A Conversation with PZ Myers

SBN - interviews - PZ Myers2

by Andrew J. Rausch

PZ Myers is a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, Morris, and one of the loudest voices in atheism today. He is an outspoken critic of creationism and intelligent design. He writes and publishes the web blog Pharyngula, which is one of the top-rated scientific blogs on the Internet. Myers, a self-proclaimed “godless liberal,” is also a huge proponent of the feminist movement.

In 2008 Myers drew international ire when, as a reaction to a controversy involving the Catholic church’s treatment of a young man who had stolen a communion wafer from church, he encouraged readers of his blog to send him communion wafers and he would then treat the wafers with “profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web.” Upon receiving these wafers, Myers then went to work piercing the “goddamn crackers” with a rusty nail that had previously pierced copies of The Koran and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. For this “crime” Myers received tremendous backlash which included calls for him to be fired from teaching and even death threats.

The following year Myers made more waves when he took more than three hundred atheists to visit the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, where many of them reportedly laughed and mocked the exhibits.

In 2009, he was named the American Humanist Association’s Humanist of the Year. Myers is also the author of the Random House book The Happy Atheist.

Let’s talk a little bit about your background in terms of religion. Do you have a religious history?

Oh, that’s complicated. I was brought up Lutheran, but it never really took. I was a regular church-goer as a child but the thing is, it was more of a social event. I really didn’t believe, so I can’t say that I was honestly ever at all religious.

You label yourself as a “godless liberal,” which is a tag I can definitely relate to. Would you talk a little bit about how you see yourself?

My family went to church, but they weren’t very devout, and it was more of a liberal tolerance and the liberal idea that you could better yourself. My father was big into unions, and the labor movement, like many people in the Pacific Northwest. It was just part of my foundation, this progressive liberal attitude towards the world.

What are some of your goals for your Pharyngula weblog?

I guess just keep it going. We entered a new phase just a few years ago because, well, to give you a little history, I was on Science Blogs for a long time. And then Science Blogs started having some difficulties. There were some ethical concerns that came up. They were clearly losing interest in maintaining a blog network. It’s still there, and I’ve still got a presence there, but it’s not a big deal. Ed Braden—another blogger there—and I decided that we wanted to establish our own network; let’s start our own, let’s do it for ourselves, and the goal of that network was to give a voice to people other than the usual atheists. You know how most of the famous atheists are white men, and we said that’s not an appropriate representation of the way atheism is going so we really wanted to give a voice to other people as well.

So right now I have my blog. It’s still there, but it’s just part of a network where we regularly try to bring in new voices and give them blog space and have them writing alongside all of us.

One of the things you talk a lot about is the separation of church and state. As we’re sort of moving away from that in this country, I wondered if you wanted to talk a little bit about that as far as what hope, if any, you see for the future?

After this last election, you ask me that? [Laughs.] I’m not very hopeful at all for anything there. I’m looking at the people that Trump is bringing into his administration and it’s just a disaster all around. I have no idea who he is going to nominate for the Supreme Court, but that’s going to be another catastrophe for separation of church and state. So, this is a major concern. I don’t have much hope for the near future.

My only real hope is that there will be such a strong reaction against this that it will discredit the Republicans for many years to come and will get a big change coming in the next election. But then I’ve been saying that since Reagan, and I’ve been wrong all along, so who knows what will happen next?

Have you ever considered getting into politics yourself?

Well, I once volunteered to run for school board. I really think it’s a good idea to start at those low-level, local positions, and I was strongly discouraged because I have a reputation, you may have noticed, as a noisy atheist, an obnoxious atheist, and it was felt that there was no way I would win in a fairly conservative area. I live in a rural part of Minnesota, so I don’t think I have much of a chance.

As a “noisy atheist,” what kinds of mail do you receive? What does your mail look like?

Regularly, lots of hate mail. Unfortunately, a lot of it is from atheists these days. That’s been an unfortunate change. If you talked to me five, ten years ago, most hate mail was coming from Christians. But what’s happened is the atheist movement has splintered a bit and there’s a very vocal, very loud contingent now that is more concerned with slapping down feminism and equality and all that good stuff that progressive liberal atheists are all in favor of.

What do you see as a misconception about yourself?

I don’t know. I mean, like you said, I get a lot of hate mail. Those people are all wrong about me, but in some ways they’re right because they like to hate the things I actually stand for. But I think I’ve been pretty open and straightforward about myself. I mean I happily admit that I’m kind of abrasive and aggressive and very opinionated. When people tell me I’m those things, I just say, “Yeah, you’re right.”

