So there’s this thing called Skepticon happening in Missouri right now. It’s not really made much of a blip on my radar, but it’s a big annual skeptical meet-up and conference, along similar lines to TAM, but free to attend.
I’m not there. Mostly because it’s taking place more than eight miles from where I live, and you know how I feel about getting organised and doing things. Ugh.
I hope everyone’s having fun there, and I’m sure the skeptical blogosphere will be deluged with reports and personal accounts over the coming days. But I wanted to chime in briefly on an argument that’s been centering around the format of this event.
Jeff Wagg, who’s done great stuff as an integral part of the JREF in the past, wrote a piece this week opining that Skepticon seemed like primarily an atheist convention, and should consider adopting a new name that more accurately describes its anti-religious purpose.
Skepticon organiser JT Eberhard disagreed. And I’m with him. Looking at the schedule for the event, it’s clear that there’s quite a variety of topics on the list for discussion, many of which wouldn’t be of direct interest to anyone just turning up for a fix of angry shouting about how religion is bullshit. (This is a popular caricature of atheists at conferences, which I’d guess is at least 95% straw man.)
There is actually more anti-religious stuff on the agenda than JT acknowledges in his piece – the talk titled “Are Christians Delusional?” surely counts as well, even if the answer it comes up with is more charitable than you might guess – but the list of topics also includes sexism, skeptical outreach, and drinking heavily until late into the night. Several speakers don’t have a description of their talk listed on that schedule, but I know from experience that people like DJ Grothe, Rebecca Watson, and James Randi have much more to say than a simple reassurance that all religious people are idiots.
There’s even a panel discussion on “Does skepticism lead to atheism?”, which implies (I would hope) that arguments against this assumption will at least be considered. And this is what’s central to it, I think – does anyone need to believe that skepticism must lead to atheism to be a part of this conference? And does the way that the conference is arranged imply that its organisers themselves equate skepticism and atheism in this way?
Personally, I’m not worried about religious people feeling excluded from skeptical conferences because of an atheistic leaning at the events. For one, I don’t think anyone’s going to be chased out of the hotel by a baying mob with flaming torches just because they haven’t completely given up on some of the more popular supernatural ideas.
What will happen to such people is that their beliefs are going to be questioned, and the holes in their logic criticised. Because if you walk into a skeptical conference and you believe a bunch of stuff not founded in reason and reality, then these beliefs are entirely fair game.
If anyone is alienated by having their faith questioned like that, then I don’t think it’s our fault for insufficiently pandering to them.
Jeff Wagg wasn’t claiming that any particular atheists at this conference had been especially unwelcoming or hostile to any particular attendants who turned out to be religious believers – he wrote it several days before the event started. And if people were being mean and rude like that, then that should prompt an important conversation about outreach and general dickishness.
Instead, Jeff’s problem seems to be with the very notion that a conference about skepticism has a non-exclusive focus on one particular supernatural belief: that of the existence of an omnipotent deity.
And yet that’s exactly the kind of belief that a skeptical conference should be questioning and criticising. Particularly a conference taking place right in the middle of the Bible Belt, in a country where madcap zealous religion is one of the most harmful and stifling modes of irrational belief out there.
I’m far from the first to make the observation that a homeopath at a skeptical conference, who displayed otherwise intelligently skeptical views, would not be treated with kid gloves, or have his views tip-toed around when it comes to alternative medicine, even if he does have lots of sensible things to say about UFO sightings and psychic powers. Whether or not someone “can still be a skeptic” while believing a particular thing isn’t an interesting question. People can be skeptical or not about numerous different topics, and when their ideas on any topic don’t stand up to reality, they should be open to criticism.
You don’t see many people suggesting that we should try to win more people over to science-based medicine by pretending that alternative medicine isn’t bunk. Nobody seems to want us to de-emphasise how little evidence there is for any alien visitation of Earth, so that more UFO fanatics will listen to what we have to say. It seems to just be religion where we’re expected to tactically act like we don’t disagree with people we disagree with, so that they’ll agree with us.