Saturday, 5 June 2010

This message will not self-destruct

Not to name-drop or anything but I happen to know first hand that the hosts of the Just Skeptics podcast, and this week's guest host Andrew Taylor, are all lovely people. I'm sure none of them would hesitate to replace a crying child's dropped ice cream or to help an old lady down from a tree. I'm also fairly sure I owe a couple of them drinks. But if I had no source of information other than this week's episode I'd assume they were a bunch of angry, confused and mean-spirited gits.

The first couple of items made for good listening, but then things morphed into a special flicking-chewing-gum-at-religion edition. Treatment of the two news items represented sadly missed opportunities: a few minutes of essentially just poking fun at something which warrants more serious treatment, followed by a diatribe from Alex Dennerly, which contributed little other than some inventive combinations of swear words. There was no real analysis of either case so that it seemed a waste to have four self-professed critical thinkers discussing this, rather than a group of bemused grumblers down the pub. I know damn well they can do better than this.

Then came the guest host's 'soap box' section. Andrew did a good job of wrestling the over-used soap-box back from Alex, putting forward his objections to the moderately religious. After years of practice, he can be relied on to produce a well thought out and amusing rant on most topics, usually leaving the reader with a clear idea of how the world could feasibly be made to work a little better. In this case the rant started with an admission that otherwise sensible people who aren't atheists just don't fit into his 'internal model' of a rational universe. The solution was that every religious person should accept that they're wrong and agree to have that 'fixed'. The analogy he used doesn't really help his case:

There was even some disagreement about whether stamping out common delusions constituted education or genocide. And it reminded me of deaf people who refuse a cure because they see it as implying that they're worse than hearing people. And it's absurd. It's like refusing a superpower. You're not Nathan Petrelli, no bad thing is going to happen. Being deaf is objectively worse than being able to hear and in exactly the same way, being wrong about something as important as whether or not an omnipotent being will save you is objectively worse than being right. And if someone helps you fix that, say "thank you".

I treat religion as a regrettable fact of human nature. Like phobias or weird celebrity crushes,* it seems irrational and silly to the outside observer, can cause a lot of problems we'd all do far better without, but still won't go away not matter how much or how amusingly you complain about it. It's also so bound up with people's self-image, identity and sense of where they belong (similar to when you've built your life around coping successfully with a disability) that the more moderate or wavering believers come under attack, the more likely they are to retreat into the sanctuary offered by a community of people who have shared their experiences. If a 'cure' is going to cause serious mental trauma, it is not acceptable to force people to go through with it.**

Admittedly, I've oversimplified Andrew's argument here. There are parts which I agree with and it's worth a listen. However, in terms of the skeptics movement as a whole, I find rants like this not only pointless but massively unhelpful. It's difficult enough to make any kind of progress against woo, superstition and willful ignorance even when we have hard proof. We need to pick our battles and not go marching off into the treacherous swamps of religious belief, firing shots of "How do you know, you cretins?" into the mist.

I've really enjoyed the skeptics events I've been to and I'm trying my best to encourage friends and acquaintances - some of them moderately religious or buyers of alternative remedies - to come along for a drink, attend the talks, read the blogs and listen to the podcasts. I'd rather not spend too much time having to reassure them that they won't get spit-roasted in some angry atheists' piss-take of ritual sacrifice. In this case, Just Skeptics sadly didn't do justice to the all-round wonderfulness and friendliness of the Greater Manchester Skeptics.

* Stuffed animals and Alan Davies respectively, in case you were wondering.
**Actually, this is my main phobia (just searching for that link was a struggle). I've heard about possible therapies and I'd rather just carry on dealing with the problem, much ta.


  1. I do like that someone with 'unskeptical' beliefs can come along to a meetup without being bullied like a guest host on Have I Got News For You. It'd be a shame for both parties if they were put off, because there's a useful discussion to be had there — if we engage with them. There's no use a theist coming to Skeptics if we ignore the elephant in the room. Most superstitions have a cosy community attached. We can't ignore them on that basis; we just need to think more about how best to approach them.

    I'm not sure the analogy you quote extents to comparing upsetting truths to non-consensual therapy. The implications of 'it's unethical to tell the truth' make me squirm, and anyway, by the time someone's in a position to offer informed consent to the facts, it's too late.

    More generally, I think the level of discussion in the podcast suffered a lot from a delay in getting the stories for discussion out to everyone. I don't know how much difference it eventually made, but I'd have felt more comfortable with a day or so to absorb and read around them. I'll try to remember to mention this to Gavin at some point tonight.

    Hm. I seem to have replied to your points in reverse order. Ho hum.

  2. "The implications of 'it's unethical to tell the truth' make me squirm, and anyway, by the time someone's in a position to offer informed consent to the facts, it's too late."
    It takes a lot of chutzpah to refer to your own subjective theological position as 'the truth' and 'the facts'. Nice one.