Thursday, September 22, 2011

Religion: Not like gender

Via Pharyngula, the JREF newsletter said the following:
We at the JREF do take diversity seriously, and it's something we strive to achieve at our events.  If the skeptics community is going to thrive and grow, it's essential that no one feel unwelcome or excluded due to race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.
 Of course, everyone is eying the word "religion".  There is some value in working with religious people towards common goals.  But there is also concern that in order to do this, we'd need to push aside a lot of atheist discourse.  I am not sure how I would weigh the value of these two things against each other.

However, I gotta say that the inclusion of religion is not like the inclusion of race, gender, or sexual orientation.

Whenever skeptics talk about inclusion of religion, it's common to bring up Martin Gardner as an important skeptic who was also religious.  But this feels an awful lot like tokenizing.  1) He’s the only major example most people can think of from the past 40 years. 2) Much is made of the fact that he was a fideist, as if to underscore how only the most minimal of theistic beliefs is acceptable.

Imagine if people could only name one notable female skeptic from the past 40 years, and they always made a point about how it was okay because she wasn’t hysterical or anything.  That would be inclusion of women done wrong.

There are two contradicting conclusions we can draw from this.  One, we are doing inclusion of religion horribly wrong.  Or two, inclusion of religion is not the same as inclusion of women.

I'll take the latter conclusion.  I think we can do inclusion of religion better, but it will never be quite like inclusion of women or people of color.

I feel like this is one of those things that is different online and offline.  Online it's very easy to make broad pronouncements about Religious People and Attempts to Silence Atheists.  But offline, the situation I usually see is quite different.  Instead, we end up having a group of atheists who suddenly discover that there is a theist in their midst.  And then they treat that person as a representative of Religious People, and give all the standard responses.  And they don't realize that if there is a theist hanging out in a skeptical group, they probably have heard all these responses before.  Also, they're probably atypical theists (who might not even be religious), and most responses don't apply to them.  I can see this being pretty annoying, not because atheists are daring to question religion, but because atheists are being stupid.

Note again the difference between inclusion of women and inclusion of theists.  If we were only inclusive of atypical women (eg, those that feel comfortable around lots of men ogling them), that would be inclusion done wrong.  But I don't feel nearly as bad about the idea of only being inclusive of atypical theists.

(The point about Martin Gardner is stolen from a comment I made on Skepticblog, which was in turn stolen from a post I wrote last year.)


drransom said...

I would think that the key line to draw isn't religion versus irreligion, or theism versus atheism.* The key line is general openness to science and empirical evidence and a willingness reexamine prior beliefs.

This is going to toss some religions right out the door. There's just no room for Abrahamic fundamentalists who think the Bible is a history text, that the earth is 6,000 years old, that each species was individually specially created, that God regularly performs miracles today, and so on. That stuff is the opposite of skepticism.

At the other end of the spectrum, I don't think it makes much sense for skeptics to challenge non-theistic Unitarian or Reform Jews, or theists who accepts science and reject revealed religion.

In between those two poles there's a lot of ambiguity and I don't know that I have much useful to say about it, especially since I don't even identify as a skeptic in the first place.

*In the U.S., and I think among American skeptics, theism and religion are often conflated. But there are non-theistic religions, non-theistic people who nonetheless identify as members of religions that are usually considered theistic, and non-religious theists.

miller said...

Actually, I'm not even sure it's useful to draw lines by religious traditions. As I said, I think theists who frequent skeptical groups are atypical. Atypical people are hard to categorize.

(I also don't quite believe in "drawing lines", since I don't see what it gives us to determine who is and is not a skeptic. I feel like I have a post about this somewhere in my archives, but I can't find it...)

drransom said...

I think you have a fair point about religious traditions. I think the main point of policing the skeptic identity would to prevent people from appropriating the skeptic brand to promote anti-skeptical ideas like "skepticism" of evolution.

This doesn't seem to be an actual problem, though it is for other brands. I'm reminded of feminists who argue that people like Christina Hoff Sommers are trying to appropriate the feminist label to promote anti-feminist ideas.

miller said...

Okay, I found something in my archives. Geez, past!me is so silly.