Jan 31 2013

PZ Replies

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237 responses so far

237 Responses to “PZ Replies”

  1. Harker067on 31 Jan 2013 at 10:38 am

    OK here’s what bugs me….

    You define these three terms as below:
    “For the purpose of convenience, and wanting to avoid getting bogged down in semantics, I am going to define (for this post) three terms: scientific skepticism deals with empirical claims and the promotion of science, atheism focuses on opposing religion and faith, and rationalism seeks to apply reason and skepticism to all areas.”

    Then you go on to use a number of terms, skeptical movement (organizations activists etc), skeptics, and skepticism. You never seem to have defined skeptism in these situations…..

    From this part “What I hear is that there is no meaningful philosophical distinction between skepticism and atheism, therefore skeptics are atheists …”

    Is it to be taken as a given that skeptical here short hand for scientific skepticism? ie “What I hear is that there is no meaningful philosophical distinction between scientific skepticism and atheism therefore scientific skeptics are atheists…”

    If so you might make a clearer argument if you defined this in the body post or stuck to a more rigid use of your defined terms.

  2. Steven Novellaon 31 Jan 2013 at 10:49 am

    Didn’t I define scientific skepticism at length in my post yesterday? I also summarized it today as the distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism. You can read my post on that topic that I previously linked to. I can’t write a book every time I delve into such topics.

  3. JustinWilsonon 31 Jan 2013 at 11:00 am

    As a skeptical atheist, I personally feel that the skeptical movement should not focus on religion. Personal faith in something that is untestable is not my concern. Our constitution gives us moderate protection from being force-fed religious ideology in classrooms and I will do what I can to protect that. The core issue with chasing the religious issue is: if pastor Smith says god created the heavens and the earth. I may ask, “how?” If he says god used all the natural processes around us to create everything we see, how do I prove he’s wrong? Why would I try? I don’t know that he is wrong.

    Focusing, as Steven suggests, on empirical claims and using the appropriate scientific field to address issues is a course with a solid foundation. No topics are off the table, only lines of inquiry.

    I think the biggest frustration with the movement is the slow progress. It’s science – it ain’t fast.

  4. Murmuron 31 Jan 2013 at 11:00 am

    “Argument 1: skepticism is fine if you point it at things which very few people really believe (bigfoot;alien abduction) because if they get angry we can laugh at them. Don’t point it at things which lots of people believe! There are lots of them and if they get angry that might be scary!”

    I would like whoever wrote that to sit in on various discussions I have had with friends who are all either atheist or agnostic but who firmly believe in alien abduction, homeopathy, chiropractic, ghosts and spirit guides. I have been called a number of quite unsavoury things, by my own friends, because I dare to challenge their beliefs on these matters, yet they will gladly chuckle at those going to church every week. True Believers come in all shapes and sizes and implying someone is a coward based on your own anecdotal evidence is disingenuous.

  5. jblumenfeldon 31 Jan 2013 at 11:01 am

    Steve,

    The semi-argument you and I have always had is that when you remove all the testable truth-claims from religion, you are left with a religion that nobody has cause nobody wants (to paraphrase the Lorax for a moment). No religion stops at mere untestable claims like the Omphalos argument you specify above (that the Universe might have been created 6000 years ago to look like its 13.7 billion years old). So when skepticism examines the testable truth claims of religion it pretty much examines all of religion that anyone really cares about.

    Also – atheism as defined simply as the negative of belief in God is pretty restricted, and pretty much not what almost anyone means by the word. Most atheists in my experience are opposed to both the testable and obviously false truth claims of religion, the untestable and therefore empty ‘Omphalos’ type claims, and the invasion of religion into the political sphere by its attempts to impose its dogma on others. So I think the barriers between your areas are pretty fluid in practice. What do you think?

  6. Harker067on 31 Jan 2013 at 11:09 am

    sigh…. no you misunderstood. You talk about scientific skepticism and its limits (which I understand your position on) then bounce back to issues of atheists and skeptics. Sometimes to me as a reader it seems like you’re conflating the 2 but it seems I’m just bothering you so I’ll leave.

  7. Steven Novellaon 31 Jan 2013 at 11:19 am

    Harker – not sure why you got that impression. I have been nothing but patient here.

    There is no clear definition of atheists and skeptics. Everyone pretty much defines what they mean for themselves, and I see every permutation – as I said yesterday, we jealously defend our intellectual individualism.

    I defined those terms for practical purposes of discussion for this post. Skeptics as those who generally are passionate about promoting science, atheists as those who are passionate about opposing faith and religion, and rationalists who are both. These are oversimplified categories used only for convenience.

    They do reflect, however, to a first approximation the cultural divides within the broader rationalist movement. That is the context of the very discussion we are having.

    Sorry if I am still missing your question – if so, please clarify.

  8. Steven Novellaon 31 Jan 2013 at 11:23 am

    Jon – I agree with you. This is what puzzles me about some atheist objections to my approach – in practice, we still take on every religious claim that matters. As I said – we are right there taking on every wacky religious belief, as long as there is a sliver of a testable claim or logic that can be examined. And if there are none – if they retreat to a completely insulated belief, then they are ejected from anything scientific, and our work is likewise done.

    In practice – this happens a lot. Individual arguments retreat to the untestable (with religious and non-religious beliefs). It doesn’t matter if an individual person has only untestable beliefs or not. What matters is – is the specific argument they are making now scientific, philosophical, or isolated faith? Deal with each appropriately.

  9. Kawarthajonon 31 Jan 2013 at 11:27 am

    Steve, I think you are missing one of PZ’s articles’ main points. He is talking about discrimination against atheists in the Sceptical movement, while you are avoiding the discussion of that topic entirely. His experience is that he, and other atheists, are being discriminated against and he has many examples to support that position. How is a discussion about discrimination against women/racial minorities more valid than a discussion about discrimination against atheists in the Sceptic movement? Ignoring discrimination, whether it is towards racial or gender minorities, or even atheists, will not make the problem go away but will serve to drive some people out of what should be, in my opinion, a more unified movement.

  10. jblumenfeldon 31 Jan 2013 at 11:32 am

    Thanks Steve. As I said, it’s only a semi-argument because we basically agree. The one thing that can always be pointed out to those who retreat to untestable claims is to ask why they’ve chosen that untestable claim over any of the infinity of similar untestable claims. The answer is usually some sort of internal revelation causing them to ‘just know its true.’ I think its important to point out that untestable claims are inherently extremely unlikely to turn out to be true and also are effectively sterile since they become testable as soon as they impinge on the real world – for example by God influencing a sporting event or changing water into wine or similar. So the atheist feels safe in saying “I can’t prove that your untestable claims are false, but I am going to live my life as if they are.”

    Anyway, always fun to come back to this topic, which seems itself to retreat to the definition of terms after a while.

  11. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 11:34 am

    I have essentially taken the position that scientific skepticism (like science) requires methodological naturalism, while atheism is a belief in philosophical naturalism.

    Whether intended or not I cannot say, but this is a gross oversimplication of what atheism is and as written is incorrect.

    Atheism is a lack of belief in gods. One needn’t be a philosophical naturalist to lack a belief in gods. One needn’t even apply any skeptical approaches, tools, or mindset to lack a belief in gods.

    Claiming gnostic atheism requires either implicit or explicit philosophical naturalism at a minimum. But even Dawkins clearly states he is an agnostic atheist.

    I think it is unreasonable to define atheism as a belief in anything, even philosophical naturalism.

    Now, how someone came to his or her atheism is an interesting question and, as I said above, is not necessary via skeptical inquiry. I’ve never believed in gods. I have been an atheist my whole life. I didn’t arrive to my conclusion by skepticism – I was always at that default position. I have solidified my stance and been able to argue against specific tenets and beliefs of religion using skeptical tools.

    So at a skeptical conference, would we want to hear a lecture from a person who debunks Bigfoot by citing the fact that the leprachauns told him Bigfoot wasn’t real? Of course not, we want skeptical (specifically scientifically skeptical) reasons which are generalizable to question beyond merely the veracity of Bigfoot.

    In the same way we wouldn’t want to hear from an atheist who is so only because he was abused as a boy by the Catholic Church and thus feels there cannot be any gods because the one he once believed in was served by such repugnant pederasts. That doesn’t address the methods and means of skeptical inquiry at reaching a conclusion. But someone who can describe a deconversion because of growing skeptical inquiry at the plethora of religious claims certainly seems like a good skeptical talk at a conference. Once again, these same reasons would be ultimately generalizable to Bigfoot and CAM.

    Of course, every conference is quite within its rights to focus on whatever specifically it wants or doesn’t want presented for absolutely any reason. But it is also quite fair to say that the arguments cited by PZ with prominemt organizers flat out saying that atheism is not a skeptical activity are false. That is very different to saying that it is a skeptical activity belonging to a specific subgroup which the organizers don’t want for specific reasons (whatever they may be). And both are different to saying that atheism = skepticism or that skepticism = atheism (by the commutative property).

    It is also completely fair for folks like PZ to argue that skeptical conferences should include the skeptical atheistic subgroup more prominently and be willing to put some additional weight behind the public discussion of religious claims. I personally see very good reasons for doing this.

    Saying something like:

    We are not trying to define skepticism, or tell anyone else what to do. We are simply marketing our own conference in the way that we want. There are plenty of atheist conferences, and you don’t hear me complaining about that. They have their target audience and editorial policy and we have ours.

    Smacks a little of “separate but equal” to me. Of course, in this case that is not entirely unreasonable, but the real crux lays with the fact that prominent skeptical convention organizers are not eschewing atheism because it does not fit the marketing image they want but because they are claiming it is not a skeptical endeavor in the first place. And even if that weren’t the case and it really all was just because of marketing considerations, that still doesn’t preclude an argument for the inclusion of atheism as explicit parts of skeptical conferences as being valid to make.

    What I hear is that there is no meaningful philosophical distinction between skepticism and atheism, therefore skeptics are atheists who are cowards, who want to avoid controversy, are intellectually dishonest, or who are accommodationists.

    I agree that there is no meaningful philosophical distinction between the two. One uses skeptical inquiry to arrive at atheism (aka the conclusion that there is no evidence for any gods). The same way one uses skeptical inquiry to arrive at the conclusion that CAM is bogus, Bigfoot doesn’t exist, and mind-body dualism is a dead notion.

    Of course, as I said above and will reiterate breifly, each and every one of these conclusions can be reached by non-skeptical means. In other words, being right for the wrong reasons.

    I also do not understand your critique here:

    Also, as predicted, the issue of the limits of science appears to have gone completely misunderstood. PZ writes:

    Look, get the story straight. Science and skepticism are processes, tools we use to investigate phenomena. It is not conflation when you use that tool to investigate god-claims or sexist arguments or the Republican party platform, any more than it is when you use those tools to rip into the Burzynski clinic or take apart claims about diatoms in meteorites.

    I don’t see how PZ has surpassed the limits of science in this quote. Inherent to the critique of Burzynski is the value judgement that what he does is bad. We can cite plenty of evidence for that, but once again, each is a value judgement that bilking people out of money and not curing them of cancer is bad. We then use scientific skepticism to demonstrate that these things are actually happening. Otherwise if we do that in a vacuum all we are left with is saying “Here is this data on Burzynski. It means nothing and has no impetus for acting on it” – a value judgement is necessary otherwise the endeavor is purely academic and of no… well… value.

    The same with god-claims. We must make the value judgement that religion and religious thought is bad. And then use scientific skepticism to examine the specific claims and use that as a basis for justification of action.

    You may disagree that religious thought is bad. You may also disagree that what Burzysnki does is bad. But applying skeptical tools of inquiry to either is fundamentally the same and both require value judgements in order to mean anything (which, in both cases, I think are definitely there).

    Furthermore, I fail to see the point of citing PZ’s commenters in a critique of PZ’s stance. I get that it is an attempt to demonstrate the general consensus of thought from the “atheistic contingent” (if you will) but I don’t see it as a particularly valid one. Not as it is relevant to the discussion at hand anyway.

    So please stop saying we don’t take on religious or political issues. Can you get out of that stale and inaccurate narrative? We simply focus on empirical claims and valid logic – in any area.

    I agree with you. I listen to SGU and it is great. But that doesn’t address, IMHO, the biggest thrust of PZ’s point – that the organically arisen big players in skepticism view atheism as a completely separate thing and is not only not equivalent to skepticism (agreed and correct) but that it has no place within or relevance to skepticism at all (I do not agree and contend it is not correct).

    We are also careful when dealing with empirical claims that involve a highly ideological area, because personal biases tend to be overwhelming. We don’t avoid these topics – we’re just careful to focus on empirical claims.

    The criticism is that political and religious issues are very tangentially approached and claims are typically cherry picked and addressed in isolation. “That religious claim is scientifically ridiculous, but that’s as far as I will go. I cannot say religion is ridiculous because that would not be a skeptically correct statement to make.” vs “That creationist claim is scientifically ridiculous, but that’s as far as I will go. I cannot say creationism is ridiculous because…” That, to me, seems a double standard. It may, at times, be a practical matter to reach a larger audience. But that is a fair point to argue against especially since, as you yourself say, there is no good data on which approach is better or worse and you have seen success… as has PZ.

    Exactly the extent of this is a deeper and indeed important matter to consider. But no matter how little it is, it is still wrong and should be addressed. Much like Dawkins got (rightfully) reamed for his comments on sexism and how it was such a minor consideration compared to the huge problem of religion and Islam as a whole, however minor this sentiment is that PZ is arguing against does not make it invalid to address.

    At least, that is my take on it all.

  12. lotsoftinyrobotson 31 Jan 2013 at 11:37 am

    Steve, I find your distinction between “Scientific Skepticism, Rationalism, and Atheism” as distinct entities interesting.

    In your terms, I have always treated the “Skeptics Movement” as a Rationalist movement at large rather than a subculture focusing on scientific skepticism. In my understanding, PZ does too which may explain why he is frustrated with your narrative.

    While different organizations certainly can specialize, the organizations that make up the core of the skeptics movement have all tended to specialize in scientific skepticism and as such have made the “skeptics’ movement” into more of a “scientific skeptics’ movement.”

    But when PZ, myself, and others look at this we feel that “skepticism” (as a superset of scientific skepticism) and “rationalism” are synonymous and that the skeptics movement should encompass all rationalism not just scientific skepticism. But within the skeptics community, as PZ points out with multiple examples, there is a trend to make “skepticism” synonymous with “scientific skepticism” instead.

    Again, this is all observed in practice rather than what theoretically should be the case.

