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The Essentials of our movement

[This is written by Brian. And I’m glad to be writing again. :)

Feel free to violently disagree. ;) ]

DJ Grothe and his ambivalent stance regarding sexual harrassment. Dawkins and his ‘Dear Muslima’ letter. Penn and… well, frankly, everything. All of these freethinkers and atheists and skeptics taking a wrong turn here… They must be bad freethinkers and atheists and skeptics. Right…? [See links at the end of post for background info]

I am anti-religion. That, I think, could be said of me without any fear of contradiction. I am anti-religion because it’s false and unsupported by the evidence. I am anti-religion because (generally speaking) religions are anti-woman, anti-homosexual, anti-sex, anti-animal, and anti-[pretty much anything that takes power away from the people running the religion]. But these are the surface reasons, not the core. As bad as these things are, these are secondary illnesses, not the primary disease. The problem?

Essentialism.

Unfortunately, Essentialism isn’t limited to religious viewpoints. We all start out with an Essentialist viewpoint, as per developmental psychology. Many of us manage to overcome this, to varying degrees, as we get older. Please don’t misunderstand: maintaining an Essentialist viewpoint (of any degree) does not mean that that person is stupid, or irrational, or a child, or anything else. In fact, implying that is itself an expression of Essentialist thinking. The takehome point here is that we all think like this at a certain period in our life.

A recent example of this is the claim that “we [atheists/skeptics/freethinkers] are supposed to be the rational ones”. This specifically cropped up in two of the FtB Google Hangouts (and I was happy to see the speaker called on it the second time it happened), though I’ve run into it several times in my own life.

Essentialism

So what, exactly, is “essentialism”?

“Essentialism” is the position/view (either implicit or explicit) that there is a fundamental ‘thing’ at the bottom of ‘something’, that defines what that ‘something’ is. (An excellent article can be found on wikipedia) So horse has a certain ‘horse-iness’, an apple has a certain ‘apple-iness’, and humans have a ‘humanity’. Or that moral people are inherently religious. Or that atheists/skeptics are inherently rational. Or that people who are not ‘pure’ descendents of certain European lineages are inherently animalistic (i.e. Not Human).

The Essentialist position that I am criticising (as there are various esoteric positions, like Plato’s) invariably takes a quality (or collection of qualities) and ascribes them to a particular group (of objects, people, animals, whatever). The quality is often something that is socially constructed (i.e. ‘is moral’, ‘is skilled at sports’, ‘is intelligent’), not merely a physical quality (i.e. ‘Has human DNA’, or ‘is made of granite’), and anything that lacks this quality, no matter how much it otherwise resembles the group of objects in question, is not considered to be a legitimate form of the object.

Let’s get down to specifics. Is meat grown in a lab (from the cellular level), where no animals were killed or harmed, “real” meat? Once it is chemically and materially identical to “real” meat, then any answer of ‘no’ likely appeals to an Essentialist position.

How about kids ‘grown in a test tube’? Or kids who came into being through invitro fertalisation (IVF)? There was a time when they would not have been considered ‘real’ human beings.

How about a Christian who believes that gay marriage is ok? Are they a ‘real’ Christian?

How about a skeptic who believes in God? That person is suddenly not a ‘real’ skeptic?

How about an atheist who doesn’t understand the reality of the not-as-priviledged in society? That person is suddenly not a ‘real’ atheist? Or they are somehow ‘failing’ as an atheist?

I am someone who has objected, mostly privately, to the notion of ‘skeptical community’ or the idea that ‘the community has leaders’, mostly on the grounds that I really object to the unification of folk under this kind of collective label. I do not self-identify as a skeptic. Nor a freethinker. Nor an atheist. I find all of these labels problematic insofar as they make a claim about me which simply isn’t true, at least in how these terms are bandied about within the self-proclaimed ‘skeptical community’ (hereafter, just ‘skeptic community’).*

An individual can be skeptical regarding a certain claim. And folk who are skeptical about certain superstitious claims have declared that that is what ‘skeptic’ means. But there are plenty of folk who are as skeptical of capitalism, of ‘the invisible hand of the market’, as the ‘skeptics’ are skeptical of bigfoot. This appears to me to be a category error, an error of definition: there are no ‘skeptics’, just people who are skeptical about different things. And yes, many of those people are very bad at ‘being skeptical’ even regarding their chosen topic (the few communists I’ve met know little of Marx, less of Smith, and don’t really know what Capitalism is except that they hate it). Nevertheless, they endeavour to critically evaluate certain claims about marketplaces, or the history of the world, or the existence of aliens with a fascination regarding our collective anus’s, or whatever.

A problem has arisen for the skeptic community. It is, ironically, a problem that has arisen (many times) for various religious communities, and it is (at heart) a problem born from our natural inclination towards Essentialism.

‘Skeptic’, ‘atheist’ and ‘freethinker’ have become, like ‘christian’, a shibboleth: a passcode that allows various people in the room to understand that all the people who use it are on the same page as everyeone else. Much like ‘christian’, ‘skeptic’ is being used by everyone to mean ‘everyone who uses this word thinks along the same lines as me, and cares about the same things that I care about’.

