Should skeptic organizations be atheist organizations?

Skeptic organizations often face a nagging dilemma: should they be openly skeptical about religion? There are a couple of very good reasons why they should make criticizing religious claims a secondary issue, and one extremely bad reason that represents intellectual cowardice and a betrayal of skeptical principles. I’m going to come down on the side of accepting that skeptics groups can make accommodations to religious individuals in general, but that they must not avoid confrontation with religious ideas in particular.

What are the good reasons for shying away from religious conflict? One is division of labor. There are endless weird claims of the paranormal and supernatural that are begging for the application of critical thinking, from astrology to dowsing to ESP to ghosts to telekinesis to zero point energy, and while religion is a gigantic sinkhole of ignorance and absurdity, there are atheist organizations that deal specifically with that subset of human folly — it’s entirely reasonable that a skeptics’ group might decide to distinguish themselves from atheists’ groups by focusing on a different set of phenomena. The James Randi Educational Foundation and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science are and ought to be differentiable. We’ve all also got limited time; I think tarot cards are complete bunk, but I haven’t spent any effort on ripping them up, just because I’ve got other targets I find more interesting. We need many people and many organizations to address the whole wide ecosystem of kookdom, and they can’t all do all of them.

Another good reason is operational: skeptical organizations tend to work on existing phenomena and individuals, with little effort spent on vague historical claims. They will argue that many psychic and supernatural claims are little more than cheap magic tricks, and they will track down and expose charlatans who are bilking people right now with claims about spoon-bending or talking to the dead; there are so many of those at work right now, that showing that some weird Jewish rabbi living 2000 years ago was just doing trivial sleight-of-hand and psychological manipulation is both less interesting and less directly testable, even if the skeptics are pretty darned sure Jesus was a con man. Nebulous assertions that Jesus loves us are untestable and uninvestigable, but you’ll notice that if there is specific claim of a weeping madonna statue, skeptic Joe Nickell isn’t shy about demolishing it.

These are eminently reasonable rationales for not pressuring skeptical organizations to join ranks with and become inseparable from atheist groups. There is also at least one awful reason I sometimes hear: that skeptics should avoid criticizing religion because it might alienate some of their fellow travelers. That’s unconscionable, and implies that they aren’t really interested in critical thinking, but in simply growing an organization without regard to its purpose. A couple of examples popped up recently.

Pamela Gay is an astronomer and a reputable and credible skeptic, and a well-known science educator. She’s not a skeptic in all things, though: she’s also a Christian. This is not a problem, because there is no such thing as a ‘pure’ skeptic who applies critical thinking to every single aspect of their lives, so of course she can be a member in good standing of the skeptical community — but let’s not pretend that she’s applying skeptical values consistently. Again, this is not a problem for her, shouldn’t be a problem for us, but it does become a huge problem when people start demanding special exemptions from criticism for religious thought.

So I was appalled when I read Seth asking “Why are we lying to Pamela Gay?” Seth doesn’t get it. Seth wants us to be especially nice to people who believe in Jesus.

He tells an anecdote. Pamela Gay appeared on an edition of Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, which, as you may know, is a podcast that is very conversational and freely wanders about various topics in skepticism (you all listen to it, right? It’s excellent). In this episode, they joked about a claim that junk DNA encoded the soul. Seth thinks that was wrong, because Pamela Gay is there, and so all the participants on SGU should self-censor and not discuss souls at all.

Bear in mind, Pamela Gay is on the phone at this moment. She is in the room. And her cohost from Astronomy Cast and the Host of the show she is a guest on are mocking the idea of the soul.

Now, granted, they are superficially mocking the idea that the soul resides in junk DNA. But in reality, they are mocking the entire idea of a soul, because neither of them believe that such a thing exists.

Pamela, however, does believe that a soul exists. And she considers herself a skeptic, and these guys go out of their way to say that they consider her a skeptic too.

And yet, they have no problem mocking her beliefs. It probably didn’t occur to them that there was anything hurtful about mocking her beliefs. Because skeptics, in general, don’t have any problem mocking religion.

To me, there’s a dishonesty inherent in this behavior. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a real coming of age novel feeling to this sort of thing. The religious skeptics are told that they are part of the club, told that they are ‘one of us’, but no one seems to see a problem in treating them like outsiders anyway.

