There's been some interesting hullabaloo on the atheist/skeptic front lately. Two separate events come to mind, but they have some things in common, and things that I've seen in other areas as well and will probably continue to see.
The first was a forum thread
in which I was called "arrogant" and "condescending" (two words that atheists in general are very familiar with being called) for my interview on the Does Polyamory Make You Atheist
episode of Poly Weekly
. For those who didn't listen to the episode, there was a very specific question - does polyamory make people atheist. Minx kept wanting to get off track and wander into the land of "I don't want to say anyone's beliefs are wrong because I think whatever makes sense to you is OK with me", which wasn't the point of the episode. I took special care to address only the question, and to not touch on any belief system or even to explain what atheism is, let alone my own brand of atheism. I pointed the listeners to my LJ atheist tag to learn more about that.
The question was, does polyamory make people atheist. My answer was very simple. No. I had only a few minutes of talking time in which to explain why I am both atheist and polyamorous and what, if anything, they had to do with each other, partly because the episode is only 30-45 minutes, partly because my interview was only a portion of the total episode, and partly because this segment was half-taken up by Minx going on about her acceptance of any and all belief structures, which was besides the point.
In this episode, I outlined the path that I took to both polyamory and atheism. I said that the same tools that led me to my version of atheism are the same tools that led me to my version of polyamory. In both cases, I looked at the evidence that the world around me presented to me with regards to religion and with regards to relationships, and I reached a conclusion using a logic and reason applied to the subjects of religion and relationships.
I was called "condescending" because I said I used logic to arrive at my conclusions, so some people claim that this necessarily implies that anyone who arrives at another conclusion must therefore be illogical. I was also called "arrogant" because I spent no time asking or learning about other people's beliefs. In an episode about how atheism affects polyamory, I was arrogant for talking all about atheism & not talking about paganism or Christianity.
This was the path, in a nutshell, that I took that led me to both polyamory and atheism. It's called "skepticism". Skepticism means, literally, inquiry. To be skeptical is to inquire. Skepticism is at the heart of the scientific method. It is often mistaken for "doubting", and for "cynicism", but those are not correct. Of course, some skeptics can ALSO be doubters or cynics, they are not mutually exclusive (I tend towards cynicism all too often), but they are also distinct from each other.
People can reach either conclusion (polyamory or atheism) via other means. I would not call Bill Maher a "skeptic", since he is not rational and does not use the scientific method, but he is most definitely an atheist. And people can use the tools of skepticism, or rational inquiry, and reach other conclusions, as I *did* imply when I said "No, I think it's more that skepticism and rational inquiry CAN result in both atheism and polyamory." We're not talking about something as simple as the claim "there is oxygen in this room". That's easily testable and can have only one answer - either there is or there isn't, and doesn't change depending upon the beliefs or prespective of the tester. We're talking about whether a person believes polyamory is the right relationship style for himself, or whether a person has belief, or lacks belief, in a deity. These are very complicated questions, and a person's perspective, which is naturally subjective, is a valid and important criteria in logically evaluating the questions and determining a conclusion. These are not empiric questions, they are subjective considerations. Questions about economic and politics are also very complicated questions and one can arrive at different conclusions using the same tools of logic and reason, depending upon one's priorities and subjective experiences. These are issues of value judgments, not purely empirical facts.
The validity of atheism is an empiric question, but that's not the question at hand. Is it possible to be polyamorous is an empiric question, but that's not the question either. The question is, are YOU an atheist or a polyamorist and how did you get there, not how correct is your position. My reasons for being a polyamorist may not apply to your position. Maybe you think you probably can love more than one person simultaneously, but your love and your devotion and your commitment to your existing partner is a higher priority than your commitment to polyamory - it's just not that big of a deal to you.
