Essay:PZ Myers panel discussion, March 3, 2011

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On March 3, 2011, I attended a panel-discussion at the University of Minnesota that had been convened for the purpose of "dispelling myths about atheism." The panelists were Prof. PZ Myers, a graduate student in a scientific discipline (hereafter Grad) and an undergraduate mathematics student (hereafter Undergrad).

These are notes that I took through the course of the panel discussion. I did not have a court reporter's keyboard; the questions and answers are heavily paraphrased. My editorial comments are italicized and placed in brackets.

[The meeting was situated in a basement room that was very difficult to locate; the group sponsoring the discussion had to station people at the doors of the building to ensure that people found their way down. Had the evangelists from the local WELS ministry, who were on hand at the door to pass out church invitations to all the atheists in attendance, been aware of this, perhaps they could have drawn some parallel between the atheists being lost on campus and the atheists being lost on the road to heaven.

The meeting was called to order at 7:08 P.M. The moderator introduced the panelists and then immediately asked the audience for questions.]

  • Q. Atheism is very individualistic, and there are few second generation atheists. How are the panelists qualified to speak about atheism as a whole?
  • Grad. We are from diverse backgrounds, we are scientists and academics, and we do not pretend to speak for all atheists, who are a heterogeneous group. We are trying to show different perspectives within atheism.
  • Undergrad. Everyone with experience is qualified to speak about atheism.
  • Prof. Myers. (1) Because we are the ones who are willing to speak. I am not speaking for anyone but myself. (2) I am the one with the cool hat; if the Pope can do it, so can I.

[Prof. Myers was wearing a silver-brimmed black hat with a black feather in it.]

  • Q. Did science play a role in bringing you to atheism?
  • Prof. Myers. Science motivated my atheism, but science is not the only way to come to atheism.
  • Grad. Agree.
  • Undergrad. Also agree. Another deciding factor for me was the religious-based hatred against minorities.
  • Q. What are your ideas of good and bad ways to promote secularism ("bad" being ineffective strategies that close the prospective secularist's mind)?
  • Prof. Myers. There is no such thing as a bad way, with the exception of using violence.
  • Grad. I am a pluralist and believe that different strategies are best for different people. Also, in a debate, one might be trying to convince the audience instead of one's debate partner.

[Grad stated that aggressive, "dickish" atheism is popular at the moment.]

  • Undergrad. A bad way to advocate for atheism is to censor the opposition.
  • Prof. Myers. I don't want to tell any atheists that they're going the wrong way about being atheists.
  • Q. Often, the argument of Christianity vs. atheism boils down to an exchange like, "Christians went on the Crusades!" -- "Stalin and Hitler were atheists!" What do you think of the idea that Nazism and communism are religions?
  • Prof. Myers. Communism is an ideology, with some of the bad characteristics of religion. Atheism is not. I don't like it when people say things like, "Science shows you how to make an airplane; religion makes you fly it into a building." 95% of religious people (I made up that statistic) are not terrorists, so it is a tactical mistake to blame religion for terrorism.
  • Q. Don't you need religion to make someone fly a plane into a building?
  • Prof. Myers. No; look at the Tamil Tigers. Being a Muslim does not make you a terrorist; being a young man and a social misfit does.
  • Q. Since a lot of atheists are individualistic, what are ways to build atheist solidarity?
  • Prof. Myers. There is no way.

[Audience laughs.]

  • Grad. It is a strength that atheists are a "broad-tent" movement with no narrow ideology.
  • Undergrad. Agrees with Grad.
  • Q. As scientists, how do you deal with colleagues who are theists?
  • Prof. Myers. The question has not come up; I don't mind them going to church, but do mind them praying in the lab, because "you've got to leave the crap behind." "Religion is the antithesis of scientific thinking."
  • Undergrad. I work in a lab with a devout Catholic. I'm surprised that she can leave her religion at the door.

[There is a very long tradition in the Catholic Church of methodologically-naturalistic science; Christian natural philosophers wrote the book on methodological naturalism.]

