On Growing the Atheist Movement

Hemant Mehta gave an engaging performance at the AB Secular Conference, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He spoke on what atheists can learn from churches. Although I’ve read a good deal of Mehta’s posts on his blog the Friendly Atheist, this is my first time hearing him speak. I had some vague ideas about how he might tackle his topic, like emphasizing community-building and charity work. The most compelling part of his talk, however, focused on capturing a larger chunk of the religious “nones” by mimicking what churches do best.

Mehta’s suggestion for growing the atheist community caused some discord among those in attendance, but he did an admirable job of addressing the concerns of some particularly passionate audience members. He essentially brought the focus back on helping people who might otherwise leave their churches if not for the benefits they gained while remaining in the more stable religious community.

One audience member raised an important if dispiriting point that maybe atheists do not want the movement to grow. Putting that possibility aside, I think some atheist influencers like Mehta, have made too much of trying to capture the churched atheist when most atheist groups fail to win the closer-fit atheists, e.g., “firebrand” atheists who see little point in being part of an atheist organization or broader movement.

Blog Series on Research Methods

The NSRN, working with the Scientific Study of Nonreligious Belief, has launched a blog series on research methods for atheism research. Lee, Bullivant, Farias, and Lanman identify the problem as follows: “we do not yet have a fully-developed and centralised body of conceptual and methodological tools that will help both to consolidate and disseminate this growing body of knowledge.” I look forward to the series, although I must admit to having fewer methodological concerns given that I take a social movement approach to atheist activism. For example, recruiting non-affiliates does not impact my current work, although I can see this being a bigger issue for future projects. More importantly, perhaps, is the lack of shared reference points.

The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM)

From July 15-19 I attended TAM13 in Las Vegas. It was my first TAM experience, but it wasn’t completely different from some other conferences I have attended. It reminded me of ICSA‘s 2014 annual conference in Washington, DC., although TAM is decidedly more alcoholic.

I dipped into a bunch of sessions, but for the most part I tried to match the content of discussions with my research interests. Highlights for me included the practical skepticism workshop, the Merchants of Doubt screening, almost everything involving Jamy Ian Swiss, Brian Deer’s talk on vaccines, and Michael Shermer’s presentation.

Workshops and general sessions aside, the most engaging parts of TAM came from conversations with other attendees as well as some of the presenters and organizers. I noticed two recurring conversation topics as both an observer and participant: (1) the status of skepticism as a pro-science social movement; and (2) the differences between the atheist movement and the skeptical movement. Regarding this latter topic, one gentleman observed that in Europe, people make much less of the differences between the two movements than they do in the United States.


My shiny forehead with James Randi

Jamy Ian Swiss’s talk on skepticism was enlightening. He was critical of some recent sting operations, such as Operation Bumblebee. Swiss asked the following rhetorical questions: What did we learn? What cost? Was the time and effort worth it? What does success look like? Not just any magician/mentalist is qualified to analyze psychic methods, and it’s pretty easy to go astray, e.g., when skeptics look for “hot readings,” or make unfounded claims about other strategies employed by psychics.

This isn’t the first time Swiss has commented on these sorts of issues related to skeptic activism and the use of magicians. During TAM 2013, things got a little heated between him and Mark Edward. Skip ahead to 49:10 in the following video.

The relevance of this video to Swiss’s TAM13 talk is that Edward has made some fairly questionable claims about psychics, such as that they use your credit card information to gather data for a hot reading. This type of behavior is rare enough for it to be considered bullshit, but skeptics might buy it because he’s a magician.

Jim Manzi on social science and policy

I am currently reading Uncontrolled: The Surprising Payoff of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics, and Society by Jim Manzi. I found out about the book after reading philosopher Gary Gutting’s op-ed “How Reliable Are the Social Sciences?” from a few years ago. Gutting argues that social science research doesn’t match up to natural science research, and he quotes part of Manzi’s book. Here is the quote in full:

When it comes to deciding what policy actions to take, we should listen carefully to economists and other social scientists, but we should treat their assertions differently than we do scientific predictions. Their predictions should be subjected to useful cross-examination by laymen, weighing of technical and nontechnical opinions, introspection concerning human motivation, and all the rest. Beyond this, we should always keep in mind the unreliability of such predictions and treat the fog of uncertainty about the potential effects of our actions when considering what to do. I am not arguing that social science is valueless–I would no more advise a president to make a major economic decision without professional economic advice than I would suggest that he make a decision about war and peace without consulting relevant historians–but I am arguing that we should be extremely humble about our ability to make reliable, useful, and nonobvious predictions about the results of policy interventions.

