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The Cult of Skepticism

We recently received the following e-mail:

After listening to this podcast and to the 100 or so that I’ve listened to over the past two years I offer all of us a caveat ( ok, more of a reminder than a caveat ) regarding skepticism in general. We all must embrace variability within skeptics. Without individualism ( not all must be atheists or agnostics, not all must be liberal, not all must be of a certain age, etc etc etc ) we become a cult. I do not want to become a cult, blindly following dogma, even if that dogma is the scientific method. There are no absolutes; there may be absolutes as we presently know the world; Plato begat Gallileo begat Newton begat Einstein begat the next heroic world view – paradigm shifter ( I’ve never written a sentence with 4 begats before – woo hoo! ). We should constantly be open minded to all possibilities at all times as long as we are guided by evidence, and molded by replication. But we can’t be stifled by the evidence. Einstein changed the world by thinking outside of the box. Thus we should always be ready to engage in discussion all comers. All of us bring biases into our world view. As skeptics , our world view is guided by the scientific method – other’s bring wu or religion or Oprahism. But one never knows where an inspired idea may come from; even if an apple didn’t fall on Newton’s head, it IS a cool tale. And he was a religious zealot! There’s hope for all of us. Communication and empiricism is the key. As you say, concentrate on the evidence and the ideas, not the person who you are debating; we should also concentrate on the motive of those involved.

Hal

Hal has hit upon the ultimate irony of the skeptical movement – it is a movement of individualists, of people who don’t want to belong to anything that smacks of group-think. I have heard others refer to organizing skeptics as akin to herding cats.

We have had the challenge of providing information which is authoritative – but not based upon authority. We tell our listeners not to trust us or believe us without question. Sometimes listeners even revel in the opportunity to correct us or take a contrary opinion. I personally love this. There is nothing I like more than a good debate – or just discussing a topic with someone who completely disagrees with me (as long as they are not just being a mindless insulting jerk).

While I share Hal’s basic vision of what skepticism should be, I do not share his apparent concern that skepticism is significantly deviating from this. In my experience most skeptics are open minded, do not accept claims on authority, and the risk of skepticism developing into anything like a cult is insignificant.

Skepticism and Politics

For one thing – I find that skeptics range the political spectrum. On topics that are strongly informed by science, there is general agreement. However, on topics that primarily involve political value judgments there is great disparity among skeptics. Skeptics are general either liberal or libertarian – and I have personally met skeptics that run the full spectrum, from literally communist to full-on Libertarian with a capital “L”.

This is, in fact, the most common source of friction among skeptics, in my experience. Liberal-libertarian debates flare up on the boards, occasionally. There are some topics that tend to divide along these lines – like global warming, recycling, and organic farming.

As skeptics I think it is important to recognize when we are venturing beyond pure science to issues that involve our political values. What I see sometimes is skeptics portraying their political position as “the skeptical” position. Our goal at the SGU is to discuss the science of such issues but not express our personal political opinions (although I admit sometimes they are evident).

Skepticism and Religion

it is certainly true that most self-described “skeptics” are either atheists or agnostics (the figure I have heard is 70%, but I could not find a reference). It seems obvious that this reflects overall skeptical philosophy – it’s  like saying most skeptics are skeptical.

But I agree with Hal that we need to tolerate personal religious faith within the skeptical movement. As long as faith is kept personal, separate from science, and not based upon empirical claims – it can coexist with a skeptical philosophy. In fact another Hal – Hal Bidlack – the MC of TAM6, was very open about the fact that he is a deist. He is a solid skeptic, but for personal reasons holds out belief in a deity. Martin Gardner is similarly a deist.

Also, far from there being group-think on this topic, this is a hotly debated notion within the skeptical movement. There are those who think that skepticism equates to strong atheism – that the existence of god is just another empirical claim about reality and should be subject to the rules of science. Others believe that faith, by definition, lies outside the arena of science – it is not a statement about reality so much as an expression of personal belief that is not empirically based. (For a deeper discussion of this topic you can search the SGU forums. I bring it up here to point out that this is a raging debate among skeptics. )

Conclusion

I think the best way to sum up this topic is to say that skepticism is a method and not a set of beliefs. It is the continuous open-minded application of skeptical inquiry. It is, and should be, tolerant of diversity with respect to anything outside the realm of empirical scientific claims.

