CFI Vancouver Presents PZ Myers: Atheism in the Scientific Battleground

It was a big weekend for Vancouver skeptics. On Friday, July 30th, we hosted biology professor, speaker and celebrated science blogger PZ Myers. Sunday, August 1st saw us marching (“dancing” would be a more accurate term) in Vancouver’s Pride parade.

UPDATE: You can now follow me on Twitter, you lucky people!

On Friday, July 30th, CFI Vancouver was proud to host biology professor, speaker, and author of the popular science and skepticism blog Pharyngula, Dr. PZ Myers. Dr. Myers presented an hour-long discussion of the role of atheism in the scientific battleground.

As the event was hosted and organized by CFI, this is not the official writeup. Since I was on hand with my camera, I did videotape the entire presentation. Once again, however, CFI laid out all of the groundwork to make this happen, so I will not post the video online, preferring instead to send the traffic their way. I will, however, post a couple of segments and a summary of my own reactions to both the presentation, and meeting PZ himself.

Ethan Clow, head of CFI Vancouver, meets PZ Myers

The Presentation

Much has been made of Dr. Myers’ confrontational style; people seem to expect him to be a fire-breathing ogre who preaches hatred of Christians from a pulpit made of Creationist’s skulls. Having seen video of him speaking before, I went in expecting exactly what we got – an interesting, humorous, and gregarious biology professor from Minnesota. The talk took place at the University of British Columbia’s Wesbrook building, and was attended by about 300 people (CFI will have actual numbers).

The focus of the presentation was in like with Dr. Myers’ usual stance on the issue of how ashamed we should be to call ourselves atheists – we need to be visible, we need to be consistent, and we need to stand up for our principles. He started with a brief discussion of why it is impossible to ‘disprove evolution’:

I really like the Newton/Einstein example, because it’s a perfect illustration of how science is supposed to work – we adjust our models to fit the observed evidence, not chain them to our preconceived notions of how we think they should look. That’s why quantum physics is so weird – because the universe is a weird place.

He then moved on to a topic that was a bit of a sore point for me: the ‘dictionary atheist’. He describes those of us who say that atheism is merely the absence of belief in God, and nothing more. He then calls that out as a bullshit position:

My feelings were a bit hurt, because I have been advocating that exact position. However, as I was to discuss with him later, he makes an important point, which is the basic underscoring of his presentation – namely, that Atheists (note the capital A) do believe in things. We’re not Atheists by accident, or because we haven’t yet heard how awesome YahwAlladdha is, but because we reject superstition and appeals to invisible authority as a basis for building a functioning society. We believe that evidence, reason, and an abiding respect for humanity is a much higher standard to which human beings should be held than the fear of a paternal sky-genie.

I will not do a play-by-play of the entire talk, partially because I don’t really feel like transcribing the entire hour-long presentation + ensuing Q&A, and also because I think Dr. Myers’ speaking style is best captured on video. I will be pushing hard on CFI Canada to release the video in a timely manner, so please stay tuned.

The Post-Event Reception

After the talk, there was an opportunity for guests to sit down and share a beer and some appetizers with PZ. This was the part of the evening I had most looked forward to, so I bought my ticket to the reception early. I was lucky enough to get a chance to ask him about some things that have been on my mind.

Someone made cupcakes, with this special cake-topper for PZ

The so-called ‘Burqa Ban’

Regular readers will know that I have been wrestling with the issue of France, Belgium and Quebec passing law that bar women from covering their faces when interacting with government employees and while in public places. I asked PZ what he thought on the issue. He told me that while there were arguments to be made on both sides, his default position is to side with human liberty – women should be allowed to wear what they want, even if the establishment doesn’t like it.

Being a leader of the skeptic movement

I’ve always been curious to know how people like PZ, or Dawkins, or Hitchens feel about the appellation “leader of the skeptic movement.” Is there a sense of pride of being a senior statesman in a major political and social movement? Does he even consider himself a leader, or just another person with a dog (albeit a big one) in the fight? He replied that unlike any other group in history, the entire purpose of the Atheist/skeptic/humanist movement was to have no leaders (he used the phrase “Atheist Pope”). The whole point, he said, was to motivate people to think for themselves and come to their own conclusions.

