Sunday, September 20, 2009

Atheist factions

Yesterday on the Non-Prophets episode 8.16, Matt posed the question: do people perceive a schism forming in the skeptical community? Is there a concerted effort to distance the general skeptical movement from atheists?

You can listen to this discussion somewhere around the last fifteen minutes of the show. After you do, we'd like your feedback.


  1. I don't detect an organized movement to separate skepticism from atheism. However, I have been thinking about this topic, and am going to rant for a few minutes.

    I think what we're seeing is that skepticism is gaining popularity. Most people are still religious, so it follows that new skeptics will often be religious. But as any formerly religious person (myself) will say, the last thing that skepticism gets applied to is religion.

    So, if my premise is correct, what I think we're seeing is that there is a push to have skeptical groups specifically about skepticism and not part of an atheist group. Skepticism is about applying critical thinking, and while I completely agree with Matt that religion should *not be off-topic* when discussing skepticism, it shouldn't be the primary focus of a purely skeptical group.

    With that said, I do believe that the majority of skeptics are atheists/agnostics. I think that the handful of incidents Matt has seen are simply people trying to downplay religion a bit more simply to welcome religious people who are getting into critical thinking. Religious people need time and more experiences reaping the benefits of thinking critically, and in time, their religious convictions will waver.

    After all, skepticism is not a statement of beliefs. Skepticism is a set of tools to assess claims. Coming from a non-skeptical thought process into a skeptical thought process is done in steps. Or if you prefer, opening up individual compartments and re-evaluating what's in there. The religious views, often perceived as the the most important views, are the last to be evaluated. I think it's wrong to call all skeptics atheists, or call all skeptics agnostics, or call all skeptics 911-truth-deniers. To borrow an analogy from my evangelical upbringing, skeptical people can be along their journey at different points, and it's wrong* for one skeptic to look negatively upon another skeptic because they haven't had time or motivation to re-evaluate a specific claim yet. (*By wrong I simply mean if there is no harm being done because of their belief in the claim -- ie, a homeopath continuing to prescribe homeopathic drugs and considering themselves skeptical would be very wrong)

    If we shut the door on them, we open the possibility that they will be jaded and get a negative view of skepticism and turn away. Thus it would be preferable not to make skepticism purely about any specific topics, but rather cover everything equally. That's one thing I enjoy about the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast (it was very influential in my deconversion to atheism). When I started seeing the flawed logic in these arguments by repeated examples on their show, I started to realize that I was making some of the same types of arguments. It was that realization that allowed me to re-evaluate my beliefs. If the SGU had been more up front on deconstructing all religious claims and didn't delve into a lot of other claims, I probably would have stopped listening.

    I think I'm passing the "rant" status, bordering on filibuster. In conclusion I don't see a push-back personally, but I'm also relatively new to the skeptical community. I can see why some people would want to downplay religion, but I think it should really be to downplay *all* topics and focus on science and critical thinking. When hunting for examples to use to teach science and critical thinking through deconstruction, there's plenty of examples, including religion, to look at.

  2. Geeky:

    I don't disagree with most of the points you make, but I will point out that I relate a lot to your statement: "the last thing that skepticism gets applied to is religion..."

    And I think this is why groups that target skeptical thinking on the topic of religion are necessary and helpful.

    James Randi, for example, was on television when I was a very little girl. I remember watching him. Later, he started his foundation. He attacked all manner of irrational claims. But it was many, many years before he would even broach the subject of religion. Think of what an icon of skepticism he is, and then consider he kept religion out of the line of fire for quite a long time.

    Meanwhile, in polite society, we have a number of moderate Christians--and you note that we have people at all levels of consideration for religious faith. You're also right that broaching religion risks making these different "levels" of irrational religious adherents feel unwelcome--even making them defensive.

    The problem from where I stand isn't so much "should we include everything irrational in a skeptic group?" Surely, we should. The problem _is_ should religion get a free pass and not be touched for fear of disenfranchising so many people?

    Just the fact that _so many_ people believe this irrational doctrine, and the fact it is often _not_ addressed, demonstrates, in my view, that it's got far more of a strangle-hold than the other irrational claims. It's nearly "untouchable"--and even skeptics defend not calling it out specifically for attack.