I had the pleasure of attending a presentation a few years ago, where the Christian presentor railed against “the strawman” that Dawkins was painting of religion. Alas, there was no pleasure until the Q&A section when a young Christian lad (late teens, early 20s) stood up to tell the speaker that the speaker was wonderful, but he (the lad) was confused as to why the speaker hadn’t spoken on the topic of his own personal relationship with Jesus. The Catholic presentor explained to the Protestant lad that such a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ was ‘as ridiculous an idea as having a personal relationship with one’s pet’, and the room exploded (for multiple reasons, I have no doubt). While the two of them were undoubtedly Christian, ‘god’ meant something entirely different to both of them, as did ‘Jesus’.

The view that ‘a skeptic is someone who thinks critically about all of their views, all of the time’ is absurd. We spend most of our time thinking about food, or sex, or getting our work done, or what time our favourite shows are on TV. The views we hold? We are seldom required to critically evaluate our own thinking, and when confronted on our ideas, we react as our biology dictates. Sometimes we pause and evaluate. Sometimes we rail against the objection, and declare that we’ve never seen the problem, therefore it doesn’t exist. Othertimes still, we simply call our interlocutor a fuckwit and move on. Sometimes we’re not incorrect.

So it saddens me when I hear/see people throw up their hands a declare “but they’re a skeptic!!! How can they think that?!?” Thunderf00t is absolutely someone who thinks skeptically, when it comes to religion. DJ Grothe has indicated similar capabilities in the past. In neither case do I want to be buddies with them, or generally hang out, and in both cases they are completely and utterly in the wrong when it comes to sexual harrassment. But being inclined to think skeptically doesn’t make you immune to coming to incorrect conclusions. About anything. Or even everything.

Fundamentally, we need to move away from thinking along the lines of Essentialism, and (to some extent) this is what the folk in the skeptic community are already pushing against: Essentialism is at the core of pretty much all alt-med nonsense and at the core of religion. It’s also at the core of racism (explicit and otherwise), anti-LGBTQ thinking, sexism, ethnic cleansing, anti-poor law-making, and so on.

We are all going to say or do something monumentally stupid at some point in the future. It will undoubtedly be something that if we only applied our usual kind of thinking, it could be avoided, and it will likely be regarding a topic which we are generally unfamiliar with, or have not had reason to learn much about. It’s inescapable. And when it happens, I hope those of us who know better can patiently explain to those who made the mistake how to avoid this problem in future, and those who made the mistake can listen and learn.

And then we can get on with fixing the world.

Background info:

Penn Jilette tweeted a link to this quite some time ago, and hasn’t stopped digging since.

Dawkins’s Dear Muslima (plus commentary) can be found here.

A 2004 article on Psychological essentialism in children

A 2012 article titled Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief

And a final word: this article is not about linguistics. This article is about psychology.

Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!

*Never let it be said that I object to the ‘community’ aspect, merely the labeling of such a group with a term that, frankly, I do not consider accurate. (And no, I can’t think of a better one)

[A final point of clarification: I am NOT suggesting that people stop talking about racism, or sexism, or any of the many -isms that plague this little ball of mud. I am suggesting, however, that dealing with racist, sexist (and so on) arguments may be more easily dealt with once the Essentialist core is identified and revealed]

Comments

  1. Gnumann, メンズ権利活動家国家の売国奴 says

    I both agree and disagree.

    Agree-part: It’s very hard to be a bigot with non-essentialist thoughts (It’s possible, but you got to be a self-aware vile human being, very few want to be that). Fighting essentialism is at the core of anti-bigotry-work.

    The on the-other-hand-part I got a slight caveat too. When people write things like “How can they call themselves a sceptic and think that”, it’s often not essentialism but lazy shorthand for something like “if they only applied sceptical principles to this question they would see that they are wrong”.

    Of course, there’s a caveat to the caveat: Prolific lazy shorthand might slip into essentialist thought.

  2. smhll says

    Alas, there was no pleasure until the Q&A section when a young Christian lad (late teens, early 20s) stood up to tell the speaker that the speaker was wonderful, but he (the lad) was confused as to why the speaker hadn’t spoken on the topic of his own personal relationship with Jesus. The Catholic presentor explained to the Protestant lad that such a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ was ‘as ridiculous an idea as having a personal relationship with one’s pet’, and the room exploded…

    I’ve been on the internet too long, because what I immediately want to know is — was the Protestant questioner “trolling” the Catholic speaker?

    Re: harassment policies at conferences
    I don’t just think that people who disagree on this issue are drawing different conclusions, I think people are starting with wildly different sets of “data”.

  3. baal says

    Thanks for defining a term. I hadn’t heard “essentialism” before but it fits.

    I’ve used the idea in the past and have it linked in my thinking to small c conservative thought. Conservatives (small c) have stuck me as using a mode of thought that takes an object (or idea) puts it into a box and then proceeds to make arguments by stringing certain boxes in a row. They they go on to defend their arguments by saying everything is rightly in a box, the boxes are the right ones, the ordering is completely correct and the entire chain is magnificently true. Then they conclude, it’s beyond obvious that they are right, Q.E.D.

    The biggest problem (there are many) with this is that complex issues get oversimplified and that multiple weighted factor issues are dismissible as non-cognizable.

  4. mynameischeese says

    This article didn’t have the effect on me that the author intended. The thing that really struck me about the example of the Protestant and Catholic was that the Protestant’s idea theology was exactly in line with Protestant theology and the Catholic’s exactly in line with Catholic theology. So first of all, it’s not really a great example, is it? Second of all, despite the fact that two branches of Christianity endow the word “god” with different meanings, they both still manage to benefit from being part of a group (and a group that is overrepresented in political positions of power in their country).

