Science and religion: Godless chronicles

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Glenn Branch goes for a dip in the antitheologic.

The Happy Atheist

PZ Myers Pantheon: 2013. ISBN: 9780307379344

Buy this book: US UK Japan

When the producers of the 2008 creationist film Expelled asked to interview PZ Myers, they misrepresented the nature of their project and the purpose of the interview. By the time the film screened, Myers knew that his brief clip would portray the scientific establishment as dogmatically suppressing dissent from evolution. Ironically, when he arrived at the cinema, he was excluded — unlike a colleague who was also interviewed for the film. Myers repaired to a nearby computer store to post a hilarious account of his expulsion on his widely read blog, Pharyngula. Expelled was quickly showered with unwelcome publicity as a result.

Myers is a developmental biologist, who named his blog after the pharyngula stage of embryonic development — both, he jokes, are notable for the appearance of brain and jaw. Pharyngula is a freewheeling mix of explanations of developmental biology, denunciations of creationism, commentary on politics, feuds with critics and rivals, and the sort of in-jokes and recurrent features that typify the blogosphere, enlivened by a raucous chorus of commenters. Its slogan is: “Evolution, development, and random biological ejaculations from a godless liberal”.

A major theme of Pharyngula, and Myers's first book, The Happy Atheist, is what he views as the incompatibility of science and religion. In addition to excoriating various absurdities and atrocities that he associates with faith, such as the bad science deployed by anti-abortion zealots, Myers repeatedly asserts that science and religion are necessarily in conflict: “One is a method of analysis and experiment; the other is pretense and lies.” He is fierce with regard to the proponents of old-fashioned creation science (“trying to get their Old Testament superhero to adhere to the rules of physics, chemistry, biology, and ordinary common sense”) and the adherents of newfangled intelligent design (who “hide the bearded old sky god from the public eye”). He also castigates scientists who accept evolution while retaining their faith.

Whatever Myers's target, his weapons are taken from the arsenal of ridicule. He is in good company — writers such as Jonathan Swift and George Orwell spring to mind. Myers's prose, although serviceable, isn't quite in the same class, but sometimes reaches lyrical heights. Explaining his decision to bury, rather than burn, unwanted books of scripture sent for his spiritual instruction, he exults “as nematodes writhe over the surfaces, etching the words with slime and replacing the follies of dead men with the wisdom of worms”. Myers's favourite weapon is the extended metaphor, deployed to expose his targets as arbitrary and absurd. He wields it adroitly, comparing religious diversity to hat variety and theologians to courtiers fawning over the Emperor's new clothes. These conceits are often amusing and occasionally instructive, but the tactic is cheap.

Whether infuriating or invigorating, ridicule is no substitute for a considered critique, and Myers often fails to do justice to his targets. For example, his analysis of the idea that God guides evolution by acting undetectably at the quantum level, if amusing, is a popular rather than a scholarly treatment, and incorporates value judgements that are unsupportable by science. Myers might respond that his targets are too ridiculous to warrant anything more serious, but such a response presupposes, rather than compels, agreement.

The chief problem with The Happy Atheist, however, is that it seems to break no new ground. By my count, Pharyngula posts provide the basis for at least 26 of the 38 essays and 5 more are adapted from a talk he gave in 2010.

Admirers and detractors alike will be disappointed by the book as a missed opportunity for Myers to refine, systematize and extend his thoughts on science and religion. It is not comparable with Jason Rosenhouse's Among the Creationists (Oxford University Press, 2012), Steve Stewart-Williams's Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life (Cambridge University Press, 2010), or that 'summa antitheologica' of our day, The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006) by Richard Dawkins. It was Dawkins, by the way, who was admitted to the screening of Expelled when Myers was excluded. Was Voltaire's prayer, “O Lord, make our enemies ridiculous,” ever better answered?


  1. Report this comment #59636

    Nicholas Beale said:

    Sadly Myers is even less understanding of the philosophical and scientific issues than Dawkins, and is thus incapable of making an intellectually significant contribution to the issues.

  2. Report this comment #59645

    Jason Grey said:

    I did not read the book, but as a scientist worry about such things. Most religions on earth are not opposed to science, or even evolution. It is primarily European based religions after 1000AD and their decedents, US or British protectorates (Colonies). Most other places on earth think such things are a joke, or never bring them to a fighting aspect. My qualm is that Atheist often become as fanatic as religious zealots opposed to science. A second problem I see is a large portion of Christianity, and a minor degree of the Islamist world, are opposed to science as against god, while either religious text read in full does not stipulate science is against god, with the Qur?an stating scientist are not against god specifically, and the christian text referring to the first chapter as the creation myth about 20 times. Most other religions incorporate such things as reincarnations, thus evolution seems not that unfeasible in itself. In all cases, the problem is people fight with each other, over irrelevant things related to controlling one another rather than doing something constructive which would benefit either. As an example, from the intelligent Atheist side, I would try and foster incorporation of religious folks for the prospect of advancing scientific work in any way, while simultaneously realizing my self as not knowing everything, thus open to flaw. From the opposite side, I would not believe I in my own wisdom could even fathom the depth of Gods insight, knowledge or wisdom to even begin to understand what is meant or intended, and thus am not god myself able to determine what others should do, or learn especially in a realm such as science. I would be more concerned with how to practice science while maintaining my beliefs, without attacking the establishment I am trying to enter and alienating myself or people from this entire institution.

  3. Report this comment #59646

    Jason Grey said:

    I watched "Expelled",

    It was great. A) he got Dawkins to fathom origins involving aliens B) the contrast were great C) If a christian cures my cancer (the opinion of 6 people in the film) I could care less what they believe D) He showed me how to nicely show Germans and Europeans will state Nazi based propaganda even today related to science without thinking it as cultural left overs and I thus think they should be controlled in some way beyond any doubt, E) times 55:11-55:30 and 43:00-45:00 and my primary arguments F) He is a Jew whom wrote and directed the film, do you want non moral inclined people based on laws passed since 1992 to run science, rather than people raised with some sort of morals principles, the only good review he got was from extreem christian rights groups, and G) my argument, science should be open to any critiques, as long as they follow factual empirical principles, IE: X=0.00059376 because that?s what my experiment said. The discussion section of any science article is is for the Author to explain, but the facts are up to you. As an example, Darwin himself toyed with God as a concept, wanting to be a priest rather than a scientist, but in his time a priest was more money, and his older brother was sent to priest school. With Newton, the same thing, he always was tyrant to prove gods principles, but came up with what he did.

    95% of scientist as atheist is a bit biased and suggest corporate or other involvement, ie spies or intelligence agents.

    I think science is becoming a tool like historical scientist stated about the fall of Rome.

  4. Report this comment #59717

    David Tyler said:

    Quote from the review:- Myers repeatedly asserts that science and religion are necessarily in conflict: "One is a method of analysis and experiment; the other is pretense and lies."
    It is a sign of the times that anyone takes this seriously. The founders of science in the 17th Century were deeply influenced by Christianity, and they saw no conflict between their science and their faith in God. Christianity had taught them about the value of analysis and reasoning, and their rejection of Aristotelian philosophy led to them probing the natural world by experiment rather than making declarations about the nature of the world based on deductions from theory. Pretense and lies is an entirely separate category, and these traits appear in all social groups (including atheists). Christianity has a convincing explanation about why pretense and lies are so widespread, and it also stresses the value of truth and integrity. When can we get beyond Myers' outdated polarization of different worldviews?

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