I ask you — if they had a dowser on the line, should skeptics then avoid criticizing the frequently disproven claims of dowsers? That might hurt the poor water-witch’s feelings, you know. What’s so special about an unsupportable, unevidenced, ludicrous belief that a person has an invisible magic essence independent of their brain that we should insist that skeptics must pretend to respect it? What’s so privileged about belief in general that the mere statement that someone says they believe in something means we should stumble all over ourselves running away from the possibility of challenging it? Seth really doesn’t understand what skepticism means.

He worsens his position, too, by claiming that everyone on SGU was lying when they accepted Gay as a skeptic while thinking that souls are a load of bunk. No, I think Gay is a skeptic about most things, just as I am, and just as Steve Novella is, but she is clearly not a skeptic about religion. I don’t see a problem with that, and I certainly don’t see anything dishonest about it. What would be dishonest is to call ourselves skeptics and then privilege a whole class of beliefs about the supernatural as unquestionable, or to hide away our actual opinions about certain subjects. Seth even turns this into a dichotomy, completely oblivious to the irony of what he is asking.

So why are we lying to Pamela Gay? Why do some atheist skeptics feel the need to pretend that they believe that skepticism really does have room for religion, or at least religious people? Wouldn’t it be better and more respectful to present ourselves honestly and openly?

Alternately, if people want to be inclusive of religion, they’re going to have to stop telling jokes like that.

So those are our alternatives: demand perfect purity from all skeptics, or shut up about the foolishness of religious belief. Neither are going to happen. I’m particularly disgusted and amused by the claim that it would be “more respectful to present ourselves honestly and openly” while demanding that we stop mocking the absurdities of religion. The SGU crew were being honest and open, and Seth is asking that they conceal their views; Pamela Gay was also free to chime in and present her evidence for the soul and explain why it was not unreasonable to believe in the truth of the Christian version of an afterlife. It would have made for a very lively discussion, it would have been honest and open, and Gay’s views would have been exposed as entirely unskeptical.

Gay herself also replied in in the comments to that post.

I’ve been having dialogues with several prominent skeptics about how if skeptics are going to be inclusive (which many moderates want), than the language needs to change. You’re right, it is unfair that it’s alright to openly mock religions while asking theists to be speakers. As you say, people need to be honest – either make the skeptics movement an atheists only group, or change the use of language. Pick one, and be honest about it.

That is astonishingly clueless. Gay is asked to speak because she is smart, has interesting things to say about science and education, and I thought because she was a credible skeptic on matters in her discipline. Now she wants to demand that skeptic organizations accommodate her every weird idea? Wrong. No one gets to do that. I don’t get to say to CFI or JREF that I’ll speak at a meeting as long as they promise ahead of time that they will not dare to challenge me on anything — I expect a good argument on all kinds of issues from an audience of skeptics.

Here’s a third alternative. The skeptic movement will be inclusive and allow anyone to participate, and participation means your ideas will be scrutinized and criticized and sometimes mocked and sometimes praised. It is the very nature of the beast. If you want to claim special privilege for your ideas and insist that they may not be exposed to the light and harshly dissected, then you’re right — you aren’t a skeptic. Join a church instead.

But wait, we aren’t done. Pamela Gay turned around and wrote her own post about the separation between science and belief, and I’m going to come right out and say it: it was incredibly stupid. It’s a great example of how religious belief can poison science education.

Several years ago I had some students come to me with an exam written by another professor. They had been studying cosmology, and the final question on the exam was, “How do you believe the universe will end?” The word believe was the word on the exam. There were no further details to the question. It didn’t constrain the students to discuss only the theories taught in class. It actually asked, “How do you believe the universe will end?” This was back in the days before dark energy, before the 1998 discovery that the universe is accelerating apart. Back then we taught that the universe could be open — expanding apart forever — or that maybe it is closed and will someday collapse in on itself. I think we all hoped for a flat universe (that would certainly have made the math a lot easier). This professor had read the students’ answers and given 0/20 points when they described instead of one of these three scenarios the second coming of Christ. With that badly worded question, and those 0/20 grades, a professor placed a wall between himself and his students, preventing them from being willing to listen to the scientific facts that describe how a universe without interference will continue to evolve. To him there was no debate, they weren’t allowed to believe in the second coming of Christ, at least not if they wanted to get a good grade.

