A Talk With P.Z. Myers
A Respectable Discussion

I do not peddle atheism in the classroom, and am actually very careful, since I am a vocal atheist in the blogosphere, to reassure my students that apostasy is not required to get an “A” in my classes, and that they are free to hold whatever religious beliefs they want—the biology classroom is about evidence, not belief, and explanations supported by logic, not revelation. P.Z. Myers

University of Minnesota (Morris) associate biology professor and raconteur P.Z. Myers makes a prominent appearance in the new documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. In a sequence intended to demonstrate an anti-religious agenda amongst opponents of the Intelligent Design movement, Myers likens religion to knitting. “What we have to do is get it to a place where religion is treated at the level it should be treated,” he tells his interviewer. “It’s something fun that people get together to do on the weekends and really doesn’t affect their life as much as it has been so far.”

P.Z. Myers, feaured in ExpelledWhether he deliberately set out to become the focus of the ire that the clip is likely to produce amongst Christian audiences, he certainly isn’t known for being shy and retiring. When he disrupted a private telephone press conference with Expelled’s star and producers to level charges of deception and lying on March 28, I nearly fell out my chair. I’d seen the film just four days prior, and before that had never heard of him. Yet here he was, on the speakerphone in my living room, living up to the very image portrayed in the film.

Before he checked out of the press conference (after three or four minutes of mutually confused banter), he offered journalists who were listening in the opportunity to contact him directly to hear his side of the story. I took him up on that invitation, and had a very pleasant twenty-minute conversation with him. The first part of that interview, about the film itself, was published at Hollywood Jesus two weeks ago.

What follows is a full transcript of the second half of that talk.

About the problem of religion in the larger cultural context… you know, aside from Intelligent Design. I’d like to give you the opportunity to present your own views directly to a Christian audience so that you have the opportunity to not be misrepresented.

P.Z. Myers: (laughing) You really want me to piss them off, don’t you?

I want you to say whatever you feel is the truth about who you are and what you believe about religion and Christianity—without somebody else twisting your words.

PZM: Yeah. Well, I’m a loud and proud atheist, and I make no bones about it. I think Christianity is a disaster, and I think religion in general is an affliction on society—that what we have here is a set of myths that people use to shape their lives, and it’s all a big mistake. They can acquire comfort from it, and I can understand that; I was a member of a church for many years. The problem, really, is that too many people treat this stuff as real and significant, and necessary for the broader culture. If you want to go to church on Sunday, more power to you; go ahead, I don’t care. I’m not going to stop you; I’m not going to try to shut down your church. That’s not an issue. But if you tell me that this ought to be a criterion in the election of our President—whether he goes to the right church, whether he believes in the right superstitions and the right dogmas—then you’re treading on my toes. That’s interfering with my life, and we are seeing the fruits of that kind of meddling activity right now in our country—you know, with the war, the economy, the way that Presidential elections are settled now by sound bites and people arguing over this. It’s just awful.

Right; but from that standpoint, it doesn’t sound like you have any fundamental objection to the structure of the nation and how it was founded—the rights and privileges that are granted to people.

PZM: Right. I’m an American. I kind of like my country! At least, I kind of liked my country before the Christians took over.

Well, they were always there, weren’t they? I mean, that’s not—

PZM: Well, yeah. But if you look at the history of the country, we’ve long been a secular country where we allow diversity of belief, and we allow Christianity to flourish. But we don’t make Christianity into the law of the land. We don’t do silly things like drag the Ten Commandments into our courthouses and tell people that we have to be monotheists who don’t put any other gods than the Christian god before them. So, yeah—it’s an odd situation, because I like that part of our country: I like the fact that we have freedom, right? That we can believe whatever we want. But I totally dislike the fact that what has now happened is that we’ve got people preaching that this is a Christian country where everyone is expected to be a Christian. Which is not true.

No, not at all. But surely you are aware that there are lots of Christians, and lots of Christian pastors, who agree with you entirely on that.

PZM: Oh, yeah.

Okay.

PZM: Yeah. I’m a member of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and I know that a lot of [the idea of] the separation of Church and State came from churches that wanted protection—that didn’t want a State religion that would not include them. So, yeah. I understand that completely.

Now, personally, I have not been aware of you until very recently because I have not tended to follow in great detail all of the fuss over Creationism and Intelligent Design; I don’t have a lot invested in the subject.

PZM: You know, this is part of the problem, though. You can tell me that there are a lot of Christians that support the separation of Church and State; I agree. But like you, these sensitive-minded liberal Christians are sitting there silently while fundamentalists are taking over the schools. So we are screaming loud, and we’re screaming loud at the Christians in general—not because the Christians are entirely to blame for these problems, but because too many of them have been sitting there just too darn quiet. They’re seeing this fellowship with Christians getting into high offices, and they’re forgetting the fact that there are some rather deep differences between many different Christians.

Well, I would be cautious about equating being quiet on the I.D. and Creationism front with being quiet entirely about the roles of church and culture. That’s just not my area of expertise and interest; but as a critic and editor, my area of expertise is pop culture and film. And so that’s where my efforts are invested.

PZM: Oh, yes. Everyone’s going to have their own set of priorities. And that’s just fine.

Okay.

PZM: But do you have kids?

No, I don’t.

PZM: Well, there you go—you’ve got another out.

Well, that certainly affects my priorities and what I pay attention to; certainly.

PZM: My personal perspective as an educator and somebody who has kids in the schools is that this is really number one. And I think that’s something that should be shared with, you know, not just “my fellow atheists,” but my fellow Christian Americans. The church ought to be very concerned about what’s happening to education right now.