    It’s not actually a bad thing that people who don’t really fit into an umbrella category would fit themselves into one anyway. For another US example, the category “black Americans” makes no sense as it’s made of a diverse group of people from all different kinds of ethnic backgrounds. And yet it makes perfect sense that people ID as black Americans because they can still benefit from belonging to a group, for instance by forming a voting block.

    “Skeptics” and “Atheists” don’t make logical sense as ID categories…until you take into consideration that in many places not belonging to a religion is a disadvantage. Furthermore, when people get frustrated at people who ID as skeptics not having a basic grasp on certain issues, they are not “essentialising” skeptics. Rather, they are pointing out the irony that someone who IDs as a “skeptic” won’t apply skeptical inquiry in certain areas.

    Lastly, the same people who refuse to ask themselves questions in a skeptical manner in certain areas (like, “Is racism a real thing? Can I measure it? Is sexism a real thing? Where can I look for evidence before I decide that it’s fake?”), often break out accusation of “essentialism.” Example: “By writing about feminism, you’re practicing ‘essentialism’ because you’re ‘essentialising’ all men as bad.”

    Which makes me really skeptical about the intention of this piece.

    And lastly, I don’t think “essentialism” is at the root of bigotry, even if it is a symptom. Someone with bigoted opinions is pretty harmless…until they have more power than other people.

  5. Gnumann, メンズ権利活動家国家の売国奴 says

    Lastly, the same people who refuse to ask themselves questions in a skeptical manner in certain areas (like, “Is racism a real thing? Can I measure it? Is sexism a real thing? Where can I look for evidence before I decide that it’s fake?”), often break out accusation of “essentialism.” Example: “By writing about feminism, you’re practicing ‘essentialism’ because you’re ‘essentialising’ all men as bad.”

    Next time you write something like this, stick in this bit first please. It’ll save me some time.

  6. mynameischeese says

    Next time you comment on one of my comments, imagine me telling you what to do with yourself as you type. It will make me happy.

  7. Gnumann, メンズ権利活動家国家の売国奴 says

    Whatever made you think that making you happy is on the same continent as my list of priorities?

  8. Leni says

    I am someone who has objected, mostly privately, to the notion of ‘skeptical community’ or the idea that ‘the community has leaders’, mostly on the grounds that I really object to the unification of folk under this kind of collective label. I do not self-identify as a skeptic. Nor a freethinker. Nor an atheist. I find all of these labels problematic insofar as they make a claim about me which simply isn’t true…

    I’ve always been uncomfortable with the labels skeptic and freethinker, but never really thought much more about it other than that I would not use them to describe myself. I really agree with you about this and am glad you pointed it out, because I think it helps me understand it better.

    (Atheist just seems cut and dry to me, so I don’t really have a problem with that label. I know there’s some wishy-washiness, but in broad terms I think it make a great deal of sense and is generally more useful.)

    But both the “skeptic” and “freethinker” labels always seemed contrived and a little bit condescending. All labels are contrived I suppose, but these two just seemed more like self-aggrandizing than was really necessary for a simple descriptor. Remember “Bright”? Ugh.

    Anyway, your comments about essentialism were helpful to me. And this is another reason I don’t like calling myself a freethinker. You just influenced me, as has every other person I’ve learned anything from ever. It feels a bit arrogant to call that “free”. I suppose it might apply to a person who was truly a visionary thinker, but I certainly do not consider myself in that league and calling myself a “freethinker” implies (at least to me) that I actually came up with this shit on my own.

  9. says

    I think you’re misapplying Essentialism here.

    The labels “Skeptic”, “Atheist”, and “Freethought” are just like any other cultural or community levels – they’re shortcuts to defining and describing a set of beliefs and attitudes that are common among the community, and those attitudes and beliefs are self-selected. Just like any form of tribal association. And, in any community (which, in this case like most cases, is an emergent system of people thinking similar things and holding similar philosophies) there are Leaders (or the most vocal and noticeable people in the community) and there are Agitators (or people who are trying to shift the community one way or another). Neither of these things are inherently good or bad, as they’re emergent properties of the fact that there is, in fact, a community here and they can frequently be the same person.

    PZ Myers, for instance, is a great example of a Leader and an Agitator.

    However, what you’re arguing for here (or rather, arguing against) is a kind of irrational viewpoint where people shouldn’t ascribe definitive systems to words that are used, primarily, to imply definitive systems. An Atheist, for instance, does not believe in god or any form of religious belief. This is, by definition, essential to the word Atheist. However, stemming from the lack of a belief in god or any religious belief is a system of philosophical positions and worldview ideals that arise when Religion, as a construct is removed. These systems are also essential to Atheism in much the same way that worn river stones are essential to the river that runs over them.

    Further, as the community solidifies and we identify what these emergent properties are and solidify definitions of what it means to actually be part of the community, we must weed out Bad Actors. When you have agents within a community that identify as being A Thing then turn around and promote behaviour and systems that are counter to A Thing, they are acting in bad faith and must be confronted to ensure community cohesion. If the community’s cohesion cannot be solidified, then the community will fracture into smaller, more local, and more focused communities until another meta-community can arise. This can be seen in every community in the world. Every single community, whether emergent or assembled, has self-cleaning mechanisms to ensure that Bad Actors don’t undermine the cohesion of the community.