    Am I wrong that the Skeptic’s Movement should be a rationalist movement not just a subculture of rationalism focused on scientific skepticism?

    (Note, I use quotes a lot to avoid use-mention errors not to belittle the terms or as air quotes. A word in quotes simply denotes that I am referring to to the term itself, not what it represents)

  13. yankeeskepicon 31 Jan 2013 at 11:53 am

    I love the “MY SKEPTICISM, is way more important than YOURS!”
    This is based on how mad people get at you. The point is, there will be atheists that choose not to be activists. There will be people that feel more comfortable working to fight psychics. PZ may claim most people don’t believe in them, and yet, polls show a large portion of our public does. Even UFOs get good polling numbers. He may think that skeptics simply make fun of these people. They are “easy”. No they are hard, because a skeptic can not just make fun of them. You may say “only people that watch ‘Real Housewives’ shows would go to a psychic”, well don’t they deserve the truth and interaction with skeptics also? It’s not a numbers game, it’s a helping game.

    I became involved as my best friend committed suicide after a psychic took over $40,000 from her so she could talk to her dead son. She wasn’t “dumb”. I also help people that think they have been abducted by aliens, and the success rate is wonderful. Maybe it’s only changing lives one life at a time, but this is what I feel most comfortable doing.

    Some of us enjoy working one on one, with someone that needs help. Someone that I guess PZ would dismiss as they aren’t worth helping as they are too dumb to fall for something that has several major TV shows backing it up. Not everyone had the opportunity to go to college. Not everyone had the background he does, not everyone was born perhaps with the ability to handle college and higher education.

    But those people deserve our attention, and our kindness. Making fun of them, and I don’t know what skeptics PZ is hanging out with if that’s the only way he thinks they are dealt with, is an insult to them. Most skeptics I know work with them, educate them, and in fact the best method of all, give them the critical thinking skills to find out the answer themselves.

    I would say the psychic that knows he or she is lying, go after them. The UFO therapist that treat abductees, I have hate mail that would make anyone’s “best use of offensive language” list, they hate me because I do not treat them kindly. But, the people I work with that actually do believe this stuff, and later change their minds and learn skills they can bring to all their life, that’s a good feeling.

    “My work is more important than yours!” is like saying “My dog goes out to find avalanche victims, and yours just guides blind people! HA!” Life is about finding out what is a good fit for you. What you enjoy doing, and also get great satisfaction out of doing. It’s never fair to complain that work other people do is not “important”.

    I know someone that works at Wendy’s. Is her job important? PZ would probably say no, yet she greets each elderly customer by name, asks about their children and grandchildren and pets, and if one of them seems a bit out of it or doesn’t show up, she contacts their caregivers (she keeps a list). A lot of elderly people eat at Wendy’s because of the discount menu, many everyday. She took her “Unimportant” job and made it important.

    If your measure of success is the number of people that dislike you, well that is good if it makes you feel good. However, I enjoy the personal relationships I build working with the people PZ would just dismiss.

    I have another job, much like almost every skeptic I know, my choice for my skeptic activismtime is personal. It’s my own. But I know, you teach a person about aliens, or Bigfoot, they begin to apply that to every other aspect of their life. And 50% of the alien abductees I work with don’t believe in God, they are atheists. (The Bible is just people seeing aliens and making a religion out of it, which is fairly easy to disprove and also a great hook). Atheism is not the litmus test of critical thinking. Remember the moon hoax guy at TAM8 was an atheist.
    Atheism is important, but it’s also not the only game in town. Respect, for any work a skeptic is doing, and their personal choice of how to live their life, is what is missing in the skeptic movement at times.

  14. Steven Novellaon 31 Jan 2013 at 11:53 am

    nybgrus – I was specifically not attempting to define atheism. I said, for the purposes of this post only, when i refer to atheists and atheism this is what I mean – because the activist atheists in the movement, in my opinion, are mostly philosophical naturalists. In any case, I also acknowledge this is a gross oversimplification. I have to limit the scope of my article somehow.

    I include the comments because they reflect the community and what PZ says, he did not contradict any of them, despite leaving comments mostly to amplify what others were saying (and to be fair make a couple corrections). I was pretty clear that I am talking about the two competing narratives here, not just what PZ is saying individually.

    I know this is complex, and this is why I am trying to resolve the difference in appearance here. I have spoken to many activist skeptics on this issue – almost all of them are atheists. They think atheism is a legitimate part of critical thinking and the broader rationalist agenda. They think that skeptical inquiry should be applied to everything, including religion and faith. I am trying to correct the false impression by activist atheists that we think otherwise. They seem to vacillate between saying that we think atheism is not skepticism, or that we know that it is but are too cowardly to confront it. Neither is correct.

    What is correct is that there is a philosophically different approach between empirical claims and faith-based claims and it is necessary to acknowledge this.

    Second, there are cultural differences (differences in passion) between skeptics and atheists (again, as I have conveniently defined them for the purpose of this discussion). These differences are OK, we are sister movements. but some of use choose to keep them distinct to serve the purpose of specialization, focus, and marketing. They are significant enough that they matter.

    We are not trying to change what atheists do at their conferences or on their blog networks. We just don’t want them to tell use what to do on ours. Both movements have huge overlap, and are part of the larger rationalist movement. So let us specialize and get things done.

    I am not claiming universality on this issue, and the issue is complex so there is a lot of confusion. This is my position, and my interpretation of those skeptics with whom I have discussed it enough to know their position.

  15. Steven Novellaon 31 Jan 2013 at 11:58 am

    robots – in practice there is (regardless of what you think there should be) those who are interested in scientific skepticism, those who are interested in atheism/humanism, and those who are interested in both. There is overlap, and everything in between, and other tangential division – but this is the main picture of the landscape as I see it.

    Organizations have developed organically around these cultures, and I reviewed them quickly (at least as I see it).

    So – let’s not get bogged down in semantics. If the JREF wants to be a scientific skepticism organization, that is their business. CFI is a rationalist organization, with skeptical (CSI) and humanist divisions. I think that pretty clearly outlines the situation.

    What I would like is that we can recognize and respect the various permutations of focus, and all get along for the larger goal that we share. Why the hubbub?

  16. lotsoftinyrobotson 31 Jan 2013 at 12:43 pm

    Steve,
    “If the JREF wants to be a scientific skepticism organization, that is their business.” I completely agree and said roughly as much myself.

    I also think we should “all get along for the larger goal that we share.”

    The hubbub is because of the fact that we aren’t all getting along for the larger goal that we share because the individual organizations (atheist and scientific skeptic orgs alike) have narrowed their focus.

    We each obviously find our own focus more important than other areas (to us at least) or else we would presumably be doing something else. Is it any surprise then that when organizations start to focus, concern about scope creep leaks over into our discourse?

    Don’t get me wrong, organizations need a narrow focus or they will be spread too thin and niches must be filled to have a balanced ecosystem. I don’t have a problem with focused organizations, just organizations that start to narrow the scope of the broader movement towards their own.

    As for getting bogged down in the semantics, I only do that because the semantics matter in these discussions. You took great pains to define your terms and I appreciate that. It immediately clarified your opinions. But when the whole argument seems to be a difference in definition, that’s where the problem should be resolved.

    As I’ve said, I define “skepticism” in much the same way you use the term rationalism: a mental toolset for discerning reality. This obviously includes but is not limited to science, reason, logic, and philosophy.

    It seems to me that PZ is getting upset over skepticism being used as shorthand for scientific skepticism (which is then turned around towards him as an argument that atheism is not a part of that).

    Each subculture has defined it’s terms differently and is using those definitions to delimit the boundaries of their magisteria.

    Does that make sense?

  17. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 12:45 pm

    Thanks for the response Dr. Novella.

    I do see your points and certainly there is not only some overlap here but also talking past each other as well. And of course everyone makes oversimplifications (intentionally or not) and mistakes.

    But the core seems to me this sort of bias that PZ is really on about. He cited a number of examples – and I have seen many others and even experienced some myself – where the statement boils down to “skepticism is not atheism and atheism is not skepticism.” In other words that the two are fundamentally separate and atheism does not belong at skeptical conferences on principle rather than for focus or marketing reasons.

    We find it anathema that women would be excluded from a skeptical conference for any reason (even if it were a marketing one “The Man’s Skeptic Conference”) and we tend to agree that feminism should be discussed at skeptical conferences and steps taken to promote the inclusion of women and feminist speakers specifically. The subtle hegemonic marginalization of women in general and specifically in science and skepticism is something we root out and at least attempt to change. We feel it is nonsense that a person shouldn’t be able to speak about feminist topics and most certainly wouldn’t say it isn’t a skeptical endeavor.

    So why the difference with atheism/anti-theism? I cannot see a fundamental distinction between the two topics. And yes, while many skeptics and skeptical conferences do pick apart certain religious claims, that is not the same as having a skeptical subsection with specific lectures at conferences about cryptozoology, climate change denial, or creationism. Why is it reasonable to specifically address those entire topics from a skeptical vantage point and promote them at skeptical conferences, but not atheism? The fact that there are atheist conferences doesn’t seem like a good justification to me – there are climate change denial and anti-creationist conferences as well. It seems to me analagous to the valid skeptical concerns of women and subtle hegemonic misogyny. We don’t stand for that and we shouldn’t stand for subtle hegemonic anti-atheism either.

    TL;DR: The core issue is the subtle (and not so subtle) marginalization of atheism/anti-theism as an endeavor that is not intrinsically skeptical in nature, not whether skeptics conference should prominently feature atheist/anti-theistic speakers and workshops.

  18. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 12:47 pm

    well said lotsoftinyrobots.

  19. Steven Novellaon 31 Jan 2013 at 1:03 pm

    I guess we have to get down to some details. What is the kind of lecture or panel you would like to see at a skeptical conference that the prominent conference won’t cover? I am on the board of one conference, and advise two others, so I have some insight as to how such decisions are made.

    I anticipate that this issue is going to bleed over into tone – which I think is perfectly legitimate for a conference or any outlet. People have the right to set their own tone.

  20. Michael Bradyon 31 Jan 2013 at 1:15 pm

    Steven

    “I am going to define (for this post) three terms: scientific skepticism deals with empirical claims and the promotion of science, atheism focuses on opposing religion and faith, and rationalism seeks to apply reason and skepticism to all areas.”

    I like that and hope it catches on. Unfortunately “atheism” has long been so loaded with baggage it serves as a line in the sand, if not as a tripwire. Your writing and podcasting suggests you are a small “a” atheist – a non-believer who does not care to fight about. I use the term non-theist to describe my personal brand of agnosticism. PZ, on the other hand, is a large “A” Atheist – who thrives on conflict regarding this topic (in addition to his science related writing). Perhaps better described as an “anti-theist,” PZ and his crew of “angries” talk as though they believe that no one should believe in gods. As for other -isms, other recent events and this thread should make it painfully clear that skepticism is not atheism, progressivism, or feminism. Skeptics may abide by these and other creeds but it is not part of the definition. Like you said, “we” all self-organize according to what we wish to stand for, or fight about.

  21. Reapon 31 Jan 2013 at 1:26 pm

    Thanks for another reasonable post Steven. I’m not sure why come of the comments indicate that you may not have a good grasp on PZ’s position or where the problems originate from. You seem be perfectly clear on the subject(s) IMO. The problem with PZ is he wants to find black and white answers to social problems/interaction. While this is pretty easy to do when it comes to problems like racism, where racism is easily defined, it is not so easy when it comes to things like feminism. Feminism is not so easily defined because of the many types of feminism there are. PZ also seems to be easily influenced/intimidated by what I think is kinda like a large Stanford Prison Experiment, the internet. PZ thinks the behavior people demonstrate online is the same behavior they demonstrate in real life social interaction. That simply isn’t true, if it was the problems he frets about would be least of our worries. Until he realizes that he does not have the ability to evaluate a person’s personality or their biases solely depending on an internet exchange he will be ineffective. Another point that should be made is the personal attacks he allows to go on unchecked in his comment section, or the ones he engages in personally on his blog. The irresponsibility shown in those instances is shameful. I was at one time a supporter of his but I simply can not sit back and allow unfair character assassinations go on without speaking out against it. This has resulted in PZ turning his attacks on me as he will do to anyone who tries to speak out against him. There are countless examples of this in his blog posts, it is really too bad.

  22. Cornelioidon 31 Jan 2013 at 1:31 pm

    Dr. Novella,

    This continues to be a great conversation to watch unfold. I’m glad that so much common ground has been reached and i mostly agree with your concluding points here. As a regular listener, i can also attest that you frequently address religious claims and often political claims as well.

    One point i think i might illuminate; and i’ll try to stick to your three local definitions.

    “I think that paints a pretty clear picture. I am also not cherry picking – read the comments for yourself and tell me what the consensus of that community is.”

    Agreed—however, i think you’re omitting an important qualification to this attitude, namely that the people who take it toward the non-application of scientific skepticism toward religions would also take it toward its non-application toward alternative medicine. You might not consider it “cowardice”, but this would only be an issue if you did consider an exemption from alt-med criticism “cowardice”.

    Similarly, and more to the overall point: There are two meanings of “privilege” potentially at work here. One is an advantage that might be incurred by happenstance, such as the privilege (or lack thereof) to (or not to) an issue you find important at a skeptics conference that does not fall within their official or traditional purview. The other is a systemic favoritism for one perspective (or demographic) over another. I’m not convinced that Myers is correct that the issue of atheism within the sciento-skeptical purview is well-described as privilege, but at the same time you seem to be misunderstanding the framework (that, it’s clear to me, Myers is using).

    There is at least systemic disagreement (if not bias) over whether atheism (which, to briefly acknowledge the distinction, is often used interchangeably with the rejection of organized religions, whose dogmas invariably include false scientific claims) falls within the purview of scientific skepticism, and this is a hurdle for scientific skeptics who wish to put their emphasis on organized religions—a hurdle that does not exist in any systemic way within the movement (so far as i am aware) with respect to alternative medicine. That you are blasted for avoiding this topic (whether or not you do) does not refute that the hurdle exists; in fact it attests to it. (No one seems to feel the need to defend the inclusion of alternative medicine, at least within the movement. Am i wrong?)

    A classic analogy one might draw is to feminism. Systemic disagreement over whether women deserve a place in the polity (or in science, or wherever) is/was part of a broader systemic prejudice against women. That is, men are/were privileged in not having to argue and fight for their place in polity. That promoters of the view that women have no place in the polity receive harsh criticism from their opponents is not any kind of refutation of this privilege.

