Column: Hate, in the name of science

“Baboons pretending to be scientists.”

“Keeping children in ignorance.”

“Sleazy.”

These are words used by Dr. PZ Myers to describe creationists. Myers is an evolutionary biologist and “militant atheist” from the University of Minnesota.

Creationists believe that God created the world sometime in the last 10,000 years. Creationists deny that fossils or genetic evidence demonstrate evolution. To explain the presence of dinosaurs, creationists believe humans and dinosaurs shared Earth for a while. Yeah, like the Flintstones. Creationists like the famous Ray Comfort vilify science, pointing out that Hitler believed in “survival of the fittest.”

Many Christians are not creationists.

Last Thursday, Myers came to UC Davis with the goal of refuting creationist claims. He lectured in Chem 194 with the aid of slides that showed whale fossils and fish anatomy – proof of evolution. It would have been a good lecture, a very scientific lecture, if Myers hadn’t been obsessed with attacking Christianity.

Myers called creationists “ignorant,” “obtuse” and “pretentious.” He then turned his attack to scientists who “inconsistently” accept evolution along with Christian beliefs like prayer. He accused scientists who are Christians of hindering science education.

“I do not respect those beliefs at all,” Myers said.

I was offended by Myers’ anti-religion rant, which is weird because I am also an atheist.

There are extremists on both sides of the science/religion debate. Between the nonsensical arguments of Comfort and Myers’, I wonder why there is a debate at all. Why is religion the opposite of science?

Myers accused creationists of having “knee-jerk reactions [to science] that shut down any intelligent response.”

Yet when asked how he reacts to creationists in his evolution course, Myers joked about being tempted to “kick them in the balls.” Myers can’t see that he’s stooped to the same level as a group he calls “stupid.”

Myers characterized Christians – not only creationists – as a brainwashed bunch clinging to the “crutch” of religion.

“[Christians] are perfectly happy to go along with what their pastor said,” Myers said.

Christians may refer to themselves as a “flock,” but they aren’t sheep. It takes courage to say you believe in something that can’t be proven. When scientists formulate hypotheses, they are vulnerable to critique, and they must conduct research to remove all doubt. Religious believers must deal with the same vulnerability, but with the knowledge that they can never prove the existence of a God. Religion takes bravery.

It also takes bravery to spend your life trying to figure out the natural world through science. We’ll never know everything about the world, so scientists just chip away at the mysteries. It seems like scientists and Christians could see the struggle to follow one’s convictions as a common ground, not a schism.

Myers saw no irony in bashing religious indoctrination while spewing his hate to a room full of students. His audience was clapping and howling at his jokes, so I bet few were skeptics of evolution. It takes no bravery to preach to the choir.

Myers displayed a slide showing the tenants of science: reason, evidence, critical thinking and naturalism. But he forgot a major theme that keeps science rolling forward: collaboration. Discourse between scientists strengthens experiments and tests theories. Scientists come from many different spiritual backgrounds. To characterize them all as ignorant is offensive and halts the scientific process.

I grew up Methodist, but now I’m an atheist. I’ve found magic in nature – in the craziness of evolution that has produced both grizzly bears and sea slugs. My beliefs led me away from Christianity. I never felt oppressed by Christianity, I just didn’t believe in a higher power. Science filled the void of understanding nicely, but I did not become an atheist because I believe in evolution. Scientists shouldn’t be afraid of religion.

Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The religion that is afraid of science dishonors God and commit suicide.”

I love these words. Emerson believed that science and religion could coexist and make each other stronger. Science is not the opposite of religion. There are many ways to marvel at the world.

MADELINE McCURRY-SCHMIDT thinks Weird Al’s words to “Luke Skywalker” apply to Myer’s attack on religion: “I know Darth Vader’s really got you annoyed / but remember, if you kill him then you’ll be unemployed.” E-mail her at memschmidt@ucdavis.edu.

23 Comments

  • El Raton
    February 6, 2010

    I enjoyed this! Typo aside, you are a strong writer. I’m an atheist and a microbiologist. I’ve never understood why so many atheists believe that to be non-religious, you have to be anti-Christian.

    These atheists are really proving your point. I don’t know if it’s sad or hilarious. Let’s go with hilarious.

  • pcockerell
    January 31, 2010

    Well, yes, R O’Brien, I did come here via Pharyngula. Contrary to what you and others seem to believe, that doesn’t mean we’re all part of some “hive mind” that swarms around doing PZ’s bidding. We’re all individuals (“Yes, we ARE all indivduals.”) I find plenty to disagree with at Pharyngula too, especially the comments section. Tiny little difference, though: I wasn’t responding to a comment to a blog entry here, but a putative piece of journalism. I think it’s reasonable for me to point out her tenuous grasp on the tenant/tenet issue, *in addition* to the other more substantive problems with her piece.

    But I admit, you got us on the Stalin/Mao death tolls. I mean, who can forget Mao’s famous “Great Leap Forward to Atheism” slogan, and Stalin’s “Kill a Counter-Revolutionary for Darwin” campaign. Sigh. They were tyrants who killed (and caused untold suffering) in pursuit of their ideology, part of which included the espousal of atheism as a way of countering other, rival ideologies. They weren’t, first and foremost, atheists who took their atheism to murderous ends. Get the difference? Find me an example of anyone who claimed to kill *in the name* of atheism, and you might have the germ of the beginning of a hint of a point worth making.

  • R O'Brien
    January 31, 2010

    I should add the caveat that not all of Prof. Myers’ fans are vapid koojas/noxious mediocrities/etc. Some of them are decent, which I found out from interacting with them.

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