Look how far we’ve come

This is a set of three posts I wrote back in September and October of 2008, for another blog I used to write at (which no longer exists). As 2013 draws to a close, I thought it would be neat to look back on where (in my view, at least) the atheist movement stood five years ago compared to where it stands today. I’m going to let these paragraphs speak for themselves, for the most part, but I do want to remind you of the Reason Rally, Sunday Assembly, Women in Secularism, and African Americans for Humanism. As bleak as things may look from time to time, frankly, I’m really proud of how far we’ve come.

Anyway, let’s hop in our time machine and go back to late 2008…

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I said in an earlier post that I planned to do a bit of brainstorming on what we as skeptical and/or atheist bloggers ought to be doing with our time, if we’re not rehashing the old skeptical and/or atheist classics. (Forgive me if I conflate atheism and skepticism a bit in this post. In my experience around the blogosphere, the two respective groups of bloggers overlap quite a lot, and their overall objectives are very closely aligned, so for all intents and purposes of this entry they are the same.) Here is what I’ve thought of since then.

My primary inclination is to suggest that we include a larger range of issues within the skeptical canon. Instead of just writing about alternative medicine or alien sightings, we can find some other aspects of life to be skeptical about as well. We can question claims made in advertising, or critique the methods in academic papers. We can point out when politicians promote blatantly false ideas. Anything with facts is worthy of a skeptic’s attention. If you’re writing a skeptical blog, rather than just being a skeptic while blogging, I understand an inclination to stick with the standard sorts of debunking. As for the rest of us, though, there are topics we can shift towards so as not to be quite as redundant.

Straight-up activism is certainly a good idea as well. If we assume, as seems to be the case, that most people reading skeptical or atheist blogs are themselves skeptics or atheists, this could be a very effective way of organizing. Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist has recently tapped into this on behalf of Kay Hagan, a candidate for North Carolina state senate who got attacked for planning to meet with an atheist organization. There are lots of ways that a skeptical or atheist viewpoint is relevant to politics, and if you want to create real change in society in the direction of that viewpoint, you should work to elect people you believe represent it and vote out of office those who are counterproductive. In addition to just blogging about John McCain’s comments about a link between vaccines and autism, we should be protesting about it at his speaking events. (Maybe use your blog to assemble protesters.) In addition to just writing about false advertising claims made for alternative medicine, call on your local district attorney to prosecute chiropractors and crystal healers and homeopaths in your area when they make unsubstantiated claims of healing. (Maybe use your blog to distribute a template letter to send to the DA’s office.) There’s plenty of work to be done.

Finally, there’s the question of unity as a group. There’s a lot of talk about the “atheist community” or the “skeptical movement” and what its goals are. It’s difficult to have a movement or a coherent set of group goals without some infrastructure. As much as I’m wary of the election of an atheist pope or some such central authority of a group based on thinking for yourself, I think these organizations have a place at least insofar as lobbying and publicity are concerned. Rather than have people seeing one dude here or there interviewed on the local news, or have a legislator receiving an occasional letter from individual constituents, we want to present a stronger message. A spokesperson on TV saying he represents so many millions of people looks a lot more compelling. Many groups of this sort already exist, such as Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the National Center for Science Education, the Skeptics Society, and the Secular Coalition for America. (There are of course many others; this is just a sampling.) Joining and/or donating to these groups will make them more effective at publicizing skeptical and secular perspectives.

That’s all I’ve got for now, but not forever. I have a few other ideas still percolating, and I’ll post again about them soon. In the meantime, let me know what you think about these ideas — if they’re good, crazy, infeasible, irrelevant… whatever.

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Following up on my first list of ideas, here are some more thoughts I have on what skeptics, atheists, and skeptical and/or atheist bloggers can do in order to add something new and repeat ourselves less. If you’re here via the Skeptics’ Circle #95 link to the earlier list, welcome! (And if you haven’t read the current Skeptics’ Circle, you’re welcome here too, but you should go check it out!)

The issue of community seems like the elephant in the room, which is why I want to focus on it now. We talk about the skeptical movement or the atheist community — but what are those? I feel like a shared respect for critical thinking is not enough to fuel a social organization. For a group focused on faith, it makes a bit more sense to have, well, a congregation. There are holy words to be studied and dogmas to be memorized; there are inner doubts requiring the support (or pressure, depending on how you see it) of a peer group to assuage them. I have a hard time imagining an atheist group meeting — what do you talk about there?

