A little more than a month ago I attended two conferences, NECSS 2012 in New York and the Freethought Festival in Madison, Wisconsin, where I represented the JREF, listened to speakers, and conversed with attendees. The conferences themselves were great: I met many awesome people, heard some great talks, and got one of my first looks at the skeptical community in action. For all the things that were congruent with a well-oiled skeptical machine, there was something troubling that I noticed, comparing the two events, something I am calling the skeptical disconnect.
When I talk about skepticism, I believe that I am talking about something that encompasses many other similar philosophies like atheism, humanism, and freethought. By this I mean that atheism, for example, is a logical extension of skepticism. Anecdotally, most skeptics that I know are in fact atheists. However, the disconnect came when I expected the reverse of this observation to also be true, i.e., that most atheists are skeptics.
My point can be made by looking at each conference in turn. First, at NECSS, skepticism was the name of the game. For example, the talks were all skeptically themed and covered a wide variety of topics, the JREF signed up dozens of new members, and Randi himself was a keynote speaker. Not only that, but I feel like everyone spoke the same “language,” the kind of thing that you get when you have a couple hundred Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe fans in a room. But looking at the Freethought Festival, you get a completely different impression. The focus was squarely on atheism. Atheist activism, atheist student group building, atheism in politics, etc. I am in no way saying that this is bad, surely it was one of the points of the conference, but what I noticed was a recognizable unfamiliarity with modern skepticism, if we could define it by the people who populated NECSS.
For example, most of the attendees at the Freethought Festival were unaware of what the JREF was, what topics we dealt with or their relevance, or even who James Randi was (I only point this out as a comparison, it’s not like we are rock stars). Given the resounding camaraderie the week before at NECSS, this response puzzled me. Compounding this feeling, one attendee at the Freethought Festival came up to JREF President D.J. Grothe and myself, making a point to bring up that although he was a staunch atheist, he was also sure that malleable psychic energy existed, and that acupuncture was a legitimate medical intervention. It made me think of the conflicted feelings our community has about the dissonance we see in others of our persuasion. For example, I would consider comedian Bill Maher to be a pretty good atheist (Richard Dawkins seems to think so), as he regularly challenges religion and promotes the reason-over-religion viewpoint on a widely viewed TV show. However, as exemplified by his fear of vaccines and other absurdities, he is a poor skeptic.
Of course, the disconnect goes both ways. Similar to the encounter DJ Grothe and I had at the Freethought Festival, DJ and I were caught fielding questions about psychic powers at NECSS with a man who was convinced he had them, convinced through personal experience mind you, but had since conveniently lost the ability. Rather than chalking these experiences up to isolated incidents, I was gradually noticing a disconnect where, logically, one need not exist.
Divisions of Labor
Perhaps I am merely noticing the different groups of people who attend certain conferences with certain themes. And, I cannot stress this enough, I am all for a robust atheist community involving student groups and coordinated activism. However, I feel that there is a widened gap where none need exist.
To me, being a skeptic is more important than being an atheist. Embracing scientific skepticism for me means a hop, skip, and a jump to atheism. God is simply another topic for which there is no evidence, and therefore deserves our skepticism. But, perhaps because atheism is such a weighty topic, different camps have sprung up. The monumental question of whether there is a god or not has created an entire subculture within skepticism (the philosophical orientation of skepticism, that is) to the point where it seems that we are fracturing.
I think skepticism is a core concept that all freethinkers can get behind. Skepticism can fruitfully lead to atheism, but as I have noticed, it does not necessarily go both ways. At the Freethought Festival, D.J. Grothe made a similar point in his talk when he noted our common philosophical underpinnings and entreated the atheist community to join up. Skepticism about God isn’t enough to foster a cohesive community of science-based individuals.
Perhaps we run in different circles because atheist activism is inherently more political. Maybe atheism is a more salient issue in society and deserves a singular attention from its adherents and activists. I think the disconnect harms us. While the atheist community could do well to extend its disbelief to many more topics, the skeptical community could take a page out of the atheist’s book, as they have been very successful at gaining ground politically, getting into the media, and engaging a young base.
My view of the skeptical disconnect is that many passionate atheists have chosen an inherently skeptical topic in isolation, without providing themselves with a fundamental basis for determining the validity of other claims, such as in medicine, physics, or the occult. Surely, I am not suggesting that the majority of atheists fit this bill, but there is a minority who I think are missing out on the intellectual gains to be had from embracing a wider skeptical worldview.
Having a well-informed community means taking the time to round out our knowledge. Being educated on the wealth of topics that skepticism covers is indeed a challenge, but then again, being able to overcoming this challenge is one thing that we pride ourselves on. I love the fact that we can have organizations that focus down on topics and hit them hard, as we need that for activism and mobilization. But we can’t have this to the point where we lose focus of the big picture, or don’t even recognize each other as brothers and sisters in arms. When you can be adeptly skeptical about the idea of a god, but yet consider psychic powers to be within the realm of possibility, we have splintered too far.
Do you notice the skeptical disconnect? Let me know in the comments.
Kyle Hill is the JREF research fellow specializing in communication research and human information processing. He writes daily at the Science-Based Life blog and you can follow him on Twitter here.