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 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.