The strangely schizoid status of the skeptical community

Both Russell Blackford and Ophelia Benson have expressed some surprise at this statement from the 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.

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.

Fairness and reason can be opposed by a poll

I’m impressed. The principal at Edgewater Primary School, Julie Tombs, ended the tradition of reciting the Lord’s Prayer at assemblies after receiving some complaints, and she did it for good principled reasons.

…at this school we have students from a range of backgrounds and it is important to consider all views and not promote one set of religious beliefs and practices over another.

Exactly right! This is a simple decision that schools should not be in the business of promoting sectarian religion. But of course, even in Australia the facts can’t be allowed to stand, so opposition must be gathered in the guise of a democratic poll. And so far, the Australians are disappointing me.

Should the Lord’s Prayer be banned from WA schools?

Yes 26.92%

No 54.78%

In state schools only 10.96%
I don’t care 7.34%

People who read Pharyngula might have a different perspective on this issue. Maybe you should make your views known.

Blessings of faith

Taukinukufili Taufa is a New Zealander who ran the Church of Baptism with Fire & Holy Spirit, and he believes that God speaks to him directly and he believes in baptism through “heavenly fire”.

His house caught fire.

The fire killed his wife, his daughter, three grandchildren, and six other people that were staying with him. This isn’t ironic, it’s a great screaming tragedy in these people’s lives; if it had happened to me, I’d be devastated. To lose 11 friends and family members in a great conflagration in one’s own home…I’d be a wreck, struggling to understand what went wrong, worrying over guilt and loss.

Not Mr Taufa! He’s got his religion to console him.

God showed me how to do it, baptise people in the fire of the Holy Spirit. This is not bad after all, it’s a blessing in disguise.

Why is it a blessing? Because now more people will hear about his church.

I know it’s going to be a tourist resort in the future because people in the world heard about it. They will try to come and have a look

The other six people who died in the fire were the wife and five children of Jeremy Lale, who’d been staying at the house. Taufa says they “came here at the right time”.

They [were] included in the people that God chose to become his people in heaven.

There is a fine line between being optimistic and trying to look on the bright side of life, and being an unfeeling psychopath and demented fuckwit. With the aid of his faith, Taufa has skipped across that line and is racing away from his humanity as quickly as his feeble excuses can take him.

The police seem nonchalant and think the fire was only an accident. Maybe they should look a little more closely at the fellow who is bragging about his motive and shows a remarkable absence of grief for someone who just had 11 people die under his roof.

What is wrong with these animal rights organizations?

There is a severe and disturbing disconnect in the minds of the fanatics behind the animal rights groups. First there’s NIO, harassing and threatening students. Now look at what PETA is up to: they plan to launch a porn site to benefit their cause.

The nonprofit organization, whose controversial campaigns draw criticism from women’s rights groups, said it hopes to raise awareness of veganism through a mix of pornography and graphic footage of animal suffering.

“We’re hoping to reach a whole new audience of people, some of whom will be shocked by graphic images that maybe they didn’t anticipate seeing when they went to the PETA triple-X site,” said Lindsay Rajt, PETA’s associate director of campaigns.

I am trying to visualize the kind of people who would be drawn to a site featuring naked women and tortured animals…and no, those aren’t the people I’d want to associate with. It sounds like it might be popular with serial killers, anyway. Is that the audience they want?

And then there’s this:

PETA has been accused of campaigning for animal rights at the cost of exploiting women. A Facebook group, Real Women Against PETA, was launched after the organization paid for a billboard showing an obese woman with the message: “Save the Whales. Lose the Blubber. Go Vegetarian.”

They are sending a consistent message, at least. They love kittens. They hate women.

(Also on Sb)

Did anyone complain?

This should make you ill. It’s from B-SHOC, some awful hack of a Christian rapper who normally proselytizes at churches and revivals, where he belongs. In this one, though, he’s bragging about performing in a public school in South Carolina, at the invitation of the school principal.

This was an explicitly sectarian event, done with the goal of converting students to Christianity, and at the end he brags about ‘saving’ 324 students for his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

In a public school.

Can you say “violation of the separation of church and state”, boys and girls?

The comments on the video are revealing.

