Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Atheism and (not) being a dick: a belated rant with copious footnotes

The "What would convince you that there is a god/supernatural/really weird thing out there?" argument continues. I didn't read the whole thread.  I'm feeling fatigued on the subject, honestly.  It's easy to demonstrate the existence of weird things (even really weird ones), rather more difficult to prove the supernatural (depending on how you define it), and impossible, so far as I'm concerned, to prove the existence of a god.  There.

A few months ago the discussion was raging over what it means for a skeptic to be a dick, after "Bad Astronomer" Phil Plait gave a talk entitled "Don't Be a Dick" at The Amazing Meeting (TAM) in Las Vegas.  You can read Daniel Loxton's* summary of the situation on Skeptiblog here.  He and P.Z. Myers had quite a lot of back-and-forth during that time, both on Skepticblog and on Twitter,** which was definitely interesting to read.  But it was disenchanting as well, because it's always disenchanting to see (or be one of) people who are part of a group defined as much by the perception of outsiders as by those of insiders disagree dramatically about what that group represents, and how much they should care.  I'm trying to describe this without portraying it as if there are only two sides, because there never are.  There are not simply a) those people who tell it like it is, vs. b) those people who accommodate.  There are also people who think they are "just telling it like it is" but are actually dicks, and people who are perceived as accommodating but are actually just telling it like it is according to them rather than those accusing them of accommodation.  And, of course, other people in between those groups.  If you've taken part in any ideological group's discussion concerning "strategy," "message," or "framing," you probably know what I'm talking about...especially if there were scientists involved in the discussion, as scientists are notorious for not giving a damn about how their revelations are perceived.  That's not their job-- they do the work and report the results.  How you think about the results is your problem.

I'm sympathetic to that position, but it's also terribly naive when it comes to communicating to the public.  People, including scientists, are susceptible to scores of biases and information filters they've never even heard of.  Studying these biases and filters is fascinating and I'll never tire of it, but thinking that it will somehow cure you of having them yourself is a little like thinking that if Data from Star Trek: TNG learned enough about emotions, he could somehow acquire them.***  Your nature won't allow that to happen-- the best that will happen is that occasionally you will be able to catch yourself exercising a bias and make some effort to correct it, or feel the discomfort of cognitive dissonance at times when it would otherwise have passed you by and allowed you to comfortably maintain mutually exclusive views in peace.  People react differently to the same information depending on the source, language, time of day or year, and so on.  Context matters.  If you have a specific message you want to get across, paying attention to the context in which you express it is essential, and it doesn't require dishonesty either to yourself or to your audience despite what is claimed by those who refuse to pay such attention. 

Sometimes, by contrast, being a dick involves dishonesty.  Or at least, it involves misrepresenting the truth when you really should know better, such as saying that people are religious or have different political beliefs than you because they are idiots.  Gah.  People who actually do think that don't need a lesson on framing or strategy; they just need to look around once in a while.  Francis Collins is religious, Ken Miller is religious, Justin Barrett is religious....these people are not morons.  Every member of my immediate family, which includes four people with the title "Dr.", are religious.  They are not morons.  Nor are they insane, or evil, or any of those facile explanations so often used by a different kind of "new atheist."****  Such is the language of people who are eager to embrace an "us vs. them" mentality and have no interest in promoting understanding-- having an opponent, and feeling like you've trounced them, is so much more satisfying.

And it's so much more understandable in a country like America, which cherishes freedom of speech and has the luxury of mass communication but also includes a number of people convinced that they live in a Christian nation whose laws should reflect those in the Bible (the one in their heads at least).  Copenhagen was an interesting location at which to hold an international atheist conference this year, given that Denmark is generally acknowledged to be one of the most secular countries on the planet.  This country, in which I spent three years working on my PhD, has an official state religion-- the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark.  By law, its monarch (currently Margrethe II) is required to be a member of that church.  But like the U.K. which has its own established church, there is little inclination in the country's government to pay lip service to religious beliefs themselves or to compel the people via legislation to do so by word or deed.  Hence there is a large population of nonbelievers who nevertheless should probably not be considered atheists at all,***** let alone angry ones.  When the conference was announced, a Danish friend of mine commented on Facebook that (I paraphrase) while he doesn't believe in a god, he finds the idea of gathering specifically for atheists mystifying and unnecessary at best and downright obnoxious at worst.  I can entirely understand that sentiment from his perspective, but from mine it's very different.  People who perceive themselves as oppressed, rightly or wrongly, will attack the ideology of the perceived oppressors vociferously and actively.  An atheist group in Denmark, in spite of (or perhaps because of?  I pondered this in England too) its state religion, is about as subversive as opting to have chicken rather than beef at a barbeque.  It's not that European countries don't have their own very heated conflicts about religion-- they obviously do, as the Muhammad cartoon controversy reveals to this day-- it's just that the right to be a secular person is not nearly as much in question as it is in the U.S., and that can throw anyone who has such desires into defensive mode.  I just wish that didn't translate into the kind of culture war we're seeing now.

All of this is at the top of my mind at the moment because next week I'm off to Missouri to attend Skepticon 3, which might as well be called Atheistcon judging by its schedule.  That in itself does not bother me-- I'm really looking forward to it, actually-- but I've never been to a skeptical or atheist conference in the U.S. and am not quite sure what I signed up for at this point.

* Daniel's the guy who produces the Junior Skeptic feature in Skeptic magazine and recently published his first book, Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be, an evolution primer for kids.  It's a beautiful book and well-written, worth checking out even if you're well past your years of being "junior" anything.  

** If you're one of those who-- like I used to-- think that Twitter is just a place for people to compare what they had for breakfast and write in abysmal grammar about who they hooked up with last night and what they watched on're wrong.  Or at least you're following the wrong people. 

 *** Yes, Trekkers, I know.....Data did exercise emotion on several occasions on the show.  I also know the problems inherent in postulating a consciousness, even an artificial one, that tries to function without emotion.  Do not try to think this example through past the intended meaning. 

****People apply the term "New Atheists" to those like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.  They should be applying it to people who have recently concluded that they are atheists, especially in America, because it would be a much clearer usage.  People who think Dawkins is strident should talk to a 22-year-old in a chat room who refers to the "holey babble" and all religious people as "god-botherers." It's a least for most.  

***** I don't share the definition of "atheist" Phil Zuckerman uses.  To me the label for a person who won't necessarily say they believe in a god but nevertheless believes in "something" (as did the majority of interviewees described by Phil in a talk he gave to us in Aarhus, as I recall) is not properly "atheist."


  1. I think the need for framing is the problem because people can manipulate the message and obscure what the "data" says. The most important role skeptics have is to show that there is data and conclusions independent of framing. This is why "accomodationism" in my opinion harms the cause of skepcticism. It is also why TAM London was so much, much better than TAM 8.

  2. I would have loved to attend TAM London but didn't have the chance. Would you mind elaborating on what it was like, and why it was so much better than the Vegas version?


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