    So I think that your position is, inherently, unsound. You cannot remove the definitive elements of any particular word. Atheists inherently have no belief. Skeptics are inherently doubtful of claims. Freethinkers are inherently interested in self-analysis and avant-garde thinking. These things are definitively part of these systems and cannot be divorced from them so long as we are going to use our language in a rational fashion. Even the Essentialistic arguments you made are based on a kind of false comparison – a horse doesn’t have an inherent “horse-ness”, but an idea and constructed identification system does have an inherent idea behind it. Just like you have an inherent “Brian-ness” to you because you have intentionally placed parts of it there – you know who you are, and you define yourself, so have an essential core idea.

  10. says

    Your discomfort with “freethinker” is rooted in something that isn’t true of freethought, though; freethinkers are (and were) an Enlightenment group of individuals that focused on considering avant-garde philosophy and being self-aware of how ideas and opinions are formed.

    It’s “thinking free”, without fetters and without obstruction, on things that are demonstrable or empirical. It probably only feels different due to the fact that the considerations of where the word was formed historically used a different set of presumptions and ideas with regard to words like “free”.

    Similarly, with skeptic/sceptic, the word is rooted in an earlier form of English and English considerations with regards to how words are used and defined. It essentially just means “to doubt”, but it’s lately taken on an emergent community definition rooted in pointing out that all psychics are fakes and that bigfoot isn’t real. This doesn’t change the fact that the word does, however, have a particular definition and the community (historically) was centered on that ideal – doubting.

  11. says

    Labels are problematic (but often a necessary evil, to facilitate communication). That’s why I usually call myself a theologicial noncognitivist ;)

    Great post, Brian.

  12. says

    Thanks! I figured if I was going to be someone that kept insisting that Atheism has a worldview that necessarily follows the declaration, I should argue against an Essentialist dismissal of the same claim :3.

  13. says

    I agree with this.

    Moreover, I like to discuss social justice in a skeptic community not because everyone is going to agree with my priorities, but because I want to discuss moral issues and it helps if they aren’t bringing religion into it.

    I also agree with a sentiment I saw in this post, i.e. that skeptics aren’t as rational as many claim to be. But lol so tired of so many rationalist spaces where insufferable people act like they’re better than everyone else.

  14. Brian Lynchehaun says

    However, stemming from the lack of a belief in god or any religious belief is a system of philosophical positions and worldview ideals that arise when Religion, as a construct is removed.

    This isn’t true.

    Nothing follows from a lack of belief in a god. A person may have a system of beliefs, but there are an indefinite number of systems of beliefs that “an atheist” may have.

    Claiming that there is only one “possible system of philosophical positions and worldview ideals” is an assertion that requires serious backing up.

    These systems are also essential to Atheism in much the same way that worn river stones are essential to the river that runs over them.

    Please support this assertion.

    Skeptics are inherently doubtful of claims.

    Right. You may have noticed that this was covered in the essay. Y’know, the part where I discussed Communists as being skeptical of the benefits of Capitalism…

    Or not…

    Even the Essentialistic arguments you made are based on a kind of false comparison – a horse doesn’t have an inherent “horse-ness”, but an idea and constructed identification system does have an inherent idea behind it.

    I see… I suggest you take this up with Aristotle then.

  15. says

    This isn’t true.

    Nothing follows from a lack of belief in a god. A person may have a system of beliefs, but there are an indefinite number of systems of beliefs that “an atheist” may have.

    Claiming that there is only one “possible system of philosophyical positions and worldview ideals” is an assertion that requires serious backing up.

    Hrm, let me explain what I said then, as you seem to have interpreted it as me saying that Position A is a necessary and fundamental extension of the idea of not having a belief in the divine.

    My statement was that there is a necessary shift in philosophy and worldview. This shift is not universal, but it is a necessary part of the process of claiming atheism. A lack of a divine agent is an inherent difference to the philosophical worldview of anyone who “deconverts”. Likewise, there is an inherent philosophical worldview that arises out of never having a sense of faith in the divine. It removes concepts like Destiny or Fate, the idea of inherent Good and Evil, and the underpinning associations of divine agency in the rest of the world.

    If someone is an Atheist without these fundamental differences in worldview, they still do believe in god. They may hate their own deity(ies) but they definitely believe in them if they continue to build their worldview based on the presumption that they’re real and they’ve had an effect on the world.

    Please support this assertion.

    When one does not believe in god, it necessarily follows that there must be a creation mechanism that does not involve god.

    This is an emergent property out of removing the very concept of divine creation. Similar to how the god concept has an effect on all portions of a worldview it’s connected to, not having a god concept or divine agent also has a demonstrable effect on philosophical positions. One can’t argue from divine authority, one can’t propose that there are endemic qualities to any aspect of the world (at least without quite a bit of empirical evidence), and one cannot assert that there’s any planning or reason for the world to function as it does that would be comparable to intelligent design or organization. By not believing in a divine agent, the qualities that a divine agent brings to a worldview must, necessarily, be not included in the resultant worldview. If it isn’t, the person isn’t really an atheist (as the very definition of the word, what we use it to mean as a concept, is to have no belief in a divine agent or host). That person would, in effect, be a bad actor.

    Right. You may have noticed that this was covered in the essay. Y’know, the part where I discussed Communists as being skeptical of the benefits of Capitalism…

    Or not…

    There’s a difference between what a concept or idea is and the quality that a person conforms to in its practice.

    Just like there can be bad Christians there can be bad Skeptics. IF someone self-identifies as a Skeptic but is not actually skeptical about claims (like communism or capitalism), then they’re doing it wrong.

