James Croft reviews Skepticon, and the Deep Rifts it exposes.
Skepticon 11 couldn’t have been more different. This year, of all the main presenters, there wasn’t a single white man – in their place, instead, a queer and colorful array of social justice warriors, exploring topics like intersectionality, race and racism, and secular ritual. The participants, too, were notably more diverse, with more women and genderqueer people than I have even seen at a skeptics event.
This is a marked shift in a relatively short time: something has happened to organized secularism, such that its priorities and population have rapidly changed. Today, there is a deepening rift between two wings of the movement, and the changes in Skepticon demonstrate this perfectly. The new rift in the secular community, it seems to me, parallels one deepening in the culture at large: it is between those who are on board with contemporary social justice culture, and those who are not.
In the community of skeptics, this rift is filled with lava: there is an incredibly intense animosity between those on different sides, and the divide seems impossible to cross. I think I know why this is. The USA, being deeply religious and deeply wedded to certain forms of woo, tends to dislike those who reject religion and supernaturalism. Thus people who value the fact that their beliefs are the result of rational scrutiny are treated as if they are wrong or even immoral, driving them to find community with like-minded skeptics. (I have observed that in the countries and regions where religion and supernaturalism are strongest, so is organized skepticism – one drives people to the other.)
This community is to them a safe space. For the mainly cishet white men who originally found their home in organized skepticism, it was a place where they could feel valued, welcomed, and smart despite holding views which were not always esteemed in wider society. There they could say what was really on their mind. They could rail against the stupidity of creationism and the dangers of dogmatism. They could relax, and be themselves, and be celebrated for being themselves. It was a place to celebrate skepticism qua skepticism, without the disapproval they experienced in the wider world. Safe spaces are intoxicating and beloved: sometimes they are the only place where those people can live into the fullness of themselves.
Yet organized skepticism was never safe for everybody. Those spaces, while affirming skeptics qua skeptics, consistently failed to address the issues which make wider society unwelcoming to everyone who isn’t a cis straight white man. Skeptic events had problems with sexual harassment. They invited mainly cishet white male speakers. They focused on issues which were of interest and importance to cishet white males (as well as a small selection of other issues where the connection with religion was particularly clear). Thus the movement was mainly a playground for white cishet men.
Yeah, I’ve noticed. I can’t take credit for noticing, though, because I was stunned by the abrupt emergence of the split in the community — I remember blithely assuming that of course atheists and skeptics would find common cause with oppressed minorities everywhere and gladly welcome them into the fold (they were already there!), because they were constantly preaching about how the godless were discriminated against. I was shocked at the vehement anger that greeted my early suggestion that there was more to atheism than not believing in a god, and it took a couple of years for what Croft summarizes here to sink in, while that community and I were mutually alienating ourselves.
It’s clear with hindsight that there was a cishet white male skepticism, and a whole ‘nother branch of diverse skepticism, and I was a traitor to the former. Man, that lava burned when crossing it.