However absurd, I think we ought to try to foster these communities, since one real benefit to being part of a religious group is the fellowship and friendship it offers. It’s good for that to be available without having to profess beliefs in the literal truth of fairy tales and magic. So, we need to have something for those groups to do. That’s one topic for blogging I’d like to see more about. If you’re part of one of these organizations, what do you do? Even if you’re not, what do you think would make a good meeting? Do you play Trivial Pursuit? Watch movies like The Core and pick them apart MST3K-style? Do you organize a lecture series? (Who do you invite?) Tell us what works and what doesn’t, or what would get you to show up versus what would get you to unsubscribe from the mailing list. On a related note, I also like how the Skepchick blog makes use of the opportunity to advertise meet-ups.

We also need to have some open dialogue about how to make these groups what we collectively want them to be. I’ve already seen a bit of writing about how to make skeptical groups more inclusive, and how (or, whether) to reach out to demographics that are underrepresented without reason in most skeptics’ organizations, but I think more people should get involved in the discussion. A few good examples, in my opinion, can be found in this pro and this contra opinion about recruiting women into skeptical organizations, as well as this post on bringing people in the arts, humanities, and social sciences into the fold. I’m sure that topics that are not specifically related to diversity, but are more generally about recruiting and publicity successes and failures, would be well-received too.

I’m planning on writing one more installment in this series, on how to be most effective at reaching out to non-skeptics and getting our message across. In the meantime, please let me know in the comments if you think I make sense or if you think I’m a lunatic.

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In editions #1 and #2 of this series, I explained some ways I think atheist and/or skeptical bloggers can make and keep themselves relevant and useful. This is my last intended installment (at least, in such a formal sense), and I intend to use it to talk about getting the word out and educating the public. After all, the one good thing about having so many near-identical blog posts about Bigfoot, or about intelligent design, or whatever else, is that when someone searches the internet for “Bigfoot” or “intelligent design” their likelihood of finding a skeptical site instead of a credulous one is increased. Marginally, of course. Messing with Google rankings is a slow and dismal process. The goal, though, is an important one: making sure the public has an opportunity (and a meaningful probability) of hearing a skeptical perspective.

Perhaps the way to get better search traffic is something more along the lines of linking the word Expelled to the site Expelled Exposed when writing about Ben Stein’s movie. True, the traffic goes somewhere else, not our blogs (one reason I suspect it might be tempting for every blogger to write their own posts on these topics) — but if a good explanation has already been written with expertise, we should make a practice of linking to it when relevant, rather than wasting time and energy reinventing the wheel. I could imagine a pretty slick sidebar add-on or widget with a headline like, “There’s no evidence for:” and a (scrolling?) list of links beneath it, including whichever things you wanted to debunk.

With all that time we save linking to preexisting well-written skeptical essays, I’m sure we can come up with lots of other worthwhile discussion about how to more effectively express the value of a scientific mindset and a respect for evidence. Remember, lots of people aren’t on the internet as often as we are, and most people aren’t changing their mind because they read one snarky blog. They’re forming their opinions about science and evidence out there in the real world, so we should talk about and work towards taking our advocacy there.

I read several interesting posts a couple weeks ago by Steven Novella about how to improve science education, science textbooks, and support for science teachers. It’s clear just from the comments there that not everyone agrees with his opinions (although, in very large part, I do) but at any rate, it’s surely a conversation we ought to be having. Skeptics can make a great contribution to science education, in some cases by being great teachers or involved parents, but also just as regular, not-directly-related citizens, going to speak at a school board meeting or writing letters to local lawmakers. The education doesn’t just happen in school buildings, of course. Maybe we should be going door-to-door. (I know I linked a comic there, but in all seriousness, I love that idea.) Maybe we should be passing out flyers on the sidewalk in front of the Creation Museum or the Discovery Institute. These educational toys are a great example of thinking outside of the box about this issue. Both the strategies we should to get our message out and the content of our message are worth some discussion on our blogs.

As usual, I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts about this in the comments. More importantly though, I hope I’ve given you some food for thought if you have a blog of your own.

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