Diversity, skepticism, and atheism

By Amanda Marcotte
Sunday, July 31, 2011 16:15 EDT
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I usually don't post on Sundays, but man, I have to vent.  Nothing gets my eyes rolling faster than the hand-wringing over the way that atheism and skepticism are merging, which is a phenomenon that is due in part to the spate of "New Atheist" publications, but is mainly a reaction to the influx of a younger, more diverse, more political crowd into the halls of skepticism.  And that crowd has grown up under the threat from the religious right, and so are just less inclined to see pushing back against homeopathy and claims about Bigfoot as being a good use of your time when claims about Jesus and miracles have created a radicalized right wing intent on destroying the country.  

Look: atheism is the result of applying critical thinking and demands for evidence to the god hypothesis.  It's not any different than non-belief in all sorts of supernatural claims, such as ESP and ghosts.  All of the weaseling around that is intellectually dishonest.  It's not about critical thinking, but about politics and frankly, not taking on religion because religion is seen as too powerful. 

This latest example of said hand-wringing, written by Daniel Loxton, particularly teed me off because he appears to have a larger agenda of undermining actual diversity attempts in the movement, because increasing diversity comes at the "cost" of running off conservatives who have an interest in disproving space aliens and Bigfoot, but maybe aren't so keen on having the comfortable worldview challenged.  But I'd point out that the squeezing out of conservative interests has been good for skepticism; as another blogger at Skepticblog notes, the dwindling in numbers of conservatives (and conservatives who call themselves "libertarians" in a pathetic bid to get laid more) means that the movement is ceasing to be crippled by the shameful tolerance of global warming denialists.  Seriously, you can't be a skeptical movement if you allow people pushing the "global warming in a hoax perpetuated by a worldwide conspiracy" to go unchallenged. 

Anyway, Loxton decided to shit all over the work of people looking at improving gender, sexual oriention, class, and race diversity in the movement by complaining that the panel at The Amazing Meeting dedicated to this didn't have any fucking Christians on it.  He firmly believes that the god hypothesis should be off-limits for skeptics, and that there should be a bright line between atheism and skepticism.  This is ridiculous.  "God" is a supernatural claim just like fairies and ghosts.  Just to show you how ridiculous he's being, I'm going to replace the references to god and religion with references to another untestable claim, that we all have fairy godmothers who look out for us and do little magic things we don't even notice.

The irony of a fairy-disbelieving-only panel on “diversity” did not escape me, but I expected it to pass without comment. The sentiment that skepticism is an anti-fairy club is recent, but it has taken root very quickly. As with other sorts of “do-fish-know-they’re-wet?” privilege in other, larger communities, the assumption of default disbelief in fairies is rarely questioned in the skeptical subculture. Indeed, the panel set out to discuss diversity in gender, sexual orientation, age, race, class, education, and physical ability—but not fairy belief.

See what I mean?  The excuse from "traditional" skeptics for making an exception for religion is that the god hypothesis is an untestable claim, and they're only interested in testable claims.  But as this fairy example shows, that's not really true.  There are plenty of things skeptics are skeptical about because of the preponderance-of-evidence standard.  We don't believe in ESP or ghosts or fairies because no one has ever produced solid evidence in favor of these things existing, and we combine that with an assumption that these things are highly unlikely and so the burden is on the people making the claims to prove them.  I don't see how god is any different.  People try to produce evidence in the way of miracles and good fortune, but the proof always falls apart on inspection.  Yes, it's true that you can't test whether or not there is a god somewhere that simply refuses to show himself, but that's also true of fairies, people with ESP, and ghosts.  And yet it's considered a good use of skeptical time to point out the weakness of the ghost/ESP argument.  So why not god? 

Well, because of politics, which Loxton cops to:

At least one speaker at TAM9 was herself religious (Pamela Gay) and there were, as always, members of multiple religious groups and spiritual traditions in the audience. These skeptics often express that anti-theism is a barrier to participation in our science-based events. Whatever your own feelings about religion, this is obviously a topic which fits under the heading of “diversity.”

Well hell, if the main goal is making people with ridiculous beliefs feel comfortable, why stop at the god hypothesis?  People are also touchy about their diets, and so expressing skepticism, as is done in another post, about food trends such as non-allergic people cutting gluten from their diets, is probably a bad idea, too.  I've probably gotten more defensive reactions from people who suspected my eyebrow twitched because they're on the caveman diet than because they said something about god around me.  I've also encountered people who believe that they figure out what others are thinking not because they pick up on body language and social cues, but because of magic, and they are just as hostile as people who know you think it's a bit silly you think that Jesus was born to a virgin.  If discomfort is to be avoided at all costs, let's just disband now. 

But Loxton has an ulterior motive here:

This empirical focus has allowed the skeptical community—old and white and bearded as it may have been—to enjoy other kinds of diversity. If political ideology is not a topic for our movement, then anarchists, libertarians, liberals, and conservatives can happily share the same big tent. If science-based skepticism is neutral about nonscientific moral values3, then the community can embrace people who hold a wide range of perspectives on values issues—on the environment, on public schools, on nuclear power, on same-sex marriage, on taxation, gun control, the military, veganism, or so on. It’s a sort of paradox: the wider the scope of skepticism, the less diverse its community becomes.

In other words, the kind of "diversity" he supports is one where a bunch of well-off, older white men can enjoy talking about the silliness of Bigfoot without having to bother with those political concerns that are unavoidable when people who get the shit end of the stick—women, non-white people, poorer people, disabled people, gay people—get involved.  There are many flavors of white-dude-whose-privilege-shields-him-from-having-to-be-politicals, but those darn diverse people are forever being political because they don't have an option to ignore oppression that directly affects them.  Personally, I'm far more concerned about a group that's politically diverse only because they all live in the same bubble than one that's got racial and gender diversity because everyone has a shared concern about religious power. 

In other words, I support a diversity of viewpoints, not a diversity per se of views. A group of skeptics isn't made stronger because some people diverge from the norm because they believe they have an army of small fairies to do their bidding, but it is strengthened by improving the number of women and people of color who can speak to communities who aren't currently being reached. 

Anyway, as I noted before, claims that you can maintain scientific discourse while pandering to the emotional comfort of conservatives have been demonstrated to be false.  Even without all that icky race and gender diversity question, you still had the problem of global warming and the fact that conservatives pretty much have to believe the conspiracy theory that it's all a hoax in order to justify their political ideology.  

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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