PZ Myers, according to his blog, Pharyngula, is a biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota. Yesterday, however, he was just one more arrogant, mean-spirited bully (if this were not an ethics blog, I would have used the term “jackass”), ridiculing Catholics who chose to follow the traditions of their church by displaying a smudge of ash on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday.
Like all bullies, he chose the weakest and most defenseless targets for his attack: “little old ladies,” whose religious devotion made him want to “pull out a hankie, spit on it, and clean them up.” Little old ladies, of course, are probably among the nation’s occupants least likely to go on the web and read the self-satisfied rantings of a professed “godless liberal.” As a liberal, revealingly, Myers didn’t have the guts to aim his bile at ash-wearing Catholic liberals of more societal heft, like, for example, Vice-President Joe Biden, whose gray smudge was on prominent display yesterday as he stood behind President Obama during his remarks on the anniversary of the stimulus. This is because, I guess, Biden redeems himself in Myers’ eyes for blindly believing in Jesus Christ by also blindly believing that polar bears are going extinct and the Himalayan ice caps are about to disappear.
I know that many scientists hold a grudge against the Catholic Church–Galileo and all that—and I take the title of Prof. Myers’ blog to be ridicule of the Catholic dogma that a fetus is a human being at conception, since the pharyngula stage embryo looks about as human as a sea slug. (I should mention, however, that the widespread pro-abortion position that an embryo isn’t a human being until it takes its first breath out of the womb is at least as dubious, and a whole lot more revolting.) I know that Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have made it fashionable to be an anti-religious bigot, and to argue that all the worlds ills, or a lot of them, issue from the curse of organized religion.
Sneering ridicule of an individual’s religious beliefs, however, has no place in civilized discourse, or in uncivilized cyberspace. Nobody was more critical of religious zealotry than the great trial lawyer Clarence Darrow (though Darrow was an agnostic masquerading as an atheist, I believe), but even in his essays debunking the myths of the Bible, he never descended into mockery of the sincerely religious. Myers is preaching to his own like-minded godless choir, of course: the comments to his nasty post mostly up the ante in gratuitous little old lady-bashing by people who clearly could use a good dose of “that old-time religion.”
Do scientists really think the way to convince skeptical non-scientists that their research is good, their conclusions are fair and their intentions are honorable is to insult their grandmothers and fantasize online about assaulting them? Wow–good plan! You guys really are smart! You know what else is good? Throwing poop at their houses!
The fact is that the decline of religion in America is a far greater societal problem than its prominence. Children do not learn ethical principles by reason and analysis; they learn them by rote, just as George Washington memorized his 110 rules as a child. Bible stories, as absurd as they are to take literally, are superb and vivid morality tales, and the core principles of Christianity like kindness, charity, sacrifice, generosity, mercy, and love–all of which Clarence Darrow embraced whole-heartedly, incidentally—should be part of every child’s education, just as they should be part of every adult’s conduct. In the absence of religion, with both parents working, schools prohibited from mentioning God, and the world of pop culture, TV and video games dominated by violence and crudeness, how does a young PZ Myers learn about what it means to be a good person?
Based on his last post, he doesn’t. It is high irony that those little old ladies who annoyed him so much could have explained to him something more useful than all his scientific knowledge, if only he had the respect and patience to listen to them.
It’s called “the Golden Rule.”
[Many thanks to Ken at Popehat for flagging the post in question.]