Sunday, August 29, 2010

On Atheism And Dickishness

Leading science blogger/outspoken atheist/self-aggrandizing prick P.Z. Myers, responding to critics who point out that he's kind of a dick, mounts a defense of dickishness. Being a dick, he claims, saved his life:
You know I've had this recent scary cardiac episode, and as it turns out, I think my own dickish personality probably (not certainly, since we're dealing with odds here) helped me. There was one moment when I literally had two paths to take, and I chose what I think was the best and most rational one.
He goes on to tell a story about a heart attack scare, and how his inclinations to rationality and skepticism led him to take it seriously enough to get himself to the hospital, and then concludes that this somehow proves that being an asshole is the best way to respond to the threat of religious extremism. This argument is, to be charitable, rather unpersuasive.

For one, the equation of dickishness with rationality is rather far-fetched. While not an atheist, I am a proud skeptic and secularist, and I suspect Myers and I would agree on 75% or more of the issues when it comes to religion and science, the problems of fundamentalism, and so on. But while I do not subscribe to any sort of dogmatic supernatural belief myself, nor feel an emotional need to do so, I do not feel compelled or entitled to be dismissive of those who do. The universe is too vast, and my own perspective on it too limited, even when informed by science, to warrant such a sense of satisfaction with my own enlightenment. The beliefs of the faithful may be delusions - I don't know. But if they are, the fact that I do not share them does not mean I don't have delusions of my own. It is the nature of delusions that those who labor under them do not realize they are deluded. If there is one thing that science has taught us about ourselves, it is that we are prone to all manner of blindness, confabulation, and self-deception. The human brain is not an instrument of perfect reason - it's a mass of electrified protein goo that evolved to help us survive and, perhaps as a byproduct, allows us to distantly and hazily glimpse a state of pure reason through the fog of emotion and flawed perception. Every human being alive believes things for which there is no rational basis to believe - we have to. If we didn't, we could not survive. Given that, I am certain that I do not perceive reality as it actually is, and am inclined to a little humility whenever I feel the urge to tell others that they are deluded.

Secondly, Myers rather disastefully (and dubiously) equates religion as a social pathology to heart disease as a physiological pathology. For the umpteen-millionth time, one is compelled to point out that religion is a complex social phenomenon, that it has brought joy, inspiration, and righteous conviction as well as sorrow and violence to humanity, and that there are many different forms of it, some much less antagonistic to the science and rationality that Myers prizes than others. And for the umpteen-million-and-first time, if human beings did not have holy books or ancient rituals or what have you, they would find some other tribal talisman to fight over instead. No one has ever persuasively argued to me that religious belief is uniquely pernicious in its ability to inspire violence and mayhem, and the historical evidence - the mountains of historical evidence, strewn across a twentieth century awash in blood shed by ideologies that were secular or even outright atheistic in character - pretty much proves that point. The Communists adopted as one of their basic assumptions the idea that religion was an outdated irrational delusion and something that humanity would be better off without. It did not make them more moral or more perfectly rational people. The fact that Myers essentially equates secularists like myself who prefer to accommodate the (reasonable, tolerant, non-violent) religious beliefs of our fellow citizens rather than confronting them at every possible turn with people who refuse to seek treatment for illness is not only offensive, it's stupid and ill-reasoned as well.

But even if we grant Myers, arguendo, that a.)he is more enlightened than those of his fellow human beings that are religious, and b.)religiosity is a dangerous thing which atheists are justified in trying to stamp out, the question of what approach to adopt toward that achieving that goal remains. Luckily, this question can be answered. Myers thinks being a dick to those with whom he disagrees is just peachy. But this isn't a matter of his opinion. Being a dick to people either helps to sway them to your position, or it doesn't. As such, I submit the following questions to Myers:

1.)How many religious believers has being a smug, self-righteous asshole helped you to convert to atheism over the years?

2.)Conversely, how many moderate religious people, who'd like to make common cause with you against fundamentalism, anti-scientific sentiment, and the like, have you alienated by being a smug, self-righteous asshole?

3.)Is being a smug, self-righteous asshole toward a religious person more likely to a.)convince them that you're correct and lead them to abandon long-held and deeply cherished beliefs, or b.)offend them and perpetuate the unfortunate stereotype that exists in American society of atheists as arrogant, antisocial people who despise their fellow citizens?

Being empirical questions, these should all be right up P.Z. Myers' scientifically-minded alley. Perhaps he should get to work gathering data in order to settle the dickishness question once and for all.

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