The Wisdom of Balance

Recently I participated in a radio debate with Dr. PZ Myers, a popular blogger on science and atheism, on the topic of “How Should the Atheist Movement Talk About Religion?” Give the program a listen if you haven’t yet. It’s a worthwhile hour– Myers is a passionate, articulate, and entertaining voice for atheism, and I enjoyed the give and take with him.

A few things surprised me about this particular conversation. It was the first time I’ve engaged with PZ live and in public, and he declined to bring up a number of points that have previously characterized his approach to the type of work my colleagues and I do. In this forum, PZ declined to mention that things like weekly Humanist community meetings, or Humanist ceremonies to mark important moments in life (weddings, funerals, births, etc.), which I’ve long held we should build up as an alternative to religion, are “a cheat and a waste,” “pointless,” “superstitious” or any of the other similar names he’s called them before. Maybe because he’s learned by now that such forms of community-building represent a significant part of what organizations like the American Humanist Association, the International Humanist and Ethical Union, the Secular Student Alliance, and the Secular Coalition for America– all of which he’s associated himself with closely– are trying to do.

He also declined to invoke his previously stated feelings about the concept of Humanist chaplaincy, or trained professional Humanist celebrants working to provide a secular alternative to religious perspectives in the context of a university, hospital, or the military. In the past he’s said such things are “un-egalitarian…non-secular,” and that they imply “a special knowledge possessed by a Head Bozo.” He has in the past claimed–without an iota of supporting evidence, by the way– that Humanist chaplaincy is about “granting special privilege” to people who go through a “magic course.” Since he’s made those statements, the American Humanist Association has launched HumanistChaplaincies.org, officially endorsing the idea that PZ had so forcefully criticized.

He declined to mention–this time– that working with an organization like the Interfaith Youth Core was tantamount to a betrayal of atheism, perhaps because he now recognizes that the Secular Student Alliance and a number of its leaders do work with the IFYC, or that the IFYC has gone out of its way to embrace atheists and Humanists. Its goals involve creating a more pluralistic, compassionate, cooperative, and interdependent world– goals many of us Humanists and atheists embrace. He said nothing, in this conversation, along the lines that all Christians are “afraid” or that he regards them “with the contempt I reserve for all superstitious cowards.”

In fact, this past Sunday PZ offered the following:

‘People like Greg Epstein, I think it’s great that you’re getting up there and working with people, that you’ve got secular goals, secular problems, and you’re willing to make the effort to work with people of faith.’

In May of 2010, around the demonstrations known as “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day,” I published an essay for CNN.com describing some of the concerns I felt about secular students’ making chalk stick figure drawings of Muhammad on their campus quad. In our debate, I reiterated the same arguments I made in that piece. Muslims are people too. In the US they have been singled out, discriminated against, bullied. We should balance the value of breaking the taboos some Muslims believe in with the value of demonstrating compassion for Muslims as individuals.

In 2010, PZ published his response to my ideas. “Some people didn’t get it,” he wrote. “Including Epstein.” “Epstein completely misses the boat on this one.” “Greg Epstein can stay home and complain that the people asserting their freedom from religious dogma are irking him.” In our debate, however, PZ made very different types of statements when questioned directly on this issue and presented with my views.

“I think there are legitimate concerns…I’m kinda sympathetic to what you’re saying, that’s true you’ve got to watch out that you’re not stepping on people. But this is on the borderline…What we want is to do something that highlights the problem, and you’re quite right, that you don’t want to just do that arbitrarily, you don’t want to go out and just slap a Jewish person with a piece of pork…that’s just stupid and offensive. We should, as you say, reserve it for when we’re trying to make a specific point.”

Did PZ also give strong voice to the other side– the value of criticizing taboos? Of course he did. My point is simply that in May 2010 PZ primarily focused on one side of the matter and used the type of colorfully dismissive language known to characterize his blog; in February 2012, he acknowledged both sides using language he himself described as more conciliatory.