These limitations are inherent to the methodology of nonexperimental social science.

I have no interest in undermining social science research, as I would like to continue working as a sociologist, but I think humility is important. Skeptics and atheists have two tendencies when it comes to social science research. They either dismiss it outright, holding to a narrow view of what counts as science, or they treat all research as if it has the same reliability, regardless of the discipline or the methods used. I found that many more skeptics/atheists held to the latter position than I would have assumed. On a number of occasions I have had to say that being skeptical of social science research is not the same as denying climate change science. It’s okay to wonder about the reliability of social science research and withhold an opinion.

The Left and science

This is not a complete post, in the sense that it does not come to a conclusion. It’s more or less just me ruminating on some contemporary issues. Let’s go back in time to when everyone was talking about the relationship between anti-science views and political identity. Who’s worse when it comes to embracing pseudoscience and expressing anti-science viewpoints, the Left or the Right?

Way back in 2011, Alex Berezow, the founding editor of RealClearScience, argued that “progressive political allies often hold blatantly anti-science beliefs themselves. And in some cases, progressives actively undermine technological progress.” His examples included anti-vaccine activism, opposition to GMOs, antagonism towards animal research, and blocking the construction of nuclear power plants.

Needless to say, Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, and serial abuser of social movement scholarship, didn’t like Berezow’s article. I think Ronald Bailey did a good summary of the debate, ending with a statement I mostly agree with: “Republicans are more anti-science. However, I do also agree with Berezow that scientific ‘ignorance has reached epidemic proportions inside the Beltway.’”

Writing more recently for Mother Jones, Chris Mooney continued the good fight, arguing that “modern conservative science denial remains a unique phenomenon” and that GMOs and vaccines are not uniquely liberal or as problematic as climate change denial. I had forgotten about this debate until a friend reminded me in response to John Stossel’s “The Left’s Bad Ideas About Science Are More Harmful Than the Right’s.”

Who is right? It’s a difficult question to answer, but I am persuaded that we have repeatedly underestimated the Left’s anti-science views. I also think we come up with convenient excuses for the harm caused by these views, largely because the promoters are of The Tribe (speaking on behalf of academia and most public intellectuals here). With this in mind, let’s take a look at some of Mooney’s claims:

The GMO issue is also politically suspicious: It is inherently conservative, in the purest sense of the word, to resist technological changes to the nature of food production (or anything else, for that matter).

Mooney is making a cheap point here. Political identities are not internally consistent, and left-wing movements have a long history of being “conservative” when it comes to science and technology. There are plenty of examples to be found, from the Left’s support of astrology and spiritualism in the mid-twentieth century to attacks on relativity theory. Add to that list the not-so-fringe radicals in the environmental movement.

Rather than combing through the historical record, let’s look at an example of anti-science on the Left that continues to cause harm. In my discipline, social constructivism remains influential, leading at its extremes to a relativistic pluralism that seems to deny that knowledge is about reality. Considerable resistance remains in the social sciences to the idea of taking expert knowledge claims seriously. Justifying this antipathy, French sociologist Bruno Latour argued,

We no longer have to fight against microbes, but against the misfortunes of reason – and that, too, makes us weep. This is why we need other proofs, other actors, other paths, and is why we challenge those scientists. Because we have other interests and follow other ways, we find the myth of reason and science unacceptable, intolerable, even immoral. We are no longer, alas, at the end of the nineteenth century, the most beautiful of centuries, but at the end of the twentieth, and a major source of pathology and mortality is reason itself – its works, its pomps, and its armaments.

Latour’s view of science is the bedrock of social constructivism. Constructivists have long sought to immunize the social sciences against the findings of the natural sciences, and while some of the rancor has dissipated, questions about the natural world remain controversial in fairly mainstream circles.