    So, while i don’t agree that the pushback against atheism is well-characterized in terms of “privilege” for the generally accepted domains of scientific skepticism, an argument from equal virulence does not constitute a rebuttal, since atheism as a topic is still the subject of that virulence.

    @jblumenfeld

    It’s worth noting that you and i are taking away similar but distinct points: discrimination against atheists as participants (with which i also disagree, but that is another conversation) and discrimination against atheism as a domain of scientific skepticism. I don’t really see that Myers is referring to the former in his response; for instance, Loxton’s criticism of the panel was not about excluding atheists but about including non-atheists. Would you disagree?

  23. RedMcWilliamson 31 Jan 2013 at 1:40 pm

    I doubt that the people who decried PZ’s or Dawkins’ inclusion at TAM or other skeptical conferences were doing so because they felt the need to defend the delineation between philosophical and methodological naturalism.

    That, to me, is PZs main point. Atheism is dismissed by some in the skeptical community for some reason but it is incorrect to do so. Just as Steve says he doesn’t wish to impose his ideas of skepticism on other people or other organizations, PZ is tired of public criticism of the inclusion of atheism in some skeptics’ minds and conferences.

    The point PZ made about Daniel Loxton is particularly noteworthy, I think.

  24. Cornelioidon 31 Jan 2013 at 1:57 pm

    @Reap

    While i disagree with much of your comment, i can sympathize with it; however, i believe that

    “PZ thinks the behavior people demonstrate online is the same behavior they demonstrate in real life social interaction.”

    is a false dichotomy. While the Internet affords us unprecedented opportunities for anonymity (paradoxically simultaneously with unprecedented risks of exposure), it is still “real life” in the sense that phone calls, postal mail, and waving (or making other gestures) to one another from the insides of vehicles are “real life”.

    Our behavior does change from online to in person, but that does not make the Internet setting any excuse for—or any reason to abstain from criticism of—condemnable behavior. (Do i misunderstand your point? Has Myers actually conflated the online environment with the in-person, or do you just interpret him as being “too” sensitive to online behavior?)

  25. chrisjon 31 Jan 2013 at 2:02 pm

    Dr. Novella, I tend to prefer your approach, but I would give slightly different reasons. A little background. I have always been an atheist and I have always appreciated science. I gained an interest in becoming an activist shortly after the events of 9-11. The New Atheists were all publishing their books and I was inspired to be more “out of the closet” with my atheism. However, over the past few years I have drifted more and more towards your approach. Most of the problems I was identifying as religious problems, were really problems with the process people use to arrive at their beliefs and the bad consequences of doing so. Faith is not a reliable process for arriving at true beliefs about the world, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are all kinds pitfalls in reasoning, as scientific skeptics are quite aware. My view is that starting with atheism first, puts the cart before the horse. We shouldn’t start with a conclusion and reason to it. We should always start with a process. Not that I think atheists are irrational or something, but I think we should focus on process and not on particular beliefs or lack of them. If we use reliable processes like science to arrive at our beliefs, the conclusions will take care of themselves. You have noted some success in de-converting people from religion even though atheism isn’t the focus of your activism. I think it is because your focus on epistemic process.

    In a nutshell, I think scientific skepticism focuses more on the process of arriving at beliefs and atheists focus more on a lack of one particular set of beliefs. This is not to say that atheists aren’t rational, most of them are. I want to emphasize that I think atheist, mostly do follow the best epistemic practices. I think it is just a matter of emphasis and focus. I value critical thinking and scientific skepticism more than I do my lack of belief in God. After all, if I was presented with good evidence of God’s existence, I would be compelled to change my mind about my atheism. I am almost certain this will never happen, but if it did, it would be irrational to maintain atheism. I think an emphasis on epistemic practice is the right emphasis.

  26. Jacob Von 31 Jan 2013 at 2:06 pm

    What matters and why…, tough questions as the human animal seems to be taking some small but meaningful and rational steps away from tens of thousands of years of ignorance and superstitions providing most of the answers. This debate seems to me more about process over goals and given the nature of human history and how irrational superstitions have been one of the most significant obstacles to rational thought and social development as well as scientific inquiry, it’s hard for me to parse out or separate ones actions as addressing provable versus un- provable claims given what seems to be the over arching goals of elevating reason, education and science. And achieving these goals must certainly and inevitably challenge beliefs whether they consist of un-provable claims or not.

  27. Philosofrenzyon 31 Jan 2013 at 2:21 pm

    I’m finding PZ’s reply to be puzzling. He wants to make it about how he gets persecuted at skeptics events, which is fine, but in so doing, he comes close to suggesting that Steve approves of this persecution, when he explicitly doesn’t. Steve says “let a thousand lights shine,” and PZ *disagrees* by pointing to how other people try to put out this or that light–as though Steve should be accountable to this. Steve says how he would like things to work, and PZ says he’s wrong because that’s not how things *actually* work. What a weird argument.

    He makes an opposite, and equally unreasonable move when he criticizes Jamy Ian Swiss’ talk. He takes Jamy to mean “no atheist activism allowed,” when he manifestly was arguing, on the contrary, that “you can’t tell me that skepticism HAS TO BE atheist activism or it’s not genuine skepticism.” It’s great if PZ doesn’t think atheist activism is necessary to “true skepticism,” (in which case it’s strange that he lets some of the comments to his post go unchallenged), but it doesn’t change the fact that there are people who think skepticism must be atheist activism too, and that *this* was what Swiss was addressing. How is this “appalling atheism-bashing”?

    PZ asks “So why is Novella complaining? Have I said anywhere that there is one-true-skepticism, and it is mine?” He seems to forget that the conversation started by his including Steve as part of the ‘old guard’ that wants to restrict the skeptical topics and keep atheism out. When Steve clarifies that this isn’t his position at all, PZ changes the subject, essentially, to how he gets insulted by *other* people, so Steve just doesn’t get it. He even seems to suggest that Steve’s not being entirely in his camp means that Steve tacitly supports those that hate him, which is just plain bizarre as a stance.

  28. Pooneilon 31 Jan 2013 at 2:24 pm

    I have noticed the “schism” you mention here among groups that identify as “skeptic” and “atheist.” A claim that one or the other is “just political” is divisive, because both types of organizations are based on social and political goals. We don’t practice science, we attempt to apply science and rationalism to move society forward in a way that we believe will bring a better future.

    The different groups just have a different emphasis to serve slightly different and personal understandings of what will make our world better. In my experience, skeptics have a minority position of people that have various theological leanings with a support of the overall goal of methodological naturalism, but who exempt certain of their on beliefs from skepticism. At the same time, atheist groups have a minority of people that are primarily anti-religious without an inclination to differentiate their own social opinions from settled science.

    Rationalism is a big tent and as long as we keep focused on the goals we have in common the movement can be a positive social and political force. Unfortunately the nastiest fights tend to be among groups that believe in mostly the same thing. We know that our non-critical-thinking critics will make political gains if we fight too much among ourselves.

  29. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 2:36 pm

    I guess we have to get down to some details. What is the kind of lecture or panel you would like to see at a skeptical conference that the prominent conference won’t cover? I am on the board of one conference, and advise two others, so I have some insight as to how such decisions are made.

    I anticipate that this issue is going to bleed over into tone – which I think is perfectly legitimate for a conference or any outlet. People have the right to set their own tone.

    Well, I took a quick look at a few big conferences: TAM, NECSS, CSICon, The World Skeptics Conference, and a smaller one the SkeptiCal (Northern California Science and Skepticism conference).

    In all honesty, there does seem to be at least some inclusion of religious topics in most of them. However, they are certainly not of the same quantity or focus as many other topics.

    All of them feature alternative medicine prominently. All of them feature paranormal investigators, anti-vaxxers, creationists, and are also quite heavy on specifically scientific skepticism. In other words, each features specific critiques of entire concepts. Not just specific aspects of creationism, but specific creationists and their tactics and influence on education (the concept of creationism). Not just specific anti-vaccine claims, but anti-vaxxers in general and their impact on health outcomes. And of course, CAM as a concept not just specific CAM claims. Climate change and denialism as concepts, rather than specific aspects. The same with gender issues.

    Whereas it would be ridiculous for me to list everything having to do with those topics and the rest of the conference line ups I can easily list every single topic even tangentially (yet still specifically) related to religion:

    The Neurobiology of Religious Experience
    Memory and Belief
    From Witch Burning to God-men: Supporting Skepticism around the work
    Overlapping Magisteria
    Unstoppable Secular Students
    Beware the Religio-Industrial Complex

    That’s it. And the belief one was tangential and the neurobio is once again a specific facet rather than the whole concept of religion. Of course this alone isn’t sufficient to prove the point but…

    …as PZ pointed out, the Overlapping Magisteria talk actually spent time talking about how atheism does not belong under the umbrella of skepticism at all.

    And Skepticon seems to have the most featuring of athiesm and discussion of religion as a concept and was, as PZ points out, maligned as not being a “true” skeptical conference, even though that only featured a significant minority of talking points relating to atheism.

    So why is it OK to skeptically point out the flaws in (and ridicule) the entire concepts of specifically creationism, anti-vax, CAM, sexism, racism, climate change denial, and “paranormal investigations” but not religion?

    Sure, tone can be part of it. But PZ documents well how it is actually quite beyond that and skeptic “authorities” assert that atheism – as you define it here – is simply not related to skepticism at all.

    And while each conference is absolutely entitled to set the tone and market that they wish, wouldn’t we get upset if that tone and market was only men allowed to speak and attend? Or only black people? Wouldn’t we be upset if there was just the token woman or black person and all were allowed, but speaking on issues of gender and race were kept minimal and neutered?

    This is not to say that there is no representation of these atheistic topics at any skeptical conference. And I don’t think PZ has asserted or even implied that. But I do see ample evidence that there is a pervasive thought amongst many skeptics, from the organizers of conferences to the attendees, that atheism is not at all related to skepticism and has nothing to do with it. All the while these same folks are happy to hone their skeptical skills on topics like creationism, CAM, and UFO’s but refuse to do the same with religion.

    And I can see – though perhaps not agree fully – PZ’s other point regarding cowardice. If a skeptical conference has a large portion devoted to calling out climate change denialists, anti-vaxxers, and sCAMsters, and pointing out that those who hold those beliefs are deluded for it and clearly not applying skeptical principles we are fine and can weather the (small) heat we get for it especially since those folk tend not to come to our conferences. But if we call out all of religion, or even all of a specific religion, and say the same thing about the necessary delusion believers of said religion(s) and their lack of application of skeptical principles, it is suddenly “inherently not skeptical” to do so. And yeah, a lot of religious folk come to our conferences and we’d risk alienating them. Yet we don’t care about alienating Bigfoot believers and 9/11 truthers.

    It is similar in kind, though not amount, to casually grumbling about how terrible segregation is back in the 1940′s and then doing nothing further about it.

  30. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 2:54 pm

    And of course I know that I am not 100% accurate here, but hopefully one can grok the substance of what I am trying to convey and extend a bit o’ the ol’ principle of charity.

    Also note that I meant “only white people” and then “token black person” but that should have also been reasonably obvious.

    I guess that the TL;DR: for this would be:

    Why is it OK for skepticism to focus in and hone its tools on the specific and general concepts of sexism, racism, creationism, conspiracy theory, etc but not do exactly the same thing for religion? Is it that each of the former is a discrete entity addressable by skeptical inquiry but religion is not? Because I would argue that is not the case.

    Chrisj said:

    Most of the problems I was identifying as religious problems, were really problems with the process people use to arrive at their beliefs and the bad consequences of doing so…My view is that starting with atheism first, puts the cart before the horse. We shouldn’t start with a conclusion and reason to it. We should always start with a process…If we use reliable processes like science to arrive at our beliefs, the conclusions will take care of themselves.

    And I absolutely agree. The point though is that skeptical conference do take on specific conclusions (anti-vax, AGW denial, CAM, creationism) both as examples of failures of skeptical inquiry/poor epistemological processes and topics worthy of combatting in the general population. In other words, we find it worthy as skeptics to educate people so that creationism is seen to be bankrupt and evolution is understood well enough to be accepted. So why can’t/won’t we do the same thing for religion/atheism?

    I’ve even seen it here amongst the skeptical blogs when I draw the parallel between religious thinking and CAM – they are both based on belief, faith, “other ways of knowing,” and “feeling.” When I say we should strive to educate people out of CAM usage and accept modern medicine even with its limitations I am generally lauded (well, except by pmoran who seems to think education won’t work for some reason). But the moment I say the same exact thing about religion and point out the inherent “badness” of religion exactly as I do for CAM, I become a pariah. I’ve even been scolded and been called strident and angry for wanted to eradicate religion in the exact same way I want to eradicate CAM. Because suddenly it seems as if I want to eradicate religious people instead of religious thought.

  31. chrisjon 31 Jan 2013 at 2:58 pm

    I would like to caution you on using falsification as a demarcation criterion for science as it seems you are doing in places here.

    “However, saying the universe was created 6,000 years ago to look exactly as if the universe were 13.7 billion years old is an unfalsifiable claim. Science cannot say that it is wrong – only that it is “not even wrong”- it is outside of science. This ejects it from the science classroom, from scientific consideration and investigation, from anything that matters.”

    The consensus in philosophy of science is that falsification fails as a simple demarcation criterion. This issue is more complicated. Falsification is important because, among other things, it protects us against confirmation bias, but one cannot use it as a simple demarcation criterion. There are lots of unfalsifiable claims that we might still want to call science.

    A few examples of legitimate scientific claims that seem to be not falsifiable. The following examples are from James Ladyman’s (2002) “Understanding the Philosophy of Science”

    1. Probabilistic statements about single events- Science tells us that the half-life of Uranium 235 is 710,000,000 years. We can state, “it is highly probable that if we start with 1 kg of U-235, then after 710,000,000 years 500 g will have decayed.” This statement seems like a legitimate scientific statement. However, it is unfalsifiable because there is a very small chance that 500 g will not have decayed and this outcome is compatible with the the statement. Regardless of whether 500 g of uranium decay, the statement is true.

    2. Existential statements- Scientific theories state that all kinds of things exist, e.g. black holes, viruses, DNA, electrons, and so on. These statements cannot be falsified by one’s failure to find the proposed entities.

    3. The Quine-Duhem problem- consider the conservation of energy. Most scientists would reject any experiment that would falsify this principle. Rather an apparent violation of this claim would be interpreted as revealing that there is something wrong with the rest of science. Probably they would propose a new source or form of energy. A similar argument could be made about the second law of thermodynamics. One can always make this move, because there are a number of assumptions which connect scientific statements to experiments and one can always reject one of the assumptions rather than the statement at hand. Theories tend to have a web of connected ideas that cannot just be considered in isolation. It can be difficult to tell when this is just ad hoc special pleading and when it is legitimate. This is not to say that there are no clear cut cases, it is just to say that there are cases that are not so clear cut. To be fair, the example you use here IS clear cut.

