Musings of a Dinosaur

A Family Doctor in solo private practice; I may be going the way of the dinosaur, but I'm not dead yet.

Wednesday, 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.)


At Wed Apr 15, 04:15:00 PM, Anonymous bobxxxx said...

"There is no conflict between science and religion"

Bullshit. Tell that to the Christians who are constantly trying to dumb down science education.

At Wed Apr 15, 06:14:00 PM, Anonymous Samantha Jones said...

There is a conflict between science and religion if for no other reason than the enormous number of religions inexplicably extant.

Which of the religions would you have us follow? Which of the multitude of gods? Which sets even a half-decent example?

Judaism and Islam have one god each and can't live in the same patch of desert without slaughtering each other.

Christianity has three gods and a long history of murdering people who don't do what the threesome tells them to do.

Hinduism has something like 10,000 gods and is based on a brutal caste system which damns millions of Dalits (Untouchables) as less than human.

Just about the only similarity between these religions (and their almost entirely male gods) is that they fear and despise women and fantasize about keeping us chained to the kitchen and bedroom.

If I have to choose a god, I'll go with the females — Isis, Ishtar, Aphrodite, Cybele, Venus and Mahimata — with the hope, if nothing else, that they'll favour love over war.

Religion, however, has a tendency to corrupt even the best of us.

At Wed Apr 15, 07:49:00 PM, Blogger Evan said...

Dino let me disagree with you a bit here. As far as I know, PZ only blogs and appears on shows and at conferences that he's asked to attend.

You accuse him of intolerance, but that's personal intolerance of ideas that he doesn't agree with. That's not advocating that society as a whole become intolerant of diverse opinions. You yourself are intolerant of certain practices (radiologists who don't keep track of what studies they have done, for example), but that doesn't make you intolerant, it makes you opinionated.

Now PZ is certainly that. But he doesn't proselytize a bit, contra the implications of your article.

In addition your analogy of a diploma to the host is simply wrong. A diploma is a symbol like the license plate of your car is a symbol. It's unique and requires effort to get. Defacing it would be a personal attack on the person who owned the symbol (who would have to go through work to get a replica). The host meets none of these criteria. It's less valuable than a $1 chip from a casino (a slightly better analogy), but again, the desecration of the host is supposedly an insult to Jesus -- who should be able to defend himself.

Finally, you say he's alienating potential allies and giving atheism a bad name.


Atheists had a good name before?


Think this one through some more.

Then, the next time the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons or some other group comes to your door, causes all your dogs to bark loudly, causing you to come to the door with a towel around your waist dripping soapsuds around you, think about this article again.

At Wed Apr 15, 10:32:00 PM, Blogger Rebecca said...

Thank you. A friend of mine went to my church (which is Christian) on Sunday. Afterward she called me up, astounded that a church could be joyful, welcoming and accepting of many. Gay friendly, multi-racial, interfaith marriages abound. The radical-stupid (rather than radical right) taint all of us.

At Thu Apr 16, 07:23:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

*pops popcorn*

At Thu Apr 16, 08:11:00 AM, Blogger Alison Cummins said...

The separate spheres argument has as its core the axiom that it's good for people to believe things that are untrue if these beliefs please or comfort them, and the corollary that it's not good for untrue beliefs to be challenged. These are not unproblematic assumptions.

In particular, in the current atmosphere, we need to be able to challenge people's beliefs. The idea that "I believe... there are WMD in Iraq," or "I believe... vaccines cause autism" or "I believe... faith will heal my child of cancer" should be a sufficient formula for warding off criticism is untenable.

If irrational beliefs can be tagged as "religious" and automatically be set aside as unchallengeable, how can we talk to one another? If "I believe" is a formula for saying "on this subject I will entertain theological discussion with a member of my own religion only, and any attempt on your part to engage me is, to the extent that I dislike the conversation, [religious] intolerance," then how can we cooperate? The answer is that very often we don't.

PZ is an ass. Fine. But we need him. He challenges people and irrational beliefs... and he doesn't die. We need that example, because as a society Americans are extremely tolerant of irrational beliefs that cause death.

This isn't just about religion. I hear people say, "I believe ___ because I'm a Mormon" and "I believe ___ because I'm a conservative" in exactly the same way. Both of these are completely irrational statements. They need to be inversed and the unchallengable pop-psych I-statement dropped: "I am a Mormon because ___ is true." "I am a conservative because ___ is true." Otherwise they don't make sense.

At Thu Apr 16, 11:33:00 AM, Blogger Xensen said...

We all agree it's both important and, well, occasionally amusing to criticize just about everything in life, from movies to food to politics to the medical system in this country.

Why, then, is religion held to be irreproachable?

Why is a "virulent" comment fine to apply to the idiocy of demanding antibiotics for a viral infection, but not to the idiocy of believing that there is an omnipotent creator of the universe that cares about the results of football games?

Why should we not hold religion to the same standards as we do all other things?

At Thu Apr 16, 11:44:00 PM, Blogger William said...


To answer your question, simply, because it is selfish and rude. Adults who were brought up properly don't do that. Get over yourself and join polite society.

OR be willing to have people attempt to argue and YOU out of things you feel strongly about, like, say, your sexual orientation?

