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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?


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.


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.

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*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]