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.

75 Books 51-55: Ronson, Hines, Heimlich, Beal, and Pilkington

deesillustration of bohemian grove

Bohemian Grove

51. The Rise and Fall of the Bible – Timothy K. Beal

I didn’t enjoy this book. I only finished reading it because it was short and I’m trying to read a lot of books, otherwise I just would have stopped. It’s subtitle is “the unexpected history of an accidental book”. That sounded pretty intriguing. I thought it would be a lot more like a Bart Ehrman book, and it was not that scholarly and was pretty milquetoast on putting out opinions. Beal is a Christian despite thinking that Biblical literalism is silly, and he spends too much of the book reminding you that he is NOT an atheist.

It feels really unfocused, and what I was expecting (a concise history of the Bible) was really more a sort of meandering story that occasionally focused on moments in time, and occasionally on metaphors about grapefruit trees, and occasionally on how to make paper. Learning about the current bible business was interesting, but it felt all over the map. I think it would have been better if it was at all chronological. C+

52. The Stepsister Scheme – Jim C. Hines

In a bold move, I decided to read something by Hines that wasn’t a goblin book. It’s a weird premise — the heroines of fairy tales, after their tales have taken place, team up in the face of adversity. There have been lots of comparisons to Charlie’s Angels, though I would argue it’s slightly deeper than that. Hines’ humor is there, but it is not nearly as bouyant as in the first Jig book. I enjoyed it, his books are very easy to picture, very visual without being overly descriptive. And his characters have quirks that are not actually endearing, which I love, most authors won’t have characters that are not all that likable. B+

53. Breaking their Will – Janet Heimlich

This is a book about religious child abuse, and it’s very well-written. I hesitate to say it’s an easy read, because it’s very disturbing, but it was a quick read nonetheless. Religious (or cult, if you prefer) child abuse is particularly scary to me because it happens on the part of parents who are convinced that they are doing the best for their children. These people think, I cannot treat my child’s cancer, that would be against my religion; I must beat the devil out of my child, even if it kills them; I must have sex with this underage girl (Warren Jeffs)/I must let my underage children have sex with this priest; I must not complain to legal authorities about child rape; I must not go to the authorities about abuse within my closed community. It is disturbing and I agree very much with her premise that children have rights that aren’t enumerated or particularly respected by adults — you see this particularly in the public school system. Anyway, I highly recommend this book to anyone concerned with the way religions treat children. A

54. Them, Adventures with Extremists – Jon Ronson

I don’t find conspiracy theories that interesting, so I started reading this book with a little reluctance. But it ended up being fascinating to see him fall down this rabbit hole of conspiracy, to the point that he became a little paranoid. What I found interesting was that most Christian, Domestic, Muslim, and International Terrorism has its roots in the same basic Conspiracy Theory mindset. Namely that the Western World has a small group of capitalists (this often means Jews) who are trying to control the world. Of course, the world is controlled by capitalists, just not very well.

What I found most disturbing was the story of Ruby Ridge, something I’d never heard of, that happened right before Waco. Basically, the FBI murdered a little boy (who was armed) and an unarmed woman who was holding a baby because they were kooks who lived in the woods and maybe were associated with white supremacists. Like the attack on Waco, it was just not the way to go about solving the problem they thought they had. It’s sort of mind-boggling.

And I learned about the Bilderberg group and this ritual that they do in Bohemian Grove every year, which convinces me more than ever that the political elite are a bunch of immature frat boys obsessed with being cool. So embarassing to be a human sometimes. A

55. Rabbit-Proof Fence – Doris Pilkington

I saw the movie version of this sometime earlier this year — Kenneth Branagh plays the bad guy, so that always is interesting because I have an irrational extreme dislike of Kenneth Branagh that makes him a very effective person if I’m supposed to hate him. (See: Gilderoy Lockhart)

The story is the true story of three half-caste girls in Australia who were basically abducted from their aborigine families to be put in “schools” to be educated on how to be servants. The school was basically not much better than a prison. It reminds me of the school in Jane Eyre. The eldest girl immediately decides that they are going home, and they walk through the wilderness for 1500 miles, eventually finding the rabbit-proof fence which runs the entire height of Western Australia and following it to their home. It’s amazing because it’s so horrifically racist and the girls are so resourceful. A

75 Books: 46-50 Hines, Ronson, George, and Bronte

46. Goblin Tales – Jim C. Hines
 
This is a collection of short stories based on the character Jig from the other Goblin books by Hines.  I’m not sure where in the series you’re “supposed” to read it, but I really enjoyed it.  A lot more than I thought I would, because I am not usually that big a fan of short stories.  But this was really fun.  Even the sort of ridiculous story about the bibliomancer was clever.  I’ve been surprised by the Hines books, because while I like a lot of fantasy, I really hate most fantasy, so I’m always really reticent to start a new series. A-
 
47. The Men Who Stare at Goats – Jon Ronson
 
What a creepy and weird book.  I guess, knowing the average skepticism and intelligence of Americans, it’s not really that surprising that the military would put resources behind paranormal crap, it’s just really embarrassing.  I haven’t seen the movie and I can’t imagine how you make a movie from this.  Ronson is sort of a gonzo journalist, but instead of taking drugs he just hangs out with people who are so completely insane that you feel like you’re taking drugs when you read it. B
 
48. Princess of Glass – Jessica Day George
 
This is the sequel to the dancing princesses book, and I was pleasantly surprised.  She does something clever here and has almost nothing from the first book in the second, except for as background to character development.  Admittedly, having 12 princesses with futures to explore, it is very easy to have a completely unconnected storyline.  It was a very clever spin on Cinderella, in that it had a lot of similar elements, but they were totally twisted around.  Evil Godmother, Cinderella isn’t the main character, etc. A
 
49. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
 
I know it is shocking that I’ve never read this book.  I hadn’t even seen a movie version of the story until this year, despite the fact that it is apparently the most adapted novel ever.  Like my aversion to Austen, I felt like I should just avoid the Bronte’s because I think they’re all going to be sappy romances.  And they are romances, but they aren’t *that* sappy.  I enjoyed this book much more than I thought I would — I liked the movies, but I just thought the writing style would be overwrought.  And it wasn’t, it was very easy to read.  I still have a hard time imagining I will ever willingly read Wuthering Heights. A
 
50. Goblin War – Jim C. Hines
 
This is the final book in the Jig trilogy, and it is the one that is most epic in scope.  It was a good close to the story, but I really liked the first one best.  This one lost a lot of the humor of previous installments in favor of a more complex plot, but I think it was well-done, I just didn’t like the tone as much.  B