How the toothless eat gelato

You’ve no doubt heard about the ludicrously-titled “Gelatogate” controversy, where Christian businessman Andy, owner of Gelato Mio in Springfield, MO, saw a bit of Brother Sam Singleton‘s atheist revival, got offended, and hung a sign that said Skepticon attendees weren’t welcome in his store. He apparently came to his senses rather quickly (but not before irreparably damaging his Yelp and Google reviews and racking up a ton of bad publicity) and issued a pretty sincere apology (Blag Hag has the whole story). At this point, the story should be over–privileged Christian let his personal offense lead him to a bigoted action and learned a valuable lesson about how your actions have consequences, the end. But of course, it’s not. Instead, it’s become an excuse for the DBs to harp on Skepticon’s atheist leanings and complain that atheists are harming the skepticism brand.

In particular, Jim Lippard, who said that the “Root cause of Skepticon gelato incident was brand confusion over an atheist convention labeled as a skeptic convention.” We can leave aside several points–that Andy saw only a little bit of one talk (a satirical revival, no less), and thus could have had the same reaction to any anti-religious talk (or comedy routine) at any skeptical conference, regardless of what proportion they actually made of the talks; that only 1/3 of the Skepticon events were explicitly about religion (assuming Dan Barker’s was and Rebecca Watson’s wasn’t), with the rest being about genetics, math, critical thinking, and other topics; that this same thing could have happened if Andy were an anti-vax mom going to an anti-anti-vax talk at any other skeptical conference (or any of the “how dare you assault my beliefs” people who write in to skeptical blogs and the like), etc. We needn’t consider those points because, after all, the DBs don’t consider them (inconvenient for the narrative, don’cha know).

No, let’s focus instead on Andy’s misconception that led to the whole process, because I agree with Jim Lippard that it’s the source of the problem. Andy said “Once the store slowed down, I decided to walk down the street to learn more about the convention, fully thinking it was something involving UFOs (“skeptics”).” Jim Lippard might look at that and say Andy correctly understood what topics skeptics typically address, was at least open to the skeptical position on those topics, but was turned away by the bait-and-switch of running into a talk that ridiculed his religious beliefs. Another religious ally turned off to skepticism by atheists who continue to conflate the terms.

We’ll ignore, of course, that the same Andy has now had a consciousness-raising experience with respect to the rights of atheists to believe and speak as they wish, the wrongness of bigotry in any form, the consequences associated with acting rashly out of personal offense, and his own religious privilege, all of which appear not to have affected his openness to the points of UFO skeptics.

I agree that this is a problem, the popular understanding that the set of topics that are addressed by skeptics completely overlap with the set of topics of History Channel shows that feel the need to consult a token skeptic. Someone like Jim Lippard might say that the solution is that skeptics need to focus more on those topics, and that atheists should be more forthright in the labeling of conventions that focus on atheist topics (ignoring, again, that 2/3 of the events at Skepticon had nothing explicitly to do with atheism, judging by the talk titles). The problem is one of mislabeling atheism as skepticism.

Obviously I disagree, or I wouldn’t be taking the time to post about it. The problem is not so much one of mislabeleing as one of blinders. The DBs have walled off atheism as a set of topics that deserve their own conferences and conventions, talks that don’t have a place–at least in large number–at skeptical events. Some, like Daniel Loxton, have done this explicitly by giving god claims and related religious claims a special category (“metaphysics”) that makes them immune to the skeptical process (and sticking their fingers in their ears when anyone brings up the notion of null hypotheses, burdens of proof, or Occam’s Razor). It would be just fine and dandy if a skeptical conference had a plurality of talks on UFOs or talks on ghosts or talks on cryptids or talks on alt-med–Lippard himself said as much. Only religious skepticism is singled out for such critiques; only atheism is snubbed and assumed that it’ll have its own conference, so as not to sully and taint the very term “skepticism.” Skeptical conferences should focus on the safe topics.

Because that’s what most of them are: safe. Few people have any real emotional or personal investment in the existence of cow-mutilating aliens or loch-dwelling pleisiosaurs. Criticizing those fields steps on almost no one’s toes. Even anti-vax is a minority position; for all the harm it does, for all the people it injures and kills, most folks still trust their doctors and get their kids immunized. Attacking those positions is okay, because most people tacitly agree with the skeptics, or at least aren’t emotionally invested or indoctrinated into holding the non-skeptic position and defending it as an integral part of their life, which they reinforce by attending weekly meetings of believers.

