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13 January 2010

PZ Myers Visits Winnipeg!

The inimitable Professor PZ Myers visited Winnipeg last weekend to speak to the local humanist group, the Humanist Association of Manitoba (HAM). I hadn't been aware that we even had a local humanist group until he announced it on his blog; perhaps I'll join. The event was open to the public, and was even announced in the Winnipeg Free Press (where the headline writer spelled "atheist" wrong), so the attendance was excellent. I managed to secure a seat for myself and the missus. Let me tell you about it!


To be fair, it was spelled correctly in the body of the article.

First off, if you've never heard PZ speak, you're missing out. He's insightful, warm, and often hilarious. In fact, have a listen! He's been a guest on The Non-Prophets, The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, and several other shows to whom I'm too lazy to link (they're probably not as good, anyhow). I've been a huge fan of Professor Myers ever since Dawkins referred to his Courtier's Reply in the second printing of The God Delusion. Although I'd heard much of what he presented before, in various forms, his talk was far from disappointing.

The following is reconstituted from the copious notes that I took during the presentation. Please bear with me.

The War Between Science and Religion

Before PZ is introduced, Donna Harris spends a few minutes talking about the background of HAM. She pronounces "human" just like Carl Sagan did, which makes me smile. We're told that this group has an elected executive membership, and they have both atheist and theist speakers (Muslim, Baha'i, etc.) on a monthly basis. It's a good way to contribute to society in a meaningful and irreligious way. Once that's done, she gives Professor Myers his usual intro, and we're off to the races.

PZ begins by expressing his disappointment that Canadians always seem to invite him to speak in January. He thinks that we want him to head back home sure to tell all the other Americans how horrible it is, so that they don't feel the need to come up here ourselves. The Americans with whom I've spoken all seem to think that Canada is outright terrified of their insanity—which is fair, because many of us find their insanity quite startling, as I've mentioned in passing before. But let's be fair about this: we have our own crazies up here. Just ask Martin Wagner. I wonder how that all turned out. But I digress.

Despite the title of his talk, Professor Myers opines that he doesn't think that "war" is an appropriate word for what's going on between science and religion. The movement (or movements: the New Atheism, scientific scepticism, humanism) is (are) peaceful. We're not out to cause trouble: simply speaking our minds is sufficient. "Education," he says, "not punching." But rhetoric is just fine. He makes one of my favourite points: All people are deserving of respect, but the same is not so for all ideas.

The United States has a peculiar problem with creationism, he goes on (although this problem is not limited to the U.S.: Canada also has a creation museum). PZ states that religion is the source of this problem. (This is a common theme of his talk, and I find myself not necessarily in complete agreement with him—we can talk socio-economic circumstances, lack of funding for science education, and just plain intellectual laziness—but I certainly concur that religion exacerbates just about any undesirable situation.)

Like me, PZ is a fan of bizarre anti-intellectual nonsense. (My flaming rhetoric on everything from iridology to Mormonism are legendary around my office, and employees have taken to claiming to be Scientologists and such whenever they want to kick back, relax, and hear me rant for a while instead of doing work. One of the developers recently told a new employee that if he ever wanted to take a half-hour break all he had to do was ask me about homeopathy.) PZ gives the example of Bishop Ussher, who worked out, as Pratchett and Gaiman put it, that the Earth is a Libra. He also says something that at first is mildly puzzling: that he somewhat admires Ussher. The man was thinking, he goes on, and that's something to encourage. But, three and a half centuries later, thinking has moved on, and those who still believe Ussher was right no longer have any excuse.

The early creationists were scholarly, Professor Myers continues. This has changed. They were not so literally-minded, back then. He talks briefly about Inherit the Wind, and how distastefully inaccurate it was in its portrayal of William Jennings Bryan, who accepted an old Earth, and was very liberal-minded—in stark contrast with the ludicrous likes of Ken Ham and Ray Comfort. Liberal as he was, though, he was still wrong, and although the good guys lost (something few people remember, actually) the Scopes Trial humiliated creationism, and they decided to try another tactic: they went "scientific".

PZ goes on to speak of George McCreedy Price, who went on a crusade to promote his Seventh Day Adventist creation ideas, which were quite literal. He promoted a "back to the Bible" mentality, and it gradually gained credence among creationists. The Genesis Flood basically founded modern young Earth creationism, although it was little more than a reiteration of Ellen White's Seventh-day Adventist beliefs without actually mentioning the cult.

