Friday, July 25, 2008

Humane values

Over the last couple of years, several commentators have dubbed the fundamentalist Christians as “Christianists” in an effort to reclaim the title of “Christian” from those who do not really live its values.

The recent hoopla over PZ Myers and his “desecration” of a Catholic host, on top of the acid spat out by Richard Dawkins, leads me to propose the title “anti-theist” rather than “atheist” for these men. For their views are as fundamentalist as the religions they excoriate and (as your token atheist) I am just as offended by them.

I actually like much of PZ Myers’s work. His blog Pharyngula is usually a relentless if at times strident defender of scientific and intellectual values against superstitions like Creationism and Intelligent Design. (Let me remind you that it is perfectly compatible to believe that evolution occurred under God’s watchful eye, if you are inclined that way. Creationism and ID however state that it MUST have occurred that way and the scientific models are actually WRONG. There’s quite a difference.) He also has an eagle eye for pseudo-scientific frauds, and draws a bright line between science and religion. Most of the time, I consider this a good thing.

However, in the latest battle over the host, Myers has lost any high ground with a puerile prank. It achieves nothing except feeding his ego. (Same with his other potshots against religion). Most atheists I know (me included, of course) do not attack religious faith but are perfectly content to live and let live with our friends of faith. I may not agree with you about what’s myth and what’s reality, but as long as you can respect my values I can respect yours. (I consider religion, as a political institution, separable from faith but that's a separate post!)

But Myers and Dawkins and others are a new breed that makes a faith out of anti-theism and insults believers and their beliefs. While I can understand that some of this is a backlash against the Christianists, and I can be quite sympathetic (especially when, for example, my civil rights as a gay American are trumped by the religious values of hard right Christianists), the rigid binaries of the new atheism are just as limited and fundamentalist as the black and white views of those it purports to disdain. So it is itself a religion, and counter to my secular values.

So, just as you folks don’t like being tarred by the brush that paints James Dobson, don’t tar me or other secularists by the fundamentalist colors of PZ Myers. Let’s instead embrace ambiguity. We'll meet somewhere in the 256 shades of grey and not limit ourselves to the extremes of black and white.


Mystical Seeker said...

PZ Myers is behaving like a 12-year-old, and I say this as one who personally finds the whole official Catholic position on communion to be, well, rather ridiculous.

Myers also has come out against Evolution Sunday (or Evolution Weekend, as it is now known.) He is so rabidly anti-theistic that he won't even form alliances with people of faith in the promotion of evolution against creationism and ID. You'd think that a biologist with an interest in evolution would gladly work with allies on this issue. But no, of course not. This is an example of just how fundamentalist he really is.

Anonymous said...

Yup, that's it exactly, MS. It gives the rest of us biologists a really bad name.


Wormwood's Doxy said...

I guess the bitterness of academic politics wasn't enough for him, so he went out to stir up someone else's hornet nest...which suggests to me that he needs some serious psychotherapy and pharmacological interventions.

IT---I would never lump you in with the likes of Myers. And I will work until my dying breath to ensure that the Christianists don't have their way with the U.S. legal system.


Ann said...

Thanks IT --- exactly right. And it is all myth. We are story telling beings. We make stories of random bits of our lives - well edited to make a good or bad story of our lives.

Anonymous said...

Well said!! My usual line on the whole matter is "I don't believe in the god Richard Dawkins portrays either but it has nothing to do with my faith". I agree that the usually reasonable Myers is over the line this time and can only hope it isn't a trend.

And since this is my first comment on the new site, let me add how happy I am that the Friends of Jake have a new gathering place. Reasonable people to talk about religion and faith with can be pretty thin on the ground these days and I'm thrilled to know you (plural, I'm too much of a yankee to say you all :) are out there.

- scotte

RudigerVT said...

Then there's this.

A rather well documented relationship exists between frustration and aggression. People have a tendency to become aggressive when their goals are thwarted.

This all, to me, looks like nothing so much as aggression. Habitual aggression. The fuel of the fire, though, seems to be frustration.

It's a familiar scenario. I've seen it in a few scientific-genius types. Saddled with enormous intellect, diligence, good luck (being in the right place at the right time, idea-wise), and energy, such people are often colorful and vivid advocates for their often very, very good ideas. They may even have a sense of wonder about those ideas, recognizing the role that luck played (ie, the power of random events).

