I had no idea I was stepping into a controversy

It’s such a petty and trivial one, though, I can’t be too concerned. I’m at Skepticon 3, and I just learned tonight that the convention has been a source of dissent…and when I read the argument, I was stunned at how stupid it was. Apparently, Skepticon has too many atheists in it, and is — wait for it — “harming the cause”.

I’m not joking. Jeff Wagg, formerly of the JREF, has a long lament deploring that 3 of the 15 talks are explicitly atheistic, and that JT Eberhard, the organizer, emphasizes the problem of religion too much for it to be True Skeptic™ conference. It’s utterly batty. Some people have this grandiose notion that they have the only acceptable definition of skepticism, and somehow, in some way, religion is excluded from skeptical criticism.

As Reed points out in his IndieSkeptics article, atheists (and free thinkers and secularists and scientific naturalists, etc.) are fighting a cultural war in this country. It’s a very important war, and I’m a combatant as well. Atheists have been bashed and had religion forced on them forever, and it’s shameful to allow it to continue in a country purporting to be “free.” But to conflate atheism with skepticism dilutes atheism and destroys skepticism.

And I fear the damage has already been done. I see a lot of good people leaving the skeptical community because they’re uncomfortable with the tone and disappointed with, frankly, the lack of skepticism presented by many people.

And I say good riddance to those people. If these so-called good skeptics are going to abandon the movement because they’re uncomfortable with people who openly question their superstitious beliefs, then they don’t seem very committed and their departure will be no loss. I also think that the only hypothetical destruction of skepticism going on here is this bizarre insistence that we privilege certain weird notions as being outside the scope of skepticism. Wagg also throws up a strawman or two.

I’m convinced that a litmus test over who’s a skeptic and who isn’t based on religious belief is harmful to both movements.

Absolutely no one has proposed such a litmus test. Even I, loud and obnoxious hard core atheist, have specifically stated there should be no such restriction. Does Wagg really think Randi or DJ Grothe are going to be more snide about religion than I am?

Skepticon does have a strong anti-religion emphasis. So? This is a subject open to criticism, and it’s perfectly fair to apply skepticism to religion as much as we would to dowsing or Bigfoot. If someone had organized a skeptics’ conference with an emphasis on, for instance, quack medicine, I doubt that anyone would have squawked that “it’s harming the cause!”, “it’ll make skeptics who believe in homeopathy uncomfortable”, or “it’s diluting medicine and destroying skepticism”. And if Wagg really feels strongly about reinforcing his narrow vision of what skepticism should be, he’s welcome to organize his own conference. Complaining that someone else has put in the hard work of creating a successful conference because it isn’t the conference Wagg would assemble smacks of pettiness and sour grapes.

The closest thing to a reasonable attempt to describe a boundary putting atheism outside skepticism is this:

I believe that if you equate skepticism with anything other than science, you’ve missed the point. As for Christianity, skepticism has nothing to say except about testable claims associated therein. Bleeding statues? Yes, skepticism comes into play. Jesus rose and is in heaven? Seems unlikely, but there’s not a lot more to say.

This is a common and entirely unbelievable rationalization that I most often hear from theists, and I don’t buy it for a moment. A claim that a magic man rose from the dead and flew up into the sky is certainly something we should be skeptical about! And further, the argument that because it is untestable, it is a statement that skeptics must be neutral about is thoroughly bogus, and opens the door to exempting the most ludicrous, poorly justified, crazy claims from skeptical scrutiny. It’s also dishonest about Christianity; it certainly does make specific historical claims that are subject to assessment (and several of the talks today did just that), it proposes phenomena that violate our knowledge of how the world works, and it lacks credible evidential justification for its central ideas.

It also takes an awesome amount of arrogance to declare certain subjects off-limits to inquiry, and that even considering them damages the skeptical movement. That also requires a truly astonishing lack of self-awareness.

JT has also responded to this nonsense. I think we can tell where the future of skepticism lies.