The James Randi Educational Foundation’s recent The Amazing Meeting 9 conference came at a sensitive moment, right on the tail of an online shake-up in which the atheist and skeptical communities were forced to confront the interconnected issues of respectful discourse and sexism in a more serious way than they had in recent memory. (For a fascinating discussion of this debate and the “chilly climate” problem, please check out Jennifer Ouellette’s Scientific American post, “Is It Cold in Here?”)
Commendably, the JREF had already taken important steps to make TAM even more welcoming to women—steps which were both bold and sensible. To begin with, TAM9’s line-up of world-class speakers included as many women as men. This achievement was rewarded with a record-setting level of gender balance among attendees, with JREF President D.J. Grothe announcing that fully 40% of TAM9 attendees were women. Further, in keeping with the standards of larger, more established popular culture conventions, the JREF developed a Code of Conduct for the safety and enjoyment of all participants.
With all this going on, it was widely anticipated that TAM’s “Diversity in Skepticism” panel might take some interesting twists.
It did—but not in the direction anyone was expecting.
While billed as a discussion of “Diversity in Skepticism,” the panel—featuring D.J. Grothe, Debbie Goddard, Greta Christina, Jamila Bey, Hemant Mehta, and moderated by Desiree Schell—actually drew spokespeople from several related but distinct movements. For this reason, I’ll confess that my hopes were not high. There can be deep, serious, and sometimes poorly-articulated philosophical differences between activists for skepticism, atheism, secularism, and humanism, and these differences can badly derail conversations. (At the same time, all of the panelists were personally atheists of one stripe or another, raising the opposite specter: undue uniformity.)
What we got was as rowdy as a family Thanksgiving. It was also a fascinating and delightful surprise.
The irony of an atheist-only panel on “diversity” did not escape me, but I expected it to pass without comment. The sentiment that skepticism is an atheist club is recent, but it has taken root very quickly. As with other sorts of “do-fish-know-they’re-wet?” privilege in other, larger communities, the assumption of default atheism is rarely questioned in the skeptical subculture. Indeed, the panel set out to discuss diversity in gender, sexual orientation, age, race, class, education, and physical ability—but not religion.
This is especially strange when we consider that scientific skepticism was to a large extent founded by people of faith, including Harry Houdini (still arguably the greatest skeptical investigator of all time, and the model for the investigative tradition embodied today by James Randi and Joe Nickell) and Martin Gardner (the model for the modern skeptical literature). At least one speaker at TAM9 was herself religious (Pamela Gay) and there were, as always, members of multiple religious groups and spiritual traditions in the audience. These skeptics often express that anti-theism is a barrier to participation in our science-based events. Whatever your own feelings about religion, this is obviously a topic which fits under the heading of “diversity.”
So you can well imagine that I was surprised into applause when D.J. Grothe raised exactly that topic: religious diversity in the skeptical community. Nor was I the only one clapping. In any given year, the crowd at TAM includes not only pro-science people of faith (despite the chill) and secularists who will go to the wall for them, but also a great many traditional scientific skeptics who see untestable claims as simply off topic.
For a sense of how traditional this latter approach is, consider this passage from the first editorial of North America’s first regular skeptical publication, written when I was a toddler:
Finally, a word might be said about our exclusive concern with scientific investigation and empirical claims. The Committee takes no position regarding nonempirical or mystical claims. We accept a scientific viewpoint and will not argue for it in these pages. Those concerned with metaphysics and supernatural claims are directed to those journals of philosophy and religion dedicated to such matters.1
Demonstrable evidence is common ground for skeptics like Houdini (who wrote, “I firmly believe in a Supreme Being and that there is a Hereafter”2) and for those who, like me, believe no such thing. Throughout the 20th century, this was the dominant view across the North American skeptical community—just as it is across the scientific community. It remains, for reasons of principle and practicality, the working approach of most major skeptical organizations today, including the JREF and The Amazing Meeting.
Grothe spoke up on that historical theme, emphasizing that while movements may change, it is important to begin with an understanding of the work done so far—the mistakes made, the lessons won, and the history of things we’ve done right. For decades, skepticism has very deliberately worked to stay close to what it does best: tackling empirical questions in the realm of pseudoscience and the paranormal, and (as the other side of this same coin) promoting scientific literacy.
