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One of these items doesn’t belong

Via Metamagician, a piece by Brian Thompson of JREF on “diversity” at JREF.

we at the JREF do take diversity  seriously, and it’s something we strive to achieve at our events.  If  the skeptics community is going to thrive and grow, it’s essential that no one feel unwelcome or excluded due to race, gender, religion, or  sexual orientation.

I don’t understand that – it looks like a typo, or a thought-typo. It looks like grabbing an established category without taking the time to think about it and thus notice that it needs tweaking for the purpose.

There’s no sensible or substantive reason to cause people to feel unwelcome due to race, gender, or sexual orientation, but there can be such a reason due to religion (or atheism), for the same sort of reason there can be sensible or substantive reasons to cause, say, socialists to feel unwelcome at a gathering of libertarians or vice versa. That is, people can be caused to feel unwelcome simply by being exposed to ideas they disagree with, and that could easily happen to religious people at a skeptics’ event.

It seems like a futile idea for a skeptics’ organization to commit itself to not causing religious people to feel unwelcome in that way. Race gender and sexual orientation are a different category, but ideas can’t be prevented from possibly causing people to feel unwelcome, without being emptied of all their content and so ceasing to be ideas.

Comments

  1. Stacy Kennedy says

    Saying no idea is sacred or safe from criticism isn’t the same as saying somebody who holds an unpopular (within the group) idea will be made to feel unwelcome. Though believers might feel uncomfortable being around people who don’t take their religious beliefs and feelings seriously, they won’t be treated badly as people at JREF.

    It’s possible to imagine a thick-skinned religious believer who is interested in skepticism and doesn’t take atheist criticism of her religious beliefs personally. JREF doesn’t want such a person to feel unwelcome or excluded. As far as coping with the intellectual challenges and irreverence likely to be encountered when hanging around JREF types–well, that’s on the individual.

    Anyway, that’s what I assume they mean. And I think it’s worth saying, humans being the cliquish, in-group/out-group forming creatures we are.

    And, remember, Martin Gardner was a deist (specifically a fideistic deist, according to Wikipedia). Though it’s hard to imagine a fundie at TAM, not every genuine skeptic is an atheist.

  2. says

    Martin Gardner was an oddity in this regard, and my longtime hero worship of him hits an unhappy limit at this pass. Skepticism would seem, if anything, to be the proposition that belief is only justified to the extent that it conforms to available evidence and doesn’t blithely dismiss contrary evidence. Gardner freely admitted that the good arguments and evidence all seem to point in the direction of atheism, with no compelling case for a reasoned, science-based belief, so he took refuge in an irrational, emotion-based faith in God, the possibility of immortality, and the ultimate moral justice of our world. Philosopher’s prerogative or what?! Richard Dawkins replied, when I asked him about this strange tack from Gardner (on the second of two occasions I’ve spoken directly to RD) that he simply couldn’t understand how you can decide to believe something without being persuaded via evidence, and even in the teeth of contradictory evidence. It was a mental trick RD couldn’t imagine performing. Me neither. Not without some serious compartmentalization or a diagnosable mental disorder.

    If you can simply excuse some implausible idea of yours from answering to the criteria of skepticism, and will yourself to accept it as true, then, yes, I guess you can be perfectly comfortable at a skeptic’s convention and unperturbed in your mind. Unless someone is so impolite as to press the point. The love many of us had for Garner earned him an indulgence we wouldn’t extend to anyone else in the movement, if they took such a posture, I think.

  3. jose says

    Well they are entitled to feel unwelcome. I think the intention is to try and be nice so at least we don’t give them reason to feel unwelcome. For example if I am among progressive friends we could discuss stuff and offer arguments and counters, but I could also vent a bit and say republicans are stupid and/or evil without destroying the chances of everyone having a good time and a conversation, whereas my saying that in front of some republican people would kind of ruin the evening because it’s a personal attack against them-as-republicans so I would stick to just the reasoned arguments.

