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Saturday, November 27, 2010

So....Skepticon

I'm glad I went, and I had a good time.  That said, I most likely won't go back.

It's amazing, what they're doing.  A free conference in the Midwest for non-believers, with this kind of lineup of stellar speakers?  Anybody in the area who is remotely interested in these topics would be well-served in checking it out.  This is the third year of Skepticon in Springfield MO, and the list of speakers includes most of the same people from the previous two years but keeps getting larger.  Normally in order to attend a sizable gathering for skeptics, you'd have to be on either the west or east coast.  I would love to attend The Amazing Meeting (TAM) in Las Vegas at some point, but seem to recall the tickets as costing around $400 for the entire weekend, which is beyond the means of many people, let alone college students.

And college students from Missouri State University are the people who instigated, planned, and organized this meeting.  The primary organizer, JT Eberhard, almost never stopped moving.  He managed to sit down and listen to a few minutes of some talks, but from what I could tell he was mostly running around making sure things went smoothly.  That's what being in charge of a conference is like-- the people throwing the party are usually the last ones to have time to enjoy it.  And this conference was like a party in a lot of ways.  In a rare spare moment I met JT and we talked for a bit.  He explained that the intent was to give skeptics a chance to get together, see that there are lots of others like them, curse a lot, later drink a lot, and have fun.

Now, to the controversial part.  I don't know if Jeff Wagg's blog post which said that Skepticon is not actually about skepticism but rather atheism is the only openly voiced complaint to that effect, but it seems to be the one getting the most attention.  Wagg's post is, on the balance, not at all offensive.  In fact, he goes out of his way to note his respect for the conference and its organizers, refers to his ruminating on this subject as "navel gazing," and in general is about as self-effacing as could be.  The title of his post, "Are Atheists Delusional?" is deliberately provocative and Wagg immediately notes that he believes nothing of the sort, but is simply trying to echo a talk given by Richard Carrier at Skepticon entitled "Are Christians Delusional?"  I still think he could've used a better title, but so be it. Wagg's argument:
I don’t believe the schedule shows “a myriad of skeptical issues.” The e-mail is an admission that the organizers of Skepticon believe that Skepticism = Atheism and that the event is designed to combat religion, specifically Christianity. 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. . .
The pro-atheist cause is an entirely different endeavor with a community that overlaps strongly with the skeptical community. Skepticism is about drawing conclusions that are proportioned to the available evidence. That’s it. And I think keeping the two things separate if [sic] vitally important.
This message was not taken at all well by Eberhard, who responded at AtheismResources.com, or PZ Myers, who has been a speaker at Skepticon since its inception.  Eberhard notes that several of the speakers scheduled were expected to talk about skepticism generally, and even if it were a conference all about atheism he wouldn't care:
My first response is that even if we were a purely atheist convention, so what?  Skepticism leads to certain conclusions like homeopathy doesn’t work or that psychics are frauds.  Just as certain as it leads to those conclusions, it also leads to the conclusion that god doesn’t exist (or that anybody claiming to have good reason to believe that god exists has done so in error).  And just like the previous conclusions, people who fail to grasp the godlessness of the universe often hamstring society. 
PZ, predictably, denounced Wagg's comments as "stupid" concerns about "harming the cause."  He then linked back to JT's commentary saying "I think we can tell where the future of skepticism lies," which caused JT to tweet:
@ calls me as the future of skepticism, links to me bitch-slapping JWagg. So flattered I shit my pants. 
Let's back up a bit.

