Rebecca Watson Gets It. Color Me Unsurprised.


In the video here Rebecca Watson from Skepchick, the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, Curiosity Aroused, etc,  addresses the question “What does atheism have to offer?”  Her answer?  It’s a bullshit question.  And she’s absolutely right.


The kind of question about which she’s talking here is of a type that is often posed by people from a number of sides of various issues, and it’s always bullshit.  The presumption in such a question is that there must be some sort of benefit to conferred upon the holder of the position at issue, else there is no good reason to hold it.  Worse, in that case, there is reason to hold the opposing view.  But this concern from some practical benefit has nothing to do with the truth of the issue.  Nothing.

In a clear way this hits at the practical vs. the principled concern that I’ve noted here a few times, including a post dedicated just to that issue.  If you’re in an argument with someone about the truth of something, it is completely improper to ask what the benefit of holding that belief is.  What does it matter?  How does that affect the truth of it?  It doesn’t.  In terms of the way things are, your happiness is completely irrelevant.  You might be utterly miserable believing some particular truth.  It might cause an existential crisis of such a degree that your life is irrevocably ruined, but that would not change stop the truth from being the truth. 

This is not to say there is no room for discussions about pragmatic concerns.  There’s plenty of room for that.  But we need to be clear when we talk about such things that we are not talking about whether or not that makes the thing discussed is true.  They are just different questions.

Let me be clear about what I’m saying and what I’m not saying.  I’m not talking about atheism here, even though that’s the question that provoked the response Watson gives in the video.  Whether or not atheism is a justified view is completely beside the point I’m making here.  I’m saying that in a debate about a principled issue, the practical concerns of the consequences of the issue are just not relevant to the discussion.  So, in terms of the question of atheism, it just does not matter if not believing in a god makes you unhappy when the concern is which position is epistemically justified.  The same goes for theism.  If you’re a theist debating with an atheist about whether or not one is justified in believing in a god, and if that person says something like “But what good does it do to believe in you god?” tell them that they are asking a bullshit question and skirting the real issue.  It’s a red herring, and it should be pointed out as such.

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Does Calling for the Pope’s Arrest Betray the Skeptic Movement?

The day before yesterday, the UK’s Times Online put up an article with the headline “Richard Dawkins: I will arrest Pope Benedict XVI.”  This set off a flurry of posts, especially on Twitter, by skeptics on the issue.  Some thought this was great; others thought it was terrible.  As it turns out, the headline was, unsurprisingly, a misstatement of Dawkins’ actual involvement in a plan by a group of human rights lawyers who are hoping to have the Pope arrested because of his involvement in a systematic cover-up of the rape of children by Catholic priests.  Dawkins clarified this here.

What is so odd about this story is that many members of the skeptic community, some prominent, worked to show their discomfort at being associated with this activity.  The general feeling seems to be that it would be detrimental to the skeptic “movement” if skeptics endorsed the attempt to have the Pope arrested as it would smack of something like religious intolerance.  There is a strong wing of the skeptic community that wants to put as much distance between themselves and the “new atheists” as possible for fear that being seen as atheists will damage attempts at social outreach.  Of course, not everyone feels this way.  Rebecca Watson makes her stance on the issue very clear here when she says,

So is this effort going to somehow hurt the “skeptical movement?” You may notice that I use the quotation marks here, because I can’t bring myself to seriously consider a movement supposedly based on the defense of rationality that would turn its back on children who are raped by men they trust because those men claim a supernatural being gives them power, wisdom, and the keys to eternal life with a direct line to God’s ear. If we discovered that a world-famous psychic was leading a secretive cabal that protected child rapists, would we be silent? If a world-famous faith healer was using his heavenly persona to molest kids, would we say that it’s not our fight? You might. I couldn’t.

I’m gonna have to go with Rebecca on this one.  I absolutely think skeptics should take a stand on this position, and it should be that the Catholic Church should be held accountable for their systematic cover-up and protection from prosecution of priest who raped children.