  4. Dan M. says

    Though the current phrasing fails to capture this, another category that is involuntary and should not be made uncomfortable is that of religious background.

    There’s a strong tendency in people and organization that oppose religion to oppose their culturally dominant religion, so it’s easy to imagine an atheist who was raised Hindu and came to JREF to become quite tired of religions being assumed to be monotheistic.

    Never mind the much more obvious problem (not particular to JREF) of anti-Muslim politics.

    I think there’s a legitimate for religious origin in an anti-discrimination policy. Though admittedly, a lot of that would also be covered by including ethnicity as a category, which is missing here.

  5. says

    I think it is important to avoid sectarian mentalities and mindsets: eg we are right and everyone else is wrong. We have THE TRUTH and everyone else is in error.

    It is possible for religious and non-religious people to get along well; not merely coexist. I think I can say this with some authority, being a non-religious rationalist myself, but having been happily married to a deeply religious woman for the last 32 years.

    I think that an atheist-religious combination probably has a lot more going for it than say a Muslim-Christian combination would. I think that in the latter case, something would have to give, if only because the divide between religion and heresy, or religion and apostasy, is probably greater than the divide between religion and reason. All religions appeal to reason in some way to justify themselves, but when two different religions do with respect to each other, things are prone to get heated.

  6. says

    I think it is important to avoid sectarian mentalities and mindsets: eg we are right and everyone else is wrong. We have THE TRUTH and everyone else is in error.

    It is possible for religious and non-religious people to get along well; not merely coexist. I think I can say this with some authority, being a non-religious rationalist myself, but having been happily married to a deeply religious woman for the last 32 years.

    I think that an atheist-religious combination probably has a lot more going for it than say a Muslim-Christian combination would. I think that in the latter case, something would have to give, if only because the divide between religion and heresy, or religion and apostasy, is probably greater than the divide between religion and reason. All religions appeal to reason in some way to justify themselves, and when two different religions do it with respect to each other, things are prone to get heated.

  7. Robert B. says

    But the point of skepticism is not that “no idea is sacred.” The point of skepticism is to become correct. People who are incorrect about things are of course welcome to join skeptical groups – indeed, practically speaking, any skeptical group’s membership will be entirely composed of people who are wrong about some big important things.

    But skepticism specifically claims that you do not have the right to stay wrong. A religious believer can be a skeptic – but then, if he’s doing it right, the facts of reality require him to eventually stop believing. The fact that many skeptics have not known that religion is wrong, does not change the fact that religion is actually wrong and good skepticism requires us to reject it.

    (Here I’m speaking of faith-based mystical and/or dogmatic religions, in other words, religion as it currently exists. Daniel Finke’s hypothetical rational religion would mean something totally different here.)

    Religious people are welcome to include themselves in any skeptical group. However, the religion itself is not welcomed. At the very least, the truth does not welcome it, and by the nature of skepticism, the skeptics themselves will gradually improve so as to welcome religion less and less. I think most religious people, if they feel attached to their religion, would say that to claim to accept them but reject their religion is not truly welcoming them or permitting their presence; it’s inconsistent in just the same way as trying to love and support gay people but hate and denounce homosexual behavior.

  8. Philip Legge says

    That’s a good blog post. Over at Brother Blackford’s, Charles Sullivan made a concise and useful point, that “the view that religion should get a free pass within the skeptical movement is grounded in NOMA. And NOMA, it seems to me, deserves to be examined critically and skeptically.” I think that deserves a little teasing out. (Apologies in advance for a wall o’text.)

    I think at its heart, NOMA is largely contradicted by almost anything religious that you can point a stick at in the United States, which makes me wonder why Gould thought it was a useful idea to throw out: only non-literalist, non-supernatural religions need apply to the “non-overlapping” part of his definition, which rules out large swathes of religion there (and some of the mainstream Christian denominations as well as the fundies and the thousands of different cults).

    As Dawkins criticised it, most religions make claims that clearly are (or could be) testable, breaking the compact between the two different areas of knowledge – and I’d not hesitate to put scare-quotes around “knowledge” when it comes to super-naturalism, where the evidence always fails to back up the claims.

