Secularism has a tunnel-vision problem


There was a time, back when I was a paying subscriber to the Skeptical Inquirer, that I received this issue in the mail: the January/February 2000 issue, which proudly announced the Ten Outstanding Skeptics of the Twentieth Century. It stopped me cold, and I decided to not bother to renew my subscription.

Why? It starts this way:

We put that question to an elite group of scholars who should know—the Fellows and Scientific Consultants of CSICOP.

Sound familiar? A small group of really smart people appoint themselves to pick who the really smart people are. Unsurprisingly, a whole lot of the winners of this self-selected poll turned out to be…the Fellows and Scientific Consultants of CSICOP, leavened with a few big name additions, like Albert Einstein and Harry Houdini. It was so painfully incestuous, and it was terribly undefined: what does “outstanding” mean? Just the most famous? So it was some kind of popularity contest within CSICOP? And it was made the cover story?

And then, the list…the so oblivious and self-congratulatory list. It consists of ten white men. They also include a list of 14 runners-up who received multiple votes or at least one first-place vote: every one of them a white man. Where was Rachel Carson, Ellen Swallow Richards, Theo Colborn, or any of the women activists in the environmental movement? Not only were women invisible on this list, but you could tell that there was a bias against some significant areas of human endeavor. Where were the black civil rights leaders, like A. Philip Randolph, who questioned the social and political assumptions of the country, and was a humanist/atheist? Where was Emma Goldman? Where was the labor movement? There wasn’t even the slightest effort to reach out beyond the narrow bounds of their rarefied academic skepticism, no interest in expanding the scope of skepticism to stuff that mattered.

That still seems to be the problem. I really want to say to any organization that tries to represent atheists: get out more. Broaden your circle of friends. Circle jerks tend to be self-perpetuating and pointless.


  1. says

    Circle jerks tend to be self-perpetuating and pointless.

    Self-perpetuating? Actually, they have their own natural stopping mechanism.

  2. newenlightenment says

    The irony is one of the guys who definitely does deserve to be there – Carl Sagan – would have been the first to champion a broadening of the secular outlook. He only made it to number 3 as well!

  3. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    Movement atheoskeptisecularism is mostly a bunch of back-slappin’, ain’t-we-smarter-than-those-plebes bullshit. And sadly, those in charge really don’t seem to give a damn. They like it that way.

  4. D Carter says

    If it walks like a religion and talks like a religion…

    Next come Patron Saints of Python, Archbishop of Apple, Reverend Reparation. Sooner or later, some corner of every movement or trend, secular or not, deteriorates to religion–witness Soviet, North Korean, and anti-vaccine examples. Sigh–probably an inevitable human failing to be fought against, like bar fighting or bad knees.

  5. says

    This is what’s so galling about this Global yadda-yadda: The issue PZ describes is from 2000. Now it’s 2014. We’ve been talking our mouths raw in the last years about the importance of diversity, about biases and adding the voices of those concerned, and they extend a big fat middle finger and tell us: Go back to the kitches nad fields, you women and minorities, us white brights just know what’s best for you.

  6. blf says

    I also let my subscription to Skeptical Inquirer lapse some yonks ago (before poopyhead), for a variety of reasons. One of them was, I now realize, this “circle jerk” problem, the same people kept writing the articles, opinion pieces, and so on (mostly). Another — related — was the articles tended to be (at that time, anyways) debunking the same shite over and over again. Sometimes, admittedly, in a new guise, but a bit too often the same silliness, and hence a very similar debunking. It was getting boring, or at least less and less informative.

    Having said that, for quite a number of years, I rather liked both Skeptical Inquirer and CSICOP, and a number of the individuals associated with them (which, I just now realize, were all white men (Ok insofaras it goes…)). They are, as far as I know, still reliable and trustworthy, but as poopyhead says, a bit too “tunnel-vision”… (suggesting they may be — or, for all I know, is — problems not only with diversity but perhaps also MRA-ism and similar ?).

