[tt] NS 2736: P. Z. Myers: Mild-mannered scourge of creationists

Premise Checker <checker at panix.com> on Thu Dec 3 11:03:45 CET 2009

NS 2736: P. Z. Myers: Mild-mannered scourge of creationists
http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20427360.900-p-z-myers-mildmannered-scourge-of-creationists.html
* 25 November 2009 by Jessica Marshall

[And it was me who delivered an address to the Mencken Society called, "A 
Healthy Disrespect for Authority: The New Creationists." Ask for it.

[I like what he thinks of Dawkins. One major change in my outlook on life 
is that I have become far less hostile to religion, for reasons I have 
hinted at here and there but have never written a whole piece upon.]

{Disrespecting ideas: a good thing (Image: Allen Beaulieu)}

P. Z. Myers has angered millions with his tirades against religion
posted on his popular science blog, Pharyngula. But as Jessica Marshall
finds out, the scourge of creationists turns out to be a mild-mannered
man from Minnesota

PAUL ZACHARY MYERS drinks his daily coffee at the Common Cup, whose
mission is posted in a handwritten sign above its stone fireplace: "The
purpose of Common Cup is to provide a Christian environment and a
welcoming place for the local and campus communities to come together."

"I write some of my most subversive screeds against religion sitting
there," Myers says.

The coffee house is in Morris, Minnesota, roughly halfway between
Minneapolis and Fargo, North Dakota. Surrounded by soybean fields and
grain silos, the politically conservative town of 5000 is served by at
least 14 churches. It is from this God-fearing outpost that Myers, who
trained as a biologist, writes Pharyngula, one of the most widely read
science blogs on the web--and a pointedly unchristian one at that.

In Pharyngula, Myers campaigns for evolutionary science, takes aim at
creationists and proselytises for atheism while ridiculing religious
beliefs with a sharp virtual tongue. In one blog post, for example, he
wrote, "There are days when it is agony to read the news, because
people are so goddamned stupid... And nothing makes them stupider than
religion."

In person Myers says, "Religion in this country is protected by a wall
of silence. You cannot argue with religion. As an atheist I try to
teach people that you don't have to respect religious differences or
ideas. This is something that I would like to get across to people:
disrespecting ideas is a good thing."

Myers practices what he preaches. In perhaps his most notorious stunt,
he pierced a Catholic Eucharist wafer with a rusty nail and threw it in
the trash, along with some coffee grounds, a banana peel, a few pages
each of the Koran and Richard Dawkins's atheist manifesto, The God
Delusion, just to show he had no reverence for his own doctrine,
either. Myers commenced "The Great Desecration", as he called it, in
support of a college student at the University of Central Florida who
"stole" a consecrated communion wafer, which devout Catholics believe
is the actual body of Christ, from a mass. For this, the student was
met with threats and his actions were compared by some to kidnapping.
He pierced a Catholic Eucharist wafer with a rusty nail and threw it in
the trash

Myers view is that a consecrated wafer is "just a cracker". His Great
Desecration inspired more than 2300 blog comments in 20 hours and
15,000 hate messages. Myers was surprised by the reaction but shrugs
off such criticism. "There have been a few cases when people have sent
me very explicit descriptions of what they're going to do to me. That's
a little 'ick'. But for the most part, these are people blustering on
the internet. It's hard to take them too seriously."

Myers's inflammatory acts and language would lead one to suspect him of
being overtly aggressive, yet in person he is soft spoken and his views
seem rather measured. While he affirms the right of atheists not to
respect religious differences, he adds, "We don't want that to lead to
the point where you can say, 'You don't have to respect people being
different at all.' That isn't true. I think diversity is a great thing.
Disrespect for ideas, great. Disrespect for people, not so great."

Myers grew up in the 1960s, when coverage of the space programme was a
regular part of the evening news. But in his adolescence he decided
that biology was more interesting and discarded his model rockets in
favour of dissecting road kill near his home in Kent, a distant suburb
of Seattle. He was a part of the Scandinavian Lutheran community there:
"Church was a matter of going to Sunday school and having a good time
with your friends. Our Sunday school teacher was this nice, wonderful
woman who I really liked, and we memorised Bible verses." But when it
was time for confirmation class and the teacher laid out the core
beliefs of the church, young Myers balked. The Bible verses he had
memorised in Sunday school rang hollow compared to what he'd learned
from the road kill. "That's real. You can get out there and look at
these things and you can start seeing the relationship between the dead
porcupine and the dead otter you found," he recalls, "The biology books
go into specifics. They talk about physical reality--stuff you can go
out and test yourself. That's a big difference from what you do in
church."

Today Myers lives in a peeling white house across the street from the
University of Minnesota Morris. His living room appears to do triple
duty as lounge, office and exercise studio. His readers send him Darwin
figures, fossils and hand-knitted cephalopods, which clutter a side
table. A beach-ball-sized, pink stuffed octopus occupies one seat of a
couch. Cephalopods--squid and octopuses--are a pet interest, and he
posts a picture of one every Friday on his blog. Pharyngula (tag line:
"Evolution, development, and random biological ejaculations from a
godless liberal") grew out of a class he taught in the early days of
the blogosphere. He began using the course software to blog after the
semester was over. "People liked it," he says. "The blog just turned
into this huge trumpet."

He acknowledges that there is a difference between blogs and news
writing. "I care about the facts, of course. At the same time, one of
the things you do with a blog is you throw out ideas." Unlike writing
for magazines with fact-checkers and libel lawyers, he says, "I don't
have that throttle." Myers readily admits that being provocative is
part of the game. "There are no constraints on me," he says. "I can be
uncompromising in my criticisms. I think my philosophy of blogging fits
with what people want to see in a blog. They want to see an open
discussion. They want to see ideas presented strongly and they want to
see them thoroughly wrestled."

It's not just believers who have felt the wrath of Myers's unthrottled
keyboard. He expels plenty of words attacking the science media,
including this magazine. In 2008 he came down hard on a New Scientist
cover that proclaimed "Darwin Was Wrong" for giving ammunition to
creationists. "As a blogger, I just said that controversy sells," he
says (indeed, that issue was the year's best-seller), "but that was bad
controversy. We're already getting accounts from the front line of
people who walk into the board of education with that article. They
come in waving that cover and say, 'This is why we've got to teach
creationism.' " He concedes that the accompanying story was accurate
and that the editorial was "solid stuff", but adds that "The front
cover failed. It gave entirely the wrong message."

Nonetheless, Myers acknowledges that he would be "the wrong person to
be in charge of science journalism. I respect the fact that journalism
has long had a set of standards and practices that are valuable. But at
this point, the discipline has become very, very sloppy. A lot of
science journalists don't know much science. Many are picked because
they are willing to do this fairly low prestige job. You sometimes see
these so-called science journalists who write like they were formerly
sports journalists."

But for all of his cantankerousness, Myers says the spirit is debate,
not malice: "There is this tradition in science that you can argue
forcefully for a position and it doesn't mean that you are going to
punch the guy in the nose. Science is a deeper part of my persona than
religion or atheism or anything."

Profile

P. Z. Myers is an associate professor of biology at the University of
Minnesota Morris. His blog, Pharyngula (scienceblogs.com/pharyngula),
receives about 2.5 million hits every month

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