At Fri Apr 17, 01:55:00 AM, Blogger Debra said...

I'm neither the most articulate nor the most knowledgeable person in the world concerning religion.

But I do know bad manners, and attention-seeking, when I see it.

His blog reminded me of nothing more than the pissing-wars of the teens and preteens I encounter as I play a popular mmorpg.

And sure, desecrate the cracker all you like, throw your garbage onto whatever holy book you choose. You still look like a jerk in the end.

At Fri Apr 17, 05:56:00 AM, Anonymous Peter T. said...

I read (obviously) this blog on occasion and Pharyngula, again I dip in there too, I'm not a die hard fan boy.

Richard Dawkins has asked that us atheists out ourselves, well I live in the UK so never felt the need to be in but I understand things are different stateside. Why has he done this? As I understand it, it's to raise awareness in exactly the same way the gay and lesbian movement did: We don't eat babies, drink blood etc. Some of us are quite respectable.

PZ raises awareness but, of course he goes overboard sometimes. However, his blog is well - his. He also posts thoughtful pieces and some darned good articles on scientific matters and discoveries by the way.

I trust that people of faith who don't want to send us all to hell (or its alternatives) can judge that he's not representative of the whole. He's an individual, an individual of influence in the atheist community for sure but very unlikely to ever to be appointed chief outreach officer.

Why does he do what he does then? Well, I don't know for sure but I'm guessing it's partially because his subject is one that some religions or sects have decided is their domain.

You're an MD so imagine that you are forced by law to consider hiring a nurse who has been educated in the biblical interpretation of disease, you know demons and the like. Wouldn't that get you a little bit peeved? So how does PZ feel about kids being told that evolution is b.s. if they're told about it at all that is?

By the way, the current pope continues the Catholic church's prohibition on condoms, going so far as to suggest that they can increase the problem of AIDS. Who's blurring the line here?

St.Monica's High School in Greater Manchester have banned pupils from receiving the HPV vaccine on its premises, no explicit reason given but various church groups have voiced concerns that it would encourage promiscuity (better that girls die of cervical cancer - that'll teach 'em). Again, who's picking the battle here?

Yes, the Taleban allegedly are behind the shooting of a couple who wanted to marry against their parents' wishes. Is the so-called honour killing (I hate that phrase) a correct interpretation of Islam? I don't know but in certain parts of the world you can't even raise that question. It's not a science question but I can see why PZ would have an opinion on it.

Paedophile priests are, yes I would agree, the minority. The real story here however is that these priests were moved from parish to parish to kill the story. The churches knew what was going on and protected their own putting countless other children at risk. Children were not believed because priests don't behave like that. As an aside, I have a friend who is a social services family counselor in Seattle. She had to go through background checks before getting her job; the religiously affiliated counselors? No, no checks required.

Religions tend to intrude on our daily lives in one way or another. If you have no truck with them isn't it reasonable you might feel like blowing off occasionally?

By the way, accepted ways to insult PZ are: mention his trophy wife (actually I think he likes this) and tell him to pronounce his initials correctly :*)

At Fri Apr 17, 06:33:00 AM, Anonymous Peter T. said...

Actually, I just read "Third leg" and it appears you do get tired of people with no subject knowledge treading on your toes :*) It won't be long before you're desecrating health care reform pamphlets on YouTube. Let the anger take control :*)

At Fri Apr 17, 06:32:00 PM, Blogger John A said...

I try to distinguish between religions and the adherents thereof. Whenever I read about the likes of the "Reverend" Phelps (much beloved by the MSM, who follow every move of his what, two hundred [including about ninety family members] group) I also recall some other things:

1. Torquemada was threatened with excommunication by his Pope, who abhorred the methods of the Inquisition.
2. Galileo was not tried and put under house arrest for his science, but for his politics (OK, not all that much better a reason, but still...) - which he tried to bolster with his work.
3. The Thugee, who worshiped the godess Kali as "The Destroyer," had to ignore most of the body of literature about her in order to do so.

Lots more, just not easy to find - and I admit I have not been active in looking, just stuff encountered by chance over the years.

Mind, I hold no brief for religion, like any other organization it is prone to msichief as soon as there is more than one member.

At Tue Apr 21, 10:56:00 PM, Anonymous red rabbit said...

Hi Dino:

I have to say, Pharyngula has the edge on this argument. This is not necessarily because PZ Myers is particularly right, but because it is his blog you're talking about: his personal opinion.

He has a right to express it. You have a right to ignore it.

I have to take issue with something you did say in your entry re: atheists' beliefs. There is no atheist belief system. We have come to similar though not necessarily identical conclusions independently. There is no dogma re: participating in traditional rituals and social events, nor is there any rule about being extreme in one's expression. Those who hang out at Scienceblogs seem to be rather uniform sometimes because they discuss the things that brought them to atheism or agnosticism, and share insights.

Kindly don't mistake lack of belief for just another belief system. It isn't.

At Sat Apr 25, 11:25:00 PM, Anonymous Lou said...

Not much to say except this was one of the best posts I've read on any subject in a very long time.

"...ridicule is an especially pernicious form of intolerance."

Is that your line, or someone else's? It's great.


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