PZ Myers, The Happy Atheist

Unknown-1I’ve read the major atheist books – Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens – which might be called “combative.” Some feel the confrontational stance disserves the cause. I’m of two minds. True, telling believers “you’re idiots” is not helpful. But religious thought has been so powerful for so long (with such bad consequences) that assertive dissent seems well justified.

PZ Meyers (that’s how he spells his name), in The Happy Atheist, pulls no punches, laying on the scorn; but he does it in an easy, breezy, good humored manner. UnknownBooks debunking religion go all the way back to Tom Paine, but Myers does it well, not content with just making the obvious points.

For example, it’s clear that ideas of Heaven and Hell are rooted in fear of death and chafing at unfairness in life. Myers, however, digs down to dissect these beliefs, showing how incoherent they actually are. A Hell where people are tortured forever? Myers notes that souls have no bodies and hence no pain receptors. But even ignoring that, such sustained agony would soon disintegrate one’s psyche, and continuing to torture an insensate husk would be pointless. Maybe an omnipotent deity could get around that; but how does this sadism square with the idea of a loving and forgiving God? Unknown-2While punishment as a deterrent makes sense, souls in Hell have no way to get back in God’s good graces, so what is the point? And, as Myers puts it, in your brief earthly life you get to guess which faith is true, and if you guess wrong, it’s billions of years of horrific suffering. “That’s insane,” he writes.

Undoubtedly, “Hell” is the creation of people full of bitterness toward other people; such a belief is an insult to God.

Myers similarly unpacks the idea of Heaven. The problem is that desires and dreams are what life is about. Fulfill them all, and where does that leave you? In “a kind of retirement home where everyone is waiting to die. Waiting forever.” images-1Alternatively, believers might cast Heaven as some sort of “pure bliss, pure joy . . . unadulterated rapturous ecstasy . . . the crack cocaine vision of afterlife.” Tempting, perhaps, but this isn’t any kind of worthwhile existence either.

As Myers says, death is an end, that “deserves all the sorrow that the living bring to it, but the absurd attempts of believers to soften it with lies are a contemptible disservice to the life that is over.” Religion actually makes a mockery of death’s seriousness.

One chapter is headed, “What Dreadful Price Must We Pay to Be Atheists?” Of course Myers is being facetious; but apropos the book’s title, many religionists do think atheists must be miserable misfits with something awry in their heads, unable to accept God’s love and all the happiness it confers. But atheists reject religion for one simple reason: it isn’t true. Trying to make oneself believe lies is no recipe for contentment. If believers get happiness from their faith, it’s a false paradise (I’ll refrain from saying “fool’s paradise”). Freeing ourselves from falsehood, and looking life’s truth fearlessly in the eye, is a recipe for happiness. That’s why atheists aren’t the afflicted lost souls believers think they are.

In fact, I know people who were tormented by their religion, struggling to square all its circles, that no prodigies of ratiocination could ever achieve. Only when they were able to extricate themselves from that briar patch could they finally feel at peace with their existence.

imagesIt’s true it comes to an end. But a fairy tale of immortality doesn’t alter that. I’ve noticed that people who insist they’re Heaven bound are in no hurry to go. However, knowing there’s no afterlife makes me appreciate this one all the more profoundly. In an impersonal cosmos with no god, life is an almost miraculous gift. Disgruntlement at not having more would be absurd. I am happy with what I’ve got.


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31 Responses to “PZ Myers, The Happy Atheist”

  1. njmolinari Says:

    I haven’t read this book so I cannot really critique it, but if it is anything like Bill Maher’s “Religulous” then it’s probably full of childish arguments that demonstrate a thorough misunderstanding of various religions. The basic conceptions of a “fiery hell” and “blissful heaven” are ridiculous and there are lots of intelligent theologians who would laugh at this.

    I find that often times the biggest mistake of atheists, people I have nothing against (I just think they’re silly), is that they confuse truth and fact.

