If the skeptics community is going to thrive and grow, it’s essential that no one feel unwelcome or excluded due to race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.
This line caused a bit of a stir lately after it appeared in an article written by Brian Thompson on the James Randi Educational Foundation website, a major interweb hub (interwub?) of skeptical activity. Ophelia Benson was one of several to find the inclusion of “religion” on a list of valued points of diversity among skeptics to be a tad incongruous.
It’s not like any skeptics are proposing that all religious people be banned from skeptical events like The Amaz!ng Meeting, and the JREF has made a point of not being an explicitly atheist organisation. But religious claims often come within its purview of critical thinking and science education, and you can understand why a skeptical crowd might see more relevance to a personal faith position than, say, a personal gender identity.
Personally, I think Brian may or may not be making a good and important point, depending on quite what’s meant by somebody feeling “unwelcome or excluded”, and quite how we should react against such a thing.
Will people inevitably feel unwelcome as a result of being a minority, amongst a crowd full of people who they know disagree with them? Active skepticism does tend to lead people to reject religious claims, and so any gathering of skeptics is likely to contain a large proportion of non-believers. Many empirical claims are regularly made by religious people with real influence in the world, and it’s important that these are on the table as topics for discussion in skeptical events.
In short, skeptics are going to bash religion a lot, for the same reasons they’re going to bash homeopathy and psychic powers. If any of these are beliefs close to your heart which it would hurt you to hear criticised, then a skeptical gathering might just not be the place for you.
But if the kind of unwelcomeness and exclusion that Brian’s talking about is to do with unfriendliness, unkindness, incivility, hostility, cruelty, and deliberate castigation by a crowd motivated to malice by their objection to your differing beliefs – then I wouldn’t want anyone to feel unwelcome at TAM, or at Skeptics in the Pub, or anywhere that the people I consider “my crowd” congregate. By this metric, I would want the most ardent Muslim chiropractor or astrally projecting UFO abductee to feel welcome anywhere they care to go, for at least as long as they’re not initiating any kind of incivility themselves.
Diversity among people is great, but holding diversity among ideas as a virtue in itself leads to the familiar problem of false balance. I’d want all people to feel comfortable at a skeptical event, but I wouldn’t hold back from criticism of unsound ideas to achieve it.