Friday, August 05, 2011

What he said

This post by PZ at the all-new Pharyngula is a good one and I agree without caveat.  It’s always seemed to me that that while a person can feasibly call herself a skeptic if she believes in a god, she’s got a lot of explaining to do.  Religion is fair game and always in season. 

When the spectre of accommodation first began to manifest in public (that is, when we all started arguing about it), I mused about its history.  I understand why organisations like CSICOP and later the JREF adopted the policies they did on religion.  They chose to be neutral on religion apparently because some of the people they wanted on their boards were sympathetic to religion and wouldn’t otherwise have joined.  They wanted the skill and enthusiasm of those people and the price they paid for including them was to stay quiet about religion.  This might come as a surprise, but in context, I say fair enough.  They were small, fledgling organisations and – I think – didn’t adopt this policy to swell the numbers of members. I’d have made a rather different choice, but I don’t particularly criticise theirs, in context.

These days, things are rather different.  Due largely to the efforts of these organisations, skepticism is a big deal and the community very large and active.  There’s no longer a perceived need to accommodate to get the staff you want, because there are lots of talented, hardworking people in the movement.  Accommodation is now about recruitment of members and that is not acceptable.  It’s not acceptable because a few board members of a skeptical organisation shouldn’t get to decide what the community cares about. 

And yet those early decisions haunt us, for some reason.  The reasons for laying off religion seemed superficially plausible back then, but makes no sense at all now.  So why does the movement allow those policies to influence it?  At the first TAM London, there was quite a lot of (to me and many welcome) sniping at religion.  And while it went down pretty well, lots of people in the audience were visibly and vocally offended. I don’t know if this is because they were religious or because of the reach of those insidious decisions.  I know that in at least some cases it was the latter, because I talked to people. They blustered about religion being off-limits because of ‘deeply-held beliefs’.  They blustered about putting people off joining the skeptical movement because their particular variety of stupid was being ridiculed.  They blustered about negative evidence.  Bottom line: they blustered. If they can’t resolve those feelings in an environment jam packed full of smart people, then good fucking riddance.

PZ is right: since we want diversity in the movement, we should simply stick to the principles.  There’s only one, really: show us.  If religious people want to join the movement they should be welcomed providing they understand that that they’ll have to show us.  Their particular bullshit is no more exempt than anyone else’s. If they think they have a good reason for believing what they do, they should show us what it is.  And if it turns out that reason is not so very good after all, they shouldn’t expect much sympathy.

Skepticism is about having good reasons to believe things and the fun part is arguing about what are good and bad reasons. Argument is how we sharpen our teeth and people who don’t care for argument probably have only a marginal place in the skeptical movement these days.

I’ve previously argued against the concept of a ‘skeptical movement’, whatever that means.  I was wrong.  I was basing my ire on the fact that the people who seemed to be trying to define the movement were determined to tell us what we should think.  But the movement exists and it is doing what it collectively wants regardless of what anyone who thinks they’re in charge says and in that capacity I’m a member of that movement and support it in everything I do.

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