I've been following the Skepticon Twitter feed throughout (#sk3), and now that it's over I noticed there are a lot of warm and fuzzy feelings being voiced, sometimes with people going so far as to say that they're not looking forward to going back to the "real world" after Skepticon. That's something people might say about any vacation or trip, and is in fact a regular post-con feeling for people who attend big events like DragonCon or ComicCon. But specifically what people are referring to is the time they spent amongst fellow unbelievers.   The blog for Skepticon 2 summarizes the event somewhat tongue-in-cheek but not untruthfully as "We're inviting a bunch of famous atheists to Springfield to criticize religion and explain how it's very dangerous."  The program for Skepticon 3, on its front page under the title, says "Unbuckling the Bible Belt" and the History section on the back reads:
The Skepticon series began in October of 2008 when a small group of pirates decided that they wanted to make a difference in the town of Springfield, MO.  They then somehow convinced PZ Myers and Richard Carrier to come to the Missouri State Campus to spread skepticism and criticize religion.
It's admirable that this summary's author acknowledges that spreading skepticism and criticizing religion are not identical ventures, and I hope he/she would also agree that criticizing religion is not necessarily even a subset of skepticism.  If skepticism means thinking critically and demanding evidence for the truth of an assertion before accepting it as true, which is how I define it, then one can quite easily criticize religion without being skeptical at all.  And, let's be honest, doing it that way is both easier and more fun for a lot of people, just as criticizing anything you want to be critical about can be easier and more fun if you're not actually concerned with evaluating the facts.  During his talk on Saturday morning, DJ Grothe described atheism as a kind of skepticism toward a particular topic-- belief in God.  He compared it to "a-UFO-ism," in that an atheist is a person who doesn't believe in God just as an a-UFO-ist would be a person who disbelieves in flying saucers.  But disbelief in a thing and skepticism regarding that thing are not identical.  People do not necessarily disbelieve in things because they are critical thinkers any more than they believe in things for that reason.  The irony in maintaining that people believe in God because they are stupid is that this conclusion is not at all bright itself, and atheists who maintain such while smugly congratulating each other on their critical thinking skills are not much fun to spend time with.

No, I'm not going to claim that this description fits the majority of people who attend Skepticon.  I will say, however, that creating an opportunity to criticize religion as an end unto itself is an invitation for people to engage in that sort of behavior.  It creates an atheist echo chamber-- as DJ put it, people saying "I'm really smart and so are you, so you should agree with me."  That's not a bad thing because it "hurts the movement," though it almost certainly does.  It's a bad thing because at that point it's no longer about skepticism, but cronyism.

The two areas of concern to be discussed during a conference on skepticism could be labeled Topic-Driven, or "things to be skeptical about," and Theory-Driven, or "how/why to be skeptical."  Most of the talks and both panels in this case were theory-driven, and that's okay.  But the topic-driven talks actually served to highlight things that should be discussed during the theory-driven ones.  Amanda Marcotte, for example, commented during her interesting talk on how irrationality nurtures sexism that religion acts as a "blank slate" when it comes to encouraging prejudice-- because it's a matter of faith and therefore doesn't demand the same burden of proof that other areas of belief do, it can be used to reinforce any pre-existing biases people have.  That's an interesting hypothesis, but she didn't supply evidence for it.  It could be that religion can only reinforce certain types of bias, or that only certain types of religion can.  Or it could be that religion is actually more likely to produce bias where it previously didn't exist.  I think that's unlikely, actually, but it's possible.  And it's a discussion worth having, considering the breadth of disagreement about how much blame religion should receive when people invoke it to justify their bigoted thoughts and acts.   These topics don't have to be avoided because they're weighty or boring, either-- David Fitzgerald, who went next, managed to make an interesting and funny talk out of the ostensibly very dry subject of differing representations of Jesus in historical literature. You don't have to swap skepticism for ideology to have a good time.  Man, I hope that you don't. 

Wagg's principle complaint is that he doesn't think religion is an appropriate topic for skepticism past a certain point, and that point is "testable claims."  In his view, bleeding statues qualify, but resurrection does not.  Bleeding statues and such are the domain of investigator Joe Nickell, who also spoke at Skepticon and explicitly rejects the label of "debunker" because he wants it noted that the falsity of supernatural claims is not a foregone conclusion for him.  But could Nickell investigate the topic of resurrection?  Sure he could-- by applying what we know about biology to specific claims that someone came back to life.  And aside from cases of someone flat-lining and being revived via defibrillation and the sort, what we know is that people don't come back to life.  Therefore, the skeptical stance to such a proposition is not to deny it outright, but it's also certainly not to believe it, or even to adopt the kind of agnostic position we might have when being asked what color socks the president is wearing today.  The skeptical stance regarding the claim of resurrection is: Everything we know says that it's incredibly unlikely that that thing happened, so I do not believe it.  Not only is there incredibly sketchy evidence for the resurrection of a man, but there is evidence against it.  Skepticism can be applied to any and all empirical claims, and the resurrection of a person, like so many other religious claims, is empirical.  Hence, fair game.  Richard Dawkins goes so far as to say that a universe which was deliberately created would look different from one which wasn't, so our understanding of the universe can be counted as evidence against the existence of the creator god in whom so many believe.  Essentially, he claims that the hypothesis offered by Intelligent Design, effectively the teleological argument, is actually refuted by the available evidence its proponents intend to confirm it.*

