A Review of The Happy Atheist by PZ Myers

This is a guest post by Chantelle Moghadam.

[Hemant's Note: For the sake of disclosure, I wrote a blurb for the back of the book. This review, however, was written independently]

PZ Myers writes the first half of The Happy Atheist (Pantheon, 2013) with all the bound-up angst against religion that most atheists hold and, as an atheist myself, I completely understand where that frustration comes from. I can’t help but wonder, though, what a religious person might think of atheists if they read this book. The most convincing arguments against religion are not always the ones telling religious people how ridiculous they are, but ones that make valid criticisms of religion itself. Even someone who is on the fence about religion may be offended within the first few pages and unable to finish the rest of it. The Kirkus Review held nothing back when it said of the book: “Unlikely to change a single mind or cause even the slightest shift in perspective.”

Among the atheist community, Myers is known for his use of inflammatory language and, for his fans, it’s certainly part of his appeal. To that end, it’s worth noting that The Happy Atheist is a collection of both original essays and reworked blog posts — Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education wrote in Nature that, by his 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.” Myers may have been better served saving his condescending tone for his blog. There seems to be an underlying message in his writing that religious people are stupid. As an atheist, my quarrel is with religion, not necessarily with those who follow it, and I got the sense that that’s not Myers’ point of view.

He writes: “Living in America in the twenty-first century is like attending the circus when the clowns are performing — it’s low comedy, full of pratfalls and pies in the face and silly costumes.” It’s an accurate comparison, no doubt, and Myers even explains that he bears no obligation to play nice when it comes to criticizing religion.

Yet, while that’s true, he seems to take some empty shots that contribute more to the “arrogant atheist” stereotype. In a chapter titled “The Joke” (referring to religion itself), an irritated Myers writes about debating theists, “There’s usually no point in arguing further, because you’re dealing with the sort of mind that thinks Jesus is a subatomic particle that holds the universe together with the power of his love.” Sarcasm aside, I hardly think this is a fair representation of how religious people are or what they believe.

It is unfortunate to think that some readers might be put off by the tone of the book considering that Myers makes some great points towards the latter half that might be very convincing to those having doubts about their faith. He convincingly pushes religion off the pedestal society places it on.

He also makes us pause to consider the amount of time covered by the Bible when compared to the actual age of our world. Myers points out that human life is transitory and that it is simply self-absorbed to think that the Bible, which only spans a very small period of time and revolved entirely around the human race, is the only correct reference for the history of our world. He then paints an image of the world many years from now when the Bible is simply a piece of human history and an insight into our modern culture, much like the Parthenon is for us today. In this light, religion actually seems like something quite beautiful. It’s amazing, really, when you consider how it will soon be just another part of history.

For many atheists, The Happy Atheist will be seen as a series of concise arguments against religion, written in a distinctive writing style that is entertaining and comical. It’s always nice to know that others feel the same frustration we do and, in fact, Myers offers us a few arguments that can serve as “ammunition” against religion, so to speak.

Having been an atheist for a long time now, you might think I’ve heard all the arguments, yet Myers presented some new and valuable points of view that I hadn’t yet considered. One chapter, a play on an “About the Author” section, compares our own world to one in which people place utmost importance on the hats they wear. The hats rarely change and there are only a small percentage of people who wear no hats at all. It is an allegory for religion and puts what we see as a very important part of our culture into perspective.

All that said, I believe there is a difference between valid criticism and venting frustration. This book is heavy on the venting and its tone often comes off as disdainful and cocky. Maybe that shouldn’t matter, but the book’s subject matters supports the idea that it was written for religious believers. Yet it’s atheists who will probably end up getting the most out of it.

The Happy Atheist is available online and in bookstores today.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • cipher

    In a chapter titled “The Joke” (referring to religion itself), an irritated Myers writes about debating theists, “There’s usually no point in arguing further, because you’re dealing with the sort of mind that thinks Jesus is a subatomic particle that holds the universe together with the power of his love.” Sarcasm aside, I hardly think this is a fair representation of how religious people are or what they believe.

    Well, I think it’s a fair characterization of a lot of them, especially in this country.