What do you see as being the biggest misconceptions about atheism?

There are so many. I would put them in two categories. One category is misconceptions about atheism from people who are not atheists, and there you get a lot of misconceptions like atheism is like just another religion, or worse, that we’re Satan worshipers or something absurd like that, and those people I don’t think are much worth talking to. They’re pretty much out of it. The other misconception that bothers me a great deal more is that within atheism there’s a lot of people who think that atheism is nothing except disbelief in god… that nothing else follows, that there’s nothing that builds up to that; it’s just a flat conclusion and we’re done and anybody who tries to suggest anything more is totally wrong and is a danger to the atheist movement.

So that’s actually the biggest misconception that bothers me a great deal because we all bring a whole bunch of baggage into atheism and sometimes people think that the absence of baggage means that they are purely apolitical, and no, that’s not true. Everyone has these loaded ideas behind their beliefs.

You’ve obviously got some problems with intelligent design. What are some of your biggest beefs with intelligent design?

Oh, there are so many! Probably the biggest problem I have with intelligent design right now is this default assumption that being complicated means it had to have been designed. That’s the root of most intelligent design claims. “Hey, if we just catalog all these things and it gets really complicated and really difficult and there are things we don’t understand it means that the only way it could have happened is if a designer did it.” And, of course, exactly the opposite is true. I would be more impressed if things are simple and elegant. That would be the hallmark of a designer. And when you get deep into biology, you discover that no, nothing is simple and elegant; it’s all pretty complicated. And that does not say that there had to have been a god behind it. It says it’s driven by chance processes, with a lot of accidental results and cobbled together bits and pieces. It’s a result of tinkering rather than design.

Keeping religion out of science education is an issue that is very important to you. I wondered if you wanted to talk a little bit about that?

The future is looking grim. Today is the day that Betsy DeVos is getting grilled by the Senate. Well, I shouldn’t say grilled, because she’ll get likely roasted and accepted, I expect. She’s basically a theocrat who wants to destroy the public schools and make for a more godly educational system. So that’s looking bad for the future.

As far as what I object to by inserting religion into the classroom is that religion doesn’t answer anything. I’m teaching science and what we care about is what’s the evidence, what’s the facts, what’s the logic behind your claims. Can you back them up? Can you test them? All that kind of stuff, and god belief is just short-circuiting that. It says no, forget all that; we’re going to accept the divine word of this religious authority as the truth. And so it’s literally anti-scientific to bring religion into the science classroom.

In 2007, you were one of a few people that got duped by filmmaker Mark Mathis for his Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed documentary. Would you like to talk about that?

Is it fair to say that I was duped? I mean, it became really obvious fairly quickly what it was all about, and I was just willing to go along with it. He contacted me and basically there were a whole bunch of lies behind it. Before I accepted the invitation to be interviewed, I checked into the background of this company, and there was a whole bunch of stuff on the Internet. There were all these lists of projects completed and projects proposed and these documentaries I’d never heard of, but that they claimed they had made. They had completely cobbled together a past for this company that had just sprung into existence for this one film, so that was sneaky. They got me, they got Eugenie Scott, they got Richard Dawkins, because we had all just said, “Look, okay, that’s fine.” We had no commitment one way or the other to the purpose of the movie but we were willing to do an interview.

They had crews that went out to England to interview Richard Dawkins. They actually came out to Morris, Minnesota where I live, which kind of impressed me. So they had some money behind the whole thing. But when they were here, it was all gotcha interviews. They were trying to catch me in something and it wasn’t clear exactly what. And if you watch the movie, you’ll notice that they didn’t really catch me in anything because I think the most shocking thing I said was I expected that religion would someday fade away. I think they were hoping to catch me talking about marching people into death camps or something. With Richard Dawkins it was the same thing. They got these fairly innocuous comments that they had to bloat up with footage of goose-stepping Nazis and so forth in order to make it seem like we were saying horrible things.

Who are some of your contemporary atheist activists that you’re most impressed with?

Who am I impressed with? The last couple of years have been a lesson in not having any heroes, so I tend to criticize everyone. [Laughs.] But let’s see, who do I think is really good? Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor at Freedom From Religion Foundation. I think they’ve been doing a really good job and they haven’t been downplaying some of the social justice issues that some of the other organizations have been doing. So I kind of like them.
Matt Dillahunty is a really good guy who is really strong on debating and argument, so I really enjoy listening to him. Who else do I like? No, I don’t like anyone. [Laughs again.] Everyone has their strengths and weakness. I like Neil DeGrasse Tyson for science, although I think sometimes he gets cocky. I like Bill Nye because he’s got the touch; he can really get people connected to the science part. I like that about him.