    Atheism is part of a greater umbrella of "Skeptic." Skeptics should address everything without prejudice. And no claim or belief should be more, or less, kindly handled.

    I often, and this is no lie, feel sorry for people who claim to believe in aliens or alien abduction. I feel sorry for them because I can't imagine having the level of evidence they have presented, and being mocked as lunatics--while religious adherents abound, with no evidence whatsoever, and are all somehow set upon a pedastal where we "have to respect" their deeply held beliefs.

    However we address religious claims as skeptics, we should show the same respect and regard--or lack of it--to other irrational beliefs. If we must respect religious beliefs and be kind to them, then we must deal the same deck to alien abductees. But I don't hear anyone saying "Well, let's not be too hard on them, because we don't want to put off the alien crowd--then they'll feel unwelcome at our skeptics meeting."

    In other words, your statement, "If we shut the door on them, we open the possibility that they will be jaded and get a negative view of skepticism and turn away," should also be applied to alien abductees, crystal healers, palm readers, and so on. Why wouldn't it--except that religion has a far greater strangle-hold on the nation? And rather than an argument to make it less of a target, I see that as an argument to address it louder and harder than other, less pervasive claims.

  3. In science, there is a battle going on over "accomodationism." Jerry Coyne calls the accomodationists "faithiests". The argument came to a head with the publication of "Unscientific America" by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum. Mooney and Kirshenbaum attack the "new atheists" - particularly Dawkins, PZ Myers, Coyne, etc. They think they should be quiet and not hurt the advancement of science. Eugenie Scott and the NSCE are on the accomodationist side.

    Coyne has been leading the counterattack on his blog "Why Evolution is True."

    You can click the tags (right side) "accomodationism" and "chris mooney" to get Coyne's posts on the issue - and his posts have links to everyone else including the accomodationists.

    You might also want to see the spat going on between Bob Wright, author of "The Evolution of God", and Coyne.

  4. I don't think Matt was saying that there's an organized movement to shunt atheists to the side of skeptical matters, but that is appears to be a developing trend.

    I think he's right and i think it's happening for a very natural and unavoidable reason: marketing.

    In this battle of public opinion, skepticism is neither a process nor an ideology; it's a product. And to sell a product, you highlight the features that people want (scam protection, reliable information filters, sound science) and downplay unappealing aspects (lack of absolute certainty,the need for constant vigilance, and atheism).

    Even though the skeptical movement is kinda of picking up steam, and the term 'skeptic' is losing some of its negative connotation, 'atheist' is still a dirty word. If skepticism wants to be accepted in the mainstream culture, it will have to distance itself from atheism.
    Unless the Atheist brand loses it's massive negative appeal, there is no other way.
    Sad but true.

  5. I'm specifically thinking about comments I've heard Neil deGrasse Tyson make about atheists that sound like the sort of thing fundamentalist Christians say about us. He doesn't feel it is enough to say he's "agnostic" (whatever that means). He also has to go out of his way to insult and attack atheists. I guess that gives him some "street cred" with some people, but it seems that he's spitting in the face of a large group of people who are already on his side.

    Of course, that's a sign that the "skeptical movement" is moving away from being about skepticism, and towards being about "politics for politics' sake." Now that there's a solid skeptical base, some people are moving towards the middle and tossing the base overboard along the way. After all, where else are we going to go? No matter how badly the skeptical movement's leaders treat atheists, we're never going to ally ourselves with fundamentalist Christians... which means they'll keep on attacking or marginalizing us whenever it is expedient for them to do so.

  6. I don't think anyone doubts that there is a rift in the Skeptical movement along secular lines. I think it also absolutely mirrors the rift around science-education methodology that George mentioned above as well. The one Russell mentioned over Libertarianism is also growing, and CFI recently had a post from Debbie Goddard that brought up the topic of an atheist rapper who was also rabidly homophobic.

    The question is not really whether these rifts are happening, its really over what effect these rifts will have on the future of the rational minded "reality base" community. Are we to expect us to factionalize like a glass being dropped on concrete making us a useless pile of shards? Will we divide our strengths just like the religious and political and social groups so often do?