    Also, in Catholic thought, one is reunited with the physical body after death.

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    I agree with you on this: “fiery hell” and “blissful heaven” are ridiculous; and many theologians don’t buy them. But an awful lot of preachers and ordinary folks in the pews believe them, which is what constitutes much of religion “on the ground.”
    Reunited with the physical body after death? Have you thought through this weird idea? What happens with the physical body that’s rotting in the grave? Do you get a new duplicate? Replicating the one you died in — with all its decrepitude?
    Atheists confuse truth and facts? That’s pretty rich, coming from someone who apparently believes there is a man in the sky controlling the world — and in “reunion” with your body after death.
    (What could be more “childish”?)

  3. njmolinari Says:

    I didn’t say I believe I will be reunited with my physical body (I’m undecided), just that that’s what the actual Catholic doctrine is. My point was that the author probably didn’t know the actual doctrine when critiquing the notions of heaven and hell, just like Bill Maher didn’t know what he was talking about in his “Ridiculous” film!

    You’re right about most people in the pews believing in them, etc. But most people, in general, are idiots.

    And the idea of a man in the “sky” controlling the world is equally childish and no serious people believe that, including me.

  4. rationaloptimist Says:

    So — what kind of God DO you believe in? The God of the Bible? Sure seems like a “man in the sky.” But some people nowadays who call themselves believers redefine “God” in such nebulous mystical terms they might as well own up to being atheists.

  5. njmolinari Says:

    It’s tough to say. I think the closest thing I’ve read is in Heidegger’s “Introduction” to Being and Time, and also “What is Metaphysics?” in his Introduction to Metaphysics. But Heidegger would never say he was talking about God and he wasn’t, he was talking about Being. But for me, its the closest anyone has come. I also really like Fr. Norris Clarke’s “Person and Being,” which is a must read for anyone interested in the metaphysics of the person in relation to God and the cosmos. But then again I also like Leibniz’s Monadology too. I think the idea of Micro- and Macrocosms is really interesting. In fact, there are a lot of really good books out there and all of them give glimpses into what I would say is my conception of God.

    If you want to have a good laugh, read some of my musings on Religion here:


    I think you’ll especially like the section on Bible Dipping!

  6. rationaloptimist Says:

    I looked; even left a comment. As to Bible dipping, it’s analogous to ancient soothsayers “predicting” the future by cutting open an animal and pretending to somehow read a message in its entrails.
    You seem to have a fundamental problem of epistemology; seeming to think that what science finds is somehow no more intrinsically valid than any kind of mystical mumbo-jumbo. It’s ironic that you talk of “confusing truth and facts” when you don’t seem to have a grip on how anything is known. I love it when believers nitpick evolution trying to show it’s only 99.9% proven, not 100%, and thinking that the 0.1% is a killer; when they meanwhile accept without cavil stuff that’s 0% proven.

  7. njmolinari Says:

    You’ve misunderstood my blog. I believe in the theory of evolution and my only problem with science is when it is over-extended into areas where science has no meaning. It isn’t usually the scientists that do this, but uninformed people who read science and equate it with truth.

    I know science can lead to some reliable understanding of some things in the world. That’s as obvious to me as the existence of God. Science and religion are complementary- the problem is when one tries to substitute one for the other, etc.

  8. rationaloptimist Says:

    Well, I found this statement on your blog: “Folks who demand “scientific” evidence have no evidence for the soundness of the epistemological construct which they employ!” To me that’s quintessential epistemological confusion. It’s like the argument that “faith” in science is no different from religious faith. I’ve addressed this fully: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2012/01/18/faith-versus-reason/

  9. njmolinari Says:

    It’s a critique on those who confuse a “theory” of evolution with a (hypothetical) “law” of evolution, etc. But that’s an argument against scientific realism, not the pursuit of science.