  32. Steven Novellaon 31 Jan 2013 at 3:02 pm

    Nybrus – that is a massive false analogy about racism. I explicitly stated that racism and sexism are morally wrong and we should deal with these issues, at least as they relate to our movement, and also if there are any empirical claims within them.

    Looks like we take on many religious issues also. Not sure why you don’t include creationism as religious. Last year at NECSS we had a speaker who is a woman who got out of an orthodox Jewish community. Fascinating story. This was about feminism, the culture of belief, totalitarian belief systems, and skeptical empowerment.

    So – what is it exactly that we are not covering that skeptical conferences should cover? You want us to call Christians stupid?

    You see – atheists complain about yet another article or lecture on bigfoot or homeopathy, while I think these issues need to be hammered. I just got an e-mail from a science teacher and chemist who learned what homeopathy really is from my show. Homeopathy is still legal in the US and most countries. It is an active issue. Skeptics care about such issues.

    While I know many skeptics would complain about – what are we going to do, sit around and talk about how stupid religion is? Boring.

    I am not arguing for either position being legitimate here – just pointing out the different cultures. Different conferences market themselves to different interests. So left different conferences have a different focus. We may emphasize pseudoscience, critical thinking, neuroscience, fraud, etc., and then dabble in more social issues, economics, and even belief systems and religion. We strike a certain balance and tone, appropriate to our target speakers and audience. Other conferences have a different target. Again – why should anyone be in the business of telling someone else how to define their conference? There seems to be plenty of outlets with a variety of policies.

  33. AGrayon 31 Jan 2013 at 3:36 pm

    It always bothers me when someone says “Atheists believe X.” If I use the word “atheist” to describe myself, I am only telling you what I don’t believe. I have given you no information to indicate what I DO believe. Nothing about my metaphysical or cosmological beliefs, nothing about my ideas about life or death or morals or how I live my life.
    I’m aware that “Atheist” is often assumed to mean “Non/Anti-religion,” specifically Christianity, but I don’t think those assumptions have any place in a discussion this nuanced.

  34. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 3:38 pm

    Dr. Novella – fair enough, but I can also state that religion is also morally wrong and we should deal with those issues. I would even argue that religion is more widespread and pervasive than either sexism or racism and that religion spawns a lot of racism and sexism itself.

    I do consider creationism religious, but the focus of skeptical discussions on it narrows the focus merely to claims specifically relating to creationism and evolution – not religion as a concept.

    The Jewish woman was a great story – I believe she was on SGU and I did enjoy learning about that. As I said, I am not trying to trap myself in a Nirvana fallacy. I recognize there is some discussion of religion in skeptical circles. You even write about it here from time to time.

    My point is not what you are covering but how. Why must homeopathy be hammered? It is legal? And you get emails from science teachers who find out what it is from your show? Religion is legal too. And plenty of people don’t know a lot about their own religion, let alone others (Pew polls show atheists know more about religion than religious people). I simply fail to see the demarcation.

    Homeopathy is a great example of a failure of critical thinking and it is causing ongoing harm. Religion is exactly the same. We don’t talk about how homeopaths are stupid, but how their failure in thought and attempts at pseudoscience cause harm. Why can’t we do the same about religion?

    So how is it not boring to talk about how stupid and bad homeopathy is, but it is so boring to talk about how religion is stupid? Why can we put up those videos of the “quantum” explanations for homeopathy and ridicule them and point out the flaws, but we can’t do the same for religious apologetics?

    The dismissive tone of how you wrote that – “what are we going to do, sit around and talk about how stupid religion is? Boring.” – is exactly what I am referring to, and I believe PZ (at least in part) as well. The skeptical movement has somehow decided that “religion is stupid = boring”, isn’t an appropriate target for skeptical inquiry, and time to move on. I don’t think it is boring. I do think it is actively harmful. I think it actively detriments the teaching of science at a vastly more fundamental and pervasive level than creationism or homeopathy. All these claims have belief systems at their core and the largest belief system in the world is religion.

    Again – why should anyone be in the business of telling someone else how to define their conference? There seems to be plenty of outlets with a variety of policies.

    Absolutely agreed. But saying “This is our conference and we just don’t want to talk about religion because that is our prerogative” is quite different than saying “Religion and atheism are not skeptical topics and cannot be addressed skeptically. Oh yeah, and it is boring and doesn’t really need to be addressed either.”

    It just seems that the criteria for what constitutes a good concept to hammer in on and hone in on for skeptical conferences doesn’t in any way preclude religion and atheism. And there are very good arguments that religion as a whole does more damage to science education, feminism, and racial equality than just about any other topic typically covered but it is rarely addressed anything more than tangentially.

    But the biggest issue is that there is a general “anti-atheist” sentiment which the skeptical community is not immune to and has indeed exhibited. Talk all you want about bigfoot and homeopathy or even a very specific empirical religious claim, but don’t criticize the concept of religion seems to be not uncommon. On the one hand it can be because the process should lead to the conclusion – religion is stupid and detrimental. But the assumption that it is so obvious is demonstrably false and it is no more obvious than homeopathy. But on the other “anti-atheist” sentiment should be considered just as bad as anti-feminist sentiment. Saying that atheists can go to their own conferences and do their own thing is the same as saying feminists can do the same thing.

    So I am not advocating that skeptical conferences should be atheist conferences. I am not even advocating that they should feature any atheist topics. But the anti-atheist sentiment that PZ documents and I have seen myself should be eschewed and if specifically atheistic topics are not approved to be part of skeptical conferences then it should be purely a matter of editorial concern (which it isn’t, not entirely).

    I would, of course, advocate that specifically atheistic topics should be included in skeptical conferences for the above mentioned reasons plus many more. But that does not mean skeptical conferences should be atheist conferences… merely that they should include specifically atheist topics as a subset under the umbrella of skeptical inquiry just like all the others. How much and how valid that is is a separate conversation.

    (I am using atheism in the definition you provided for the purposes of discussion)

  35. Philosofrenzyon 31 Jan 2013 at 3:48 pm

    “The dismissive tone of how you wrote that – “what are we going to do, sit around and talk about how stupid religion is? Boring.” – is exactly what I am referring to, and I believe PZ (at least in part) as well.”

    To be fair, I believe Steven was saying that some people would feel this way about religion, just as atheist activists feel about Bigfoot, etc., not that he ACTUALLY thought the topic of religion is boring.

  36. Sastraon 31 Jan 2013 at 4:02 pm

    Dr. Novella wrote:

    What is correct is that there is a philosophically different approach between empirical claims and faith-based claims and it is necessary to acknowledge this.

    This statement is controversial, and may indicate one of the points of disagreement here.

    Faith-based claims are empirical claims. Religious people are not just stating vague preferences or playacting a role for no good reason — not if they take religion seriously and most of them take it very seriously indeed. People believe in God (or ghosts or Higher Consciousness or karma) because of evidence, experience, and reason applied to both. It is the same approach they use when they reason their way to other beliefs. The “faith” aspect doesn’t indicate anything unique about the nature of the claim, nor the epistemology used to arrive at the conclusion.

    Instead, it signals partiality and bias: faith is an immunizing strategy. It’s introduced afterwards, to protect a claim from normal processes of evaluation — particularly when these methods aim at objectivity and eliminating subjective bias. Belief becomes identity, a commitment made and a promise you try to keep.

    This is the opposite of the scientific, skeptical temperament. As Jerry Coyne has succinctly put it, in religion faith is a virtue; in science it is a vice.

    PZ is right then to compare theism to alt. med. They are hypotheses, purported explanations which not only lack evidence and plausible mechanism, they fail to fit in which what we DO know — and they ought to. Any definition of God or religion which has any detail to it assumes such things as mind/body dualism, pk, esp, vitalism, and/or essences. And, like alternative medicine, the existence of God is believed in passionately by people who ultimately think that conclusions on this issue have more to do with what “paradigm” you follow, what kind of person you are, and how open, sensitive, wise, and ethical you want to be. Turning a rational process into a identifying brand is an illicit attempt to protect a view from falsification.

    It also demonizes the other side in a darker and more significant way than simply being rationally mistaken.

    Many skeptics see religion as the Big Enchilada, the foundational giant which legitimizes poor habits of thought and fallacious types of reasoning by re-branding them as virtues. Like PZ, I think that it is important to go against the common folk wisdom which has too long immunized religion from critical inquiry and instead acknowledge that no, there really is no philosophically different approach between empirical-claims and faith-based claims. Not when you analyze them carefully, instead of skirting them strategically.

  37. Todd W.on 31 Jan 2013 at 4:02 pm

    @nybgrus

    How, would you say, is religion morally wrong? Is it so 100% of the time? Do you make a distinction between organized religion vs. religion as a personal belief?

  38. Thomathyon 31 Jan 2013 at 4:08 pm

    I notice that yet to be addressed is the clear fact that atheists are singled out and maligned in the sceptic movement.

    Isn’t that an important part of this discussion?

    I don’t actually see anyone claiming that any given organisation shouldn’t have the focus that it does or that it should necessarily have to include certain topics. What actually is in evidence, however, is that prominent sceptics and some plurality of sceptics in general, have a problem with the inclusion of atheism under the sceptic umbrella. It clearly belongs there, as do many of the other things that intersect with scepticism as a tool, but for whatever reason, it is specifically singled out.

    Steve, you’re wondering what the hubub is and it’s that there is a segment of the sceptic community that has decided that certain topics are outside of scepticism, that atheists and feminists (to name only two categories) are trying to usurp scepticism.

    Jamy Ian Swiss even said, in an interview on your podcast, that he has a specific problem with people trying to move his tent. Well, he clearly thinks that he has and is entitled to a definition of scepticism that includes what the purview of scepticism can be. Apparently, the ‘tent’ isn’t actually big enough for all the people who self-identify as sceptics, especially with attitudes like Jamy Ian Swiss’s.

    To be very forward and to press quite hard: Can you acknowledge the point that has been made that atheists feel discriminated against? Can you acknowledge that there is a vocal component of the sceptic movement that evidently does not want scepticism to include certain topics?

  39. idoubtiton 31 Jan 2013 at 4:09 pm

    nybgrus: I don’t have a problem talking about atheism and religious topics at skeptical conferences but with caveats. 1 – Balance. It’s shouldn’t mostly ALL be about one subject (people are diverse in interest); and 2 – It often turned into anti-theism. (Black/white thinking, you’re a bad skeptic, etc.) I think it’s absolutely wrong to belittle believers in ghosts or psychic powers or UFOs the same as belief in god(s). It’s more complicated than “you’re stupid to believe that”. I cringe whenever I hear skeptics do it. And I also don’t think that we should belittle our colleagues for not accepting that eradicating religion should be our sole goal. We all have our niches.

    One item that is not clarified here is who exactly we are talking to. Who is the audience at a skeptical conference? Skeptics. Who is the audience for your public blog or podcast or interview sound bite? The public. When the audience is different, it pays to tailor your information and tone accordingly to reach them. PZ appeals to the atheist crowd. Exclusively. I LIKED it when he appealed more to the broader audience interested in biology and good science. I still like to listen to Steve because he doesn’t alienate people as PZ has.

    I’ve never found the whole thing about empirical claims vs value judgements difficult to recognize and adhere to. I get the feeling the people who DO find it difficult is because they don’t want it to be that way. It’s hard, you’re often wrong, and sometimes don’t get your way.

  40. Steven Novellaon 31 Jan 2013 at 4:09 pm

    Sastra – read the previous comments. I believe I have addressed this numerous times.

    To whatever extent anyone’s beliefs are supported with facts and logic, they are fair game for skepticism. If they retreat entirely to faith either on principle or to insulate themselves from refutation, then their beliefs are outside of human knowledge, outside of the scientific arena, and reside solely in the realm of personal faith. Anything you could hope to accomplish has been accomplished by this as far as practicality is concerned.

    You are welcome to try to change that person’s beliefs. I do so by teaching critical thinking and hoping they apply it to their own beliefs.

    I am not sure how you are defining epistemology, but faith is exactly about that. (Maybe you are confusing religion with faith.) It is believing without knowing. Science deals with the knowing.

  41. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 4:11 pm

    @Todd W.:

    I say it is morally wrong in the exact same way I would say sexism is morally wrong.

    The distinction I would make between organized religion vs religion as a purely personal belief is merely one of degree.

    If a person is truly sexist, but never acts on it and keeps it as a purely internal belief they are obviously doing less harm since the only person being harmed is him or herself.

    So yes, it is morally wrong 100% of the time in the same way that sexism is morally wrong 100% of time.

    It is especially morally wrong when young children are forced (and force can mean kind teachings to the exlcusion of other information, not just outwardly obvious abuse) to ascribe to their parents’ religion.

  42. Todd W.on 31 Jan 2013 at 4:15 pm

    @nybgrus

    So, if someone’s personal religious beliefs were that there is a big imaginary sky-daddy that created stuff (at some arbitrary point) and expects people to be good to one another regardless of that other person’s beliefs, you would say that their religious belief is morally wrong? Even if they believe that their beliefs are their own and that everyone else can come to their own beliefs?

  43. Steven Novellaon 31 Jan 2013 at 4:16 pm

    I do not accept as a proven fact that atheists are maligned and singled out in the skeptical movement. That has not been my experience. Most of us are atheists. What I see are attempts to protect the scope and mission of specific outlets from atheists who want to dictate that scope, not content for whatever reason with their own outlets.

    I think specific atheists are criticized by some (not me) for their tone and methods by those who advocate a different approach. In the same way, I and others are maligned (to use your words) as cowards, lazy, and dishonest by some atheist activists. (So no high ground there)

    I am saying – let everyone follow their own style and scope as they see fit. Honestly, it seems to be working well if we just leave everyone alone to do what they want.

  44. chrisjon 31 Jan 2013 at 4:18 pm

    I think that if your goal is to promote atheism, it MIGHT be a better strategy to criticize “faith” rather than “religion.” Faith is a means or process for fixing ones beliefs and, I think we can all agree, a very bad one. “Religion,” on the other hands includes not just a set of beliefs arrived at by faith. It is also used as a cultural identity. There are lots of people who identify as Jewish or even Christian who do not have faith, do not believe in the existence of God, etc. These people identify with the culture, tradition, and perhaps some of the ethical teachings without arriving at beliefs through faith. If you criticize a religion, you criticize someone’s identity. You might avoid SOME of the problem by just focusing on process, i.e. just focus on criticizing faith.

    side note: I realize my comment about falsification was off topic. my apologies.

