Has the skeptical movement failed?

August 8, 2012

The skeptical movement has been behaving in very self-destructive behavior over at least the past year as cults of personality and bitter rivalries have sprung up while those screaming the loudest on different sides of numerous issues have been allowed to dominate the conversation.

Just one recent example of this was highlighted when Ian Murphy penned a rather weak piece on Alternet that called out five individuals as The 5 Most Awful Atheists. There’s been much criticism about the rather subjective criteria Murphy used as well as his over-simplification of the views of several individuals on his list.

Well now Sam Harris, one of the alleged “awful” atheists on the list, has responded not just to this piece but to much of the recent criticism he’s received as well as the larger problem of internet critics with the ability to potentially smear a person’s name forever with the total freedom to make any accusation they wish. Now I don’t agree with Harris on everything. For instance, I do take issue with his current positions on torture and profiling. However, I also recognize that his position is far more nuanced than Murphy’s article and many of Harris’ critics let on. And I think to some degree Harris is willing to engage in civil discourse on these subjects. But I also think simply writing Harris off as a monster or a racist or a fascist or whatever does a great disservice to the conversation and to the rationalist goal of building a society on reason and intellectual discourse.┬áBut that being said, I’m not so sure Harris would easily change his mind when confronted with compelling evidence against his position. If he would, I surmise he’d have changed his position already given the currently available facts of the matter.

Harris also calls out PZ Myers for allegedly contributing to gross misrepresentations of Harris’ positions. And in these criticisms, Harris doesn’t pull his punches. Nor did Myers when responding to Harris’ condemnation. And it’s in these sorts of back-and-forths that I’m sadly reminded of the Joker’s line from the film, The Dark Knight about what happens when an unstoppable force collides with an unmoveable object. I suspect neither side of this rivalry will back down any time soon.

And that brings me to the thesis of this piece here. Shouldn’t we expect more from so-called skeptics and rationalists?

It’s unfortunate that supposedly rational atheists are utterly incapable of engaging in civil discourse when faced with disagreements and instead ultimately always choose the least rational approach of treating all disagreements as giant pissing contests where it’s far more preferable to vilify the other and score points before one’s fans than be seen trying to actually understand where the other party is coming from and find common ground. Rationalists should welcome civil disagreement, not attack it as if it were the enemy.

And skeptical audiences should cheer the moments when our peers admit being proven wrong, not the moments of grand-standing and bloviation. Until that starts to happen, this movement is at best failing in its mission and at worst a fraud.

George Sanayana once said that fanatics are those who redouble their efforts while forgetting their aims. Have the most prominent figures in our movement done just that? And if they have, where do we go from here?