In the Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem, the editors included a section on the history and sociology of pseudoscience. It is telling that they chose to omit the kind of “sociology inspired by social constructivism and postmodernism” which they regard as a pseudo-discipline. Philosopher Massimo Piggliucci argues that the attitude of mistrust of science in academia “is a major cause of blunders in public discourse and has brought about the so-called science wars of the last few decades.” In 1994, Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt published a book length treatment on these blunders. The book, entitled Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, inspired the now infamous Sokal Hoax.

By the 1990s, the public’s trust of science had been weakening for a decade or more, but the pro-science crowd did not take much notice of internal academic controversies until physicist Alan Sokal published a nonsensical paper to the cultural studies journal Social Text. Sokal later exposed his hoax in Lingua Franca. To this day, the Sokal Hoax is hotly debated among social science and humanities scholars. Putting aside the academic controversy, Sokal was celebrated by members of the scientific community for confirming their assumptions about social constructivism and postmodernism.

Although the Sokal’s actions are more famous than Higher Superstition, Gross and Levitt’s work is more relevant to the discussion at hand, as one of their articles, “Knocking science for fun and profit” appeared in Skeptical Inquirer (Mooney has contributed to the magazine). Gross and Levitt’s concerns did not come as a surprise to leading figures in the skeptical movement. Paul Kurtz co-edited a collection of essays in Challenges to the Enlightenment: In Defense of Reason and Science when the science wars were just beginning. He argued that science and reason were being attacked on at least two fronts: the religious orthodoxy and academics associated with postmodernism. Kurtz did not merely capitalize on a growing controversy. He had been wrestling with what he saw as a worrisome trend since the mid 1970s, but it was not until the 1990s that skeptics started to seriously consider anti-science positions among the intelligentsia.

Although not as dramatic as climate change denial, the consequences of the academic-left’s anti-science views are worth noting and challenging. In addition to postmodernism’s impact, Gross and Levitt mention Marxist and feminist critiques of science, which reminds me of the sociological research concerning complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Sociologists have a bad habit of emphasizing CAM’s empowering qualities in the face of “biomedical power” and the other ideological and financial interests that those on the Left oppose. Some scholars actually welcome the secular expansion of folk therapies, describing them as sound alternatives to “Western” science (usually said with a hiss). Others choose to emphasize the apparent positive aspects of alternative medicine, such as the holistic model of health, preventive medicine, and CAM’s relationship with post-modernization.

Let’s move on. Mooney writes,

[T]he evidence that vaccine opposition is somehow specially tied to left-wing beliefs is just lacking. Rather, the largest factor here, according to Lewandowsky’s research, is conspiratorial beliefs, which are hard to categorize as either left wing or right wing in nature.

Mooney cites the work of Stephan Lewandowsky and his colleagues to support his position, but his confidence in their work may not be warranted. In “Conspiracist Ideation as a Predictor of Climate-Science Rejection An Alternative Analysis,” Ruth M. Dixon and Jonathan A. Jones argue that Lewandowsky et al.’s conclusions are not supported by the data, concluding that the “curvilinear relationship identified in both the panelsurvey data of … and the blogs-survey data… suggests that both respondents convinced of anthropogenic climate change and respondents skeptical about such change were less likely to accept conspiracy theories than were those who were less decided about climate change.”

Make of that what you will, but I am more persuaded by the relationship between conspiracy theories and “New Age” ideas, which Mooney cleverly avoids discussing. Ideological beliefs–particularly left-wing ideological beliefs–have long been associated with the adoption of alternative medicine and other New Age practices and philosophies. The Left’s attachment to CAM should not be surprising, given that the consumption and promotion of these practices came out of largely left-wing movements associated with ‘60s political radicalism.

CAM users are more likely to be women, middle class, and well-educated. They also tend to be “green,” sympathetic to environmental issues, and concerned about inequality. These attitudes and values are typically associated with the Left. CAM use additionally brings with it a core anti-capitalist sentiment and an ideology concerned with holistic health and the “natural.” This too should not be surprising given the Left’s varied critiques of science, technology, and modernization over the decades.

