Skepticism is in Need of a Makeover

Skepticism needs direction, it needs a reasonably unified voice, and it needs a check on the infighting that threatens to Balkanize the movement. We skeptics are finally starting to coalesce into a force that can be readily identified by the public at large. We have well-known and well-respected individuals that offer publicly accessible arguments in favor of the skeptical worldview. The Four Horsemen of the Atheist Apocalypse (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens) have provided a rallying point around which many skeptics and atheists can begin to engage in the necessary struggle against irrationality and unwarranted belief that runs rampant through the world. Numerous other popular authors, bloggers and talking heads have given us a prominence in public discourse that would have been unobtainable one generation ago. Why, then, do I feel we are so close to losing the ground that we have won? I think that it comes down to the voice and temperament of the skeptical movement as a whole. We are a group that is only loosely organized and guided by a creed of rational and skeptical thought, a creed I see as based on something akin to the following ideas:

Be willing to question everything.

Take nothing for granted.

Be open to well-reasoned criticism.

Accept and integrate new ideas and facts into our arguments.

Skepticism will - we hope - allow us to overcome the irrational elements of the world that would seek to stifle reason, science and critical thinking. The problem we face is that these tentative guidelines do not set the tone or the direction of the skeptical movement. One can adhere to these tenants in a wide variety of ways and still stay within the skeptical fold. However, while I believe that this diversity is critical to the movement, that does not mean that I think that all voices are or should be treated as equal, or that every tactic is as effective as every other. Certain approaches and voices are going to be objectively more efficient in spreading the skeptical worldview.

This has nothing to do with fame or status: I think anyone can become an effective force for the skeptical good. Despite that universal potential, I firmly believe that some people and methodologies are more effective at getting through to the general public. In short, I think that we need to avoid a form of “skeptical relativism” that could leave the skeptical worldview dead on arrival to many people throughout the world. By "skeptical relativism", I mean the idea that skepticism is promoted with equal efficacy by any and all means that stay true to the ideals listed above.

I am treading into extremely contentious territory here. I do not mean to claim that there is only one way of approaching the public with a skeptical message, nor do I claim that I know what the proper way to explain ourselves to the public should be. What I do claim to know is that some methods work better than others, and that certain issues within the movement must be addressed before we will be able to realize rationality’s domination of the world. The two most critical issues that need to be addressed are that of tone and solidarity when facing the general public. My purpose here is to highlight the danger I feel these issues pose to the advancement of the skeptical movement into the public psyche, with the hope that the act of highlighting these dangers at the individual level is ameliorating to the movement as a whole.

“Be willing to question everything.”

As an example of tone, I would point you to r/atheism on reddit, a community I frequent daily and to which I often contribute. This is a place chock-full of anger, frustration, and sarcasm. It is an unwelcoming place to many, even those who ostensibly share the un-belief that grounds the entire subreddit. The spinning off of r/TrueAtheism was sparked largely because of the frustration with the tone and content that makes up r/atheism. For those unfamiliar with r/TrueAtheism, it is dedicated to substantive discussions that are at least tangentially related to atheism and, to a lesser degree, skepticism.

Once I discovered this subreddit, I can say that I have relegated r/atheism to little more than a place to read humorous memes aimed at the disparagement of religion’s many foibles. In short, it’s good for a laugh, but it ultimately does little to advance the advantages of atheism – advantages that are ultimately grounded in skeptical thought and are, thus, relevant to skeptics of every stripe. This is disadvantageous to skepticism as a whole, as this is the self-proclaimed largest online community of atheists (with over 1.7 million current subscribers), and as such, those of a generally skeptical bent (at least nominally).

The difference in tone between the two subreddits is striking. Posts that get derided in r/atheism are often well-received in r/TrueAtheism, and the sad thing is that this is usually correlated to how substantive the post in question is. The more thoughtful and reasonable a post is, the more likely it is to get slammed by the world’s largest online atheist community. This is a problem.

Obviously, reddit is but one small corner of the internet, but I think it is a worthwhile example to explore in light of its popularity and social visibility. We could just as well look at the anti-religion campaigns that spring up around large religious holidays and arrive at a similar point, or the many literary works that decry the horrors perpetuated in the name of blind faith: negativity is rampant.  Sarcasm abounds. What I've found to be missing is a positive message focused on the numerous benefits skeptical thought can provide for the world at large, as well as for individuals in their daily lives. This positive assertion is exactly what skepticism needs if we ever hope to scale the walls built up by thousands of years of unfounded beliefs and irrational faith.