  45. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 4:22 pm

    @idoubtit:

    That’s the rub, though. “I’m an atheist” is boring. Same as “I’m an a-homeopathist” is boring.

    What becomes interesting (and useful) is the anti-theism. The “why we shouldn’t give religious thought special quarter” conversations.

    I totally get the audience and the alienation aspects. I think that is exactly what Dr. Novella and the SGU does and do well (though my own fiance just admitted to me last night she can’t stand to listen to SGU because it is too much about general skepticism and not enough facts – once again, to each their own). However, as Tomathy said that is not the entirety of the issue – it is the small, but present, anti-atheist sentiment and discrimination that is present even in the skeptical community. I do not think Dr. Novella espouses this at all. I do not think it is a hugely pervasive problem. But it is a problem and one that is not addressed adequately when it comes up.

  46. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 4:26 pm

    @Todd W.:

    No we are getting thorny and off topic. Yes, in the same way that a sexist person who thinks everyone else can choose to be sexist or not is still, to some degree albeit quite small, morally wrong.

    In your example, if the person acts on this faith then he is being right for the wrong reasons. Which is still, to some degree wrong. It is certainly better than being wrong for the right reasons, but at base is still wrong.

    If the person doesn’t act on it then it becomes a moot point. Same with the sexism.

  47. Halfdeadon 31 Jan 2013 at 4:28 pm

    Dr. Novella,

    I agree you do address religious claims I listen to SGU regularly. I think, and this is only my impression of how its coming across, you are making the tiny sliver of what is unfalsafiable into the main focus of what people in the real world are actually saying, when 99% of the claims they are making are completely falsifiable.

  48. Todd W.on 31 Jan 2013 at 4:32 pm

    @nuybgrus

    Sorry, just playing devil’s advocate (no pun intended). So what you’re saying is that if a person holds the religious beliefs I mentioned, that is just as morally wrong as someone who, even if they don’t act on it, believe that a member of the opposite gender is inherently inferior to their own gender?

    Getting more on topic, I wonder if the “anti-atheism” bit is truly anti-atheism or if it’s more “anti-”. I’ve noticed a lot of the anti-PZ stuff that I’ve seen, even if it includes anti-atheism sentiments, seems primarily driven by dislike of PZ himself. The anti-atheism stuff seems more tacked on as a justification, rather than a motivation. Of course, I don’t see everything, so I may very likely be wrong. Just an impression I get.

  49. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 4:34 pm

    At least we seem to have gotten to the crux of it. Perhaps there is no systematic anti-atheist discrimination – I am certainly no expert. But from what I have seen and read, there does appear to be at least some. Maybe PZ is blowing it out of proportion; I’m genuinely not in a position to argue between him and Dr. Novella. But I do think it is unreasonable to say it doesn’t exist at all.

    And it does speak on its own to realize that discussing and dismantling all sorts of claims is fine, except that doing the same with religion as a construct is so alienating.

  50. SARAon 31 Jan 2013 at 4:35 pm

    This entire discussion is why I don’t like movements. People can’t agree. And maybe they shouldn’t.

    But the inability to accept that disagreement, the need to be “right” and to make everyone agree is often detrimental and distracting.

    About the only point I wish people would listen to is Steven’s point that most of this debate is just viewpoint and not something that can be proven.

    It is therefore, not necessary to agree to some commonality.

    The debate creates division and not consensus.

    The inability to accept that there is no right answer, that we don’t have to agree to move forward, that someone else’s view does not undermine your own, is the hallmark of a fundamentalist.

  51. RedMcWilliamson 31 Jan 2013 at 4:37 pm

    Dr Novella,

    Do you think Daniel Loxton and Barbara Drescher were attempting to “protect the scope and mission of specific outlets from atheists who want to dictate that scope” when they complained about that panel at TAM?

    There seem to be folks on both sides that are trying to dictate the scope.

    And, yes, it’s anecdotal but do you doubt PZs claim that he gets “a flood of email and twitter protestations every time he’s invited to participate at The Amazing Meeting, Skepticon, or NECSS”?

  52. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 4:42 pm

    @Todd W.:

    I am saying that if you truly believe in something and truly don’t act on it, it is entirely a moot point (just like how Dr. Novella states that a purely faith based claim is “not even wrong”). So perhaps we could call it “not even amoral.”

    I suppose you could find a circumstance where a religious belief that was acted on is truly isolated from anything else and the outcomes of it are 100% positive and make an argument that this is an example of a religious belief that is not immoral. But that would be just as contrived as me coming up with an example of a sexist who uses that belief to support women and ultimately engender equality. And either would only serve as the exception to prove the rule.

    At base though, any religious belief must be a faith based one and is thus, IMHO, intrinsically “bad.” Whether that means “amoral” in the hypothetical contrived sense becomes thorny, but from a practical standpoint it is certainly true to say that religion as it actually exists in the world is amoral.

    By distilling it to one (or a few) isolated belief that isn’t acted upon, I would argue that you are no longer referring to religion. So it may be “bad” but not “amoral” and it may not be something we should care enough to worry about.

    As for the part re: PZ and anti-atheism… I see your point and absolutely agree that is a part of it. However, I believe that does not explain the totality of it.

  53. Sastraon 31 Jan 2013 at 4:44 pm

    Steven Novella wrote:

    To whatever extent anyone’s beliefs are supported with facts and logic, they are fair game for skepticism. If they retreat entirely to faith either on principle or to insulate themselves from refutation, then their beliefs are outside of human knowledge, outside of the scientific arena, and reside solely in the realm of personal faith. Anything you could hope to accomplish has been accomplished by this as far as practicality is concerned.

    My disagreement though is over their “retreat to faith” — I don’t think people who do this really have faith in it. Meaning, I don’t think they sincerely believe that their beliefs are irrational, outside of human knowledge, outside of the scientific arena, or solely personal. The retreat is an illusion, and not what it appears to be. They invoke faith not in order to take themselves and their views outside of the game of critical inquiry, but to elevate themselves within it and commit a category error. And my concern is that when we credit them with being “untouchable” they are nothing of the sort. But they love to be reassured.

    How is “faith” defined? It seems to be one of those deepities, like “spirituality.” I strongly suspect its meaning is ambiguous and slippery for good reasons. Atheists who define it as “belief without evidence” aren’t really following what the religious themselves think it is, nor how they use it.

    They do have evidence. The evidence is enough to convince anyone who’s open. No, it’s not compelling. People who don’t want to believe won’t be forced. In other words, the evidence won’t convince a “skeptic.”

    The religious usually use faith to mean a willingness to meet truth half way, and a commitment to stand loyally by what’s True. When it’s used as an epistemology it’s apparently a form of ESP, a ‘way of knowing’ through some inner sense.

    It all springs from the same sloppy tendencies and habits of thought. When people protect supernatural, paranormal, and pseudoscientific claims they almost always fall back on supernatural ‘certainties’ they can count on in religion, and apologetic techniques they can find reinforced in religion.

  54. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 4:47 pm

    @SARA:

    Very excellent points and I agree. The issue is not, for me at least, one about whether we should agree that the skeptic movement should incorporate anti-theism prominently. It is to address the point that RedMcWilliams (and others) raised- the anti-atheist sentiment.

    That said, I am perfectly happy to admit it is in general quite minor and for all practical purposes can be essentially ignored. Hence why I have never raised it here or anywhere else even though I agree with it being present and have experienced it myself. But this was a discussion specifically about this fine point that is necessarily troublesome. After all this is PZ and Dr. Novella disagreeing here, not Eugenie Scott and Ken Ham.

    I will also clarify that I am not arguing with the intent of converting people to my viewpoint. Obviously the only way to really argue anything is to state the viewpoint and if we already agreed the conversation would be over. But for me this is an opportunity to flesh out ideas, thoughts, see where I may be wrong, and offer up information and thoughts of my own for others to do the same. At a minimum I will be considering this topic more consciously in my future relevant readings (and at TAM when I go this year) and with a more.. skeptical eye.

  55. Thomathyon 31 Jan 2013 at 4:48 pm

    I do not accept as a proven fact that atheists are maligned and singled out in the skeptical movement.

    On this point I suppose we’ll have to disagree.

    What I see are attempts to protect the scope and mission of specific outlets from atheists who want to dictate that scope, not content for whatever reason with their own outlets.

    This is an odd thing to see, especially if atheists are a subcategory within the larger sceptical movement. I consider myself to be a sceptic. I see myself as belonging to the sceptical movement. I am also atheist and gay and feminist; I self-identify as many things. I am also an activist in regards to each of those things. As a member of the sceptic movement (Membership is self-chosen, isn’t it?), should I not be entitled to ask that the scope and mission of a specific outlet that I may be a part of be extended to include things that I rightfully consider within the scope of scepticism?

    Whether or not I consider myself first and foremost to be a sceptic activist or a gay rights activist or anything else, the sceptical commmunity is a place where I feel I belong, it is a place where I have chosen to belong and a place where I ought to be able to belong. I have to wonder that if what you see is true, whether there actually is a place for me within the community, especially if the inclusion of some of my sceptical passions require protecting against.

    I absolutely agree that it would be best if everyone could leave well-enough alone and get on in their own way, but it’s clear that there is some problem, certainly not solely that of atheists, when what you see is sceptic outlets having to protect themselves from a shift in focus ‘dictated’ by atheists whether or not they also have their own outlets.

    In the case of atheism and scepticism, people seem to be waking up to the fact that there is significant overlap between what used to be two separate identities, even waking up to the fact that atheism can be fully within a sceptical identity. This is happening more and more, with feminism and LGBTQ issues and racism and class inequality, from politics to economics. People are identifying first as sceptics with their other beliefs subject to scepticism, even resulting from the application of scepticism. It’s a problem that any outlet that considers itself first and foremost as sceptic should see any need to protect itself from attempts to ‘dicate’ the scope.

    (I take specific issue with your use of ‘dictate’ and framing the issue as atheists trying to dictate to sceptics the focus of their outlets. I would think ‘broaden’ is a better term, from my perspective.)

  56. Steven Novellaon 31 Jan 2013 at 5:02 pm

    I take PZ at his word. I said I cannot account for nor will I defend the actions of anonymous people on the internet. There are also probably a complex set of reasons for such protests, but I can only speculate.

    But PZ’s original post was about the skeptical “old guard” and that I can speak to. We do include religious topics, although we emphasize empirical claims and critical thinking. At NECSS we also try to emphasize science specifically (we actually consider ourselves a hybrid science and skeptical conference, hence the name). Some old guard is outright rationalist. There is a spectrum.

    The prevailing sentiment I hear is that there is a nice division of labor between skeptical conferences and groups and atheist conferences and groups. This works well, it tends to follow natural cultural divisions, it allows us to focus on promoting science and perhaps penetrate different demographics. The lines are fuzzy, but that’s actually a good thing. It gives us some wiggle room. So why insist that everyone has to promote atheism directly in the same way at every venue? I have only experienced skeptics recoiling from that insistence. I still have not heard any reasonable justification for it.

    I specifically reject the “bigfoot skeptic” criticism that our focus is not broad enough and our topics not important enough. If you think that, this is just evidence, in my opinion, for the cultural difference I am talking about. It’s why we need different conferences with difference characters.

  57. Philosofrenzyon 31 Jan 2013 at 5:07 pm

    @Thomathy

    “Jamy Ian Swiss even said, in an interview on your podcast, that he has a specific problem with people trying to move his tent. Well, he clearly thinks that he has and is entitled to a definition of scepticism that includes what the purview of scepticism can be. Apparently, the ‘tent’ isn’t actually big enough for all the people who self-identify as sceptics, especially with attitudes like Jamy Ian Swiss’s.”

    But you’ve mischaracterized Jamy Ian Swiss’ actual argument, just as PZ does. Jamy objected to people “moving” the tent–i.e., saying “no, no, skepticism ISN’T x, it’s y: you have to be y to be a ‘true skeptic.” The objection is against the very notion of defining what “counts” as a good skeptic, and yet PZ, and others, somehow take that to mean that he was *defining what counts as a good skeptic.* It’s a bit ridiculous. You couldn’t get further from his intended meaning–it’s literally the exact opposite.

    There’s something very strange going on here. Athest activists insist that “true skeptics” are also atheist activists. Other skeptics object that they are quite happy to focus on other things, thank you, and that you shouldn’t try to redefine skepticism as being whatever your pet interest is. Atheist activists are offended and outraged at this, and cry foul–that they’re being discriminated against, and that skeptics “don’t think atheist activists have a place within the skeptical movement.” It’s bizarre. It’s very much like how religious people cry foul, and claim persecution when they are prevented from persecuting other people.

    Now I’m not saying there is no discrimination against atheist activists–maybe there is some, and if there is, it’s bad. But I think PZ exaggerates how much there is, how pervasive it is, and what form it takes–and further seems to think that the big names and leaders in the skeptical movement actually endorse it, when most have explicitly come out as saying that no, they don’t, and they think everyone should be able to focus on whatever they want to–just as Steven has here.

  58. Steven Novellaon 31 Jan 2013 at 5:10 pm

    Thomathy -I don’t see atheists as a subset of skeptics. I see skeptics and atheists as overlapping circles. Not all atheists are skeptics, and not all skeptics are atheists. This is, in fact, what the survey information we do have shows. (I believe the overlap is 70%.)

    There are related but distinct scopes in terms of focus, emphasis, and tone. I didn’t make it this way, but this is the way it is. So why not allow different groups to set their own focus and tone?

    In any case, we are open to discussions about what this scope is. It is a moving fuzzy line. But saying we should broaden it in a way you desire is trying to dictate it.

  59. Sastraon 31 Jan 2013 at 5:11 pm

    nybgrus wrote:

    I will also clarify that I am not arguing with the intent of converting people to my viewpoint.

    Oh, dear — then what’s the point?

    Maybe you’re just distancing yourself from the implications of the word “convert,” but it seems strange to me whenever scientific skeptics seem to eager to deny that they’re trying to change anybody’s mind.

    This fear that trying to work towards a consensus in a debate is really just one person imposing themselves on another one and inhibiting a happy diversity of viewpoints usually comes out of the sort of category confusion religion delights in, where beliefs are identity and if nybgrus successfully converts me to his viewpoint then all we’ve got now is a couple of little nybgrus clones and the world has lost the individual piece of artwork that once was me.

