18 July 2011

Is there a ‘correct’ way to promote skepticism and atheism?

PZ Myers has written a slightly anxious post articulating his thoughts on how to best communicate ideas relating to godless skepticism. Whether it’s politics, or religion, or ‘alternative’ medicine and pseudoscientific woo in general, there’s a lot of really lousy thinking and patently false ideas being propagated, to the detriment of many. Those involved in the movement to combat nonsense are often caught up in internal arguments over matters of strategy: do we try to gently persuade our opponents of the error of their ways, or do we firmly call a spade a spade and unreservedly attack their ridiculous, harmful, wrong ideas?

In the skeptic/atheist movement, you’ll find different flavours of communication tactics, depending on the person’s temperament - from Phil ‘Don’t be a dick’ Plait’s conciliatory approach to Richard Dawkins’s famously stern and implacable style. To an observer, it can look as if the movement’s leaders, like Tokugawa-era samurai swordmasters, have their respective coterie of disciples sympathetic to their particular method of skepticism/atheism advocacy. One could be a student of the School of Unsparing Criticism, or of the Soft Touch Style, or perhaps the Way of Water, adapting as circumstance requires.

Myers offers these thoughts:

Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying we must endorse only our rock-ribbed heroes of godless skepticism, or that they can do no wrong. I'm saying we have to do it all, embracing a wide range of tactics, including the proximate tools of psychology and holding high a coherent and strong set of principles. Unfortunately, in recent years, many of the people in this movement have wrongly decided that the most firmly principled people in our ranks are all dicks who need to be chastened -- a weakness the other side does not have. I sometimes feel like we spend more time gnawing at our foundations than we do effectively peeling away opponents to our side.

Myers is taking a shot at people like Phil Plait who imply that anyone who doesn’t adopt their less confrontational style is actually harming the cause. Essentially, Plait and co. have elected themselves the movement’s ‘tone police’. And I think this is wrong, for the following reasons:

1) The tone police presume that the ‘soft touch’ approach is the only effective way to convince people of the error of their beliefs. Yet there are people who have, say, abandoned religion after being hit with “a thunderbolt from the sky”, as Myers put it, when they encountered a spirited refutation – even condemnation – of religious dogma. At the very least, it can provoke them to have a good, hard think about their previously unquestioned beliefs.

2) Critics of ‘aggressive’ polemicists like Dawkins, Myers, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maryam Namazie tend to assume that the targets of their polemics are solely the obstinate god-botherers. This isn’t so. As Dawkins has explained, quite often the real targets of skeptic and atheist criticism are the third parties eavesdropping on the (perhaps heated) discussion. Atheists know that they’ve got hardly any chance of convincing devout believers that their beliefs are wishful thinking at best, delusions at worst. But the fence-sitters or modestly brainwashed religionists listening in may be persuaded to give reason a go, especially if they think that they’re not the ones being directly attacked by Dawkins and co.

3) The problems of religion and irrational, superstitious beliefs in general are formidable. Skeptics, humanists and atheists are going to need all kinds of tools and tactics to address these problems. The ‘soft touch’ approach is just as necessary as unsparing criticism. Yet while advocates for the former are trying to restrain the latter, few – if any – in the latter camp are telling people like Phil Plait to stop doing what they’re doing. The self-righteous scolding is very much a one way street, and that’s not right.

Myers concludes his post with this:

Don't forget: the truth is our pole star, science is the vessel we use to progress, and a passion to explore and learn is the engine of our purpose. If we lose sight of that in our concern to be gentle with those who impede us, we'll lose our way.

Well said.


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