Taking Pride in One’s Brand
On November 19th-22nd Skepticon III will take place in Springfield, Missouri, the third such event featuring lectures from notable skeptics and atheists, such as James Randi and PZ Myers. To the credit of its organizers, the event is free to attend and turnout looks strong.
Being a curious sort, I looked at the schedule and wondered why an event boldly called “Skepticon” would be so light on traditional skeptic fare and heavy on atheist content. For example, if one is to feature lectures such as “The Twelve Basic Arguments for God and Why They Suck,” wouldn’t “Atheistcon” be a better fit for the event’s name?
As it turns out, IndieSkeptics editor Jeff Wagg was wondering as well. He went a step further and put the question to organizer JT Eberhard. In a response Eberhard considers the two terms (skeptic and atheist) synonymous or at least inseparable. While both Wagg and I would strongly disagree on that point, Eberhard’s position is not terribly uncommon among skeptics who are also atheists.
Wagg and I favor a well-defined scope for skepticism that largely focuses on scientifically testable claims and avoids the metaphysical claims of religion and philosophy. There might be good reasons to criticize the “Twelve Basic Arguments for God” but at the same time we benefit from skeptical inquiry as applied to the testable claims of pseudoscience, an enterprise that can be of great value to atheists and non-atheists alike. For example, you don’t have to be an atheist to investigate and criticize bomb-sniffing dowsing rods that place the lives of civilians and military personnel at risk. You merely need to be a skeptic.
If Eberhard and his fellow organizers don’t agree and instead seek to pull skepticism in an atheist direction, they are certainly entitled to do so.
But my major beef with the Skepticon name isn’t so much as a skeptic, but rather as an atheist.
In the summer of 2007 in the wake of his bestselling book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins created the “OUT Campaign“, an effort to instill an ethic of pride among atheists and encourage each of us to be open about our rejection of religious belief. “The more people [who] come out and are known to have done so, the easier will it be for others to follow” he wrote in an introduction.
Isn’t promoting this sense of pride a big part of what Skepticon is trying to achieve? It would seem so, but in its use of language it’s at variance with the very idea of the OUT Campaign by couching its atheism in a term (skeptic) that’s less likely to offend.
Having tread this road before, I have a special interest in this use of language.
More than a decade prior to Dawkins’ campaign, back when being openly atheist was often associated with communism and amorality, I created what would eventually become among the most popular of atheist websites, the quirky “Celebrity Atheist List”. Now with visitors counted in the millions, it’s still chugging along at http://celebatheists.com/. (For those curious to see an earlier incarnation of the site from 1998, see this link at archive.org)
While outwardly superficial and fun, from the site’s simple format of recognizable names and published quotations emerged a goal similar to that which the OUT Campaign would later feature: to make atheism more acceptable by promoting the idea of being open about one’s godlessness.
In my many years of editing the list I observed that many people couched their atheism in diluted and equivocal terms. Some, like Carl Sagan, would strenuously avoid the term “atheist” and most commonly call themselves “agnostic” or “humanist” or “skeptic” even while acknowledging the lack of theistic belief. Others would coin new words, such as Rabbi Sherwin Wine’s “ignostic”, and some would spew outright nonsense: “I don’t believe in God, but I’m no atheist.”
(I eventually burned-out on the project and gave the site away several years back. It’s presently in the hands of Brian Sapient of the Rational Response Squad whose only major addition was advertising banners to offset hosting costs. The site still sees updates and enjoys impressive traffic thanks to its killer Google ranking on the term “atheist” and even “celebrity”.)
Looking back, I could have called the project “Celebrity Skeptics” or “Celebrity Non-theists”, but I didn’t. Couching one’s atheism in words other than “atheism” does not exhibit confidence for one’s brand. It’s akin to calling a Gay Pride event a “Happy” event. Sure there are many happy people present, but that isn’t really the point, is it?
Our use of language is a statement in itself. Years before the OUT Campaign and publication of The God Delusion, Dawkins drove a stake in the ground: “The alternative which I favor is to renounce all euphemisms and grasp the nettle of the word atheism itself, precisely because it is a taboo word carrying frissons of hysterical phobia. Critical mass may be harder to achieve than with some non-confrontational euphemism, but if we did achieve it with the dread word atheist, the political impact would be all the greater.” (Free Inquiry, Summer, 2002)
In closing, the Skepticon organizers are entitled to retain their event’s name and draw whatever line they wish between atheism and skepticism, but they won’t garner the respect of skeptics who value skepticism as a distinct enterprise. Nor will the organizers garner the respect of atheists who have grown beyond couching our godlessness in vague and euphemistic language.
Reed is the chief proponent of community-driven open and participatory skeptic events called ‘SkeptiCamp’ that are intended to complement, rather than compete, with traditional lecture-oriented conferences like that of Skepticon. For more history of the Celebrity Atheist List, see Reed’s blog post from earlier this year.