“Take nothing for granted.”

Skepticism needs to demonstrate the numerous ways in which it can enrich the lives of those who adopt its core principles. We are trying, collectively, to break down incredibly personal and powerful beliefs that are effectively inoculated against the entire skeptical enterprise. We aim to undermine beliefs that people have held their entire lives – beliefs that have been handed down as absolute in their truth and import – and replace them with a belief system that will forever undermine the absolute nature of anything that person can ever believe. For those of us who have made the skeptical leap-of-faith and adopted this inherently fluid worldview, we see the tremendous benefits it has bestowed on us. The quest now is to demonstrate these benefits to others.

I believe I see the world for what it is: mysterious and knowable; beautiful and terrible; temporary and eternal; terrifying and wonderful. I believe my skepticism has lent me the perspective necessary to truly make an effort to live my life and understand my world within the epistemological limits I know exist. I will never know any particular truth with the absolute certainty, but I can strive to live a life grounded by reason and empathy that will hopefully be a benefit to those around me. Skepticism has given me the tools to live a life that might just leave the world a somewhat better place for my having been a part of it, and I think that this message – one of positivity – is critically important in order to overcome the irrationality in which the world too often seems to be drowning.

In light of this belief, I think that attempts to merely disparage our intellectual opponents is effectively self-defeating. No one is going to be bullied into adopting skeptical values. What I think we can do, however, is make the world intellectually uncomfortable enough for people locked into irrational belief systems to look at the positive aspects of skepticism. In other words, we need to create the sort of unyielding cognitive dissidence that stands a chance of driving irrational beliefs out of one's worldview.

I believe the rise of skepticism in the first-world, bolstered in no small part by scientific education, has shown that this is an effective method for bringing people out of the intellectual darkness. As such, we do not need to stop a concerted attack on irrationality and I think this would be a mistake if we were to do so. We have the tools necessary to make skepticism attractive and well-received: namely, a worldview that has proven wildly successful. One need only look at the sweeping changes wrought by science, a thoroughly skeptical enterprise, over the last 200 or so years. In light of these successes, we need to keep the emphasis on what skepticism builds, and not what it destroys, in order to make irrational worldviews increasingly difficult for people to adhere to.

“Be open to well-reasoned criticism.”

This leads me to the issue of solidarity. As I pointed out in an earlier article, fairly severe fissures have opened up within some areas of the skeptical movement. Political considerations and personal vendettas have led many leading skeptics to become embroiled in infighting, spending precious intellectual resources undermining their nominal compatriots. This does nothing helpful. While some people or ideas do need to be confronted – remember, I do not ascribe to “skeptical relativism” and as such do not believe all skeptically derived ideas are created equal – we can confront these in such a way as to lead to a benefit for everyone involved.

I have heard these types of incidents described as “circular firing squads” and think the metaphor is apt. I am not advocating for the idea that we should never publicly disagree with one another. If we are true to our skeptical ideals, we will constantly disagree with one another. This does not mean, however, that we cannot do so in such a way as to better everyone involved; something like the peer review process for scientific publications comes to mind. While there are distinct personalities involved in any peer review, the goal has nothing to do with them. Rather, the goal is the truth, or some advancement towards it, and the critical process in which the related parties engage is at least nominally committed to that goal.

“Accept and integrate new ideas and facts into our arguments.”

If we as a movement hope to continue on the path to intellectual world domination, then we need to be committed to the ideals of skeptical thought and be willing to positively engage with one another and the world. Negative tones and spats of infighting are impediments to the spread of the skeptical worldview. It is my sincere hope that bringing attention to these potential roadblocks to the advancement of skepticism can help, through that very act, mitigate them. Negativity serves us rarely and in too limited a fashion for us to overcome the obstacles to reason with which the world is littered. Internal battles lead to wasted energy and make skepticism seem petty and fragmented to outsiders. I think we all believe that skeptical thought is important enough to fight for and I think that skepticism is more than up to the challenges before it: I just hope that we skeptics are up to the challenge as well.


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Featured image by Stuart Miles, courtesy of