  10. kurt Says:

    Enjoyable discussion. A thing I note about atheists is that quite a few come across as smug and intolerant. They forget that this one insight does not determine one’s character. A person can actually believe in the tale of Noah’s Arc, and be an excellent friend, neighbor, and leader. There are many fairytales to fall for. Belief in a Creator is just one of them.

  11. njmolinari Says:

    Christian Nevell Bovee, “No man is happy without a delusion of some kind.”

    By the way, Frank, when I picture God he looks a little like you, with a big gray/white beard and all! 🙂

  12. rationaloptimist Says:

    That’s because I AM God.

  13. Jorg Lueke Says:

    Arguing against the notions of Heaven and Hell mentioned in the excerpt is arguing against a child’s conception of an afterlife. Religion and arguments against religion often focus on the supernatural which is silly. It is more interesting to investigate what we are which is hard to do without spirituality though a single divine God certainly isn’t needed.

  14. rationaloptimist Says:

    This word “spirituality” is very problematic. What, exactly, does it mean? I actually find it meaningless.

  15. njmolinari Says:

    An exact definition is very difficult for anything and it greatly depends on one’s conceptual scheme, so me spouting off a definition of “spirituality” requires an understanding of what I mean by physical existence, substance, etc. That’s why Oxford’s dictionary on historical principles was so successful, because meaning evolves and is historically and culturally dependent.

    All of these terms are interrelated and depend on one’s general world view. “Spirituality” for a strict materialist is meaningless. But I didn’t think anyone seriously considered a materialistic view of the world anymore.

    I’ve written about the problems with materialism here, I hope you don’t mind me posting the link on your blog as so far you are my only reader 😦 and the person who prompted me to start writing a blog:


  16. rationaloptimist Says:

    What is the opposite of “materialism”? Some kind of woo-woo notion that anything can exist or occur WITHOUT a basis in the particles that comprise the cosmos? That, to use your word, seems to me “ridiculous.” Epicurus and Lucretius realized that over 2000 years ago. You say it can’t be proven, but there’s never been the slightest shred of evidence for any phenomenon occurring outside its bounds. Once again, we see the religious mind demanding 100% ironclad proof for propositions he yearns to reject while requiring 0% proof for propositions he wishes were true.
    Your memories of your grandmother are indeed a product of physical interactions among neurons in your brain. There is nothing else they could possibly be.

  17. njmolinari Says:

    It is anything that cannot be explained with reference to a material world- free will being the biggest issue. One cannot explain free will in a materialistic universe. Daniel Dennett was the last to try to with his theory of “emergent probability” and, in my mind, he thoroughly failed.

    How would you explain free will?

  18. rationaloptimist Says:

    I have addressed free will in some depth in my book, The Case for Rational Optimism. For some briefer discussions on this blog:

  19. njmolinari Says:

    Those are nice posts but if anything they confirm what I’ve been saying. You can explain something similar to free will (like Dennett does), and rationalize why we behave the way we do, but even you have to acknowledge that principle of uncertainty where free will resides. And it is that same principle of uncertainty that plagues modern scientific realism and is the basis for the belief in the existence of god.

    There is no demand for science to be perfectly accurate by intelligent theists because we know what science is- it is a rigorous examination of the world, a method, but not an absolute truth determiner like some people seem to think it is (it comes from the German wissenschaft, and eventually stems from the Greek skopeio, meaning “to look into”…so a “rigorous looking into”). Good theists (and good atheists) simply acknowledge that science has its proper limits in terms of knowledge, and if anything it reinforces that uncertainty that underlies everything.

    That’s why Socrates will always be the best philosopher, because he recognized it is about the question and not the answer, and modern proponents of science have lost touch with the true nature of scientific inquiry. They are the Aristotles of the modern day. Traitors is what Kierkegaard would call them, and he was right!

  20. njmolinari Says:

    Reblogged this on Philosophical Writings and commented:
    A good discussion!