He goes on to describe the several various types of creationism that one is likely to encounter:
  • Day-age Theory: Old Earth. Genesis is metaphorical, with each "day" representing millions or billions of years.
  • Gap Theory: Old Earth. Genesis is literal, but incomplete. The days were not necessarily contiguous: that is, there may have been "gaps" of indeterminate lengths between each creation event.
  • Scientific Creationism: Young Earth. Literal Genesis. Noah's flood is the cause of just about every aspect of geology.
  • Literal Creationism: Literal. More Bible, less science (and more Ken Ham!).
  • Intelligent Design (ID): Wants to change science to include supernatural phenomena. Discovery Institute. Pretends to be secular.
PZ then quotes William Dembski of the Discovery Institute: "Intelligent design is just the Logos theology of John's Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory." Sigh.

PZ mentions the Gablers and calls the textbook publishers that caved to them craven. Laughs. He mentions Don McLeroy, creationist dentist and former head of the Texas State Board of Education. More laughs. He touches briefly on Sarah Palin (although not on her recent Fox News deal—WTF?). More laughs, but strained now. He then calls Ken Ham an Australopithecine. Many, many laughs.

He moves on the Creation Museum (the American one, not ours). PZ points out that, unlike just about any other museum on the face of the planet, the Creation Museum isn't a wide-open, explore-as-you-will venue. There is only one path. Or, to put it as Professor Myers so eloquently did: "This isn't a museum—it's a haunted house!" The main thrust of the museum seems to be that evolution causes abortions, violence, and death. PZ presents a picture of a wrecking ball smashing through the wall of a church, the wrecking ball labelled "millions of years". Apparently thinking of things on a geological or evolutionary time-scale is the work of the Devil.

The main theme of the museum, repeated ad nauseam, is "Same Facts, Different Views". Professor Myers also points out that to these folks, calling a person educated seems to be an insult. False equivalence is thrown up all over the place: this guy's crazy ideas are just as valid as this scientist's hypotheses. More crazy, actually, as it's human reason versus God's word.

(If you're interested in an in-depth Creation Museum walkthrough, Jen's got an excellent, comprehensive, and hilarious one over at Blag Hag. I may do something similar with the Canadian version at some point. But I digress...)

PZ presents some heartwarming news: there have been legal successes over the last few years. Unfortunately, the net result, apparently, is that we're still losing: we're losing the war of public opinion. According to a recent poll (I missed the attribution, if there was one), 44% of respondents say that evolution is flat-out false, and 66% say that some version of creationism is true (I'm always amused by the creationism/evolution overlap; it seems likely that much of this is due to some sort of cognitive dissonance). Also, according to PZ, about 58% of Canadians believe in evolution. (As I would later mention to him, I find this startling: I thought we were doing much, much better than that!)

Professor Myers moves on to talk about state standards in science education. The conclusion: they're in pretty bad shape. I wish that he'd been a little more topical, however, and talked about science education in Canada. Mine wasn't fantastic, to be honest, and I went to a pretty excellent public school.

What's the root of our problem? Myers' answer is "RELIGION". (Honestly, I agree. But I think that I'd say "dogma and ideology", rather than "religion"—but that may simply be a matter of framing. Recognising that you—yes, you—can make mistakes, major ones, and committing to follow the evidence wherever it leads is a wonderfully eye-opening experience.)

But PZ continues. Why should religion be a problem? He talks about Stephen Jay Gould and NOMA, which is all well and good in principle (so long as the religious don't go making testable claims, I'd interject)—but the problem is that (a) religious people aren't very good moral authorities, and (b) they interfere with science!

Here's the problem, as PZ sees it:
  1. We're dealing with competing ways of knowing. Observation and experimentation (scepticism!) versus dogma and revelation. We can't accept the latter.
  2. Religion is epistemically empty and unverifiable. In other words, there's really no way to test anything Ken Ham says. (Actually, several of his claims have been tested, and have failed those tests.)
  3. Religion is ridiculous. (Several more laughs, here.) God impregnating a virgin with a son who is also him, etc. (He doesn't talk about substitutionary absolution, which is a major absurdity that I mention often.) He compares the Bible to Star Wars: it's an interesting story, but there's no reason that we ought to accept it.
So why is religion so popular?
  1. Tradition. PZ was brought up Lutheran (just like the missus!), and those family traditions feel good!
  2. Fear. Fundamentalism is all hellfire and brimstone. As Grand Moff Tarkin put it: "Fear will keep them in line." Not only are these folks are terrified of Hell, they're terrified of missing out on Heaven.
  3. Tribalism. Religion helps us distinguish "us" from "the other". Professor Myers points to Ireland: it's far too simplistic to say that the problems there are the result of religion alone, but it does make for an easy identifier. It sets people apart.
(I was slightly disappointed that PZ doesn't mention "community", which I think would be at the top of the totem pole, there. You make your friends in church. You go out to brunch afterward. It's where you organise trips, food drives, play-dates, and the like. That's a major draw, and I think also the source of the common question that we hear from theists: "If you get rid of religion, what do you replace it with." Although I'm not an especially community-oriented fellow, I can understand the draw of such an organisation in the abstract, and the common atheist refrain of "If you get rid of a tumor, what do you replace it with?" is humorous, but unhelpful to these people.)