This is an impossible situation for a student, and not even a rational one for a scientist. Sitting here as an astronomer, I have to acknowledge we could live in a universe that hasn’t yet collapsed to the lowest energy level, and it might tear itself apart doing so someday. I have to admit, we could live in a multi-verse where our universe and another will someday merge, destroying the reality we know. Or, as a person not wearing a teacher hat, I can admit there could be a God that decides to hit the cosmic endgame button (but I won’t teach that in a science classroom). While all these things could be possible, with people believing in the possibility of each, I know based on evidence that, if left alone to continue doing what it’s doing, our universe will expand forever and suffer a rather horrific energy death. Do you see the distinction? Given evidence, and a scientific scenario, I can know a true outcome. But there is still room to believe in non-contradictory possibilities.

Had that Professor simply acknowledged that it was a poorly worded question with no right answer, those two girls could have gone on to continue enjoying astronomy. Instead, I ended up with them upset and angry in my office telling me that they couldn’t even look at their astronomy book without getting mad.

Negative emotions don’t exactly aid learning, and what could have been a positive learning environment was completely destroyed by equating scientifically testable hypotheses with beliefs.

First of all, I find the story implausible. There had to be more to a 20 point question than answering flat, open, or closed — there must have been at least an assumption in the class that students had to explain why they gave their answer. As stated, this is a question where students either got a full 20 points for regurgitating a short answer, or got nothing at all. Either this was an exceptionally bad instructor or something has been left out of the story.

The nit-picking over the word “belief” is annoying, but I hear it fairly often. Yes, yes, we know — science doesn’t dabble in beliefs, so it is a poor choice of words. However, this was a science class, something a bit more advanced than freshman ‘rocks for jocks’, so it is safe to assume from that context that the professor was expecting a science-based answer, and any student so delusional to think that they can insert a random fable in as an answer and get credit for it deserves more than just a loss of a few points on an exam. The students had no grounds to be upset other than their own sense of offended entitlement and a belief (that word again) that a science teacher ought to appreciate a supernatural explanation. No. Wrong. And Gay is wrong to try and justify such inanity.

And seriously — the universe is going to end with the second coming of Christ? If the students had answered, “The universe will end in the Smurf Apocalypse, when Gargamel uses his powers to make all the stars explode to make a cosmic Smurf barbecue”, would Gay then be arguing that it is an answer appropriate to the question, and they should be getting credit, and isn’t it awful how that bad professor is driving young Smurf fans away from physics? Not at all. She’d answer as I would if students tried to argue for their Jesus answer: “You aren’t taking the question seriously, and you aren’t demonstrating that you’ve mastered any of the concepts taught in this class, which is the whole purpose of an exam — you deserve no credit for that answer.” I can only assume that Gay’s prior commitment to the bizarre beliefs of a Christian sect have blinded her to the obvious inadequacy of the answer, “Jesus will do it.”

Notice that I don’t have to tell students that they must be atheists to study science, and I don’t; but I can have an expectation that answers given on a science exam will be secular and will reflect the content of the course itself, not the drivel the students were taught in Sunday School. The teacher is not putting up a wall between himself and the students, the students and Gay are, by demanding that their cherished myths be pandered to in a physics class, or they are justified in getting angry at their astronomy books and turning their backs on science. That’s what petulant children do. All too often it’s what Christians do.

Also, please notice that the professor is not generating any “negative emotions”, the students are. All we know from this anecdote is that the mysterious professor saw the answer “Jesus will end the universe” on a cosmology exam, and quite reasonably and appropriately gave them no credit for it. What else was he supposed to do? Give full credit for any random, nonsensical, superstitious belief a student chose to scribble on the exam? Ridiculous. Students are not entitled to credit for understanding science, they must earn it, and those students did not. I am also appalled that Gay fed their sense of privileged outrage on this issue; it is the students working themselves up into an emotional state by insisting that Jesus is a good answer in physics, with a sympathetic Christian professor enabling them.

This is a bigger issue than how skeptics should deal with religion: Gay is turning faith into a special case with special rules in science education. That would be disastrous. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about skeptical organizations or the science classroom, saying you believe in something does not suddenly make it immune to criticism or insulate it from the requirements of evidence and reason. I don’t care what you believe, only what you can rationally justify, and when you try to short-circuit that by insisting that your supernatural beliefs deserve special protection from criticism and an exalted status in the science classroom, you are doing harm to the enterprise of science and education.

Go ahead, go to church, believe whatever you want. But you don’t get to whimper that skeptics and scientists aren’t allowed to disagree with you simply because it is your belief. Faith is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. It’s an affliction to be overcome.