The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘Jeff Wagg’

Thoughts on Skepticon 3.0 and the “Skepticism Equals Atheism?” Discussion

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 23, 2010

Okay, for days now I’ve been trying to avoid getting sucked into the insanity that seems to have become the whole “skepticism equals (or doesn’t) atheism” can of worms which got opened (or re-opened) recently as a result of Skepticon 3.0 this past weekend.  I’ve already spoken my mind on this particular topic before, but for the sake of having my voice & point-of-view heard I want to just make a few quick points which I may have neglected in my earlier post…

First, I admit that I wasn’t at Skepticon 3.0, so I am going on secondhand reports when forming these opinions – so please bear that in mind.  Second, in the spirit of being fair to all of those involved, here are some views being expressed by those with a favorable or unfavorable (or perhaps ambivalent) view of how Skepticon 3.0 went down:

Jeff Wagg provides his criticism of the branding of Skepticon 3.0: Are Atheists Delusional? Thoughts on Skepticon3

JT Eberhard, organizer of Skepticon 3.0, responds to Jeff Wagg: A response to Jeff Wagg

PZ Myers jumps into the fray: I had no idea I was stepping into a controversy

Here’s an active thread on the JREF Forums about the issue.

And there are other active blogs whose authors are sharing their views on the matter, such as Blag Hag and PodBlack Cat. I’m more than certain that with the highly viral & mutagenic nature of modern Internet discussions, there are plenty of other blogs out there going on about the same thing, but I fear that if I have to read anymore on this particular topic then I’ll end up stabbing my eyes out with a rusty spoon.  So, rather than read more I will share my own thoughts…

1. Skepticism does not equal atheism: I think it makes no sense to make this assertion, for the simple reason that there are people who are both religious and excellent skeptics on many scientific subjects (for example, astronomer Pamela Gay) as well as atheists who are absolutely lousy skeptics on some very important subjects (for example, comedian Bill Maher).  Are a great many skeptics also atheists?  Yes, but it is not a requirement – allow me to explain further in #2…

2. We are not all equally skeptical of every topic – we all compartmentalize: Or, as I think magician & skeptic Penn Jillette so eloquently put it – “Everybody got a gris-gris”.  There are some topics about which we are more skeptical (or, perhaps, better at applying our critical thinking skills) than other topics.  This is basic human nature, folks; it is known in more academic circles as a phenomenon called cognitive dissonance.  That is why we need a community of skepticism, to spread out all of that dissonance so that it doesn’t concentrate too much in any one area and thus blind all of us.  We all come to the table with our own biases & preconceptions – for some it is political, others religious, others some form of pseudoscience.  The sooner we acknowledge this basic fact of ourselves & our fellow skeptics, that fundamentally we are really no different from “believers”, the better.

3. Of course religion should be open to free inquiry – duh: I’ve said it before and will say it again… religion should not be “off limits” from critical analysis and skeptical thought.  Every topic should be on the table, including potential logical fallacies involved in some forms of atheist argumentation.  And no, I’m not conflating atheism with religious belief, I am simply stating that a bad argument is a bad argument, regardless of the source.

4. Disagreement & debate is healthy, but trash-talking isn’t: With the growth of the skeptical movement over the last couple of decades, we are seeing a natural consequence of that growth – the fact that we’ve grown so large that we are seeing healthy debate & dissent from within the movement itself on some key questions (say, on the question of religion).  Folks, this is a good thing!  I say this is good because it is a sign of the success we’ve had – we are no longer a movement of old, white, bald academic men who sit around in college classrooms rehashing the same ol’ same ol’.  We are spreading out, reaching deeper into society, getting our message out there, and running into the inevitable controversies which will confront any growing social movement.  I’m not sure why anyone is actually surprised that this sort of thing has happened – again, we skeptics are not fundamentally different than anyone else.

In short, we should and we must have these (and other) discussions.  I don’t mind the discussion & debate, but what does bother me is the tone taken by – in my opinion – too many skeptics.  Charges of “you aren’t a real skeptic”, “you’re just being a dick and alienating people”, and similar silly & immature sputterings have come lately from far too many people in the movement whom I have grown to know and respect over the years.  Seriously, folks, we are better than that; or, at least, we should be.  On some things, we simply have to agree to disagree, lest we eat our own.

5. To be broad based, the skeptical community should avoid myopia: Is the question of religion an important one?  Yes, it is.  Is it the only question upon which we should focus?  No, it isn’t.  I acknowledge that for some people addressing the flaws in religion is the most important thing, while for others it isn’t, and while for still others they’d rather not discuss it at all.  Personally, I am a fan of many of the prominent atheistic critics of religion who have written so prominently in the last few years, but my particular skeptical focus is different.  I am personally committed to simply getting as many people as I can to simply think more critically, no matter what the particular subject matter.  And the avenue I have chosen to follow is that of the formal educational system in the United States.

My concern is that the conversation of “skepticism equals atheism?” could potentially be sucking all of the oxygen out of the room, with the risk of snuffing out other aspects & issues within the skeptical movement.  If some people want to focus upon this particular subject, fine by me (remember #3 above) and more power to you; but if it isn’t my particular cup of tea to focus specifically upon this topic, don’t diss me for it.

Lastly, let’s not spend too much time & energy focusing upon the issues that divide us; I would much rather see a more constructive conversation on the things that we can agree upon than some of the nasty bickering I’ve seen of late from my skeptical colleagues.

Okay, there are my thoughts on the matter.  For what it’s worth.

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