  7. neuroguy says

    At some point, I’d really like to see a discussion about precisely how and why skepticism/atheism makes the world a better place. IMNSHO these things matter little: it’s rational thinking and empathy that make the difference. The Slymepit crowd is correct in saying that atheism is completely compatible with misogyny. The libertarian crowd is correct in saying that atheism/skepticism is completely compatible with rapacious capitalism and extreme income inequality. But some of you will maybe say that these people aren’t actually engaging in rational thinking but only using the cover of atheism/skepticism to justify their biases. I would agree, but would point out that: first, this is a No True Scotsman argument (no TRUE atheist/skeptic ever engages in irrational thinking, which is ridiculous because no human will be ever COMPLETELY rational, no matter how hard we try); and second, you are agreeing with me that rational thinking is the key. I would also point out that it is not ONLY rational thinking that leads us to decry misogyny and libertarianism, but also a good bit of empathy for the less fortunate.

  8. neverjaunty says

    neuroguy: you’re using ‘rational thinking’ and ‘atheism’ interchangeably, which is an error. Atheism is also perfectly compatible with believing in homeopathy. There’s no fallacy unless you assume that all atheism is the result of rational thinking and all rational thinking leads inexorably to atheism, which manifestly isn’t true.

    You’re also making the erroneous assumption that misogyny and rapacious capitalism stem only from rational thinking, not emotion.

  9. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    There are a few factors in play, mostly with the loose meanings of various definitions. Like a Freethinker is often an atheist or deist, but the term also implies how the atheism was arrived at, and if that person is a true Freethinker, the process is also applied to other portions of their lives, and their political/moral outlook. A rationalist is probably a Freethinker, and with those principles in effect, misogyny, liberturdism, and other pseudo-religious and non-evidenced ideas have a hard time taking hold, and aren’t taken seriously due to lack of evidence.

    If someone arbitrarily declares they don’t believe in any deity, they may or may not have a rational/Freethinking basis for the claim, but if they don’t go any farther with analyzing why they said that, it could simply be an emotional appeal. Which is why some atheists also believe in certain pathological beliefs as the make them feel good about themselves, without analyzing the repercussions of their belief upon other people. Here is where the liberturds, misogynists, anti-vaxers, and new-ageists come under the atheist banner.

    Makes for a large tent with several holes in it.

  10. anbheal says

    @8 Neuroguy — there is sometimes a circle-jerk mentality among even the most tolerant and compassionate of atheists as well, which celebrates blogging over civil rights work in the trenches, and genuine social revolution. A couple of years ago, an FTBer (now quasi-defunct) had a poll to choose The Most Important Atheist Woman (more or less). I might have thought of someone like Dilma Roussef, or Cristina Kirchner, or perhaps various Union Leaders in China or Russia, whose names we are sadly too unfamiliar with. But the top three choices were two bloggers here and one on a sister network. Who undoubtedly elevate the consciousness of thousands of readers, and probably change the minds of many individuals who would be more racist or sexist or rapey if they hadn’t bothered to learn from these very smart bloggers. But that’s different from running a country. And I get it, that Dilma Roussef isn’t actively championing atheism, the way that Dawkins or Harris does, but if, for example, she gets constitutional changes or legislation approved in the Brazilian constitution that strips power away from the Catholic Church and protects minority rights, then she has done more for Brazilian atheists than any armchair activist.

    Then again, I bet there are a whole lot of college students and young activists who are inspired by what they read on FTB and other sites, who may someday become the Dimla Roussefs and Cristina Kirchners — so, it’s easy to smile at the pretenses of bloggers, but its harder to predict the revolutions their pensees may presage.

  11. neuroguy says


    Huh? I simply cannot understand why you would think I’m using “rational thinking” and “atheism” interchangeably when the whole point was they are NOT interchangeable, and led me to question the value of atheism in making the world a better place. I gave two clear examples where they are not: misogyny and libertarianism. There are atheist misogynists and there are atheist libertarians, and to deny this is a “No True Scotsman” argument. You gave a third example: there can be atheist homeopaths, which I wouldn’t deny either. I also can’t understand why you would think I was saying misogyny and libertarianism stemmed from rational thinking when my post said just the opposite:

    But some of you will maybe say that these people aren’t actually engaging in rational thinking but only using the cover of atheism/skepticism to justify their biases. I would agree…


    Makes for a large tent with several holes in it.

