Comes a Horseman

PZ Myers is a University of Minnesota biology professor who specializes in evolutionary developmental biology. He is also the author of the widely read and acclaimed science blog Pharyngula, which resides at Seed magazine’s science blogs site. As a vocal atheist and skeptic of all forms of religion, superstition, and pseudoscience, Myers was a founding member of the pro-evolution website The Panda’s Thumb and has long been a leading critic of creationism and intelligent design. Myers was honored as the 2009 Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association at its 68th annual conference in Tempe, Arizona. Introducing Myers at the June 6 award ceremony, Humanist editor Jennifer Bardi shared two stories demonstrating that, “while PZ Myers is a scientist, an educator, and a writer foremost, don’t put it past him to pull a stunt or two that have sharp critical teeth.” The first, about Myers being deceived into appearing in the anti-evolution film Expelled, ended with Myers being barred from the screening (while his guest Richard Dawkins gained entry) and heading directly to the nearest Apple store to blog about the fiasco. The second involved Myers’ “Great Desecration” of a Eucharist wafer in response to an incident in which a University of Central Florida student received death threats and condemnation from conservatives nationwide when he stole a communion wafer to protest student fees being used toward religious services at the school.

The following is adapted from Myers’ speech in acceptance of the Humanist of the Year award.

Thank you very much for this great honor. I also thank you for that very nice introduction. It was a little bit humbling because it brings to mind a great quote from Monty Python’s Life of Brian that really puts a proper perspective on what I am. And the quote is from Brian’s mother who says, “He’s not the Messiah! He’s just a very naughty boy.” Not that I ever considered myself any kind of Messiah, of course, but yes, a naughty boy. I think a little naughtiness goes a long way and so it’s a fair cop.

I do like to think that there’s a bit more to it, though. And so what I’d like to do is tell you where I’m coming from, where I see myself, why I think the way I do, and a little bit about where you all come in.

Surely you’ve heard of the four horsemen. I’m not talking about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from the book of Revelation; I’m talking about Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, popularized as the four horsemen of the New Atheism. They are all widely read authors of popular books who have been largely responsible, I think, for vaulting atheism into the public consciousness in the last few years. It’s a slightly unfortunate analogy though, and I don’t quite know why they’re running with it. One problem, of course, lies in matching up identities. I can sort of see Hitchens as War but the other three are going to have to divvy up Pestilence, Famine, and Death. And this is probably not the best image we want to get across about humanism and atheism.

Another problem with the Four Horsemen analogy is the number. As we all know, there are quite a few more vocal people who have been active in atheism and humanism and secularism in general than just the four. What about Victor Stenger or Pascal Boyer? Richard Carrier, Julia Sweeney, Dan Barker? Don’t they get horses? And what about me? You know, I’m as atheist as those others and I’m probably “atheier” than some of them. (Although I do have to admit I haven’t written a book yet. I’m on sabbatical this year to finish my book, so maybe I’ll get a horse after all.)

So I’m going to very prematurely declare myself a fifth horseman. I picture myself, though, as a little guy on a very small pony trotting after the other four. However, I’m waving a great big banner that has the words, “The Internet” on it. That’s me. And I think it’s important because, sure, John of Patmos (who wrote the book of Revelation) personifies War, Pestilence, Famine, and Death but I don’t think any apocalypse is complete without the Internet in there somewhere, and so I have to fill that vital role. (If you don’t believe me, try reading the comments on YouTube sometime. You’ll figure the end really is near.)

So how does a professor at a small liberal arts university in the middle of nowhere get 2.5 million hits on his website every month? I really have to credit the topics—namely science and atheism—that are a large part of what I discuss there. I’m one of those people who intertwine the two and tangle them up, which has turned out to be extremely popular. So I can’t take full credit; I’ve just happened to hit on a particular nerve in the culture right now.

And speaking of science and atheism, I agree completely with Richard Dawkins’ statement that evolution made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. But I also go a step further and say that a proper appreciation of the nature of the universe directly demolishes the pre-scientific conceptions of an active interventionist God. If you understand the science, you ought to be an atheist. Of course, humans are complicated and very contrary creatures who are really good at clinging to comforting beliefs in the face of the evidence, so the strongest word I can use there is “ought”—ought to be atheists. We can’t simply say that scientists are atheists because there are those who aren’t. There was a time when I myself had no problem reconciling or, I think more accurately, partitioning scientific and religious beliefs. But I was eleven years old, and I grew up.

When I was a little kid I was a major nerd. (I know—you can’t believe this, right?) I had all the major afflictions. I memorized dinosaurs—all the Latin names, geological eras, the distributions, the names of the bones, the whole shebang. Like a lot of little kids I was really engrossed with that. I may have gone a little farther than most in that I dissected road kill for fun and my mother would sometimes get upset because when she was cooking I would collect chicken hearts and run them down to the basement with batteries and do unholy experiments on them. And it wasn’t just biology. I was also really into the space program. I was born the year Sputnik was launched and grew up during the glory days of NASA. I built model rockets and had model airplanes hanging all over the ceiling of my bedroom. You would have looked at me then and thought, “This kid is going to be a virgin forever.” Okay, a real nerd.