I don’t begrudge skeptics those topics, or even a preference for those topics. Take a look at the talks we’ve done for Gen Con–there’s not an explicitly atheistic one in the bunch. Talking about those safe topics is often interesting, but more importantly, it’s fun. We can cut loose on the silliness of ghost hunters or the stupidity of cryptozoology, because we know that most people aren’t going to take personal offense. We can keep the tone light and frivolous, because the topics we’re talking about are largely frivolous. Informative, sure, but largely inconsequential (except, of course, the alt-med stuff).

Religion’s not as safe, because lots of people have lots of emotional and personal ties to their religion, and have a lot of their energy and personal identities tied up in their religious beliefs and practices. Religious belief is a majority position, and even the people who aren’t very religious tend to lean toward casual belief–just like, I think, most people tend to lean toward thinking fairies and Bigfoot and alien abductions are kind of silly. If you’re strictly playing a numbers game, then you’re likely to offend a lot more people with a talk on religion than with a talk on Nessie.

And the numbers game appears to be exactly what the DBs are playing. They want the “movement” to grow; my inner cynic says that a larger “movement” means more podcast subscribers and donors, more book purchases, more TAM ticket sales, more token skeptics on the History Channel, and so forth. The more charitable interpretation is that it’s education–more people will be able to recognize bad arguments, more people will get vaccinated, more people will avoid quack alt-med treatments. The world becomes a little more rational, step by tiny step. But that’s ignoring the giant elephant in the room, the institution that legitimizes and promotes magical thinking, denigrates science and critical thought as methods of discerning truth, does tangible and significant harm, and is the source of (or overlaps with) a large portion of the ‘approved topics’ for skeptical conferences, religion. And ignoring it intentionally, knowing that attacking the majority proposition might offend some people, might turn some people off, might prevent those tiny incremental steps toward rationality. It’s what the alt-med quacks accuse doctors of: treating the symptoms rather than curing the disease.

I can already hear the DBs reaching for their pearls and fainting couches, so let me back up a bit. Here’s an incomplete list of the woo-woo–approved, safe-for-skeptical-conference woo-woo–that stems directly from religion:

  • Creationism/Intelligent Design
  • Faith healing
  • Afterlife beliefs
  • Reincarnation
  • Demons and demonic possession
  • Angels

And here’s a list that have significant overlap, such that religion is often used as the justification for these positions, beliefs, or actions:

  • Global warming denial
  • Anti-gay pseudoscience & discrimination
  • Historical revisionism
  • Dualism/soul
  • End of the world
  • Conspiracy theories
  • Anti-vaccination positions & policies
  • Anti-abortion pseudoscience & policies
  • Misogyny & sexism
  • Child abuse
  • Abstinence-only sex education policies
  • Ghosts
  • Witchcraft/magic
  • Naturopathy and other alt-med
  • Gender essentialism
  • Mental illness denial
  • Anti-GMO hysteria
  • Near-death/Out-of-body experiences

And that’s not even scratching the surface of the logical fallacies, specious arguments, fabrications, and crappy reasoning that prop up the whole edifice of religion, nor does it even touch the problems of accepting personal revelation as solid reason for belief or the issue of treating hierarchical organizations or age-old texts as absolute authorities. Hell, it doesn’t even include UFOs and alien abductions, cornerstones of religions like Raelianism and Scientology. Why is it okay for us to go after all those things, but not after the root cause that promotes, supports, and legitimizes them? It’s ridiculous, tantamount to telling someone a thing is untrue without explaining why or how we know.

But more salient, I think, is the matter of harm. Call me a pragmatist, but I think we ought to focus a lot of our skeptical efforts on the woo-woo that does the most harm. That’s my biggest problems with the DBs and their sphere of acceptable skepticism: with the exception of alternative medicine, they focus on the most harmless kinds of woo-woo. Cryptozoology is kind of the ur-example; the biggest danger of cryptid hunters and their ilk is the propensity for hoaxes and the money they potentially drain from more worthwhile causes. Otherwise, some guy in a hat and vest stomping through the woods looking for hair or footprints isn’t actually doing anyone any harm whatsoever. UFO believers and abductees are a little more harmful, since their efforts can actually divert police and other emergency resources, but they’re still mostly just silly. Psychics and ghost hunters take money from people and give them lies and false hope in exchange, and contribute to a larger problem of a bullshit-saturated medium, but they’re mostly only harmful to the gullible. That sucks for the gullible, and we should do what we can about it, but it’s not killing anyone, for the most part. Alternative medicine, yes, does lots of harm to lots of people, and we should focus lots of effort on fighting the chiropractors and acupuncturists and especially the antivaxxers. But we should also focus on the faith healers, and the Christian Scientists, and the people who claim that vaccines are full of fetus parts, and the anti-stem cell crowd, and we’re back to religion.