    It doesn’t mean you have to redefine the word into some kind of nebulous idea that covers people who are both skeptical and those who aren’t skeptical but like to call themselves skeptics. It weakens the word and makes the whole concept meaningless.

    I see… I suggest you take this up with Aristotle then.

    Argument from authority?

    Mostly because, clearly, Aristotle was always 100% correct about everything he ever wrote about.

    Seriously though, words are concepts and ideas that we have put a box around. If we don’t have a box around them, the words don’t mean much. That box is the definition, and that definition is inherent to the word itself. If it wasn’t, as I’ve stated before, the word would be useless. No one would have any idea what you meant if you used a different definition for a word everyone understands as having a completely different conventional definition.

    Skeptic means to doubt a claim. It literally means that, as in that is its definition and it is how it is used in speech. It’s how it’s been used in books, plays, and movies as far back as its history in the English language records. “I’m skeptical” is always associated with a sense of doubt, usually leaning toward the idea or claim being incredulous and difficult to believe.

    If you say that, “Well, Skeptics (that is, people who identify as being Skeptical) don’t always doubt claims, they must still be skeptics and we need to be aware of these two definitions.” you’re inherently robbing the word of its meaning. Your argument against Essentialism for words themselves, and the concepts and ideas that make up what definitions those words carry, inherently takes the concepts and reduces them to some kind of meaningless pulp.

    We must not be afraid to say that people who follow these concepts do them poorly. They’re not simply doing it differently or creating a new definition of “skeptic”.

  16. Leni says

    Your discomfort with “freethinker” is rooted in something that isn’t true of freethought, though; freethinkers are (and were) an Enlightenment group of individuals that focused on considering avant-garde philosophy and being self-aware of how ideas and opinions are formed.

    No, my discomfort comes from applying that word to people for whom is both historically and practically inapplicable. Like myself, for example. Or most people.

    I might appreciate them, but I am not one of them.

    It would be like calling myself a civil rights activist when I am, in fact, not a civil rights activist. I support them, I appreciate them and I learned from them. I am not one of them.

  17. says

    Agreed with this. Plenty of people are bad skeptics who just gravitate toward the label because they think it makes them special snowflakes who are more clever than the non-skeptic sheeple. They tend to be loudly “skeptical” of ideas they don’t like and otherwise not put in the hard work of thinking about shit. However, this doesn’t mean that skepticism isn’t a real thing people do which is markedly different from non-skepticism and that “skeptic” isn’t a good label for people with a commitment to that method. That’s like saying plenty of people claim to be doing research when they are really just trying to promote a product their employer is selling, therefore “researcher” is a meaningless label.

  18. Leni says

    PS Just to make it clear, the historical context is fine. I’m perfectly happy to say things like “I support Freethinkers” or “Wow those Freethinkers sure had some awesome shit to say”.

    I am not ok pretending that I am one because they inspired or influenced me or because I appreciate them.

    Likewise, I don’t call myself a blogger just because I read blogs that inspire and/or enlighten me. Or enrage me as the case may be, but you understand I’m sure.

    Maybe I’m splitting hairs in that the general term “atheist” doesn’t bother me, because it seems apt and useful in any context (not just a historical one) and maybe because the baggage associated with it is something I can find tolerable, but there it is.

  19. Brian Lynchehaun says

    Danny.

    Hrm, let me explain what I said then, as you seem to have interpreted it as me saying that Position A is a necessary and fundamental extension of the idea of not having a belief in the divine.

    You’re correct in my interpretation. Your use of the terms ‘stemming from’, ‘essential’, and so on strongly give the impression that you are making a claim about necessary extensions.

    If you don’t intend that… Stop using those words.

    My statement was that there is a necessary shift in philosophy and worldview.

    And there’s that word again.

    You are incorrect. Someone may simply have never thought about the existence of a god at all. Someone may have merely considered it long enough to dismiss it, and not thought about it any further.

    You are attributing a whole bunch of additional thought processes here.

    This shift is not universal, but it is a necessary part of the process of claiming atheism.

    This sentence is self-contracdictory.

    A lack of a divine agent is an inherent difference to the philosophical worldview of anyone who “deconverts”.

    And it is the only inherent difference.

    Likewise, there is an inherent philosophical worldview that arises out of never having a sense of faith in the divine.

    Support this assertion.

    There exist people who have never thought about the metaphysical makeup of the world. This statement falisifies your claim.

    It removes concepts like Destiny or Fate, the idea of inherent Good and Evil, and the underpinning associations of divine agency in the rest of the world.

    False.

    Neither ‘destiny’, nor ‘Fate’, neither ‘inherently good’ nor ‘inherently evil’ are unique to a theistic worldview.

    There are many non-theistic worldviews, and non-religious world-views, that maintain these viewpoints.

    A simple example is The Secret.

    Your argument against Essentialism for words themselves, and the concepts and ideas that make up what definitions those words carry, inherently takes the concepts and reduces them to some kind of meaningless pulp.

    Try reading the article again.

    This time, notice that the article is not about linguistics, but psychology. Your entire criticism is based on this misunderstanding.

  20. YYZatcboy says

    Sorry for the slight threadjack here, but would someone be so kind as to point out a link to the Dawkins letter and explain why Penn Jillette seems to be so disliked around here? (I’ve seen a few other vague references but nothing to explain it)

    Thanks for your time!