    Right, which leads me to question the use or value of the tent.

  12. Ichthyic says

    I gotto go with neuroguy and the response to #9 as …. huh?

    I think you actually violently agreed with neuroguy’s premise, while thinking he said the exact opposite of what he did.


  13. says

    Re that title: I’m beginning to think, more and more, that it’s not just that I’m so very Not A Joiner, but, indeed, yes, it really does. Among other probably very related problems.

    It’s a hazy, general, probably incredibly unhelpful statement. But it seems the best I can come out with, as yet, despite years of muddling through it. Because, honestly, the more and more I’ve been thinking about this thing over the past few years, the more I keep thinking, too, I just really don’t like these people. Or, maybe a little more kindly, and hopefully more helpfully and precisely, I don’t like how they treat other people.

    I keep trying to sketch these essays–mostly just trying to work it out for myself, mind–Just What The Hell Is Wrong With Movement Atheism is the general and way too full-of-myself title–and it’s still a mess, honestly. I can’t do it, yet, can’t put it all together… I could do bullet lists, but no one would find it helpful, I think, and nor do I…

    I keep feeling vaguely guilty and vaguely unwise that I’m generally disconnected from any kind of formal, organized thing on this. Seems unsmart. I have very definite and I think good reasons for staying as visible as I have done, being as vocal as I have done–and having allies is generally a good thing. Hell, like 99 percent of my motivation for anything I do and say in this area generally comes from that understanding, on a somewhat more intuitive level: people shouldn’t feel alone, be alone on this stuff, this coming from personal experience. Wrote somewhere else this is really what I want to be able to bring to this, to be able to say to people, look, it’s not just you; you’re not alone…

    … but, generally, the organizations haven’t felt to me like generally useful allies to me, in this. Worse, lately, they begin to feel like they’re part of the problem, or, maybe, a slightly different but very similar problem. And I’m no longer feeling I need to be out here just for people alienated from the religion they’re raised in, for people feeling stifled, feeling a need to be heard saying they can’t be part of this, can’t play along; I’m feeling I need to be out here for people alienated also from movement atheism, from the formal ‘skeptical’ organizations.. Like I’m going to be saying a lot of the same things, even: no, you’re not crazy, no, you’re not alone; there’s something messed up, there. It’s not just you…

    Dunno. Like I said: probably not especially helpful. But that’s the general sentiment of it. And this latest thing, it’s just one more data point, really. I’m not even disappointed, anymore. I’m just nodding. A little wearily.

    The maybe/hopefully half-insightful helpful thing I can say about this: the problem here is about how we organize ourselves, socially, more than any formal cosmology or epistemology, the two more obvious things religion gets so very wrong. Those first two are really pretty easy things to see, so relatively easy things to fix. But if you wind up re-creating the college of bishops, but this time we call it the college of secular bishops, and mostly they seem concerned with the secular equivalent to some kind of academic theology–where screeds on why they can be no bigfoot are the deepest thoughts anyone’s bringing forward–you’ve clearly really only fixed a tiny part of the mess left by the old one. And perpetuated, quite possibly, several additional parts just as generally toxic.

    The hordes of the raving responding to a simple ‘Guys, don’t do that’, I think, was part and parcel of the same thing… Thanks, Ms. Watson, again, I guess, for bearing the brunt you did.

    (And it’ll all be clear in my soon-to-be-published pamphlet, or something, really, which will have below this a donation form, as I start my own incredibly misbegotten mistake of an organization in response–tax deductible!–or something–but seriously, yeah, it’s a muddle, but just thinking out loud, here. Because even though I’m still not thinking anything very clearly, I’ve been thinking it not-out-loud way too long. And I’ll probably just go back to writing that essay, quietly, for another year, now.)

  14. Jared Ragland says

    Howard Zinn would have eviscerated these guys as part of the problem.

    He would have been right.