Well-known scientist and blogger PZ Myers, a frequent commenter on the cultural clash between science and religion, is an atheist.
Therefore I think that he, and other atheists, should be held responsible for the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, Stalin's purges of the Russian Orthodox Church, and this guy in Philadelphia who raped a 77-year-old woman and told her there was no God. (It's not clear if he believed that before he lived in Philadelphia.) Myers' advocacy of atheism normalizes the midset that leads to such behavior.
Oh, OK. Not really. Believing that would be nutty. It would be surrendering my capacity for reason to my rage and hate against people who think differently than I do. It would be treating people and complex situations like cartoons, rejecting nuance, and presuming cause and effect and post hoc ergo propter hoc.
It would be, in short, acting like PZ Myers.
Myers is having a full-blown episode over recent news stories in which parents have fought to withhold medical care from their kids on religious grounds, rejecting medical science in favor of prayer with predictably tragic results. PZ Myers sees this as an opportunity to tell everyone who believes in God that we suck and that by continuing to believe we empower, and are responsible for, such tragedies:
I have to say something that is heartfelt, and is also meant to offend. I do not absolve you mealy-mouthed moderates, I do not regard your beliefs as harmless. If Colleen Hauser or Leilani Neumann were in your church, you'd tell them to get medical care, but you'd also validate their belief in prayers. You would provide the soothing background muzak that says prayer is good, prayer is virtuous, prayer will connect you to the great lord who can do anything, prayer will give you solace in your time of worry. You would not raise your voice to say that prayer is useless, prayer is self-defeating, that while prayer might make you feel better while your child is suffering, that is no virtue. You pray yourselves. You think it is a noble and generous act for your representatives to prowl the corridors of hospitals, preying on the desperation of the sick. You abase yourselves before false hopes, and sacrifice human dignity on an altar built from the bones of the dead. You would spread the poison, piously excusing yourselves because you only want to administer sub-lethal doses.
You are Abraham's enablers. I hope you all feel a small tremor of guilt when you sit your own children down at bedtime to beg a nonexistent being for aid, when you plant the seed of futile supplication and surrender to delusions in their trusting minds. Damn you all.
Honestly, I'm not insulted. It's too sadly dysfunctional to be insulting. Myers' claim that he means no offense is dubious at best. If it's true, it's true only superficially, because causing offense is secondary to his main goal of getting attention. [Edited to add: I'm leaving that sentence in even though it is based on a sloppy misreading by me of the sentence, which actually says he does intend to offend. I'll leave in my error and acknowledge it rather than memory-hole it.] He's a practiced and increasingly successful attention whore, skilled in the classic please-notice-me three-step of saying something that is (in a very belabored fashion) outrageous, collecting predictable outraged responses, and then nailing himself to the cross over how harsh and foul and bigoted his critics are and how oppressed he is for Speaking Truth To Power. Everyone needs a hobby, I suppose. It could be worse; he could read poetry in cafes or do performance art or masturbate in the park or something.
But his effort to lay the wages of religious extremism at the feet of anyone who has faith is silly, and not worth our outrage. It's remarkably similar to the rhetoric of American theocrats who argue that atheism is responsible for the killing fields, and Stalin's purges, and school shootings, and for nihilistic crimes by broken people everywhere. But people are not automatons wound up by a single motivation, and history is not a four-color panel in the comic books. Saying that Stalin or Pol Pot massacred religious people because of atheism is to credulously conflate ostensible motives with far more complex political motives. Laying youth crime at the feet of atheism is to make pathology a caricature. I suspect Myers would acknowledge all of that — about atheism. But the same can be said for facile efforts to lay the evils of history at the feet of religion. Religion has often been an excuse for inhumanity, but excuses are not the same as reasons. Myers' proposition — that inhuman, or irrational, or self-absorbed people would not have found some other excuse, some other locus of bad behavior, if they did not have religion — is a dubious one. The proposition that Neumann and Hauser would be good parents making good decisions but for their faith is just as dubious. Moreover, adherents of an idea are not responsible for how that idea is twisted by others. Myers, like me, believes fervently in freedom of expression. Should we be damned when malign or broken people use it to hurt others?
It is amusing that Myers ends with "damn you." To damn, of course, is to solicit God or gods to consign someone to punishment. Myers recognizes no higher power other than himself. To whom is he appealing? And what punishment does he imagine?
Let me add that I enjoy much of what PZ Myers writes, read him frequently, and often agree with him about the excesses of religious extremists and the distorting impact that theocratic thinking has on science and government. I can learn from him without agreeing completely with him. His decision to believe differently than I do does not threaten me, and his decision to hate me for it generates amusement and pity rather than outrage. No doubt Myers would find a way to tell you that is precisely what makes me a grave danger to decent society.
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