  • Grad. You can't say that of the creationists.
  • Q. Atheists don't believe in anything, so where do they get their values from?
  • Grad. Read the Humanist Manifesto.
  • Grad. Look at the verse that makes parents stone disobedient children.

[That is part of the Mosaic civil law. With the exception of Dominionists, no one believes that this is still in force.]

  • Q. Atheism and skepticism are often tied together. Is skepticism a uniting philosophy for atheists?
  • Prof. Myers. No; the Raëlists have put up an atheist sign. This doesn't mean they're critical thinkers. Atheism is too broad a label for critical thinkers; skepticism is better.
  • Prof. Myers. I hate that argument. Most theists did not go through a list of gods and check off the ones to believe in.
  • Q. If you accept the premise that morals are relativistic, does it reduce America to a process and not a culture (i.e., what is the moral basis for our democratic government if there is no ultimate authority)?
  • Prof. Myers. The culture could be the process.
  • Q. But the process is not the culture; people use it to advance other agendas.
  • Prof. Myers. This country is supposed to be protecting the rights of minorities, to be secular, etc. Religion is exclusive and tribal; secularism is open-minded and tolerant.
  • Grad. We have come a long way in the past 100, 50, 10 years.
  • Undergrad. What we have to do is set up a system that prevents the official application of any ideology.
  • Q. Have you ever felt hopeless and alone? If so, what did you do?
  • Grad. Scientific work.
  • Prof. Myers. I have no spiritual sense and never feel lonely.
  • Undergrad. We are human, and we will all sometimes feel alone and worthless.
  • Q. How do you balance respecting other people with thinking other people's ideas are silly?
  • Prof. Myers. That's no problem at all.
  • Grad. For me to oppose it seriously, an idea has to be both silly and harmful, such as fundamentalism or the African anti-vaccination movements, which are responsible for a resurgence of polio.
  • Prof. Myers. Also homophobia, and witchcraft -- like children being chopped into pieces to be sold to witch doctors.
  • Undergrad. Calling someone's bullshit does not equate to attacking them personally, as any formal debater knows.
  • Q. If theists cannot help feeling as if it is a personal attack, how can one create productive dialogue?
  • Prof. Myers. I was in a debate with a creationist recently, and afterwards some of the creationist's supporters came up to me and told me I was going to hell, and they didn't think that was any sort of challenge.
  • Grad. Not all theists are like that.
  • Undergrad. One should ask questions instead of making flat statements.
  • Q. People such as terminally ill children and soldiers use religion as a comfort; others use religion as a force for good. Is this a problem for anti-theists?
  • Prof. Myers. That's called the "consolation argument." I say, "lies cannot be consoling." If I was dying and someone was at my bedside telling me I was going to heaven, I would feel really bad, because I wouldn't have the strength to rip their throat out.
  • Grad. I wouldn't criticize the faith of a dying man. Also, we should remember that religion has been a big inspiration for artists in the past.
  • Prof. Myers. Religion didn't inspire art; the church did, by controlling enough wealth to pay artists.

[Had I not been so busy typing, I might have asked him precisely what church financed the art of Mr. William Blake.]

  • Q. What is the fundamental goal or reason for atheism? If that goal is to make everyone on earth an atheist, what is the hopeful outcome?
  • Undergrad. If one says the end goal of atheism is to convert everyone, that is hypocritical, because atheists do not want to be "just another religion." There shouldn't be a unified end goal; that starts to veer into Marxism. If there is any kind of end goal, it is to promote science.
  • Prof. Myers. I don't want to live in an all-atheist world, because "atheism isn't everything." But religion is irrational, wrong, silly, and should not be running the country. One could say the same thing of Dungeons & Dragons, but D&D is not out to eradicate atheism and is not a determinant of government policy.
  • Q. Would any anti-atheistic argument change their mind about your belief in atheism?

[The panelists objected that they do not "believe" in atheism, despite Prof. Myers's earlier statement that "there is no God."]

