In my latest essay for the James Randi Educational Foundation, I discuss a disturbing trend that I noticed while attending two science-based conferences last month: while many freethinkers and skeptics can extend their beliefs to other topics like God and religion, the opposite transition is not necessarily true. I have excerpted a portion below.
You can find my other essays for the JREF (including my latest on vaccination and communication strategies) here.
The Skeptical Disconnect
A little more than a month ago I attended two conferences, NECSS 2012 in New York and the Freethought Festival in Madison, Wisconsin, where I represented the JREF, listened to speakers, and conversed with attendees. The conferences themselves were great: I met many awesome people, heard some great talks, and got one of my first looks at the skeptical community in action. For all the things that were congruent with a well-oiled skeptical machine, there was something troubling that I noticed, comparing the two events, something I am calling the skeptical disconnect.
When I talk about skepticism, I believe that I am talking about something that encompasses many other similar philosophies like atheism, humanism, and freethought. By this I mean that atheism, for example, is a logical extension of skepticism. Anecdotally, most skeptics that I know are in fact atheists. However, the disconnect came when I expected the reverse of this observation to also be true, i.e., that most atheists are skeptics.
My point can be made by looking at each conference in turn. First, at NECSS, skepticism was the name of the game. For example, the talks were all skeptically themed and covered a wide variety of topics, the JREF signed up dozens of new members, and Randi himself was a keynote speaker. Not only that, but I feel like everyone spoke the same “language,” the kind of thing that you get when you have a couple hundred Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe fans in a room. But looking at the Freethought Festival, you get a completely different impression. The focus was squarely on atheism. Atheist activism, atheist student group building, atheism in politics, etc. I am in no way saying that this is bad, surely it was one of the points of the conference, but what I noticed was a recognizable unfamiliarity with modern skepticism, if we could define it by the people who populated NECSS.
For example, most of the attendees at the Freethought Festival were unaware of what the JREF was, what topics we dealt with or their relevance, or even who James Randi was (I only point this out as a comparison, it’s not like we are rock stars). Given the resounding camaraderie the week before at NECSS, this response puzzled me. Compounding this feeling, one attendee at the Freethought Festival came up to JREF President D.J. Grothe and myself, making a point to bring up that although he was a staunch atheist, he was also sure that malleable psychic energy existed, and that acupuncture was a legitimate medical intervention. It made me think of the conflicted feelings our community has about the dissonance we see in others of our persuasion. For example, I would consider comedian Bill Maher to be a pretty good atheist (Richard Dawkins seems to think so), as he regularly challenges religion and promotes the reason-over-religion viewpoint on a widely viewed TV show. However, as exemplified by his fear of vaccines and other absurdities, he is a poor skeptic.