Curing cynical skepticism 6 – Diversifying the skeptical market

[This post is part of a week-long series from July 24-30 about issues within the secular community. Also see parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.]

After I’ve hopefully identified my chief concern, hypothesis about the issue and presented the first steps to rectifying the issue by building positive-action centred communities (in addition to and not in replacement of the existing organizations), I want to turn my attention to one more concern that should be addressed. This final concern is about diversity.

Hemant Mehta posted a very illuminating picture a few days ago from a Skeptics Conference in 2006.

He asked if we could notice anything “manly or white” about it…

Of course the diversity question is slowly being addressed and people are more willing to talk about it now, but that doesn’t mean our work is done.

Doing the same things and expecting different results is Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity, so it’s well worth recognizing that to appeal to a greater demographic, our events are going to have to be more appealing than to just our current members – predominantly 18-35 year old white males, which, coincidentally, appeals primarily to other 18-35 year old white males.

While finding positive activities to focus on should help, I think we can be even more successful if we work on finding niches that need to be filled.

I’m not claiming my ideals are novel or that none of this is being undertaken. CFI Vancouver is launching a book club under my fiancée and my coordination next month, and the Saskatoon Freethinkers have been pioneering secular parenting in Canada with a Secular Parenting meetup and a Freethinker Family summer camp.

Not every event needs to be about debunking woo or bashing religion or drinking in the pub. We need events for mothers, fathers, singles, women, and children.

Heck, even just having a secular equivalent to Sunday School would allow many parents to come to events who wouldn’t otherwise make it.

These things aren’t hard to do (first-aid training and child care licensing are not difficult to obtain) but are just not always in the minds of people who mainly plan events to fit what they would want to do (something I’ve been guilty of too). On the basis of the increased membership alone, it’s worth at least trying to diversify our appeal.

Curing cynicial skepticism 5 – Building positive communities

[This post is part of a week-long series from July 24-30 about issues within the secular community. Also see parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.]

So far I’ve discussed the issue of non-active atheists and how the cynical skeptics and their tone may keep them from joining and being active in our organizations. Today, I hope to outline some constructive ideas for starting to build these communities.

The benefits of community building that result from collectively bashing religion are not limited to negative activities. It is very possible, and in fact relatively easy to build a community on positive and constructive discussions. There’s a few ways to build such a community, and I think each of them can help a group break out of a funk of deconstructive cynicism.

A great example is that of the Students for Freethought (notice their relatively kick-ass website) at Ohio State University. For two years in a row, their group has paired with a campus Christian group and travelled to New Orleans to help with the ongoing reconstruction efforts since Hurricane Katrina. While not every group needs to pair with Christians, the positive emphasis on charity work and (literal) community building is something I think every secular group out there should emulate.

I also appreciate non-religious groups that participate and support local Pride Parades (Edmonton, Toronto, Vancouver, etc.). It’s great to defend our own community, but the true nobility comes from the solidarity we can show to other minorities who’ve been victim to relentless religious discrimination.

One final thing that I think is of vital importance to establish in BC is a humanist officiant program, mirroring the successful programs in Ontario and several states. These officiants provide guidance and oversee major life events which don’t cease to happen when one leaves their faith. Marriages, deaths and even birth (or naming) ceremonies are already in a large demand for people who don’t want a church service but don’t find a civil / government ceremony to be meaningful enough for them. These ceremonies are a great chance to show how we can use humanism to build communities of like-minded individuals.

Of course there are many, many more ideas and opportunities out there, which all take money and volunteers. The lucky thing is the more services we start to offer and the more people who start to attend and take ownership over the community, the more resources that we will have available.

Curing cynical skepticism 4 – The wrong spin

[This post is part of a week-long series from July 24-30 about issues within the secular community. Also see parts 1, 2, and 3.]

I’ve hopefully introduced my main concern in the discussion of the non-active atheists and cynical skeptics and how I think we as a community need to find ways to make them feel more welcome in our groups. Today I want to try to discuss one of the major roadblocks for the non-active atheists for them getting involved in existing groups.

I think the issue is not our overall message. There is a documented, large support base for secular groups in Canada, and especially in BC. The idea of limiting religious influence on government and society is generally popular here, and science still commands a reasonable amount of respect.

