P.Z. Myers on Religion and Hats

Wakefield Tolbert, commenting on my post, ‘Faith and the Abdication of Reason’, notes how some atheists attempt to argue against religion by stating that although one cannot prove a negative, and so disprove God’s existence, the evidence for the Almighty is insufficient to support a rational belief in God. Indeed, some of the atheists, who adopt this argument, then argue further that the belief in God is no more vital to society than other, transient social phenomena, such as the fashion for hats. P.Z. Myers, who runs the Pharyngula blog attacking Creationism and religion, in particular has argued that the belief in God is like this, and that even if belief in God disappeared, there would be no ill effects.

Quoting part of my argument, Wakefield states
‘A person may be perfectly justified in believing in God, but be unable to provide any justification for this belief. Felis considers that this is wrong, because humans have no distinct faculty for discerning right or wrong, and so have to use reason, and if they can’t justify their beliefs using reason, then they’re wrong to hold them, both intellectually and morally. Now this statement itself can be attacked on several grounds, one of which is that atheists themselves accept as true certain beliefs, which are not rationally justified.
I think when pressed on the topic, most atheists, while being dogmatic in all other formats, would revert to the fallback position that you can NOT prove a negative. Their favorite pinup is the Great Flying Spaghetti Monster. I cannot prove it does NOT exist. But for the atheist and in my case alike this entity’s existence is either not manifest enough to warrant my serious attention (they claim the same for supposed manifestations of God’s presence, or that of any deity) or has some myriad ways of disguise. Either way, as with UFO’s and Bigfoot here in the US Southeast, there is not enough direct evidence, physical or even proposition to the atheist, to warrant a real glance.
They claim that unlike other falsities or probable unprovables, “God” is a more serious issue as it relates or influences politics and entire ideologies that they claim cause harm. There is their curt reply of course to the quip of why few people talk more about God than atheists.
So of course Dawkins and the really nasty ones like PZ Myers (the US’s Minnesota equivalent of the far more affable chap Dawkins, and is given to name calling and howling on the “culture wars”) claim this obsession is warranted, unlike one over an Easter Bunny, etc.
Myers for his part has a follow up to Dostoyevsky’s quip to the effect that if God is gone from all life, from all equations or considerations and gone from culture, then “all things are possible.”
Myers makes some kind of crack about hats.
Yes. Hats.
As my Brit friends would say it, the short version of this crackery works like this.
Well, notice that men used to wear hats more often in times past. Everyone sported a hat on the streets of London and Yorkshire. Hats later went out of style a little at a time a while after the Victorian Age, though they can be seen cropping up from time to time in the US and other places as the last holdouts in the 1950s. But not long after that they went the way of the dodo. Religion likewise will soon be out of fashion. But what happened to the world? Did it really get worse now that hats are out of fashion. No, it didn’t, did it? One might say that with the exception of UV radiation prevention on the monk’s cap, hats really no longer serve any purpose as societal status. In the time since hats left the world as common fashion, scientific discoveries galore have surrounded the common and rich man of landed gentry alike.
We’re not really worse for the wear (or lack or wear!) now are we?
Now Myers follows up by claiming that in his fantastically simple analogy to entire moral codes based on whole belief systems being akin to hats, we are no worse the wear morally or scientifically or medicinally (or any other LY-social indicator or measure) if religion fades out sorta like the smile of the Cheshire Cat or gets rapidly pushed to the margins of society as in the Scandinavian lands, etc.’
Firstly, many religions and philosophers of religion have developed criteria to distinguish genuine religious experiences and phenomena from false, such as those produced through hallucinations resulting from madness or disease, such as Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. The Flying Spaghetti Monster is a satire on the Argument from Design. However, to be effective it has to contradict the other theistic arguments about the nature and existence of God and revelation. Belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster is therefore rejected, not just because there isn’t enough evidence for its existence, but because it also contradicts these other arguments and claims.
