So Daniel Loxton comments on his tent. I found it exceptionally revealing, just not in the way he probably intended.
(From another commenter) Again, it would result in much less heat to declare that atheism/religion in not wiyhin your focus or interest, rather than insisting on a controversial position that plenty of scientists apparently don’t agree with.
(Loxton) I’m not about to accept the controversial positions of handful of atheist activists as representative of the wider view of scientists. (These are, you realize, positions novel enough to them that they felt they were good hooks for controversial books?) But regardless, many skeptics have argued just as you ask: that for reasons of division of labour, skeptics will stick to the testable paranormal claims that we do best. Paul Kurtz, for example, argued in 1999 that,
As I have said, I do not believe, however, that CSICOP or the Skeptical Inquirer should in any way, except tangentially, deal with religious issues. But my reasons are pragmatic, not theoretical. It is simply a question of the division of labor. We lack the resources and expertise to focus on the entire range of scientific questions about religion: biblical archaeological, biblical and koranic criticism, linguistics, psychology, anthropology, sociology, the genetic or environmental roots of religion, etc. It would take us too far afield. We have focused on fringe science and specialized in the paranormal, and we have made important contributions here. Skeptical inquiry in principle should apply equally to economics, politics, ethics, and indeed to all fields of human interest. Surely we cannot possibly evaluate each and every claim to truth that arises. My reasons are thus practical.
Atheist hardliners are no more willing to accept that pragmatic argument than any other. The only answer that will satisfy atheist activists, apparently, is that skeptics must accept that atheist activism is the most important cause in town.
That’s an impasse that skeptics resolve by getting back to our own work.
I think he’s feeling a little exasperation — it’s a cheap and ineffective shot to complain that some scientists write “controversial” books, therefore…what? The only worthwhile books are bland and uncontroversial? And if he’s thinking of, for instance, Dawkins’ book, wrong — atheism wasn’t controversial among scientists at all. It was just a bold move to slap the facts down in front of the public.
But it’s the Kurtz quote that is most remarkable. What jumps out when you read it?
I. I. We. Us. We. We. Who, kemosabe?
Who has specialized in those particular subsets of skepticism? Why, Kurtz, and Loxton, and Swiss, and Shermer, and Dunning, and Radford, and many others. And that’s fine; they should do what they know and what they’re good at. Yet somehow they’ve got this amazing close-minded privilege that what they are doing, their local “we”, is what their entire constituency, the more global “we” of all skeptics, should be doing.
Are these people even aware that their movement should be more than the desires of a few so-called leaders? That their group is made up of individuals, each with unique talents and interests, and that what determines the focus of the skeptical movement ought to be the ever-changing concerns of the people in the movement, and that as the movement grows (as we hope it would), the wider pool of talent would broaden the range of interests?
If an atheist joins the skeptical movement, and says she wants to work on the harm religion does to society, what are you going to tell her? “No, you have to study the wily chupacabra”? If an atheist joins the skeptical movement, does that mean some High Poo-Bah goes up to Daniel Loxton, and orders him, “Put down that keyboard, Loxton, we’re sending you off to rural America to blow up a church, because we’re all atheist hardliners now”?
No. And it’s idiotic to fret over it. I’ve been listening to the gay marriage debate in the Minnesota House this afternoon, and the skeptics sound so much like the conservatives — somehow, opening the door to different views means that their personal interests are compromised. No, they’re not. Keep on chasing Bigfoot, guys! Keep on doing “your own work”! No one is telling you to stop!
But, you know, if skepticism really is an analytical tool set for examining the world, stop being so damned possessive of it, and let people apply it in ways that reflect their expertise, not yours. Skeptical inquiry should, in principle, apply to all fields of human interest, as Kurtz said. What is impractical is policing skeptical inquiry and straining to keep it from being applied by people who aren’t members of the skeptical elect, who have goals different from the usual white male magicians and libertarian dilettantes. You don’t get to do that.
It’s not your damn tent. It belongs to everyone.
I should have mentioned, and will do so now since it was brought up in the comments, that Kurtz’s “we” was focused on just the organization he was running, and in that it is perfectly appropriate for a specific organization to limit it’s brief to what the personpower within the organization can manage. It requires a deliberate administrative commitment to focus on a topic. An example would be NCSE’s recent expansion from a group that addresses evolution education to one that addresses evolution and climate change. This is very different from what a larger movement can do; there, expertise can bubble up from the base.