His stance on ‘dictionary atheism’

Because I took it personally, I asked him about the virtue of identifying as atheists. He himself noted in his presentation that there were many people who were nihilists, believing that because there is no God, life is therefore meaningless. I suggested to him that even further, there were people who are atheists because they hate religion, or religious people, or out of rebellion against their parents… for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with skepticism. These people are covered by the label ‘atheist’ without being skeptics of any stripe. PZ replied that while those people do exist, as skeptic atheists we can drive the public perception of atheism as people who have deep beliefs that are guided by evidence, not merely a negatively-defining group.

Summarizing thoughts

I really enjoyed my night out with PZ and the Vancouver skeptics. We stayed out late drinking, shutting down both Moose’s Down Under and the Railway Club. We talked about science, atheism, politics (apparently I’m an asshole because I self-define as Libertarian :P) and a number of other topics (including the intricacies of PZ’s spam filter – one of the highlights of the night was reading an e-mail that a local kook had sent him regarding the oil spill in the Gulf). I was lucky enough to also be able to speak with Mrs. Myers (The Trophy Wife) about my own history as a religious person and how to talk to those of us we are close to who still believe.

One of the things I was most struck by was the gender ratio at the talk. There is a general view of the skeptic movement that it is predominantly white males. As a black guy, I have observed this to be the case at many of our skeptical events. However, both the talk and the reception were evenly attended (still mostly white people, but this is Canada). One attendee, when I pointed this out, said that PZ’s decidedly pro-feminist stance on issues was a factor which helped her decide to show up. Skeptics take note: if you want to balance the gender scales, reach out to women.

I am looking forward to seeing the full video available online, as it is a much higher quality than I was able to take on my little camera. As I said above, I will be pushing on whoever I need to push on to get it up and running as soon as possible. For more (and better) photos, be sure to check out Fred Bremmer’s Flickr page.

Thanks to PZ for linking to this page! Welcome to all Pharyngulites.


  1. says

    Another good summary. I realized after the talk that I forgot to mentally check the diversity in the crowd. It’s worth remembering that Vancouver has a very sizeable Chinese and Asian population that has yet to be very well represented in the community (for any number of reasons).

  2. says

    There were a small number of Chinese people there, but they were middle-aged men. At some point, not necessarily today, but some point, we will have to examine our ability to do specific community outreach. Skeptics in the Pub Richmond should gain some traction in that regard.

  3. 'Tis Himself says

    PZ’s blog, Pharyngula, has a high percentage of female regulars, as well as GLBT regulars. PZ and the other regulars (I’m one, a 62 year old straight white male) make an effort to welcome anyone who shows up. You don’t have to be an atheist, just capable of giving a good argument for your positions.

    Pharyngula can be a little rough at times. There’s no moderation of comments. You really have to work hard to get banned, but if you do put out the effort to be thoroughly obnoxious (the worst crime is being boring) then you will receive your reward. For the rest of us, Pharyngula is, in A. Bertram Chandler’s words: “Liberty Hall, where you can spit on the mat and call the cat a bastard.”

  4. says

    Yeah, I used my little point/shoot digital camera from the back of the room. Luckily, CFI used an actual camera, and a sound recorder as well. The better-quality videos should be up on their Youtube channel hopefully soon. I will post a link when that happens.

  5. CanadianChick says

    where I was sitting there were a few people of Asian descent (I’m not good at telling the actual country of origin), mostly women. The Chinese community in Richmond does seem to be disproportionately evangelical christian, I’m afraid, but it would be nice to see more diversity amonst skeptics.

    “Someone” made cupcakes? *sniffs*

    I too was taken a bit aback by the comment about “dictionary atheism” – that, for years, has been my pat response to people who say that atheism “is” this or that. One of my friends is a classic example of someone who doesn’t fit the “new atheist” model – she’s definitely an atheist, thinks religion and god is “stupid”, but on few other topics is skeptical or scientific. She does, at least, think evolution is “bloody obvious, duh”…

  6. CanadianChick says

    *gasp* after all that quality time we spent together? *lol* (I know, I was the only stranger in the group that went to the second bar…the people I drove home probably didn’t get my name either…*grin*)

  7. Christoph says

    Any chance you could push CFI to post an mp3 too? I could then listen to it at work (unlike a video).


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