I have been an active member of the self-described Community of Reason since about 1997. By that term I mean the broad set encompassing skeptics, atheists and secular humanists (and all the assorted synonyms thereof: freethinkers, rationalists, and even brights). The date is easily explainable: in 1996 I had moved from Brown University — where I did my postdoc — to the University of Tennessee, were I was appointed assistant professor in the Departments of Botany and of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. A few months after my arrival in Knoxville, the extremely (to this day) unenlightened TN legislature began discussing a billthat would have allowed school boards to fire teachers who presented evolution as a fact rather than a theory (it is both, of course). The bill died in committee (though a more recentone did pass, go Volunteers!), in part because of the efforts of colleagues and graduate students throughout the State.
It was because of my local visibility during that episode (and then shortly thereafter because I began organizing Darwin Day events on campus, which are still going strong) that I was approached by some members of a group called “The Fellowship of Reason” (now theRationalists of East Tennessee). They told me that we had much in common, and wouldn’t I want to join them in their efforts? My first thought was that an outlet with that name must be run by cuckoos, and at any rate I had a lab to take care of and tenure to think about, thank you very much.
But in fact it took only a couple more polite attempts on their part before I joined the group and, by proxy, the broader Community of Reason (henceforth, CoR). It has been one of the most meaningful and exhilarating decisions of my life, some consequences of which include four books on science and philosophy for the general public (counting the one coming out in September); columns and articles for Skeptic, Skeptical Inquirer, Free Inquiry, The Philosopher’s Magazine and Philosophy Now, among others; and of course this blog and its associated podcast. I made many friends within the CoR, beginning with Carl Ledendecker of Knoxville, TN (the guy who originally approached me about the Fellowship of Reason), and of course including the editor and writers of Rationally Speaking.
But... yes, there is a “but,” and it’s beginning to loom large in my consciousness, so I need to get it out there and discuss it (this blog is just as much a way for me to clarify my own ideas through writing and the feedback of others as it is a channel for outreach as an academic interested in making some difference in the world). The problem is that my experience (anecdotal, yes, but ample and varied) has been that there is quite a bit of un-reason within the CoR. This takes the form of more or less widespread belief in scientific, philosophical and political notions that don’t make much more sense than the sort of notions we — within the community — are happy to harshly criticize in others. Yes, you might object, but that’s just part of being human, pretty much every group of human beings holds to unreasonable beliefs, why are you so surprised or worried? Well, because we think of ourselves — proudly! — as a community of reason, where reason and evidence are held as the ultimate arbiters of any meaningful dispute. To find out that too often this turns out not to be the case is a little bit like discovering that moral philosophers aren’t more ethical than the average guy (true).