    Maybe this isn’t one of those situations where nobody is right or wrong, just different. Maybe you’re right. Don’t apologize for arguing. At least, not in general.

    Personally, I think Dr. Novella and Dr. Myers aren’t too far apart.

  60. Todd W.on 31 Jan 2013 at 5:12 pm

    @nybgrus

    It seems to me then, that your argument (re: the moral “wrongness” of religion) can be boiled down to this (though perhaps oversimplified): beliefs that are arrived at via irrational means are inherently morally wrong, regardless of whether they are acted upon or are “good” or “bad”.

    Getting back to atheism at conferences, I’ve been to the past two NECSSes (NECSSi?), and each one had at least one discussion touching on atheism/religion/secularism. Two years ago, one of the panels discussed skepticism and the founding fathers. Or at least, that’s what it was billed as. I had been looking forward to it, and I expected at least a portion of the talk to focus on how some of the founding fathers held secular, if not outright atheistic, beliefs. The speakers indeed put forward evidence suggesting the possible atheistic leanings, which was fine, but ultimately, the tone struck me more as a session of religion-bashing. Frankly, I found it boring because it didn’t really get me thinking. It certainly did not address the larger picture implied by the title; I was expecting to learn how they applied skepticism to more aspects than just religion. And ultimately, the speakers (well, one in particular) came off as a bit strident. I wouldn’t have had any problem with discussing atheism or how it relates to the founding of the U.S., but it almost seemed as if, in an effort to assert the virtues and long history of atheism in this country, the speakers were trying so hard that they just came off as little different from a believer arguing in support of their beliefs.

    And I think that perhaps that’s where the issues may be coming from. Too often, when I hear someone advocating atheism, it really strikes me as just as fundamentalist as an evangelical Christian. Maybe it comes from a sense of persecution, a desire to assert that much more strongly that their views are worth hearing. My own background is coming at this as a person who was an evangelical and is now an atheist.

    Anyway, my two cents, which should not be taken as attempting to narrow the scope of any skeptical discussion. The topic’s fine, it’s the presentation that matters.

  61. RedMcWilliamson 31 Jan 2013 at 5:19 pm

    I guess it all depends on whose ox is being gored, but I see PZ also saying that we need different types of conferences and groups and that no one should dictate to another what “type” of skeptic someone else should be.

    So everyone feels like they’re being attacked by everyone else while agreeing almost completely with each other about how things should go.

    Sounds like we’re right on track!

  62. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 5:21 pm

    @sastra:

    In this case I am not arguing to convert. When someone argues against evolution or plies CAM garbage, then yes, that is my explicit argument.

    Here, I am not versed well enough in the details to really argue such that I would be happy if someone converted to my view. I am just as happy to convert to theirs and argumentation about what I perceive to be the case vs what others do is a means to that end. I also recognize that in this case I may well be wrong and hope I have tempered my rhetoric enough in light of that. I tend to agree with PZ, but I recognize Dr. Novella’s relevant expertise. Trying to convert someone to my view here on this topic would be like me trying to do the same in a conversation about physics between Krauss and Mlodinow.

    When it comes to things I am well versed in – evolution and medicine for example – I am more than happy to admit I am trying to change someone’s mind. I am not worried you will become a clone of me and lose some unique diversity of opinion. I just recognize my own limitations in this discussion. So I wasn’t apologizing for arguing – merely trying to be clear that I am not intending to be antagonistic or on the offensive since that can be easily lost or misinterpreted.

    I also agree that PZ and Dr. Novella are nott too far off from each other.

  63. ccbowerson 31 Jan 2013 at 5:21 pm

    “At least we seem to have gotten to the crux of it. Perhaps there is no systematic anti-atheist discrimination – I am certainly no expert. But from what I have seen and read, there does appear to be at least some. Maybe PZ is blowing it out of proportion;”

    I think there is something to this ‘blowing it out of proportion.’ PZ is fairly aggressive and fairly unapologetic which makes him more of a target for disagreement with others, and for those people to react to what he says because they don’t like his personality or approach or arguments. He may be (and his detractors maybe doing this as well) conflating this dislike of his personality and style of argument and the more general view of atheism within skepticism.

  64. Thomathyon 31 Jan 2013 at 5:24 pm

    If I’ve misunderstood Jamy Ian Swiss, very well. I can’t say that I didn’t actually take away from his interview anything other than what I have. I’m certainly willing to reevaluate what he said, but I can’t promise I won’t hear the same thing again.

    You’re working on a generalisation while complaining about a generalisation. Not all atheist activists insist that ‘true sceptics’ are also atheist activists. PZ Myers hasn’t done that and I haven’t and no one on this thread has and no one over at Pharyngula has. Who has? Names have been named from the ‘sceptical community’ identifying those who have spoken out against atheist inclusion, so I must insist that if you want to claim that atheist activists think that the only true sceptics are atheist activists, you’re going to have to get specific.

    you shouldn’t try to redefine skepticism as being whatever your pet interest is

    You know it’s funny that you can claim that atheists want to redefine scepticism to be atheism right after you say this:

    skeptics object that they are quite happy to focus on other things

    Things like their pet interests? Like alt-med and (I can’t resist) bigfoot.

    There’s nothing at all wrong with any sceptic wanting to focus on a particular thing. It’s good, as both Steven Novella and PZ Myers agree, that sceptics focus on different things, like atheism or homeopathy or whatever else.

    A problem is intentionally excluding other things from the sceptical movement in general. And that’s something that I, and I believe others, think is actually happening.

    It’s fascinating that while you claim atheists are trying to redefine scepticism (and you presumably self-identify as a sceptic), atheists (who also self-identify as sceptics) see some sceptics as trying to define scepticism in order to narrow it. Obviously, Steven Novella isn’t doing that and neither is PZ Myers, so that’s not at issue between them. What’s fascinating really, is how the people who claim these things seem to be talking past each other. Perhaps some people need to lay off generalisations and get more specific?

  65. Sastraon 31 Jan 2013 at 5:26 pm

    philosophrenzy wrote:

    Jamy objected to people “moving” the tent–i.e., saying “no, no, skepticism ISN’T x, it’s y: you have to be y to be a ‘true skeptic.” The objection is against the very notion of defining what “counts” as a good skeptic, and yet PZ, and others, somehow take that to mean that he was *defining what counts as a good skeptic.*

    Yes, that’s what I thought he meant. I remember waiting to see if Jamy was going to ask atheists to lay off of religion at skeptics conferences and didn’t hear that. Iirc, his view was that good skeptics could be inconsistent — and that it was okay to attack them for that inconsistency and still consider them allies.

    There’s something very strange going on here. Athest activists insist that “true skeptics” are also atheist activists.

    Okay, I think there’s a general misunderstanding here being fueled by misinterpretations. From what I can tell, atheist activists are not insisting that “true skeptics” are ALSO atheist activists. They are insisting that theism is a legitimate subject for skeptic communities and that an honest application of critical thinking to the issue will entail atheism. But yes, you can be a skeptic and inconsistent.

    You can be a skeptic and believe in reiki. Or UFOs. Or Bigfoot. You can believe in psychic powers and welcomed at skeptic conventions.

    But be prepared to defend your view. Don’t try to say that “health” is very personal and private and you know reiki works and don’t have anything to prove to anyone and you’re offended they have all these SBM types all the time.

    Steven Noverlla wrote:

    So why insist that everyone has to promote atheism directly in the same way at every venue?

    Okay, who is insisting on THAT?

  66. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 5:27 pm

    @todd:

    I suppose that is a reasonable over simplification.

    And perhaps you are right in your assessment. As I said before, it is distinctly possible that PZ is overblowing this and perhaps for exactly that same reason.

    However, I don’t think Dr. Novella’s characterization vis-a-vis the 70% overlap comment is correct. Skeptics are not evolutionists either, but that is a distinct subset of skepticism and one that is featured prominently and hammered extensively because of the detriment anti-evolutionists (aka creationists) make to education. So the fact that not all atheists are skeptics is irrelevant. Atheism, just like like a-creationism or a-cryptozoology, is a state of understanding that can be and is most correctly arrived at by skepticism.

    Perhaps atheism started out in a non-skeptical way (I delineated above how one can be an atheist completely removed from skepticism). But we can also see how people can believe creationism to be a crock in a completely non-skeptical way as well. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong under the umbrella of skepticism as a general overarching construct – the means by which to become or maintain atheism.

  67. Halfdeadon 31 Jan 2013 at 5:31 pm

    It bothers me that there seems to be a distinction without a difference, what is the difference between religion and all the other things covered by skeptics? And why the distinction?

  68. Philosofrenzyon 31 Jan 2013 at 5:43 pm

    @Thomathy:

    I need to clarify that I meant that SOME atheist activists were insisting that you’re not a true skeptic unless you’re an atheist, and an atheist activist, and this is what other skeptics objected to.

    “You know it’s funny that you can claim that atheists want to redefine scepticism to be atheism right after you say this:

    ‘skeptics object that they are quite happy to focus on other things’

    Things like their pet interests? Like alt-med and (I can’t resist) bigfoot.”

    There’s no contradiction between objecting to some atheist activists trying to make atheist activism a necessary condition to being a good skeptic and acknowledging that some skeptics aren’t interested in being atheist activists: they have other pet interests. Some skeptics are atheist activists. Others are more interested in Alt-med, for instance. That’s fine.

    Personally, I’m more interested in religion–I *am* an atheist activist, if anything in particular. So I don’t think it’s illegitimate. But I definitely see a trend among other atheist activists to both put down skeptics who leave religion alone AND to feel persecuted by other skeptics. It’s weird.

  69. Halfdeadon 31 Jan 2013 at 5:46 pm

    “I need to clarify that I meant that SOME atheist activists were insisting that you’re not a true skeptic unless you’re an atheist, and an atheist activist, and this is what other skeptics objected to.”

    Hate to do this but umm, “Citation needed”

  70. ccbowerson 31 Jan 2013 at 5:46 pm

    Philosofrenzy-

    I largely agree with your description. Its odd to argue that atheists are maginalized within skepticism when the people accused of doing the marginalizing are atheist themselves.

  71. RedMcWilliamson 31 Jan 2013 at 5:46 pm

    Who are the well known atheist activists saying that atheist activism is necessary to be a good skeptic? As best I can tell, that sentiment is limited to random blog commenters.

  72. Thomathyon 31 Jan 2013 at 5:47 pm

    But saying we should broaden it in a way you desire is trying to dictate it.

    And what isn’t dictating, then? And who, then, dictates the scope?

    I don’t see atheists as a subset of skeptics.

    Well, clearly some people who identify as sceptics also identify as atheists, but mores so as sceptics, in terms of their activism and their self-identity.

    I see skeptics and atheists as overlapping circles. Not all atheists are skeptics, and not all skeptics are atheists.

    Yeah, but where there is overlap, surely the sceptic-atheists have some say in what the focus of a movement they claim membership in is about? I guess that depends on your answer to the first two questions …

    I didn’t make it this way, but this is the way it is. So why not allow different groups to set their own focus and tone?

    That may be the way it is, but that’s not the way it has to be. Is there anything particularly wrong about wanting to change that?

    I haven no problem letting different groups set their own focus and tone. There is no reason not to allow that. The lines between the different groups are blurring significantly though. People may have stakes in more than one focus, they may be between two ‘camps’ or several.

    You seem to be saying that there is a clear distinction, ‘[...] this is the way it is.’ while also acknowledging an overlap, but without acknowledging the implications of that overlap. One of the implications, as I see it, is that as a member of the sceptical movement, I might want that movement to include some ‘pet inerests’ of mine. After all, the sceptical movement already represents a wide array of ‘pet interests’. What exactly is wrong with broadening it now? Is it just too established in the interests it serves? I don’t think so, and you even say that subcategories are forming, indicating a growth. Is there a specific direction of growth that should be off limits? If not, then what exactly is the problem with an atheist, or a feminist or anyone else who self-identifies as sceptic, asking for the movement to grow to include those things as well as UFOs and alt-med?

    Or is that actually ‘dictating’ and are some other things out of bounds? I like to think you’d say no to both those things, if, after all, ‘we are open to discussions about what this scope is.’

    (Royal ‘we’?)

  73. ccbowerson 31 Jan 2013 at 5:52 pm

    I’m not even sure what we are discussing anymore, but it seemed important at one point. The discussion has lost focus, and this results in many different topics getting conflated into one big convoluted one. I would like there to be progress in this discussion, but misunderstandings seem to be getting in the way

  74. ccbowerson 31 Jan 2013 at 5:55 pm

    “Who are the well known atheist activists saying that atheist activism is necessary to be a good skeptic? As best I can tell, that sentiment is limited to random blog commenters.”

    They are standing next to those skeptics silencing atheists. I joke. People are extrapolating from what others say and how they behave, and it may be overstated from both ends

  75. Thomathyon 31 Jan 2013 at 6:00 pm

    ccbowers, pointing them out and discussing them can help to clear up particular confusions. Pointing them out and doing nothing won’t.

    There are, actually, several important things that need discussing and not just one. There isn’t just one focus (there’s almost irony there) and there isn’t just one discussion happening. There are happens to be a lot of intersection in the topics, though, and that may contribute to misunderstanding and convolution. The conversation also isn’t just happening here, which adds to possible confusion.

    There isn’t likely to be a good way to extract the various discussions and their topics expect by careful reading, both here and at Pharyngula and (probably) elsewhere now, and by participating.

  76. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 6:02 pm

    @ccbowers:

    LOL. I may be beginning to agree with you here. It is starting to feel like those times I argue with the fiance and at the end we are yelling at each other, in complete agreement, and finally say “Wait, what were we actually arguing about??”

    I mean really, this could be something as mundane and simple to fix as having organizers explicitly say what has been implicitly meant all along:

    “We as organizers of large skeptical conferences recognize skeptical inquiry can be brought to bear on religion as a whole and that many atheists arrived at their worldview by doing exactly this. However, for purposes of editorial desire we choose to limit the topics of conversation to [X] noting that there are many atheist conferences that are much better suited and already have a niche for that particular topic”

    Or something like that.

    But Tomathy makes a good point – if enough skeptics want explicitly theistic discussions at conferences, doesn’t that reflect the market that conferences should be trying to attract? The issue seems to me that “too much” inclusion of atheistic topics at skeptical conferences makes them less attractive and alienates too many people, yet many skeptics are saying that is what they would like to see. The same way that being an open atheist would sink your political aspirations, it seems that open skeptical focus on atheism would sink conferences. To what degree that is true… I dunno. Like I said, maybe PZ is overblowing it. But it undoubtedly exists to at least some degree. Big enough a degree to worry about addressing and rectifying (like sexism)? Maybe not.

