Greg Epstein vs. PZ Myers Debate!

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.”

About Audrey Fernandez-Fraser

Audrey Fernandez-Fraser graduated from Harvard College in 2011 with a degree in Human Evolutionary Biology and a secondary field in Music. A classically-trained singer, composer, writer, and spiritual seeker, she spends her days making music, tutoring children, and exploring various religious and Humanistic philosophies and communities.

28 comments on “Greg Epstein vs. PZ Myers Debate!

  1. Pingback: Those sleazy, lying Harvard Humanists | Pharyngula

    • PZ does deny he made concessions, yes. But his denial is not plausible. Anyone who listens to the debate having read his writing over the past few years will notice his marked shifts in position, such as the way he conceded that certain elements of EDMD were “on the borderline” of acceptability (a position he has not espoused before, to my knowledge), and the way he said we must be careful “not to tread on people” (when in his own writing on his blog he frequently attacks and demeans individuals).

      The EDMD example is particularly clear-cut, if you read what was written at the time. Greg made, on the radio show, pretty much exactly the same argument he made at the time – that chalking images of Muhammad underfoot, in an extremely anti-Muslim culture, might be perceived as an attack on Muslim students themselves, and that we should be sensitive to that:

      PZ responded, at the time, by ignoring that argument entirely and mocking Greg, using his childish Monty Python icon and Comic Sans font and other silly ways to disparage someone with whom he had a disagreement:

      But in this radio show, when confronted with the VERY SAME argument, did he say, as he said in May 2010, “You don’t get it Greg! Stay at home and be irked by those people asserting their religious freedom”?

      No. What he actually said was “I’m kind of sympathetic to what you’re saying. That’s true. You’ve got to watch out that you’re not stepping on people. This is on the borderline there.”

      That, nameless one, is what we call a “major concession”.

      • For anyone who is interested in assessing the accuracy of this characterization of Prof. Myers’ comments, the following two timestamps might be helpful:

        Mr. Epstein’s comments on EDMD begin at about -23:18.

        Prof. Myers’ response to those comments can be found at about -19:54.

        Mr. Croft, I think that if you included the two or three sentences immediately following those that you quoted, it would change the meaning significantly. But I’m open to correction on this.

        • I can’t listen to the program right now, but feel free to add the words which follow yourself. I omitted them because they’re just a restatement of PZ’s previous position, which I linked to in my first comment, and so I don’t think it makes a difference to the point I was making. My point is that even the acceptance by PZ that there is a balance to be struck here between criticism and compassion is a totally different response to his initial post on the matter.

          • Fair enough; here’s the relevant quote:

            “You’ve got to watch out you’re not stepping on people . . . but, well, this is on the borderline there . . . I mean the belief that you can’t walk on a chalk drawing or on the name of Mohammed on the sidewalk – that’s another silly superstition and I’m, sort of, on the side of ‘we should go ahead and do that’. I’m all for heresy and offending people.”

            As for the 2010 Pharyngula link you provided – I can’t find anything there indicating that ‘compassion’ should be excluded from the calculation when criticizing religious privilege.

            For the record, I think reasonable people can and do disagree on whether the ‘chalking’ incident was an effective criticism of religious privilege, and on whether it indicated a lack of compassion for a group that has been subject to discrimination. I’m simply pointing out that PZ’s position on that – and on the broader issue of the criticism of superstition and religious privilege – has clearly remained unchanged. Simply pointing out that he and Mr. Epstein agree on a fairly universal ethical principle (i.e. “don’t oppress people”) doesn’t demonstrate the contrary.

          • Thanks for extending the quote. I think it strengthens my point, actually. Saying that you’re “sort of on the side of” something you consider to be “on the borderline” of acceptability is hugely different to saying that someone (Greg in this instance) “doesn’t get it” and mocking them. PZ clearly admitted here that Greg DOES “get it”, and that the difference is where they choose to draw the line.

            As for the idea that the link doesn’t explicitly state that compassion shouldn’t be a component in the calculation, well sure it doesn’t say that explicitly. It just explicitly rebukes, using dismissive mockery, someone who has made the claim that compassion should be a component.

            The problem for PZ here is not his stance in the radio show, which I agree with. It’s that that stance is so far from his original response. And the distance between the two represents a major concession.

