PZ Myers – Science and Atheism in the Blogosphere

June 20, 2008

P.Z. Myers PZ Myers is a biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris and the author of Pharyngula, the most heavily-trafficked science blog online.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, P.Z. Myers explains the purpose and impact of his blog, and whether his priority is to advance science education or atheism. He talks about what he sees as his roles in the scientific community and the atheist movement, and how related these roles are. He explores the relationship between science and atheism, and argues that the more a public learns science, the likelier it is that they will become atheistic. And he talks about where a science educator’s atheism fits in the classroom. He also addresses the position of leading scientific organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academies of Science regarding evolution being compatible with religious belief, and their use of religious scientists as spokespeople, and he assesses their motivations and strategies to advance science to a largely religious American public.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, June 20th, 2008. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiries, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values and public affairs. Before we get to this week’s guest, here’s a word from Free Inquiry magazine. 

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I’m pleased to have Peezy Myers on point of inquiry this week. He is a biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris, and he’s also the blogger of one of the most heavily trafficked science blogs out there. Ferring Geula. He was involved with the recent expulsion from the movie Expelled. And hopefully we’ll talk about that. Peezy Myers, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Hello. I’m glad to be here. 

Peezy, let’s start off with how you got into all of this. Were you involved with the Internet and call it science advocacy before you started blogging, or did you kind of stumble into being the biggest name in blogging out there? 

I was stumbling is the magic word there. Yeah. You know, I’ve maintained a Web page for my lab for years and years and years, and this was just an experiment in free form, writing about whatever stuck in my head. And that seemed to resonate more than a page full of recipes for phosphate buffer and various things like that. 

Would you say that most of your blogs are about science or most of your entries are about Athie and progressive politics, stuff like that? 

Oh, that’s hard to quantify. You know, there there’s different perspectives on this from my point of view. The science stuff is much, much harder to write and it takes more of my time. So, you know, I would say maybe half and half. But from the point of view of the reader, you know, a lot of what I do is I just throw up quick responses to various things that people send me. Right. And so if you go by the number of posts. No, it’s it’s mostly a miscellaneous. Mm hmm. 

What’s more important to you, advancing Athie ism or advancing the public understanding of science, or are they kind of one and the same to you? I mean, are inseparable. You’ve suggested quite a few times that the more you know about science, the more likely it is that you are going to end up an atheist. 

Yes. And that’s what we know from the statistics, is of people going into science and that science has a great corrosive influence on religious belief. It isn’t always going to destroy the religious belief. Of course, there’s there’s a number of fairly prominent scientists who are religious. But in general, most people, when they get training in the scientific method and start applying it the lab and then start applying it in their in their real life experiences, find themselves questioning religion a lot more. 

Yeah. Jonathan Miller had that study out a few years ago. You know, countries in Europe, people scored higher in science literacy. Therefore, they were more accepting of of evolution, more naturalistic. But the University of Buffalo recently had a study. Oh, I think just in the last year that suggested that it was a chicken and egg sort of thing, that people who were already kind of skeptical and secular ended up choosing to go into the sciences rather than the other way around. 

Yes. And I think I can see it working both ways. That’s not earthshaking news either. I don’t think if you’re into religion, you are going to be steered away by your own interests from science. And so there is a self selection going on. But still, you know, we want more scientists, right? We want more people thinking critically and skeptically about the world around them. It’s something that we want to encourage and lots more people. 

Before we get more into the Athie ism equaling science sort of discussion. I’m really interested in getting you to talk about how you see yourself. Here you are, one of the biggest voices in the science blogosphere. Do you think of yourself as an opinion leader, a leader in a social movement? Or are you just an individual out there who’s blogging about the world as you see it? I guess what I’m really asking is, do you see your role as only making people more strident in their already held atheistic beliefs? Like are you giving them a voice, a place, or are you making the tent bigger for science and reason? Are you reaching out? 

I’m I’m pushing at the edges. I don’t think of myself as a leader or anything like that. I think of myself as more representative of a large number of people who who haven’t really had a good voice in this country for a long, long time. Yeah. So so what I figure my role is, is just to squawk loudly and point out some of the lunacy that’s going on around us and make people aware. It’s not that I’m leading the choir in a song here. 

I think we are getting new recruits and I get email all the time from people who are saying, well, thank you. You know, this whole thing has led me to being more self aware and criticizing and coming to the conclusion that, yeah, I’m an agnostic Roman atheist. 

It’s the kind of coming out story that Richard Dawkins reports a lot of people recounting when they read his book The God Delusion. 

