on the atheist bandwagon already! We’ve got it all figured out!
Let's move on to what PZ has to say about the value of community, even though he's already banished plenty of people from his. He acknowledges how "We are a social species, and we thrive in communities," but he just wants one community, one of atheists. Christians, Jews, and Muslims: he doesn't like you, remember? You live in that evil "city of faith." (But still, give him a call, and he'll happily work with you on some project or another, so he says. . . yet I thought he despised "interfaith" work. He’s given Chris Stedman of Harvard Humanists plenty of heat for his interfaith work.)
I think he really shows his charm (and by charm I mean creepiness) in which he sounds like an old testament prophet calling for the destruction of his peoples’ enemies:
I have a different metaphor for us, my brothers and sisters in atheism. We are not sheep; there are no shepherds here. I look out from this stage and I see 4000 pairs of hunter’s eyes, 4000 hunter’s minds, 4000 pairs of hunter’s hands. I see the primeval primate hunting band grown large and strong. I see us so confident in our strength that we laugh at our enemies. I see a people thinking and planning, fierce and focused, learning and building new tools to conquer new worlds.
You are not sheep. You, my brothers and sisters in atheism, are a fierce, coordinated hunting pack — men and women working together, and those other bastards have cause to fear us. So let’s do it: make them tremble as we demolish the city of god.
Look at this violent language, my goodness. We are wolves/hunters, going after bastards/sheep. Oh my. He wants religious people to TREMBLE now?? That's a battle cry if I ever heard one. What is the matter with this guy?! Well, he's a bully, and he gets off on it. Say things like we want to demolish the city of god, and see how far that gets atheists with political and social acceptance. Ah, but remember he doesn’t care about acceptance; in fact he doesn’t want it. PZ says:
Yesterday I was listening to our Christian protesters outside, and I thought, “Huh. So that’s what you get when you give a sheep a microphone, amplified bleating.” There they were, calling on everyone to deny the richness of human experience and join the flock in the narrow boring confines of the sheep pen, so mindless they didn’t even realize they were calling to the wolves.
Are we back in the state of nature? Wolves going after sheep. . . what kind of sick war is this? And why is it that science must cause war? Must the tribe with science on their side destroy the rest? We should all be worried about the psychology of warlike mentality.
Science is powerful and wonderful, but it is also cold and inhuman. I admire PZ's sincere passion for science, but don't let him sell you this idea that science club is the antidote to religion and god, as if science ought to completely fulfill everyone on some basic emotional level. It's one thing to tout science as the superior route to reality, which it is; it is quite another to say it's a cure-all for god. Something that is non-emotional (science) cannot kill something that is emotional (god).
Science isn't going to love you, make you feel purposeful or strong, make you feel connected to others, or give you hope when you are scared and feeling alone. I submit that without loving relationships and strong secular humanist communities and values, science cannot be the cure-all “god-killer.” Only simultaneously scientifically minded and humanist-minded secular communities can do it. The solution to religion and god is, and always has been, secular morality or secular humanism, which includes a naturalistic worldview and the supremacy of scientific method.
Secular humanist communities have to be more than just atheists convening to talk about why they are so much smarter and rational about religion and god (yes, we are right, religion is made up and god is a fantasy, and hooray for us). It’s fun to be right about it and all, but the glory wears off at some point, and you are left needing something that nurtures you because atheism doesn’t do that. Science doesn’t either.
Atheism has become a movement, and I’m proud to be a participant, but this is not enough. What we secular people desperately need is a strong humanist movement, and we need it now, before it's too late -- before PZ's cavalry arrives, and creates a chasm so wide between the religious and atheists that we've entirely alienated ourselves, which is never a good move for a minority group.
I've heard all the rationalizations for PZ style atheism -- "we're loud and proud and if the religious don't like to face reality, that's their problem." Actually, it is our problem because we don't want to lose separation of church and state (we are well on our way). And what isn’t helping are atheist messages about “killing god” and “assaulting heaven” and making the religious people "tremble" as the wolves eat their bloody sheep corpses, or whatever sick and twisted war fantasy PZ is into. In PZ's hands, the values fostered by science are the values of hateful war.
I don't want to be part of a hated minority. I want political and social acceptance, or at least civil toleration.
PZ is right to bring up communities, but the one he is offering is not appealing to the religious, and the problem is he knows that, and that's the point. But until we offer a community that unifies, that truly crosses secular and religious boundaries by focusing on a long list (more than 3) of shared humanist values, we are perpetually stuck with a zero-sum game with atheists on one side of the fence and the religious on the other. PZ knows this, and sadly that's how he wants it. All the same, minorities tend to not win at zero-sum games. Ah, but to be a real atheist we must not compromise, so we are told by the new atheists. I'm not saying we should keep quiet about our atheist beliefs -- I am an “out-atheist.” The new atheists like to try to trick us with false dichotomy that if we aren't confrontational then we are weak, or traitors to the cause.
Ah, but there is a middle ground. When a Christian asks you why you are an atheist, tell them. Hell, be the one to bring up your atheism first, but explain it in a non-threatening way (though it is difficult, and I struggle with it). Still, that is the only way that they may actually hear your reasoning. And don’t forget you are talking to someone who, like you, is both emotional and rational, and since they have emotional needs for god, you better speak to those first. The very first thing you must always do with an intellectual “opponent” is find some common ground. That’s just basic psychology. Always start a debate with a point you both agree on. The point of all this is to reason with the religious effectively, right? Well if you love science as much as PZ, you’ll want to reason in ways that the social sciences have demonstrated to be most effective.
I'm more hopeful than to believe that we are in an endless war on error. When a general recruits you for his army, be sure to question his strategy for winning first.
PZ asks for understanding that many atheists are angry. Religion makes me angry too, for the record. But I've learned that anger doesn't get you very far. Your opposition is still human. You'd better find some common ground with who you are angry with, if you ever hope to see the change you want.