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Posted by on May 7, 2013 in Politics, Skepticism | 15 comments

Divorcing oneself from movements – or from people

While this announcement will no doubt cause far less of a fuss than PZ Myers announcing that he’s divorcing from the skeptic movement, I can announce that I’ve been enjoying a trial separation from the atheist movement. Well, even that might be overstating things somewhat, seeing as I haven’t exactly stopped highlighting concerns I have with religion. But more and more, the issues that seem important, and worth caring and speaking about, are only tangentially about atheism vs. religious outlooks. Besides occasional clear examples of the potential harms religion can contribute to, like the current madness in Bangladesh, I think far more of us should devote our attention exclusively – or mostly – to addressing the root causes of human misery, like poverty, sexism, racism and poor basic educations.

It’s the last thing – education – that means I’d probably identify more as a skeptic and a humanist than an atheist. I’ve been teaching critical thinking to university students for over 15 years now, and it seems to me that entering students are increasingly poorly equipped to assess evidence, avoid their obvious biases and so forth. These failures in basic reasoning impact on lives quite reliably, in that we end up making rash decisions about relationships, finances, risks and so forth. Religion, on the other hand, is quite frequently harmless (or in fact, meaningless).

I don’t understand PZ’s beef with skepticism. He seems to have some warrant for a beef with Jamy Ian Swiss, but why that needs to extend to skepticism in general, I don’t know. If someone were to say “I can’t be an atheist, because PZ defined atheism in a way I didn’t agree with”, then PZ might be one of the first to accuse that person of poor reasoning. If it’s only a certain sort of skepticism that’s being rejected, then that sort should be demarcated, especially if you have a large audience who considers you an authority on these matters. For those of us who are not scientists, skepticism is a defined and useful approach to assessing propositional claims, and I think various folk like Randi, Schermer, Radford, Dunning et al have helped a lot of people learn many things (despite missteps of various sorts by some of them).

So PZ seems to be throwing some toys around here, as is his right. But in doing so, I can’t help but think that he’s indirectly reinforcing the value of the sort of careful consideration of issues and arguments that can be emblematic of skepticism, through not practising them himself in this instance. He could well be right that a failure to confront some issues (perhaps theism, perhaps climate change or libertarianism) can reveal failures in the skeptical method or outlook – but people who might make these or other mistakes are hardly going to be persuaded by PZ’s divorcing himself from the movement.

Massimo Pigliucci has a post worth reading about this and related matters, in which he not only points out some of the value skepticism has, but also laments the apparent increase in incivility and name-calling when we criticise each other for getting things wrong. I’d concur with most of it, and add this: we sometimes forget how trivial our disagreements – and the actors in those disagreements – are. All these blogs, quabbles, rifts and so forth are sometimes operating in some crude filter-bubbles, where we can become sanctimonious, defiant, and so stubborn that we’re unable to see our own errors.

Not everything is about being on one or another “side” of some rift, whether real or imagined. The important issue is sometimes far more simple, and involves paying attention to being a decent human being and about treating others decently. We shouldn’t forget that, regardless of what we call ourselves.