Trouble Ahead for Skepticism & Secularism

There is something I’ve only touched on briefly on this site, but something important which needs to be underscored here:

Some of us, secularists and skeptics alike, are jerks.

None of the peeps I know in person or online are guilty of this of course, but at least one of them, my buddy and brother from another mother, formerly going by the handle ‘Skeptic Cat,’ quit skeptical blogging and left the skeptical community in disgust at his absolutely deplorable treatment on blogs I won’t name, by other freethinkers, not just random cranks on a pseudo-science website.

And this is not just an isolated incident…

In a show of strength that should make any thinking man proud of our species’ other half, Rebecca Watson at the start of her recent video (Here), and elsewhere, has spoken out on the divisiveness, the naked partisanship, and yes, the outright misogyny showed by many of us more estrogen-challenged types in skepticism as well.

It’s a testament to her immense mental fortitude that she hasn’t just quit altogether.

I commend her from the bottom of my eldritch heart. We need many more women like her, and it is embarrassing to me that the skeptical and secular communities don’t have more women as members than they do.

I just don’t think I have that kind of strength. Dealing with the sort of things she does would have driven me out of this altogether.

Granted, my experiences with other skeptics and atheists have been mostly positive, then again, I’m relatively new to skepticism’s darker side — the real one, not the ravings of antiscience fringers — as experienced by those who quickly get disgusted and become ex-skeptics, even anti-skeptics, after being driven out of the community by overenthusiastic freethinking otaku.

Given these, and my own experience, a few things have become evident:

  • Critical thinking skills do not qualify you for sainthood. This should be self-evident, but is a point often missed by inexperienced skeptics. We must be careful of not falling into cultish behavior through excessive admiration of prominent skeptics and atheists, regarding them not as teachers and experts, but as de facto objects of debased veneration and hero worship.

It’s the same sort of uncritical reverence for authority that has corrupted the message of many a good teacher throughout history, and has led to the foundation of every cult, and from those every religion, that ever was. This unthinking attitude is poisonous in whatever form it appears, and is the very antithesis of skepticism.

  • We skeptics do not, nor can we have, all the answers. This was succinctly pointed out in the final post of Skeptic Cat’s blog before he deleted the whole shebang earlier this year. A commitment to the truth of factual claims, however genuine, does not automatically convey exclusive access to Truth and rationality, and we would do well to remember that.

Sure, scientific skepticism, like the science it derives from, is contentious, with a tradition of vigorous debate and criticism, but there is no reason, and I underscore that because we so highly value rationality, to be so Ceiling-Cat unfair to each other.

By all means, we SHOULD be debating and critical, even to each other, but in a constructive way.

  • We are not special people, some sort of chosen intellectual elite. This too should be self-evident as well, but often is all too easy to lose sight of, and can lead to falling into the same sort of traps that true-believers fall into. Naively supposing that we are somehow special is also highly conducive to the sort of exclusive mindset that can rhetorically isolate us from the general public, keeping us from effective outreach, which, and correct me if I’m in error, I understand to be one of the skeptical movement’s major objectives.

Let’s leave out the fan-boy fervency, the ideological litmus-tests, the misogyny, the uncritical reverence of leading skeptics and prominent atheists, and all the other tendencies that lead us to, in paraphrasing Carl Sagan, ‘condemn ourselves to permanent minority status.’

Phil Plait made a few good points in his ‘DBAD’ talk a while back, and I for the record do not suppose at all that he was implying that we should coddle religion or the fringers.

Yes, I know…It’s the oldest debate in skepticism…

But Phil just doesn’t strike me as an Accomodationist™, or whatever epithet has been used, not even in more recent posts of his on both Skeptic Blog and Bad Astronomy.

Why don’t I just throw in the Douglas Adams reference to clothware and give up? First, I think it’s too late now to call it quits and forever turn my back on this blog or skepticism.

For one thing, I’ve learned too much, and I don’t mean that in an arrogant way.

Over the last several years, I’ve learned a lot about my own mind, how I sometimes fool myself, some very useful things about how human minds in general seem to operate when we fool ourselves and each other, and maybe just a tiny bit about science, math, and from these, a little on how the world itself really works.

None of the things I’ve learned or insights I’ve had lend any support to the claims of religion, the paranormal, or the scientific fringe.

Nothing I’ve learned supports the conclusion that anything ‘out of this world’ exists, besides, of course, those things we haven’t explained yet about the entire very real and likely vast-beyond-imagining universe, which has more than is dreamt of in anyones philosophies…

…including those of believers who like to misquote Shakespeare.

I would likely have to have entire swaths of my long-term memory just…disappear…for me to go back believing what I did before identifying as a skeptic…

…And perhaps it’s also because I’m an incurable romantic, science geek, and hopeful of our future as a species, preferably leaning more toward realism in that hope, but we’ll see.

I see advocating science, reason, and a secular society as the best way of cultivating what is best in myself, in others, and perhaps contributing a little to my species as well.

Skepticism has come far, but it can go much farther than it has, and it is too late to trash the whole thing and start over. I see rough times ahead for the freethinking communities, but I’m also confident we can weather out the storm and pull through.

It’s certainly worth a try. Can we do it without alienating our own and crippling ourselves along the way?


One thought on “Trouble Ahead for Skepticism & Secularism

  1. Pingback: Skepticism Needs Plurality « The Call of Troythulu

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