So religion is not at all a subject which should be counted as out of bounds for skeptics-- so long as they are being skeptical about it, and not simply mocking and condemning it.  If someone is the type of person who cares enough about religion to have become an atheist as a conclusion to a lot of thought and research, it baffles me why they wouldn't be interested in what research has to say about why people are religious in the first place, and what evidence science might have to offer about religious claims.  Daniel Dennett's book Breaking the Spell has its critics among believers and scholars (and many who fit only one of those categories), but in addition to saying 1) Hey, we shouldn't consider religion a sui generis topic that isn't susceptible to the same scrutiny we give every other claim about reality, and 2) Here are the most common arguments for theism and why they fail philosophically, which are both important messages, he also delves into the considerable body of research on why and how people actually believe.  Which, I think, is the next logical step for a true skeptic so that he/she doesn't fall into the "they're just stupid/evil" trap.  And the explanations are there, if you just look for them-- trust me.  If you'd prefer to believe that the majority of world's population are actually just stupid and/or evil, I can't help you.  But I can say that that's not a skeptical position to take. 

So, I guess that means I don't agree with Jeff Wagg.  But neither do I necessarily agree with DJ, whose perspective is right-on but he doesn't seem to be skeptical enough about skeptics.  I don't think he acknowledges that they're vulnerable to the same tendencies as everybody else in terms of wanting to belong, and forming an "us vs. them" mentality.  That's how you get people who think that being skeptical is about your position on topics-- a conclusion rather than an approach, which is not how science works.  It's not about making sure everyone agrees and celebrating that....quite to the contrary, it's about pulling out the disagreements and examining them, finding out which arguments are legitimate and why. That's fun. That's skepticism. 



*Is Dawkins right about that?  Maybe, but that discussion could go on forever, and I don't honestly think that most atheists became atheists by applying the teleological argument in reverse.  Even if they agree that evolution demonstrates that a creator god who directly intervened in existence to create each species is unnecessary, that belief is not what made them atheists.  People were skeptical about the existence of gods long before evolutionary theory was even a glimmer of an idea, as even William Dembski will admit when pressed (perhaps by Christopher Hitchens), and it's possible to find atheists today who either deny evolution (rare) or don't actually understand evolution that well though they know they're "supposed" to believe it (much more common).  The Hitchens/Dembski debate from the 18th has been posted on Youtube, by the way. Worth a watch I think.

8 comments:

  1. Very good, thought-provoking comments. I guess an answer to the question "Does skepticism lead to atheism?" is "Yes, it can, but so can a lot of other things, including emotional reactions, bad experiences with religion, and so on."

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  2. Thanks, Jim. Yes, I think that's a good answer. And even if a person's skepticism is what leads him/her to doubt the existence of gods, that doesn't necessarily mean that he/she will apply skepticism to any other claims about religion. Being an atheist doesn't mean your critical thinking work is done, so you can hang up your skeptic hat and go off to party. Go to the party, yes-- but leave the hat on.

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  5. First, let me thank you for the individual props you handed me. They are well-received.

    Now for the nitty gritty...

    I take issue with this part:

    "The irony in maintaining that people believe in God because they are stupid is that this conclusion is not at all bright itself"

    Who said this? Certainly not me. There are plenty of very intelligent religious people in the world. Blaise Pascal, Francis Collins, Isaac Newton, all very smart people - all held a particularly stupid idea in the heads. We can say that an idea is entirely without merit without branding those who subscribe to it as stupid - merely mistaken. Sadly, it seems a lot of the rest of your post is predicated on this idea.

    And echo chambers are absent new ideas. Plenty of arguments were introduced during the course of the weekend and there were religious people in attendance to hear them (some were interviewed on the news). Good luck finding the same at TAM, which you said you'd like to attend.

    The mentality of us vs. them exists only so far as it somewhat captures our stance of reason vs. unreason, and that is a position that benefits both mankind and our movement, contrary to your assertion that it almost certainly harms it. That is the very essence of skepticism and it does contribute to an us vs. them mentality insofar as we recognize the value of reason and we assert that our opposition does not.