  21. njmolinari Says:

    Stephen Wolfram’s book, A New Kind of Science, deals with the issue of uncertainty, so far as I can tell. In it, he explains how you can observe and accurately predict phenomena in the universe at the macro level while still maintaining a random, “free” level of phenomenon at the micro level. His book is massive and there’s more to it, but you might find it worth the read!

  22. rationaloptimist Says:

    If you are so convinced about “UNCERTAINTY” then how can you possibly “BELIEVE” in God? At the very least you’d have to deem the proposition uncertain. And, more reasonably, given the state of evidence, you’d have to deem it highly improbable.

  23. njmolinari Says:

    Yes I agree it is uncertain, but belief is different that certainty. I am certain that I am a human being and I believe in the existence of god. That’s two different levels of thought.

    “And, more reasonably, given the state of evidence, you’d have to deem it highly improbable.”

    As I’ve said before the type of evidence you’re talking about has no bearing on the existence of God, and I would just cordially disagree with you and say it is highly probable!

  24. Jorg Lueke Says:

    Spirituality is the experiential investigation of what we are. Religion should supply the methods for this investigation and guidance along the path. What distinguishes spirituality from philosophical introspection is that it is based on experience and it doesn’t use thoughts, it watches what is. The best introduction for anyone with an open mind would be Sean Meshorers Bliss Experiment.

  25. rationaloptimist Says:

    Meaningless mumbo-jumbo. “Based on experience and it doesn’t use thoughts”? A rock doesn’t use thoughts, nor experiences anything. Humans do, and that’s the only means for experiencing anything.

  26. Jorg Lueke Says:

    When you sit and look at the world are you thinking? Where does the thought come from? Are the thoughts an unending stream or are there breaks? Who notices any of this? Are you your body, your thoughts, a combination?

    You can choose to investigate like a scientist or you can choose to “know” the answer like any believer.

  27. rationaloptimist Says:

    “When you sit … are you thinking?” Yes. “Where does the thought come from?” Neuronal activity. “An unending stream or are there breaks?” Surely unending. “Who notices?” What one notices isn’t necessarily the entirety of what is true. Most of thought is unconscious, i.e., we are not aware of it. But it’s going on in the brain. All the time. When it stops — you’re dead.
    Given what we do know of brain function (admittedly far from complete) this is pretty much self-evident (as Descartes would have agreed, even without the benefit of any modern neuroscience). There is no alternative concept that makes the slightest sense.

  28. njmolinari Says:

    Descartes was a dualist (Cartesian Dualism) positing a material and spiritual world, in which the immaterial soul controls the physical body (Decartes’ “Ghost in a Machine”), so I’m not quite sure what you mean when you say he would agree.

    But I too do not understand what you are talking about, Jorg.

  29. Jorg Lueke Says:

    All neurological activity is not thought, I do agree that when neurological activity stops that you have died.

    If you are not aware of thoughts can thoughts still be ongoing in the unconscious, sure.

    My question remains who is it that notices a thought or a perceived gap in thought or any perception at all? What is this knowing function?

    More generally the question comes down to what or who is the self? That investigation is at the core of spirituality as I define it.

    The thing that is more difficult to explain is the difference between analyzing something rationally with thoughts and with experiencing something directly. Basic breath meditation practiced a few times should give you a sense of this. I have a thought and it goes. I am breathing in. I have a sensation and it goes. I am breathing. I hear and sound and it’s gone. Each even is ephemeral processed by a knowing faculty. What is that faculty?

  30. njmolinari Says:

    Ah, I see. In my view, that’s one way of describing the true self/soul/Atman/source-of-freewill, etc., and it is not materially commensurable, which is the only thing I would say definitively about “it,” aside from knowing that it exists.

  31. bruce Says:

    can’t help but be impressed with your posts, just have to say you hit something as special as global warming with this post.
    You can believe it without proof, observation or logic, it just takes a bit of willingness to imagine a group of paid people as more enlightened than yourself.

    Actually, its the problem with humanity, the factions that hold beliefs
    above all else. Unless of course you agree with me.

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