Writer Stephen Bond’s eloquent rejection of the skeptic movement is sure to ruffle a few feathers here. Is he overstating his case and condemning a large group of well-meaning people for the actions of a poorly behaved few? (I’m particularly intrigued by his own dismissive and somewhat patronizing generalization of people who hold minority beliefs as only doing so because they’re powerless and marginalized and need to reject whatever authority has dictated to be an acceptable belief system.)
What about his suggestion that many of his former colleagues prefer to spend their time reaching for low-hanging fruit instead of taking a swipe at thornier issues? It is important to emphasize that he isn’t rejecting the idea of skepticism, per se, and certainly not reason and science. His fight is what he perceives as dogma rather than the message itself.
Our political system, education and culture leave a lot of people marginalised, lost, impotent, irrelevant, and made to feel so daily. But these people are not complete idiots. They know something is wrong (though they’re not sure what), they know they have been denied knowledge and power (though they’re not sure by whom), they know that official life has left them on the scrapheap (though they’re not sure why). They look at the reality that has been dealt to them and ask, can this be all there is? Is this as good as it gets? And so, quite justifiably, they invent an alternative. An alternative reality where the people who marginalised them are reduced to easily-identifiable comic-book villians, plotting in underground hideouts. An alternative reality where, more often than not, they and their people are the heroes: the rebels, the fearless investigators, the pioneers of science, the true keepers of knowledge.
And the same is true of almost all bunk, from cryptozoology to Christianity: it’s an alternative reality for the disenfranchised, a wonderland where the losers are promised triumph, and The Man holds no sway. The masters of bunk — the bishops and wizards and cult sages — can wield considerable power in objective reality, but their greatest power is always over the downtrodden and the cast aside.
To convert their followers to skepticism, there’s no use in preaching, like Dawkins and Phil Plait, about the wonders of objective reality, however eloquently they may do it. Objective reality in a liberal democracy might well be wonderful if you’re a media personality or a tenured professor in a leafy college town. But for most people, reality sucks. And if they choose to reject it, I can’t blame them. Proselytising skeptics certainly offer them no incentive to change their minds. Skeptics ask society’s castaways to leave a reality in which they are good and valued people, and enter one in which they are pieces of warm garbage. Little wonder that so few take up the offer.
But as much as hocus-pocus is a comforter for the disenfranchised, skepticism is a comforter for nerds. Even the privileged need to be reassured in their ways; no one is too old or too grand to be tucked in at night with a conscience soother. For nerds, skepticism is the perfect self-justifying schema: a personal theology that validates their interests, their deeds, their prejudices and their politics. In this sense it’s markedly similar to one of skepticism’s favourite targets.
That skepticism is a religion is a idea frequently ridiculed and debunked on skeptic forums. As so often in the skeptic world, PZ Myers says it best (and here, by “the New Atheism”, he means more or less exactly what I understand by “skepticism”):
“[The 'New Atheism'] is about taking a core set of principles that have proven themselves powerful and useful in the scientific world — you’ve probably noticed that many of these uppity atheists are coming out of a scientific background — and insisting that they also apply to everything else people do. These principles are a reliance on natural causes and demanding explanations in terms of the real world, with a documentary chain of evidence, that anyone can examine. The virtues are critical thinking, flexibility, openness, verification, and evidence. The sins are dogma, faith, tradition, revelation, superstition, and the supernatural. There is no holy writ, and a central idea is that everything must be open to rational, evidence-based criticism — it’s the opposite of fundamentalism.”
I’ve got a lot of time for Myers, but I can’t agree with his claim that dogma plays no role in skepticism. The skeptic dogma is, of course, the belief that “a core set of principles that have proven themselves powerful and useful in the scientific world also apply to everything else people do”. This belief is as simple and seductive as any of the claims that priests and mullahs and gurus have made over the millennia — and almost as wrong. While science in its material domain has worked miracles, in the social and emotional and political domains its achievements are highly questionable, to say the least.
But if the skeptic dogma sustains you through the day, I can’t blame you: most of us here are just trying to get by, with as much comfort and dignity as we can scrape together. And indeed, skepticism was once a faith I found comfort in myself. And as long as it does no harm to them and others, I wouldn’t want to disabuse anyone of their faith, or deprive them of their warming blanket. While ultimately I believe the world would be better without religions of any kind, faith can still motivate people for good. Skeptics follow a faith with fundamentally well-meaning principles; not all of them are kneejerk science fans; some of them make a decent and positive contribution to the world through their skepticism. I’m not going to dismiss them personally just because their creed is even more discredited than Christianity.