Friday, May 15, 2009

Episode 41 A Friendly Interview With David Myers

For this episode we interview Dr. David Myers, Professor of Psychology at Hope College, contributor to Skeptic Magazine and author of A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists: Why God is Good and Faith Isn’t Evil. Myers explains how his experience as a psychologist and promoter of critical thinking has influenced his religious faith. Also, the Doubtcasters engage Myer in a friendly debate over what role religion itself plays in making people “happy, healthy and helpful.”

To download this or any previous Reasonable Doubts episodes click here. Find the episode you want and right click the "play now" link and select "save target as..."


UnBeguiled said...


On the podcast, you seem shorter, and not as good looking.

Flawedprefect said...

An excellent interview. I am an atheist, but I am now also a fan of David Myers. I shall be ordering both his books on amazon this evening.

Luke said...


One problem, though. Interview too short.

Vandeervecken said...

I'm having a heck of a time downloading the podcast. It downloads about .1 meg, then stops, then I have to start again. Over and over. Strange.

Daniel said...

Great podcast! This one kind of reminded me of a recent interview with Kenneth Miller. Rational believers are so much easier to take seriously. I agreed with the comments after the interview as well. It would be interesting to be able to press a few points and see how he would respond. Great work!

articulett said...

We can tell a teapot from an imaginary teapot, a "conceptual" teapot, and "not a teapot".

We cannot do the same for "spirit".

One can't know anything more about god spirits than they can about ghosts, demons, Thetans, Xenu, sprites, reincarnated Buddhas, or imaginary friends.

There can be no knowledge nor expertise in things which have no measurable properties whatsoever.

We can, however, develop expertise in the assorted ways humans rationalize belief in assorted things which are indistinguishable from delusions.

Until someone can demonstate that gods, demons, or souls are not imaginary entities that humans are well known for inventing to explain that which they don't understand, I shall treat them all as such and presume that there is nothing to learn about them nor nothing anyone really CAN know about such things.

Faith and feelings are not a path to objective truths.

articulett said...

To me, it just seems that Myers hears Hitchens et. al. to be saying "all religion is bad" in order to avoid hearing what is actually being said: "No religion is true and faith is not a way to know anything."

All faiths are subject to the same dangers as any ideology that asserts it's tenets are "higher truths"-- this is true of Scientology,astrology, voo-doo, and religion. Atheists are not the folks claiming to have "higher (divine) truths" that you have to "believe in" to benefit from.

Despite the mental tap dancing of Myers, there is nothing magical thinking can manifest or contribute to society that can't be obtained through more intellectually honest means--and religion is magical thinking. There is nothing to distinguish it from garden variety superstition.

Moreover, religion glorifies this notion that it's good to "believe"-- salvation worthy even. And it makes rational folks feel put out. I'm tired of feeling like I'm around a bunch of kids who believe in Santa, and I have to play along with the lie so as not to hurt feelings or "spoil the illusion". I don't want to be a part of someone else's lie. I'm tired of pretending it's good to exclaim over the emperor's magical robes. Isn't it time for believers to "pray in the closet" as their book instructs and keep their beliefs as private as they want atheists to keep their lack of belief. I'd like to presume that everyone is rational until they reveal otherwise.

Let's face it, faith just doesn't offer anything useful or verifiable and it makes people so vulnerable to manipulation as they scramble to find hidden messages where there are none. They need to spout their beliefs amongst others so that it can keep "feeling" true and they can keep the "faith" alive. They've bought into the notion that faith is good and necessary for salvation and they are on an endless treadmill to keep that faith. Each believer feels that those who BELIEVE like they do are more moral than those who don't. As an atheist, I feel the same way.

Myer seems to waste a lot of his mental talents proving to himself that his beliefs are useful and true and good for something. This is the same thing that all magical thinking encourages. It's not "bad" any more than belief in Santa or Scientology is "bad". Sure, Santa's knowingness encourages good behavior in the kiddies, and Scientology has gotten people off drugs... but does that make faith "good" or something to promote? I feel the same way about all religions and superstitions as I do about Santa and Scientology. I think the people that Myers seems to purposefully mishear feel similarly. Myers wants to believe that his beliefs are "more" than those beliefs--he wants the right to dismiss those beliefs for the superstitions that they are. And yet, the arguments he makes for "faith" work equally well in propping up the faiths he finds harmful or childish, and thus they are useless except to confirm his own biases. Any believer in any "woo" can use them to prop up their belief while imagining themselves being rational.

James said...