          • The whole Africa-AIDS thing is a complete mess from all sides. We have folks btchiing-and-moaning about the Catholic Church’s stance on condoms, but they forget that part of the Church’s statement also demands abstinence before marriage and then faithfulness within marriage. Taken together such a position will reduce the incidence of AIDS.However, many people claim the rise in AIDS is their following of Church decree on not using condoms ignoring the fact that people are thereby selectively following the Church. More likely is that they’re simply doing what they want and the Church’s position on condoms is immaterial or a convenient excuse when their actions result in catastrophe. For if they were truly being faithful to the decrees they’d abstain and not have extramarital sex. As evidence shows, they are not abstaining nor not having extramarital sex and therefore are not paying attention to the condom decree, much as many teens in the West wherein condoms are readily available also tend to shirk the responsible thing and tend not to use condoms. How else can one explain, in a society where condoms and other forms of birth control are readily available, having such a high percentage of teenage pregnancies.In other words, it’s disingenuous to claim the words of the pontiff in any way make an impact on people and their behaviour. It may on some, but on the majority they go their own way. People have to accept blame for their own actions and the consequences. It’s why I tire of the idiots who simply point to a pontifical statement as if its elimination would suddenly make Africa AIDS free. People are stupid, they do stupid things, they tend to do what they want, and then look for someone to blame when everything goes sideways.As to the whole Islam is a religion of peace thing, it gets me irritated, too. Islam is a religion of submission. If one is not Muslim then one is either of the book (i.e., Jew or Christian) or an infidel. People should truly read Islamic texts to comprehend the mindset of Islam. It’s goal is one world religion. At that point there will be peace. But before then the world is divided into the House of Islam and the House of War. A religion of peace would not so divide the world.In fact, I find Islam’s world view to be akin to that of ancient Rome, namely that:Religion -> War -> Victory -> PeaceIslam has this type of view, wherein the way to peace is through the forceable submission of those not of the faith. Any honest reading of the Koran so indicates, especially statements within the Koran on how to deal with those not of the faith both in war and in peace .Christianity, by the way, takes a different view:Religion -> Justice -> Victory -> Peacewherein Justice is accomplished through Reason, as defined by St. Paul. Justice, however, does allow for Just War , a truly Christian concept but one that is not usually properly applied. But that’s people for you, again. For the curious, one can easily look up philosophical texts on the Christian notion of Just War . It’s quite fascinating.As can be seen, the way to peace is different. St. Paul stated that the latter provides for longer lasting peace than the former. It is rather interesting to see that today we’re faced with the same situation wherein the major opposing position is identical to the one defeated by Christianity. It’s why some philosophers figure Islam will also fall as Justice rings truer to folks than War as a means to an end. Now, if our various illustrious leaders would only figure that out maybe the world will become a better place wherein to live.As to burqas and niqabs, I’m of the mind they should be banned. The Koran does not require them it requires modesty in dress . Thus, the full coverings are means by which men can control women. It’s unacceptable. In a society that considers everyone equal none should be gulled or shamed into being submissive or subservient. If someone opts to live in the West you live by our rules. If someone doesn’t like our rules, the doors as Trudeau stated are open, just leave. And no amount of rationalization from anyone will convince me that burqas and niqabs are anything other than means by which small minded men wish to control women who, at some level, they obviously fear. It’s why I’ve longed hoped Muslim women would take a page from the ancient Greeks and withdraw their services until the men in their lives start treating them properly and fairly and equitably as demanded by human rights and common decency.

  2. Thanks for the reply, James.

    With all due respect, it seems you’re comparing apples and oranges. The whole point of the 2010 post is that such offensive forms of satire are entirely justified under certain circumstances, but that outside of those contexts, they’re pointless. In that case, the circumstances consisted of violent threats in defense of religious privilege. According to PZ, Epstein ignored that context and as a result used bad analogies to highlight why the chalk drawings were wrong.

    Epstein’s comments in the debate had a very different emphasis, and PZ’s response reflects that. Epstein points out that American Muslims are a community that have been historically discriminated against, and that this is something to take into consideration when deciding what kind of satire is appropriate. His criticism of the chalk drawings is, by my reading, softer than it was in 2010, and he concedes that ultimately, it “worked out ok”. Most importantly, he doesn’t repeat the analogies that sparked PZ’s criticism (“mockery” is really a stretch) in 2010. Epstein’s comments in the debate gave PZ no reason to repeat the criticisms he made in the 2010 post. Again, apples and oranges.