And when it comes to harm, I don’t think all the rest of the acceptable sphere of skeptical topics added together do as much harm as religion, even if only because it encourages blind faith in fallible leaders, rejects reason and evidence as primary tools for knowledge acquisition, and legitimizes magical thinking. If it did nothing else–if it weren’t spreading miseducation and misinformation to children and developing cultures, if it weren’t the source of countless cases of child abuse and sexual abuse and coverups thereof, if it weren’t a (frequently) legally-protected reason for parents to kill their children and put others at risk through medical neglect, if it weren’t actively behind efforts to make women and non-heterosexuals into second-class citizens, if it weren’t a tax shelter and source of wealth for people who do nothing to help their communities and bilk money from people who actually need it–I’d still think those reasons put religion head and shoulders in terms of harm above chupacabras, chiropractors, and charlatans. But the fact is that religion is behind all those sources of harm and more, and that should make countering it a major focus of any skeptical effort.

A skepticism that ignores–willfully ignores–this largest and most dangerous of the potential woo-targets, is a skepticism content with being toothless, with gumming safely away at the softest targets and lowest-hanging fruit, rather than chopping down the whole goddamn rotten tree. A skepticism that excises the topics which may actually offend people–or more accurately, may actually offend a majority of people, because the DBs don’t care about self-identified skeptics who believe in alt-med or deny global warming–is a skepticism content to be relegated to fringe magazines and token opinions on bullshit-saturated cable specials. It’s a contented skepticism, with no ambitions beyond growing the number of contented toothless skeptics, so they can have larger and larger conferences about how silly UFOlogists are, and never step on anyone’s privileged toes.

That’s fine for the DBs. They can have all the conferences they want where religion is never mentioned, never doubted, never questioned, never criticized–that’s the only way to ensure that an Andy can’t randomly walk in and be offended by an assault on his deeply-held faith (that, or exorbitant ticket prices)–but they don’t own the term “skeptic,” and they don’t have a solid leg to stand on with respect to restricting skepticism as a method or a community to “everything but religious skepticism.” They can structure conferences where every kind of woo-woo (except religion, except except the fringey religions that no one cares about anyway) gets equal time and equal treatment, from chemically castrating autistic children to the Cottingley fairies. What they can’t do–well, they can, but no one has any reason to listen to them–is get their knickers in a twist when people with reasonable priorities and an interest in making the world a better place go after the root of the problem, or at least focus 1/3 of one annual conference on addressing that problem.

The DBs can restrict their skepticism if they want. They can focus on the safe topics and the safe methods; they can have safe conferences and safe speeches where they studiously keep the privilege of the religious majority safe from any potential critique. And doing so, they can be safely ignored. Don’t feel bad about that; it’s what they’ve chosen.

And, of course, I wrote all that before reading through PZ’s post on the same topic, where he ultimately used the same basic language that I did. While I disagree with his overall approach to Gelato Guy (and don’t begrudge him his response), I think he’s spot-on with his critiques. You know, because they’re basically the same as mine.

But he brought up a hilarious little bit from Jason Loxton, where he argues against himself, whether or not he realizes it. In making a blatant appeal to tradition, he ends with “Clear definitions, like fences, are good for neighbourliness.” The phrase is apparently a 17th Century proverb, but I suspect that most people now know it from Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall.” Let’s take a look at that poem, with a bit of helpful emphasis:

Mending Wall
Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’
I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Two neighbors rebuilding a fence because that’s what they’ve always done, one asking why the fence exists in the first place, seeing no good reason for its existence or to keep putting in the effort to maintain it, and getting only tradition and platitudes in return. Sounds about right.

2 Responses to How the toothless eat gelato

  1. Don says:

    We have already discussed this in private (which, it occurs to me, is a way to ensure that we never comment on each others blogs), but one thing I have not yet said: that is an amazing title.

  2. Pingback: An unsupportable claim | Dubito Ergo Sum

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