On Saturday’s episode of The Non-Prophets, PZ Myers and Matt Dillahunty (and any other hosts who managed to get a word in edgewise between those two) had a discussion about Bill Maher and his frankly kooky views on medicine.
They talked about the growing atheist community, the growing skeptical community, and how we’re likely to see more people like Maher: he’s an atheist (even though he’ll tell you otherwise), but he’s obviously no skeptic, at least not with regards to medicine.
Now, one notable trait of both the atheist and skeptic communities is that we love to argue. This a feature, not a bug. And both PZ and Matt agreed that there’s no reason, if someone on “our side” says something stupid, not to call them on it.
But it seems to me that there might be a problem here, one that will become more apparent as both constituencies grow: people join atheist and skeptic groups for different reasons.
Skeptics get together because they see a lot of woo and superstitous nonsense around them, and want to figure out how to fight it. They want to figure out objective truth, and teach others to do the same.
On the other hand, people join atheist groups to get away from religion, especially in highly-religious areas like the south. That is, it’s often primarily a matter of socializing with like-minded people.
And when you tell people that they’re wrong, they tend to react negatively, unless they’re that special breed who like having it pointed out to them when they’re wrong.
Currently this isn’t a big problem, because there’s a lot of overlap between the atheist and skeptical communities. Skeptical groups get together for beer, and atheist groups have lectures. But I suspect that this will change.
If all goes well then religion will fade with time. More people will be brought up atheist by default. That is, they’ll have no particular reason to consider the existence of any gods, either because their parents talk about them, or because they’re trying to get to the bottom of this thing that so many people seem to believe. At that point, the main impetus for atheist groups will be gone: people will get together to knock back a few beers, or read books, or watch the game, and not to get away from religion. But woo and superstition will remain, and so will skeptical groups.
But at some point between now and then, there will be a time when there’s still a niche for groups for getting away from religion, but also when a significant number of people in those groups believe in weird things like astrology or homeopathy or whichever flavor of idiocy is in fashion at the time. And then the atheist groups will have to decide whether they want to be a social organization that tolerates woo, or a skeptical organization where you risk having your deeply-held opinions ridiculed.