  77. Davdoodleson 31 Jan 2013 at 6:20 pm

    From my perspective, atheism is an inevitable conclusion following from skepticism.

    No different from Bigfoot or the easter bunny. It’s clearly cods-wallop, with no evidence and virtually no plausibility, and there’s an end to it.

    That said, I’ve no interest in it beyond that, unless-and-until religious dogma purports to guide, or veto, public policy; or justify the harmful act of one person against another.

    Then, I definitely have, and loudly express, a view.

    But until then, I don’t see what purpose needling the religious serves. Proudly and loudly wearing an “athiest” mantle is no more a cred-enhanser than a theist’s braying about how his “Buddah” is “Akbar” makes him better than anyone else.
    .

  78. Philosofrenzyon 31 Jan 2013 at 6:30 pm

    @ Thomathy

    “Is there a specific direction of growth that should be off limits? If not, then what exactly is the problem with an atheist, or a feminist or anyone else who self-identifies as sceptic, asking for the movement to grow to include those things as well as UFOs and alt-med?”

    Nobody here has suggested this. That’s the whole point. The topic started with PZ accusing Steve and “the old guard” of doing this. Steve denied it and suggested everyone should be free to pursue whatever skeptical avenue most interests them. Where is the discrimination in this?

    Skepticism is a movement, but it’s not an organization; there’s no authoritative body dictating what can and cannot be talked about skeptically. Skeptics want to discuss feminist issues? Cool. The Skepchicks are created. A focus on alt-med produced Science Based Medicine. Great!

    Skeptics want to focus on atheist activism? Excellent. Do it. Create a group focused on that. Nobody is stopping anyone from organizing a yearly skeptical atheism conference, for instance. When it became apparent there was enough interest to have a skeptical aspect to Dragoncon, lo! It was done: because someone interested in doing it did the hard work of organizing it (Derek and Swoopy, if I recall). The same can happen with skeptical atheism; but instead of doing the work to add the features they want to existing conferences, or to create new ones, skeptical atheists want to call it discrimination that nobody already has.

  79. Halfdeadon 31 Jan 2013 at 6:30 pm

    “That said, I’ve no interest in it beyond that, unless-and-until religious dogma purports to guide, or veto, public policy; or justify the harmful act of one person against another.
    Then, I definitely have, and loudly express, a view.
    But until then, I don’t see what purpose needling the religious serves. Proudly and loudly wearing an “athiest” mantle is no more a cred-enhanser than a theist’s braying about how his “Buddah” is “Akbar” makes him better than anyone else.”

    Can I move to your world? Because you obviously don’t live in this one. Seriously on what day of the week do you not run headlong into religious dogma affecting policy or people?
    .

  80. Halfdeadon 31 Jan 2013 at 6:33 pm

    “Skeptics want to focus on atheist activism? Excellent. Do it. Create a group focused on that. Nobody is stopping anyone from organizing a yearly skeptical atheism conference, for instance. When it became apparent there was enough interest to have a skeptical aspect to Dragoncon, lo! It was done: because someone interested in doing it did the hard work of organizing it (Derek and Swoopy, if I recall). The same can happen with skeptical atheism; but instead of doing the work to add the features they want to existing conferences, or to create new ones, skeptical atheists want to call it discrimination that nobody already has.”

    Short version is “find your own conference. This one is ours.”

  81. Oracon 31 Jan 2013 at 6:37 pm

    I do not accept as a proven fact that atheists are maligned and singled out in the skeptical movement.

    Nor do I, Steve. In fact, my anecdotal experience echoes yours in that someone like myself, who doesn’t make religion the focus of my skepticism and activism, tends to be derided by the more “militant” atheists as squishy, lacking conviction, hypocritical, inconsistent, etc. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve had such invective aimed at me.

  82. Philosofrenzyon 31 Jan 2013 at 6:39 pm

    “Short version is “find your own conference. This one is ours.””

    By “Short version,” you mean “straw man.”

    I also said “The same can happen with skeptical atheism; but instead of doing the work to add the features they want to existing conferences…”

    If you get from what I wrote that I don’t think atheist activism has any place at existing conferences, you’re not reading what I wrote. Atheist activism is my primary skeptical interest.

  83. ccbowerson 31 Jan 2013 at 6:42 pm

    Nygrbus-
    I agree. I don’t think there is as much disagreement when confusions and misunderstandings are cleared up.

    “But Tomathy makes a good point – if enough skeptics want explicitly theistic discussions at conferences, doesn’t that reflect the market that conferences should be trying to attract? The issue seems to me that “too much” inclusion of atheistic topics at skeptical conferences makes them less attractive and alienates too many people, yet many skeptics are saying that is what they would like to see.”

    Well, that depends on more than demand of a vocal subgroup (you are more likely to hear from people who want that change than from people like me who feel that they are doing a good job balancing the topics). There are already theistic discussions of skeptical conferences, and I disgree that they need more. Again, with this complaint… there are conferences that cater to this already. And again this sounds too much like people telling others what should be in their conference… if you (not “you” specifically but in a more general sense) want more atheistic content in a skeptical conference then go ahead and do just that. I was at NECSS last year and watched/listened to the story of Deborah Feldman that Steve mentioned which was a narrow look at a particular religious community in NY, and in addition to that talk I did feel that the topics were wide ranging and balanced and it did not feel artificially so. To include more specific religious content for me would have been less interesting- I want a variety of topics at an event like this.

  84. Halfdeadon 31 Jan 2013 at 6:46 pm

    “The same can happen with skeptical atheism; but instead of doing the work to add the features they want to existing conferences, or to create new ones, skeptical atheists want to call it discrimination that nobody already has.”

    They have made groups devoted to it, and are derided for it, or accused of trying to change skepticism. Which is odd because there is no definition of religion that does not fit everything else skeptics focus on.

  85. Philosofrenzyon 31 Jan 2013 at 6:48 pm

    @ccbowers

    “And again this sounds too much like people telling others what should be in their conference… ”

    Couldn’t have said it better myself–and I tried!

  86. Philosofrenzyon 31 Jan 2013 at 6:49 pm

    “They have made groups devoted to it, and are derided for it, or accused of trying to change skepticism. ”

    Nobody has derided anyone for trying to change the meaning of skepticism for being skeptical of religion, and creating their own groups. They are accused of trying to change skepticism for deriding skeptics who aren’t interested in religion as “cowards,” and “merely behaving politically,” and so on.

  87. Oracon 31 Jan 2013 at 6:50 pm

    There’s something very strange going on here. Athest activists insist that “true skeptics” are also atheist activists. Other skeptics object that they are quite happy to focus on other things, thank you, and that you shouldn’t try to redefine skepticism as being whatever your pet interest is. Atheist activists are offended and outraged at this, and cry foul–that they’re being discriminated against, and that skeptics “don’t think atheist activists have a place within the skeptical movement.” It’s bizarre. It’s very much like how religious people cry foul, and claim persecution when they are prevented from persecuting other people.

    Well, I wouldn’t go that far, but I do find it odd that skeptics who aren’t particularly interested in being anti-theist (as opposed to just atheist) and to go charging into battle against religion are so frequently castigated by people like P.Z. as squishy “accommodationists.” I get the feeling that we have a problem of point of view. P.Z. rails against the “old guard,” whom he views as not being sufficiently anti-theist enough to the point of supposedly excluding the more “militant” (if you’ll excuse the term) atheists like him. From my perspective, when I first started getting involved in organized skepticism I was kind of put off by how much anti-theism there was. Maybe this was because at the time I was still hanging on to the last vestiges of my faith and didn’t want to let go, but even now that I have let go my outlook still seems different. Religion is just not something I’m much interested in one way or the other. I tried it for a while. I really did. Briefly fired up by Dawkins’ “The God Delusion,” I tried to become more like PZ and Dawkins, because I thought that that’s how a true skeptic had to be. It was a phase that lasted maybe a year or two, but it just wasn’t my passion. Medicine and science are. And so my Dawkins phase passed, and now I’m back to my passions. I’m much happier now.

    But apparently I’m still too squishy.

  88. ccbowerson 31 Jan 2013 at 6:51 pm

    missing from my last comment

    …and I think this should go without saying that skeptical conferences spend a lot of time and energy creating a balance of topics and speakers. I’m sure that they take such “demand” into consideration, but this would be balance with other competing interests.

  89. Thadiuson 31 Jan 2013 at 6:59 pm

    Halfdead,
    I am starting to think that PZ and his followers are creating a “prosecuted christian” like narrative for themselves. It was PZ who instigates by calling those who would rather not add atheism/feminism/veganism/liberalism or any other ism to already established skeptical groups cowards and lazy. Those that disagree with you are not deriding you they are disagreeing with you. PZ Meyers has no desire to work with any community that does not share his exact point of view. If he would like to take on the fundamentalists and bigots, he should, but he does himself no good attacking people who agree with him, but that don’t wish to join his group. Some may find him and his friends tactics and media material distasteful. The only news that gets out about his group is its attacks on other groups that share most of his view points. That cannot be useful to anyone’s agenda.

  90. ccbowerson 31 Jan 2013 at 7:05 pm

    “Couldn’t have said it better myself–and I tried!”

    I think its because we are mostly on the same page on this topic. I also appreciate with nybgrus is trying to do, giving PZ a fair shake on this blog, but I think PZ’s perspective on this is a bit skewed.

  91. Philosofrenzyon 31 Jan 2013 at 7:11 pm

    “but I think PZ’s perspective on this is a bit skewed.”

    And, by god, by the time we’re done with it, it’ll be a bit skewered! ;)

  92. ccbowerson 31 Jan 2013 at 7:15 pm

    “I am starting to think that PZ and his followers are creating a “prosecuted christian” like narrative for themselves.”

    I thought about this, but didn’t write it because I honestly don’t read PZ enough to know if this is accurate. Its not exactly the “War on Christmas” but its not good to even get close to that line of thinking

  93. Davdoodleson 31 Jan 2013 at 7:25 pm

    “Can I move to your world? Because you obviously don’t live in this one. Seriously on what day of the week do you not run headlong into religious dogma affecting policy or people?”

    Well I do live in Australia, not nearly the quasi-theocracy that the US is.

    Here, most noticably, there is dogma-based legislative discrimination against the rights of homosexual folk to marry, and in hiring practices allowed by theist employers. And the odd religion-based hate crime.

    Every Sunday morning, the local church makes a hell of a racket with a big bloody bell in a tower.

    More subtly, churches seem to think they are above the law when it comes to reporting information regarding instances of child sexula abuse they become aware of, and perhapse even have a culture of protecting pederasts and other criminals from detection.

    Beyond that, they mostly just sing and mumble odd stuff in large groups.
    .

  94. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 7:27 pm

    @ccbowers:

    Thanks. I am also trying to flesh out my own thoughts on the matter. Hence why I told sastra I wasn’t trying to change minds in my argumentation.

    For that, I greatly appreciate the time and input from all the commenters, especially Dr. Novella. I think my view is tempered a bit, though I am still unconvinced that there isn’t specific and unreasonable malignment of anti-theism (which is almost the same definition as what Dr. Novella stated for the purposes of this discussion) amongst the skeptic crowd, including the some of the more notable ones and notable conferences.

    That said, I also absolutely and 100% agree that there are plenty of anti-theists who unreasonably castigate skeptics who don’t care to turn their attention on religion. It is absolutely wrong on both sides of the equation.

    I think we should all just realize that atheism ⊂ skepticism and that’s about it. Not atheism ⊆ skepticism. Not atheism = skepticism. Not skepticism ⊂ atheism.

    And I think it is totally fair to have skeptical conferences focus on whatever the organizers want and however they want. I would push for more inclusion and representation of anti-theism in the same way I would want more feminism, but that is a personal preference and I recognize it as such.

    The only thing that is not okay is saying that atheism/anti-theism =/= skepticism or that atheism/anti-theism ∉ skepticism. (And of course it is not OK to say that skeptics who don’t care about theistic claims aren’t “True Skeptics (™)” I personally use “accomodationist” to mean someone who argues that religious knowledge and scientific knowledge are fundamentally compatible, not someone who merely recognizes they co-exist or doesn’t care about religion at all).

    Once again, thanks to all for the conversation. I’m certain over time the confusion will settle, common goals will be identified, and each group of people can do what they are best at and most passionate about.

  95. nybgruson 31 Jan 2013 at 7:29 pm

    @davdoodles:

    yes, that was a nice breath of fresh air for me when I lived in Australia for 2 years. I’ll be back in just a few weeks for a short stint and will enjoy it again as well.

  96. Halfdeadon 31 Jan 2013 at 7:38 pm

    “PZ who instigates by calling those who would rather not add atheism/feminism/veganism/liberalism or any other ism to already established skeptical groups cowards and lazy.”

    Care to share a link where PZ did this?

  97. ccbowerson 31 Jan 2013 at 7:56 pm

    “Well I do live in Australia, not nearly the quasi-theocracy that the US is.”

    I assume this is tongue-in-cheek, because it is very inaccureate otherwise. Perhaps you are referencing religiosity among the general population, but that has nothing to do with theocracy. From what I understand our First Amendent has been interpreted much more broadly than section 116 of your constitution (which appears to “borrow” from your first amendment) by the courts making the division between church and state much stronger from a legal perspective in the US. Correct me if you think I’m wrong. You are correct in that our general polpulation is more religious, which empowers some of our politicians to challenge this separation, but in the US this issue is highly regional. I am curious about Australia with reagards to this.

  98. ccbowerson 31 Jan 2013 at 7:59 pm

    Woops should be “which appears to “borrow” from our first amendment.”

    Actually I’m assuming this because it came after, and I can’t imagine it is coincidence. Maybe you know the answer?

  99. Didgyaon 31 Jan 2013 at 8:08 pm

    Hi Steve,
    I appreciate your “a candle in the dark” stance between the skeptic and atheist fronts. Some have trouble with a having a spectrum between the two and fitting in wherever they fit best. I do not understand why PZ would act like Skeptics are oppressing the ‘poor little atheist’. Any kind of jokes or criticism is treated like a full attack on there very ‘soul’ (I couldn’t help myself) The attitude that ‘if you are not 100% (or any%) with us, therefore you are an oppressor and by default against us’ attitude, reeks of irrationality at its finest. Skeptics are the one of the (and there are few) best allies for many Atheist causes. (At least the rational ones) PZ should be grateful there are people out there, like you, that are tolerant, thoughtful and skeptical, but I feel that he and many others are taking that for granted now,(much like a teenager, with his ‘stupid’ parents), expecting you to bend to the will of their special interests and setting themselves up as the status quo. He wants the house on the hill but tells the hill to be flat. (if that makes any sense). Kyle Stugis, has a good blog about this also(and not she doesn’t agree 100%, which is why it is good! http://freethoughtblogs.com/tokenskeptic/2013/01/30/you-may-be-forgiven-for-thinking-that-some-skeptics-are-taking-a-firm-stance-but/ ) Anyway, I appreciate your work in skepticism and your honesty! (by the way I came to Atheism by “rational” skepticism, imagine that.)