The holistic health thing is an interesting element because when applied to health and illness, it is probably the most important predictor of CAM use, but the quantitative data on these values and attitudes misses an important factor in the adoption of CAM and other New Age practices. Although the science on climate change is fairly clear, left-wing environmentalism is not necessarily driven by the acceptance of science. The Left’s turn towards the natural has its basis in left-wing utopian political movements that seek to critique and undermine power. Romanticized visions of the wilderness, nature, etc., can be traced back to 18th- and 19th-century European Romantic movements. These movements formed “the backbone of a counter-Enlightenment tradition and are important influences on some versions of postmodern theory.”  Conservatives had a role to play in there as well, but the Left has been leading the charge against modernity and the Enlightenment in academia. Gross and Levitt write,

The academic left’s critiques of science have come to exert a remarkable influence. The primary reason for their success is not that they put forward sound arguments, but rather that they resort constantly and shamelessly to moral one-upmanship. If you decry the feminist critique of science, you are guilty of trying to preserve science as an old-boy’s network. If you take exception to eco-apocalyptic rhetoric, you are an agent, witting or otherwise, of the greed of capitalist-industrialist polluters. If you reject the convoluted cabalistic fantasies of postmodernism, you are not only sneered at for a dullard, but inevitably told that you are in the grip of a crumbling Western episteme, linked hopelessly to a failing white-male-European hegemony.

Moving beyond academia, contemporary environmentalism’s radical elements are, not surprisingly, far Left, and they aren’t as fringe as Mooney and others might like to think. Eco-terrorism has complex history, but it’s hard to imagine without a left-wing political ideology. A form of spirituality called “deep ecology” informs the members of some groups, but there is a broader attachment to anarchist movements that were often hostile to science and technology for reasons that can only be described as being informed by a quasi-religious desire to return to a state of nature.

You may argue that although the Left is guilty of supporting some crazy stuff, the conservative denial of climate change remains the larger problem. As Mooney points out, “Conservatives have… been shown to trust scientists less than liberals or moderates do. So no wonder they also reject their most important (if sometimes inconvenient) conclusions more often.” But, Mooney plays an old trick on us here. When presenting the left-wing anti-science perspective, he seeks nuance, claiming that conspiratorial beliefs are the largest factor when talking about issues like vaccine denial. He does not, however, provide the same nuance when it comes to conservative anti-science perspectives.

Let me try. In a recent article, entitled “Beyond ‘deniers’ and ‘believers’: Towards a map of the politics of climate change,” Olaf Corry and Dan Jorgensen argue that the Left (believer)/Right (denier) divide regarding the politics of climate change does not accurately capture the complex reality. They write,

[M]oving beyond the categories of ‘believer’ and ‘denier’ may facilitate debate about rival political strategies for climate governance—re-politicising the policy debate while depoliticising the science debate. Critics of Kyoto-style agreements are not necessarily ‘deniers’ of AGW, while on the other hand scientific evidence in itself does not legitimate one particular set of climate policies. ‘Sceptics’ as well as ‘believers’ can be challenged on their problem- and solution-assumptions above and beyond their assertions about climate science.

Similarly, Bruce Pilbeam argues that there is more shared ground between greens and conservatives than we typically acknowledge. One caveat: he is talking about intellectual conservatism rather than conservative politics. I don’t think that anyone is denying that there’s a politically conservative apparatus behind much of contemporary climate change denial, but does that reflect conservative thought more generally? Not necessarily.

The association of green with the Left is warranted, but you run into trouble when you associate greens with pro-science views. Many greens are skeptical about science and technology, overlapping with traditionalist conservative ideology that is similarly ambivalent about scientific rationalism and progress. Of course, “neither most traditionalist conservatives nor greens argue that the advance of science should be halted completely; rather, what is needed is to diminish its presumptive status.” You can see this attempt to diminish on the left-wing side when people criticize “scientism” or “scientific fundamentalism.”

Greens and conservatives also share some views regarding capitalism. Although it’s comforting to associate conservatives with the free-market, conservatives actually express a range of views regarding free-market capitalism, including moderation in economic policy and sustainability. Given what I have written so far, it’s also worth pointing out that greens and conservatives have similar views when it comes to non-material, spiritual values. Although conservatives are more likely to embrace Judaeo-Christian values, “a bridge between conservative and green spiritualism is provided by the perspective of conservative-minded environmentalist Edward Goldsmith, who emphasizes the value of strong religious commitments in the maintenance of stable and well-ordered green communities.”