    That being said – this is who PZ is (and I’m not making excuses for him, having myself run afoul of his gang of regular commenters). He’s extremely condescending, and I think the attention he’s gotten over the past decade has probably gone to his head. I don’t know what he was like before Pharyngula took off, when he was merely a biology professor at a small liberal arts college with a blog, and before he was getting invited to atheist conferences all over the world and sharing a stage with Dawkins, but as it stands now, he does seem rather full of himself.

  • DougI

    The page used to be a lot heavier on the science. Now it just seems to be trolling.

  • cipher

    Haven’t been back in a while, but wouldn’t be surprised.

  • Brian Westley

    Jesus is a subatomic particle that holds the universe together with the power of his love

    I think that’s a direct reference to this:

  • cipher

    Heh! I held that one up to a rabbi of my acquaintance, who’s a scholar of Jewish mysticism. I said, “You told me it was angels! What else have you been lying to me about?!”

  • http://thetimchannel.wordpress.com/ The Tim Channel

    The only people left commenting on PZ’s website these days are those with an uncanny ability to land a perfect dismount after swinging off PZ’s nut sack. I used to like the guy. I’m kinda hoping he’ll bring a CAT scan of his brain tumor to the Shermer libel trial as a mitigating circumstance. It would go a long way towards explaining the answer everybody is asking “What the hell happened to PZ Myers?” Enjoy.

  • cipher

    I find that extremely offensive.

  • Buckley

    I can see Myers point of view in not only ridiculing religion but also the believers. I personally don’t wish to get on individuals, but if it wasn’t for the believers the religious nonsense would end. The only time I openly ridiculed was when large groups of Amish came to the Zoo. One man, in his 40s, with his wife and 12 children….and yes I counted, with another on the way in his wife who was old looking and tired beyond belief. I looked at my girlfriend (who is also an atheist) and said “This is what religion does to people.” We had a long discussion about the non-sense that is religion.

  • Buckley

    Yeah, and Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Atheists don’t lie. Ass.

  • kraken17

    Yes, and we call those people bigots. Go be a douche elsewhere.

  • C.L. Honeycutt

    I stopped reading it earlier this year, after he wouldn’t point out that his in-crowd were lying about someone even when he was talking about how they had lied about her. Pity, because I enjoyed his writing, if not the attitude of said in-crowd, many of whom make up things to hold against commenters who aren’t members of the tribe if they don’t get their daily “fix” of an actual wrongdoer to rail against.

  • cipher

    Yeah. A number of them piled on me once for something I didn’t say, then, when I held it up to him, he said, “No one here is immune to criticism, even me”, which had nothing to do with what was going on.

    He has a following of sycophants, and at this point, he simply won’t chastise them. They stroke his ego.

  • Bitter Lizard

    Yeah, I respect the “Friendly Atheist” viewpoint, but I get a little bored with the majority of atheist bloggers trying to out-nice each other when it comes to religion. The attitude seems to be that, no matter how ridiculous their beliefs, they have nothing to do with how intelligent or decent the religious are as people. I don’t think that’s always true, and you don’t hear people saying that about other kinds of nonsense beliefs. I don’t hear, for example, that racism says nothing about a person’s intelligence or basic decency. I think the fact that somebody’s entire worldview is childish and ridiculous says one or two things about that person. They might be decent people and reasonably intelligent with regards to things that are not religion, but it stems from some sort of character flaw when you refuse to engage the fundamentals of reality with any sort of rationality.

  • ZenDruid

    Yeah. Wafer Boy is a Cthulhu wannabe with his very own snark tank.

  • getz

    Taking shots at religious people doesn’t contribute to an “arrogant atheist” stereotype anymore than being humble makes it go away. Stereotypes are deliberately inaccurate judgments. If, in the full scope of atheists’ behavior, people have a preference for identifying them as arrogant, that is what they’ll single out. Even when it’s a trait held by an extreme minority or not at all, ie: atheists have no morals, worship satan, and really know that god exists.