But, this is also the sort of whom it's often said "he/she doesn't suffer fools gladly." The problem, however, is that "fools" is a category that expands to encompass anybody and everybody who disagrees with the Big-Idea-Guy.

There is often a behavioral prodrome that signals the melt-down. There's even, sometimes, and offer to calmly, patiently explain (this is where the condescension really kicks in). During this explanation, the ignorant one is expected to listen and then, eventually, assent. Accept the Truth.

If'n they don't, however, then it gets ugly. Rather, the Big-Idea-Guy gets ugly. In my more psychodynamic moments, I think I see a fair amount of narcissism here also. The mere presence of people who disagree is an intolerable wound (not to mention an unforgivable affront).

The burden of this type of genius reminds me of the decidedly mixed bag of things that comes with valuable waterfront property: a blessing and a curse, almost inevitably a trial.


David said...

Love it, IT - thanks!

And quite frankly, I often feel uncomfortable being lumped together with "theists" - since it's come to mean one who believes in a "personal" God who is somehow separate from, or outside of, Creation.

Strictly, I do belong in the Theism camp, but rather on the fringe, since I'm more of a Pandeist than anything else...

Mystical Seeker said...

The mere presence of people who disagree is an intolerable wound (not to mention an unforgivable affront).

I think you've hit the nail on the head. I'm not sure if this rage that comes from people not seeing things your own way is pathological or just plain childish.

I've seen this phenomenon in a lot of militant atheists of this stripe. They never seem to be able to tolerate the idea that other people see the world in different ways than they do. If someone with a progressive theology, which doesn't fit into the paradigm that the militant atheist tries to convey, tries to patiently explain to them what their theology is about, the militant atheist just can't handle that, and the usual reaction is to insist that other people must fall into the categories that they have laid out for us all to follow. Also, people like this never just say, "I don't need religion." They instead say, "no one needs religion." They know what is best for everyone else, and "live and let live" is not exactly their motto.

But Myers does seem to even be more over the top in his persecutorial zeal than some others are.

Anonymous said...

On spot as ever, deear IT.

Anonymous said...

And I'm too much of a southerner, Scotte, to let you get away with such a misrepresentation of one of our most potent self-identifiers: it's not "you all", it's "Y'ALL"! (I'd put a smiley-face here if I knew how.)

I think this site is a good thing, too. I probably won't comment much, but I'm glad to see it. Looks like it will be broader than Bro. Jake's, but I do hope it will keep nearly as close an eye on things Episcopal/Anglican. Maybe we should call them Episcopalists and Anglicanists?

Cany said...

Bravo, IT. And I'm with doxie on her post... bright/bright line between rights and religion.

As you know, IT, I was an atheist for a long time until I had a very unique (to me) experience. Like you, I didn't banter people around for their beliefs. I too had--have--the attitude you do to this day.

I might point out that imho, those that refuse the host from the hands of others with whom they disagree (e.g. Venables et. al) are hardly better. They disrespect the Host, they disrespect the church, and they disrespect their own humanness in doing this.

As many of us have surmised, we will honor the diversity of God by taking the Eucharist next to those that firmly disagree with us. Many of them will not.

Sad, but true.

Erp said...

I'm fairly new to this community so don't know much about what has come before. For the record I am atheistic humanist (I don't like the term atheist because that isn't all I am) who is interested in figuring out how christians think (the Lambeth blogs are proving quite illuminating). I certainly am aware of many shades of grey (and possibly one should open the spectrum up to colors like pink or purple or orange).

I note that Myers is facing off against Bill Donohue of the Catholic League who has apparently brought out the worst in him. I guess the question is reaction
*consider him as acting like a teenager and leave it at that
*encourage Donohue to pursue a campaign to have him censured by his university or by the secular authorities

What about the Florida student, Webster Cook, who initiated the whole thing when he took a consecrated wafer apparently to show a curious friend what it looked like and then was manhandled? He kept the wafer for a few days then returned it. (There is a lot of conflicting reports on what exactly happened including Cook's intent). Donohue went after the student, Myers went after Donohue.

Anonymous said...

There has been a lamentable absence of maturity and common sense among principals in l'affaire de la wafer.


Fran said...

Ack- the whole thing was a huge mess from the get-go and should have never gone so far out of control.