  • Grad. If I had a vision of God, I would get myself to the mental hospital.
  • Prof. Myers. Science provides a consistent world-view; there is no room for gods in my scientific world-view. I don't think that the deist God is possible either, and it wouldn't be a god anyway, but natural law.
  • Undergrad. Whyever would one want to worship a god that does not do anything in return?

[The cynic would, of course, suggest that if there was a free day of rest involved, that would be good enough for a large number of people, regardless of whether the God did any magic-tricks or not.]

  • Prof. Myers. And why would that god ask for one's foreskin?
  • Q. If there are no goals for atheism, including New Atheism, why is it not a goal for New Atheists to stop theocrats?
  • Prof. Myers. You're confusing atheism and secularism. The New Atheists go above and beyond secularism. I wouldn't mind having Barry Lynn for president, but there would be no atheist emperors.
  • Q. I'm leery of secularism being the goal, since people cannot separate religion from politics. It would be an illiberal thing to bar them from political office.
  • Prof. Myers. Nothing can be done about people having different ideas. There are pro-life atheists, pro-choice Christians, and every other combination. Though I'm pro-choice, I don't want to exclude pro-lifers from government; similarly, though I'm an atheist I don't want to exclude theists from government.
  • Undergrad. I support the Supreme Court's ruling in Snyder v. Phelps.
  • Q. There are people who would feel that religious values such as abstinence before marriage do not belong in government; but what is the aversion to having religious people in the government?
  • Prof. Myers. (interrupting) The government is dominated by religious people. One person admits to being a "freethinker." The government is dominated by hypocrites also.
  • Q. Why do atheists fear religious people imposing such values as the Sixth Commandment?
  • Undergrad. The religious values we oppose are the ones that are at odds with humanistic values and generally very bad.
  • Grad. A religious world-view diminishes the value of some experiences.
  • Prof. Myers. 50 years ago, one would find people promoting white values in government. Just as being white is not a morally superior position to be aspired to, neither is being religious. We must eradicate the idea that religion and morality are linked.
  • Q. I'm scared of people who believe that the end of the world and death are good things.

[Some might have quoted Mark 12:27 here; Prof. Myers, instead, agreed with the audience member.]

  • Undergrad. Do you really want a religious leader with control over nuclear weapons?
  • Prof. Myers. George W. Bush said that he went to war in Iraq because God told him to do it. I think it was Halliburton instead.
  • Prof. Myers. Hawking makes a solid argument that, even though the details have not been hammered out, physics has advanced to such a degree that people have a good idea of how the univverse works.
  • Q. How have you addressed atheists who are not skeptics, but who are cranks, like some of the anti-vaccine crowd?
  • Prof. Myers. I tell them they're idiots. I oppose the idea that one can be immune from criticism because they're of a certain religion, etc. That applies to atheism too.
  • Grad. Atheists can be cranks just as easily as other people. I once argued with an atheist for an hour about a triple strand of DNA.
  • Prof. Myers. Recently, some organizations of skeptics decided to scrap the principle of NOMA, causing a mass exodus of theists.
  • Q. How do you deal with the fact that many top scientists, like Isaac Newton, were/are theists?
  • Prof. Myers. That's ancient history.
  • Grad. Some people are religiously motivated to study science. But some things that were once compatible with science are no longer, like creationism.
  • Prof. Myers. Darwin made it respectable to be an atheist, because he demolished the watchmaker argument.
  • Grad. There's the flip side of that, the argument from ugliness. What about ugliness and stupidity? What about the fact that we only have one hole for both eating and breathing? That would be poor design.
  • Prof. Myers. And there are parasites who eat caterpillars from the inside out. The universe is not a beautiful place.
  • Q. What was the moment each of you realized you were atheists? Did you even have a moment?
  • Grad. I didn't grow up in a religious family, but I was still a Christian. I studied other religions for a while, but then I asked the question, "Who created God?" When I learned about evolutionary biology, I became a 99.9% atheist.
  • Undergrad. When they asked me to draw the Kingdom of God in Sunday-school, I didn't know what to draw.
  • Prof. Myers. I was told a lot of bullshit in catechesis and realized I didn't believe in it.
  • Q. Have any of you ever been to an atheist funeral?
  • Prof. Myers. My family is unreligious. My father had a quiet memorial service, after which he was quietly cremated. However, there was no ceremony with atheist incantations being mumbled.
  • Grad. I have not attended one and do not want to.
  • Undergrad. I haven't been to any sort of funeral, period.
  • Prof. Myers. Epstein and his version of secular humanism want to take on the trappings of religion.
  • Undergrad. Atheism suffers day in and day out from being compared to religion; why should we make ourselves more susceptible to that?
  • Q. What would you want to happen to your body after you die?
  • Grad. I can't make up my mind.
  • Prof. Myers. I want a funeral like my father's.
  • Q. What should parents' rights be to impart their religion to their children?
  • Prof. Myers. Parents have the right to teach their religious beliefs to their children. But children have rights too, and I don't like the idea of homeschooling.
  • Undergrad. Society has the right to consist of productive citizens, and kids go to school to make them meet that minimum standard.

