One question keeps rising out of the ScienceBlogosphere muck: Are PZ “Pharyngula” Myers and his ilk doing more harm than good by relentlessly and mercilessly attacking religion? Rob “Galactic Interactions” Knop apparently has had it up to here with Myers’s brand of anti-faith rhetoric, and started one of those neverending comment wars on his blog yesterday — except that he did end it by removing the post. Fortunately, I saved a copy first because the exchange really does get to the heart of the question.
Out of respect for Rob, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Vanderbilt University, I’m not going to repost too much of what he said about PZ, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota. Except for his headline, which was “More evidence that PZ is a blowhard and a jerk,” and a few small snippets.
Rob’s problem is that PZ keeps describing Christians like Rob, and other people of faith “ignorant, deluded, wicked, foolish, or oppressed victims of obsolete mythologies.” As the journalist responsible for a blog originally created to address the battle between science and superstition, I share PZ’s basic point of view, although I try to avoid calling people “ignorant, deluded, wicked, foolish, or oppressed victims of obsolete mythologies” too often.
While the phrase does represent a fairly comprehensive list of the possible explanations for why someone would believe in a god, lots of my friends and many members of my family do believe in a god, and I don’t see much point in offending anyone. None of them are ignorant, wicked, foolish or particularly oppressed. So are they deluded? Maybe a wee bit, but the reality is most of them were simply brought up to believe and “deluded” is an awfully strong word to use. It might be technically accurate, but in the world of real, human psychology, things are a bit more complicated. I wish there was another word that better described the state of mind most decent, fair-minded, socially concerned, politically progressive, compassionate, reasonable, intelligent but nevertheless religious, people share. But I can’t come up with one.
If you read my posts about religion and atheism, you’ll notice that I try to describe the situation without resorting to insult. I write about how religion doesn’t seem to make society a better place, but I don’t then add that all religious people are therefore evil. The facts should speak for themselves. But it’s a fine line, and PZ, Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Sam Harris (The End of Faith), Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great) and Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell) all make different distinctions between fair description and insult. None of them use unreasonable language in my opinion, but for Rob, and many other people of faith, they often cross the line into offense.
In Rob’s fleeting post, he writes of PZ’s “buffonery [sic] and assholism, suggests that PZ’s monstrous popularity is due specifically to his penchant for rude remarks, and then compares him to Rush Limbaugh. Now that’s crossing the line.
I think most of us here would disagree. PZ is popular because he is a smart and prolific writer and has a good sense of humor. But still we are left with the question: does calling a spade a spade, to use Rob’s metaphor, do more harm than good in the fight to spread reason among the people at large, most of whom are religious?
I don’t have a good answer for that. I like PZ’s work, and Richard Dawkins’ and Dan Dennett’s (and that of non-Iraq war Christopher Hitchens). I think we need people who dare to challenge what they perceive as foolishness. I think there is a place for such stuff. And ScienceBlogs, which is meant to attract readers interested in a scientific, rational approach to the universe, is one such place. Of course, there are times and places where it is not productive to be so blunt, and sometimes inappropriate language is used.
When I wanted my little city council to stop including prayer in their monthly meetings, I didn’t write a letter noting that “Whereas prayer is a product of people who are ignorant, deluded, wicked, foolish, or oppressed victims of obsolete mythologies….” Instead I wrote about the First Amendment’s Establishment clause and noted that a comparable town ended up paying $55,000 in legal fees when they lost their attempt to hold onto prayer during their council meetings. It seems to have worked, as city council meetings in Saluda, NC, no longer begin (or end) with a prayer.
But ScienceBlogs is not Saluda City Council. It’s a place where we can call a spade a spade. And although I hope Rob doesn’t mind me saying so, those who hold to superstitions can expect to take a little heat in this here kitchen.