If we continue to expand our analysis beyond the United States, we see that those from a lower socio-economic background are more skeptical about the existence and anthropogenic nature of climate change, raising the possibility of a class issue. Wouter Poortinga and colleagues certainly think so, as research has shown environmental concerns increase with social class, supporting the idea that “once basic material needs have been met ‘post-materialistic’ values become more important, i.e., that people are more likely to value the protection of the environment.” Those with a conservative hierarchical value orientation still have issues with climate change, but “most [climate] sceptics do not hold their views very strongly” and may express their skepticism for a variety of psychological reasons including a suspicion of expertise.

Conservatives are not unique in there suspicion of expertise, however, even if the Left is more likely to have trust in environmental science, their trust has less to do with a pro-science worldview than it does being from a higher socio-economic background and an interpretive community that has traditionally supported environmental values. In other words, the Left is often “accidentally” on the correct side. The link between political identity salience and climate change beliefs is the relevant factor here, and there’s some evidence that conservatives will support environmental action when messages are framed in ways that appeal to their values. It’s an easier sell for the Left given their propensity to be skeptical of the market and industrialization.

The academic Left’s excesses have been taken up by progressives leading to what Michael Rectenwald refers to as a tragedy: “It was tragedy for the massive amounts of ‘cultural capital’ that it wasted; it was tragedy for the defrauding of intellectual integrity that it represented; it was tragedy for the abandonment of reality that it recommended.” Another part of this tragedy is that the academic Left’s ant-science views undermine the public understanding of science.

The denial of natural phenomena and the social sciences’ inability to engage in interdisciplinary work with the natural sciences has been examined in detail by various scholars within the social sciences as well as those from without. The sociological failure to respond to ecological problems features prominently in these discussions. Latour now wonders if he was wrong to participate in the invention of “science studies,” given that the deconstruction of scientific knowledge has had dire consequences for environmental science:

[E]ntire Ph.D programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always the prisoner of language, that we always speak from one standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.

The extremists in this case tend to be politically motivated conspiracy theorists (both Left and Right). It is apparently alright for the Left to undermine science, but not the Right, otherwise, Mooney would have taken more care in addressing the strange turn, as philosopher Lee McIntyre argues, of “hard-right conservatives sounding like Continental intellectuals.”

Alberta Secular Conference

I just bought my tickets to the Alberta Secular Conference, which is sponsored by the Society of Edmonton Atheists. The theme for the conference is “None Of The Above,” and it will take place at Red Deer College, October 17th and 18th. Guest speakers include, but are not limited to: Nathan Phelps, Lynne Honey, Sarah Morehead, Bradley Peter, Rob Breakenridge, and Kathy Dawson.

You can get tickets through Eventbrite, and if you’re a student or member of SEA, you get a $10 discount. The nearby Sandman Hotel has a special conference rate as well if you want to stay over on Saturday.

Transhumanism and atheism

I just finished reading Lincoln Canon’s recent post over at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging technologies. He makes a number of claims that I take issue with, but the one I’m most comfortable addressing is that only “about half of Transhumanists and Technoprogressives identify as either atheist or agnostic, and that’s down about 15% from surveys done a decade ago.”

Most surveys of transhumanists are severely limited in their generalizability. But, let’s look at one of most recent ones anyway: 49% of transhumanists identify as agnostic/atheist. Cannon downplays this number, but it’s difficult to think of many other communities with such a high number of agnostics/atheists. Additionally, most of the prominent transhumanists in North America and Europe are not religious. Not at all surprising given transhumanism’s roots in renaissance and enlightenment humanism.

If we look at the rest of the survey, the religious transhumanist of the sort likely favored by Cannon is rather small. 17% of transhumanists identify as spiritual, but not religious. 11% identify as Buddhist, many of whom may in fact be atheists. Also worth mentioning is Cannon’s preference for drawing a sharp line between agnostic and atheist. He writes “my guess is that probably not even a quarter of Transhumanists are atheists and their low numbers are obfuscated by the large number of agnostics.”

In the absence of better data it’s hard to say much, but many people are rather confused about what it means to be an agnostic, and this confusion is largely driven by their association of atheism with its stronger form that denies the existence of God or gods. You can be an agnostic atheist.