Skeptical activism and atheist militancy. Labels part 2

I argued last time that atheism is the natural conclusion of rational consideration of the evidence available. Today I am going to think about how we use these terms in activism. I am, or try to be, a skeptical activist. Here I am thinking about the relationship between that position and the term militant atheist. It’s my position that ‘militant’ atheism, in the non-violent sense, is just one instance of skeptical activism.

First, there needs to be some clear and defined goals of skeptical activism. You may want all people to be rational all the time, you may want the complete abolition of all religion, or you may want legal restrictions on beliefs people have. Of course, basically nobody does want this, and these are straw men. I will try to articulate what I want skeptical activism to achieve.  

The first aim I hope for is evidence and reason based decision making on a social scale. The decision making process I have been most aware of are in the area of healthcare, although this applies to any number of fields where there is a risk that ideologies interfere with decision making. The NHS, as an institution, is pretty good at ensuring an evidence base and cost efficiency, although it is not clear how long this will last. Many other political decisions are much less well informed, as politicians need to appeal to the biases of their supporters rather than risk losing them. The arguments supporting laws for drug control, immigration, terrorism prevention and abortion should all involve the reasonably expected outcome of any given action. Rationalists and skeptics need to hold decision makers and decision making processes to account, and ensure that policies are formulated in light of evidence and reason.

The second aim I think the skeptical movement should have is the improvement of the public understanding of science. Science is the mechanism by which we get a rigorous understanding of the world around us. It directs our communication, our government, our relationship with the natural world and our relationships with other people. Underpinning science is a system of logical reasoning that ensure that the conclusions drawn represent the clearest understanding we can have given the evidence and information available. Yet the public understanding of the scientific method is not what it should be. There are several possible reasons for this, such as poor school-age science education, poor media representation of and accuracy in science, and a social acceptance that boffins will do the boring science for us. I don’t know how each of these concerns contributes to the overall picture, or even whether they are really cause for concern, but these are each areas that people with an interest in science or public wellbeing should be addressing. Skeptical organisations should not simply be negative, they should take positive messages and lessons into society.

The third aim I would state is that people should be aware of what constitute credentials in an area. This includes the recognition that faith, in itself, does not make you an expert. When the public take part in ethical debates, for example, the appropriate people to make the relevant arguments are ethical theorists and philosophers. Being a Nobel laureate in one discipline does not mean you can override the evidence in another. If a Nobel prize winning physicist denies the HIV / AIDS link, the Noble prize is exactly as relevant as the fact that I won the discus competition at my high school sports day in the first year. Those with a strong opinion on a particular argument, should not be held as expert sources simply because they have a strong opinion, they need to demonstrate their expertise through endeavor in the field. Further, even when someone has demonstrated expertise in a field, this does not mean they are necessarily correct in any particular instance, but it does suggest they have good reason for thinking as they do, and that their opinion is worth considering thoroughly. Here, skeptics should ready to challenge the validity and relevance of people claiming expertise or privileged insight.

There are of course many other aims that people interested in science communication, rationalism and skepticism may hold, and the three above are by no means exhaustive. What I hope they demonstrate is that the aims of skepticism are primarily positive, aimed toward promoting rationalism, rather than specifically putting down other belief systems. I have personal aims that tie in heavily to rationalism, but I think fall more clearly under the empathic and egalitarian set of labels.

It is clear that rigorous skepticism will lead to clashes with belief systems based in faith, as faith is inherently irrational and therefore can be expected to support, in some instances, positions that are inherently opposed to rationalism. By ‘faith based’ I do not simply mean religious beliefs, but any system of beliefs which does not have a foundation in reason or science. As I suggested when talking about atheism and skepticism, someone can be an atheist for reasons of faith, or hold separate faith based views. For example, the science has demonstrated pretty clearly that there is a direct causal link from HIV to AIDS. Certain faith based positions in alternative medicine deny this. Skeptical activists should challenge this, and there are many fine examples all over the internet of this happening. Similarly, when creationist ideologies are espoused as science, the practice is regularly challenged. Skeptical activists have an excellent track record of ensuring that any undue encroachments of faith based positions into science or policy are highlighted and challenged.

However, there is a significant difference between challenging demonstrably faith based positions that threaten harm such as the AIDS denialism and creationist teaching, and attacking the private belief held by people. I do not believe in a god, and I believe it is the rational position not to believe in a god. However, I have no interest in whether you believe in one. The beliefs of other people are only significant to me insofar as they affect others, and their experience of the world. I have no real desire to destroy the fundamental belief system that religious people have. What I will oppose, verbally or in peaceful demonstration, is instances where that negatively affects others.

This form of activism is often called militancy, especially when the faith based position under discussion is a religious one. I think this term is hugely misleading. There is no, to the best of my knowledge, military wing of either skepticism or atheism. If there were, I would almost certainly want to distance myself from it. Militancy in the sense I could support means activism, a willingness to promote science and reason in the face of faith based systems. I am an activist in that I have set up a Lancaster Skeptics in the Pub, a real life forum for interesting discussion, and because of my online activities. From the definition I accept above, I am also militant, as I am willing to argue against religious acts that threaten harm in much the same way. I would much prefer a different term, that clearly differentiates between those willing to kill or die for a cause, and those choosing to argue resolutely.

As with the terms skeptic and atheist, I believe I have shown that the terms activist and militant, in the non-violent use employed here, are very much the same. I think that to be a militant atheist is simply one instance of active skepticism. It is of course possible to be an active skeptic, and not a militant atheist, although I don’t think that is a consistent position. Therefore, I am a proud skeptical activist and, by logical extension, a militant atheist.

  1. Skeptivist.
    You’re welcome.

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