Oh, yeah. Yeah. When I’ve had a couple of threads, you know, in the past where I’ve. I mention this. These conversion stories and you just get this outpouring of people. Each one has got to write little common. Here’s how I came to be in my particular philosophical position. And I think there’s a lot of pent up, pent up frustration over this here. Here’s a world view. Oh, I hate to use the word world view, but anyway, here’s this here’s this idea of how the world works. That’s been suppressed for a long time, and a lot of people want to talk about it. 

Do you know of any diehard Christians who started reading your blog who kinda got it? Their light bulb turned on and they were pro science and atheistic at the end of a certain blog post or something? 

Well, you know, define diehard. You know, if you’d asked me when I was 12 years old, I would have said, yeah, I’m a committed Christian and all this kind of thing. You know, I wasn’t born again writing silly like that. But, you know, looking back, I can see that I was questioning it even then. And I think there’s a fair number of Christians who, you know, if you grabbed them on the street, if a pollster took them aside and Essendon thought this one and see what they were, they would say, yes, I’m a Christian, I’m of a particular sect, etc., etc. But if they had a moment and stopped and thought about it and were in communication with other people who were questioning their beliefs, he might say, wait a minute, maybe I’m not. 

Maybe I really don’t believe that. But yeah, if if you get somebody who is, you know, who’s really committed, who’s a strong Southern Baptist who thinks homosexuals ought to be stoned or something. No, I don’t think I’ve converted a single one of them. But those are people who have gone deeply down a path that does not involve logical thought. 

And you’re not really aiming to speak to them? 

No, I can’t. I. We don’t speak the same language. 

Well, that seems like your seeding the point that there’s this great divide that you can’t bridge. 

You know, that this is a case where we have an atheist movement, but it’s not a movement that’s trying to say, well, we’ve got to get rid of all the Christians in the country or anything ridiculous like that. 

Well, I know some atheists who are of that bent. 

You know, there’s crazy people in every movement. But I think overall, it would be an unrealistic goal to say that we have to become intolerant people who will not allow faith to exist in the country. That’s not going to happen. But what we need to do is stick our elbows out more and push in and make room for ourselves in a big political and social community of the United States so that we’ve also got a voice in how the country is run, how the government runs a voice that even in just our local communities and right now we don’t have that. 

I could wrap my head around what you just said, but I wasn’t even really getting it in tolerance. I was talking about kind of increasing mindshare. I think that it is a goal of some atheist activists to try to persuade those who are religious to not be religious anymore. In other words, to kind of, you know, talk them out of it almost. 

Sure. There the continuum of religious belief, obviously. I mean, we were just talking about the diehard Christians and we are not going to convert them. But I think there’s a much larger population in this country as a a casual acceptance of religion. 

And those people we can reach. So it’s said that huge middle ground that we’re fighting over. And, yeah, I think we we can gain recruits from there. I think a lot of them are are naturally independently minded and not so much interested in organized religion and can be swayed away from the Southern Baptists or whatever. 

Some of the language you just use sounded like the language of an evangelical Christian. I’m not going to call you a fundamentalist atheist. I thought you I partly because I’m persuaded by your arguments, Dawkins arguments. I shouldn’t say that because it reveals my biases. But nonetheless, the language you just used sounded evangelical. You know, you’re talking about winning recruits, you know, converting people. Doesn’t that play into the hands of some of our cultural competitors who say that Athie ism and secular humanism? It’s just it’s a religion. And they’re going out there and they’re trying to spread their faith just like we’re trying to spread out of it. 

Well, no. But we’re not trying to spread a faith was trying to spread critical thinking. And that’s different. We’re not telling them what to think. We’re saying we want people to be converted to the great big house of skepticism and inquiry. We want them to ask questions. We’re not saying that you’ve got to join the center for inquiry or something. 

Well, I might. But that’s my job description. Yeah. 

Yeah. But, you know, it’s more open. And that we’re only trying to convert them to a particular faith. But the other part of your argument that we sound like evangelical Christians or whatever, and it’s it’s bad is not correct. 

I don’t think, because in a sense, we we do want to get out there and spread our ideas and we do want to speak our ideas loudly and to accept the argument that to get out there and try and persuade people that our ideas are good, is a bad thing, is playing into their hands. That’s what they want us to think, is that, hey, you know, you’re not allowed to talk about Athie ism because then you sound like the Christians you despise. So shut up. That’s that’s what we’re getting. 

Yeah. You’re saying that this stuff should be in the public square, that Congress should be debating this stuff and not keep matters of their religion or their Athie ism private? 

