The much-awaited debate between PZ Myers and Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein, entitled “How Should the Atheist Movement Talk About Religion?” took place this past Sunday, hosted by Ask an Atheist. Click here for the podcast of the event, in which the two atheists air their differences and find, at times, surprisingly common ground.
Both Myers and Epstein argued that a sensitive balance is required between stringent criticism of damaging religious beliefs and practices and a concern for the people who engage in such practices or hold those beliefs (and other religious people who do neither). Both agreed that Everybody Draw Muhammad Day was a difficult case in terms of determining such a balance. Both stressed the necessity of protecting satire and even mockery, while respecting individual human beings and, in particular, marginalized groups.Some may be shocked to see the softer side of Myers, as he repeatedly stresses the importance of compassion toward the religious, while others might find it surprising to hear Epstein’s full-throated support of satirists and religious critics.
I think the Carl Sagan quote Epstein ended with summed up the position of both speakers effectively:
“In the way that skepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many cases consonant with science. If their culture has not given them the all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped…[However] if we offer too much silent assent about mysticism and superstition ‐ even when it seems to be doing a little good ‐ we abet a general climate in which skepticism is considered impolite, science tiresome, and rigorous thinking somehow stuffy and inappropriate. Figuring out a prudent balance takes wisdom.”