    Surely you don’t believe that if PZ “mocked” Epstein for something in 2010, he must, for the sake of consistency, mock him for something else in 2012?

    • I don’t agree at all. I think Greg’s argument on the show is almost precisely the same as a chunk of the linked article. PZ’s response is just totally different. If you can show me anywhere where he has ever expressed ethical questions about EDMD before, and said he thinks that the concerns Greg raised are legitimate I’d reconsider my position. I think you’re stretching really hard to defend him here, but I appreciate your pariticipation in the discussion.

      And remember, this is just one example of many in the show ;)

  3. James, I find PZ’s position is consistent. He opposes oppression, first and foremost. He holds truth as a high virtue, which pretty much puts him into direct conflict with religion. PZ takes a no-holds-barred aproach when people lie in order to oppress others, especially when they claim the right to control other people’s behaviour is based on religion and therefore can’t be questioned. It gets a little difficult to sort out when those trying to control other’s behaviour on religious grounds might themselves be oppressed.
    There was no concession.

    • OK – you find one prior example when PZ has expressed that position in relation to EDMD. Also, tell me how that position which you claim for him is consistent with the derogatory and oppressive ways he attacks religious people on his blog. If you can do both, I’ll reconsider.

  4. Quote with regard to EDMD:

    …this is not simply a dismissal of the Muslim religion — it’s a humorous response to a gang of thugs who have threatened to kill people over a few sketches. You do not surrender to bullies. You also do not respond in kind, threatening to kill people who believe in the sanctity of stick figures. What you do is ridicule and weaken the blustering insistence on special privilege by showing repeatedly that they are powerless and look hypocritical and silly.

    I don’t think that PZ has been derogatory to religious people for being religious, although he certainly has been derogatory to religions, and to people who abuse the privilege granted them by religion. You find me an example of what you mean first; I can’t read your mind to rebut whatever it is you are thinking of.

    • I can back up “that position that I claim for him”. Here is a post where PZ describes religion as a damaging influence, quite separate from the belief of individuals.

      And here is a post about muslim women, where PZ focuses on oppression rather than religion.

      Now, can you back up your claim that has changed his position? Any inconsistency will do, as long as you describe the inconsistency succinctly and back it up with a link to the blog post.

      • These posts are irrelevant to the EDMD question. They also further support the idea hat PZ is weirdly inconsistent in his approach. One day he’ll support Islamic women (good for him!); another day he will post a post calling Islam the religion of hate and cowardice (a stereotypical over-generalization of precisely the sort Sagan, whom PZ claims to agree with, would deplore):

        My honest suspiscion is that PZ honestly does believe in the importance of a humane balance in criticism, but sometimes reacts in anger or out of a desire to make a splash, creating these sorts of inconsistencies. What is particularly annoying is when he criticizes people like us for trying to uphold the very values he himself espouses.

        • Do you not see a difference between Islamic women and Islam? It is possible to support people in a community while condemning the ideology of the same community. I support Islamic women’s efforts in Saudi Arabia to win greater freedoms. I detest the misogynist Islamic ideology that is the source of their oppression.

          Also, I have to say that I really, really hate reading statements like “a desire to make a splash”. I’ve seen this accusation leveled repeatedly over the last couple of years against outspoken atheists as well as those of us who are interested in broadening the movement(s) to include feminist and LGBT issues. Behave skeptically and back up this accusation with facts or don’t make it.

          • Hi Ashley! Welcome to the site. Do take a look round at our other content while you’re here.

            Sure there’s a difference between Islamic women and Islam – it’s the precise difference between religious people and religious beliefs and practices which Greg spoke about on the radio show and which we’ve been defending. The challenge is to determine whether aspects of EDMD might cross over the line between attacking beliefs and making a campus less safe for people. So it seems to me you agree with what Greg said on the show, and to the position I’ve been advocating here. To whom was your question directed?

            As for the question of whether PZ likes to make a splash with his posts, who can reasonably deny it? He loves to use hyperbole and exaggeration to generate interest in his writing. His ability to build hs readership is something I greatly admire – I wish we had his numbers!