Now let’s deal with the comparison between God and other paranormal or supernatural entities. These suffer from the same flaws as Myers’ arguments about hats, or Bertrand Russell’s orbiting teapot. They assume that God is like any other object in the universe, and that His existence does not otherwise alter its nature. However, God is not just another object in the universe: He is its author, who is present and active in the cosmos and in the objects and creatures within it, who has created humans for communion with Him. Moreover, as God is perfectly good and just, there exists a transcendent realm of moral values, which profoundly affect the nature of human actions. An action is not just moral or immoral because of its consequences, but because the act itself is, by its nature, good or evil. Moreover, it is considered that there is a divine purpose working through the cosmos itself, which affects both its nature and its fate, and those of the creatures within it, particularly humans. The existence of Bigfoot and real, nuts and bolts flying saucers would not affect the nature of the universe as a whole, although they would cause the reconsideration of certain aspects of primate evolution and extraterrestrial life. However, the existence of God profoundly affects the nature of the universe. Without God, there is no transcendent meaning and morality.
As for the comparison between God and the fashion for wearing hats, this assumes that the existence of God is merely an intellectual fashion, and does not affect human behaviour, morality and society. But western society is based on and has been formed by the Christian worldview and morality, although this influence is not always obvious. For example, the assumption that all humans are equal is derived from the Biblical view that everyone is equal in the sight of the Lord. Some Christian and religious philosophers, such as Roger Trigg, in his book Religion in Public Life: Must Faith Be Privatized?, have noted that although this idea is central to democracy, generally most people assume that it is true and there is little rational argument for it. He considers that if Christianity is rejected, then the philosophical argument for human equality and democracy is also seriously weakened. In that instance, there is a profound consequence both for morality and western society. Moreover, it can be argued that although religion has considerably declined in Scandinavian society, those societies continue to function successfully because they have largely retained their basis in Christian values and worldview, while rejecting some elements of the Judaeo-Christian worldview, such as the prohibition on certain forms of sexual activity.
Now Myers’ also assumes that even if religion disappeared, science would still continue to enrich humanity. Now this assumes the existence of transcendent moral values, and that science constitutes an intrinsic good in itself. But if God does not exist, then the case for transcendent moral values is considerably weakened. If transcendent moral values do not exist, then science cannot be said to enrich people’s lives. All that can be said is that science becomes a pursuit that most people and society value highly, but the pursuit of science and its benefits cannot be considered to be more moral or more enriching than other activities and worldviews which people may pursue or create. Indeed, science itself is based on the assumption that the universe is ordered and can be rationally understood, concepts taken from the Judaeo-Christian worldview. If this is removed, then the rational basis for scientific investigation is further weakened, and is based simple belief that the universe is intelligible with little supporting philosophical argument. Even Myers’ belief that science will continue to progress may be unfounded. The science writer, John Horgan, for example, in his book, The End of Science, suggested that scientific discovery may be near its end as all the resent scientific discoveries are based on those of the last century or so, and that completely new scientific discoveries that have revolutionised their respects fields have become significantly rarer.
Thus, belief in God is therefore not like belief in Bigfoot, UFOs or wearing hats, and far from not affecting the nature of the cosmos, God’s existence profoundly affects the nature of morality, society and even reality itself, including the scientific enterprise.

