The Happy Atheist

  • PZ Myers
Pantheon: 2013. 9780307379344 | ISBN: 978-0-3073-7934-4

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?