  100. locutusbrgon 31 Jan 2013 at 8:15 pm

    Steve
    I cannot agree with your position on this discussion. Pointless and divisive.
    PZ and you have taken a position. It is commonly debated within the community and divisive. You have to ask yourself what is the endgame here.

    Goal 1: Expand critical thinking and scientific method, give people the tools and the encouragement to reason. Hope that expanding reason, logic and critical thinking will help atheism, realistic politicians, and humanism. “lead people to the water.”

    Goal 2: Expand Logic, suppress or eliminate religion, focus on scientific method, promote science based, atheistic, political agenda. “shine the bright light of critical thinking on a superstitious world.
    (My framing obviously)

    Everyone has been far more eloquent than me, I would not propose to debate them. Consider this I live in state that is about as blue as it gets politically, Rhode Island. In this state there have been successful atheist litigation, not based on science, just public religions displays. Big atheist wins. Still RI atheism fringe, small numbers. I have seen people show up regularly to skeptic meetups. These meetups are primarily Atheist drum circles. Total number of members still less than 20.
    There is no evidence that this is expanding critical thinking in any way.

    Atheistic activism pointless. You try to force atheism on people you will fortify the religious position with the independent thinkers, I have seen it happen. Teaching someone how to realize religion is worthless, now that just might work. You want to mend the fences fine..
    I think it is dismissing human behavior to suppose that political and atheistic activism will produce real change in our society. Call it a philosophical disagreement fine. I call it one method that could work and one that has no chance of working.
    PZ I use my geeky-ness to remind you”The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers”. Princess Leia star wars.

  101. Davdoodleson 31 Jan 2013 at 8:17 pm

    “Perhaps you are referencing religiosity among the general population, but that has nothing to do with theocracy.”

    I understand the first amendment and s116, hence my use of the term “quasi-theocracy”. I’m talking about the extent to which dogma (by which I mean unsubstantiated assertions about what god reckons) actually controls the political debate.

    It seems (and please correct me if I’m wrong) that in the US, there is still loud dogma-fueled attempts to whittle away the freedom to undertake safe abortions, constant attempts to force gibberish into science textbooks, and science out of them. Presidential prayer events. Each Presidential hopeful’s fitness-for-office turning so absolutely on the sincerity of their avowed piety.

    Australia is far from perfect, but the abortion “debate” is done. Evolution is a fact. We have an unmarried athiest, female, Prime Minister. Religion is, by and large, a quiet matter. And nobody, not even the religious, claims that it makes them better than their neighbor.
    .

  102. Thadiuson 31 Jan 2013 at 8:50 pm

    Halfdead,
    I apologize, that was from the comments on PZ’s and post not from him. However he does say, in essence, that those that make a delineation between claims and “not even wrong” topics for scepticism to cover do so “irrationally” and from a point of “emotion”. A sentiment that is as insulting to any skeptic as anything i can think of. I think that Steve has done a great job of outlining the intellectual stance that demands this delineation.

    In his post PZ points to Randi’s action against Peter Pop’ov as an example of how skepticism can look at religion. This is a story which the SGU has covered, many times, so i fail to see how they are narrowing the scope of skepticism to exclude religious topics when the topic PZ sites HAS been covered extensively by organized skepticism. This kind of behavior is what leads me to think PZ is cultivating a persecution complex and an “with us or against us” attitude toward people who agree on almost everything.

  103. Eric Thomsonon 31 Jan 2013 at 8:54 pm

    Atheism+: for those that are nostalgic for 1980s college campus PC hysteria run amok.

    No thanks.

  104. Danon 31 Jan 2013 at 10:43 pm

    It’s kind of weird that PZ is going on about how strong the “anti-atheist” discrimination is at skeptic conferences (I’d be really curious if he would approve of a speaker at skeptic conferences who had the same beliefs as Martin Gardner). That sure isn’t the impression I get, and a much better explanation for the emails he gets might be that some people are protesting him personally. This will probably be unpopular with many here, but I find him to often be a condescending bully who twists peoples words to make them look bad, and is always in some petty bow-up with someone else who probably agrees on 99% of the issues. His writing on biology is very good, but he and his followers almost turned me away from the skeptical movement for a while, and I would seriously consider not attending a conference to which he was a key-note speaker. It’s not his atheism, it’s that I do not consider him intellectually honest. (PZ does seems like a teddy-bear in video interviews, make he’s just an internet tough-guy?).

    It was the approach of Michael Shermer and Steven Novella that helped me develop critical thinking skills, and I still called myself a Christian and a skeptic for about a year as I slowly began to see how silly my religious beliefs were. Hitchens and Dawkins also helped me become an atheist, and I enjoyed reading them while still a Christian, but PZ’s approach was not helpful to me, and I’m pretty sure that if most skeptics had his approach I would not have learned critical thinking skills and would still be religious. A lot of people obviously favor his approach to skepticism, but I don’t and my dislike doesn’t have to do with his atheism.

  105. svetbekon 31 Jan 2013 at 10:44 pm

    When I read PZ decry skeptics’ silence in the face of “status quo,” he means, I believe, the manner in which power and wealth are distributed in the US. I am certain that he would favor a much wider distribution of both. He wants skeptics to engage with the relevant disciplines (political science, economics, sociology, etc.) and is certain that the examination of evidence will lend support to his political/economic values and would discredit those of libertarians and conservatives. He wants skeptics to use their intellectual skills to mount a sweeping critique of the status quo … but what Steve is willing to give him–at most–is cool-headed examination of specific social or cultural phenomenon.

  106. rasmuron 31 Jan 2013 at 11:25 pm

    I believe that skeptics should beware of fanaticism, bigotry, hate speech, and bullying. I can think of a certain biology professor from Minnesota who epitomizes these frightening attitudes. I am not a New Atheist, and if their goal is to convince people that religion is a great evil that must be constantly fought, I don’t share it. I also have some of the same concerns about feminism as D.J. Grothe, about it infiltrating into movement skepticism and causing division and pressure to conform. While I certainly have no objection with combining feminism and skepticism on a blog, I personally find feminism of the skepchick/FTB variety to be harangueing and sometimes even bullying (and I’m not letting the sexists off the hook, who are even worse). Anyway, I hope that since certain people will not be going to TAM anymore, we won’t have the Internet shitstorm that has happened every year for the past two years around TAM time. And yes, this is political, but I believe that the skeptic movement should be welcoming and encourage people to love science and think more critically, whatever their religious and political pursuasions.

  107. Gojira74on 31 Jan 2013 at 11:58 pm

    “This kind of behavior is what leads me to think PZ is cultivating a persecution complex and an “with us or against us” attitude toward people who agree on almost everything.”

    The comments on his blog have become more and more “echo chamber” like every day. He loves his horde and they love him, but it is not remotely a good place to have any kind of discussion about anything. He is surrounded by 10,000 “yes people,” and that gives me pause when he complains about others privilege. It would take a heroic effort for him to not feel empowered by that environment, and his posts seem to betray his feeling of empowerment.

  108. aabrown1971on 01 Feb 2013 at 1:08 am

    Dr. Novella,

    Thanks for your post @ 4:16pm. I have to admit – I’m somewhere between PZ and you. To be extra geeky – it seems like a Kirk vs Spock battle, Mr. Spock. :) That being said, I was scratching my head a bit about the PZ’s atheist comments. As a Dawkins-like Atheist, I have never felt maligned or out of place on any of the blogs I read and sometimes comment on daily (SBM, NB, Skeptoid). I usually don’t wade into JREF, as it appears (to me anyway) that there is a large contingency of low-education skeptics, and blogs often devolve into huffpost-like drivel. And by low-education, I mean folks who do not fully understand the basics of skepticism, regardless of (or lack of) degree. Perhaps his comments were aimed at them.

    I have enjoyed reading the back and forth, and I know both you and PZ have enjoyed writing them. Perhaps you should have him on the show soon. I think some of the commenters here are confusing a good debate with personal animosity and malice, of which I can tell there is little to none. Cheers.

  109. StellaLunaon 01 Feb 2013 at 2:45 am

    An observation based upon my history with various movements and communities: Fractious and heated internal disputes arise within movements and communities – and to outsiders and newcomers, they amount to “distinctions without a difference.”

    Stick with me through this background, because i do have a point here…

    The science / skeptical / atheist / humanist movement(s) and communities have done so much over so many years to allow me to confidently describe myself as a geek and an atheist and a science-loving nerd. And that community has enough “community” going for it to give me podcasts, magazines, TV specials, conventions, gatherings, and events that feed my joy.

    On the feminism front, the women and men who came before me did the work to raise awareness and defend the rights of women so that even as a 5-year-old girl in the early ’60s there was no doubt in my mind that I was college bound and unstoppable. I have a profession that pays me well, and I love my work.

    On a different social justice front, I am old enough now to be both disappointed and grateful about the news that one of my younger relatives (second cousin once removed) has come out as a gay man. I’m disappointed because this announcement is STILL considered “news” – meaning, of special note and concern — and that this “news” has precipitated shock and anger in a minority of the family members. But I’m grateful that the work done by those who came before him, including me, on behalf of gay awareness and rights has allowed him enough of a sense of safety that he can come out widely and publicly now in his early 20s.

    Is everything perfect and ideal? No – some amount of discrimination and not-always-veiled hostility still exist for me as an atheist and/or a woman and/or as a support to our fellow humans who are gay. But is it better for me than those who came before? HELL YES! Sometimes it is too easy to overlook how hard it was even one generation ago (or still is in many places and cases). It is too easy to overlook the fact that I owe it to those who follow to keep clearing the way.

    I am grateful that the Novellas and PZs and SkepDocs and SkepChicks and CSI-ers and JREFs and Athiest Alliancers and all the rest continue to willingly shoulder the load for us. In one sense, they are the custodians of the movement(s); they inherited the ongoing work from the pathfinders who came before. I am glad it didn’t end with Sagan and Omni magazine.

    I wonder if one of the indicators of success in impacting the larger world is that subcultures arise within a movement and they begin to criticize the other members for “not doing it right” and to argue internally about the priorities and the focus…

  110. Aardwarkon 01 Feb 2013 at 4:15 am

    The complex and highly valuable discussion here and under the first article on this issue may be useful to many readers and participants in many ways. However, it still comes down to a single point that can be expressed in a relatively simple sentence.

    PZ is the type of activist who believes that ‘those who are not with us must be against us’. Steve is not. And I personally agree with Steve.

    And, oh yes, I think that PZ-type activists are those who are persistently being intellectually dishonest, a feature they share with many (but not all) promoters of religions and ideologies.

    As for the question of who is a coward, I see much more bravery in being ready to engage anybody on a neutral common battleground than in lobbing insults over the walls of one’s own comfortable, unassailable ideological fortress.

  111. DemonHauntedon 01 Feb 2013 at 6:09 am

    I second the idea of having P.Z. on SGU as a guest to debate this topic, it would be quite interesting.

    Just out of curiosity are there alt-med or bigfoot panels at atheist conferences? Seems like getting skeptic conferences to also cover atheistic (or anti-theistic) claims will simply dilute the focus of a conference to homeopathic proportions. What will be the point of athiest conference then? May as well call them all skeptical if PZ is to be believed.

  112. DemonHauntedon 01 Feb 2013 at 6:25 am

    In fact I think I have found the solution to this little hubub, simply insert the work ‘Skeptical’ as a prefix to any conference or blog. For example ‘Skeptical American Atheists 2013 National Convention’ or ‘Skeptical Women in Secularism’ or ‘Skeptical 4th International Dry Toilet Conference’ (google it)… it is a wonderful and cost effective solution.

    Now P.Z. may attend the appropriate ‘Skeptical’ conference with welcoming smiles all round!

  113. SimonWon 01 Feb 2013 at 7:34 am

    Hmm not sure on a distinction between methodical naturalism and philosophical naturalism. Definitely sounds like semantics to me.

    Sure we haven’t determined if the world was made 6000 year ago looking 13 billion years old, but NOR CAN ANYONE ELSE. If there was a reliable method of determining such things it would be part of methodical naturalism.

    Even Dawkin’s who is held up as a philosophical naturalist doesn’t say it is impossible that gods exist, just that there isn’t evidence for it so he thinks it exceedingly unlikely.

    The process of rational enquiry into religion is I think key, and where the gap closes. If we can understand why people believe what they do and how they go wrong, then we can probably fix it, or at least help people understand their biases better. I don’t think these “beliefs” (and I question how widely religious doctrine is really believed – although it can be dangerously influential) can be compatible with methodical naturalism.

    But yes, that there is no rational reason to believe in gods doesn’t mean gods don’t exist, in exactly the same way fairies, or N-rays might exist in some form. I think trying to draw a philosophical distinction between gods and fairies, and N-rays risks falling into fallacious thinking.

    It is interesting how humans are so poor collectively updating their beliefs in the light of the evidence.

    My favourite example is the use of the story of Abraham and Isaac in psychiatric text books. Several textbooks use it as a classic example of command hallucination, yet no one seems to make the obvious deduction (Abraham was delusional – although a theologian friend seems to think he may have been mythological – the story reads so much like a case study of command hallucination I’ll grant the Bible there is probably some historicity – if it was invented it was invented by someone who had or had seen someone with command hallucinations). The biblical story even suggests that the mental health issues in Abraham’s family were hereditary in nature, see there is some good stuff in there if you read it with a clear head.

    As a consequence I see no philosophical distinction between erroneous beliefs of religions, and other similar beliefs, aside from the scale of the damage inflicted.

  114. Halfdeadon 01 Feb 2013 at 8:05 am

    I see this huge trend here where people are somehow making this huge distinction between religion and other pseudosciences, on what basis do you make this distinction? You also fail to understand Dr. Novella it seems, because when he says “your not even wrong”, it is a much larger insult than anything PZ ever says, just because most of the people he directs it at fail to understand what hes saying does not make it any less insulting.

    The constant suggestion that PZ is surrounded by “yes men” and that its an “echo chamber” is silly and shows that many of you are either unfamiliar with pharyngula or simply have a reading comprehension