    • I don’t think that PZ has been derogatory to religious people for being religious, although he certainly has been derogatory to religions, and to people who abuse the privilege granted them by religion.

      I am sympathetic to the desire to defend individuals we admire, but this is laughable. PZ is well known for his derogatory attacks:

      These are just a couple of examples from the last few months which I found through a simple search. There are countless others. This does not include the countless times he has derogated other atheists (like Greg) for real or perceived disagreements over strategy or vales.

      I appreciate your comments here, but we expect people to do their research and respect the evidence others provide. Trying to claim PZ has never derogated religious people for their faith is completely beyond the bounds of reason.

      As for the quote, it’s actually from the article by PZ I myself linked to. Do you think I had not read it? It is both inaccurate (claiming Greg overlooks the death threats, which is in fact what he opens his article with) and irrelevant. Saying that we shouldn’t resort to death threats is quite different to saying we should be kind when we criticize, and that there are serious considerations of ethics when it comes to EDMD.

      You find me an example of what you mean first; I can’t read your mind to rebut whatever it is you are thinking of.

      I have been quite clear as to the challenge: show me an occasion, in relation to EDMD, in which PZ has expressed the same essential position he described on the show. 

      You have not done this. 

      • Perhaps it would help, James, if you explained more precisely what it is that you think PZ was arguing about EDMD on the show. There have been some vague references in this thread to “ethical concerns”, but beyond that I’m having trouble figuring out what you think he was arguing in more exact terms.

        So far as I can tell, he didn’t say anything about EDMD other than “we should do it”. His comment about how we need to “be careful we’re not stepping on people” was clearly a general principle, one that he didn’t believe was violated in any way by EDMD. He dismisses objections to it as “silly superstition”.

        What, exactly, do you believe he argued in these recent comments?

        • Just look above! I’ve detailed my position with quotes and links. I don’t understand what you don’t understand. PZ responded to EDMD at the time by mocking Greg’s position. Now he takes a different, more principled approach, accepting the importance of a set of considerations he never mentioned at the time. What is confusing you about that?

          Oh, and it’s the idea that chalking Muhammad is taboo due to some superstition that he calls a “silly superstition”, not the idea that it might be wrong to chalk it because of the harm it might cause Muslims.

          • As both myself and echidna pointed out above, PZ did state that there were broader principles that dictated the appropriateness of EDMD at the time. He says so plainly and repeatedly in the 2010 post: that this kind of offensive ridicule of religious belief is not appropriate in all circumstances – it’s a tactic for fighting bullies and thugs, not for marginalizing entire religious or cultural communities. It’s right there in the post to which you linked.

            I’m not sure what you’re responding to in that second paragraph in your comment – perhaps you could clarify.

          • We must be reading a different article. Where on earth in that article does PZ say “we must be very careful not to tread on people while making our criticism, since Muslims are a mistreated minority in this country, and the question of chalking images of Muhammed under foot is on the borderline of acceptability”?

            What he actually said was, essentially, “Greg Doesn’t get it, the issues he raises are stupid, he has nothing valuable to say on the topic.”

  5. I’m going to add a further comment here: there are two things that strike me about this discussion. First is that there is no way we could have this discussion in such a reasonable and respectful way over at Pharyngula. The environment PZ has created there is not conducive to reasoned discussion of disagreements such as this. I think that says something important about our differing priorities and projects – we take free thinking and open exchange of ideas seriously enough to provide a space for our critics to put forward their point of view without fearing ridicule or smears.

    Second, it is striking to me how willing people are to go to bat for their preferred figures in this movement (I include myself in this – I’ll defend my colleagues very vigorously if they deserve it). In this case I think PZ’s response to this issue has been wildy over-the-top, and that the defenses offered here are deeply inadequate. But even if you agree with PZ that we got it wrong over concessions, I hope that you’ll accept we are engaging in an honest, open disucssion of the issue here, and that we have reasons for saying what we said. Those are not the actions of “sleazy liars”, whatever PZ may think. Indeed I can guarantee that you will not be banned here simply for disagreeing with us, unlike on Pharyngula. If you stay respectful of others and don’t spam you can post how wrong you think we are until the end of time.

    • Thanks for your further comments, James.