    But, one can find some members of various congregations who are merely “cultural Christians” (or “cultural Hindus”, or insert religion/denomination here…) who accept the cherry-picked “good bits” of the Bible or their religion’s sacred texts (they might agree with Jefferson’s selective method of cutting and pasting), and don’t buy into its supernatural aspects: so that in their private interpretation, communion doesn’t involve magic transformation of bread and wine, instead it’s merely a symbolic demonstration that you’re part of a community. Or that prayer isn’t directing entreaties to some omniscient deity, but merely a form of meditation and mental reflection (and again, a non-woo form of that). If the preacher up the front demands transubstantion or prayer are “really” supernatural processes, these members tend to tune out, or turn a deaf ear. (You might wonder why they still attend church, but it seems they do out of tribal loyalty. In some places the music and floor show can be worth the price of admission.)

    Dawkins provides some examples of “cultural” religious people in The God Delusion like the Bishop of Oxford, who I think he describes as being a post-Christian; their loyalty to their religious community is merely owing to their upbringing, and these people would not hesitate to criticise the aspects of their religion from a skeptical viewpoint, though probably not with the same pointedness as atheists. They would agree with skepticism that their religion’s supernatural claims don’t stand up to real-world evidence, when this can be tested (e.g., the chemical nature of “transubstantiated” bread and wine is totally unchanged by the priest waving his or her hands over it while uttering some magic invocation).

    I therefore think it might be possible for some of these types of “believers” to find common ground with the skeptic community: in rejecting super-naturalism and accepting only the “good bits” of cherry-picked doctrine, their “religion” may be sufficiently wishy-washy to be largely indistinguishable from de facto humanism.

    Contrarily of course, if they still do pay some lip-service to the miraculous claims of religion then they are going to feel unwelcome. However, it’s not particularly obvious what is going to be the deciding factor of which claim it is that is unjustifiable (or rather, in scientific terms, is the claim unfalsifiable?), although the null hypothesis could come into play there also.

  9. Philip Legge says

    Heh. Robert B’s point:

    Religious people are welcome to include themselves in any skeptical group. However, the religion itself is not welcomed.

    (My emphasis)

    This is pretty similar to what it took me several paragraphs to say! Oh well. There are social progressive people open to scientific fact, evidenced-based reality within the religions – though such people are comparably rare, the more dogmatic and fundamentalist a particular religion or denomination is. Let’s hope JREF clarify their position.

  10. Axxyaan says

    But skepticism specifically claims that you do not have the right to stay wrong. A religious believer can be a skeptic – but then, if he’s doing it right, the facts of reality require him to eventually stop believing. The fact that many skeptics have not known that religion is wrong, does not change the fact that religion is actually wrong and good skepticism requires us to reject it.

    But reject it on which level? People can agree that there is no rational support for a particular position, that doesn’t mean they can choose/decide to stop believing it. What people believe and what they don’t, doesn’t work that way.

    So if someone says something to the effect that they know they are irrational with regards to a particular point, but that they seem unable to shake this point of irrationality, I see nothing wrong with accepting such a person as a skeptic. Since the only thing that is different between this person and the others is, that we know about one of this person’s irrationalities but we don’t know about the irrationalities of the others.

    So skepticism IMO doesn’t claim you don’t have the right to stay wrong. IMO it just asks you admit to being wrong/irrational/…

  11. csrster says

    Surely what they are saying is that religious people are welcome at the events they organise. That sounds like common sense to me. Otherwise your just preaching to the already deconverted. What should be banned is not beliefs but behaviours – e.g. being rude and disruptive.

  12. Egbert says

    I think scepticism is a methodology about withholding judgment until there is good enough reason to hold a position, but that position is not held as absolute truth. And I’m afraid many are simply not sceptics, but are as dogmatic as a fundamentalist.

    Some seem to have forgotten that atheism means without belief in gods. It’s not a position at all, but a lack of one. It is best to describe atheism as being sceptical.