With that criteria, it is entirely logical and reasonable for one person to choose a monogamous relationship structure. Using logic, a different person may arrive at a different conclusion than I have because that person has information that I lack or vice versa. Much like my rant about the Fanboys
, who want to insist that they have the answer for me without having all the information about the situation, or who have different priorities than I do & refuse to accept that another set of priorities are valid for other people, this is a matter of perspective and two people can arrive at different conclusions, even if they use the same, or similar, tools, such as logic.
Skepticism is a process. It requires that one investigate a claim, no matter who is making that claim. The scientific method is inherently skeptical in that it investigates claims, using a process that is designed to reduce human bias and come to conclusions that are reasonably empirical and free of human fallacy. It is a long, slow process that requires many different people and many different tests precisely because of the possibility of human error.
And one of the things that humans are prone to do, is to apply their skepticism inconsistently. A person can be a logical, rational, analytical, skeptical person in general, and still have one or some subjects about which they do not apply their logic, their rationality, their analysis, or their skepticism. In fact, that's pretty much everyone. Albert Einstein, noted brilliant scientist, refused to accept the idea of a universe based upon probability at the quantum level, which prevented him from doing any significant work in quantum physics. His entire life was devoted to the pursuit of scientific inquiry, which, as I've already pointed out, has at its heart skeptical inquiry. And yet, this was an area he was quite irrational about, in his refusal to accept the evidence presented to him. He died, still refusing to accept quantum physics.
Linus Pauling is a Nobel Prize winner. Pauling was included in a list of the 20 greatest scientists of all time by the magazine New Scientist, with Albert Einstein being the only other scientist from the twentieth century on the list. Gautam R. Desiraju, the author of the Millennium Essay in Nature, claimed that Pauling was one of the greatest thinkers and visionaries of the millennium, along with Galileo, Newton, and Einstein. Pauling is notable for the diversity of his interests: quantum mechanics, inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, protein structure, molecular biology, and medicine. In all these fields, and especially on the boundaries between them, he made decisive contributions. However, Pauling got sucked into the idea that megadoses of vitamin C can cure cancer. He published lots of papers on the subject, all of which were refuted on the basis of flawed methodology and his conclusions were not repeatable when others tried to replicate his tests. In the end, it was concluded that vitamin C, in regular or megadoses, did not cure cancer and did not prevent colds. Pauling, who megadosed until his death, died of cancer.
Both examples are men who are considered brilliant scientists, and as I've said, skepticism is inherently at the core of science. And yet, both men held in reserve some subject for which they would not apply their skepticism. This does not invalidate their contributions to science and they deserve the accolades they have been given for their advancements in science. Their ideas are valid, regardless of what *other* wacky ideas they might also hold, because their valid ideas stand up no matter who is making the claim. Unlike faith-based, authoritarian systems, claims are not true because Someone said so, claims are true no matter who says so, and true claims are accepted even if the Speaker is batshit crazy on all other subjects (but maybe we'll reserve acceptance until someone a little less batshit crazy comes up with the same conclusion using legitimate testing methodology). For instance, Phrenology was the first discipline to claim that the brain had specialized areas. Of course, bumps on the head don't tell us jack shit about the brain, but the idea that our brains are not just one big lump of grey matter was tossed out when evidence came to light. Scientists didn't ignore phrenologists because they were crazy, they ignored them because they were wrong, but the itty-bitty part they got right was accepted even though the wacky phrenologists claimed it.
People are admired and revered for their contributions, but the science and skeptical communities know that people are still just people, not 2-D movie heroes (watch the Star Trek movie First Contact
, where the crew goes back in time to discover that the inventor of warp drive, and consequently the father of their entire society, was a drunk bastard with an attitude problem, who just happened to also be a brilliant physicist, who hated hearing that they built a statue in his honor and taught about him in school, and who was nothing like what the textbooks said he was. Also watch the Jaynestown epsiode of Firefly, where an entire town makes a hero of the most disreputable, selfish, ego-centric members of the crew because he happen to drop a load of money on an impoverished indentured slave town - the good works was good works, but the people are complicated & not as equally good as their works). People are complicated, and even the most dedicated skeptics can be unskeptical about some things they hold dear. That's why we have science, to discover the truth even when we really want to believe in something false.