That was so awesome that you was to do what no body was able to do before which is going into a public school. Awesome B-Shoc only you can pull that off

Ungrammatical and proud of peddling stupidity in school — I am not surprised.

I was amused at the part where one of the zealots claims that the teachers teach “evolution 5 days a week, 9 months a year”. Yeah, right. Otherwise, I’m not laughing. This is egregious and vile.

And I’m not just talking about the “music”.

I guess everything looks Christian to a Christian

I would agree that Christian imagery permeates our culture, unfortunately — but you know, sometimes Jesus isn’t the focus. You wouldn’t know that, though from this list of 50 Films That You Wouldn’t Think Were Christian, But Actually Are. Some I would agree with; The Green Mile, sure, that’s a big ol’ blatant Christ allegory. But the others…whoa.

Would you believe Taxi Driver is a Christian movie? Travis Bickle is “God’s lonely man, working in the modern day equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah. But instead of simply trying to ‘lead a good life’ or ‘do the right thing’, Travis Bickle turns violence and retribution on those he deems most deserving, to the point where he threatens to tip over into the darkness himself.” Yes, I can sort of see it: a violent psychopath does have a lot in common with Jesus Christ, and of course, every 12-year-old prostitute is actually Mary Magdalene.

I expect there will be a new show put on in church basements all across the country: The Rocky Horror Picture Show is now revealed as secretly espousing Christian doctrine.

Considering that it contains lines like “give yourself over to absolute pleasure”, you wouldn’t think that Rocky Horror would have much time for Christian morality. But in its closing section all becomes clear, as Brad and Janet emerge from their ordeal with Frank N. Furter like Adam and Eve crawling from the vanquished serpent, out of the Garden of Eden and into an unknown future. Throw in Charles Gray as a disappointed, distant God and the effect is complete.

Please do send me photos of your local Baptist minister struttin’ his stuff in fishnet stockings.

Other films in the Christian vein: Eraserhead, Total Recall, Bladerunner, A Clockwork Orange. Bring that list to church (those of you who go to church at all, which probably isn’t many of you) and ask that they be shown in Sunday School!

Funny thing, though: I’m not seeing much correspondence between this list and CAPalert.

Fighting back against creationism

Creationism is not quite as pervasive a problem in the UK as it is in the US, but it’s still rising…so it’s good to see that British scientists are being aggressive in confronting bad educational policies. A number of prominent scientists, including Richard Dawkins and David Attenborough, have stepped forward to demand that evolution, not creationism, be taught in the classroom. Here is their position statement, with the signatories and organizations backing it:

Creationism and ‘intelligent design’

Creationism and ‘intelligent design’ are not scientific theories, but they are portrayed as scientific theories by some religious fundamentalists who attempt to have their views promoted in publicly-funded schools. There should be enforceable statutory guidance that they may not be presented as scientific theories in any publicly-funded school of whatever type.

Organisations like ‘Truth in Science’ are encouraging teachers to incorporate ‘intelligent design’ into their science teaching. ‘Truth in Science’ has sent free resources to all Secondary Heads of Science and to school librarians around the country that seek to undermine the theory of evolution and have ‘intelligent design’ ideas portrayed as credible scientific viewpoints. Speakers from Creation Ministries International are touring the UK, presenting themselves as scientists and their creationist views as science at a number of schools.

The current government guidance that creationism and ‘intelligent design’ should not be taught in school science should be made statutory and enforceable. It also needs to be made comprehensive so that it is clear that any portrayal of creationism and ‘intelligent design’ as science (whether it takes place in science lessons or not) is unacceptable.


An understanding of evolution is central to understanding all aspects of biology. The teaching of evolution should be included at both primary and secondary levels in the National Curriculum and in all schools.

Currently, the study of evolution does not feature explicitly in the National Curriculum until year 10 (ages 14-15), but the government is overseeing a review of the whole curriculum with the revised National Curriculum for science being introduced in September 2012 to be made compulsory from 2013. Free Schools and Academies are not obliged to teach the National Curriculum and so are under no obligation to teach about evolution at all.

Excellent! When creationists underhandedly try to smuggle lies and nonsense into the classroom, it calls for a firm and uncompromising response.

Can we steal this and get a similar initiative going here in the US?

(Also on Sb)