On the flip side of that coin, I’m going to name a name and I’d like your thoughts on this person—Ken Ham.

He’s a confidence man. I think he’s sincere in his beliefs. I tend to think that when people say they believe something, they are actually being honest about what they believe. But he is so incredibly dishonest in his presentation of the science. It drives me nuts. He’s also repetitive and not very well informed, so every time Ken Ham talks about science it’s to present this bizarre economy of historical and observational science which is absolutely false. It has nothing to do with how people think about science at all. He’s distorted a couple of terms to the point where they are unrecognizable. He’s infuriating that way. But, on the other side, he’s clearly a very successful con man who has managed to make a lot of money and has built up this incredible waste of time and effort in Kentucky to support his beliefs. So that’s kind of impressive.

Let’s talk a little bit about your visit to Ham’s Creation Museum. How did that come about and what was that like?

How it came to be was, I was going to be in Columbus for a meeting of the SSA and I talked to a few people, and I suggested as long as we’re in Ohio and as long as Kentucky’s just across the river there how about if we make a trip? And people were agreeable and we signed up a whole bunch of students—atheist students—who were interested in going. So we brought three hundred people to the Creation Museum.

What was it like in there?

Oh, in some ways it was extremely disappointing because, basically what it is, is…you’ve heard of those hell houses they have on Halloween? You know, those haunted houses where it’s a guided tour all through all the horrors of modern life? That’s what it is. It’s not a museum, if I contrast it, for instance, to the American Museum of Natural History, which right now I think is probably the best museum for learning about evolution. The AMNH has this beautiful set of displays where you just kind of wander through and they lead you, not step by step, but through the logic of what they’re talking about and they give you examples and they show you evidence. Ken Ham’s Creation Museum is nothing like that. It is basically a canned tour. You take a little serpentine trip through their so-called museum and they lead you through all these exhibits. Half the exhibits are not about science at all but to tell you that you’re doomed if you believe in evolution and can go to hell. Americans are doomed. Kids are ruined like this, all that kind of crap.

And when you do look at their so-called science exhibits they are extremely poorly done. They don’t explain anything. Here’s the situation, this is our answer. For example, one thing that I thought was hilarious was they explained how all the animals got from the ark after the flood was over and they’ve got these dioramas and these displays showing floating rafts of debris that the animals would hop on and they’d go wandering off to Australia or New Guinea or South America or whatever. It’s full of bogus arguments like that. Just sort of ad hoc explanations for how you can reconcile the book of Genesis with the actual facts, even though they ignore most of the actual facts.

Now that Ham has put together his ark, have you considered taking a trip to that?

I am. I’m sort of planning on it. This summer there’s a meeting of the Genetics Society that’s taking place in Cincinnati and I’ve got a student who’s going to present there, and so we were actually thinking, we’ll go there, we’ll do the science thing, and then we’ll make a little afternoon trip over to Noah’s Ark. I’ll take some pictures and laugh at it.

I know you’ve been asked this so many times, but I’ve got to bring up the Eucharist controversy, which I think is hilarious. What were your motivations to do that?

It was a conscious effort to distract from something going on down in Florida, I think it was, where a student who had innocuously taken away a piece of the communion wafer to show to a friend who was at church with him.

And the congregation just went nuts. They were screaming, yelling, and trying to claw it out of his hands and treating it like some magic thing that needs to be protected and then afterwards all these people were coming along deploring and weeping and crying about how this kid had defiled Jesus and had kidnapped Jesus and was torturing Jesus and it was just ridiculous. I said this doesn’t make any sense. You’re fine to have your Communion ceremony. I’m not opposed to Catholics having whatever rituals they want as long as they don’t harm anybody, but we have to draw the line when a religion tries to dictate to non-believers what they must do in their own homes and their own privacy. And when they try to impose these absurd mythological ideas on individuals and say to people, who don’t believe in them, that no, you have to respect our particular magic ceremonies, or you’re a bad person. And that was the entire motivation to say okay, that’s ridiculous. I can do anything I want to a cracker. It’s not illegal. I don’t even consider it disrespectful. It would be disrespectful if I walked into a church and disrupted a ceremony, but having a cracker at home and throwing it in the trash? No, you can’t possibly complain about it.

I was wrong, of course. People did complain about it, and they complained about it rather loudly for quite a while. But the point I was trying to make is, no, you don’t have a right to interfere in people’s lives.

I understand you got some death threats over that.