  21. says

    Yeah…while I’m glad we have a diverse atheist community where people talk to each other, and events and ideas have a history, one could do without the in-group shorthand. The audience of these blogs isn’t only atheists who follow a lot of the community. I realize you (Brian) were just setting up a point with these examples, but links mitigate this problem. Moreover, I think the attitude that “skeptics are truly always skeptical and religious people are not” is far more widespread than the community of people who would get those references.

    Here’s Dear Muslima, anyway, though Google produced that one. Google doesn’t so quickly answer the question about Penn Jillette.

  22. YYZatcboy says

    Thanks. I’m at work or I would have googled myself. I’m still currious about the Penn Jillette thing. (I hope I don’t open myself up for flame when I say I rather enjoyed “Bullshit”)

  23. says

    Damn fine work, Brian. I thoroughly enjoyed this article, and I absolutely loved that you used the word ‘shibboleth’. Doesn’t get used enough, in my view, but I’m funny like that.

  24. Skeptic Dude says

    @Brian

    Congratulations on a very thought provoking post. Interestingly Richard Dawkins also claimed in “The Greatest Show On Earth” that platonism, more so than Christianity was most responsible for Western Culture’s unwillingness to accept evolution as people have been ingrained to think that say a ferret or an oak tree are just permutations of ferretness or oak tree-ness.

    You really lost me on two points, however.

    1. Your thesis seems inconsistentent with its stated premise. If I understand you properly, you are saying that Skepticism has no immutable essence as a “thing in itself” but only exists as a certai process of critical thinking and that people who may be skeptical in one area- ie with respect to religion- may not be so at all in another sphere ie with respect to race, gender, or politics etc.., but arent all three of the latter categoriess themselves dependent on the concept of essentialism? This seems like special pleading.

    2. When you, out of the blue in the middle of an otherwisemsane context, say that you don’t want to “be buddies or hang out” with DJ or Thunderf00t you just sound incredibly childish…

  25. Utakata says

    Skepticism is not about tone trolling the OP after the fact either. Your disagreement sounded resonable until you stated, “…that you don’t want to ‘be buddies or hang out’ with DJ or Thunderf00t you just sound incredibly childish…” (who cares?) which was simply not called for. Especially after some of your completely imamture posts over Ophelia’s…it’a bit like the kettle caling the pot black. Since you now have demostrated you don’t need to do that. So please stick to the disagreement of the OP’s content and not its style. Thanks.

  26. Pen says

    Lastly, the same people who refuse to ask themselves questions in a skeptical manner in certain areas (like, “Is racism a real thing? Can I measure it? Is sexism a real thing? Where can I look for evidence before I decide that it’s fake?”), often break out accusation of “essentialism.” Example: “By writing about feminism, you’re practicing ‘essentialism’ because you’re ‘essentialising’ all men as bad.”

    This is a legitimate remark, but the questions you offer are not phrased in ways that can be answered skeptically. You can ask questions like ‘With what frequency do women experience sexual harassment at public events?’ ‘What forms does it take?’ ‘Do women report this affecting their participation or likelihood of participating?’ ‘Do sexual harassment policies reduce harassment and do they increase female participation?’ (BTW, ‘Do I care?’ is not a skeptical question either, it is a value choice)

    Now it’s true you can’t just pull the answers to any answerable questions out of a hat or answer them satisfactorily from anecdotes in comment threads. You may have to look for some research, which mostly exists, and hope it will be added to and perfected over the years. You may have to live in a state of not knowing the answers, and be part of experimentation to find out. That is the essence of skepticism.

    With regard to big abstractions like sexism or racism, reasonable questions might be ‘What forms does sexism/racism take?’ ‘In what ways does it affect the people on the receiving end?’ In this case, you are mapping rather than measuring. Sure, you might in principle find the answer to these questions is ‘none’, but the current research suggests otherwise.

  27. Gnumann, quisling of the MRA nation says

    but arent all three of the latter categoriess themselves dependent on the concept of essentialism?

    Terms are not essentialistic or not, but terms might be applied with an essentialist understanding, or with a more reasonable one. Either as ascribed categories or as a process of label negotiation. So, for example gender can be used in an essentialist way or an non-essentialist way.

  28. Gnumann, quisling of the MRA nation says

    This is a legitimate remark, but the questions you offer are not phrased in ways that can be answered skeptically.

    Why do you lie to accommodate the obvious racist and misogynic arsehole? As you point out with you otherwise good post, he is begging the question in a very bad way. That is never legitimate.

  29. Brian Lynchehaun says

    I would greatly appreciate it if we could keep the accusations of ‘lies’ to a minimum (i.e. zero). You don’t like what someone says: fair enough.

    If you’re going to accuse someone of lying (i.e. intentionally stating a falsehood), quote precisely, and explain precisely.

    It may well be bullshit, but people who are new to this area will legitimately and fairly ask questions such as “how do I measure racism to know that it’s real?”

    Yes, this is 101, headdesking stuff, but that doesn’t make the previous poster a liar. That accusation (even with evidence) does nothing but antagonize.

  30. mynameischeese says

    Ah, now I see why you’re hostile to me. You’ve misunderstood my comment. Let me try to clarify: I’m not on the side of people who flat out refuse to accept that misogyny and racism are real. Quite the opposite. I’m using them as an example of when people identify as skeptical, then decide that racism and sexism can’t exist (because they don’t fit their world view), so no further research is required.

