Let’s meet in the alley: skeptics vs atheists

Yours truly shooting at Skepticamp. Photo credit: Jamie Bernstein

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.

Oh wait.

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.

7 thoughts on “Let’s meet in the alley: skeptics vs atheists

  1. I have a family member who’s interested in skepticism and critical thinking, and asked me if there were any local groups in Vancouver. There is: CFI Vancouver (Skeptics & Humanists). The problem is, said family member is a regular church goer and the overt secularism of the group was a turn-off.

    In Ottawa, we keep a clear distinction between the Ottawa Skeptics, which focuses on skepticism, science, and critical thinking topics, and CFI-Ottawa, which has a strong focus on secularism with groups like ‘Living without religion.’ The distinction works well. Personally, I have no interest in discussing religion or atheism, which makes Ottawa Skeptics my preferred group. I just can’t bring myself to care about religion. Alt-medicine and science denial, though, that’s much more interesting.

    I’ll also add that a good friend from the JREF forums happens to be a theist, but also a powerfully effective opponent of homeopathy – even to the extent of taking them on in the peer reviewed literature. I would not hesitate to join her on the barricades. We can focus on our shared goals in skepticism, rather than our differences, and be the stronger for it.

  2. To answer your question, I share Jeff Wagg’s concerns and care little about discussing religion. That said, I am tenacious about secularism and the separation of church and state. It doesn’t work, though, without wide-spread acceptance that we do not all share the same religious (or non-religious) views. Atheists are not exempt from this; we need to accept that others have come to different conclusions.

    But I wanted to comment on something that I noticed that seems to be a pervasive view in this community.

    Your tone, language, and even your stated goals all indicate a view of skepticism as a ‘fight for rationality’ and the work seems to be about winning arguments. For example, you describe Christians “using” skepticism to “get the upper hand”. You also stated your goals as to “expose irrational thought”.

    The ‘movement’, as defined by the organizations that provide its structure and purpose, is not about exposing irrationality. If it was, we would all be hypocrites. It’s about protecting people from the harm that comes from poor critical thinking and ignorance. Reasoning is part of critical thinking, but not all of it.

    Human beings are, in general, very poor reasoners. This includes atheists. An example from this post:

    “But if someone were truly skeptical, believing in a man born of a virgin would end their religious beliefs in a New York minute.”

    Your statement assumes that there are no reasonable explanations for how this could be, yet the Bible explains how it could be: divine intervention. That’s not an irrational explanation. Where that explanation goes wrong is not in its reasonableness, but in it’s lack of parsimony and empirical evidence. Furthermore, when asked why they believe in God, many believers easily call to mind experiences which have convinced them. Experiences ARE evidence. Personal experiences may not be good evidence, but it takes knowledge and good critical thinking skills to determine what constitutes ‘good’ evidence. It also takes knowledge and skills to discuss why some evidence fails; “I think it’s silly” isn’t good enough.

    What Skepticism is about is exposing fraud, providing alternative explanations for what appears to be extraordinary phenomena, and providing people with the tools to evaluate information, claims, evidence, etc. effectively (i.e., critical thinking skills). We do this so that people have better information with which to make important decisions.

    It’s not a war and it’s not an effort to show people how stupid or wrong we think they are.

    1. To the both of you,

      Thanks for the comments.

      To badrescher, I’m not impressed. Yours was shallow. Easy. Simple.

      “Experiences ARE evidence.”

      Did you open a Cracker Jack box tonight?

      Science agrees that experience is NOT evidence. You were right to say that human beings are poor reasoners. Why did you ruin it?

      I expected better. More. Something that reached into the bowl of quality.


      Call a hotline.

      1. “Science agrees that experience is NOT evidence.”

        1) If that’s really what you believe, you’ve demonstrated that you know very little about science.

        2) Why you suddenly decided to dial up the tone to “asshole” is a total mystery and one that I have no desire to solve.

  3. Jeremy Witteveen = asshole

    Why? Because people like you speak in the name of “skepticism” and you hurt our cause.

    Experience ≠ Evidence.

    Science depends on verifiable, testable, and repeatable evidence.

    Eye witness testimony ≠ scientific evidence.

    You act as if someone said, “I rub coffee beans on my left foot when I get a cold, and it cures it within 5 to 7 days every time.”

    You talk as if, “I masturbate every third Sunday of the month and it most definitely brings rain within 6 to 10 days.”

    You said that divine intervention is rational. Yet no where would science accept divine intervention as evidence, as rationality, as cogent. Divine intervention is why cases like Dover vs. Kitzmiller are decided.

    If you are a skeptic, I am a loaf of pumpernickel bread.

    To put it plainly, if you are a skeptic, I call bullshit.

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