Exactly. You know, I would never say that a Christian should not express his point of view. And the same thing is here. We should we should be encouraging everybody to get out there and yell at each other and talk to each other and argue with each other and and try to persuade each other and whichever ideas best will win out. 

Well, I’m I have that optimism. I believe in public debate kind of as a means of the public arriving at the best decisions. It doesn’t always play out that way, but in the best instances, it does. 

Oh, yeah. Public debate. You’ve got to worry that what often happens is that it’s the rhetoric that wins you over. Not the logic. Right. 

And I didn’t mean just a public debate, but like these debates of these issues in the public square. Yes. I mentioned Richard Dawkins earlier peezy, the third most leading refer to your blog. I think I read is Richard Dawkins Web site. Richard Dawkins dot net. Oh, is it OK? It’s much more rationalist and atheistic, I think, than a Web site that’s just doing science education. So the question is, has your success at science blogs dot com? Has your success actually turned science blogs into something more like atheist blogs, dot com? 

Oh, you’re you’re touching a certain nerve here. There’s you know, we’ve we’ve got like 75 different bloggers on planes, blogs, and there are a number of them who who are Christians or agnostic or, you know, aren’t quite as atheist as I am. And some of them actually rather resent the fact that there’s this public image that science blogs as atheist blogs, and it’s not really well. 

But if you’re a Christian who’s really into science science blogs, dot com isn’t always going to be the friendliest place for you. 

That’s that’s only if you come to Frenulum regularly, not going to be friendly to you at all. 

But there’s all these other blogs and you know, I would say if, if you find yourself uncomfortable because Peezy Miers is there, just ignore me. Good. One of the others. There’s lots of other choices there. 

Well but that’s all fine and good. But the other choices don’t have the megaphone. What. How many. What’s your traffic. Something like 600000 unique visitors a month. 

It’s closer to a million. Million and a half. 

Jeez Louise. So it’s you know, when Richard Dawkins says, oh, I’m just one of many voices or you say you’re just one of many voices. No, your come on. We have to wait for influence. We have to wait. Your voice. 

Well, I’m Jan. But. 

But how did I get that influence? You know, it’s not like I’ve got some special privilege. And I mean, you use the word megaphone there, but everyone has exactly the same megaphone on the Internet. There’s there’s nothing that privileges my particular site that that sucks in people’s eyeballs. It’s just there’s a large number of people of a similar mind who really like the site and come there quite frequently. And, you know, there’s not much I can do about that unless I want to be really boring and dumb. 

And I’m certainly not suggesting you need to apologize for your success. I want to get back to the atheist in science discussion, your position you have. You said it pretty clearly is that the more people get into science, the more likely it is that they become naturalistic in their worldview or atheists. Right. I am really charmed by this argument. Even if it wasn’t really the case in my own personal experience, I became an atheist. More from the humanities side of things like history, philosophy. But here’s the question for you. What’s the actual evidence that the more people learn about science, the less religious they are? 

Well, there’s there’s all the correlational evidence. You know, the evidence from from polls of successful scientists that you seen more and more unbelievers among the higher ranks of science. But as you mentioned earlier, you know, it’s a correlation could be going either ways. It could be a selected population. It could be as I suggested, it is corrosive influence of scientific thinking. 

Well, just think of that phrase you just said, corrosive influence of scientific thinking. Imagine what. What a fundamentalists could do with that. You know, Peezy Myers himself says scientific thinking has a corrosive influence on religious belief. 

Yeah. And, you know, if they think through that, my faith, what would I say? I say. 

Yeah, it sure does. 

Otherwise, all I can offer is personal anecdotes. I mean, this is how I came to ageism that maybe you came to it through the humanities. 

But I came to a true science that even as a geeky young young boy, that what really interested me was the natural world and exploring it through science and finding that religion was extremely unsatisfying. Mm hmm. I actually don’t see even now how anyone can find the explanations in the Book of Genesis at all satisfying its explanations for the real world. I mean, it’s it’s. God did it said eight times. Nothing more. So, you know, if if you’re in a tradition where it asks you to make questions, to investigate and thinking and criticize. And that’s what science does. 

You’re going to look at the book of Genesis and you should be asking lots of questions about it. Mm hmm. 

Do you see yourself as a renegade on this point? Your position about science leading to Athie ism is fundamentally at odds with the National Academies of Science, the triple A. Yes. They say, for instance, that evolution is perfectly compatible with religion and they’re a little bit deluding themselves. So you do see yourself as in opposition with kind of mainstream science on this point? 

