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We are a worldwide social network of freethinkers, atheists, agnostics and secular humanists.

Massimo Pigliucci, from the Rationally Speaking blog, has a very good article highlighting some of the problems within the large "community of reason", that is atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, skeptics, etc., all of us who supposedly value reason and evidence above all else when it comes to settling disputes. He first enumerates several examples of "unreason" within our self-described community of reason, in no particular order or with no particular theme, for example, the persistence of some pseudoscientific beliefs in the community, such as alternative medicine or the Singularity; the existence of climate change "skeptics" that are in reality denialists; the thought that all philosophy is purely useless speculation, or that Ayn Rand's philosophy is the only "rational" one; or that feminism is a form of oppressive, politically correct belief; that science can answer moral questions (as opposed to "inform" moral questions), etc. Of course, not all members of our community spouse all, or any of these beliefs. But Massimo says that even though his experience is anecdotal (there is no formal survey of the prevalence of these beliefs within the atheist/skeptic community), it is pretty vast and he has seen countless instances of these misguided beliefs. He also lists the reasons for the persistence of these beliefs: basically 1) anti-intellectualism (which includes "scientism", or the belief that only science is a valid way to attain knowledge), 2) the tendency to believe we are smarter than other people; 3) some leaders of the community promoting these views. 

He also says that all too often we accept and even exalt insulting others as a valid way of communication, and gives advice as to how to avoid falling into that trap (for example, by moderating comments, which is something we do here at AU).

He goes on to name names of who he thinks are good examples of leadership and good communication within our "community of reason": I agree with many on his list, but not all. He does not name names for the ones he thinks are bad examples, but given the notable ones that are missing from that list, I think it's pretty clear who he means.

I recommend you guys read his whole blog post, which begins with an introduction describing how he got involved with the community), I'm sure there is a lot you'll agree with, but probably something you'll disagree with, or that will even irritate you.



The Community of Reason, a self-assessment and a manifesto
by Massimo Pigliucci

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).
Read the rest (as well as reader's comments, here. Incidentally, I'm going to a Dinner and Philosophy event today to discuss whether death is really bad for us, which is headed by Massimo. I'll tell him I liked his article in person.

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There is a guest blogger on Jerry Coyne's "Why evolution is True" who discusses Massimo's post. Good read.

Pigliucci reviews our community of reason

by Grania Spingies

Massimo Pigliucci has a new article up at Rationally Thinking called “The Community of Reason, a self-assessment and a manifesto.”

He lays out his criticisms of the loosely associated group of atheists, skeptics and secularists and tenders his recommendations for how things can be improved. I agree with quite a lot of what he has to say.

The atheist /skeptic online community is not always a bastion of the very best of rationality and reason, and is often rife with muddled thinking, odd ideas and sometimes plain anti-science beliefs. One is mistaken in assuming that the labels “atheist” or “skeptic” denote a worldview that means the same for everyone. An atheist can, for example, be an climate-change denialist, or someone can claim they are a skeptic but then profess skepticism about the efficacy of vaccines, e.g.:

It is also true, as Pigliucci notes, that lot of people in this community use personal abuse instead of critical analysis when confronted by people with whom they disagree. But it is worth noting that in recent weeks a numberof prominent bloggers and atheists have drawn attention to the fact that this tactic is harmful and damaging, and that several prominent websites are doing something to address this by implementing moderation policies and advisories on how to engage in civil debate.

Pigliucci gives a list of rationalists that he thinks are good role models:

Sean Carroll, Dan Dennett, Neil deGrasse Tyson, D.J. Groethe, Tim Farley, Ken Frazier (and pretty much anyone else who writes for Skeptical Inquirer, really), Ron Lindsey, Hemant Metha, Chris Mooney, Phil Plaitt, Steve Novella (as well as the other Novellas), John Rennie, Genie Scott, Michael Shermer, Carl Zimmer, etc.

I can’t disagree that these are, in general, outstanding people who have contributed substantially to the promotion of scientific literacy and rationality. But having just called out skeptics who feel that religion is not a proper area of application for skepticism, Pigliucci nevertheless included a number of accommodationists on his list. They do valuable work to be sure, but there are certainly others less charitable toward faith who deserve mention as well.

Pigliucci also lists “bizarre beliefs” that he takes issue with but have sometimes been promulgated by self-styled atheists and skeptics. These run the gamut from the wacky and indefensible alt-med beliefs to the behavior of “scientism”: those who, argues Pigliucci, rigidly and mistakenly apply science to everything.

While I don’t disagree with some of these criticisms (alternative medicine is wishful thinking based on snake-oil salesman pitches), I’m not convinced that others are really a big problem for the atheist/skeptical community at large. Sure, some people hold bizarre ideas and appear impervious to reason. That doesn’t hurt the community. It simply shows that we have a long way to go, and also suggests many potential debates and teaching opportunities for scientists and critical thinkers.

Read the rest here

Actually, I disgree with this recommendation from Massimo:

ii) Keep in mind the distinction between humor and sarcasm, leave the latter to comedians, who are supposed to be offending people. (In other words, we are not all Jon Stewarts or Tim Minchins.)


I love sarcasm. Maybe I shouldn't. Sometimes I think I use it too much. But I think sarcasm can induce people to think, even if initially it may rub people the wrong way. 

sarcasm is the lowest form of wit.

Maybe I just don't use the term "sarcasm" correctly because I think it is equivalent to "witticism." I'll have to go look it up in a few dictionaries.

Sarcasm is "a sharp, bitter, or cutting expression or remark; a bitter jibe or taunt",[1] usually conveyed through irony or understatement.

The word comes from the Greek σαρκασμός (sarkasmos) which is taken from the word σαρκάζειν meaning "to tear flesh, gnash the teeth, speak bitterly".

I pick cutting remark to tear flesh =)

Ouch. Though I agree with the "cutting remark" part, that's how I understand it. Though in my book, the remark should be cutting but witty and not crude or cruel for the sake of cruelty. 

Sarcasm would refer to the form, while wit, irony, cruelty would qualify the content?

Good point.

Sarcasm, life needs it.

We must have invented sarcasm when we invented the knife.

I think we may have too!

I find this rather a bit of an emotional argument (I tried to read the rest but couldn't manage it).


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