P. Z. Myers, associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, Morris, focusing on developmental biology and neurobiology, is one of the most influential opinion leaders in the online atheist community. He is the author of Pharyngula, the most heavily trafficked science blog online, with over a million unique hits per month. He talked with D. J. Grothe, associate editor of Free Inquiry, about his impact in the blogosphere and the relationship of atheism to his science advocacy.
Free Inquiry: Were you involved with the Internet and science advocacy before you started blogging at scienceblogs.com, or did you stumble into it?
P.Z. Myers: I maintained a Web page for my lab for many years, but my blog is just an experiment in free-form writing about whatever sticks in my head. It has seemed to resonate more than a page-full of recipes for phosphate buffer.
FI: Are most of your blog posts about science, atheism, or progressive politics?
P. Z. Myers: Hard to quantify. From my point of view, the science-related material is much harder to write and takes more of my time. I would say the breakdown between that and the other topics is half and half. But a lot of what I do is just to throw up quick responses to various things readers send me.
FI: What’s more important to you—advancing atheism or advancing the public understanding of science? Or are they one and the same to you?
P.Z. Myers: They are inseparable. We know from the statistics of people going into science that the more you know about science, the more likely it is that you will be an atheist. Science has a great corrosive influence on religious belief. It isn’t always going to destroy religious belief, of course; there are a number of fairly prominent scientists who are religious. But in general, most people, when they get training in the scientific method, start applying it in the lab and in their real-life experiences and find themselves questioning religion a lot more.
FI: But some evidence suggests it is the other way around: that people who are already skeptical and secular tend to choose careers in the sciences.
P.Z. Myers: Yes, I can see it working both ways. If you are into religion, you are going to be steered away by your own interests from science. Still, we want more scientists, right? We want more people thinking skeptically and critically about the world around them.
FI: You are one of the biggest voices in the science blogosphere. Do you think of yourself as an opinion leader and as a leader in a social movement, or are you just an individual who is blogging about the world as you see it? Do you see your role as only making people more strident in their atheism, or are you making the tent bigger for science and reason, reaching out to new audiences?
P. Z. Myers: I am pushing at the edges. I don’t think of myself as a leader but more as a representative of a large number of people who haven’t really had a good voice in this country for a long, long time. I figure that my role is to squawk loudly and point out some of the lunacy that is going on around us and to make people more aware. It isn’t that I am leading the choir in a song. I think we are getting new recruits.
FI: Do you know any die-hard Christians who read your blog and became a skeptic or atheist as a result?
P.Z. Myers: Well, define die-hard. If you asked me when I was twelve years old, I would have said I was a committed Christian, even though I wasn’t born-again or anything silly like that. Looking back, I can see that I was questioning even then. I think there are a fair number of Christians who are just like that: if a pollster grabbed them on the street, they would say they were Christian. But if they stopped and thought about it, connected with others doing the same, they would say, “Wait a minute, maybe I don’t actually believe this.” Of course, if you’re talking about someone like a strong Southern Baptist who thinks homosexuals ought to be stoned, well then, no, I don’t think I have converted a single one of them. Those people have gone far down a path that does not involve logical thought. We don’t speak the same language.
FI: It seems like you’re admitting there is a great divide that can’t be bridged.
P.Z. Myers: We have an atheist movement that is not working to get rid of all the religious in the country—that would be an unrealistic goal, not to allow faith to exist. But what we need to do is stick our elbows out more, push, and make room for ourselves in the big political and social community of the United States so that we also have a voice in how the country runs.
This is a small part of D.J. Grothe’s conversation with P. Z. Myers. To hear it in its entirety, go to www.pointofinquiry.org.