    This future of the whole "reality-based" community (for lack of a better umbrella term here) is really what concerns me. And what occurs to me is that, I don't really care if a skeptic hates me for being a loud-mouthed atheist at TAM. Neither of us are going to leave our common bond of rationalism, no matter how much we hate each other. This rational back bone I see as stronger than the God concept, stronger than race or ethnicity, stronger than any other ideological factor that brings people together in groups.

    Even in the hybrid political-atheist group of Libertarians, no one is abandoning their reason-based stance in life there, even if they have learned to "hate" the liberals atheists for their virulent attack of their politics.

    The bottom line for me is to eliminate magical thinking -- but I don't really care if we all get along as long as we all share that goal. Once society adopts this ability to think rational as a virtue (even if we all can't yet do it), I think all of our differences become real and solvable at that point. -- and I really can't see how any of this in-fighting is going to chase anybody away from this ultimate goal or harm our common rational backbone.

  7. I can't say I have noticed it, The NZ Skeptics Conference is this weekend, I wasn't sure if I will go or not. But now I am thinking I might just to see if any of this is in evidence.

  8. The sceptical/atheist/freethinker movement is a bit of a melting pot -- you have people feeding into it for a variety of reasons. A lot of people have identified with the movement because they have issues with religion and dogma. These are the folks I'd expect to be less accommodationist because they have an axe to grind (which isn't to say that they've "had a bad experience" as some apologists like to claim -- just that they have problems with religion). But many people are getting into the movement because they like science and scepticism, and have no particular issue with religion. Given that there's a clear liberal bias in the movement, I think a lot of the people who aren't predisposed to be critical of religion tend to lean the other way in the interest of being tolerant and inclusive. I think that's where the tension arises -- it's certainly where some of the more interesting discussions seem to have arisen among my liberal/sceptical/atheist friends.

    Personally, I'm not too worried about any schisms. If there's one thing we all seem to be good at, it's arguing with one another. If it's not about this, we'll find something else to disagree on. At the very least, the movement is about giving people the tools to think critically and argue rationally. As long as we continue to communicate that, the whole exercise will be worthwhile.

  9. I have a couple of points that may address parts of Matt's concerns. They inter-relate, but I'll describe them separately.

    1. As with most intellectual endeavors, people focus on the aspects of skepticism that most interest them. If there is a rift, perhaps it arises because different skeptics have different passions.

    For many skeptics, the scientific method guides their thinking. They employ it to evaluate claims & phenomena put forward in the media and society. While these skeptics support science in the classroom and oppose creationism, they are more engaged with debunking homeopathy, UFOs, and Big Foot. Such an emphasis requires no inquiry into theism. Indeed, these skeptics may include liberal Christians who reject fundamentalism, but who still find comfort in the rituals and beliefs of liberal Christianity. Stephen J. Gould probably would fit in this camp, with his promotion of "non-overlapping magisteria."

    In contrast, we who have been harmed by religion are more likely to aim our skepticism squarely at the claims made by religion. But those who are unscathed by religious experience have less motivation to see theism as harmful in every form.

    2. One problem that atheists face is the rift that it can provoke in families. People will sacrifice a lot, even some of their intellectual integrity, in order not to disrupt connections with parents, spouses, children, and siblings. For example, I know many gay men who have never come out to their families for fear of driving a wedge into those relationships. They prefer to avoid the conflict and find it easier to live in two separate worlds (and engage in two different ways of thinking).

    While I couldn't live in the closet, obviously others can.The pull of group membership is so strong, many people (perhaps most people) are willing to jump through hoops of denial & minimization to preserve what they believe is closeness and intimacy. It takes an inordinate amount of insight to recognize that they and everyone in their family are being held hostage by the religious beliefs they inherited.

    I know that once you've committed yourself to living with integrity, it is difficult to understand why someone would choose differently. But if you talk with those who are trying to keep skepticism open to theists, I'll bet you'll find that they are more focused on maintaining cordial relationships than on exposing the phoniness of religion.

