How Should Atheists Talk About Religion? Greg Epstein and PZ Call for a Prudent Balance

Ask An Atheist radio show recently held a debate between PZ Myers and Greg Epstein addressing the question “How Should Atheists Talk About Religion?” I was excited to listen because this is a question I have written a lot about at the Humanist Community Project blog, and of course because Greg Epstein is my boss there!

I was struck by the level of agreement between Myers and Epstein: they both argued that a sensitive balance is required between stringent criticism of damaging religious beliefs and practices and a concern for the people who engage in such practices or hold those beliefs (and other religious people who do neither). Both agreed that Everybody Draw Muhammad Day was a difficult case in terms of determining such a balance. Both stressed the necessity of protecting satire and even mockery, while respecting individual human beings and, in particular, marginalized groups. Indeed, I was shocked by the concessions Myers was willing to make, repeatedly stressing the importance of compassion toward the religious in a way that seems to me highly incongruous with some of his writing on his blog.

I think the Carl Sagan quote Epstein ended with summed up the position of both speakers effectively, and is worth restating, in full, here:

“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 superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, 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 the all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped…[However] 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.”

This being said, the whole debate left me with an odd feeling: I agreed with everything PZ said he aims for in speaking about the religious, but feel that he frequently fails to achieve his own goals in his writing. I rather felt that Greg Epstein was demonstrated to be the more convincing embodiment of PZ’s own values that PZ is.

If PZ really does believe that EDMD was “on the borderline” (a situation in which it is difficult to find a good balance), and that “you’ve got to watch out you’re not stepping on people” when making a protest, for instance, then why did he respond to Epstein’s attempt to find a prudent balance by saying he “completely misse[d] the boat on this one” and should “stay home and complain that the people asserting their freedom from religious dogma are irking him”? If he doesn’t believe that there are any sacred cows, and that “the problem with any group, including atheists, is if we take our sacred cows so seriously that we can’t tolerate other people disrespecting them”, did he react so strongly when Cee Lo Green changed the words of “Imagine”, saying “I regard [Christians] with the contempt I reserve for all superstitious cowards”? Why, if he truly understands Sagan’s call for a “prudent balance”, does he so regularly write in a way which, it seems to me, purposely eschews balance for intemperate raging?


But his espoused values are right-on, and I’m delighted to hear it.

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • Conrad

    I too have found it very odd to see what seems to be “internet tough guy syndrome” in extremely extremely intelligent and influencial people. It’s a tendency we all have, but it seems so easily noticable that I’m surprised it’s still rampant and denied. It’s not isolated, I’m constantly surprised at how truly reasonable people are in person who seem full of spite and vitriol online.

    Is the internet, the greatest tool for communication in the history of our species, ultimately counter-productive when seperated from in – person contact? *sigh* (<— Hyperbole, but still…)

  • myatheistlife

    If a balance is indeed to be achieved there must be counterpoint to apologists. In this regard PZ and others serve as an anchor point for the public discussion. If the only loudly spoken and perhaps pointedly spoken people in the public square are apologists then religion is what you end up with.

    Despite that you personally don’t like his blog writing he is an important counterpoint. One that is appreciated by those who feel the conversation is all too often left to the religious apologists to perform.

    EDMD is the Streisand effect in full swing as was Boob-Quake. You can thank believers in superstition for the existence of the conversation in the first place. To say you wish PZ was more moderate is to indicate that you wish the conversation would simply go away. I hope that he does not because the conversation will not go away until superstition is laid aside in preference of facts and reality by the greater portion of the population.

    It may well console you to think that those deluded by superstitious world views are capable of good but you should remember they are capable of the same good without the superstition. The superstition serves no purpose that can be said to be good if all it’s ‘good’ can be achieved without it. Pick that apart if you must, but it remains true. PZ et al are not arguing against the good the people do. Rather they argue against the harm that religion does. Demonstrable harm. We’ve seen ‘tough love’ and ‘interventions’ offered up as a way to deal with people who are self-destructing yet you don’t want anything of the like for those suffering the delusions of superstitious beliefs? You would think it odd for a 40 year old adult to believe whole heartedly in Santa but don’t want to hear anyone call out those who believe in certain other fairy tales. I find that to be hypocrisy. You would want truth and fact in other areas but fear to offend those who believe in certain superstitions. It doesn’t matter so much what an atheist says. The mere fact of the existence of atheists is evidence that religious belief is wrong. This will not change. It will not lessen. There are facts and there is faith. Faith will not win unless its adherents return to violence. And so it has been throughout human history.

    Do you hold that balance should be the key phrase for the discussion of Santa? Unicorns? Astrology? Homoeopathy? Equilibrium will be found when fact is preferred to faith.

    Besides, if their faith is strong enough, if their god is powerful enough, no amount of laughter or mockery will unseat superstition. To borrow a story, If the believers Goliath is all that and a bag of chips, the David of fact and science will be killed off swiftly. Sit back, stop complaining, lets see how this fight ends up. 100,000 years might seem like a long time to you but it’s nothing compared to where we are headed. We’re barely out of the trees. It’s high time we shake off some of the less than useful barnacles still clinging to humanity.

    I’m reasonably certain that you don’t want to go back to walking and horseback locomotion. Why should we be like so many Luddites and cling to old and less than useful ways? There is no reason that I or anyone should have respect for religious belief. I think you need to get over the idea that it deserves any respect at all. Trust me, you can love people who do stupid things. That’s why there is tough love and interventions etc.

    You should rethink your ideas. Your position would rather let the damage occur if it is not harmful to you personally than to help those afflicted with the delusional belief in the supernatural. Yes, I just said that you are stopping people from getting help. Stop it. you cannot help them by letting them remain deluded.

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  • Brian Macker

    That wasn’t a debate. I got bored and stopped listening before they disagreed with each other. Zzzzzzzzz

  • Edward Clint

    Indeed, the exchange sounded exciting and is in fact, boring. The points are all too generic, I think. My take:

    Epstein: Religionists can go too far, and we should not accept that, but community and attention to basic human needs matters..

    PZ: Of course our criticism should be thoughtful and we should be concerned with context etc..,

    These sorts of statements are divorced from actual events or specific actions. Even when drawing Muhammad is mentioned, it is couched in a “this is a tricky grey area” statement, relegating it to a comment on the idea of a thing instead of the thing itself.

    This may have been much better if the moderator had asked more pointed questions about statements each of the men had made on specific issues.