    Why did I bring up these people? Because when I meet them and say to them, “But how can you call yourself a skeptic when you’re espousing racist/sexist views?”, it’s not because I believe their is an “essential” skeptical ideology. And it’s not even because I’m genuinely shocked (because encountering “free thinkers” who behave in a sexist way toward me is an everyday experience.). It’s because I want them to engage in the activity of skepticism.

    It’s like if you saw someone wearing a football uniform on the football pitch, then they started wandering around in confusion instead of playing football, you might yell at them, “You’re not a footballer!”

  31. mynameischeese says

    Ok, please just mentally correct my spelling for my first reply.

    I also feel the need to reply to Brian above. Obviously my first comment wasn’t clear enough. I am in no way suggesting that racism/sexism are not measurable. I think they are. I think you can look at loads of evidence to suggest that they are real (wage gaps, disparity on TV, disparity in publishing).

    My first comment was highlighting that people call themselves skeptics, then they won’t even ask themselves those questions about whether racism/sexism are real and how can you find out. They call themselves skeptics, but have ZERO curiousity about the matter because they think they already have the answer.

  32. Brian Lynchehaun says

    Interestingly Richard Dawkins also claimed in “The Greatest Show On Earth” that platonism, more so than Christianity was most responsible for Western Culture’s unwillingness to accept evolution as people have been ingrained to think that say a ferret or an oak tree are just permutations of ferretness or oak tree-ness.

    I have not read “The Greatest Show On Earth” (nor do I plan to), but I hope that you are misremembering, else Dawkins is saying yet more ignorant crap.

    Platonism became imbedded in European culture because of Christianity’s adoption of Platonic Idealism (prior to their discovery of Aristotle). For several centuries, the two were intertwined because this intertwining furthered the interests of Christianity. There were no non-Christian Platonists running around Europe persuading masses of people into the Platonic Ideals: twas all Christianity.

    In response to your point 1:

    No, I’m not saying that. I’m not talking about skepticism or Skepticism. I’m talking about how people arrange their mental furniture.

    Additionally, there are Essentialist views of Gender (aka Gender Essentialism) which is hugely problematic, as are Essentialist views of Race, and Essentialist views of politics. Feel free to look into non-Essentialist views of these things.

    In response to your point 2:

    Um… K.

    You understand that the concept of ‘community’ laregly involves sharing space/time with other people? And that people are rejecting the ‘bad skeptics’ because of their views on gender/race? And their response is to kick people out of the ‘community’ by declaring them to not be skeptics?

    I’m separating out my acknowledgement of those people as people who do actually think skeptically, vs. people who I want to have a beer with.

    You follow?

  33. Brian Lynchehaun says

    You and I are, I think, on the same page with regards to this discussion.

  34. Brian Lynchehaun says

    Thanks, Edwin.

    You can thank The West Wing for that particular word, as they had a particularly good episode where that featured prominently.

    Of course, that also means you can thank Ian for putting me onto that show several years ago… :P

  35. Brian Lynchehaun says

    I’m sorry about the oversight, folks.

    I’ll integrate those links into the original article.

    Thank you, Hall-of-Rage and Craja.

  36. mynameischeese says

    We’re almost on the same page, Brian. Almost.

    My objection (which I obviously sucked at conveying in my first comment, so sorry about that) is that you think essentialism is “rot” and “disease”, but that “strategic essentialism” is quite handy. You don’t actually have to believe in essentialism to belong to a group.

  37. Brian Lynchehaun says

    but that “strategic essentialism” is quite handy.

    I do not understand what you are talking about. Please clarify.

  38. mynameischeese says

    You say: “Essentialism is at the core of pretty much all alt-med nonsense and at the core of religion. It’s also at the core of racism (explicit and otherwise), anti-LGBTQ thinking, sexism, ethnic cleansing, anti-poor law-making, and so on.”

    But essentialism isn’t all bad. Feminists are often accused of “essentialism” by people who want to discredit feminism. But “strategic essentialism” is a handy strategy for people on the side of social justice: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strategic_essentialism

    So when you say: “So it saddens me when I hear/see people throw up their hands a declare “but they’re a skeptic!”

    It shouldn’t sadden you. Many times it’s an example of “strategic essentialism.”

  39. Pen says

    Were you asking me why I was lying when I said it was a legitimate remark? Because that’s how your comment came across. OK, maybe I should have said ‘I accept the legitimacy of looking for measurable aspects of sexism and racism’. Measure the truth value of that ; )

  40. John Horstman says

    I think I’m mostly with Danny here. You seem to be conflating “belief” with “examined belief” or “conscious belief”, Brian Lynchehaun. The fact that someone’s never explicitly though about the metaphysical makeup of the world doesn’t mean they haven’t formed beliefs about it. One does so simply by existing in and interacting with the world. For example, permanence: nearly everyone develops a worldview in which objects continue to exist when they’re not directly observed by the person in question, mainly because in our experience, this is the case. Even if one has never consciously thought, “Wow, I have a worldview in which objects continue to exist when I’m not observing them. Fancy that,” one still has formed an implicit metaphysical belief. This is the case with respect to all sorts of different things, whether one has consciously thought about them or not.

