This weekend, I spoke at “Gateway to Reason,” an atheist convention in St. Louis. It was a large gathering of non-believers, including big names like Seth Andrews and David Smalley, but there was still something missing: scientific skepticism.
Many atheists are also skeptics, but that’s not always the case. This is something I already knew, but it became even more apparent after my talk on Saturday. The topic was “You Don’t Have to be a Scientist to Think Like One,” and I talked about all that is pseudoscience – from acupuncture to UFOs, and everything in between.
I expected most people to be on board, but as my talk progressed it became clear that I had offended a number of audience members by categorizing their particular beliefs as “false.” After I left the stage, the first person to approach (confront) me was a 9/11 “Truther” asking me about the “missing engine” from the plane that hit the Pentagon that tragic day (anyone who asks this question seriously is more of a denialist than a scientific skeptic).
The second person to come up to me, believe it or not, was also a Truther who wanted to know why I believed the “official government story” about what happened. But they weren’t the only ones. People who believed in ghosts, psychics, and other assorted woos all came to tell me why they’re right despite a complete lack of supporting evidence.
This is a real problem for the atheist community. Atheism is only important because it often reflects a person’s critical analysis of god claims from various religions, but what about when those non-theistic beliefs are the result of anything else? Like being born into an atheist family? Whatever the reason, one thing is clear: many atheists don’t ask important questions about other non-religious areas of their lives. They don’t apply skeptical scrutiny to certain beliefs.
It’s worth noting that the skeptical movement also needs more atheism. At skeptical conferences, it’s common for people to discourage discussions of religion so as not to offend any believers. This is extremely hypocritical, however, considering religion is one of the first (and arguably the most dangerous) incarnation of pseudoscience.
There is a Cure
Don’t worry, there is a bright light at the end of this tunnel filled with nonsense. There is a cure for the type of gullibility I saw at Gateway to Reason and have seen for the last 10 years of my career as a secular/skeptical author. It’s very simple: scientific skepticism – the process of looking for demonstrable evidence prior to forming beliefs.
As I mentioned in my talk at Gateway to Reason, belief in non-religious supernatural ideas is rising even as church attendance falls at record numbers across the globe. More people believe in ghosts and Bigfoot, despite the fact that the “nones” (those of us who don’t associate with any particular faith) are growing at an unprecedented rate. It is more important now than ever to look at these issues critically and skeptically.
More Good News, Everyone!
The good news is I’ve seen signs that this is already happening. There is at least some indication that skepticism is being injected into the atheist movement – and that’s encouraging. For starters, I didn’t see any of the speakers at Gateway to Reason fall prey to these pseudoscientific beliefs (that, of course, includes Andrews and Smalley). This means that, if people follow their example, we should be OK, right?
Not necessarily. We need to do more by actively discussing these cousins to religions, demonstrating their harm, and showing people how they result from the same failure to think critically. Fortunately, some people are already doing this. At Gateway to Reason, for instance, Dan Broadbent and Natalie Newell of the Science Enthusiast Podcast did a live show in which they discussed skepticism and pseudoscience.
So, there is hope, and I think ultimately the atheist movement will receive the shot of skepticism it so desperately needs. If it doesn’t, it will lose its relevance as people continue to turn away from religion in the Age of Information.
No Sacred Cows
I’d like to end with a quote from my new book, No Sacred Cows: Investigating Myths, Cults, and the Supernatural. This is from the chapter called, “Blurred Lines Between Atheism and Skepticism.”
“If you’re an atheist, it means you haven’t fallen for the god gambit, but the existence of deities isn’t the only commonly held yet likely false notion. Skepticism and critical thought protect from all forms of faith-based ideas. Although the god question is often one of the most controversial ideas for which we can utilize skepticism, it’s not always the most relevant one. That’s why it’s important to stress critical thinking and reason in all areas of life above all else. I want to encourage those who reject the world’s many god claims to apply the same skeptical scrutiny to ghosts, psychics, unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, and just about any topic— supernatural or not.”
Yours in reason,
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