Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | April 15, 2009

Science and Religion (and Sex)

I have a bone to pick with PZ Myers, professor of biology, lover of cephalopods, and blogger of renown.

Dr. Myers is an atheist, defined as one who believes there is no god. I have no problem with this, although Dr. Myers does share certain traits with some of the more aggressive proselytizers of other religions:

  • He is certain that he is right.
  • He feels the world would be a better place if others believed as he did, therefore…
  • He is actively engaged in activities intended to encourage others to believe as he does.

This is actually beside the point I wish to make, which is this:

There is no conflict between science and religion, because they meet different human needs and serve different functions in human communities. Like exercise and diet, both vital to human well-being yet hardly interchangeable, religion meets emotional needs that are irrelevant to science. Science, on the other hand, admirably meets the intellectual need to understand the world and universe around us, along with providing us the tools (technology) to live longer and more comfortably. When religion and science are used appropriately, there is no conflict.

I will agree that religion appears to be used inappropriately far more often than does science, however in his endless anti-religion rants, Dr. Myers picks on the wrong people: those who misuse and mistake the role of religion. The endless reports of priestly pedophilia, Taliban excesses, and other assorted sociopathic behaviors in the name of higher beings makes it increasingly difficult to notice that there is anything positive about religion (especially if you purposely avoid looking for them because you don’t believe they exist.)

An important and appropriate role for religion is to provide emotional comfort in times of pain. For every pedophile priest, there are hundreds of humble souls who spend their days and years counseling and comforting those in distress. It’s all well and good for Dr. Myers and his cohorts to sit around swigging beer blithely discussing why there can be no such thing as life after death, but until you have watched a man standing over a coffin containing the second child he’s buried in three months, and listened as he told you the only way he can continue to get up and go to work every morning is by knowing that he will see his boys again one day, it takes a lot of nerve to go rudely blathering about a “sky fairy.”

Demanding scientific proof of the existence of god is inappropriate. The scientific method is vital to understanding how the physical universe works, but that does not mean it is the only method that should be employed in all forms of inquiry. For example, it is irrelevant in discussing literature. Scientists demand, correctly, that religion (in the form of creationism and intelligent design) be kept out of the science classroom. Dr. Myers should not be so hypocritical as to invade Theology class. Faith isn’t open to debate. In fact, in this context, the word “debate” is misused. “Debate” implies openness to persuasion. Dr. Myers has made it quite clear that no one is going to be able to change his mind in such a debate, with which I have no quarrel. Why, though, does he expect that he will be able to persuade others of equally deep faith, if all are coming to the “debate” with their minds already made up?

So what’s my beef with Dr. Myers? It’s not his atheism, but his expressions of anti-religionism that are deeply offensive. Even as he demands tolerance for his views, he contantly and vociferously proclaims his own lack thereof. Make no mistake: ridicule is an especially pernicious form of intolerance.

One strategy he uses is to cherry-pick news items showing religion — specifically, evil or ignorant people misusing religious principles — in a bad light. Then he expresses the presumption that this is representative of religion in general. His reporting of the recent violence in Afghanistan, as well as the routine annual redux of stories about orthodox Jews stoning cars to punish their occupants for driving on Yom Kippur fall into this category.

Another gambit is to goad the faithful with actions he knows will be painful to them. ie, CrackerGate. Ridiculing those who respond is like shooting fish in a barrel. (Regarding the whole cracker thing, by the way: it’s a SYMBOL, for crying out loud. How would you feel if someone came along, ripped your diploma off the wall, and shredded it publicly while crying, “It’s just a piece of paper!” and “Are you stupider without this hanging on the wall?” and the like.)

Why should you care about any of this, Dr. Myers?

Because you are alienating potential allies. There are people of many faiths who are just as disgusted and distressed as you are over this mis-use of religion, the creeping destruction of science curricula, and the evil done in their names. Although they would stand shoulder to shoulder with you at school board meetings and the like, they don’t appreciate the ridicule you heap upon them so freely. When they believe you speak for all atheists, they avoid associating with others of your faith who may actually be more tolerant than you. In short, your anti-religionism is giving atheists a bad name.

You are like an emotionally stunted adolescent who never manages to have a satisfying sexual relationship, who decides to champion celibacy. You point out all the problems with sex like STDs, promiscuity, and adultery to justify your rejection of sex. Then you go making fun of the expressions people make during orgasm.

Those in rewarding, stable sexual relationships will never be able to convince you that you’re wrong. The smart ones won’t even try. They also won’t want to have anything to do with you because of your ridicule, even though they share your dismay over the STDs, promiscuity and other problems. You do not have to renounce something completely to credibly address its shortcomings.

(Note to Pharynguloid Hordes: I am well aware that Dr. Myers is married and has spawned. This is called an analogy. Look it up.)

So why am I writing this if I’m so offended by Pharyngula’s rabid anti-religionism? It is because I credit Dr. Myers with enough intellectual honesty to understand the point I am trying to make. It is my hope that my rational explanation will help him understand that some of his more virulent comments may be counterproductive to his very legitimate causes.

(Disclaimer: No one understands better than I the phenomenon of a “blog persona” and the fun of posting somewhat more outrageously than one really feels, just to enjoy the response. I do not know Dr. Myers in person, and I am fully aware of the possibility that he is much more tolerant in Real Life(tm) than in his writings on Pharyngula.)

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Responses

  1. I’m atheist but like you, I am annoyed–sometimes infuriated–by aggressive proselytizers, whether atheists or believers. One quibble though: the Communion wafer is not a mere symbol in Catholicism. Church doctrine holds that it is, through the Miracle of Transubstantiation, literally the Body of Christ. While that may sound silly to outsiders, it is a central and vital tenet of the Catholic faith.


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