Okay, so here’s something that’s brought me out of my summer heat-induced stupor to try and form some opinions.
Skeptics and atheists. Where’s the overlap? Can you be one but not the other? Should they have distinct organisations and meetings, keep well apart, work together when their goals are shared?
D.J. Grothe’s blog post discusses this in the context of Pamela Gay’s recent appearance on the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast. Pamela’s an astronomer and a science educator, but also a Christian, and the podcast is entirely populated by outspoken atheists. Some people saw some friction in these two worldviews appearing together on the same show.
Personally, I really don’t have a problem with having people discuss science on a skeptical show even if they believe in God. When it comes to her scientific field of study, Pamela Gay knows what she’s talking about, and has a lot to contribute. And I think any skeptical organisation should be pleased to welcome people like that.
The issue seems to be whether or not someone has any skeptical blind spots so massive as to damage their credibility in all other areas of critical inquiry. And this probably needs to be examined on a case-by-case basis, but the particular case of Dr Gay seems like a fairly straightforward one.
I’m tempted to also say that, if we do too severe a job of hounding any scientists or keen skeptics for their religious beliefs, it will make the skeptical movement less accessible and approachable to a lot of people who are interested in science, but don’t want to be told that belief in God is silly or unfounded. The supposed danger is that we’ll be seen as grumpy, unfriendly, god-hating dogmatists, with no tolerance for beliefs that go against the scientific orthodoxy.
Although I can’t claim that the entire skeptical movement avoids this kind of fundamentalism, it certainly doesn’t describe most of us. But I’m never quite sure how patronising this is to theists, and I’m wary of becoming cynically “accommodationist” of views that deserve firm skeptical criticism. There’s also a danger of treading too lightly and being too over-sensitive to people and ideas that are just wrong, so that you never dare to call out bullshit even when it’s doing real damage.
But of course it’s possible to question someone’s views without demonising them as an unworthy skeptic. When Pamela Gay speaks at TAM 8 in Las Vegas in the coming week, I imagine she might have a few discussions with some of the atheists there about religious belief, a few pointed barbs might fly back and forth, and then they’ll all head off together to get something to eat or watch Phil Plait bitchslapping some astrologers. There’s plenty of common ground there still, and nothing stopping people from getting on well with and appreciating the value of others with whom they disagree.
If she were a dowser as well as a skeptic, then this might cast serious doubt on her ability to reason critically and analyse evidence in general, and her scientific credentials would be less persuasive. But she’s a moderate Christian. There’s a lot of those around. Culturally, it’s a very easy thing to be without also being crazy or stupid or ignorant. I think you’d have to be a whole lot wackier in your ideas than this before reaching the point where skeptics shouldn’t want to be associated with you at all.
Also I agree with pretty much everything PZ Myers says here.
(And if that sounded like an abrupt ending, that’s because it’s lunchtime.)