PZ again stresses that we're not trying to destroy religion. He enumerates what he sees as the current failings of the movement:
  1. We tend toward a passive, defensive strategy.
  2. We tend to emphasise litigation, but what if we lose a court case (if Scalia were presiding for example)?
  3. The "Ken Miller effect": in many places we're reinforcing what we should oppose. Jerry Coyne will never be invited to speak in court, because it might associate science with atheism, and so those who make it their job to reconcile religion and science are really the only ones anyone sees.
  4. Protecting the classroom while ignoring the culture is doomed to failure—kids listen more to their parents than to their teachers. (At least, the younger ones do.)
What are we going to do about religion? Fight back. But don't actually fight, of course. Professor Myers talks about the Atheist Bus Campaign, and remarks upon how surprisingly easy it is to annoy pundits with what really amounts to very polite expression of a differing opinion. (It is delightfully easy to ruffle feathers!)

PZ talks briefly about Expelled. (I always love hearing about this, but I won't cover it here, as it's really flogging a dead horse at this point. If you don't know what I'm talking about, use Google.)

PZ talks about the OUT Campaign (I preen a little in my seat, as I'm wearing my OUT Campaign hoodie). He encourages us to question things (he mentions Becki Jayne Harrelson's "hot" painting of Jesus and Judas and the college group that gained national media attention by simply asking "Did Jesus have a homosexual relationship?"). He plugs the Blasphemy Challenge. He speaks of the Great Desecration: Catholics were upset that he tortured Jesus. He quotes: "You [sic] act is more deplorable than Hitlers' [sic] Holocaust or the terrorists on 9-11."

He finishes with a Darwin quotation, encouraging us to conscientiously express our convictions, to use passion, personality, and humour in our interactions, to stay true to science, and to act!

Questions

I'm fourth in line at the mic when the floor is opened for questions, and the missus tells me that many people were chattering and pointing jealously at my limited edition OUT Campaign hoodie, which (sadly, as the zipper on mine is broken) is out of print.

The first fellow mentions Francis Collins, but seems to think he's an ID proponent. (Well, in a way he is, but not really.) PZ disagrees with his characterisation of Collins, but concurs that the man does far too much promotion of religion. The fellow steps back from the mic after encouraging everyone to google Sam Harris.

The second questioner talks about hope. They (religions) have hope to offer. What hope can we offer? They've got Martin Luther King Jr., etc. What do we do? PZ reminds him that religion promises hope but doesn't deliver. It's hope built on a lie. We won't make false promises. I thought he was going to leave it here and not mention the most important bit, but Professor Myers goes on to say that science is hope. Look at everything it's accomplished! "Why are there so many peple in this room?" he asks. "Because you didn't die!" Science has done so much for us. What has religion done?

The third question pertains to morality, and isn't exceptionally interesting. Commandment-style morality isn't really moral. It's important to look at the real consequences of your actions!

I'm fourth, and if I may be allowed a moment of self congratulation, I managed to push through the anxiety generated by actually speaking to someone whom I admire so greatly and ask my question with some composure.

I said: "We don't have a constitutional separation of church and state in Canada, although de facto we seem to for the most part, with the exception of the [public!] Catholic school boards in Ontario and such like... Do you think that we might benefit from such a thing, or would it be a detriment to us."

He replied: "I don't think it would be a benefit at all. One of things I'm trying to get across here is that right now we're using it as this bulwark to prevent them from being in the schools, and that's fine. But what's allowed to have happen is this... this false confidence that lets us think we're managing the problem just by putting up this legal barrier, and it doesn't. People don't care about legal barriers! They try their best to work around them.So the fact that you don't have it, I think, is a good thing. Because what it means is that when you have to deal with this problem, the way you're going to deal with it is that you're going to sit down and you're going to work it out together; you're not going to go running to the lawyers.

Me: "Hm."

PZ: "Now it could get real bad if the creationists get real organised—watch out for that—and that means that in Canada's case you've got to be a bit more proactive, you've got to get out there early. Don't wait until the problem becomes academic. That's the advice I would give you."

Thanks, PZ!


I had just shaved, unfortunately, so was unable to compare beards with him. Don't worry, the beard is back now.

There were dozens of questions, and I won't go through all of them here. Only one was from a creationist, and the missus and I were very impressed with how he handled it: he was affable but direct, and he answered all of the man's questions. Although I am a great fan of Dawkins, Professor Myers is far better in this situation, I think.

I'll leave you with one more thing. By far the best quotation of the night goes to Professor Myers, in responding to the final question of the evening: "A purity ring is a signal that says, 'Yes, I like anal.'" Much laughter and applause.

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