Friday, May 10, 2013

Another way of viewing the skepticism/atheism dispute

Recently, PZ Myers declared he was "officially divorced" from the skeptic movement.  He's reacting to attempts by skeptical leaders to set stricter boundaries on the scope of skepticism (for example, see Daniel Loxton or Jamy Ian Swiss).  PZ has a tendency to amplify drama, but I think there is some real underlying disagreement between many people who identify most closely with the atheist movement, and people who identify most closely with the skeptical movement.

The classic way to view the dispute is that there is a philosophical disagreement.  Skeptics believe that they should only tackle claims that can be tested by empirical evidence.  Atheists are unsatisfied with this because any claim can be made "untestable".  Personally, I view this philosophical question as a red herring, because I just see them as complementary rhetorical strategies.  Here I propose an alternative view of what the dispute is really about.  I developed these ideas while commenting on Skepticblog, and while reading about the history of skepticism.

The popularization of skepticism

The subtext of the dispute is the popular expansion of skepticism in the last decade.  As Daniel Loxton documented, skepticism of the paranormal has existed for millenia, at least.  But in the English-speaking world, the big shift of the 20th century was the founding of CSICOP in 1976.  But though CSICOP was an important organization, the founders did not expect what happened in the 21st century (or maybe the 1990s?).  Skepticism became popular, and developed a large grassroots component.

The upshot is that now there is a popular skeptical movement.  People identify as skeptics.  There's the popular periodical, Skeptic.  There are many skeptical podcasts, blogs, and conferences.  There are local groups like Skeptics in the Pub and university student groups (like the one I used to be involved in).

But skeptics who investigate claims or write for skeptical periodicals have a very different perspective from people who are just enthusiastic about skepticism, or who use it as a social outlet.  If you write for a skeptical periodical, you have to stick to what you can demonstrate rigorously.  If you're a skeptical leader, you have to separate your personal views from your views as a skeptical activist.

But I'm just a lay skeptic.  I don't have any views as a skeptical activist, because I'm not an activist.  I just have views and interests.  Some of them are skeptical, some are not.  I don't really need to make a distinction like the leaders do.  And while I recognize the important difference between testable and untestable claims, I'm not literally going out and testing claims most of the time.  A lot of time, I'm more interested in the psychology and philosophy of critical thinking, where the testable/untestable distinction isn't so relevant.  The psychology of testable and untestable beliefs is about the same.

So there's some potential for friction between skeptical leaders and lay skeptics.

The popularization of atheism

At the same time popular skepticism is emerging, so is the popular atheist movement.  Some say that "new atheism", as it's sometimes called, began with 9/11.  9/11 drove home the serious harm that religion could cause.  But I'd say it really became popular around 2004 or so, when atheist books were hitting the bestsellers list.  I would also identify the growth of the internet as a major cause, just as the internet was a cause of the popularization of skepticism.

Nowadays, new atheism is big.  Really big.  At times it seems like atheists have taken over major parts of the internet (eg Reddit?).  Furthermore, they have very significant overlap with skepticism.  Most skeptics are atheists, and most atheist activists uphold skeptical thinking as one of the highest virtues.  The atheist movement threatens to swallow the skeptical movement whole.

But most people who participate in the atheist movement are lay skeptics, like me.  (Most of them are also lay atheists, in the sense of not personally doing activist work.)  Thus, they don't really have much use for the boundaries set by skeptical leaders.  In fact, it seems to them that their interest in skepticism of testable claims blends smoothly into their skepticism of untestable religious beliefs.  Therefore, the friction between skeptical leaders and lay skeptics is applicable to skeptical leaders and new atheists.

So what would have been friction within a movement turns into a clash between two movements.  And now we have to deal with the fact that many skeptics, even if they're atheists, don't necessarily know what the atheist movement cares about, and vice versa.  Yikes!

The disastrous collision with atheist politics

The atheist movement is its own tempest of internal politics.  Several years ago, there was a perpetual dispute between "accomodationists" and "militants" (those are the pejorative terms that each side used for the other side).  Skeptical activists sure got caught up in that argument, but that wasn't so bad.

Right now there is a much more bitter dispute between feminist atheists and not-so-feminist atheists.  There have always been arguments over this issue, but it reached popular awareness with "elevatorgate".  Then everything went to hell.  Elevatorgate is really old news now, but the whole dispute has gone through many many iterations with no signs of dying.

Skeptical leaders have made some major missteps with regard to the atheist feminist wars.  There was the whole story about The Amazing! Meeting not having a very good anti-harassment policy.  DJ Grothe (president of JREF, which organizes TAM) blamed the low female attendance at TAM on the talk of harrassment problems at conferences.  Soon afterwards, Surly Amy (one of the Skepchicks) got harassed at TAM.  The rest is history.

This has left a lot of feminist atheists feeling like organized skepticism is on the wrong side of the dispute.  And skeptical leaders' attempts to define the boundaries of skepticism doesn't help.  Skeptical leaders do care about including women and people of color, but they also strongly feel that feminism and anti-racism are beyond the scope of the movement.  Feminist atheists, on the other hand, say that all they are asking for is for skepticism to tackle testable claims related to feminism, humanism, and anti-racism, while also implementing the appropriate measures to ensure equal access.

As for the not-so-feminist atheists, I worry that they'll take the queues from leadership and slowly dominate the skeptical movement.  That's a scenario where I would seriously just quit.  Right now, leaders are in the position where they don't want to take sides, but I think they need to take a stand to ensure equal access.

Anyway, that's why there's so much drama.

I suggest, as a solution, that skeptical leaders and activists become intimately familiar with internal atheist politics.  Call it atheist sensitivity training.