A Bigger Tent?
Note: the following post was written about two weeks before TAM8. In light of the many talks about civility in skepticism, including Phil Plait’s heartfelt and timely talk, it may seem a bit redundant. But it’s something I’ve felt strongly about for a long time, and realize it’s been on many people’s minds.
A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with my friend Clay, and the subject of The Amazing Meeting came up. TAM is the premier annual conference on skepticism and critical thinking, sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation. Clay, myself, and various members of our family and close friends have attended several TAMs in the last few years. When we were discussing the upcoming July 2010 event, he commented that it was getting more difficult for him to enjoy TAM because as a political conservative, he feels more and more alienated.
Liberal Doesn’t Mean Skeptic
Skeptics tend to be overwhelming liberal, and often very liberal. Many of my friends, including the ones mentioned above, consider ourselves conservative, but I argue we are more moderate than most of our conservative colleagues. One of our most liberal co-workers also believes that Mother Teresa was a saintly woman and that your thoughts and actions travel out into the cosmos and affect the universe. Skeptics may tend to be liberal, but the reverse is not-necessarily the case.
I thought about Clay’s comments quite a bit. Clay, myself, and several of our grown, college-age children share very similar viewpoints on much of the world. We have assorted belief systems, but believe that fundamentalism in religion is not only wrong but causes harm. Socially liberal, pro-choice, liberally educated, non-religious: we don’t fit into the stereotype of the ID-hugging, anti-intellectualism exhibited by the most vocal members of the Republican Right. My friends and I are trained as engineers and scientists. We work in the energy industry as well as for an environmental regulatory agency. One conservative colleague runs a successful multimillion dollar business that employs over 1,000 people, one writes for skeptical websites, and we collectively read all the current skeptical and atheist literature. None of us can evenly remotely be identified as right-wing socially,and because of our backgrounds and careers, we know that much of the popular press on the is filled with misinformation, especially when it comes to the energy business.
Conservative Doesn’t Mean Believer
We’re mostly capitalists who donate time and money to charitable works, care about pollution and poverty, and provide for the benefit of employees. We read the proposed health care bill, calculated the costs, and predict that the bill may drive our manpower-intensive businesses under or overseas. We can demonstrate that some environmental regulations are not based on science but on pure politics.
In my conversation with Clay, I pointed out that if you only associate with people who think exactly like you do, you don’t learn anything new. I have old friends who ‘unfriended’ me on Facebook when they noticed I identified myself as “atheist.” Clay was blasted, rather than engaged in conversation, when he questioned a specific detail of the IPCC climate report. Some of the aforementioned friends were criticized for reading atheist books (which prompted one friend to buy a Kindle so he could read without needing to hide his book covers). Generally, I’ve found myself criticized when pointing out the conservative viewpoint on business or the oil industry, when speaking in an anonymous manner. But one-on-one, my network of skeptical friends are interested and engaged. Hateful anonymous comments on a blog post should never compare to sitting over a glass of wine and having the same conversation face to face. You get a different reaction.
Don’t Alienate Those Who are Largely On Your Side
Sitting in the 1000-strong audience at a function like TAM meetings, my friends who are Christian feel under personal attack because most of the speakers assume that the audience is atheist. A lovely Christian friend of mine, whose husband is a rather well-known skeptic, feels unwelcome, and another believer friend is considering dropping all of his skeptical activities for a similar reason. He’s accused of not being ‘a true skeptic’ for his Christian but decidedly non-fundamentalist beliefs.
A huge storm erupted last year when James Randi wrote a blog questioning some aspects of global warming, with dozens of people lamenting the passing of a great mind. Fifty-plus years of critical thinking and debunking pseudoscience – dismissed because of a single issue. Those comments were in the minority, but unfortunately there are many vocal people who feel that if you don’t march lockstep with the Conventional Wisdom of the ‘skeptical movement’, you can’t have a membership card.
THIS DOES NOT REPRESENT THE MAJORITY ATTITUDE.
Stay the Course
To Clay, and to my believer friends, I urge: don’t turn away from the greater good that the groups who promote skepticism are doing. Don’t withhold your energy, your time, your money, your support, because of one or two issues. For every commenter who makes a snide remark about religious belief, or who say that questioning the health care reform bill means you hate poor people, or that accuse you of being a ‘climate change denier’ when you have concerns about specific points, a much greater issue is at stake than focusing on the narrow points.
When you sit in the audience at TAM and feel that you might be the only Christian, or might be the only conservative, realize that that is not the truth. The truth is that you are a subset of the group, and Joe’s atheism might be as disturbing to my friend Susan’s heartfelt faith as Bill’s unflinching support of All Things Obama is to Brenda. Stay focused on the harm that the anti-vaxxers are causing, or the libel issues that stifle the free exchange of ideas, or the hate-mongers who think gays should be stoned. Stay focused on what the big mission is, which is teaching critical thinking, eliminating the belief in pseudoscience, and promoting science literacy. Our Founding Fathers (who were mostly atheists and deists, by the way) struggled through issues like federalism, slavery, and property rights, and reached their goals in spite of deeply held and conflicting viewpoints. The found compromise, and focused on the most important issue of the day: giving birth to a new kind of nation.
Surely, what we’re do is easier than starting a new nation.
Naomi Baker is founder and co-organizer of the two-year-old Houston Skeptic Society. She works as a director for a private company that specializes in technologies to develop CO2 processing, and applies her 30 years experience in the energy business and engineering to address issues on science and general skepticism.