    Part of the problem with taking a political or ethical position is that they’re beliefs, they’re subjective and based in opinion.

    That is why I think many have fallen into the trap of becoming dogmatic when it comes to values, and that is the failing of new atheism or scientific atheism.

    Science works when creating the best explanation for facts, but it breaks down when applied to values.

  13. says

    What should be banned is not beliefs but behaviours – e.g. being rude and disruptive.

    Well, yes, and for everybody.
    I’m from Europe where religious people seem to be fundamentally different than in the USA. You don’t only get lots of “cultural christians”, but also lots of, well, deistic christians who don’t necessarily believe in Adam and Eve and think that Jesus was a great guy although not the son of god but that there must be something “beyond”.
    To bugger those people endlessly about how wrong they are would be extremely rude, disruptive and make them feel unwelcomed. If those people are great in helping us to promote vaccination and to fight homeopathy, we should leave their little pet-peeve alone and agree to disagree.
    But if they insist that you treat them special, go on telling everybody about this real evidence for the nephilim and so on, they should be kicked out.

  14. sailor1031 says

    @Jose: “whereas my saying that in front of some republican people would kind of ruin the evening because it’s a personal attack against them-as-republicans so I would stick to just the reasoned arguments”

    You are overlooking the fact that by republicans reasoned arguments are taken as personal attacks.

  15. Bruce S. Springsteen says

    My cynical explanation of NOMA from Gould is twofold:

    1 – Some evolutionary biologists are so eager to address the single problem of evolution denial that they are prepared to throw general skepticism and rationality overboard to the religious sharks. We have more than a few with that attitude in Kansas. “Screw the atheists! Save evolution teaching at all costs!”

    2 – He couldn’t resist contradicting Dawkins one more time.

    Or maybe he really believed he was making a valid distinction, and just wasn’t as bright as we assumed.

    (Man, I’m sure picking on the dear deceased in this thread. Gotta watch that…)

  16. Bruce S. Springsteen says

    My standard definition of skepticism: The art and science of not jumping to conclusions.

  17. Egbert says

    I used to reject NOMA, because I disagreed that religion had anything to do with morality. Now I see NOMA from the sceptical perspective, it makes complete sense with the exception that–religion really has nothing to do with morality either. So now I separate values into three distinct categories–religion, politics, ethics. Science falls outside of values and deals with facts.

    So Gould’s explanation goes wrong because he thinks religion is entwined with ethics, he simply lumped values all together.

    You can read his essay here:

    http://www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_noma.html

    I agree with Gould that religion is about meaning but I disagree it’s about ethics.

    And religion really does conflict with science, because it confuses its values of meaning with science, religion actually seeks beyond it’s domain and wants to dominate all others.

    But I have to also acknowledge that science (natural science) can only deal with facts and not values. Values could be studied by psychology and philosophy, but they’re not objective, they’re subjective.

    So I still think we’re justified in criticizing religion for overstepping its domain, in fact, perhaps we’re even more justified if ethics and politics are separate values to religion.

  18. says

    Surely what they are saying is that religious people are welcome at the events they organise.

    I don’t know; that’s not what Brian Thompson in fact did say in the article. He said “it’s essential that no one feel unwelcome or excluded due to race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.” That’s a very strong way of putting it – it seems to require enormous caution from everyone in order to rule out the very possibility that anyone could feel unwelcome. That’s why I question it: I think he’s asking way too much.

    Maybe he didn’t mean to; maybe he just resorted to a formula; but that’s the problem – this formulaic way of thinking that leads to the idea that tolerance and universal agreement and love are always possible no matter what the context. It’s an error of a certain kind of liberal to think that “tolerance” must always trump substantive disagreement. That kind of “tolerance” just isn’t always possible, nor is it desirable. We can disagree with people. That may make them feel unwelcome (and their disagreeing with us may make us feel unwelcome). There’s no ruling that out without gutting public discourse.

  19. says

    People should not be unwelcome due to their race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation per se, but this is not to say that people will feel accepted regardless of race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.

