The Course of Reason

Where have all the Gadflies gone?

September 21, 2013

CFI founder Paul Kurtz once said of the Skeptics movement,

“…Skepticism is essential.  You simply can’t refute, quote ‘debunk’, explain something and then go home. No, you need constant gadflies (that was the role of Socrates) out there examining claims and trying to find out if they’re true or false.”


While I’m sure that most of us would agree with this characterization, I sometimes wonder if we haven’t lost our nerve in many ways.  I had initially planned on examining the content of conversations on the internet to help drive this point home, but upon further reflection I think I can make my point clear by citing nothing more than my personal stash of Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer magazines, a little bit of the history of the modern Skeptic and Humanist movements, and some observations I made while attending the CFI Student Leadership Conference this past July.

Snag a copy of the Dec/Jan 2013 Free Inquiry or the Jan/Feb 2013 Skeptical Inquirer, and you will be treated to lovely memorial to the late Paul Kurtz.  This memorial just so happens to be a very concise history of the modern skeptical movement.  When CSICOP was founded in 1976, it was essentially an extension of Kurtz’s work as editor of The Humanist with the American Humanist Association (AHA).  Kurtz had written several articles highlighting the spread of paranormal beliefs in America and the need for greater skepticism, in The Humanist, but he felt that a greater degree of investigation into these matters was needed and launched the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal at a special session of the AHA.  Even at the very beginnings of CSICOP, schisms were beginning to form.  Co-founder Martin Gardner, as a self-proclaimed “Fideist” felt that religious claims should not be investigated by CSICOP.  It was this limitation on the mandate of CSICOP, combined with Kurtz’s departure from the AHA in 1978 that led to the founding of the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (CODESH) in 1980.  Via this new organization’s journal, Free Inquiry, there was now an outlet not only for the discussion of Humanist ethics, but also for the skeptical criticism of religion denied to CSICOP. 

Over 30 years after the founding of what are now called the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and the Council for Secular Humanism (CSH), that initial split in mission has persisted to this day.  While the Center For Inquiry (CFI) was meant to serve as a great unifier of the research areas of CSI and CSH, one need only read the event description of the upcoming CFI summit to see that these projects are still very much divided. There is one line in particular that caught my attention, “Should secular humanists be as critical of fringe-science claims, including alternative medicine, as they are of religious beliefs?” This begs the question for me: Why aren’t secular humanists more skeptical? Isn’t religious skepticism the foundation of most non-belief? I believe that the problem is born of inherent differences between skeptics and secular humanists, and it is these differences that have made gadflies an ever-shrinking minority in our movement at large.

At the 2013 CFI Student Leadership Conference, the representatives of campus groups from across the country (and Canada) introduced themselves.  Two words seemed to echo as the microphone was passed around, atheist and Christian, with almost no mention of skeptics, freethinkers, or Humanists.  I didn’t think much of this at first until I started to listen to conversations around me: “What about building seven?” “I’ve been gluten free for six months and I’ve lost so much weight!” “My chiropractor is a life saver!” Clearly there was a shortage of skepticism among the attendees; but perhaps their religious criticism was biting enough to make up for that? No such luck.  Much of the conversation talked about accomodationalist programs to build better relationships with faith-based organizations and seemingly never ending streams of pseudo-Marxist rhetoric and Muslim apologetics.  Needless to say, my confidence took a blow. 

In the midst of all of this, just when I thought my confidence in my peers couldn’t sink any lower, I found the blogs of PZ Meyers, Richard Carrier, and the numerous followers of so-called “Atheism plus”.  I would describe my litany of objections to the “Atheism plus” movement and it’s supporters; but unlike the bloggers I mentioned, I know the difference between valid criticism and libel, and will not fling the abuse I believe they so richly deserve. 

The last straw for me was when I read the code of conduct for the American Atheists upcoming 2014 conference in Salt Lake City.  The line that incensed me the most was “Prohibited conduct may include, but is not limited to harassment related to… religion. …[T]he harassment of individuals for his or her religious beliefs will not be tolerated.”  Of all the numerous behaviors prohibited at an event such as this, I never would have predicted that attacking religion would be on the no-no list.  Yes, it specifies “harassment”, but who decides what qualifies as harassment? Will there be security or law enforcement officers present to make those distinctions? If atheists can’t criticize religion at their own conferences, what exactly is the point of these conferences? Clearly it’s a gesture of political correctness.  You never know if a religious person might decide to show up and might possibly be offended by an off-color remark by some inconsiderate apostate.  I need to be real for a moment, when the anyone starts telling me that I can’t get confrontational with an advocate of superstition, manifest falsehood, violence, sexism, homophobia, and plenty of other forms of nastiness, my first reaction is a firm, good old-fashioned, FUCK YOU! Policies of this nature amount to nothing less than legislated morality and that is something I cannot tolerate.  My freedom of speech shall NOT be defined by your idea of decorum. 

But, I digress.  The problem here seems to be a fear of offending someone.  I thought that was our bread and butter? This is where skeptics and atheists show their greatest differences.  Skeptics cannot be content with doubt; they must inquire, investigate, test, and determine the truth or falsity of a claim.  If the claim turns out to be false, the claimant will likely be deeply embarrassed or offended by this result and skeptics are very comfortable exposing charlatans.  Many atheists and humanists however, are seemingly unwilling to expose religious persons to the kind of embarrassment, offense, or heartache that would likely come along with an aggressive criticism of their faith.  Why is that? Why should the peddler of false hope of an afterlife in the form of a spirit medium be any more immune to criticism than the same charlatan in the form of a defender of the faith? “They shouldn’t” is the correct answer. 

We as Humanists and freethinkers need to be willing to upset people, to offend them, and even publically ridicule and embarrass them when they make claims that relegate women to the status of chattel; condemn homosexuals to incarceration, mutilation, or even death; and bar the path of science and technology that could save millions of lives.  We must be more than simple atheists; we must be openly skeptical of religion, expose the irrationality of religious claims, and stir the minds of the people via our criticisms.  It is well known that no one likes a gadfly, and to take on the role of a gadfly is to bear the terrible burden that all the gadflies like Socrates bore before us.  But, this was a role that our progenitors gladly played, and it is one we must play if we ever expect to make the same sort of impact on the world as they did.

This essay is dedicated to Socrates, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Harry Houdini, The Amazing Randi, Richard Dawkins, Thomas Paine, Emma Goldman, Joe Hill, Bill Haywood, Paul Kurtz, Christopher Hitchens, and all my fellow skeptics, freethinkers, contrarians, and gadflies around the world. Nullis in verba!



About the Author: Jeffrey Elliott

Jeffrey Elliott's photo

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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