Skepticon IV: Profoundly Humanist, No Cop-Out

For Humanists, the opening was inauspicious: Dave Silverman, President of American Atheists Inc., told those gathered for Skepticon IV that to call yourself a Humanist is a “cop-out”. For Silverman, nothing less than “atheist” would do. If he had stayed for the rest of the conference, though, he would have seen a profoundly Humanist series of speakers – speakers who on no account “copped-out” of their responsibility to skeptically scrutinize beliefs and actions, and who had their eyes firmly on the use of skeptical tools to promote human welfare.

This was skepticism at its best. As James Randi Educational Foundation President D. J. Grothe argued during his fantastic 2010 NECSSON (Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism) keynote speech, skepticism is valuable primarily because it serves to further our ethical commitment to human flourishing. “Skepticism is more than just a hobby”, he says: “you’re involved with skepticism because it is a Humanism…[it is] focused on human well being.”

This is a critical point: skepticism is primarily important because it tends to result in better outcomes for human beings. Certainly, our pursuit to be Less Wrong has its own value. Truth is to be preferred to falsehood, clear vision to blurred sight. But the central value of these efforts in anti-credulity is that they improve our individual and communal lives. Medicines based on accurate biological information will cure us better and more often than ones that are not. Technologies which are built with a proper understanding of the underlying physics will work better than those which are not. Policies crafted with an appreciation of human biases and foibles are more likely to succeed than ones which ignore the facts.

This truth – that, as Grothe avers, Skepticism is a Humanism – is the reason why skepticism is so important, and why the scope of skepticism should be broad. Any belief or practice that has a detrimental effect on human welfare should be burnt in the crucible of rationality. Thus, PZ Myers is absolutely right to say that religious practices and beliefs are a proper target of the skeptical movement, because those beliefs and practices sometimes harm human beings. Indeed, these practices and beliefs should be more the subject of scrutiny than many of the usual targets of organized skepticism (the UFOs, bigfoot etc.) precisely because they so frequently act against human welfare.

By these criteria, the fourth Skepticon was a huge success, and contributed much of value to the Humanist movement. Almost every speaker burnt with a passion to make human lives better. Greta Christina’s fantastic talk, “Why Are Atheists So Angry?”, blasted religious practices which do concrete harm to individuals, many of which (as she noted) harm religious people most. Eliezer Yudkowsky and Julia Galef aimed to help us overcome the systematic biases to which we are susceptible, and to have a more realistic view of rationality, with the goal of helping us make better decisions. Rebecca Watson reprised her fantastic talk on feminism and skepticism. Hemant Metha  spoke of the importance of critical thinking in math class, while JT Eberhard implored the skeptical community to address mental illness – both topics with a clear Humanist intent (the effective education of children on the one hand, and better understanding of and care for those suffering mental challenges on the other). The “death panel” (yes, a real death panel staffed by atheists!) on which I spoke (with Julia Galef, Eliezer Yudkowsky, and Greta Christina) was squarely focused on promoting human welfare through effective, honest nonreligious responses to death.

And there wasn’t one debate about the existence of God.

This is important because it represents a shift away from some of the odder topics the skeptical movement sometimes seems to be obsessed with. Certainly, whether aliens have visited, whether there is a chupacabra, or whether Nessie is real are questions of legitimate interest to skeptics. But since those beliefs tend not to do great harm to people, they should be considered less urgent than the issues of deep human concern that Skepticon IV consistently returned to. This is not a “cop-out”, but a vital realization that the point of skepticism is to promote human welfare and to make this short life we live better. By keeping its eye fixed on the Humanistic motivation for skepticism, Skepticon IV showed the movement in its best possible light.

So, Skepticon IV organizers, bravo! You don’t know how happy I was to see a truly Humanist skepticism taking shape in the Gillioz Theatre. Springfield, and the world, is better for it.


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