  10. I understand what Matt is talking about. Quite frankly, I don't understand how you can separate atheism from skepticism. How can you say homeopathy is bull crap to someone who believes in holy water? How can you say there are no ghosts to someone who believes in angels? How can you tell someone they need a psych eval to rule out schizo, when they have been told their whole life, that god talks to people, and tells people to do things? I think the reason some adults believe such silly pseudo-scientific things is because they have been taught to believe a silly mythology their entire life. The foundation of being a skeptic is not believing in childish, irrational things like the tooth fairy, easter bunny, or god(s). My atheism is what led me to being a skeptic. Organizations like The SGU bug me because they enjoy beating up on scientology, but won't touch any other "religion." The even have a picture of what appears to be a famous scientology celebrity on their website. From my point of view as an atheist, ALL RELIGIONS are just as silly as scientology. I honestly don't see the difference. It's like saying the Loch Ness monster isn't real, but we ARE NOT going to discuss Bigfoot because we need to be respectful to those who feel he's real. What the heck? As a side note, I have to mention how much better the Non-Prophets is now that you have a good Irish woman on the show. When we Irish folk take over the world, all members of the ACA will be placed on the protected rolls, and no harm will come to you! Now I need to go to a meeting of "The Holy Council of the Great Leprechaun" to inform them of this decision. I will also try to get you ACA members assigned "light labor" duties, and a 12 hour work day! (You're welcome!) You see the SGU would laugh at this, but if I said I was going to Sunday night services at my church to worship my "god" they wouldn't say a thing... they would be... "respectful." Can I have an AMEN Brother Matthew?

  11. There's definitely an aversion to using the term atheist; it's got too much of a negative connotation. I wouldn't call it a conscious effort, but yes, a real one.

    I wouldn't, however, characterize us as the red-headed kid no one talks about, but rather this perceived "punk" who doesn't respect authority.

    It's so humorous/frustrating to me that atheism is seen as this "extreme" from the norm when in all other areas of thought and reason it IS the norm: "show me evidence."

    Have you ever heard James Randi talk about religion? Maybe he has, but if he took up that mantle, his kind, friendly, but scrutinizing persona would undoubtedly wither away. It's sad to me that while skepticism and atheism go hand in hand and are the same, honest thought process, one is ostracized because of outside influences.

    The Jedi story and comments at the end were wonderful, by the way. Russel wins the show.

  12. In other words, your statement, "If we shut the door on them, we open the possibility that they will be jaded and get a negative view of skepticism and turn away," should also be applied to alien abductees, crystal healers, palm readers, and so on. Why wouldn't it--except that religion has a far greater strangle-hold on the nation? And rather than an argument to make it less of a target, I see that as an argument to address it louder and harder than other, less pervasive claims.

    I guess this is where my main disagreement or differentiation comes from. It all depends on the type of skeptical group.

    If the skeptical group is all about arming skeptics with the best arguments to win specific debates, then yes we should completely not give a damn about anyone's beliefs and state the arguments and the refutations. The issues that affect the most people should be covered the most in depth, while the fringe beliefs that don't affect much can be avoided for the most part.

    If a skeptical group is all about teaching critical thinking skills, then it should allow *everyone* in. Instead of ostracizing people for their beliefs, you instead focus on showing the logical fallacies, showing the mistaken reasoning, etc. This can be done with a wide variety of topics and does not need to weight the topics chosen based on the largest impact.

    Because these people have expressed interest in learning more about critical thinking, it should be imperative that we give them the tools and show them the joy of thinking skeptically. If they choose to continue compartmentalizing their skepticism, that's their prerogative, but the moment we attack *them* for their beliefs we risk turning them away from skepticism. However, if someone truly appreciates skepticism, those compartments will be opened up eventually.

    So perhaps I'm calling for two different types of skeptical groups, or maybe two types of "get togethers" for skeptical groups to have. One to arm people with evidence from experts and dissecting claims being made from truly harmful causes, and the other to educate people on the methods specifically.

    Again, I admit I'm new to the community -- I've been skeptical for just a year and a half now, so I don't know how things were contrasted against how things are today. I personally didn't feel out of place discussing religion at TAM this year, most people were very interested in how I went from fundamental christianity to atheist in such a short time period. So while the MC made a statement up front, I didn't exactly feel like discussing religion was off topic with the people I encountered. Maybe I was just lucky.

  13. tracieh: However we address religious claims as skeptics, we should show the same respect and regard--or lack of it--to other irrational beliefs.