[A creationist now began asking questions. As is par in such cases, every single thing he said was boilerplate right out of the playbook.]

  • Prof. Myers. Any evidence for God should be treated fairly, but there is none.
  • Prof. Myers. No, there is clear evidence of molecular similarities between all species, and there is no real distinction between micro- and macroevolution.
  • Grad. I can evolve something in the lab in ten days.

[The creationist bowed out at that point, because, he said, it had turned into a debate rather than him asking a question.]

  • Prof. Myers. Good; we crushed him.
  • Q. What is your opinion on religions that focus a lot on death?
  • Undergrad. That is morbid.
  • Prof. Myers. Not all religions focus on death, but the Abrahamic religions are patriarchal death-cults.
  • Grad. All religions look forward to the end of the world.
  • Prof. Myers. Not quite. In Greco-Roman paganism, the afterlife wasn't thought of very much. They thought most people went to the Asphodel Meadows.
  • Q. Is there a problem with people doing what they want because there is no threat of hell?
  • Prof. Myers. If people's fear of hell influences their behavior, they're living in terror.
  • Grad. Why are believers sad when their relatives die, if they believe they have gone to heaven?

[It would follow that when a boy goes off to boarding school, not to return home for months on end, his mother would not even bat an eyelash.]

  • Prof. Myers. Hypocritical patriarchal death-cults.
  • Q. One can evolve something in less than ten days in the lab. But, the intelligent-design community is well-funded and use the money for propaganda; scientists are well-funded, but use the money for science. How should the scientists handle that?
  • Undergrad. If creationists are spending money on the Creation Museum instead of political campaigns, that is good.
  • Prof. Myers. Creationists spend much more money on P.R.
  • Grad. Much more needs to be done to promote science.
  • Prof. Myers. A culture-shift is needed for this.
  • Undergrad. Talking about science is not pushing any ideology.
  • Q. Going back to children's rights, at what point are which people entitled to which rights?
  • Prof. Myers. The age of majority is a good point, but it is a big gray area.
  • Q. On the question of brainwashing children by bringing them to church, what about the ethnic religion of Judaism? How does one introduce someone to Jewish culture without religious indoctrination?
  • Prof. Myers. There is no problem with raising a child in one's own religious traditions, but you have to draw the line somewhere.

[At this juncture the creationist, being a little upset, interrupted.]

  • Creationist. That is outrageous! You have no right to come into my home and take my children away from me and indoctrinate them with the religion of secular humanism! That is unconstitutional! That is statist! That is fascist!
  • Prof. Myers. If you have something to say, raise your hand.
  • Creationist. Okay.
  • Q. I'm a Jew, and I have children. I teach them the Hanukkah tradition, but I also teach them the mythology of the Greeks that the Maccabees were kicking out of Palestine.
  • Prof. Myers. People don't have the right to tell lies about science.
  • Q. What do you think about a leader who believes in the afterlife, and uses that to make decisions of state?
  • Prof. Myers. They should be making policy for rational reasons, not marching people off to the slaughter for religious reasons.
  • Q. There's a lot of emotion attached to this question, but people argue that a dog is a dog is a dog, and cannot speciate beyond the bounds of the baramin. How does one answer the claim that one cannot produce speciation in the lab?
  • Grad. Speciation has been performed in the lab.