  • Bitter Lizard

    Atheists are perceived as arrogant because they think they’re correct about something religious people disagree with. Any expression of an atheistic viewpoint will therefore be labeled as “arrogant” or even a “militant atheist”. Consistency would dictate that religious people expressing their beliefs would therefore also be “arrogant”, but this never occurs to them. And the expressions “militant Christian” or “militant Muslim” are only utilized for Christians or Muslims who kill people, rather than just writing mean things on the Internet.

    Really, I think the whole situation is summed up by the religious people who were deeply offended by that billboard that said “Don’t Believe in God? You’re Not Alone”. It didn’t disparage religious people or even religious beliefs. It simply acknowledged the uncontroversial fact of multiple atheists. But the religious response was largely one of feeling deeply wronged. That tells you all you need to know: they don’t like atheists because they exist, regardless of what we say or how we say it. Everything we do is going to piss them off no matter what.

  • A3Kr0n

    Yes. I went there for the science, but it seems to have changed. But you see I am still a cephalopod. Some things don’t change…

  • Corby Ziesman

    “As an atheist, my quarrel is with religion, not necessarily with those who follow it” … without followers, the religion doesn’t exist. Religion is the followers of that religion.

  • Tainda

    I am an arrogant elitist but it has nothing to do with my atheism :)

  • JET

    “There seems to be an underlying message in his writing that religious people are stupid.”
    I haven’t read Myer’s book, but have read enough of his blog posts to believe that this is exactly what he thinks. As entertaining as he can be at times, his conclusion that believers are less intelligent than non believers is simply unsubstantiated. There is no evidence that this is true and keeps people from exploring why theists and atheists think differently. Personally, I think it all comes down to a fear of the unknown and one’s own mortality, and a predisposition to not take responsibility for one’s own actions.
    The theist prefers the delusion that they are immortal to the atheists acceptance of mortality. Scientific research is irrelevant to the theist as a better life awaits, while the atheist is interested in medicine extending his short life by a few years, making that life as pleasant as possible for as many as possible, preserving the planet in good working order, and preventing a catastrophe like a comet smashing us to smithereens. Many theists claim that atheists really deep down believe in a god, but I think it’s the other way around. I think that many theists truly hope there is a god and an afterlife out of fear. Their hope is so great that they claim to ‘know’.
    Taking personal responsibility for every one of your actions is hard. You may make decisions that are unpopular or you may make a mistake or you may have to actually DO something. I’m reminded of my kids when they were teenagers. When they were in an uncomfortable situation, they preferred to say “my parents won’t let me” rather than “I don’t want to do this.” It’s an immature way of thinking that most theists have not grown out of. And praying is so much easier than donating time or money or resources.
    So believers probably fall within the same intelligence spectrum as the rest of us. But emotionally they are more fearful and immature. We don’t call our kids stupid when they make bad decisions. We counsel them, we educate them, and we set an example for them. PZ just pisses them off.

  • rg57

    “There is no evidence that [believers are less intelligent]” You are wrong. There was a meta-analysis, just published in Personality and Social Psychology Review, which suggested exactly that, at least when measured on national-size scales.

  • Sk3ptec

    “Stereotypes are deliberately inaccurate judgments.” I disagree. Stereotypes are just a categorization mechanism. We do it instinctively. We can’t know every single person’s traits or behaviors, so we aggregate and generalize the most common perceived characteristics. It’s completely natural.

    Side note: I also think the “arrogant atheist” is an unfortunate but perhaps fair stereotype for this time in history (present company excluded, of course).

  • King Dave

    PZ myers is thebook Jerrybook Falwellbook of atheism. Similar appearance, both out for a buck, lots of hot air.

    PZ myers next book will be about his joy in praising Islam.

    Don’t read it or buy it
    Read Hitchens or Harris instead

    Was this review helpful?

  • Oranje

    I think the “book” key on your keyboard got stuck.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    Ironically, There’s a takedown of that study on Pharyngula right now:

    Y’all can stop patting yourselves on the back now

  • deepak shetty

    As an atheist, my quarrel is with religion, not necessarily with those who follow it,
    Hmm? The quarrel is always with people who follow the harmful aspects of religion is it not?

