PZ Myers gave my favourite presentation of the convention – comedians included. Like Leslie Cannold, he energised the crowd with his ‘take no prisoners’ style. I defy anyone to sleep through a presentation by PZ!
No polite accommodationism for PZ. The mild-mannered, bewhiskered professor from the tiny town of Morris, Minnesota, ambled onto the stage and called for an assault on heaven and the killing of God.
“In the beginning,” said PZ “was the blood”; people were bound by familial ties.
But, he said, this was limiting, They needed a new way to join together in larger groups.
At length, allegiance to a particular king became the new symbol of identity and the size of social units grew.
Next, came identification with a particular city – for example, “I am an Athenian!”
All of these identifications, he said, are built on the arrogance of pride.
But, cities fall, bloodlines fade and kings die.
And so it was that the Jews invented a new form of group identity – through allegiance to ‘the Word’, they became ‘the people of the Book’.
“Words,” said PZ, “have a persistence that cities cannot have.”
In fact, when Jersualem fell the social cohesion of the Jews was strengthened.
This identification with abstract stories and histories, combined together in a ‘sacred’ book, “made Christianity bullet-proof”.
Words – stories – are “ecumenical”. A common belief can cross borders – ideology is not restrained by geography.
I’m not a reader of comics and I hadn’t seen this film, but I’ve subsequently learned that the main character ‘V’ is the embodiment of an idea which has persisted at least since Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators plotted to kill the English King and overturn his Protestant government by blowing up the Parliament with gunpowder:
“People should not be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.” (V for Vendetta)
The film opens with a recitation of the verse:
“Remember, remember the fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot. I know of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot.”
Over the centuries, the character of Guy Fawkes has come to symbolise those who challenge the status quo. Notably, the Guy Fawkes mask worn by V in the movie is used as the icon for the protest group Anonymous and has begun to appear in the world-wide ‘Occupy’ grass-roots protest movement.
In writing V for Vendetta, Alan Moore, was, apparently concerned principally to demonstrate the power of ideas.
Moore has said, “You can’t kill an idea; and ideas can change the world.”
Changing the world is “something WE want to do”, said PZ but he disagrees with Moore on one important point.
“You CAN kill an idea,” PZ insists. Christians have succeeded in doing this in the past, which is why they are so afraid that WE will now succeed in ‘sacking the city [i.e. idea] of God’.
“Christians,” he said, “are reacting to the rise of the new atheists the way the Romans reacted to the arrival of the Visigoths on the horizon!”
He called for “an ecumene of people united under something other than faith”.
How do we kill ideas? “We kill ideas with a better, more powerful idea.”
But Science is our weapon; our ‘God killer”.
“The Bible stories,” said PZ, “are narrow, bigoted and false”.
The power of Science is that it tells our story, it reflects us; our DNA.
Religion is divisive; Science bridges differences. People can unite in an appreciation of the natural world.
Science, he insists has real power.
“Science shows how stuff actually works, rather than what we wish worked.”
Scientists deal directly with the subject of their study.
“I’ll have more respect for theologians when they start to question the subject of their study directly,” he said.
“They never use supernatural information,” PZ observed, “… almost as if it didn’t exist.”
Nevertheless, the “demented ghouls of the end times are a significant political lobby in the US”.
Dangerously, they believe that “Israel must be restored in order to be destroyed in the nuclear holocaust which will bring about the ‘second coming’.
“If I actually believed Jesus was coming to destroy the world in 2050,” said PZ (only half-joking), “I’d be stocking up on timber and nails.”
It is true, he said, that liberal Christians do less harm than their fundamentalist cousins.
“But,” he said, dismissing them as ‘cafeteria realists’, “they are still doing harm to foundational principles. They are promoting unreason by saying it’s okay to believe in some things without evidence.”
PZ took on the charge that atheists have nothing in common; that we do not have the unity and strength of purpose required to form a viable social (revolutionary) movement. He insisted that he was not imposing a definition on atheists as a group, but merely observing that a broad consensus is emerging. This consensus he believes is based on:
1. A dedication to seeking out ‘the truth’ through learning and discovery.
2. A commitment to autonomy – a global movement in common cause with those oppressed by racist, paternalistic cultures.
3. The forging of a new kind of community.
PZ acknowledged the role of women in atheism, reminding us that, “Atheist meetings, for a long time, looked a lot like Mormon meetings!”
He also warned that, “Being an atheist doesn’t make you a rationalist.”
He spoke of the connections between atheism, feminism and LGBT rights.
“If you are a human being with real world concerns,” he said, “you should be one of us; truth and justice are our common causes. That’s what makes us part of a community.”
Although we have “good reason to be angry with a society that does stupid things in the name of ‘the Lord’ atheists,” said PZ, “are not ‘grim nihilists'”.
“Twenty-thousand people on the Mall in DC,” he said, “everyone smiling!”
“If I were a grinch,” he said, “my heart would have grown THREE SIZES” at that sight.
“We’re not grim and sour at all!”
In fact, he reminded us, he’d even participated in a ‘hug off’ with atheist blogger, Martin Pribble, during the convention!
“We need to value working co-operatively,” PZ advised. “It’s how we’ll win in the end.”
He spoke dismissively of the religious (Christian and Islamic) protests attracted by the convention.
“So, that’s what you get when you give a sheep a microphone,” he said, “… amplified bleating.”
“They didn’t realize they were calling out to the wolves.”
“LET’S DO IT!” said PZ, “Let’s form a ‘hunting pack’ and work together. Let’s make them tremble and demolish the City of God.”