At Chicago Skepticamp, one of the
camp counselors leaders Jeff Wagg said that Skepticamp is not an atheist group. I will paraphrase what I think he explained. He said, “There are enough atheist groups. This is something different. We don’t exclude atheists, but let me be clear, this is not an atheist group.”
I’m not sure if skeptics are separating themselves from the stigma of atheism, but that’s the way it felt to me.
After I wrote my review of Skepticamp, one
camper attendee and a celebrity in ways, Jamie Bernstein, questioned my use of calling her an atheist. At first glance, her criticism got my ire worked up. But after she reached out with an olive branch and a cogent explanation, it made more sense.
In a private message, she wrote:
I’d rather talk about vaccines and alternative medicine. That’s why I identify closer with the skeptics rather than the atheists. Talking about atheism kind of bores me.
For some background, Jamie is the vice president of the Women Thinking Free Foundation and an active skeptic. Whenever there are skeptic assemblies like TAM or Skepticamp, the probability she’ll be there is high.
I’ve met or seen her at a couple atheist events (PZ Myers Panel and at a speaking engagement for Hemant Mehta) as well as at an anti-vax protest.
Perhaps her association with Hemant informed my view of calling her an atheist.
When I think of atheism — I use it synonymously with skepticism and secularism. I understand that atheism intrinsically means non-theism. But when I heard Skepticamp Jeff, I felt a bit of angst in his voice that associating anything with atheism can amount to a pejorative perception and somehow skepticism gives its adherents a fighting chance in the world.
But Jamie explained to me that she’s not that interested in discussing religion. She’s more of an advocate for rational thought in terms of vaccinations, homeopathy, science, you know … atheism, I mean skepticism.
I am a kidder.
Maybe the more-recognized celebs in our groups are to blame for this, erhm, … um, should I say infighting. Hemant and PZ are both fighters of irrationality, and they argue for it under the umbrella of atheism slash science slash skepticism.
Or maybe skeptics are fighting for a higher rung on the perception-o-meter. You know the average Joe and Jane must have a better view of “skepticism” over “atheism.” I mean, atheists are worse than rapists. Calling yourself “skeptic” gives you a fighting chance in the public sphere.
My issue with fighting for skepticism is that many Christians identify themselves with it as well. They will use it within their dialogue to get an upper hand. But if someone were truly skeptical, believing in a man born of a virgin would end their religious beliefs in a New York minute.
Another issue I have is of secularism. As much as my evangelical background fought against secularism, the only thing that made me religious is that I said prayers in private and believed that Jesus died for me. But those ideas were all tucked away in my imagination. The things that defined me were largely secular, rock-and-roll, movies, clothing, etc.
Most Christians I know identify themselves with largely secular activities, but they tack on one extra bit of nomenclature in their Facebook profiles under “religion.”
Call a spade a spade
So what do we do with this discussion? I, for one, will be more sensitive with how I write about people in our movement(s).
But let me put something in perspective. During the same explanation that Skepticamp is NOT an atheist group, Wagg also explained that they want to separate the idea of “camp” from their group.
Well, doesn’t that bring this conversation full circle.
As I joked a bit above, you can’t call yourself a camp and say, “Don’t think of this as a camp.”
To associate campers, campfires, summers away from parents, juvenile fun, kumbayah with “Skepticamp”! Silliness! That would be irrational! I mean, the word has “Skeptic” in it. And “amp”.
This is a group that’s clearly amping up skeptical thinking!
It’s not like the logo has a campfire in it.
Let’s band together and fight irrationality
Atheism is a term that I associate myself with. I hate what it and the perception of it means. When I use terms like skeptic and secular, I often wonder if I’m hiding my atheism behind them. I try to fit in with all three of those groups, atheism, skepticism and secularism.
But my goal is to discuss and expose irrational thought, in whatever form it takes.
I hope you agree.
What do you think? How do you call yourself? This conversation is likely dead in the water, but give it a whirl if you have a second.