Sadly this has soured me on Myers, who as you so aptly say, has done some really good things on his blog.

I am Catholic and I think that Donohue and the Catholic League are basically pathetic and very meanspirited jerks and distinctly non-Jesus-y.

However, whatever got into Myers, holy crap, he went over the edge. I think he took the post down, but for good or ill I did view the desecration.

It was upsetting, not because Jesus needs me to defend him in a fight, but because it just reeked of tremendous amounts of anger and disrespect. I mean WTF?

Whatever. I had an email from a very dear atheist friend today who said she was sorry that Myers had stepped over the edge in this way.

Whatever. I am most definitely of the live and let live group and that is one thing I love about the blogging community at large.

How I have rambled on, sorry!

IT, this just may be the most thoughtful piece I have seen on this subject.

Thank you and peace.

Anonymous said...

LPR, exactly. As an academic scientist, I know many of that ilk.

Also I read somewhere that Myers may be an ex-Catholic.

Now, while I don't believe the God/transubstantiation thing, I do feel that it is an act of violence against people who do who behave this way. Which is another reason I find the wilful witholding or sharing of Communion to be a profoundly violent act. Even though I'm not a Christian, I get it.

erp, welcome.

marc, I think there will be no shortage of things Anglican. (Also James is doing a good job with the news feeds and commentary). I'll just nip in to keep the doors open to the broader world.


Ann said...

The Lutherans -at least the one's I supply for - believe that the host is only Jesus while the community is gathered--- it does get rid of a lot of magical thinking about a piece of flour and water.

Anonymous said...


An early mentor of mine once said (re: accidents with the host), "Look, if Jesus can get into it, he can get out of it."


rick allen said...

"Atheist" is a useful term, but, like most words with an essentially negative meaning, it covers a lot of ground. Any word that includes both Stalin and the Dalai Lama is not going to be much use in indicating what one does, as opposed to what one does not, believe.

Anonymous said...

I may not agree with you about what’s myth and what’s reality

Reality IS a myth, sweet IT. ;-) [And how will you ever deal w/ not being Our Token Atheist anymore? Welcome, erp!]


As you know, IT, I was an atheist for a long time until I had a very unique (to me) experience.

How very interesing, cany! (I hadn't heard). I pray, if God be willing, that IT might have such an experience? Maybe at her upcoming nuptials---or wedding night? ;-D (I kid, I kid!)


I just wish the PZ Myers and the Bill Donahues of this world would go off to a desert island somewhere (preferably, w/ a Killer Creature, like the one on Lost), and leave the reasonable people (I'll include you, IT, if you'll include me!) alone? To, y'know, actually live life, as opposed to imposing our preferred "Meaning of..."???

[JCF, who spent more happy time this week in Eucharistic Adoration, thanks to some local-ish Popoids' lovely chapel. Revering Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament, does NOT mean Going Postal if anything untoward should happen to Him, "under the species". Sheesh!]

Anonymous said...

I like that, Scott.

JCF, I'll include you if you'll include me. (but I don't think our wedding will offer quite that opportunity now.(

I think it is a good sign if there is more than one atheist here. People of good will may read different signposts but the roads are parallel, don't you think? (I mean the roads NOW, obviously my anticipated journey ends sooner than yours... ;-)

Erp said...

As for parallel roads are we talking non-Euclidean geometry? Though like IT I think the road will end for each of us and isn't infinite. We are companions on this plain of roads whether on the same road or another road and it makes life a lot easier if we are considerate, if we share joy, if we listen, if we try to see the good in each other. Admittedly I'm having better luck doing the last with Myers and the Bishops in the Sudan than Donohue.

Ann said...

LPR - you have to sign your full name on your comments to ECafe - send me a note and I will add it if you want it published.
akhfontaine at

Anonymous said...

IT, I appreciate the people on this site because, for the most part, we are moderates in a fundamentalist world. Some days it seems like the fundamentalists of all stripes (Myers too) rule the zoo. I am saddened that Myers has lost all credibility in the fight for science in public policy, but imho he has. He can no longer have real credibility as a scientist because he has lost his objectivity. I'm glad to be part of a supportive group as we continue to try to be heard in a nonviolent, reasonable manner. I firmly believe there is room for all of us to learn from each other. Noone has all the truth.

Elizabeth (I've forgotten how I spelled my password on google- too smart for my own good. :-)

IT said...

