Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Skeptics Versus Religion

In Nick Cohen's Guardian review of Mark Henderson's book The Geek Manifesto, he suggests that skeptics are being cowardly in not taking on religion.

Is religion a legitimate skeptical target and if so, which aspects of it should we be tackling?

There are already certain aspects of belief that skeptics do take on. For example, the pseudo-scientific claims of creationism or Intelligent Design and its teaching in schools. In September, Alom Shaha will be talking about science versus religion in the classroom at London Skeptics. The 40 Days of Treats campaign was run by two skeptics, who took on religious opposition to abortion. Claims of faith healing are regularly reported to Advertising Standards; one of the more recent was HOTS Bath.

Skepticism promotes rationalism, evidence and scientific thinking. It's not about what or how much we know but about how we know it. If new evidence challenges established thinking, then that thinking changes. This isn't the U turn dreaded by politicians or proof of weakness in the methodology, it is the methodology.

There are skeptics who take on the basic tenets of religion but should this be the basis for a campaign or something we should do more of? I would suggest not. I advocate the generally secular position that beliefs should be a personal matter, that religion should have no special privilege in law-making, healthcare, equalities, education and so on. Beliefs matter less than actions. Yes, actions are founded on beliefs but that's where legislation comes in.

It's easy to find holes in the logic of any religion, flaws in the reasoning, contradictions and scientifically unverifiable claims. It's easy to point and laugh, sneer at and condemn people's genuinely-held beliefs. We need to acknowledge that none of us is as rational as we might like to think. Atheists are not more intelligent than believers and simply pointing out the flaws or evils in religion is not going to make it go away. We need to be humane as well as rational, understanding the many complex reasons people believe what they believe. There is a role for intelligent satire but for some skeptics ridiculing 'truth' claims is a sport that makes them feel good about themselves but what else does it achieve?

What might we want skeptical activism to achieve? One of the first rules of campaigning is to identify your goals.

Do we want an end to all religion? That's not going to happen. Fewer people believe and actively practice religion (in the West) than in the past, but that's not a trend that will carry it into oblivion, largely because of the way the human mind has evolved combined with social factors.

Do we want laws and professional bodies' best practice to be evidence-based and not give in to religious demands for special treatment? Do we want to raise awareness or influence policy-makers (or both)? Do we want to attempt huge campaigns (that may demand more resources than we can realistically provide) or do we want more grassroots activism, tackling individual claims and inequities? These questions all need to be addressed.

We already promote science and evidence-based thinking so that people have access to information about alternatives to belief and its effects should they want them. We do this on a small scale at our meetings and conferences. Brian Cox, Simon Singh and David Attenborough (who might not identify as a skeptic) have been making science programmes for years that have mass appeal, along with many others.

What other areas of religion should we then be tackling?

Should we be involved in clashes between religion and equalities, for example women's rights under sharia law? Should we be running a gay marriage campaign to counter the strong religious opposition or a campaign against the ever-growing number of state sponsored faith schools? There is clear evidence that the majority supports gay marriage and doesn't want more faith schools but is this the kind of evidence we need to take action on or are they purely secular matters?

The atheist bus campaign promoted scepticism about the existence of God but that was scepticism with a C, not with a K, and it was a humanist campaign. It has been suggested that every school should be sent a copy of Origin of Species in response to Gove sending the King James Bible but this would be an empty (and expensive) tit-for-tat gesture.

Secularism and skepticism are obviously not mutually exclusive but it's about the focus of activism, about branding.

One area where skeptics could do more is in the clash between religion and healthcare, where there are usually clear evidence, facts and research as opposed to religious propaganda, unsubstantiated claims and downright lies. The Christian Medical Fellowship and their like (including Nadine Dorries) write propaganda and lies about abortion, mental illness, contraception, doctors' right to proselytize in the surgery and conscientious objections. Add to this pharmacists demanding the right to refuse to sell the morning after pill, therapists claiming to cure homosexuality and medical students refusing to bare their arms to scrub up. And the Vatican (among others) consistently opposing stem cell research. I've written about all of these matters, in some cases more than once, if you want some background.

I suspect that part of the reason we haven't done much in some of these areas is that they cover so-called women's and gay issues and skepticism has historically been very much a heterosexual male domain. But this is changing, as the number of women now coming to Skeptics in the Pub meets and the 40 Days of Treats campaign run by skeptics Liz Lutgendorff and Carmen D'Cruz shows.

Two ways to take direct action are to write to MPs and ministers, and to respond to consultations. This may not seem like a very exciting or high-profile activity, but your MP should respond to your letter and they often assume that for every voter who writes, there are many others who agree, especially if it's a personal, individual letter rather than one obviously copied from an organisation's template. Consultations often inform legislation and best practice. For example, the Secular Medical Forum's recent response to a consultation on Personal Beliefs and Medical Practice, makes some good points.

And then there's good old fashioned talking - to family, friends, people in the pub, at school parents meetings and at work. Not haranguing, not lecturing, just talking. It's what Christians would call bearing witness.

I don't believe that skeptics avoid religion out of cowardice but we do need to think more about what we can do in this area, to define our targets and our responses to them. There is no single skeptic opinion on any one subject but many shades and variations, so I'm not hoping for a mass, homogenous uprising. I am hoping that Nick Cohen's comment and this response will open a debate.


  1. Why should Skeptics in the Pub bear any social responsibility? We're nerds in a pub, albeit several groups of nerds around the world, some of which are rather large groups, but it's a weekday evening in a pub where we can have a pint and get into a debate (or just meet someone a bit famous and clever). It's not our job to tackle religion or politics or healthcare, but that some of us try to is credit to the high calibre of good looking and intelligent individuals who come to our events.

    I'm all for engaging and empowering people to change things for the better when we can, and even give a platform to people whose ideas we are sympathetic to (or are biased towards!) but there are other organisations that already exist who can challenge dogma, policy, alternative medicine and anything else they fancy. I'd rather be in a position to host talks by those who are able to point people in a better direction to fix a grand cause than to take on the task (and impending responsibility) from the comfort of my local pub.

    I say let skeptics just be skeptical and political if they fancy it.


  2. I would love to have the opportunity to engage in intelligent and reasoned debate in the pub, but the last time I tried that in my local I was lynched for practising witchcraft and interrupting the karaoke! Maybe I should leave the Shire and catch the next charabanc to that London?

    Why not be political? Not much point in being a Skeptic otherwise, other than to pose and vent hot air - fun but mostly pointless! :-)