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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.

Discuss!

THURSDAY, AUGUST 09, 2012

The Community of Reason, a self-assessment and a manifesto


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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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Replies to This Discussion

What he is pointing out is that no matter how we perceive ourselves we are still human with human frailties and biases.  

Finally had a chance to read the blog. I did like the Objectivism entry:

* Objectivism is (the most rational) philosophy according to a significant sub-set of skeptics and atheists (not humanists, since humanism is at complete odds with Randianism). Seriously, people? Notice that I am not talking about libertarianism here, which is a position that I find philosophically problematic and ethically worrisome, but is at least debatable. Ayn Rand’s notions, on the other hand, are an incoherent jumble of contradictions and plagiarism from actual thinkers. Get over it.

What makes for the enjoyment is the "get over it." Come on now, is that as civil and nice as you can be? I agree with his statements on the vitriol being slung at everyone by many bloggers; yet they wouldn't have anyone reading them if that was problematic for the readers. Some are attracted by the rants, it's what they've been holding back saying.

Bookmarked finally.

Yes, I loved the bit about Ayn Rand and "get over it", LOLZ! 

I think there are people who join "movements" so they have someone to fight with. Some atheists clearly do that too, they are just factious groups or people who simply like to be divisive; it's a sign of immaturity in my opinion, they just like the fighting, not the cause. And I lot of people love to join these internet fights. I get easily bored by the vitriol, and wish people took the high road and ignored or blocked the stupid comments. I think that blogs or networking sites need to be moderated for this reason. 

I agree with the moderation points, don't necessarily agree with the civility at all times thought. Only for one reason, people react to aggression differently. Some are put off by the chest beating, some look at it as strength. Those looking at it as strength, as a guess, probably sit in the right's camp. To change their minds you would have to talk to them in a manner they understand, or at least might respect.

I'm not sure anyone can claim an all encompassing correct mode of discussion. Civil intelligent discussions can also be viewed as cold, or lacking emotion, and can be as much of a turnoff as a more aggressive tone; depending on the reader.

Yes, there is no "one approach fits all."  The danger is letting civility be overrun by aggression because it shuts off more people than it lets in. But I do agree that there is a time and a place to take the gloves off and use sarcasm to ridicule ideas, when ideas are so dumb that polite discourse no longer helps. 

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