    I don't think it's fair to demand "all or nothing" from people, which is what it sounds like you're advocating.

    Challenging religion is a great and absolutely necessary thing. It's also hard, and you will be attacked for doing it. It takes bravery that maybe some people don't have. It also takes time and effort and education and practice to be up to countering all of the myriad theist arguments (as Russell has said, maybe atheists who aren't good at it should stay quiet sometimes?) Precisely because religion is such a sensitive and difficult issue that has such a stranglehold on so many people, I don't expect everyone to be up to the task of going after it.

    Softly and gently getting people to think critically on topics other than religion is also a good thing; maybe a lesser good but still a good. Debunking psychics and crystals and crop circles is an easier task in many ways than attacking religion, but it's still a net positive for the world even if that's all you do. It gets people to think critically. If you do it enough, it'll leak into other areas of people's lives, maybe even setting the stage for getting people to question religion later. It might be more of a low-hanging fruit compared to religion, but I don't fault people for going for it.

    In one sense it's a question of ideals vs. practicality. I love that atheist groups exist, but I don't expect every skeptic group to also be an atheist group, even if philosophically skepticism should necessarily lead to atheism (which I agree it should). I think if we look in terms of the overall good achieved, sometimes it does pay to cater a message to an audience even if the message has to be diluted or even if we solve the small problems and leave religion out of it.

    We have dentists and we have heart surgeons. I don't fault dentists for focusing on fixing cavities when they could be working on saving people from heart attacks. There's room for both in the world.

    The other thing is that I think some issues are more important than others. Like the anti-vaccine movement. I don't want pro-vaccine skeptics to say "p.s. your god is imaginary" because they WILL alienate people and it's vital that they don't, so kids don't die. I'd say the same about any skeptic who deals with medical issues.

  14. I have watched many videos of skeptics who talk about coexisting and how many atheists are "no better than extremist Christians". What these people seem to refer as "The New Atheist movement". They are atheists who do not like to see other atheists do what they call "trying to convert" religious people. These people seem like a small minority in the atheist/skeptic group. Honestly, I can't give these atheists much credit, especially after I saw one go after James Randi (of all people), calling him a fraud of a skeptic. I don't think these people are a problem for the skeptic community, because most do not want to be a part of the skeptic community.

    Nothing should be taboo in skepticism. Not sex, not politics, and certainly not religion. Whatever happen to the term "Freethinker"?

  15. I agree with you Geeky in the sense that a group should discuss all topics or no topics (just tools). As long as no irrational ideology is "exempt" while others are attacked.

    Brian: I agree with you from an individual skeptic standpoint. Clearly I have had to default to "no comment" on some Islamic issues since I needed more information in order to speak coherently on the issue--not being up on it personally.

    But if I was a member of a skeptic _group_, and they said, we'll really hammer everything, but go soft on religion in order to make sure we don't disenfranchise theist, I will call "foul!" on that. Why should we bloody the noses of conspiracy theorists and alien abductees, while we hand chocolate cake to the theists--especially since theism has greater capacity to undermine critical thought, if only from greater numbers and the fact they mass indoctrinate children--telling them explicitly that faith (not thinking critically) is a virtue?

  16. I'm not completely sure I understand what the concern is. Is the worry about the political power of the religions or is it a genuinely philosophical difference growing within the skeptical community?

    Matt's remarks on the NP episode seemed to suggest there's a timidity about attacking religion on political grounds. Religion using its might to squelch criticism and rational examination is timeless as is the inevitable result on the voice of its opposition.

    One recent development too is xian apologetics, which seems to have done a good job of portraying to laypersons atheism as a belief system all its own on par with christian belief with its own set of claims about god, spirituality and that rot. Listen to Matt Slick on any given day interviewing an atheist; he goes on for hours attacking nothing but strawmen. If you're not paying attention it's easy to get the impression he's making actual arguments against something.
    But that's just the usual howling from believers about critical analysis being applied to their fantasies - we should be accustomed to that by now.

    But I'm not aware of significant philosophical differences growing withing skepticism about religion. Take that with a grain of salt tho, since my job consumes all my mental resources and I havn't had enough left over to do any recreational reading or study of skeptical/atheist thought for quite some time.

