When Venn diagrams go bad

Or, why skeptics sometimes drive me nuts.

Sometimes, skeptics are the most smug and obnoxious people, blind to their own flaws, and lording it over atheists and humanists with their assumption that they are the natural lords of the entire domain of reason (and admittedly, sometimes atheists take the same tack; there are no innocent parties here). It’s extraordinarily annoying, especially when they start looking down their noses at mere atheists.

Case in point: Kyle Hill at JREF. You see, he attended both NECSS, a skeptical meeting, and the Freethought Festival, an atheist meeting, and was shocked at how stupid the atheists were (although he uses nicer words). Some of them didn’t know who Randi was, or what the JREF was, and one person even professed to believing in psychic energy. We’ve splintered too far, he says, when you can be skeptical about god but aren’t skeptical about psychic powers.

Oh, no! There’s a disjunct! Some atheists are idiots! That’s a point I actually agree with — of course there are. They’re human. That means they’re a diverse group, and yes, there will be a wide range of different ideas floating about. Whenever you select a group for a position on one issue, such as disbelief in god, you’ll be able to find some in that group who have fringe beliefs on UFOs or ESP or an afterlife. It’s to be expected.

But this is also true of the organized skepticism he represents. Whenever you select a group for a position on one issue, such as alternative medicine or Bigfoot, you’ll be able to find some in that group who have fringe beliefs about other subjects. Hill himself notices that there are a lot of global warming deniers in the skeptical community, but this was not sufficient to tut-tut over TAM attendees deplorable lack of understanding of modern skepticism.

But here’s the smugness that annoys: this idea that “modern skepticism”, a very narrow and artificially bounded set of ideas, ought to be the parent of atheism…that skepticism is the superset, while atheism is only a subset.

When I talk about skepticism, I believe that I am talking about something that encompasses many other similar philosophies like atheism, humanism, and freethought. By this I mean that atheism, for example, is a logical extension of skepticism. Anecdotally, most skeptics that I know are in fact atheists. However, the disconnect came when I expected the reverse of this observation to also be true, i.e., that most atheists are skeptics.

Most atheists are skeptics. Hill just pretends from an anecdotal sample that most are not, by blithely overlooking the overlap. I could mention, for example, that a certain obnoxiously loud atheist — me — was a speaker at both NECSS and the Freethought Festival. That I hung out with people at the Freethought Festival who were quite familiar with the JREF, attended TAM, and were skeptical activists, and that at NECSS I ran into a number of people who were horrified at the idea of atheism. But unfortunately, skeptical organizations have a history of of marginalizing atheists as politically undesirable and uncomfortable — it is no surprise that there is a disconnect, because skeptical leaders have promoted that separation. And they also constantly make this bizarre assumption that they are in charge.

Take, for instance, this silly Venn diagram Hill uses to illustrate his point.

In the first part, he bemoans the fact that there are atheists who are not fully encompassed within the domain of skepticism — how unfortunate. In the second part, he illustrates his ideal: all atheists should be within skepticism, as a small part. What a shame that there are atheists who aren’t skeptical about psychic powers!

Do you see the glaring problem with his diagrammatic resolution? It jumps out at me, anyway.

Here, I’ll help you out and add a little color, this nice light blue.

WHAT THE FUCK ABOUT ALL THOSE SO-CALLED “SKEPTICS” WHO AREN’T SKEPTICAL ABOUT GOD? Oh, they’re perfectly OK. “Modern Skepticism” is equipped with loopholes to let them off the hook, perfectly illustrated in Hill’s diagram. But you have to wonder — why is Hill writing columns complaining about psychic believers in the atheist community, and global climate change deniers in the skeptical community, and not noticing 1) both communities have idiots in their midst and don’t get to claim the universal evidential high ground over the other, and 2) skepticism has a real problem with institutionalized acceptance of non-skepticism towards a global problem of far greater magnitude than psychic nonsense, the whole issue of religion?

He’s still attached to this flaw of “modern skepticism” that wants to isolate and diminish those socially contentious atheists. If he weren’t so blind to the issue, he might be able to better see my ideal, illustrated here.

I agree that every atheist ought to be a skeptic. But also, every skeptic ought to be an atheist. How can you seriously get all smug and high-minded about rejecting mind-reading because there is no evidence for it, a proliferation of frauds endorsing it, and no reasonable scientific mechanism explaining it, while at the same time sneering at atheists who reject this god notion because there is even less evidence for it, a world-wide history of even greater charlatanry (really, mind-readers are pikers next to priests), and a total rejection of the validity of scientific demands for substantiation from its proponents?

I’ll take organized skepticism far more seriously when they spend less effort at boundary setting and recognize their responsibility to address absurd beliefs of all kinds, not just the easy ones that aren’t embraced by a majority of benighted humanity.