As long time friends here are aware, I frequently quote a person I've been honored to speak with and see with some regularity, PZ Myers. His blog Pharyngula is always interesting reading, particular for those of us who are *out* atheists, questioning the position of Christian priviledge in our society. He was part of a panel discussion that was made into Episode 22 :: Losing My Religion -- Coming Out As An Atheist.
One of his posts today, however, has put me in a challenging position. I must disagree with PZ's approach, very strongly, in his response to Stephen Asma's article The New Atheists' Narrow Worldview. And what prompts me to write about this is a couple of things, not the least of which is Stephen Asma's standing as a fellow secular Buddhist.
I've had the great joy of speaking with Stephen about his book "Why I Am a Buddhist: No-Nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey", for a future episode. He is intelligent, funny, and as unabashedly skeptical of supernatural claims as PZ -- and can be every bit as direct in his criticism, when seeing the harm such beliefs can cause.
He's not, however, a bull in a China shop about it.
Stephen has experience with the people and culture of several Asian countries, and it is with that background he speaks to the issue of how those societies may and may not respond to the position of the "Gnu Atheists". His article was about approach, but sadly, that point seems to have been missed. Instead, PZ's response:
"It wouldn't matter if he could show empirically that adopting this hypothetical faith leads to world peace, the voluntary abolishment of crime, the disappearance of dental caries, and that every child on the planet would get their very own pony — I'd still battle it with every fierce and angry word I could speak and type if it wasn't also shown to be a true and accurate description of the world."
Here's why I'm writing today. This is eerily familiar to a theme that we deal with here on The Secular Buddhist: the difference between building bridges, and causing rifts. As it is often pointed out, secular Buddhism is about creating an opportunity for practice, and fostering communities of support for those who are more comfortable with a secular world view. Many of us are less comfortable with the trappings of organized religion and supernatural explanations, and find more resonance with practicing in our own, non-traditional way.
It's not about telling people who do find faith-based approaches helpful to them that they're wrong. Not at all.
PZ's approach is different. Being right -- with "every fierce and angry word" -- may win support from his fans, but isn't going to convince people who have a completely different cultural background. Asserting factual superiority is not likely to establish a positive rapport with many people.
And that's something we need to be mindful of, if you'll forgive the term. We're not here to be dicks, as Phil Plait said in his speech at TAM 8. We might be well served to remember what Buddhism is about: ending suffering. That's our goal. Being right? It's nice. That's our comfort zone. But it's not the goal.
PZ did include Stephen's response to his criticism.