    In a theistic worldview, a lot of these metaphysical concepts are implicitly predicated on a divine agent. If one removes a divine agent from the picture, one’s beliefs with respect to these properties of reality also necessarily shift, or, if they don’t, then one doesn’t really not believe in any gods, as one still believes in a divine agent underpinning one’s various metaphysical perspectives. You just seem to be making a mistake in thinking that any of us (let alone all of us) are entirely self-aware with respect to our beliefs and reality frameworks. We’re not, specifically because we haven’t been challenged on every possible aspect and forced to articulate our position, but we do still hold those unchallenged and therefore unexamined beliefs.
    I would be shocked if there wasn’t a Camels With Hammers post addressing this; perhaps I’ll try to track it down to get a Trained Philosopher’s position on this.

  41. Gnumann, quisling of the MRA nation says

    Ah, my profound apoligies. I have been reading with my head up the arse it seems.

    I can offer little in my defence except to say that I’m sorry. And I will strive to not do it again.

  42. Brian Lynchehaun says

    You just seem to be making a mistake in thinking that any of us (let alone all of us) are entirely self-aware with respect to our beliefs and reality frameworks.

    An understanding of ‘Object Permanence’ is something that one must necessarily have in order to operate in the world. This is knowledge that is formed from an early age, about the metaphysical makeup of the world. One does not need to consciously process perception in order for ‘Object Permanence’ to be invoked.

    One has this understanding regardless of whether or not one is aware of it.

    Please explain how knowing that the universe came into existence through the actions (or not) of a deity is similar (which is a pure knowledge claim) to knowing how objects are likely to act in any given moment?

    You seem to be making the mistake in what you attributing to me. I do not posit that we are entirely self-aware. I do not posit that we are even mostly self-aware.

    A belief about the creation of the universe is typically built into a religion. Lacking a religion does not entail that one has a different belief about the formation of the universe. This is an unsubstantiated assertion on your part. You (and Danny) must necessarily rule out that people simply have no belief (concious or otherwise) about the formation of the universe in order to substantiate your claim.

    I look forward to your journal-worthy response.

    perhaps I’ll try to track it down to get a Trained Philosopher’s position on this

    You just did.

  43. Pierce R. Butler says

    Sfaict, linguistics is part of psychology. Its entire subject matter comes from the human mind.

    The same could be said of semantics, but at least that term seems to come closer to what you’re apparently trying to say.

  44. chrisdevries says

    I’m with Brian on this. A person can be an atheist and still believe in superbly irrational and not-at-all-limited-to-religion concepts, like reincarnation. Atheist implies one thing: a lack of belief in a personal god or gods. Heck, a person could be an atheist and still believe that the Universe has a Creator who set the cogs in motion and who may still exist but doesn’t interfere with his Creation. That is the Deist position; I would imagine that most of us, however are atheists and adeists.

    There is nothing that any atheist should assume about the beliefs of another atheist, except that they both reject a personal god. All other beliefs are up for grabs. Fortunately, many atheists have applied their skepticism to other areas of their life; they now see the power imbalances common to most societies (I say “most” because there have been superbly egalitarian tribes to live without dominance or submission, but it is an uncommon thing to find nowadays). Atheists who recognise just how much of who we are, our identity, is beyond our direct control (possibly ALL of our identity) strive to rectify the injustice that flow from the luck-of-the-draw birth lottery. We call these people “humanists”. There is substantial overlap between humanists and atheists. Furthermore, most atheists also apply their skepticism to the natural world, denying not only god(s), but also any process that could be called “supernatural”, something that has a demonstrable affect on our universe but which is not consistent with the known laws of physics, and/or which has no known natural origin (i.e. which comes from a place beyond measurable reality). These people are “realists”. Most atheists are realists.

    A more complex issue, that of morality, has atheists divided. Many atheists are of the opinion that we cannot objectively tell the difference between “right” and “wrong”, that because we have no gods, we are unable to draw conclusions on the morality of any action. Other atheists recognise that as we evolved into a social animal, certain ways of dealing with fellow animals led to happier outcomes, therefore “right” is what results in the highest overall well-being of the individuals involved in an action, and “wrong” is anything that serves to maximise the well-being of one (or a few) individual(s) at the expense of others, or else anything that falls short of maximising communal well-being. The first, moral relativists, see no way of objectively determining morality, while the latter, moral realists, see morality on a sliding scale, where there are degrees of right and wrong, depending on how the benefits of an action were distributed among a community. Indeed, many atheists ascribe allegiance to BOTH camps here, and it is impertinent to assume that just because a person is an atheist, they are a moral relativist.

    Categories are very useful, but I can easily pick out a dozen terms that describe my views on a whole variety of issues of importance to humanity. The folly of essentialism is where people who fit into a certain category start to expand what people in that category are, automatically, based on what they themselves are. This type of misappropriation typically occurs in insular communities with little exchange of ideas from outside. To ensure that we remain free in our thinking, we must therefore welcome ideas, opinions and beliefs from as many different (I mean different from US) people as possible. We may not agree with them all the time, but their views must be at least considered openly and without bias. This blog network is pretty much the only place on the internet (that I’ve found) which approaches that ideal. PZ and Ed Brayton are NOT essentialists: they realise that diversity is a good thing, that input from people all over the power spectrum in our culture only strengthens the network. New voices that are seldom heard can often offer new perspectives on the issues with which we are habitually concerned. Reading an opposing perspective only strengthens your perspective because YOU have to look at YOUR arguments and examine why they are stronger than the arguments of your peer. You may even find that your arguments are weaker and – hey presto! – your opinion changes. It’s happened to me, and I bet, to most people around here.

  45. callistacat says

    Penn was totally mean to Clay Aikin on Celebrity Apprentice, so now we all hate him.

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