There is, however, a broader rationalist movement of which “scientific skepticism” is merely one part. This is another debate that is raging within skepticism: must it be synonymous with rationalism – the application of skeptical philosophy to faith, politics, ethics, and values?

I don’t have a definitive answer to this question. I can only say that I have chosen to confine my public battles to the cause of scientific skepticism. While I personally support and profess broader rationalism, and I am glad there are groups who do promote this approach – it is simply not where my talents and proclivities lie. I find it difficult to care what people believe – but care deeply how people think; is it logically valid and evidence-based?

But at the same time I am tolerant of the diversity of approaches that activist skeptics have taken – each true to their own selves, their nature and concerns. I do not see it as my purview to tell others how to promote science and reason. I only wish to do it in my own way.

12 comments to The Cult of Skepticism

  • Niobe

    I disagree with the “must” of diversity.
    Even if all skeptics were white American atheist males aged 20-28, that would not detract from the legitimacy of their points and claiming so would become fallacious.

    Of course we’re a variable bunch.

    But let’s not forget “they” are as well. There’s as much variation in woo-woo lovers, despite our love to cast them as bible thumping creationists, granola hippies or Silvia Browne loving Oprah revering housewives.

  • Nice essay, Steven.

    I take issue only with one small point: A “Libertarian with a capital L” is a member of the Libertarian party, which is pretty far left on a host of issues. A “small L” libertarian, on the other hand, is usually not nearly so left on many issues (though on others s/he would certainly be considered so by, say, a Republican). Many of the Libertarian party members I have met would seem right at home as communists in most respects.

    If you intended to suggest a wide range of political opinion among skeptics, I think there is far more contrast between a communist and a “small L” libertarian.

  • Niobe,

    I agree – but to clarify I never wrote that we “must” have diversity. I wrote we should be tolerant of the diversity we have.

  • Is it actually stated that Einstein and Newton are an example that maybe some of the pseudo science or religious thinking might be right?

    They made their conclusions by observing the real world, there is no connection to pseudo science or religion which does not have any manifestation to be observed. Unless you count the placebo effect.

    If a skeptic can repeat the phenomena under the controlled conditions he will figure it out within our current limits, not just ignore the data because it seems impossible.
    Will he be limited in his imagination because he is not a religious person?
    Not at all, I believe that he is less bound by the fake rules. What religious person thinks as a way to hell (stem cells first gen) the real scientist explores.

    Skepticism is not a cult nor a goal, it is a tool to strip yourself of the cults or (fake) beliefs. While religion is a goal and you shape your reality to sustain the illusion that you are on the right track.

    Maybe this TAM happening made Hal to think of a cultish behavior. It sure will raise more flags as it grows. Now we look like them but you can’t help it as the word must be spread, this childish behavior of the majority went for too long.

  • Niobe

    I was more referring to Hal claiming skeptics had to be diverse to counteract the cult formation.

  • wickerman

    I’m afraid I’m one of those cats who eschew that herding business.

    I’ve been a reader of Swift (JREF’s newsletter) for the past, oh, 4 years, I guess.

    I’ve listened for the first time to this little podcast called “The Skeptics Guide to the Universe” in the summer of 2005 and have listened ever since.

    Point of Inquiry, Penn & Teller, Skeptic Magazine, Respectful Insolence, Science-Based Medicine, CRAP-based medicine, Skeptoid, Quackwatch, younameit, I’m there.

    And yet I always felt that fear that we would become a “cult”, in a way, as well. Despite all the rationality, all the scientific method, all which makes us strong and stronger, I always felt that this movement (of which I am, in one breath, a far away spectator – in practical terms, and a full fledged member – in my heart) could become something else, something far removed from what it is.

    Gladly I was wrong and I don’t think e-mailer Hal is correct. I think there are some fringes, sure, some rabid atheists, almost as fanatical as those evangelicals, but then again I can see why they’re like that (I’m a Portuguese living in Spain, our secular reality is way different than the American one).