    As for us doing harm, we took a stand in the middle of the bible belt and we brought a thousand people together for it. Our numbers continue to grow exponentially (as does TAM's). I keep hearing people advance the idea that what we're doing is somehow causing damage, but nobody accounting for these facts (or pointing to where the damage is done).

    In fact, you are the first person I've come across who isn't beside themselves with excitement to come back next year. We can't please all the people all the time, and the occasional person put off by our message does not strike me as 'damage'. I can say this because Wagg's post was also not taken well by Jen McCreight and Hemant Mehta, both bloggers you link to from your site, and several others. People are rallying around the need to assault religion, and they are excited that there is an organization bringing it into the skeptical fold. This is not damage - it is progress.

    JT

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  6. Hi, JT. Thanks for commenting.

    It doesn't surprise me at all that there are so many people who had a great time at the conference and are excited about coming back last year. Nor do I find it at all bothersome that you or anyone else has concluded that religious beliefs are a "mistake." What I didn't see in this year's conference was much conversation about why they are a mistake, how we know, and how people end up so mistaken about something so important in their lives-- and ours, because we don't buy into it. If religion is a topic for skepticism (and it absolutely should be), those are topics that need to be addressed.

    There are scientists who have dedicated their careers to figuring out the ins and outs of religious belief, and they are mostly atheists. Yet you don't see them attending skepticism conferences, because their focus is not normative-- or at least not primarily. I tweeted Jesse Bering, who authored The Belief Instinct, about Skepticon. His reply was "I'm not one for unions of any sort. Atheist conventions strike me as being remarkably like backslapping Bible camps." Jesse is about as fervent an atheist as you could get. If skepticism is the term for what happens when science turns into an ideology, the scientists who actually study religion don't appear to be eager to join it. And I think that's sad, because those who call themselves skeptics could stand to learn a lot from these people. Read Jesse's book when it comes out, or Why Would Anyone Believe in God? by that rare theistic scholar of religion and cognition, Justin Barrett. Scientists have studied religion for a long time, but religion and cognition-- the study of how the mind produces religious beliefs and behaviors-- is pretty new. And it's important, because it provides the evidence to confirm or dis-confirm beliefs that atheists have about why theists believe and behave the way they do.

    When I was in college, it was a big undertaking to finally acknowledge to my fellow students that I was a non-Christian-- I never even told them I was an atheist. The notion of attending a grand and glorious party for new atheists more than a thousand strong in the Midwest would've been unthinkable at that point, so I'm not going to disparage your decision to do that. But I think "party for new atheists" is a better label here than "conference for skeptics."

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  7. Again, I disagree.

    Cognitive sciences are not the only means of disproving religion, especially Christianity. Carrier, Fitzgerald, Stenger, myself, and other all provided arguments from a myriad of disciplines for not only why we shouldn't buy into religion (and equipping those in attendance to go out into the world and make that case), but for why people should care and why they should be vocal. These are the skeptical topics you write about and they were verily present - even if they weren't from the one discipline you've so far mentioned.

    Glad you support the event and glad you had a good time, but I'm not sold on the need for a name change. Being skeptical of religion deserves just as much of a piece of the skepticism pie as skepticism of alt-med, ghosts, or any other subject, if not more.

    JT

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  8. Two things to reiterate:

    1. Cognitive science is not a means of disproving religion at all. It is a means of understanding how and why people practice religion, which is the inevitable question that comes up while marshaling evidence that show why religious claims are wrong. After realizing that simply disproving religious claims does not magically stop people from being religious, a skeptic starts to wonder why that is.

    Cognitive science of religion, by the way, is an inter-disciplinary approach using research from anthropology, neuroscience, experimental psychology, evolutionary psychology, experimental philosophy, linguistics, etc. Basically using every science that studies how the mind works to understand how religion works.

    2. I never argued that religion is not a topic for skeptical inquiry-- quite the opposite, actually, emphatically. I am saying that an atheistic approach is not necessarily a skeptical approach, and specifying that the intent is to "assault religion" conveys the former. The obvious reply of the person using the skeptical approach is to ask "What is religion, why should we assault it, and how?"

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