    I can't see how there could be because that would mean people are actually being convinced by nonsense like xian apologetics and the ranting of fools like Matt Slick, Dennis Prager and even The Masters Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort.

    That's almost inconceivable to me (tho that doesn't mean it's not actually happening ;)).


  17. I think Matt is correct that there was definitely a change of emphasis at TAM7. I am not sure that it represents an active move away from questioning religious beliefs as much that times have changed. The explosion of public awareness of atheism that came about with the books of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett is now old news and there has been nothing equivalent to replace it. At the same time the JERF is trying to find a long term identity. Mr. Randi has not been one to let sloppy thinking of any kind go unchallenged. In years past his comments in Swift were very clear as to his atheism. As this weekly newsletter has morphed into a blog and been written by multiple new authors, the biting comments about religion have faded. The new president of the JREF, Phil Plait is a scientist and does not seem to have as much interest in religion per se.

    As a recent transplant to Texas from Maine, it is clear that the face of the “enemies of reason” varies greatly on a regional basis. I spent time as a member of a school board in Maine and religious assaults on the curriculum were not an issue. We did not have a governor stating publicly that non-believers like myself should not be allowed to be citizens. We did have naturopaths licensed in the state and wanting to be considered primary care practitioners. (If you don’t know why this is a problem, please visit The town where my children live is quack central and the high school has a “wellness center” next to the nurse’s office. Classes in nonsense are offered to the students. In the cafeteria carbonated sort drinks were replaced with equally useless vitamin water. One sugar water for another in the name of health.

    If you look at the location of some of the skeptical organizations it is apparent that they are out of the bible belt. The SGU podcast originates in New England, Michael Schermer is in Anaheim, CFI is in Amherst, NY and Mr. Randi is in Ft. Lauderdale - the oppressive atmosphere of the religious right is just not the same in those locations.

  18. Hi David:

    While I think your points are good, I just noted that you said Shermer was in Anaheim. I'd like to note that CA is a major state with regard to textbook publishing. CA, TX and FL are huge in sales for that industry. And when a national title is updated and "customized" for those states to buy--these states have a large amount of pull with regard to content.

    I think everyone is aware of the issues we face in Texas--you even note them above. But I'm not sure everyone is aware that in CA, religious groups are part of the textbook adoption review, and have offered problems with regard to factual data about Islam and Hindu being published in texts in CA. These books will likely be sold in other states as well. And while I'm not sure how the end result turned out with this controversy (I guess it was about a year ago--but you can still find articles by googling key words), the fact that religious groups are reviewing textbooks that the state is buying to use in their public schools is, well, _interesting_.

    Being a state that is very "PC," like CA, can have the same problems, but for different reasons, as states like TX.

    I mentioned the CA issue to the head of a secular group recently, and he knew nothing about it--never heard it before. I shot him a link to an article and a group that can give him more info. But it's not just the Bible Belt having these issues--we just get more press.

    I don't doubt it's worse in some regions than others--don't misunderstand. But it's wrong to think, "Place X is really liberal, so this couldn't happen there." And I'm not saying you don't get this--but I am saying I think there are too many people who don't.

  19. I think it's less a schism and more the endemic problem of "what's the harm?" As was said on the NP show, different skeptics have different fields of expertise, and in some cases I think they tend to devalue the other skeptical fields that they haven't looked into as deeply. Just as there are some skeptics who don't understand what the big deal is about ghost hunters, I think there are some who do the same with religion.

    The problem here is exacerbated by the popularity of religion and by the general attitude in our society that religion should not be criticized and has various nebulous benefits.

    As skeptic-atheists, we're keenly aware of the harm presented by religion on its own, while skeptics in other fields only really encounter religion when it's pushing creationism or denying medicine and so forth. They deal with aspects of religion, and may buy, to some degree, the arguments that moderate religion isn't as bad or makes people happy and is therefore something we shouldn't focus on.

    There's also the issue of the Golden Mean fallacy, to which even skeptics (particularly Shermer) are prone. Shermer's description of why he claims "agnostic" as a term in "Why People Believe Weird Things" is just another iteration of the "atheists = fundamentalists" tripe we've heard in a bazillion other places. I think people like Shermer, who are largely concerned with PR and public opinion, are wary of making too-strident statements, particularly about religion, since there are so many people who take it for granted.

