TAM 8 – Friday pt 6


Now we come to what I firmly believe was the best talk at TAM this year. Dr. Phil Plaitt, astronomer, blogger of Bad Astronomy and author of “Death From the Skies”, spoke about an attitude that he has witnessed time and again in the skeptical community. This is an attitude of superiority and intolerance among those who feel that name calling and belittlement of believers is an acceptable practice.

He asked those of us who had not always been skeptics to raise our hands. I was one of many in the room. Then he asked how many of us changed our views because someone called us a moron or otherwise belittled us. Of course no one raised their hand. This was a great way to illustrate his main point: People do not respond positively to negative reinforcement. If we name call and belittle, that pushes potential skeptics away.

I heard later from Kitty Murvine that Phil had been extremely nervous about talking about this subject. I also heard on Twitter later, though this is merely rumor, that Phil had gotten grief about taking the position he did.

Really what it all boiled down to in the end was what Wil Wheaton says: Don’t Be A Dick.

We at Fledgeling Skeptic support Phil in his position wholeheartedly. I commend him on tackling a difficult and unpopular subject. And I’ll take Phil’s talk one step further. We should not be ridiculing those who maintain a belief in a higher power. I have a firm belief that even if someone is a theist that does NOT mean that they cannot be a skeptic. A theist can hold this one section of their life as something they simply choose to maintain regardless of their skepticism.

We cannot afford to drive people away or alienate them over this one singular point. And I can hear people complain that they’re not “real” skeptics because they still have a belief in the supernatural. To which I reply, “Bullshit”. It is an extremely rare skeptic that doesn’t maintain some small bit of superstition somewhere in their lives.

Do you still talk to your car? Do you curse at a mechanical device when it doesn’t work right? Ask yourself what it is that you still do or think that could be attributed to the supernatural?  Do you wish someone “Good luck”? Supernatural. Do you cross your fingers when hoping for something or someone? Supernatural. Do you say “Bless you” when someone sneezes? Yes, it is a very rare skeptic that doesn’t have some residual thing somewhere in their lives.

So I don’t think that a single one of us has much room to ridicule others. It doesn’t help. It only hurts the cause of skepticism and makes us all look like a bunch of assholes.

Phil stated at one point that he disagreed that we need warriors. He thinks that this is not a war. Again, we can’t force or badger people into changing their deeply held, cherished beliefs. Mentally beating on someone only makes them cling to their beliefs more firmly.

James Randi has said that we cannot change the mind of a True Believer but we can plant the seeds of skepticism. George Hrab of the Geologic Podcast has also talked about how to talk to people without being a dick.

Again, I would like to commend Phil on his courage. Thank you for saying what so many of us have been thinking.

More of TAM 8 coming up tomorrow.

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1 Comment

  1. Josh said,

    August 2, 2010 at 9:44 pm

    I find it very difficult sometimes to balance my contempt for religion as an institution, and the damage that faith wreaks, with an attitude of understanding for people who still believe. On a daily basis I have people telling me homosexuals shouldn’t get equal civil rights because their god says so, or public school curriculum should be censored to pander to Christian views of science and history, or often a belief that the USA should be a Christian nation instead of a free nation, and that we have an inherent superiority because Jesus is on our (conservative Christian) side of every issue. There’s a large school of thought here in the bible belt that we should make less room for faith systems other than Christianity, and set up a nation governed by solid “biblical morals” which are self contradictory and draconian to begin with. When I am barraged by an overwhelming majority of people who believe these things every day, it’s hard not to feel outrage. So even though I want to share rational thought, and promote doubt, and even though I know the only way to do that effectively is to be friendly and never come off as condescending, most of the time I walk around wanting to choke the life out of whoever I just talked to.


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