Book Report: The Happy Atheist

happyatheistcoverArguments about the existence of god bore me. I know my own opinion, and I don’t care about yours.

I’m ambivalent about books based on blogs. Part of me feels gypped; it’s just a a bunch of prewritten material lazily recycled. Another part of me thinks, “Way to go fellow writer! Way to build on a platform and add a book to your bio. I wish I was smart enough to do that.”

The Happy Atheist, by biology professor PZ Myers, was an unsolicited review copy that arrived in my mail one day. It is, as you may have guessed, a collection of blog posts on atheism. I read it anyway.

Myers angrily denounced the inconsistencies in Christian theology with the same strident judgmentalism that offends me when coming from the religious types. In post chapter after chapter, he insisted that everyone join him in denouncing faith of all kinds or be damned as a moron.

Of course, all of his arguments against points of religious doctrine were irrefutably correct. But did he have to be such a dick about it?

In the post chapter titled “Laughter as a Strategy for Diminishing Religion” Myers claims that atheists fall into two camps:

  1. Softies, who claim that mockery only drives people away, and
  2. Dicks, who claim it is unnatural and dishonest to respect patently absurd ideas.

While I will always remain in the first camp because my mother taught me manners, I can’t help but laugh at some of Myer’s choice observations.

  • You would think an omniscient and omnipotent god, when dictating his holy book to his prophets, could have thrown in a few accurate suggestions that would have shown that he actually knows a bit more than the goat herders he was talking to.
  • Christians are all under the impression that they’re defending the existence of an invisible pink guy in the sky who we must believe in because he has a fantastically imaginative torture chamber.
  • Your daddy was a film of chemical slime on a Hadean rock, & didn’t care about you, he was only obeying the laws of thermodynamics.

I often found myself arguing with the book – not with the arguments per se, because Myers pretty much only shoots at targets too big to miss – but arguing with his approach. And usually, within a post chapter or two, he responded to my complaints. I’m not sure if this reflects the careful ordering of ideas, or the flow of the online conversation that the book documents, but it did create a nice dialogue effect.

After explaining why he’s such a dick, Myers went on to address my other concerns. I have a hard time with the complacent way that scientists write off anything that can’t be tested. Strange things happen in this world, and just because we don’t have a way to measure them yet doesn’t mean they aren’t real. There was a time when electrons and dark matter were untestable. Although Myers often seems to fall prey to the idea that anything immaterial is imaginary, in “Science is What We Do to Keep from Lying to Ourselves” he is quite clear that science is the best information currently available, based upon rigidly controlled experimentation. He freely admits that scientists are people with complex and contradictory natures who can hold incompatible views, who can be intellectually lazy outside of their area of expertise, and can, in fact, be completely whackadoodle.

A personal litmus test that I use for any world view is whether it allows for beauty. It’s a need you can’t measure, but humans need beauty, and what constitutes beauty differs for individuals. Any system that denies it (ahem, communism) is doomed to failure. After more than 150 pages of snark, Myers addresses this in two beautiful essays. In the most awe-filled tones, “The Active Hand” describes science not just as a modern lab coat exercise, but as any empirical exploration and manipulation of the world, and therefore as the defining characteristic of humankind.

“The Proper Reverence Due Those Who Have Gone Before” is an almost lyrical meditation on bones and books and the lost stories that make up human history. It is the most potent piece in the book, and to me, the most important. If people want to believe that one book tells the only story worth knowing, they are and should be free to do so. But if they do, they reject all the vast history of humankind’s struggle to reach the present. To quote another sage, they are looking at the finger, and missing all the heavenly glory.


2 thoughts on “Book Report: The Happy Atheist

  1. Pingback: August by the Numbers | gemma D. alexander

  2. Pingback: Book Report: Lost in Translation | gemma D. alexander

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