      I’m not sure if you’re referring to my comments when you speak of people who “go to bat for their preferred figures in the this movement”. If so, I think there has been a bit of a misunderstanding here: I don’t really agree with PZ’s position on EDMD in either case, and furthermore, and I’m not sure what the ‘movement’ is that you’re referring to – if it exists I certainly haven’t earned a place in it. I have no colleagues in this field, nor have I defended PZ’s position on EDMD. I’ve simply pointed out that your characterization of his comments is inaccurate.

      I think that this may be where the breakdown in communication is here: in your comments on this thread, you seem to be very interested in (a) broad characterizations of PZ’s views in general and (b) distinctions in tone and language between two sets of comments by PZ. I’ve only been interested in one question – is he making a different argument about EDMD in these two instances. He clearly isn’t. One needn’t agree with him on the underlying issue to see that.

      In your comments from 7:34, you ask where in the article PZ said “we must be very careful not to tread on people when making our criticism”. Let’s assume that this simply means that we shouldn’t contribute to oppression and discrimination. First, the article states that these kinds of tactics are not appropriate in all contexts. But even if that wasn’t stated, surely any fair reading of Pharyngula would make it abundantly clear that considerations of discrimination and inequality are a given. This should be pretty obvious, especially considering the flak that PZ and the regulars at Pharyngula have taken for applying so much of their skeptical energies to broader issues of equality, inclusion, and social justice, and for refusing to stick to some sort of “pure”, abstract, and trivial version of skepticism. I’m not sure how you’ve arrived at the conclusion that PZ simply ignores these considerations, in general or in the specific case of EDMD.

      • I wasn’t referring directly to your comments there – I was speaking in general terms :).

        As for your comments, I do honestly believe PZ’s substantive position is markedly different in the two statements, and I’m not sure what I can do to demonstrate that more clearly. None of the evidence you’ve pprovided supports your position remotely.

        The point you make that ” considerations of discrimination and inequality are a given” over at Pharyngula is very interesting. It points to a phenomenon I’ve noticed frequently in online discussions: people interpret the posts they read through the lens of their basic understanding of the main considerations and intentions of the site, and this affects their understanding of both the tone and content of each piece.

        I’ve seen people take what I feel to be extremely strange interpretations of articles like Stedman and Mooney, based presumably on their assumptions as to what is “a given” in their writing. For this reason I tend to try to take people rather strictly at their word, and assume they will take care to write what they mean, and include important considerations in their posts.

        I do recognize the good work PZ and others have done regarding increing the scope of Skepticism, which I think is essential. He’s been stalwart on issues of sexism for example. But he has not been consistently good at recognizing forms of oppression people of faith sometimes suffer from. In particular I think he’s written some things which might serve to further oppress Muslims. Just because people see some forms of oppression and fight against them, it doesn’t mean they see all forms. And it’s pointing out this blind-spot, particularly as it relates to EDMD, which Greg did so effectively on the show.

        • “People interpret the posts they read through the lens of their basic understanding of the main considerations and intentions of the site, and this affects their understanding of both the tone and content of each piece.”

          I couldn’t agree more.

          As for the rest, I think we might be at an impasse. All the best in your endeavours at Harvard.


  6. I am appalled at how such a benign exchange has been twisted into feckless acrimony by PZ Myers, on account of his enduring need to see every day as a winning political battle against the vague legion of buffoons whose crime is owning differing opinions.

    For those interested, I am the person most directly responsible for the entire “chalk Muhammad” controversy (this is different from EDMD). I both lead the first Chalking protest on my campus and solicited other campuses to join, which 3 did, sparking a national response from pro and con voices. As the “firebrand” who started this particular controversy, let me be very clear: neither I, nor the groups I have lead, have ever considered or conducted a protest activity with the reactionary childishness with which PZ Myers often writes his blog.

    Atheists today, famous and not-so-much, like to say that we need our anger. I agree absolutely. It must be added, though, that we need equal parts anger and wisdom, because of the cautionary example set by PZ Myers.

    People like their vocal firebrands; it really soothes the frustration a group makes you feel when someone just opens up on them with both barrels. And there’s nothing wrong with that.. if you’re a Richard Dawkins or Tim Minchin. The problem is you might just be a Rush Limbaugh.

  7. Pingback: The Wisdom of Balance | Good Without God

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