    One thing that I think I have noticed, though, is skeptics being more willing to focus on aspects of religions (usually specific claims like faith healing and pareidolia) than calling out religion in general.

  20. When all the irrational claims of religion are addressed on their own stance (ghosts, after life, prayer, faith healing, etc) are dismissed by skepticism, what is left of religion to respect and stay away from?

  21. You didn't mention explicitly the existence of god(s), which is primarily what I feel is the subject of shying away.

    Point made, though.

  22. I'm not sure that there is, in reality, an actual schism between the skeptical community, and the atheist community. I certainly see it as being easily possible however. It seems like, at least from my experience, that the skeptical community is trying to go as mainstream as possible (not a bad thing), however that means they have to somewhat limit their scope to maintain the popularity. Given the stigma, and often times visceral reaction to the word 'atheist' or even 'non-believer', the skeptical community seems to want to distance themselves from it; in order to maintain a level of acceptability across the board with the religious majority of the country.

    You can see evidence even of the atheist community themselves, trying to distance themselves from the stigma associated with the label. Such as trying to come up with a new, albeit less effective and less communicative label, such as Brights. In order to at least, in one's own mind, say that you don't believe in a God; while still not really saying that to the other person in the conversation, as to avoid the potential backlash.

    I think Matt is good for at least bringing it to light, as The Atheist Experience, has a fairly wide popularity, among atheists and religious people alike. I'm not entirely sure the separation is as widespread or intentional as Matt believes it to be. However, it is something we should certainly be wary of. It's hard to claim to be a skeptic if you have sacred cows you refuse to be skeptical of, or just ignore.

  23. I do think there is a schism. I have mixed feelings about this. I like both Atheism and Skepticism, however Skepticism does seem to dance on the edge of the religion line.

    Can you really be a Skeptic and a religious person? I don't think you can. On the one hand you demand evidence for extraordinary claims, and then you turn around and go into your magical little happy place. I do not see how that is compatible.

    For the most part it does not bother me or come up since Skeptics generally realize they are being irrational. I like one of Matt's recent comments about the truth being more comforting than believing in god(s) for false comfort.

    My main problem recently with Skepticism as of late is their disdain towards Atheism. They act like it's such a bad word, perhaps even a bad thing. They choose fluffy words like "Agnostic".

    I do not see how you all can hold up so well when someone wants to be called an Agnostic. That deals with knowing, Atheism/Theism deal with believing. Most people are Agnostic, Atheists and Theists alike.

    I could rant on that forever, but yeah Skeptics are pissing me off as of late.

  24. I'd put it down to simple math.

    Skepticism wants to expand, and they can loose 80% of the potential expansion over one topic.

    Pragmaticly it's just safer to not touch that one.

    Personally I think that skepticism is the gateway drug of critical thinking. Which naturally leads people away from religion over time.

  25. Stephanie Zvan makes the argument that the atheists are the ones forming their own purity movement what the kvetching about NCSE accomodationism, the bloggingheads, and the pushing and shoving and biting...

  26. Here's the link to Zvan's blog on the topic:

    I've noticed the inchoate schism also. I don't think it's anything to be worried about, meself. But I definitely don't think those of us who believe *everything* is on the skeptical table should be asked to keep silent or ever consider keeping silent (not that we would) because, and this excellent point was made during NP 8.16 is that, aside from medical issues, religion has the most power to affect our lives in real ways in both the short and long term. Btw, I found Shermer's comment annoying in the Mr. Deity video, too.

  27. I listened to the podcast last night, and I vote on the side of there being a schism, very similar to the faux politically correct agnostic vs atheist schism.

    There seems to be a sizeable number absolutely intent, particularly in the aspect of religion, sitting in a non-existent middleground, and I'm glad Matt mentioned the phrasing of "extremists on both sides" because that's exactly it.

