The Diversity of Skeptical Thought 6

There was something of a theme at TAM 8, an informal one I think. A few of the speakers have said some tough things, and I think that they were very necessary. Massimo Pigliucci had a few words to say about the occasional hubris of skeptics. Carol Tavris talked about why people believe the way they do, and how difficult it is to convince them to back off on any belief. Phil Plait spoke on what he sees as a problem of tone in the skeptical movement – his most salient point was to ask everyone who had their mind changed by being called an idiot or worse to raise their hand. There weren’t very many hands.

I think the most important point in this underlying theme was actually made by someone who did not have a formal speech – Hal Bidlack, the MC. At the beginning of TAM, he said that this would be his last one. Later, I managed to catch him in one of his rare five seconds of standing still, and asked him if he meant as an MC or just in general. He said it would probably be his last TAM ever. And when I asked him why, he said “Creative differences.” Over the course of this Amazing Meeting, he made a few comments, about having learned to not discuss religion with skeptics, and about how we must remember the diversity of politics within the movement as we cannot assume all skeptics hew to the liberal ideology1.

At this point, I wouldn’t dare to put words in Hal’s mouth. I respect him far too much, and I’m trying not to speculate over his reasons. But I would also be lying if I didn’t say that I was wondering, and this has caused me to do a lot of thinking. I’m upset because I’m going to miss Hal, a lot. TAM isn’t going to be the same without him. And I’m upset because I feel that he’s been on the receiving end of some extremely shoddy treatment because he’s a deist.

Since I joined the skeptical movement four years ago, I’ve noticed a very real internal unease that has, over time, boiled to the surface: the relationship between atheism and skepticism. There is a massive overlap between these two movements, but it is important to note that not all atheists are skeptics, and likewise, not all skeptics are atheists.

I am actually one of those skeptics who is also an atheist. I say it in that order because that’s how I think of myself; skeptic first, atheist second2. Philosophical questions of gods hold very little interest for me; I have no patience for those kind of debates. And frankly, the sometimes strident overlap between the two communities has made me uncomfortable. Me, who is a member of both. Perhaps the best example of this comes from TAM two years ago, when Don Nyberg during the papers session effectively said that anyone who isn’t an atheist is a moron, and has no right to call themselves a skeptic. It was a moment that upset a lot of people, including myself – and Hal Bidlack. No one has stated that at the podium quite so baldly since then, but it’s still there at times, in a subtle, uncomfortable undercurrent.

There is a very fine line that I see, as a skeptic and an atheist. When someone claims the power of prayer has worked, we have a responsibility to question and report. When someone claims that they can prove evolution is bunk and creationism is true, we have a responsibility to question and report. All of these things are claims that happen within the realm of the physical world and have solid evidence that can be collected and considered. Sometimes, such as in cases of false miracles or faith healing or evolution denial, we can conclusively demolish those claims. And we should. There are many, many religious claims that deserve – no, DEMAND – that we turn a skeptical eye to them and give it our intellectual all.

But that fine but important line approaches when we speak about the very basic belief in a a higher power. Someone who claims that they have proof god exists because intelligent design is real and evolution is wrong ought to bear the brunt of skeptical fury. Someone that says that they believe in god and think he just sort of set things in motion and stepped back – such as a deist – is something of a different question, I think. Someone who says that they believe in a higher power not because they necessarily can claim evidence, but because they need that belief or feel in their heart that it is true – that’s not something we can test.

This verges on these philosophical arguments that I find so immensely tedious, so I will be to the point. We can and have proved that intelligent design is bunk, that creationism is laughable, that literal historical claims from a plethora of holy books are unsupportable. But I challenge you to disprove a deist’s god, who set the great clockwork of the universe in motion and did not meddle further. I challenge you to neatly demolish a higher power who exists as a feeling of love and connection within someone’s heart. Frankly, you can’t3.

You may find such a “marginal” god or higher power unsatisfying. That’s fine. I’m not particularly thrilled by it either. I’m an atheist, after all. I may not understand (and certainly don’t) how someone can justify a belief in god because they feel the truth of it. That said, it’s not for me to assume that everyone thinks the same way that I do about it, perish the thought at the utter ego it would take to think that everyone should. But let me make my point clear: When we reach the point of discussing a deity or higher power whose presence causes no testable effects upon the universe, we can neither conclusively prove or disprove him, her, or it. And when we have reached that point, it is for our own conscience to decide.