[The panelists cited the work of Richard Lenski as an example of this. Several people attempted to speak at once, including the creationist.]

[The creationist remained silent for the remainder of the discussion.]

  • Prof. Myers. Artificial selection has produced many different breeds of dogs, cows, etc., but since they are not bred for genetic isolation that does not produce new species.
  • Undergrad. Elements of social theory say otherwise; also, there are dopamine triggers for altruism.
  • Grad. There are kamikaze bacteria that will kill other bacteria, but not their relatives.
  • Prof. Myers. I would like to live in a peaceful society, and there is no way to argue that evolution does not favor something; evolution favors anything that brings a benefit to an individual.
  • Undergrad. Everyone can agree that the Arizona shooting was a bad thing.
  • Q. Question to the last questioner, who is saying, essentially, "How can secular ethics account for ethics?" But slavery, mass slaughters, etc., is heavily condoned in the Old Testament.

[The moderator instructed that questions should be directed at the panel.]

  • Undergrad. That is not philosophical knowledge, but posturing.
  • Grad. There's no way to test it, so there's no way to believe it. Also, even if this is an illusion, science is the best way to understand the illusion.
  • Q. What is your take on Christianity? What is wrong with Christianity?
  • Prof. Myers. Historically, it has destroyed civilization. Culturally, it has justified many evil and brainless acts. Also, it is ridiculous and stupid and its claims are absurd. Original sin particularly; also the belief that Jesus had to incarnate himself to take the punishment for this.
  • Grad. Not only nonsense, but hideous. I don't want Jesus getting punished for my deeds.
  • Undergrad. Misogyny in the Old Testament.
  • Prof. Myers. The New Testament is no better than the Old, teaching slavery of the mind for everyone. Read Rick Warren: "Our goal is as slaves to God for all eternity and this is something we should revel in." Heinous doctrine.

[Methinks Prof. Myers would whistle a different tune if he understood the full meaning of the word legalism.]

  • Q. What about transhumanism, the belief that humans should produce something better than themselves?
  • Undergrad and Grad. I am for that.
  • Prof. Myers. Transhumanism is inevitable. We are going to change ourselves in radical ways, like it or not. He does disagree with transhumanists who have beliefs about the rapture, which is bullshit. The transhumanist world will be nothing like we pictured it.
  • Q. The reason why Christianity is nonsensical is that in our judicial system, when people are convicted of a crime, they are punished, and in our judicial system one would not be able to send an innocent man to take the punishment. This does not make sense from a humanistic standpoint.

[Another questioner responds.]

  • Q. That's a good thing about Christianity.
  • Prof. Myers. You like Christianity's "Get Out of Jail Free" card?
  • Q. Yes.
  • Prof. Myers. One could see that rapists, etc., would find that a good deal.
  • Q.Do the panelists think they are perfect?
  • Grad. Not perfect, but not a child-rapist or a protector of child-rapists, such as the Catholic Church.
  • Q. Why is it so difficult for the religious to accept the complexity of the universe, but so easy for them to accept the existence of a being complex enough to create the universe?
  • Grad. Humans have a problem dealing with things that have no agency behind them, and like purpose.
  • Prof. Myers. People like authority.
  • Q. What is the panelists' view of fundamentalist Islam, Islamism, Islamophobia, and the view that Europe is being invaded by Muslims?
  • Prof. Myers. It isn't fair to single out Islam, because Christianity is a very violent religion, too.
  • Grad. Many Muslims are moderate and democratic in view.
  • Prof. Myers. But this does not rescue Islam.

[The moderator stated that there was time for only one more question.]

  • Q. Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris are pointing out that the Muslim immigrants to Europe are very bigoted and barbaric.
  • Prof. Myers. Their rhetoric goes over the top sometimes, and they tend to lump Muslims together in the Islamist camp, but they do not single out Islam in general.

[The meeting adjourned at 9:01 P.M.]

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