Which brings us to the other event. A particular astronomer has been singled out because she is a good astronomer, a science popularizer, and a Christian. Some people in the skeptical community want to make skepticism an atheist movement, which would necessarily remove all skeptics who have some sort of religious beliefs. I'm reminded of a Babylon 5 episode where a culture built some technology that would weed out the alien influences that had been seeded in the society to destroy them. The technology was designed by religious zealots and designed to kill the "impure". The problem is, there was no possible way to define "pure", since *everyone* had something different than everyone else. So the technology destroyed the entire race.
Some people want to cry hypocrisy of certain skeptics for allowing a religious believer into the ranks. And then there are others, like me and PZ Myers
and DJ Grothe
, who say that people are not skeptical of all subjects, all the time, and what matters are the claims. If a person is in favor of science, advances science, and promotes skepticism, they are, by definition, a skeptic, even if they hold a sacred cow, or, as Penn & Teller say on their show, a gris gris
. Their legitimate claims benefit society and the scientific and skeptical communities as a whole. The individual should be welcomed in, but that does not mean that their beliefs or claims will not be scrutinized.
For the most part, a skeptic can and will respect a person, and fully believe that a person has the *right* to hold any particular belief, but this does not equate to respecting any given *belief* that the person in question might hold. That's how science gets done. If we just sat by in awe because someone famous said something, we'd never have corrected the flaws in their theories and claims, bringing us to an ever greater understanding of the universe. This astronomer is a respected astronomer. She does good science. She promotes science education. She leaves her religious beliefs out of the classroom. We respect her for that and we welcome her into the folds of the skeptics. But we are not required to also leave her religious beliefs untouched, especially when they come out into the public sphere. We can hold her in high esteem while not hiding our opinions on her religious beliefs. And we can have a conversation with her about skeptical topics without bashing her repeatedly for her religious beliefs when that's not the topic at hand. There's nothing hypocritical about treating people with respect while not respecting a belief, nor about sticking to the topic at hand about which we are in agreement while we disagree about other topics.
- A skeptic can respect a person who holds other beliefs, including beliefs that the skeptic does not think are "rational".
- A skeptic can disagree with, and even not respect, a set of beliefs while respecting or befriending a person with those beliefs.
- Holding a particular worldview in common with a skeptic does not automatically make that person a skeptic - plenty of people are atheists who are not skeptical, either about atheism or about other subjects. It's the process that makes someone skeptical, not whether they reached the same conclusion.
- Being skeptical or rational does not automatically mean two people will reach the same conclusion, depending on the subject, particularly those subjects for which subjective criteria are valid for informing one's conclusion.
- No one, including skeptics, are 100% skeptical about everything they do, think, feel, believe in, or choose 100% of the time.
- Some skeptics *strive* to be skeptical in all areas, and others are willing to section off a subject as outside of their skepticism, and both can be called "skeptical", or be under the umbrella of the "skeptical community".
There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what skepticism is, and a knee-jerk response to be offended at skeptics just for being skeptics: When a skeptic speaks her mind, she must necessarily be insulting everyone else around her, especially if she claims to use logic as her tool of choice. And a skeptic can't possibly be friends with someone who isn't a skeptic. And, of course, a skeptic is always a skeptic about everything, all the time. So if a skeptic *doesn't* bash in a friend or colleague for his non-skeptical beliefs, she's necessarily a hypocrite, but if she does bother to mention her own atheistic beliefs or point out where the non-skeptic might be wrong, then she's rude, arrogant, and condescending. It doesn't matter what the atheist or the skeptic says or does, we are wrong, mean, hateful people who should go sit down and shut up, so as to not make anyone else feel bad about themselves.