Over on Andrew Sullivan's site, there's a letter about myers:

That bears repeating: this is not the middle east; this is not the middle ages. This is a free society. And in a free society, there exists no right to not be offended. If the Catholic church can get away with desecrating what others consider sacred (or, for those of us who have no concept of sacredness, at least special) - if they can call a loving union between two gay men or women an "abomination", if they can call the union into which I hope to enter someday a "perversion", then damn it, I reserve the right to desecrate what they consider sacred also. Respect is a two-way street - if they want my respect, they must give me theirs. If they want Myers to respect them, they must also respect him (and Mr. Cook for that matter). But this is something of which religion in general seems incapable - they always want respect, but reserve the right to give none in return.

this articulates the anger that the homophobia of the established churches engenders, the divisiveness, the partisanship. I can understand where this man comes from (and it's clear for him Catholicism and Christianity are the enemy).

Now, this is not my viewpoint, obviously--at some degree, I think we lose the moral high ground if we descend to the level of our attackers,and we need to be better than they are rather than grovel in the mud with them--but at some point there are limits to the compromises any of us can or will make. Limits at which we have to stop following orders, and serving in -- what was it -- ah yes, that "crucified place".

where, in those 256 shades of grey, do we each draw the line? There are absolutists, there are enablers, and there are those who go so far and no further.

Given the news over the last day or two from Lambeth, this is the rule and partisanship that Rowan, Abp Rowan--wants to impose on your church. Over on MP's site I commented that this bizarre authoritarian dance between the muckety-mucks of Anglicanism and the Catholics reminds me of nothing so much as the end of Animal Farm. Who, do you think, are the pigs, and who the humans?

And where will each one draw the line?


Anonymous said...

Has Andrew Sullivan left the RCC? (And if so, how did I miss the memo? :-0)

{JCF re-reads}

Oh, waitaminnit: this letter wasn't from Sullivan, then? If not, what did he say about it?

IT said...

He's on a break, JCF. He's still an RC apologist, defiantly holding onto the gun'als while the Pope bashes at his fingers with an oar.


toujoursdan said...

I actually like much of PZ Myers’s work. His blog Pharyngula is usually a relentless if at times strident defender of scientific and intellectual values against superstitions like Creationism and Intelligent Design. (Let me remind you that it is perfectly compatible to believe that evolution occurred under God’s watchful eye, if you are inclined that way. Creationism and ID however state that it MUST have occurred that way and the scientific models are actually WRONG. There’s quite a difference.) He also has an eagle eye for pseudo-scientific frauds, and draws a bright line between science and religion. Most of the time, I consider this a good thing.

I used to read his blog often for the same reason. Though I am a person of faith, I usually agreed with him on matters of science and supported him when exposing the pseudo-science of the right wing.

But when I suggested that possibly he has become the flip side of the coin he hated so much I was called every name in the book. There is a difference between atheism and anti-theism; the latter being every bit as fundamentalist as religions can become.

I tend to look at science versus religion as being akin to physics versus art. I can certainly explain the physics of art or music using the scientific method, but the scientific method can't explain why certain pigments and brush strokes become great works of beauty. I can't explain why the production of certain sounds, tones and harmonics can move people to tears from Germany to Japan as Bach's Cantatas do. The scientific or rational method is one, but certainly not the only way, the human brain processes information.

I don't tend to debate anti-theists because I would agree that you can't to prove the existence or non of God using any logical method. It is beyond logic but that doesn't make it real, as far as I am concerned. My criticisms of this philosophy is that they limit truth to that which can only be found using the scientific or rational method. I don't accept those limitations.

But there needs to be room in society for all kinds of exploration of the human predicament. I certainly respect atheists for their viewpoint; I wish the anti-theists would allow me, mine.

Anonymous said...

Thus, Toujours Dan, we have exactly mirrored experiences of "the other side's" fundamentalists!

However, at least in the US (I know you are in saner Canada) the Christianist fundamentalists have substantial political power, which the anti-theists don't.


toujoursdan said...

That's why I am a firm believer in the primacy of secular state, to keep all fundamentalists out.

David said...

Amen to THAT, Dan! :)

(heh, heh..."amen" to the "the primacy of the secular state" ;)

Anonymous said...

here's a provocative article in Salon about Myers and his Science As Religion views.