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?

Odd.

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

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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.


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