    Why am I posting a comment now, here, after all these years of placid distance? I dunno, maybe because Hal Bidlack’s conference (heard it the other day) touched me deep inside, and it made me sad and happy and tearful, maybe because I miss Perry a lot, maybe because I envy TAM attendees deeply.

    Maybe because I, as everyone else, need to feel at home, albeit quite the individualist.

    And this is my home.
    Thanks Steve, thanks all!
    Pedro

  • I just don’t see how we can ” tolerate personal religious faith within the skeptical movement” I am sorry but any sort of religious faith, at least the kind of faith the major religions require, is inconsistent with a skeptical worldview. In fact, I submit that any religious faith in some sort of supernatural divine being, specifically requires one to suspend their skepticism.

    Of course people can define religious faith in any way they like and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone came up with some sort of religion which was not inconsistent with skepticism. However, generally a skeptic and a religious person cannot be one and the same, not if we’re using the everyday meaning of these two words.

  • themightyleart:
    Skepticism is a big tent, I don’t like to tell other people what to think. I would never tell someone that they are not a ‘true skeptic’ because they believe in an unfalsifiable deity. Skepticism only deals with falsifiable claims.
    If on the other hand, they believe in a 6000 year old earth, despite the evidence, then I would say they are not being very skeptical of YEC claims. I would never kick them out of a skeptical meeting though.

    I like to take the tact that if you expose someone to skepticism long enough, they’ll eventually use it on their sacred cows, whatever they may be. It’s hard to expose them to skepticism if you outright dismiss the person and tell them that they are not a ‘true skeptic’ (whatever that means).

  • Steve Page

    jonny_eh, religious claims are falsifiable though. If someone is a deist who believes that God exists outside of the universe and doesn’t interact with it, then obviously that can’t be tested, but if someone claims that there is efficacy in prayer, that miracles occur that defy the laws of physics etc., then they are testable and falsifiable. That’s actually one of Richard Dawkins’ main points; if an individual’s god doesn’t interact, then praying to/worshipping him is pointless, and if he does, then where is the evidence? I can understand why that ruffles the feathers of the true believer, but the fact that it can antagonize doesn’t alter its validity.

  • themightyleart

    When you say “I submit that any religious faith in some sort of supernatural divine being, specifically requires one to suspend their skepticism.” we are missing the fact that vast majority of modern religious people use the word “god” as a metaphor for awe and/or wonder, even as they continue to celebrate myths of supernatural beings.

    I find that the arguments over religion with skepticism come down to ignorance and the part of ex-fundamentalist who seem to think that their experience of religion is the norm; and the ignorance of the non-religious who don’t understand that most religious people are not idiots and can use myths as metaphors with literalizing them.

  • Jason Apple

    codswallop.

    Let me know if i have misread your post. That seems more likely than the alternative.

    You are saying that Libertarians are akin to communists? That is about as backwards as a comment can get. They are on total opposite spectrums. Libertarians believe in extremely limited government, minimal taxation, personal liberties and freedoms. Even a cursory understanding of the two groups would make apparent how different they are. Libertarians are considered more right than left of center. Admittedly it gets a little hazy with some aspects(the whole socially liberal/fiscally conservative part) and certainly can be left of center on many issues, but ultimately the areas in which it is conservative make it completely antithetical to communism. If there’s one thing a libertarian could never be, its a communist.

    If I have misunderstood your post, I sincerely apologize.

  • timdarklighter

    To add to Steven_Page’s comment:

    “…if an individual’s god doesn’t interact, then praying to/worshipping him is pointless, and if he does, then where is the evidence?”

    Although I haven’t read Dawkins’ work, as a former Catholic (who is chewing on Deism right now), I still use prayer to God as a form of relaxation and meditation before I go to sleep at night. So there is “power in prayer”, although it most likely isn’t supernatural in origin. This is a falsifiable claim, even though it is rooted in belief in an unfalsifiable claim.

    This may be anecdotal evidence, but my guess is that a significant portion of “believers” use prayer in this way, whether or not they expect it to be answered.

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