Tuesday 23 September 2008

I Skeptic

As much as I enjoyed the “God Delusion” and found its arguments incontrovertible, it’s not my favourite of Dawkins’ books. I’m not a scientist, (well I’m a computer scientist, but that doesn’t count as I don’t get to wear a white coat). I do however have an interest in championing logic, critical thinking and reason over superstition , pseudo science and general woo woo which I suspect stems from my emergent curiosity in real science. Hence my preference for Dawkins books like “The Selfish Gene” and the “Blind Watchmaker” that provide a logical and scientific explanation for the world around us. In addition to giving me a logical perspective on the ludicrousness of religion, reading science books has additionally promoted my interest in the absurdity of other popular beliefs that fly in the face of science and reason.

I suspect that these beliefs and myths are promoted by media keen to serve a public who view science as boring and elitist. However in a year when the Phoenix Lander has successfully touched down on the surface of an alien planet and we have built a gigantic Hadron Collider that will be capable of simulating the conditions moments after the big bang, incredulously most people still find Victoria Beckham's new hair do more news worthy. Anyway my thirst for the latest scientific news as opposed to celebrity hair fashions led me into the world of Skepticism were are a number of jolly useful resources like the SGU, Skepticality, Point of Enquiry, Skeptoid and JREF podcasts have helped to keep me informed. Not to mention the monthly speakers at the Skeptics in the Pub (London is my nearest).

In my previous post I argued in favour of boldly and publicly declaring myself as an Atheist. In this post I wanted to explore the pros and cons associated with declaring myself as a Skeptic. (NB I have deliberately used the American spelling as I believe it is more representative of the Skeptic movement than the English word sceptic.) Logically I should apply the same arguments to the word “Skeptic” as I did to the word “Atheist” and therefore reach the same logical conclusion that I should wear my Skeptic badge with pride. But I have two issues with the identifier “Skeptic”.

Firstly, although the term is widely understood within the Skeptical community, I fear that the word is more ambiguous in the community at large due to the literal definition of the word. As an example, a visitor recently spotted a copy of Michael Shermer’s Skeptic magazine in my lounge and asked if I had made a ‘U’ turn on my Darwinist views. On further questioning, it turns out that she equated the word Skeptic with the things she was personally sceptical of, which in her case, sadly, included the theory of evolution. I found this rather worrying, because to me the whole point of Skeptisim from my perspective is to support and promote those theories with overwhelming scientific evidence and investigate logical and reasonable explanations for phenomenon that are attributed to the supernatural. Therefore, do other people confuse the meaning of the Skeptic movement based on their personal beliefs, for example do they consider themselves as Skeptics of modern medicine and prefer to entrust their health to mumbo jumbo or treatments with the magical word “natural” in the title. If so this is a complete reversal to the Skeptical movement’s viewpoint on this topic.

Secondly, I’ve also received comments that as a Skeptic I must be very “closed minded”. Again this is in my opinion a complete reversal of the truth. Although I don’t believe that little green men are buzzing the planet and sticking their shiny probe up the unsuspecting hairy arse of a farmer in Ohio, if sound scientific evidence where produced to confirm the existence of extra terrestrial life, that would be the most exciting news story I’ve every heard, and most welcomed. Compare this with the stance of the blind faith believers when asked how they would respond to irrefutable evidence that disproved their faith, and in every example I’ve heard they would not be prepared to concede their previous stance and cling on to their delusions regardless of evidence to the contrary. And apparently I'm the closed minded one!

I’m not proposing a name change, just voicing some issues I have encountered with the term Skeptic, and was wondering if others have experienced the same problem. I’ll continue to take advantage of the great Skeptic resources available, but I may have to be careful to qualify my stance when using the label outside of the Skeptic Village. Perhaps the growth of the Skeptical community will help it grow into a synonym for critical thinking,, reason and scientific advancement rather than just a bunch of miserable doubters and debunkers.

Thursday 18 September 2008

Should I call myself an Atheist?

Whilst listening to an old interview with Neil De Grasse Tyson on the “Point of Enquiry” Podcast the other day I felt myself pondering Neil’s comments on the pro’s and cons of identifying ones self as an Atheist. Neil made a very good point that it’s far better to advertise yourself by what you are, as opposed to what you are not. The example he gave, is that as a non golfer he doesn’t feel the need to identify himself as an agolfer, so as a non theist why bother identifying yourself as an atheist. My immediate thoughts were that this sounds like a reasonable and convincing stance, so why does it sit slightly uneasily with me. Having pondered it for a while I think it’s due to am imperfect analogy. This is because the majority of the worlds population are not golfer’s, and it’s not considered a key attribute that governs many aspects of peoples lives that must be treated with respect. Hence there’s no need to disassociate oneself from it if it just doesn’t happen to fluff your pigeon. If golf was treated in the same way by society as religion then when you check in at the casualty department for some treatment you may well be asked if you prefer a sand wedge to a 9 iron when completing your admission form (I’m not a golfer either so I apologise if my metaphor is not quite logical). If I where asked such a silly question by the triage nurse I would feel the need to qualify the fact that I was not in fact a golfer and that I find the question pointless and irrelevant. If the majority of the worlds population were atheists and religion were not afforded its sacred untouchability, then I think Neil’s metaphor would stand and I would agree with him and see no reason to declare my atheism as it would be the default point of view. We could then leave the onus on the deluded to come out of the closet instead.So why do I think it’s important to stand up and be counted as an Atheist? I suspect that, in Britain at least, despite opinion polls, I am not actually in the minority. I suspect that non believers frequently allow themselves to be counted among the faithful due to reasons of religious disinterest and maintenance of their culture heritage. For example, if religion pays no part in your daily life and the triage nurse asked you for your religion on the admission form, how many non believers just say “Christian”, as the quick and easy answer. They were christened as a Christian and they live in a “Christian Country” they may not be practising, but they enjoy the Christmas holidays and certainly don’t want to be identified as a Muslim or a Jew, ergo Christian is the simple harmless answer. Perhaps similar views are received in response to opinion polls as the percentage of Christian’s in this country does not equate with Church attendance statistics.But why use the word “Atheist” when it has such negative connotations, in fact some might even mistakenly associate the word with amorality or less pleasant human characteristics. I suspect this might be the primary incentive for Dan Dennnet to champion the term “Brights”. I quite like the term “Bright” but it does sound a little condescending, perhaps I secretly like that, it almost says “Science too difficult? Never mind, try religion”. So how about “Secularist”, “Humanist” or even “Agnostic”? I don’t object to any of those terms (although I find Agnostic a little too non comitial). However, I think words can be perceived differently over a period of time (Not only does the word “Gay” have a primarily different meaning these days, its starting to loose any stigma associated with it). Might it not also be a good idea to clean up the word “Atheist” by more popular usage of the word, by not being afraid of the term and by allowing it to be associated with genuine, caring and morale people like us.So assuming atheists are more numerous than polls suggest and we can rightly feel proud of such a label, what’s the value in promoting it? One (of many possible) answers could be that it seems as though religious pressure groups are trying (and achieving) to change our secular government (For example the spread of faith schools with the ability to teach their preferred creation myths as science and other such lobbying that prevents the spread of science and progress that leads to a better quality of life for us all). Perhaps by making it clearer that the majority of the population are intelligent caring and rational human beings that have no truck with an outdated dogmatic view of the world, then religious lobbying may be less successful.In short, support the out campaign, wear you atheists T Shirts with pride and raise the profile.