The issue that I think is keeping many from joining communities is a matter of communication and appearance.

To put it bluntly, the atheist community (science departments as well) suffers from a bloat of members with varying social deficiencies. We have a number of charismatic speakers (James Randi, Phil Plait) but at the local level, a number of people either forget or do not realize that many people are not won over by a mere resuscitation of facts and logical arguments.

What separates Phil Plait from an IRL internet troll is not an ability to create and use logical arguments, but the skill at which they are applied to discussions with other human beings. Being a douche bag may be very self-satisfying, but when a group is fighting for a broader social change, lacking the ability to actually interact with people is something that just needs to be accepted.

Hell, it’s even scientifically wrong to think that throwing facts at someone will change their mind. People get entrenched in their position and will defend it, no matter how irrational.

Tone matters

Don’t get my message wrong. I support the New Atheist approach to demonstrating that it’s okay to challenge the taboo of belief, but there is definitely a time and place for everything.

An organization that wants to be taken seriously as a community beyond belief needs to conduct itself differently than the members within it. If I want to make fun of religion and be a dick, that’s just fine, but I think larger groups need to be aware of what their audience is.

If we only want to appeal to hardcore, angry, stereotypical atheists, then attacking religion is just fine. But I think if our goal is to attract a larger audience, we need to tread lightly.

Perhaps it means that angry atheist groups and compassionate humanists groups would be more successful apart, but I think until our (active) numbers are much larger, fragmentation represents a reduction in the resources available to any one group.

Curing cynical skepticism 3 – The cynical skeptics

[This post is part of a week-long series from July 24-30 about issues within the secular community. Also see parts 1 and 2.]

The key concern I’m trying to address with this series is: Why would atheists who generally agree with our positions feel unwelcome at an average skeptics event (based on the various ones that I’ve been to, but likely generalizable to other communities, with exceptions of course)?

I think the issue, and it’s one that I’m as equally guilty of as anyone, comes from the tone and level of discourse at these events.

I’ve found that when you put a group of atheists in a room together who have a general dislike of religion that they tend to get pretty vocal about their dislikes, especially regarding religion. I think it has to do with the liberating feeling of knowing that you can broach a taboo topic like religion and not experience any negative social repercussions. Of course, to those a little less critical (or maybe just vocal about it), these situations can get uncomfortable and will basically appear as a bitch fest where belief is torn to shreds.

So our events tend to get tainted by a cynical skepticism. By cynicism, I’m not referring to a tacit denial of anything out there in the realm of possibilities, but a more negative attitude that can infect a conversation whereby the discussions tend to focus on the problems of irrationality and superstition and can quickly denigrate into all-out dickesh mocking (be sure to read PZ Myers’ The Dick Delusion).

And while I have nothing inherently against being a bunch of dicks and mocking religion (it can often be fun), it doesn’t necessarily accomplish much (at least in the group meeting setting) and potentially represents a threat to a groups longevity.

The other issue with relying on the negative discussions to hold the community together is that it creates a clique. It’s natural to want to talk to and associate predominantly with your closest friends in any group, but the danger lies in the raised bar for entry into the club. Shyer potential members can easily have difficulty engaging in discussions when everyone seems to know everyone else and you’re left on the outside of the room, and less likely to return next time.

Benefits of the cynicism

I should also recognize some of the positives of negative discussions before people get the idea that this entire series is going to be a soft-accomadationist piece about tone (more on tone tomorrow).

For many, a meeting at a campus atheist group is the first time they can actually say aloud that they think religion is stupid (this was especially the case in Alberta). Having that peer group that completely agrees with you, and often encourages you, is helpful. It can build self-confidence in ones atheism/skepticism and establish the fact that it’s okay to not believe in unsupported superstitions and better to be good without god.

Out of these discussions can come some great ideas for the group to take on. Whether it’s mocking an attempt at a documentary or chalking to defend free speech.

Curing cynical skepticism 2 – The non-active atheists

[This post is part of a week-long series from July 24-30 about issues within the secular community. The introduction can be read here.]

Yesterday I outlined my basic goals for this series, today I hope to outline the main issue that I’ve had on my mind and a possible first response (that I reject).