  • bdallmann

    It’s really a shame that so many atheists these days resort to condescension and ridicule to make their point. That kind of behavior is juvenile and does nothing but alienate those we most wish to listen to us. It’s just fine to think that Christians and other religious people are morons, but if atheists (especially in the U.S.) want to create a more tolerant and secular culture, we need to keep those kinds of opinions to ourselves.

  • bdallmann

    While your point is true, there are some followers of religion who are not nearly as brainwashed as others. I have no problem with religious people who are able to keep it to themselves.

  • bdallmann

    Agreed. Stereotypes are in no way deliberate. They come from a wide generalization of a group of people, and usually there’s at least SOME truth it them.

  • http://skepticink.com/dangeroustalk Dangerous Talk

    Does PZ disclose that most of the book are re-tooled blog posts? I don’t have an issue with bloggers turning posts into a book, Hemant did a great job with his, but Hemant also disclosed that on the cover of the book.

  • midnight rambler

    No, stereotypes are taking the most common or (more typically) less-common but more-conspicuous attributes of some people in a group and assuming that all members of the group are like that. The things you list about atheists are complete misconceptions, not stereotypes.

  • midnight rambler

    You’re probably right, by my first thought was that it was a reference to Karen Armstrong and her claim that no one really believes in a personal God, just that God is Love and all around and why can’t we just get along?

  • Bitter Lizard

    Absolutely. When people inflict ridiculous, false, asinine beliefs on the world that result in the inhibition of truth and knowledge, misogyny, homophobia, racism, slavery, child abuse, war, genocide, rape and murder on a scale that we can’t even begin to comprehend, the only proper course of action for those who have a problem with those beliefs and the people who perpetuate them is to defer, defer, defer. We absolutely want the responsible parties to feel as comfortable as possible with what they’re doing. Why don’t more people get this?

  • bdallmann

    When did I ever say “defer”? My point is that resorting to name-calling doesn’t help our case. There are more productive ways to get the message across.

  • Bitter Lizard

    You did not say “defer”, but you seem to be advocating an approach that I would consider deferential. It’s true I’m not totally clear on where you would draw the lines of “acceptable” expression of opinion, but the “shut up” attitude of your post rubbed me the wrong way.

    As I wrote below on this thread, it’s clear that theists will get offended at any criticism of religion no matter how politely expressed because they get offended even at the existence of atheists. So I see no reason why at least some atheists shouldn’t be telling the truth, which will inevitably involve a degree of ridicule because we’re addressing ridiculous things. As for “condescending”, that’s one of those words like “self-righteous” that can pretty much be applied to anyone making an argument. I could easily accuse you of being condescending with your post, and there would really be no way to prove or disprove it because it’s such a subjective term. Theists will inevitably find any statement of fact that challenges their conceptions “condescending”.

    I think people should worry more about whether what they’re saying is true and less about whether it’s sufficiently candy-coated for the most ignorant and overly-sensitive segment of their potential audience.

    And yes, not all religious people are stupid, but their religious beliefs absolutely are. And they inevitably say stupid things when they defend them. I see no benefit in giving religion more credit than it’s due. There are more than enough religious people to do that.

  • Jack

    PZ was great before he became popular – he was nice, no ad-hominems, actually talked about science.

    Now, I honestly can’t imagine a worse spokesperson for skepticism, rationalism or atheism.

    He’s like the Westboro Baptist Church of atheists – I try to distance myself from him and his pack of wild followers as much as I can.

  • newavocation

    Atheists didn’t make the rules. We have to be outspoken in order to be heard. Read a little bit of Ingersoll. Myers, Harris and Dawkins are not covering new ground.

  • Jack

    I’ll agree for the most part. Except I used to be a fundamentalist, home-schooled, creationist, bible-banging Christian.

    The thing a lot of people don’t realize is we are so sheltered that we don’t realize that people CAN mock our religion; just the thought of it leaves our jaws gaped open.

    And it is only this kind of communication that finally hits home that a person’s religion is not infallible. With that said, you can mock the religion without mocking the people, which is lost on many atheists.

  • obamaiscarter

    PZ Myers is a total dick and anyone who has spent more than five seconds listening to him knows this.