With all the above examples– and more, even–in mind, yesterday my organization published a balanced review of the debate on our Humanist Community Project blog. We complimented PZ and pointed out common ground between him and myself. And yes, in an email newsletter announcing that review, we also stated he’d made some “concessions.” I stand firmly by that interpretation of the debate. I grant that PZ did not formally revoke any of his previous positions. But he absolutely did acknowledge another side to them in a way he had not publicly done before. And any reasonable observer would agree the above represents a very significant contrast in approaches by PZ– if not in his beliefs (I have no idea what goes on in his head!) then most certainly in his words; in his willingness to use consistently civil language.

PZ has spoken many times of favoring a “combined arms approach” to atheist activism. That’s nice. But it increasingly seems what he really has in mind–at least, the blog version of him– is completely lopsided. In PZ’s approach, it seems to me, one side permits itself to use any word to describe the other– all the better if it is insulting. In fact, if PZ didn’t agree with our interpretation of his words as concessions, fine. He’d be wrong, but hey, it’s a free country. Present the evidence, and see how people respond. But he immediately jumps to calling us “sleazy” and “lying”, and that is revealing. It is unnecessary and unhelpful at best; I’m concerned it may even be destructive.

PZ is, as I mentioned above, a popular writer– part of his popularity may come from his willingness to use language that is highly emotionally charged, even lacking in restraint, in the defense of “reason.” Such emotional language about the work of his fellow atheists and Humanists has, I believe, made it harder for us to do our work efficiently. But apparently those of us who want to build communities and coalitions just have to take it and ask for more, thank you very much.

In one particularly curious blog post, Myers quotes the great Carl Sagan to support his belief that being “obnoxious” towards religious people is a good thing.

Likewise, if we offer too much silent assent about mysticism and superstition—even when it seems to be doing a little good—we abet a general climate in which skepticism is considered impolite, science tiresome, and rigorous thinking somehow stuffy and inappropriate. Figuring out a prudent balance takes wisdom.

But the quote is cherry-picked– taken utterly out of context. The full quote by Sagan is:

“In the way that skepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact, that, deluded or not, supporters of superstitions and pseudoscience are human-beings with real beliefs, who, like the skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many cases consonant with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped.

Likewise, if we offer too much silent assent about mysticism and superstition—even when it seems to be doing a little good—we abet a general climate in which skepticism is considered impolite, science tiresome, and rigorous thinking somehow stuffy and inappropriate. Figuring out a prudent balance takes wisdom.”

PZ told us he was aware of this other side of Sagan’s statement. I have no doubt he was. That doesn’t mean he represents it well on his blog. Why use Carl Sagan of all people unless you value his perspective? Ask yourself: who represents that perspective here? I’m proud to be working with a community of people who prize Sagan’s prudent balance. Hope you’ll join us again sometime, PZ!

About Greg Epstein

Greg M. Epstein serves as the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, and is author of the New York Times Bestselling book, Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe. A frequently quoted expert on Humanism and community for the nonreligious, Greg’s work has been widely discussed in the national and international media, including the New York Times, CNN, the Boston Globe, and on dozens of radio programs.

  • Jonathan Figdor

    Good post Greg, but I strongly disagree that the IFYC supports atheists, Humanists, and freethinkers. They have made attempts to include us in dialogue, that much is true. But the IFYC and its head, Eboo, have NEVER defended the free speech rights of atheist students and has chastised atheist students for being honest about their beliefs. There are good products of IFYC, Chris Stedman and Mary Ellen Geiss are two of them. But Eboo is an embarassment and should issue a public apology to the atheists he has slandered as “bigoted” and “Islamophobic” in the past. Alas, this will never happen because Eboo doesn’t give 2 $hit$ about the perspectives of atheists and Humanists.

  • lynn

    Bravo, Greg!

    I’ve only recently “come out” as a nonbeliever, and I’ve found most atheist blogs, websites, and personalities to be more intolerant than any religious person or institution I’ve ever encountered.

    Like most Americans, I grew up in a family that held some form of religious belief. These were good and very intelligent people, and to hear atheists belittle them as “stupid” and “inferior” has been crushing, both emotionally and spiritually.

    In some ways, I see the current atheist movement as the class nerd-done-good. Twenty years ago he was stuffed in his locker and stayed home at prom. Now he’s in Seattle making a better living than any of his classmates. Eat it, jocks.


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