Good answer to the spirit vs quarks comment. The conversation Tom mentioned could be expanded like so:

"What's God made of?"
"What's spirit made of?"
"I don't know."
"Well, how massive is it?"
"I don't know."
"Are there different varieties of it?"
"I don't know."
"How can we tell if there's any present?"
"I don't know."

With quarks, we have:

"What's a teapot made of?"
"What's clay made of?"
"Phyllosilicate minerals."
"What are those made of?"
"Metals bound to silicate."
"What are metals made of?"
"Atoms that fall in a certain region of the periodic table."
"What are atoms made of?"
"Protons, neutrons, and electrons."
"What are protons made of?"
"What are quarks made of?"
"We don't know, but we know that they come in six varieties that we can distinguish, with electrical charges of either 1/3 or 2/3 that of the electron, either positive or negative (depending on flavour and whether we're talking about quarks or antiquarks), and have quantum spins of +/- 1/2. The most common sort (up and down quarks) have masses on the order of 5 MeV/c^2, though the other sorts are much more massive. They can change flavour through the absorbing or emitting W bosons, which causes beta decay in radioactive elements. They interact through the strong nuclear force using a property we call "colour", a three-state charge (as opposed to the electrmagnetic force's two-state "positive/negative" charge) mediated by particles called gluons. [etc, etc, etc.]

Jeremy said...


That was so much better than I could have done. Thanks for sharing. I only wish I could have read that one on the podcast. But I am going to save that as my standard response for when I inevitably get that question again.



James said...

One of my pet peeves is the habit some people have of assuming an equivalence between some metaphysical construct extrapolated from a few vague phrases in a holy book and the results of decades or centuries of concentrated empirical study.

You could fill a sizable book with everything we know, demonstrably and with great confidence -- though not absolute certainty -- about the up quark alone.

On the other hand, a summary of what we know, demonstrably, about spirit fits in a single word: "nothing".

ImbalancingAct said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ImbalancingAct said...

It appears to me that Mr. Myers is unaware of or chooses to ignore the extremely thorough arguments made by Sam Harris about the problems of religious moderation/liberalism. He should read up on them as should all who think that they can have their Jesus faith cake and rationally eat it too.

Myers is another in the long line of failed attempts to respond in the name of Faith to "The New Atheism" (see Terry Eagleton's most recent disaster of a book for a prime example of this). He misses the most basic points over and over again. Of course I appreciate that he's not a snake handling, Creationist nut job, but again, Sam Harris absolutely nails the problem of religious moderates like Myers. Instead of regurgitating this position I suggest people read The End of Faith and/or listen to the public talks Harris has given which are plentiful on YouTube.

ImbalancingAct said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ImbalancingAct said...

This is actually a terrible intereview. Myer's isn't worthy of being on your show, unless you were going to actually call him on his bullshit. You really didn't. You let a lot slide. All that crap about "the Christian argument for gay marriage"??? Are you kidding me? This is the height of religious moderate delusion.

ImbalancingAct said...

"The soul isn't a Christian idea, it's a Plantonic idea"??????

This is maddeningly stupid.

ImbalancingAct said...

I think that secularists and religious moderates should make joint efforts where possible, but I'd say this about humans generally: where there is a common cause, persue it in common. But the problem with withholding the devastating criticisms of religious moderates and with religious moderation generally are threefold, again, Sam Harris points this out very well:

1. Religious moderates are tacitly supporting religious fundamentalists because they want the very concept of "faith" respected.

2. Religious moderates are intellectually flawed.

3. Religious moderates are theologically flawed (but all theology is, so that's obvious).

The main problem I see with religious moderates is that they do not have good arguments against religious fundamentalism. Liberal theology is deelpy convoluted and disingenuous. I could point out dozens of examples if time permitted. However, secularists like myself have very, very good arguments against religious fundamentalism, these arguments however do not leave the moderate's "faith" unscathed and this is why we see writers like Myers, Chris Hedges and Terry Eagleton (and a million other religious moderates wallowing in delusion) merely calling "the new atheism" names like "fundamentalist", "extremist", "angry", etc, etc, etc, as if these were arguments against them. They have nothing to say besides these things and other blatant misconstruels of what these writers are advocating. I think that deep down they know that Harris, Dawkins and Dennett are correct in their criticisms and just don't want to face the music. In some ways I find this more despicable than the rabid fundamentalist believer, because these educated people should know better. They have no excuse to keep on playing word games with "faith" and "god."

articulett said...

Moderates support the notion that invisible entities (gods, demons, ghosts, etc.) communicate with humans-- and that it is noble to get messages from such.

For this reason they are implicit in all harm that comes from such messages--from the burning of witches to death due to faith healing instead of medicine to flying airplanes into buildings to punish infidels.