I have looked at what evidence I feel there is in this matter, and I’ve concluded: probably not.

That does not mean someone else cannot conclude: I have no idea.

Or even that someone who finds my position unsatisfying cannot conclude: possibly yes.

I think that Paul Provenza was being sarcastic during his talk when he said that, “everyone has their process.” But we all do, in fact. We all think about things differently, have different feelings and needs and thought processes. That we all agree on such a myriad of things is, quite frankly, amazing. That we agree on the value of this process called skepticism is even more so. And I think that everyone who is a skeptic, if they are good and honest, does their best both to apply their skepticism to themselves, and to admit that we each have our own sacred bulls that we don’t really want to see gored.

Perhaps this is a sacred bull of the skeptical atheist, to think that everyone who is a “good” skeptic must of course agree that there is no god.

I have heard this refrain since I’ve joined the movement, sometimes subtle, sometimes not. Somehow, you’re not a “good enough” skeptic if you’re not an atheist. You’re not a “real” skeptic if you retain the belief in some sort of higher power. You’re stupid. You’re weak-minded. You’re against the cause.

I find that all incredibly offensive.

Carol Travris’ talk springs to mind here, and a few of the salient points that she made. One is that we are all naturally biased to think that we are more (insert trait here) than other people. So we are naturally biased to think that we are more rational or more intelligent than others who disagree with us. Another was that once we have made a decision, we have a natural tendency to rapidly strengthen that position and become more extreme in our expression of it. These things should be first in anyone’s mind when there’s occasion to expound on the superiority of a particular position. Is it that my position is truly that superior, or have I thought myself on to that pedestal? Am I really smarter or more rational (whatever that means) than this other person, or have I fallen prey to my own ego?

No one is rational and skeptical 100% of the time and in every area of their lives; anyone who says otherwise is either fooling themselves or has allowed their own ego to drive the conversation. There is really only one requirement to be a skeptic: a dedication to applying skepticism and its methods to your life and the world around you to the best of your abilities. You are not required to be an atheist. You are not required to be liberal. Thank goodness you are not required to be a libertarian, or I would have gotten thrown against the wall and stoned to death a couple of years ago.

So you’re an atheist. That’s great. So you think that the world would be a better place if everyone else was an atheist as well. It’s not my place to tell you that you’re wrong; I don’t know what a world of nothing but atheists would look like. But you don’t forward your position by insulting and belittling people. You don’t aide your message by calling anyone who disagrees an idiot. If your aim is to convert people to your way of thinking in a rational environment, insulting them and marginalizing their contribution is not the way to go about it. And you do violence to the cause of skepticism when you use your belief that everyone ought to agree with your 100% of the time to attack those of you who only agree with you 99.99% of the time.

When I took my introductory women’s studies course, one of the first books that we looked at was called Feminist Thought by Rosemary Putnam Tong. At its most basic, it was a catalog of the many diverse schools of feminist thought, some of them directly conflicting with each other, throughout the successive waves of the movement. But in its own way, it was much more powerful than simply that. It showed the feminist movement as a rich and diverse collection of passionate, thinking women, throughout its history. These women often did not agree with each other, and didn’t have to; the strength of the movement as it grew was built upon the diversity of thought, the many angles from which each challenge could be met, all tied together under the common feminist cause.

Where is our diversity of skeptical thought? We are not as big of a movement as the feminists, though we could perhaps argue that we are an older movement, one that is simply experiencing a strong new wave today. There were the great thinkers throughout the enlightenment. There was Harry Houdini, and his tradition of thought and investigation. There are the grandfathers of today’s skepticism, such as James Randi. And today there are feminist skeptics, and scientific skeptics, and artist skeptics, and skeptics who specialize in investigating paranormal claims. There are atheist skeptics and agnostic skeptics and Christian skeptics and Buddhist skeptics and who knows what else kind of skeptics. We each have our own place among this diversity of thought and perhaps like the feminists, that diversity – while occasionally providing planes of fracture – will ultimately strengthen our cause by giving us a broad base from which to think and act. We each have our own voice within skeptical thought, and it is not for us to deny others their place to stand and speak.

I am not asking that atheists silence themselves. In the discussion that is the skeptical movement, no voice should be silenced if we wish to utilize our full strength. However, this also means that neither should atheists seek to silence or marginalize others. We are (for the most part) adults. I should hope we could be capable of discussing and accepting our differences while celebrating our points of agreement, all without resorting to unworthy devices such as ad hominem attacks. It is very possible to disagree with someone – and strongly – without resorting to name calling and insults, unless your aim is to make certain you have one less ally4.