    Not only do I think this thought process is wrong, I think it's destructive to scepticism in general. To properly express scepticism, you're simply going to have to be blunt. Giving some kind of credence to an unsubstantiated god claim is the opposite of scepticism,

  28. Yes, I've noticed the extra efford that some speakers have taken to accomodate religious skeptics. And I find it very bewildering that there's a willingness to give some of the biggest peddlers of bullshit a free pass.
    Skepticism applied to religion generates atheism.
    I don't have a problem if someone says: "I don't apply skepticism to my religion". That's fine, if you can do that compartmentalization in your head.
    There's also the skeptically holdable position of a non-intervening deist god. But does this notion have any value at all? As a skeptic I feel compelled to say: No, it's redundant. And when someone tells us that the two most important philosophical aspects of his life are religious belief and skepticism I simply don't get it.
    With apologies to Hal, who's a great guy, but a "skeptic of faith" for me could just as easily be the campaign leader of "Fucking for Virginity".

    That said: I'm a football fan. And I'm a skeptic. On purpose I don't apply skepticism to fandom (unless I aim at realistic assessment and not entertainment) and I'll never call myself a "Skeptic of 1.FC Koeln Fandom", because while I enjoy the emotional ride of spectator sports in the end skepticism and reality have to prevail.

    So while it is OK for an individual skeptic exclude aspects of his life from skepticism it is IMO not OK for a speaker at a skeptical event to single out the the group that holds the rational belief.

    "Welcome skeptics! Please be aware that skepticism does not equal not being a homeopath"

  29. Why do we differentiate between fortune telling/communicating with the dead, astral travel and religion?

    Religions, specifically the so called "New Age" ones are full of woo, readily attacked by skeptics, yet it's apparently on with the kid gloves with the "real' religions.

    Starting to sound awfully like skepticism hitting the easy targets, the minority religions.

  30. I hate to pull a "no true scotsman" but I personally feel that if one compartmentalizes their skepticism, picks and chooses what to apply it to, choosing only topics that are not controversial, then they are not truly practicing skepticism. Sounds a bit like calling yourself a teetotaler because you only drink on Fridays.

  31. I'm just going to give a observation from the Denver, CO area. I lived there til rather recently and there are a few atheist and skeptic groups. From what I gathered, the skeptic groups did NOT want, in any way, to be associated with atheism.

  32. The last Skepticality had some very positive interviews with the Charolette Atheists on it. It was good to hear.

    I think we should be encouraging as many of the religious as possible to be involved in skeptisim. The critical thinking involved should sink in slowly.

    Then at some point they'll (probably) have to apply it to their religion. Skepticism will let them do it in their own time, and on their own terms.

  33. DEAR MATT:

    In my town, we have a skeptics group and an atheist/secular humanist group. Most of the members are the same for both groups. We respect the integrity of the mission of each group. We don't go on about alternative medicine at the atheist meetings and avoid religion at the skeptics meetings.

    TAM and the skeptics groups you seem to feel slighted by probably don't want to be co-opted by religious discussion. I think TAM should have a separate yet equal track for atheists. In fact, you should make it happen. If the "powers that be" who are "keeping you down" don't like it, have a seesion in a hotel room and charge money. I'd probably pay.

    As sometime moderator of the local skeptics group, I don't go for religious discussion for two reasons: (1) It's handled better at atheist meetings and more importantly, (2)once you get someone on the topic of religion, they won't shut the fuck up.

    Blah, blah, blah - amiright?

  34. "Schism" might be a strong word, but I do think there are fault lines between skeptics and atheists. Especially in the United States, if you want to market a worldview of science and critical thinking that teachers can pass on to students, then you're going to feel obliged to be religion-neutral to a large degree. Since the skeptical movement is heavily invested in influencing teachers and the politics of education, then it makes sense that a lot of skeptical leaders would shy away from discussion of religion.

    On the other hand there's a meme among some skeptics and agnostics that atheism represents a stream of irrationalism -- after all, you can't *prove* there's no god, blah blah blah. And some folks are so heavily invested in preserving for themselves a pose of unimpeachable rationality that they'll attack atheists with more fervor than they'll criticize religion.

    I think the first kind of schism or fault line has some practical value; the second kind is just self-interested bullshit.

  35. Snowpooch makes a good point: perhaps it's a division by the shear scope of the topic rather than an altogether avoidance. My guess is a bit of both.


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