But here is something that sometimes surprises people. I went to church regularly. I wasn’t one of these born-again zealots; I was just a kid. But the truth be told, I actually liked church. Maybe the sermons were a little boring for an eleven-year-old but these were friendly folks. Unlike some, I never experienced repressive horrors or abuse, nothing but a positive, wholesome interaction with people who were happy to be members of this quiet little Lutheran community. Good people all around. It also wasn’t a fire-and-brimstone church. Hell was almost never mentioned. I went to Sunday school and I went to church and I was in the choir. I was an altar boy (oh, boy). My mother even has blackmail material which she calls photographs to prove it.

So there I am, a conventional little nerd; I’m mostly well-adjusted and normal. And like most people I’m looking at the world through two lenses. There was my left brain that was reaching out analytically and thinking about dinosaurs and about microscopes and about rocket ships and all those nifty science-y things. And then there was this right brain that was all hymns and Bible stories. And all was well until, of course, the two combined. As we have known from the movies, never cross the streams because that is bad. That is very, very bad.

Well, there is a scapegoat here. NASA crossed my streams and that is what I’m here to tell you. NASA is responsible for me being an atheist.

You see, when I was a boy we had the traditional Lutheran Christmas. We would go to church on Christmas Eve and then get together at my grandparents’ house for a Scandinavian dinner. There would, of course, be things like the American turkey but we would also have lefse (a traditional soft Norwegian flatbread) and lutefisk. (I do not have fond memories of fish jelly soaked in lye, ok? That was just part of the cultural baggage that came along with me.) My great-grandfather would recite the Lord’s Prayer in Norwegian for us. And afterwards I, being the oldest kid would sit down with the whole family and show off my literacy by reading from the Bible. I would read the story of Jesus’ birth from the book of Luke. And this was our Christmas every year. It was great. I have absolutely no complaints—well, except for the lutefisk.

But one Christmas was special. I raced through that Bible reading because there was something on TV I had to watch that night. Some of you of a certain age may remember this—Christmas Eve, December 24, 1968. Yes, Apollo 8 was in orbit around the moon and they were going to broadcast from lunar orbit. So here I am, my right brain is fully engaged in all this ritual and fun stuff of the Christmas celebration and my left brain is just kind of throbbing with anticipation. Oh boy, I’m really into this rocket-ship stuff, and now I’m going to watch it on TV. Finally we turn on the television and there it is. Again, those of you who remember this remember the stunning Earthrise image they showed of this big, blue globe of the Earth rising over the horizon of the moon. It was spectacular right there on television. And I’m just sitting there in absolute awe. And then one of the astronauts, William Anders, speaks and these were his first words, “For all the people on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send to you.”

At this point I’m on the edge of my seat. If you’ve seen the movie A Christmas Story you may remember the part where Ralphie Parker receives the Little Orphan Annie secret decoder ring. He rushes into the bathroom and locks the door in this frenzy of excitement as he scrambles to decode his first message from the Ovaltine radio hour. This was me at the point Anders begins to speak. I just know he’s going to say something really marvelous.

Of course, Anders goes on and the analogy of the movie becomes just perfect. If you remember the movie, the message was something like, “drink your Ovaltine.” Anders goes on and what does he say? He says, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.”

Whoa, wait a minute! I thought. Then the other astronauts, Jim Lovell and Frank Borman, continued. They read a big chunk of the first chapter of the book of Genesis. And seriously, it was just like getting a commercial for Ovaltine. It was like opening that big present under the Christmas tree and discovering that it was a big, new pair of wooly underwear—an utter disappointment.

Now, my family seemed to think this was all very nice. And I think in general the public response in this country was positive to what it deemed a nice, affirmative message. The Christian moderates just ate it up. But I had been expecting something true and something deep. I wanted to know about the moon. Here we sent these astronauts there, and I wanted to know, what does it look like? Where did the moon come from? What do you see when you are up there? I wanted awe and I wanted wonder and I wanted truth. I wanted science and I wanted knowledge. And what did I get? I got drivel.

Okay, I know, a lot of people think Genesis is great poetry and lovely metaphor and I say go ahead and think that. It’s fine. Lots of people really like the language of the Bible and I can’t blame them. But you see, at that moment, I saw it side by side with this awesome reality and it suffered. It was trivial and tawdry against this lunar horizon, against this globe of the Earth, against this black, star-spattered sky and aboard this incredible feat of human engineering. And here they were, resurrecting 5,000-year-old myths. And that was what they thought we wanted to hear.

Now, I can’t pretend that in that instant I had an epiphany and became an atheist. I did not. What I felt was discomfort, like I was missing something. It took several more years of gradual intellectual disaffection from the church before I actually left. But I can say that in that moment in 1968, which I still remember so vividly, the first seed of doubt was planted and I saw religion for what it was—a flawed and limited human interpretation, crudely plastered over the grandeur of reality. And it got worse. Much, much worse.