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8 Responses to “P.Z. Myers on Religion and Hats”

  1. Wakefield Tolbert Says:


    Thanks for posting this.

    The way you framed this was fascinating, to say the least.

    But NOW you’ve done it, and I’ll have to come back to digest the other posts fully as well before getting on to this!


  2. Murray66 Says:

    It strikes me that most atheist arguments are with God and not with gods. I can not remember hearing of an atheist writing that took serious umbrage to the belief in Bhudda or Ra or even Mother Nature. One would assume that an atheist would be just as concerned with the affect of these gods. Even within the three Religions that follow God, atheists focus mostly on the chronological 2nd, Christianity.

    My hypothesis would be that there is inate realization in humans that we are all connected and that God, as represented through Christ is the true connection. The atheist realizes God as their true antithesis rather than a minor distraction such as Zeus. My hypothesis is tinted by my own Christianity. It does hold up to scientific scrutiny though. Scientists have often proposed a unified theory of the universe. Much of the verbage used to describe unified theory resembles biblical descriptions of God. If atheists want to reduce the significance of God in the world, they first have to reduce it in atheism.

  3. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    Happy Easter to all!


  4. Ilíon Says:

    Murray:It strikes me that most atheist arguments are with God and not with gods. …

    I would say: yes and no.

    ‘Atheists’ (I nearly always put scare-quotes around the word because there are few actual atheists amongst the God-haters) like to claim that they are presenting arguments against the God of the Bible, but under examination, the God they are opposing turns out to be Zeus.

  5. Beastrabban Says:

    Hi guys, thanks for the comments. I hope you all had a very happy Easter, and I’m sorry I haven’t been around blogging recently. I’ve got a feeling that much atheist writing is directed against Christianity simply because contemporary atheism arose mainly in the West with the 18th century materialists and their successors in the 19th century. Of course their critiques of religion can be and were applied to all religions, including Buddhism, Taoism and Shamanism in Asia, as well as Christianity, Judaism and Islam in the Soviet Union. However, many of the early critics of Christianity felt that Western civilisation was particularly corrupt, or were attacking religion as part of wider attack on what they considered the corrupt and oppressive institutions of western society, and particularly what the oppression and exploitation of extra-European cultures through European colonisation.

    I found your comments about the descriptions of the fundamental unity of reality of some scientists being similar to that of God being particularly interesting, Murray. A number of people have commented that Bohm’s interpretation of Quantum physics points to a transcendental realm of number, such as that suggested by Plato and Pythagoras, though some of the most influential books on Quantum physics and spirituality tend to take a more Eastern, New Age view.

    You’re certainly right that in Christian theology Christ is indeed the link between God and man, and that through Christ people are reconciled to God and should be to each other, even though fallen human nature often prevents this. Lloyd Sandelands, in his book, The Anthropological Defense of God , contrasts the Christian, Roman Catholic notion of human community with the contrasting and sometimes incoherent atheist conceptions of community.

  6. Beastrabban Says:

    Hi Ilion – I think you’re right about most atheists having a view of God that really doesn’t conform to what most Christians have believed, and the point has been particularly made about Richard Dawkins’ view of the Lord in The God Delusion .

  7. Biscuitnapper Says:

    I’ve been thinking about this piece a lot, especially as, for all I think of myself as a Christian, I find myself in agreement with a lot of the criticism of religion/theism as made by the New Atheists*.

    That being said, I think one thing that is being missed here is the issue of heritage. It may well be that humanity will do quite well without religion in the future, but one argument could be that that is because of the effect of the religious ‘meme’ in the past – for instance the arising belief in the ultimate nobility/equality of humanity/creation and so on which many modern, secularised, ideas about the state and human rights are based. These can no more be proven rationally or scientifically (by the standards of a modern skeptic, that is!) than God but as a result of the evolution of religious ideas, are considered as like ‘god’ for any humanistic secular society.

    Not having religion in the future does not mean that these religiously based foundations are eradicated – though arguments of transcendence will certainly have to done away with – but that our ways of thinking about them will [have to] evolve as well, if that makes sense. Goodness knows the human mind is capable of coming up with a suitable reconciliation!

    *I generally dislike using religious language but I have always been of the opinion that religion is a man-made tool that has some benefits (being inspired by God) and some drawbacks as all tools do. For it to disappear will not necessarily be a bad thing – when it is needed, I’m sure humanity will return to it (which is why I think it’s a shame the implications of faith as revelation aren’t explored as much as they could be by contemprorary Christians. Or at least, don’t seem to be!) and when it isn’t, then it’ll recede.

  8. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for the appreciation of the original post, Wakefield, and for the other comments, Murray, Ilion and Biscuitnapper. 🙂

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