This series was partially inspired by a conversation I had the other day with a group of what could be called “non-active” atheists, basically those who don’t believe in a god but don’t see a reason for being involved in the atheist or skeptics community/movement. This had me thinking for the rest of the day: What do groups like the Centre for Inquiry or campus skeptic/atheist really have to offer non-active atheists?

Of course there’s stock answers like what’s written on the CFI Canada website:

We are an educational charity with a legal mandate to educate and provide training to the public in the application of skeptical, secular, rational, and humanistic enquiry through conferences, symposia, lectures, published works and the maintenance of a library, and to develop communities where like-minded individuals can meet and share their experiences. We focus on three broad areas: 1. Religion, Ethics and Society, 2. Pseudoscience, Paranormal and Fringe-science claims, 3. Medicine and Health

But for most people with families, careers and a handful of other hobbies, “conferences, symposia, lectures and published works” will hold little appeal. It’s great to have educational aspects (and I am by no means advocating an end to CFI’s lecture series or conferences), and to inspire inquiry into these topics, but for many people, I get a sense that such events hold little reward. If I had a full-time job, 1.5 kids, exercised 30 minutes per day, and went vacationing every once in a while, I doubt that I would be able (or willing) to find time to attend lectures and conferences.

In Canada, nearly a third of people under 30 are non-religious and in Vancouver the number jumps to almost 50%. This should represent a large target demographic for secular and skeptics groups looking to expand, yet there still seems to be a ceiling much lower than this on both membership and donations.

The “live and let live” mentality

The easy way to dismiss that any issue here exists is to proceed under a “live and let live” philosophy. Basically, this consists of viewing the non-active secularists as generally onside with the issues secularists care about, so there is no real need to preach to the converted. They can be seen as a soft-support base which will support our issues at the voting booth.

Immediately though, I find this view is a bit naive. The first complaint I have is that I’m not convinced that non-active atheists are generally onside with secularists issues. In fact, many view the criticism of religion as needlessly offensive (along the lines of the accommadationists), and have in their own minds a “live and let live” mentality with regards to religious and superstitious people. Of course there’s also the portion of the greater non-religious community that worships “energy” and other obscure forms of mysticism (or whatever Oprah peddles that week).

I think there’s even evidence that the non-active atheists don’t really support us. Many of the non-active atheists would likely disagree with the us as to the severity of the crisis of ignorance in society. Conservatives who preach creationism, homophobia and anti-science rhetoric are continually elected. It’s easy to take solace living outside the United States, but we shouldn’t forget that our Minister of State for Science is a former chiropractor who is unsure how old the Earth is. But the argument of whether we should care about secular issues is a topic for another time (I think so).

Another issue with this mentality is that it dismisses our our potential support base and neglects the requirement of any organization to have members, volunteers and donors. At the very least, without people to come to the events, the lecture halls will be empty and the organization will represent nothing but a social clique. But more on that later.

So for me, the issue with the “live and let live” mentality is dangerous because of the worry that those who seek to establish a society based on superstitions (be they religious or woo-based) will get their way while our potential allies sleep.

Curing cynical skepticism 1 – Introduction

I tried writing this as a single post, but as it quickly crept past 1000 words, I decided that each individual subsection was worthy of its own post. So over the next week I’m going to try to document and deal with an issue that I want to refer to as cynical skepticism (don’t criticize the name until we actually get to my discussion of that topic).

The topics I plan to cover are (I’ll make these all links once the series is done):

  1. Introductory remarks (Today – Saturday)
  2. Non-active atheists (Sunday)
  3. The cynical skeptics (Monday)
  4. The wrong spin (Tuesday)
  5. Building positive communities (Wednesday)
  6. Diversifying the skeptical market (Thursday)
  7. Concluding thoughts (Friday)

My goal today is to simply introduce the topic and my bare motivation for it. I will admit that part of making this a series post is to try to boost my blogs regularity by prewriting and scheduling a bunch of posts, but that’s more of a secondary reason.

I’ve basically noticed a bit of a trend, or at least a standing issue in the atheist/skeptics communities that is potentially acting as a barrier to entry for otherwise potential members and donors. I’m calling this cynical skepticism, not as an insult or a suggestion that skeptics are mere cynics who reject everything, but to highlight the negative tendency of many of the conversations that happen at meetings.