As atheists, we often criticize the religious for making everything about their religion; you know, That Guy who “gave it up to the lord” and Jesus told him to wear the red shirt. We often criticize the religious for their dedication to their ideology, for their attacks on others who believe differently; you know, That Guy who thinks atheists are just blinding themselves to the glorious truth, that we’re lost and willfully ignorant. We often attack the religious for their refusal to acknowledge our sovereign right to think and feel differently than they do, and the validity of those thoughts and feelings; you know, That Guy who thinks atheists are soulless because we cannot feel god’s love. We often disparage the religious for their dedication to the in-group/out-group paradigm; you know, That Guy who says he can’t be friends with an atheist because we’re not saved and not worthy of respect. We often attack the religious for attempting to exclude all viewpoints at odds with their own; you know, That Guy who thinks atheists shouldn’t be allowed to speak within the community because we don’t have anything good to say.

You know That Guy? I have heard people eerily like him on occasion at our events, and I don’t like it one bit.

1 – Hal Bidlack ran as a democrat for congress two years ago.

2 – If we’re going to do the full labeling litany of political/social beliefs, just for the record, I would be a Skeptical Liberal Feminist Atheist. I quite frankly do not consider my atheism to be that intrinsic to who I am.

3 – Richard Dawkins basically stated at his talk that if there were an intelligent creator/first mover to the universe (even presumably a non-meddlesome one) everything would look a lot different. I have a lot of respect for Dr. Dawkins, but I think he’s gone a bit over the top on this one. Unless I’m missing something fundamental about physics where we think the current physical laws are as “unintelligently designed” as the biology.

4 – Put another way, you can be confrontational and strongly opinionated without being a dick. True fax.

6 thoughts on “The Diversity of Skeptical Thought

  1. Reply Janiece Jul 13,2010 12:05

    Rachael, excellent analysis, thanks for sharing.

    Now please get out of my head. Don’t make me come over there.

  2. Reply Mike B) Jul 13,2010 15:48

    Reading THE COSMIC JACKPOT made me appreciate Hegel’s version of God so much more. Cosmology can do that. Before 4.5 billion years, no time? Mind boggling.

  3. Reply Rachael Jul 13,2010 15:56

    But I LIKE your head. It’s comfy in here. ;-)

    I assume you mean 13.7 billion years? I think the title of my blog distracted you. XD

  4. Reply Icepick Jul 13,2010 18:03

    Very nice post. I had a similar conversation with Hal. I chatted with Phil and Pamela Gay, too. This was individuals reacting to the atmosphere of the community independently.

    I think it was appropriate timing and the right venue to get some civil discourse on these issues. They aren’t resolved by any stretch, but I think it benefits the community to have reasoned discourse (such as your post).

    My current favorite bit of deceased horseflesh to whack is the necessity of the skeptical community to consider marketing and *Gasp!* evangelism. We try to PROMOTE critical thinking and PROMOTE skepticism. It is important that we put persuasion and a marketing mindset as a high priority.

    It isn’t enough to be right.

  5. Reply elsie22 Jul 14,2010 06:44

    I really appreciated your commentary on this. I consider myself an atheist as well, but I think my ordering would be the same as in your footnote #2. This was my first TAM, and I felt like there were conflicting things happening, with some speakers saying we should be more inclusive and others still bashing religion. I feel sad if that is the reason that Hal Bidlack is not going to attend again. And even though I enjoyed myself, if that undercurrent continues, I’m not sure how I’ll feel about TAM in the future.

  6. Reply Rachael Jul 20,2010 18:43

    @Janiece – You can have your brain back when I’m good and done with it, and not a moment sooner. :)

    @Icepick – I tend to not think about the marketing aspect very much since it’s sometimes antithetical to my own viewpoints about the need to be assertive. So I’m less concerned with getting the message out and more concerned about what I view as a possibly ego-driven (and, to my viewpoint, not well-founded) attack on people within the movement that have been doing yeoman’s work.

    @elsie22 – I’m kind of in the same boat. And to be honest, I’m also getting a little sick of hearing about atheism. I’m an atheist. But I guess I’m the atheistic equivalent of a only-goes-to-church-on-Christmas Catholic or something. If I wanted to spend a weekend talking about atheist stuff, I’d go to a freaking atheist conference.

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