I’m what many people would call a skeptic. I try to think rationally and follow the evidence. I think it’s unlikely that God exists. Same goes for ghosts. And alien visitation of earth. And fairies. And Bigfoot. In light of this, I think we are our own best hope; and our own worst nightmare. There are saviors and there are monsters; but contrary to popular belief, all are human.
You may have heard of something called the “Skeptical Movement”. Maybe you’re a part of it. For those who don’t know, it’s a loosely bound group of people and organizations who all ostensibly fight to make the world a better place through the popularization of critical thinking and the advocacy of science as the best way to solve the big problems we face in the early decades of the 21st century.
I was a part of this phenomenon for about five years. It was a crazy time in my life; full of excitement and comradery and new experiences and unbelievable connections. As a writer for a popular blog within the subculture, I had a certain social status within the movement which was very foreign to me. I grew up an outsider; constantly struggling with the facts of my bookish and too-sincere disposition while trying so, so desperately to fit in. Being a Skepchick was the culmination of a lifetime of childhood fantasies: I had finally found a place where my nerdy ways actually made me desirable social company; where social awkwardness was paid a strange kind of lip service; where I was one of the “cool kids”.
I never got over the “too-good-to-be-true” feeling it all gave me. Two years ago, it all fell down. I had a personal falling out with several of the key social players at the blog, which was, in hindsight, stupid all the way around. I committed a clumsy social blunder, which was met with what looked to me, at the time, like junior high clique behavior. Whether or not that was an accurate interpretation of what was going on, it made me take a step back and realize that the assumptions I had made regarding what those friendships were about needed some further analysis.
This isn’t about airing dirty laundry. If I wanted to put the hurt on the people who hurt me, I would have done this two years ago, when it was fresh. I would have named names; assigned blame. I can’t say I was never tempted. But, in the end, that’s not who I am. So I held onto it, and I stepped back and did other things. I pulled back from the movement almost entirely, getting glimpses here and there when various stories bubbled up into my Facebook feed, mostly dealing with various crises within the movement.
I am writing this because I think the skeptical movement needs to hear what I have to say about what I’ve observed over the past couple of years as an outsider, and, in hindsight, what I saw going on even when I was still a part of it.
Humans are tribal creatures. There’s no escaping that fact. We are petty and short-sighted and prone to all sorts of logical fallacies. We are eternally fallible yet our egos are often too fragile to admit to anything less than perfection. We crave social validation; and social validation from a group of people who share the same interpretation of the world as we do is the ultimate fulfillment of that craving. In order to protect that very particular type of social validation, we will fiercely defend the group we belong to, and just as fiercely attack people and forces that challenge cohesion within the group.
Organized skepticism is not immune to this phenomenon. Many skeptics find themselves, as I did, feeling like they “belong” for the first time in their lives. This can be a wonderful and life-changing feeling, especially for people who have found themselves repeatedly shunned by friends and family members after admitting their true beliefs about the world. The simple act of being able to discuss disbelief openly without fear of social reprisal is a huge burden relieved. This environment can create very intense social connections, and, ironically, a sometimes dogmatic fervor about skepticism.
We cling ever tighter to our in-group mentality, and begin to distance ourselves from anyone who exhibits, say, an untoward interest in communicating with “believers” of various stripes. Just this week, Scientific Paranormal Investigator Hayley Stevens was ridiculed by fellow skeptics over her assertion that it is possible to use scientific methods to investigate paranormal claims. One of the very basic principles of scientific skepticism is the idea that we should figure out what’s true and what isn’t based on scientific investigation. Just because we’re convinced that something doesn’t exist, it doesn’t mean that the investigation should stop, especially when there are lots of people out there who still believe, and who are actively investigating various claims using less-than-rigorous methods. Stevens’ work, honestly investigating claims of the paranormal alongside believers and trying to teach them how to be more scientific, is in my opinion the cutting edge of what skeptics claim to value.
I think there is an inherent tension between the comfort and acceptance of a social group and the real work that needs to be done to meet the stated goals of the skeptical movement. How do you relate to believers on a human level when you also find comradery in ridiculing them? How do you remain self-aware, self-critical, and vigilant for internal inconsistencies in your own logic while at the same time engaging in social identity negotiation? How can you feel free to ask honest questions that challenge the very assumptions your entire social group is built on when the natural response from other group members will be to excise the dissenter? Is it worth it to point out inconsistencies and logical fallacies when your friends and fellow skeptics commit them when doing so could cost you friends and business opportunities?
I lost a lot of friendships after I fell out with Skepchick. I realize now that most of those friendships were more akin to social allegiances: they weren’t about the individuals involved. They were about our shared interest in the goal of organized skepticism, and our shared participation in a system of social ladder-climbing within the movement. It was more about networking and validation seeking than it ever was about personal growth and real relationship building. In the end, I want to know others and I want to be known. I want to challenge and be challenged. I want growth, not hollow validation of the status quo.
Skeptics pay a lot of lip service to critical thinking and the understanding and recognition of logical fallacies. But too often, they seem blinded to their own shortcomings by the very nature of humans as social creatures. They fall into the same tribal traps as the believers they claim to oppose.
The ever-roiling battle over the place of women in the movement is rife with evidence of this kind of tribal defensiveness, on both sides. Those who represent the “old guard” do not want to admit that they might have been complicit in creating an unwelcoming environment, so they minimize or outright deny women’s stories about sexual harassment within the community. Meanwhile, those fighting to create a more welcoming environment for women, exposed to a lot of threats and nonsense on the internet, close ranks and have a hard time engaging in discussion with well-meaning dissenters, because it becomes impossible to differentiate between the well-meaning dissenter and the internet troll.
Both are perfectly natural reactions. But I expect more from self-proclaimed skeptics. I expect self-critique and intellectual honesty. I expect humble and respectful discourse. I expect, at the very least, some kind of acknowledgement of human fallibility and a willingness to look in the mirror before lashing out. And yes, I expect failure. None of us is perfect, and our set of skeptical values is a difficult one to live up to. Self-criticism is difficult. It is also something that our culture discourages.
Social belonging is important. The presence of the social side of organized skepticism gives many people motivation and support to carry out projects they would not otherwise have the strength or resources to complete. I don’t deny the value in that. But it also creates an environment where people can insulate themselves from the effects of challenges to their assertions by surrounding themselves in a consensus bubble where everyone validates everyone else, as long as they stick to the party line. This is one of the primary mechanisms for the continued prevalence of religious belief.
Part of what it means to be a skeptic is to remain open, even welcoming, to new challenges. To be challenged is to be presented with information which contradicts our existing thought patterns, and to gain an opportunity to consider something we’ve taken for granted in a different light. Even if the end result is that our worldview remains intact, it has been strengthened by the process of working through the challenge.
More than a few skeptics think of religious believers as weak-minded cowards who lack the fortitude to stand on their own two feet in the face of the vast uncertainty that is existence. They see religion as a crutch. Well, I would argue that many skeptics, especially those engaged in the social aspect of the movement, treat their belonging to the group as just such a crutch.
Is it too much to ask that they recognize their own cowardice and try to move beyond it?