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.
It’s weird, but what it really is is a historical relic and an issue of scope. The JREF piece makes that clear a little further down.
One other point Christian raises is that atheism and skepticism are often conflated, making religious people feel uncomfortable at TAM and other skeptical events. This is a controversial issue within the skeptical community, and there are many facets to the discussion that are beyond the scope of this post. But one fact is certain: the JREF is not an atheist organization. To be sure, we count many atheists among our allies, but our focus is on science advocacy and education. We regularly work with religious believers of many different stripes to further that cause as well.
There have been some fierce battles fought in the skeptical community over this: people’s feelings have been hurt, they’ve marched out in a snit, they still occasionally snipe and protest. It’s a tricky balancing act, and for many years they could get away with it: you could debunk UFOs and chupacabras and ESP without pissing off the Catholics in the audience, so the community could grow and encompass a wider audience that included some religious people, because their sacred cow wasn’t the one getting gored.
There really are people in the movement who want religion treated with kid gloves. This is an even sharper example of someone who actively wants religion represented positively in skepticism, which is rather wacky.
The irony of an atheist-only panel on “diversity” did not escape me, but I expected it to pass without comment. The sentiment that skepticism is an atheist club is recent, but it has taken root very quickly. As with other sorts of “do-fish-know-they’re-wet?” privilege in other, larger communities, the assumption of default atheism is rarely questioned in the skeptical subculture. Indeed, the panel set out to discuss diversity in gender, sexual orientation, age, race, class, education, and physical ability—but not religion.
This is especially strange when we consider that scientific skepticism was to a large extent founded by people of faith, including Harry Houdini (still arguably the greatest skeptical investigator of all time, and the model for the investigative tradition embodied today by James Randi and Joe Nickell) and Martin Gardner (the model for the modern skeptical literature). At least one speaker at TAM9 was herself religious (Pamela Gay) and there were, as always, members of multiple religious groups and spiritual traditions in the audience. These skeptics often express that anti-theism is a barrier to participation in our science-based events. Whatever your own feelings about religion, this is obviously a topic which fits under the heading of “diversity.”
So you can well imagine that I was surprised into applause when D.J. Grothe raised exactly that topic: religious diversity in the skeptical community. Nor was I the only one clapping. In any given year, the crowd at TAM includes not only pro-science people of faith (despite the chill) and secularists who will go to the wall for them, but also a great many traditional scientific skeptics who see untestable claims as simply off topic.
That’s changing. Skepticism should and must embrace a wider range of socially relevant issues, and I think the leaders in the movement are recognizing that — showing that dowsing doesn’t work is a useful exercise in training critical thinking, but it’s not a big sociopolitical issue, you know? There was a huge fuss raised when Richard Dawkins was invited to speak at TAM a while back, precisely because he wasn’t going to give religion the exemption from criticism it has always demanded and usually gotten.
My position is partial agreement: JREF is not an atheist organization. It’s primary purpose is not overt criticism of religion, and it does not and should not demand perfect ideological purity of all of its members: if somebody wants to believe in UFOs, but is happy to critically analyze Bigfoot claims, they should have a place…it’s just that if they get on the podium to babble about flying saucers, we get to point and laugh and express our disrespect for that credulous foolishness, just as we can maybe show respect for a serious dissection of cryptozoological claims.
Same with religion. Maybe you’re a religious astronomer; you have a place in the skeptical community telling us about the wonders of the cosmos, but the god stuff is not going to play well. And that you think Jesus is real (or that the aliens are visiting us from Beta Reticuli) does not mean you get to demand that no one dare dispute your delusions.
If we had to blacklist every weird belief that someone in the audience at TAM had, nobody would ever be able to talk about anything. Not even dowsing.