    For example one theory about why there’re so few women in skepticism is that skeptics tend to be confrontational, and women are uncomfortable with that.

  20. says

    Indeed: I’m pointing out that there’s a distinction between being welcome and feeling welcome. In some situtations it’s rude or cruel to make that distinction; it’s no good telling a guest “you’re welcome, do come in” and then bullying or insulting her. In situations like TAM, though, you have to make that distinction.

    But it’s also a mistake to lump religion in with race, gender and sexual orientation, because however grabby and sticky religion is, it’s still voluntary and leave-able in a way that the first three are not; also because it is fundamentally a set of ideas and beliefs (as well as other things), which the first three are not.

  21. Robert B. says

    @ Axxyman:

    Er. As you say, and as I said also, there is no reason a person with an identified irrationality can’t be a skeptic. In fact, skeptics are probably more likely than other people to have self-identified irrational features, because a good skeptic looks for when they’re being irrational whereas most people don’t.

    But admitting you’re irrational is definitely not enough. Imagine applying that precept to other issues. “I know that, rationally, medical care works and prayer/homeopathy/reiki doesn’t, but I don’t believe in doctors for my children anyway because I’m irrational. Sorry!” No one is perfectly rational, but when you spot yourself being irrational you have to do your best to stop. And keep trying – none of this “oh well I tried and it didn’t work.”

    People can’t always change their beliefs easily, like flipping a switch, that’s true. But we can change them, and the whole point of skepticism is that we have to change our beliefs when we find they contradict the truth.

  22. says

    Unless we’re going to get ultra picky over semantics I’m afraid I don’t share you’re view. We should not ‘make people feel unwelcome’ that isn’t to say they will enjoy our company. I’m perfectly happy to debate with religious people, in fact it’s essential in any area of thought to engage with all points of view.

  23. Josh Slocum says

    Unless we’re not going to be overly picky about typographical mechanics, I’m afraid I don’t share your spelling.

    See? That was uncalled for and dismissive. Just like your comment. Ophelia brought up a very reasonable concern that opens up serious topics that have been important to many of us for several years now. You can do better.

  24. says

    Emma – I’m always what you call ultra picky over semantics. That’s because I think precision in language matters in public discourse, especially published discourse. I don’t think that is “ultra”; I think it’s basic.

    I’m not saying “we should make people feel unwelcome” – of course. (I hope it’s of course.) I’m saying we can’t rule out making people feel unwelcome if the criterion for feeling welcome is “not having one’s beliefs questioned or disputed.” The trouble with Brian Thompson’s claim is that it implies just that criterion.

  25. Emma Geraln says

    Ophelia- I hope you didn’t find my post dismissive as that was not my intent, (also I really shouldn’t post from my phone, damn intelli type makes my spelling even worse . I think this whole discussion is one of semantics and intent. It’s intersting how we all interpret things in slightly different ways.

  26. says

    Emma – well I found it maybe a little dismissive, since it didn’t really engage with what I’d said…but not so dismissive that I felt unwelcome. :- )

    The trouble with calling the discussion “semantics” is that that tends to be a pejorative, and you seem to be using it that way – you did say “ultra picky” after all.

    Of course interpretations vary, but that’s one reason it’s a good idea to try to be precise in the use of language when making an argument. Arguments are language-based, so lack of precision really isn’t helpful.

  27. Matt Penfold says

    Of course interpretations vary, but that’s one reason it’s a good idea to try to be precise in the use of language when making an argument. Arguments are language-based, so lack of precision really isn’t helpful.

    Exactly. I rather suspect Thompson simply wants religious people to be able to attend JREF events without being subjected to mocking, ridicule or other impolite and uncivil behaviour. And I would hope no one would take issue with that, although recent events suggest I am wrong in that hope.

    However that is not how his comments read.

  28. Matt Penfold says

    I certainly wouldn’t take issue with that, if that’s all he meant.

    I am sure there are some who would want to defend the right to call a Christian an idiot in a lift at 4am.

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