I should also emphasize that I’m not claiming that I’m not part of the problem or am innocent of any of the criticisms that I plan to outline. My hope is that from this discussion, we, as a community, can identify the direction we want to proceed and from there work to establish positive and constructive freethought communities that appeal to (almost) everyone.

I will also note that, in general, I am not criticizing the activities currently undertaken by any specific freethought group. My goal is more to find specific, constructive avenues along which existing, or new, groups can expand their audience and further the ambitions of a society based on reason, rationality and humanism.

So check back over the course of the series and leave your comments below.

Time for non-religious enterprises?

I had an idea today. Like most ideas, it’s not original, and builds a lot on work that others have done, but it’s one that hasn’t been applied within the freethought movement yet, to my knowledge (at least in Canada).

The idea is, as I’ve now learned, based off the growing social enterprise movement which seeks to have companies run for financial, social and environmental gain – the triple bottom line. In many cases the corporation is actually a non-profit or charitable organization which runs a business to fund its work and expansion. A highly successful model of this sort of idea is the Salvation Army’s Thrift Stores which finance much of their missionary and religious work.

So the idea that I had today was sparked by a desire within the Vancouver skeptical/freethought community to have a place of our own, that is a venue where we can routinely host out discussions, meetings and set up an office or two.

Currently CFI Vancouver meets sporadically in cheap or free spaces that are provided by campus groups or rented at reduced rates (through its charitable status) and the BC Humanist Association meets weekly at the Oakridge Senior’s Centre through a deal they have there.

CFI is committed to seeing something more permanent in the next few years be established and while the Senior’s Centre is a great venue for the BCHA, there is the justified concern both inside and outside the organization that the word “senior” in the venue’s name is a deterrent.

So the idea I had was that these organizations ought to found a coffee shop/cafe, which during regular hours can be open to the public for coffee, cookies, and what-have you, with an extra influence of humanism and skepticism present (such as a resource library for the curious and some science-inspired artwork or something). Then, during evenings, weekends, or whenever it is needed, the shop can close up, move the tables aside (or not) and serve as a meeting venue for the invested groups.

There’s a few bonuses in this format. First, the coffee shop serves as an advertisement and fundraiser for the associated charities. Second, the venue would accommodate the majority of the events being held (the larger lectures and debates will always require large campus lecture halls), and would have coffee and snacks available, and could even be potentially licensed.

The drawbacks are the large initial investment required (likely a few $100,000 which none of these organizations have), and the requirement that someone will actually have to manage the business end of things.

However, with a strong business plan and the right people, it should be possible to raise the requisite funds via government grants, personal donations, and loans if necessary.

It’s also worth noting that under Vancouver’s basic commercial zoning laws [pdf], most of these types of spaces can be used for the categories of cultural and recreational (including clubs and community centres), institutional (schools), offices, retail and services. So there should be no difficulty with this portion.

Now, who has some entrepreneurial experience and wants to get this started?

What’s wrong with wanting a community?

Take this as a review of a review.

I liked most of Tom Flynn’s review of Greg Epstein’s Good Without God in February/March’s Free Inquiry, but some of it was hypocritical, name-calling nonsense.

First the good:

Greg M. Epstein is the humanist chaplain of Harvard University and, let’s be frank, a young man on the make. He’s an empire builder, a visionary, a charismatic ambassador.

Well that’s a great endorsement of Mr. Epstein. Let’s hear some more:

He’s on the cusp of taking religious humanism by storm, establishing himself as just the sort of driving figure this particular humanist tribe has long hungered for. (emphasis added)

Wait… religious humanism? Right from the start, Flynn starts by defining Epstein in terms of something other than Free Inquiry’s own brand of secular humanism. But let’s look at some more good stuff before we get into this discussion:

Good without God is friendly, accessible, engaging, breezy when it needs to be, and written more like a rollicking business or how-to book than a typical humanist tome. In other words, it’s the sort of thing that twenty-first-century people just growing curious about religious humanism might read.

But there he goes poisoning the well again by throwing that “religious” word in (he actually uses it once more in that paragraph and emphasizes that Epstein capitalizes the H in Humanism).