Well, that’s what is mainstream science. I mean, if you talk to a lot of scientists like I do. I mean, if if you sit down in in a meeting and you talk to people about religion, what you find is that large number of them will be saying they’re agreeing with me, maybe just the force of my personality. But I kind of doubt it. But you know that what you find is is overall a huge number of scientists who feel exactly the same way that they’ve they’ve they’ve left the rigid traditions of their childhood to be more questioning. Many of them will, you know, for instance, many of them will still be going to church regularly, but they don’t they don’t regard it as the essential element of understanding the world anymore. It’s a family thing. It’s a social thing. It’s a traditional thing. So what I think is going on with things like the NHS and so forth is that they are making a political decision that if you talk to many people in the public at large, religion, of course, is much more important to them. And so they’re saying, well, we’ve got to be careful not to immediately alienate the audience we’re trying to reach. And so those statements that I read in that, you know, they’re in their books and so forth, I see them as pure political pandering. 

If you’re saying that it’s just a political move, kind of a political tactic, you’re suggesting that they’re dishonest. 

Yes, I am that. 

However, let’s let’s qualify, because what they’re doing is they are recruiting legitimate scientists who are taking that fence, straddling position and having them be the prominent mouthpieces for evolution. So, you know, for instance, Ken Miller Kanala, who’s a great guy, a great speaker, good scientist, knows all this stuff really well. Yet he’s religious, right. I can hear you’re immediately biasing the presentation of the evidence when you say, OK, well, Ken Miller is our spokesman. 

And, you know, if they had Richard Dawkins up there, that it would be a very different sort of document that they would have produced. 

You’re right. But Dawkins admits that he’d be the best ammunition for the creationists if he were officially kind of speaking on behalf of the evolution education movement. 

I kind of disagree with Richard there. I don’t think Richard is pretty good ammunition for our side of the battle. You know that. So that on one hand. There’s this this obvious transparent attempt by organizations like the NEA as Tripoli as to actively get strongly Christian people to get on the side of evolution. OK. I think that’s a good thing for them to do. But it’s implicitly a little bit dishonest because the way I see it is by bringing them over the side of evolution. We are we are taking one step toward eroding their religion a little bit. And we’re not being upfront about that. We’re having people come up and saying, well, no, it doesn’t affect you at all. But I guarantee you that there are lots of young people out there who will get sucked into science, will reassure their parents. I’m not. It’s not going to cause me to become an apostate. And they go off to college. And what do they do? They become much more secular. 

Mm hmm. But what you’re saying proves the point of the Christians who say don’t learn science, because if you. You, Ronald Lindsay, Myers and Dawkins’ say you’ll be fed Athie ism. 

Yeah, well, the thing is, we’re not going to we’re not going to feed the masses and we’re not going to force of down their throats. You know, the example I’ve I’ve used when I’ve I actually talked to a preacher at a conservative church about this, and he was very upset about the same thing. He said, you know, we’re sending our kids to your college and they’re coming back and they’re questioning, you know, the traditional beliefs and so forth. 

And he said you’re you’re force feeding them. If he isn’t. And I told them that, no, we’re not. And what’s happening is that the conservative churches are force feeding children. Nonsense. For instance, says as an extreme example, if you have a church that says, OK, the sky is green and you send them off to the physics class and the physical professor just tells them not the sky is not Green says, look up. You know, here’s a spectrophotometer, Amos. This up in the sky. Measure wavelengths. Then what’s going to happen is the professor is not forcing it. He’s among them. And the professor may even be a Christian himself. But what they’re doing is they’re telling them that all this stuff that you were told was fact. There was absolute truth that was indispensible for your salvation by your preacher is false. Mm hmm. 

But don’t parents have a right to teach their children what they believe to be true without a professor undermining certain deeply held beliefs? 

Why should they have that right? I mean, we’ve got a social contract right there. What we’re trying to do is raise lots and lots of people who are going to be functioning members of our society. It’s in my personal self-interest that the children of evangelical Christians grow up to be productive members of society. It’s not my interest to say they have to abandon their faith or anything like that. But if their faith is such that it’s obstructing their ability to contribute to science and technology and engineering all these good things in our society, then we have an interest in saying, no, you shouldn’t be doing that. Hmm. 

P.S. I feel like we’ve just scratched the surface. There are a ton of other things I want to yammer with you about. Would you mind joining me on the show next week as well? And we’ll continue the discussion. Sounds good to me. Thank you very much for joining me. Then on this episode of Point of Inquiry, Peezy Myers. 

Yes, I had a good time. Let’s do it again next week. 

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DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.