I did not become an astronaut. Instead, I fell in love with biology, which to me is far more complicated and much more interesting than space. And what particularly engrossed me was evolution and development. These are the study of dynamics of change over long and short periods of time. It is what I have spent my whole life now studying. And guess what, Genesis is still haunting me. It’s still after me, because in this country many people think the book of Genesis is a serious alternative to biology.

Take the creation story, which, it turns out, is really easy to find in the Bible; it’s in book one; chapter one; page one. How convenient. (This is a major advantage to creationists, by the way, since you don’t really need any higher math skills or even the ability to count to find this text. I’m actually sure we’d be living in a much happier world if whoever wrote this book had decided to put this story on page seventeen because knowing people’s attention spans, they’d never find it and they wouldn’t be pestering us with it.) But, anyway, I can summarize it very briefly. God snaps his fingers six times and creates these gigantic, broad categories of nature in a single day. Each announces that they are good and God takes a break on day seven. That is really the whole content of chapter one.

It’s not very satisfying. There is nothing in the way of explanation about how God does it and the order of creation is just plain weird. It doesn’t match up with anything science tells us about the order of things appearing. There is no evidence. There is no experiment. There is no observation. He doesn’t even cite a source, right? And there is absolutely no detail. I mean, look at day five. That’s when God creates whales and birds, kind of lumping those two together, and then apparently waves his hand over all this other stuff that appears in the oceans which is not named. It doesn’t even mention squid. Nowhere does the creation story mention squid. And I mean, really, if I were the creator and the universe was initially nothing but water as it says in verse two of Genesis, I would have created cephalopods on day one. And then I would have taken six days off.

Anyway, chapter one of the book of Genesis is a page-and-a-quarter long; it’s flimsy. Unfortunately, what happens is that creationists read this one page and they set this against, say, my four years of undergraduate biology, my five years of graduate research, my six years of post-doctoral study, the sixteen years after that spent as a science professional, and they also put it against all the scientific literature. They place this page in the great balance of their minds, right? They put this in one pan and on the other side is all of reality—the universe, the cosmos, everything, right there on the other side, and they weigh them.

I have pointed out the triviality of this far-too-influential page of the book before and I often rip it out. I’ve had people sputter at me in horror or gasp, “This is a great literature! This is a wonderfully human attempt to understand the world and it is revered by millions of people and you have just belittled it.” And I have to say yes. Yes, it probably should be considered great literature, but so what? What I’m saying is that as a way to understand the world, it’s a flop. It’s an attempt to impose a limited vision of reality on us and it has to be appreciated appropriately. This is not a science book. Even the theologians will tell us this. (Ask Barry Lynn—he’ll tell you this isn’t a science book.) It isn’t even a Little Orphan Annie secret decoder ring. It is one page among the billions written by human beings trying to explain the world. And it’s actually weaker than most.

And this is why I oppose religion. It’s not because it kills people, although it does. It’s not because it poisons everything, although it does. It’s not because it is nothing but a philosophical construct even though that’s all it is, and I actually kind of like philosophical constructs. Even moderate religion is an exercise in obscurantism, the elevation of feel-good fluff over substance. I oppose it because it is a barrier to understanding, a kind of simplistic facade thrown up to veil knowledge with a pretense of scholarliness. It’s an imaginary shortcut that leads people astray, guaranteeing that they never see the real glory of a cell or of the stars. And I honestly hope that once people see the creation story for what little it is—one thin sheet of tissue paper—they will be able to crumple it up and toss it aside.

I’m not saying we should all run out and burn Bibles. Keep them. Appreciate them as books that have shaped history. There are some good parts and some bad parts that are relics of ancient days and they even contain cultural touchstones that teach us something about ourselves. But appreciate it for what it is, not for what it’s not. It’s not a magic recipe book that describes anything much beyond some narrow but influential tribal mythology, this tiny little slice of skewed history. I began with the mention of the Four Horsemen. As you might have guessed by now, I’m an atheist. And as you probably already knew, that was a biblical reference. We throw out biblical references all the time; it permeates the culture. My middle son was an English major and he once cussed me out because he said I never introduced him to the Bible and here he was reading Shakespeare. You can’t make sense of Shakespeare without knowing something about what’s in the Bible. You have to understand something about this horrible, awful, wonderful, puzzling, appalling, amazing, terrible little book in order to know what people like Dawkins and Dennett and Harris and Hitchens are talking about, and appreciate the irony and humor of the fact that the most prominent atheists in the world are referring to themselves as biblical scourges. We would be poorer for it if we did not have a grasp of this source text that permeates our culture.

So let me close with one more Bible quote that will answer a question I raised at the very beginning, which was, why only four horsemen? Revelation 9:16 is very useful. It says, “The number of the army of the horsemen was two hundred thousand thousand: and I heard the number of them.” You heard it, the horsemen need two hundred million riders. So my final message is this: humanists, mount up.

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