So what is Flynn talking about, he finally defines religious humanism about halfway through his review, after using the phrase ten times:

Before I go further, I should attempt to define that amorphous phrase “religious humanism.” Religious humanists are first of all humanists – they attach primary moral and aesthetic interest to human concerns as opposed to those of supposed supernatural beings. Nonetheless, in various ways that don’t always travel together, religious humanists approach their lifestance in a manner that’s distinctively religious. [sic] I have defined religion as a “life stance that includes at minimum a belief in the existence and fundamental importance of a realm transcending that of ordinary experience.”

He goes on to claim that religious humanists demand faith – “assent less than fully compelled by the evidence in hand.” And while Epstein does use phrasing and is more willing to reach out to the liberal religions, he is by no means espousing blind faith in the supernatural. In regards to God, Epstein has the following to say (on pages 12 and 13-14 respectively):

Those who want to convince us that there is a God, and that a certain religion has access to eternal truth, should be expected – just as Humanists should be – to produce serious, credible, testable evidence in support of their claims.

[In response to his question, what do you believe about God?] Here is the Humanist answer: we believe that God is the most important, influential literary character human beings have ever created.

But Flynn isn’t content to pigeon-hole just the faith-based and “spiritual” humanists into his religious humanist slur, he also says,

Another branch of this tribe has no visible attachment to extra-evidential beliefs; these religious humanists are simply enthusiasts for the sort of congregational community life that many traditional believers (not only Christians) experience in more traditional church, temple, or mosque settings.

Flynn, not seeing the hypocrisy in calling declaring himself a secular humanist while participating heavily in the Centre For Inquiry and acting as editor for Free Inquiry – a Humanist organization and a Humanist magazine. He labels Epstein religious for founding communities, yet remains blind to the congregations he has surrounded himself with. CFI is no less of a church than anything that Epstein has been working toward.

Flynn also thinks many secular humanists will disagree with Epstein’s quote “myth doesn’t always need to be a dirty word for the nonreligious.” Well, I have to strongly agree with Epstein, so long as you understand the definition of myth which generally refers to a traditional story told within a community. It can be true or false, and can be seen as such. Santa Claus has become a secular myth that many atheists have no problem telling their children, who later figure out that not all stories are true.

Epstein never states that all Humanists need to attend “Humanist church” or accept “Humanist dogma.” Flynn poisons the discussion of this book, which he still highly recommends (as do I), by inventing a division between so-called religious and secular humanists.

There is a demand for a communal setting for like-minded people, it’s part of why religion has done so well over human history, even secular humanists are organizing for semi-regular meetings.

Let’s save the phrase “religious humanism” for those humanists who remain part of religious congregations, the Unitarians and some United Church members, and reject Flynn’s mischaracterization of Epstein, a man who just happened to put a friendlier, modern face on what was, until recently, a dyeing ideology.

It’s about respect

It’s sad that a satirical Canadian public broadcast show has to take time out of its 22 minute political humour to call for news networks including NBC, FOX and even their own CBC to stop referring to the victims of the Haitian earthquake mere looters.

As they pointed out (unfortunately I can’t find the video on their website yet), Haitians are not “looting” 50” plasma televisions, Blu-Ray Disc players or even books and CDs, they are merely struggling to survive with what little is left standing in their shattered country.

Search Google News for “Haiti looters” and you get over 8000 hits, mostly from the past few days, with very few being critical of the usage of the term.

And while I have one callous acquaintance who said “[If I were a Haitian victim] I don’t think that the fact that a Canadian network called me a ‘looter’ would even show up as a blip on my radar,” the point is that all human beings, especially in our most fragile times, deserve respect.

Someone caught grabbing some food for her community from a collapsed grocery store is not a looter but a hero who is helping herself and those around her to survive.

Haiti has been the whipping nation of the West for more than 200 years, from French Colonialism, to American imperialist interventions. After all this, some have the galls to call these desperate human beings mere looters.

Perhaps with all eyes focused on Haiti now, they can be forgiven of their suffocating  and criminal debts, reinstate a true democracy, and rejoice in their heritage as the world’s first black republic. They deserve at least as much.

Please consider donating again to the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders.

Aid pours in

Between the BC Humanist meeting and people who attended my birthday party at a pub in Vancouver, I managed to collect $159 for the Red Cross which I dropped off this morning. Their phones were ringing constantly and I was told they worked all weekend and are open late to accommodate all the generosity that’s pouring in.

To everyone who has donated, thank-you. Countless more will undoubtedly be needed, so please spare what you can.