After all, no one who believes in such entities has a leg to stand on when claiming that someone who gets different messages is delusional.

mabell said...

Like our gentle hosts, I was surprised at how much territory Mr. Myers ceded in his interview. However, like the lizard that sheds his tail to escape, he managed to scamper away without surrendering anything vital. Allow me to pin his neck down with a forked stick.

Myers portrays religion as all butterflies and rainbows. It makes you feel warm and happy, so that makes it good. (Am I the only one who thinks that this sounds like hedonism?) My daughter might run away to join a religious cult, and be as happy as a clam. That's not good. I'm going to send someone to rescue her and deprogram her until she has at least a modicum of free will.

Myers pretends that there are no consequences for surrendering your free will and doing God's will. What could possibly be wrong with believing in an invisible man in the sky who has infinite power and always needs your money? (apologies to George Carlin) What’s wrong with basing your entire life on the absolute word of God as expressed in the Bible? The answer is too long to express here, but regular RD listeners have already heard many frightening examples.

I have a couple of questions for the next survey of the faithful:
Are you prepared to kill when God tells you to? How about when his Earthly representative tells you to kill? Is it OK with you that God will destroy most of the world in the end times?

Myers would have us adopt religion as a cute little tiger cub, but eventually we're going to get mauled.

Brooks said...

"1. Religious moderates are tacitly supporting religious fundamentalists because they want the very concept of "faith" respected."

How do religious moderates support fundamentalists simply by existing? Speaking as an atheist, this argument against liberal Christians frankly makes some atheists sound like they're never satisfied until everybody in the world agrees with them and I've never understood it and yes, I've read Harris.

"2. Religious moderates are intellectually flawed. "

As a liberal atheist, I could easily make the same argument against atheists that are Republicans. Does this mean that atheists who are Republican are now indirectly supporting Sarah Palin by spreading the belief that Republican ideology is good and that because I personally think Republicans are intellectually flawed?

"In some ways I find this more despicable than the rabid fundamentalist believer, because these educated people should know better."

Weren't you just criticizing moderate Christians for enabling fundamentalists?

david said...

I found the interview with David Myers really quite disappointing.

I would have very much liked it if you had addressed -what I feel is- a base issue: a religious world view is not one that is genuinely skeptic. Regardless of what benefits religion may bring, it is a world view that holds no more water -in fact- than any other superstition. So its benefits are without base and should be viewed as dubious, particularly when (as has been pointed out by the likes of Hitchens and Harris), there is no good that cannot be preformed by a non-religious person.

A simple example to illustrate David Myers inconsistency as a skeptic: the advice and 'predictions' of Astrology are considered to be helpful and true by many. Astrology though, has been demonstrably shown to be utter nonsense and is at best: good general advice on how one should live one's life and at worst inert universal observations.

I don't know how many Skeptics who would hold the view in the above example could really be considered skeptic.
It kind of smacks of, "Oh, MY supernatural beliefs are OK; it's those other guys who are misguided and wrong."

There continues to be NO evidence for the existence of a god, let alone the personal christian god.
To hold a belief in one is to be inconsistent with skepticism.

Daniel said...

I know this is rather late but I'll throw my hat into the ring

I think that the difference between spirit and "teapot" is that while we may not know everything about the whole 'tree' of matter (i.e the atom was thought to be the smallest possible unit for quite some time, now it is positively huge compared to some things that have been found.) we do know that you can pile lots and lots (billions of billions) of the component parts together and say this is "it". You clearly can't do the same for spirit - nor, as far as I am aware, does any one suggest that you can.

A better comparison would be 'spirit' and 'idea', both of which are incorporeal. Now I don't think that anyone would suggest that ideas don't exist, despite the fact that it can not be broken into it's component parts (unlike the teapot). Whether an idea is 'imaginary' is perhaps a point for further consideration (smarter minds than mine have considered this issue, particularly in respect of intellectual property).

Perhaps if we compare spirit to things such as capitalism,
communism, democracy, corporations and the like?

I realise that this is not exhaustive but, as a 'skeptic', I couldn't be bothered running both sides of the argument. I'm sure with more thought they can get further with it - especially if they look at the 'philosophy' of (i.e. what's right and wrong under) capitalism, for example.

HOWEVER, the suggestion that:
"Skepticism does not deny faith" - now THAT doesn't make sense.

If you have 'faith' in something you believe, without proof, in that 'something' - skepticism is it's antithesis. It is the 'doubt' that it's real.

Are you suggesting that you can have 'faith' in something, but at the same time doubt that that something exists? At the very least a faith that is subject to doubt is a flawed faith. I don't know if I would call it 'reasonable faith'.