Spreading the Gospel of Skepticism

November 21, 2010

I gave a “sermon” at my UU church today on skepticism, and it was such a thrill to share my passion with everyone. One thing I wanted to focus on was outreach – how to be a better ambassador for the idea of skepticism.

Lately, there has been a battle for tone in our little skeptical movement. On the one side, are certain atheists (PZ Myers and friends) who are fairly intolerant of people of faith. Their argument is that there is no room for superstition in the skeptical movement, and that religion should not be immune to our critical analysis. They make a strong point, but they don’t make it very nicely.

On the other side, are people, like me, who want to be more welcoming and accepting of people who choose a path of faith. We shouldn’t shove any belief down the throats of potential allies. Skepticism should be about the process, and not the destination. Skepticism is all about giving people the tools to think critically, and sharing our conclusions for claims that are testable (the existence of god is not one of these claims). Too often, skeptics ruin skepticism’s street cred and jeopardize our greater goals by alienating deists with dismissive rhetoric and an unwelcoming vitriolic tone. I think those of us on the “accommodationist” side need to remind ourselves that it’s not our job to change people’s motives or attitudes. If accommodationists want skepticism to be represented by positive core values, all we can do is our own brand of outreach and not villainize new atheists for having a different tactic ; anything further obsessing over the topic just comes across as sanctimonious to the other side, and it allows them to mock our efforts.

Which is why I spoke to my UU congregation about the positive sides of skepticism, and did my best to represent my accommodationist position. I wanted the congregation to know that skeptics are not some fringe cynical lunatics who disbelieve in everything, as some might think on their first impression. We follow the scientific consensus, which more often than not, puts us in the mainstream.

I also wanted to take the advice of Sean Faircloth of the Secular Coalition of America, whom I interviewed recently, to flavor my sermon with arguments that pack a punch emotionally. I reminded them that Christine Maggiore, an HIV denialist, could have lived a much longer life (and her daughter too) if she had listened to the scientific consensus that AIDS was caused by HIV. I also brought up the dowsing bomb detectors that are based on the long-debunked concept of divination. How many innocent people died because those devices were being used? My argument was that skepticism matters, and I hope that this message hit home with my audience.

I also tried to anticipate some objections, like “who cares whether people believe in bigfoot?”. My argument has always been that somebody cares, and that most people should care about the truth. Nobody likes to hear their beliefs belittled, and very few people are willing to walk away from a belief that they have invested in. But most skeptics aren’t interested in taking away the free-will of people to choose their own path. The skeptic movement is about a method of assessing claims, sharing that method with those who will listen, and supporting the scientists and investigators who use the method in their trade. As I put it to my congregation, does the existence of Consumer Reports magazine take away people’s free will to buy expensive poor quality items at the store? No, but it’s there if you need it, and we should be thankful for it.

I’ve been reading “Mistakes Were Made, but Not by Me” by Carol Tavris, which is all about “cognitive dissonance”, the idea that people can’t hold two opposing ideas in their heads, so they tend to justify the idea in which they’re most invested. One paragraph really popped out at me, and it’s when Tavris said that skepticism is a form of “arrogance control”, which seems like a great rejoinder to the complaint that skeptics are arrogant. Who is more arrogant, the person who believes, without a doubt, that he has seen a flying saucer, or the person who recognizes that our minds are evolved to pick out patterns and that the UFO was likely a flare, a balloon, a planet, or any number of other natural explanations? I guess that answer depends on how the message is given, which goes to the points I’ve been making about tone.

I had a number of people come up to me afterward and discuss topics that I mentioned. I really enjoy being challenged. One couple had invested some of their credulity into the possible conspiracy of World Trade Center 7′s collapse and global warming denial. One thing that I admitted to them is that World Trade Center 7 is an unusual anomaly, and that it makes sense to question it’s collapse. But when I was hooked into the 9/11 conspiracy (for a day) I took some time to look at what the skeptics’ arguments were, and I found that the skeptics “had the goods”. As for global warming, I understood their argument that it’s fellow scientists who are pointing to errors in the way the data has been analyzed. I think that’s a great thing because science can be messy, and we should hope that scientists are keeping each other in check. However, as I understand it, the overall consensus among scientists is that AGW is a real man-made threat, and that it’s getting worse every year. Most of all, I tried to empathize with their position and let them know some resources where they could find reliable answers.

One thing I learned while investigating the information for this sermon is that Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were good friends, despite their differences in critical thinking skills. Harry never tried to push the overly-credulous Doyle into skepticism, but instead, he would be very careful about explaining how certain spiritualists could accomplish their supernatural abilities in explainable natural ways. Doyle went to his grave believing in fairies and clairvoyants because he was so heavily invested in his beliefs, but Houdini would never have had a chance to share his skepticism of the spiritualists had he been antagonistic toward Doyle.

I’ll finish with this quote by Carl Sagan, which I borrowed for the sermon from Daniel Loxton:

“And yet, the chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is in its polarization: Us vs. Them—the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, you’re beyond redemption. This is unconstructive. It does not get the message across. It condemns the skeptics to permanent minority status; whereas, a compassionate approach that from the beginning acknowledges the human roots of pseudoscience and superstition might be much more widely accepted.”

Amen, brother.