This empirical focus has allowed the skeptical community—old and white and bearded as it may have been—to enjoy other kinds of diversity. If political ideology is not a topic for our movement, then anarchists, libertarians, liberals, and conservatives can happily share the same big tent. If science-based skepticism is neutral about nonscientific moral values3, then the community can embrace people who hold a wide range of perspectives on values issues—on the environment, on public schools, on nuclear power, on same-sex marriage, on taxation, gun control, the military, veganism, or so on. It’s a sort of paradox: the wider the scope of skepticism, the less diverse its community becomes. (Think of two groups: the “I Love Toast Club” and the “Association for the Consumption of Toast and Sausages.” It is much easier for the first group to be a welcoming place for both vegetarians and non-vegetarians.)
Now, Here’s Where Things Got Interesting
Greta Christina and Jamila Bey raised a very interesting objection to this notion of traditional subject matter: “If you always talk about the same things, you’ll go on having the community you’ve always had”—to wit, college-educated, nerdy, and widely bearded. If we truly do want to increase diversity, they argued, skepticism should tackle wider topics that wider audiences care about: women’s issues, social justice, progressive political causes, and so on.
Now, “tackle wider topics” is a red flag for me. I’ve spent 20 years of my life in love with scientific skepticism—a distinct and distinguished public service tradition which is worth preserving. In that time, I’ve become rather cynical about scope discussions between skeptics and atheists. Too often, the argument seems to be that the very definition of my field should be scrapped and replaced by a wider rationalism.
But that is not what happened this time. (Or, at least, I don’t think it was. Coming from distinct movements, the panelists brought diverging jargon to the table.) What might have been a clash of movements and expectations—and which, indeed, looked like a clash—resolved, I believe, into a fascinating common thread about useful common ground. If I interpreted it correctly, it was a conversation about how we neighbors can help each other.
Greta Christina and the rest of TAM9’s diversity panel seemed to settle on the position that their call was not for widening the scope of scientific skepticism beyond testable claims (a radical proposal to which I and many others would object) but for widening our hearts—our willingness to be interested in other people’s experiences. As she argued, there are testable, empirical, pseudoscientific claims embedded within the arenas of social values, political discourse, and yes, religion as well. The forest may be out of scope, but some of the trees are not. (D.J. offered the example of harmful pseudoscience within gay rights debates.) Skeptics can tackle those strictly empirical questions without a centimeter of mission drift, and without losing any of our traditional scientific focus. (As an aside, however, I’ll caution here that there are also topics which are in principle within the scope of scientific skepticism, but which we are in practice unqualified to resolve. But that is a topic for another post.)
Of course, skeptics always have tackled testable claims that happen to have important implications for religion, politics, or human nature, but Greta Christina’s point nonetheless bears repeating: traditional skepticism can do its traditional work within its traditional scope, and still contribute useful assistance to our friends in other movements. If we look for places to do that, we’re bound to find new opportunities and new allies.
I believe, more than ever, that good fences make good neighbors. Repairing some of the fences that have fallen into neglect would help distinct rationalist movements get along better. But a neighborhood takes more than fences. A neighborhood takes helping hands, cups of sugar, BBQs on summer days. Our rationalist neighborhood is home to many movements, and many of those movements share some common cause.
After TAM9, that diversity is something I’m in the mood to celebrate.
- Truzzi, Marcello. The Zetetic. Vol. 1, No. 1. Fall/Winter, 1976. pp. 5–6
- Houdini, Harry. A Magician Among the Spirits. (Fredonia Books: Amsterdam, 2002.) p. xiii
- Does science’s neutrality about moral values conflict with measures like The Amazing Meeting’s Code of Conduct? I don’t think it does. I’ve used the example of Astronomy 101. Astronomy as a science is neutral on social justice or moral values, but there will still be a wheelchair ramp on the way into the lecture hall. That accessibility measure says nothing about the scope of astronomy; it’s an administrative decision, and as such, is informed by the wider values of our society. After all, our events have to look like something. “No action” is itself an administrative action.