Oh, I get death threats all the time. They’ve sort of become the background of my life. There were a number of them at that time. Like I said, nowadays mainly I’m getting them from atheists, but numerous Catholics were very upset with me.

The University of Minnesota at Morris was supportive of you, and I think that’s great. Was there ever any concern about how things were going to go down with them?

Sort of. I wouldn’t exactly say supportive. What it was is that the University system as a whole has a commitment to free speech. As long as I’m not doing something illegal, I’m not harming people, they’re going to support the right of a tenured faculty professor to speak out. It’s not like they agreed with me; what they agreed with was the principle that I have the right to say these things and that’s what they supported.

I don’t want to give the impression that the University of Minnesota is chomping at the bit, anxious to get out there and desecrate wafers or something, but they are very committed to making sure that the faculty have a voice, and so I applaud them for that. They were very good about that. I had a number of conversations with lawyers here who were supportive in the sense that yes, you can do this, we’re not going to tell you to stop but there are boundaries.

They didn’t have to say this, but I knew not to go marching down to the Catholic Church and do things. But at home, as long as I’m not pretending to represent the University as well, because the university was not doing this, it was just me personally.

In 2013, you publicly divorced yourself from the skeptic movement and I wondered if you wanted to talk a little bit about that. What led to that decision?

Oh, a number of things. Organized skepticism has been distinct from organized atheism and they both have serious flaws. They both have representatives who are not quite committed to the true principles that they should be committed to. Skepticism has a long history of drawing boundaries. So, the organized skepticism movement, organizations like SciCop and so forth, have long claimed that there are certain things that are outside their purview; that they will not criticize things that lack evidence, for instance. And so they’ve always been careful to separate themselves from criticism of religion. Because what they do is say, well, religious claims don’t even have grounds to say that there’s evidence to be tested, it’s all accepted on faith-so it’s not something that we can test.

This has always irritated me because in science this is not the way things work. If you have a hypothesis that has no evidence for it, it is not treated as something that…well, we just ignore that then, if you’re proposing it. You can pretend that it doesn’t exist. Because if you’ve got people who are advocating for a badly-formed hypothesis that is so bad that you can’t even test it, we can rightly say that’s an untestable piece of crap and we’re not going to accept that. And it’s the same way with religion. Religion is, if it’s true, faith based, right? It’s just people’s feelings about stuff. And I would say that yes, if you’re in the privacy of your home, if you’re in a group of people who share these beliefs, that’s fine. I’m not bothered by this. It’s just that religion at the same time has been pushing to get this stuff into public schools, to dictate common government policy. It’s a whole bunch of biases there that the skeptic movement for a long time was resentful about and didn’t want to do anything about it. And it got to the point where they were actually disavowing atheism because they said that wasn’t good skepticism, which is utter nonsense.

A number of years ago, for instance, there were a number of skeptics, particularly skeptics who associated with the amazing meeting which was going on at that time, who were peevish about the Skepticon conference, because Skepticon didn’t have that bias. They had no problem inviting a bunch of atheists to speak there and to speak about atheism. But they declared that’s not true skepticism; that’s an atheist conference, so you can’t call yourself Skepticon, which is just absurd. It’s just one of those many things that finally got me fed up and I said nope, I want nothing to do with us.

So do I still consider myself a skeptic? Skepticism as a philosophy is perfectly legitimate, but organized skepticism is a mess with a lot of historical baggage that I find extremely objectionable, and I want nothing to do with it.

What exactly went down with Atheist Ireland?

I have no idea. That was a weird one. Yes, I gave a couple of talks at Atheist Ireland meetings and then what kind of gradually emerged, every time I gave a talk at these meetings, the head of Atheist Ireland, Michael Nugent, would always take me aside and berate me and tell me I was too mean. I was too rude, I kept saying these awful things about people and I needed to stop. I’ve already admitted I’m abrasive and aggressive and that’s just the way I am and that wasn’t going to change. So finally he just decided he wanted nothing to do with me and didn’t like me and started writing all these things about me.

In particular he was taking innuendo and slander from some of those weird people who hate feminism and hate social justice and repackaging it and saying these verbal things are true about PZ Myers. They weren’t, but he would make these arguments. He basically got deranged and obsessive about me. So I have nothing to do with him anymore or Atheist Ireland, which is a shame because Ireland is a lovely country. I’d love to go back there, but I’m not going to be participating in anything with Atheist Ireland.

You’ve won numerous awards and have even had an asteroid named in your honor. What do you feel is your proudest achievement so far?

My proudest achievements are marrying the love of my life and having three kids who grew up to be wonderful people. That’s the stuff that matters.

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