The Course of Reason

Broadening (Losing?) Our Focus in the Skeptic Movement

July 30, 2011

There’s a great post over at The Friendly Atheist’s blog this morning where Hemant talks about his experience being on the “Diversity in Skepticism” panel at TAM 9. Apparently, the conversation became particularly focused on the diversity of skepticism present at meetings. The crux of the discussion was, as he put it, “If we truly advocate skepticism, and we want to apply it to all areas of life, then why do we always seem to limit our conversations to the paranormal or science? Why don’t we ever talk about the Drug War, or Gun Control, or Abortion, or the entire panoply of topics for which there’s available data and plenty of false information spread about them?” Hemant concludes that the movement has much to gain from bringing skeptics uninterested in our current focus into the fold.

On its face, this seems like a great idea. As anyone who has come to Murphy’s after one of ISSA’s weekly meetings knows, I have strong and loud opinions on all of the topics Hemant cites as those skepticism should branch out to cover. I would like nothing more than a forum in which skepticism can be applied to pressing social issues. In a society with a foundation in democratic election of its leaders, a public which is informed and skeptical about specific issues is vital. And who doesn’t want TAM 10 to feature a PZ Myers v. Michael Shermer smackdown over whether progressivism or libertarianism is the better stance for skeptics to take?

Nonetheless, color me skeptical. Important as these issues may be, they are not formed in a vacuum and tend to be highly correlated with certain permutations of religion which prime their adherents to find claims in keeping with the central dogma to be credible, regardless of how absurd they may appear to the rational observer. Want to tackle abortion? First you must get past the dualist belief that a fetus is imbued with a magical essence which a sperm and egg individually are not. The issues that are the hallmark of organized skepticism cover not just the beliefs themselves, but the root philosophies which allow irrational ideas to permeate society. Belief in a magical sky being, at least here in the U.S., has gone hand-in-hand with an increasingly vocal dismissal of the science which allows us to come to conclusions about the society and universe we inhabit. Unless we address that first, we’ll be attempting the rhetorical equivalent of plugging a European appliance into an American outlet. UFOs, ghosts, homeopathy and the like are also good targets for bringing to light similar misconceptions about reality for their broad implications.

-“How long would it take to circumnavigate the globe?”

-“The world is flat, you heathen.” 

I welcome broadening skepticism’s range of targets, but we must do so in an organized manner which continues to focus on fostering the basic critical thinking skills which will allow people to be skeptical, not merely distrustful. To be effective on this front is to focus on puncturing the philosophies which mentally arm their followers against thinking for themselves. As an example, I offer up my recent post discussing the ideological hurdles Christianity places in the path of becoming a responsible environmentalist. The lack of free thought utilized in dealing with societal issues is a symptom of a larger philosophical divide which organized skepticism is already thoroughly addressing. Let’s not get sidetracked.


This post originally appeared on the Illini SSA blog.




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Center for Inquiry On Campus promotes and defends reason, science, and freedom of inquiry in education. We are committed to the enhancement of freethought, skepticism, secularism, humanism, philosophical naturalism, rationalism, and atheism on college and high school campuses throughout North America and around the world.




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