Those Darn Young Atheist Messing Up the Skeptic Movement


I want to like Barbara Drescher’s blog, and I really try, because she’s really smart and usually makes solid arguments and we’re FB friends. She is generally quite knowledgeable and I agree with her a fair amount — perhaps my difficulty is a generational thing, because where I disagree with her, it always feels like a personal attack from her. Her recent series of posts really rankled, despite the fact that I don’t feel like I am accurately described by her general complaints of the new kids in the movement. I really tried to see her point of view, and I just cannot, and reading them just makes me feel irritated and insulted.

My trouble with Drescher is, and always has been, her constant dismissal of anyone who doesn’t have credentials that live up to her personal standards. Anyone who is too young, anyone who doesn’t have the right degree, or a high enough degree, or enough time devoted to the movement, or hasn’t read enough of the “right” books doesn’t have the right to be a part of the movement. It’s academic elitism at its very worst, and if her approach to skepticism was the only one, we’d lose a lot of voices, and with them a lot of people who are interested in the movement.

It’s as though she wants to be the self-appointed arbiter of who should and who shouldn’t be allowed to speak. And, admittedly, wouldn’t we all like to have that power? Perhaps the “old guard” thinks of skepticism as their baby, so when it changes or has an influx of numbers, that change is scary, regardless of whether it is positive or negative. Growth is healthy for a movement, but it also means that it changes in ways that are unpredictable and difficult to navigate — perhaps we’re in second or third wave skepticism.

And this is where it seems the “old guard” should step in and be mentors for new members, to reach out to them, to include them — to educate them about the movement in a way that doesn’t seem to say “I’m better than you, you should shut up.” Hey! Tone! Maybe she thinks being elitist will make people want to be part of the elite too? That sort of makes sense in my mind. Or maybe she’s trying to get people to stop contributing without getting a PhD in Skeptology? I’m not sure what her goal is. And perhaps that is intentional, I am not part of her “we”, I am part of the influx of new people from the atheist crowd who are taking over skepticism for our own nefarious purposes.

She seems to operate under a wish for the movement to remain small, both in number of contributors and in size of impact. Does she dislike the idea of a big movement? I don’t understand it at all. I can’t fathom why someone would want to denigrate the young contributors who are the people most likely to ensure the future promotion of skepticism.

And I literally cannot comprehend, in a way that makes me feel like I must be missing something, this tendency for the “old guard” to want to keep skepticism away from subjects that impact people’s daily lives in massively important ways. I just don’t understand intentionally limiting the scope when doing so keeps skepticism from being relevant to most people.

Maybe this is the crux of the issue. Skepticism to me is an approach to improving the world, a thought process that can be applied to everything, and that should be applied to much more of what happens around us every day. I suspect that Drescher feels the same way, it’s just that we differ on what we think is appropriate to skept.

I am angry because an influx of people who have stumbled upon or been recruited to the work of Skepticism are making it much more difficult. We’re moving backwards. This is happening, in part, because some of these rookies insist that their understanding of that work is as good or better than the understanding of people who have studied and worked in the field for years. Many have little or no education in the basics of science or the scientific process. Some claim to follow the teachings of people whose works they have never read. Some believe that the ‘old guard’ have more to learn from them than the other way around. These people voice their opinions on blogs and in talks, discussing topics about which they consider themselves competent after reading a couple of blog posts, listening to a podcast, considering their own limited experiences, or MAYBE reading a book or two on the topic.

What’s worse, they argue about details with little or no understanding of even the big picture. They believe that their understanding is complete and, therefore, requires no study, no thought beyond the surface features, and certainly not time or mentoring.

And I skept at her claims. I mean, I believe she’s angry, I just don’t believe that we’re moving backwards, that rookies are a bad thing, or that they’re as uneducated as she claims, nor that they are any more convinced of being right than anyone else in the movement — there are a lot of hardheaded people in the movement, including just about everyone in the “old guard”. I also think that the old guard could always learn something from the new kids, because they have a different perspective, and shutting yourself off to that makes you irrelevant quickly. Why is it that people forget what it is like to be young, to be passionate, to want to effect change? Why do they constantly try to bridle that with insults instead of trying to help?  I am really bothered by the dismissal of young people, as though they are not fully-formed people who deserve respect and consideration.

Comments

  1. Penelope Lloyd says

    She does have a point. I’ve met atheists who talk incessantly of rationalism, yet haven’t read a single word of Kant’s work (just one of many examples!). It’s hard to take the view of someone seriously, if the some total of their knowledge comes from the God Delusion. A little bit of interest in researching the foundations of rationalism, logic and skepticism can go quite a way.

  2. says

    A lot of “I don’t understand” in this post, Ashley, and no argument or evidence whatsoever. Given this post, it doesn’t seem that you want to understand, and that’s the very problem I have been discussing.

    1) I said “new people”, not “young people” and I did so for a reason (my main example was Amanda Marcotte, who is in her mid-30s).

    2) I specifically discussed the fact that being new and/or uninformed/under-educated is not the problem (because it’s not). Being under-educated and insisting you have nothing to learn and/or arguing about the fundamentals of the work with people who actually know what they are talking about is.

    3) I did not say “all new people suck” and I did not say this for a reason (I happen to think that many of them are well-educated and, more importantly, interested in learning more).

    “I don’t believe” is not an argument. I gave examples. I could also provide examples of new community members (some quite young) who are doing great things.

    Why is it that people forget what it is like to be young, to be passionate, to want to effect change?

    Really? Do you really think that’s the difference between us? I didn’t spend days writing that stuff because I have no passion and no desire to affect change. Quite the opposite.

    Why do they constantly try to bridle that with insults instead of trying to help? I am really bothered by the dismissal of young people, as though they are not fully-formed people who deserve respect and consideration.

    This is a straw man, not just because I didn’t dismiss “young people”. I insulted no one. Criticism is not “insulting” and it is not “disrespectful”. It’s criticism.

    I did not write about people who would even accept ‘help’ (I assume you mean mentoring of some sort). I wrote about arrogance and anti-intellectualism. I wrote about people who don’t think that they need to learn anything and that they are entitled to respect for their uneducated opinions just because they have them.

    The new people I wrote about are not, in my opinion, contributing anything useful, including arguments for increasing the movement’s scope. If you think that the arguments about scope are new, you’re mistaken. They’ve been going on for as long as there has been an organized movement. What’s new is who is making them and how.

  3. says

    The problem is the No true scotsman fallacy – everyone thinks that they are the true athiest, the true skeptic, the true Elvis fan, the true truth, whatever

    but the reality is that each of us is the expert of us – and it’s not up to anyone else to decide if we’re in the club or not

    we decide for ourselves if we’re an atheist and what that looks like

    and the kind of atheist that I am, is one that rejected religion because of the limited roles and regulations – so being an atheist, I am not going to trade a religious cloak for an atheist cloak – I’ve stuck the cloak in the closet

    and no one can tell me that i am not an atheist or skeptic or good enough of either.

    atheism: not just for academic elites

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