A Case for Skepticism in the Student Freethought Movement
August 2, 2013
I am something of an outlier in the student freethought movement. I spent much of my life after high school, training for and working in blue collar jobs; I was a believer but not devoutly religious; liberal, but seldom radical; and happy to embrace conspiracy theories to explain away the problems I saw in my world. When I was 24 years old, I began dating a woman in St. Louis. She was the single mother of four teenagers, an anti-racist agitator, and a fellow believer in many fringe beliefs ranging from alien abduction, channeling, ghosts, and acupuncture, to 9/11 conspiracies, non-interventionist parenting, and witchcraft. I spent over two years struggling to pay our bills, support four teenagers, and to find a future for myself. Needless to say it was a very bad time in my life.
My one salvation during this time was reading. I studied science, leftist politics, the organized labor movement, and Buddhism. It was through my study of Buddhism that I found (via a long chain of Wikipedia links) a little known astronomer and astrophysicist named Carl Sagan. I was fascinated by the fact that such a notable scientist would be so inexorably connected with a word that I seldom used before this point: “Skepticism.” I made my way to my local bookstore, picked up a copy of The Demon-Haunted World, and finished it in a single sitting. My life was changed forever! Suddenly I began to see woo-woo all around me, and most critically, within my own beliefs. I began the process of self-examination that I imagine all budding skeptics do when they first acquire those skills. Eventually, my newfound skepticism drove my girlfriend and I apart and I moved out. As I studied the many claims that skeptics were investigating, I applied these new methods to religion and the supernatural. My rejection of religion was blatantly a posteriori, coming only after a very long process of study and inquiry that ended in the birth of an atheist.
It is this process of study and inquiry that I feel many students in the freethought movement have neglected. Their atheism is antagonistic and confrontational, rather than informed and thoughtful. Mark Hatcher of Howard University has described religion as a symptom of poor critical thinking skills. If we accept this premise, purely atheist activism will be ineffective in the long run as the amorphous body of religion adapts to confront our assaults. We must offer up good thinking skills to people affected by religion and allow them to follow the evidence to where it leads. We cannot allow ourselves to sink to the level of dogmatists and evangelicals. Center for Inquiry founder Paul Kurtz, said of skepticism in Affirmations: Joyful And Creative Exuberance
“The methods of critical inquiry, used so effectively in science, need to be extended to all areas of human interest. Belief should be treated as hypotheses and tested by evidence, logical coherence, and experimental consequences. All claims to knowledge should be open to revision in the light of inquiry. As a result, there is a progressive growth of knowledge. Skeptical inquiry is essential for the development of human knowledge.”
Our interest in a Humanist ethos and a commitment to a secular society must be built upon a foundation of our own dedication to inquiry and vigor. I would ask my colleagues in the freethought movement to initiate programs to foster skeptical thinking, and to share these skills with your peers on campus, and to approach your secular activism as an objective inquirer, rather than as a radical seeking to destroy an institution. We can change the world, but only after we are willing to change ourselves.
Special Thanks to James Croft and his “Art of the Public Narrative” workshop, Mark Hatcher, Desiree Schell, and the entire CFI on Campus team!
About the Author: Jeffrey Elliott
Jeffrey Elliott is an undergraduate student of philosophy at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He holds a degree in control systems technology from Ranken Technical College in St. Louis Missouri and is a licensed industrial radiographer. His experience in blue-collar jobs combined with his pragmatic approach to philosophy has informed his work in skeptical inquiry and STEM outreach. He is co-founder and president of the Freethought Society of SIUE, an associate member of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
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