There are two questions at issue, here.  First, is it appropriate for skeptics as a group to get involved in human rights issues?  Second, it is the place of skeptics as skeptics to address the issue of the Church’s active participation in the cover-up of child rape by Church priests?

The answer to the first question seems obvious:  of course.  Lots of organizations involve themselves in efforts to protect and improve their community, even when such activity falls outside any sort of “mandate” about the express function of those organizations.  The example I’ve been using since yesterday is that of cheerleaders.  The express function of cheerleaders is to cheer, engender school spirit, and support their school and their school’s sports teams.  Yet, cheerleaders often do much more than this.  They are often involved in going to retirement homes to visit and bring food to the elderly.  They often have drives to collect food items to deliver to shelters for the poor and homeless.  They do all sorts of things that go beyond the specific function for which their group was created.  That said, how odd would we find it if someone inside or outside such an organization stood up to criticize that group for these actions?  It would be nothing less than shocking if some cheerleader told her peers it was inappropriate to collect toys for children at Christmas merely because it was beyond the mandate of cheering.  Yet, this is exactly the kind of argument that is being presented by those skeptics who suggest that skeptics as a group should refrain from participating in or voicing support for any action to seek justice for some large, though unknown, number of children who have been raped by those whose job it was to protect and guide them.

I cannot help but notice some level of something like hypocrisy on this issue.  No one complained when SHARE (Skeptics and Humanists Aid and Relief Effort) collected money for aid in Haiti, for Katrina victims, or for those who suffered because of the Asian tsunami.  Certainly, organizations such as the Center for Inquiry, Skeptical Inquirer magazine, and Skeptic magazine, among others, are examples of skeptics as a group collectively acting in a way that is well beyond the purview of their charters.  Even so, no one stood up and exclaimed, “No, we should not give money to Haiti.  We are skeptics, not humanitarians.”  Indeed, had anyone done so, I expect they would have been roundly criticized for expressing such a bizarre opinion.  It is simply the case that groups often involve themselves in community activism, regardless of their primary reason for existence.  As such, it is just a very strange sort of argument to suggest that skeptics as a group are prohibited from supporting an action seeking justice on behalf of children who have been raped only to have the rapists protected by their parent organization, an organization who exists for the purpose of doing things like protecting children.  It looks to me that anyone complaining about that is worried about something else.

As to question two from above, I also think it is appropriate for skeptics to address this issue as skeptics.  This is for a couple of reasons.  First, skeptics are people engaged in the practice and promotion of critical thinking.  Critical thinking is most needed when the details of some particular issue are messy enough that it is hard for people to tease apart the big problems from their own prejudices about the issue.  It would be difficult to imagine an issue that is more entangled than a scandal involving the organization most responsible, in the eyes of many, for the promotion of their god’s will.  Even worse, the issue at hand, charging the Pope, involves accusing someone who is supposed to have a direct line to God Himself with actively harming those who are arguably the least among us, those most in need of protection, when that same god said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).  It is simply difficult for many to reconcile that the person they believe speaks with the Voice of God can be the same person accused of the actions spelled out so clearly in article after article documenting the Pope’s callous and awful actions.  As such, this is a time when those who have worked to sharpen their critical thinking skills are most needed to pry apart the actions of God’s mouthpiece on Earth from the actions of the man.

But I would be remiss if I did not point out the obvious, and is the elephant in the room, that the reason the Church and the Pope feel so emboldened is that they believe they have some supernatural authority that makes them exempt from the laws of man.  There is just no getting around that.  Further, the reason that so many people who are not themselves in the administration of the Church have been willing to give the Church a pass on raping kids and covering up that rape is because they too think the Church has some supernatural privilege that excludes them from dealing with “petty” matters like human laws.  That makes the supernatural character of this issue a key component.  What is it that skeptics do?  It looks to me like examining claims about the supernatural is a big component of their activity.  Moreover, they often do so expressly because of ethical concerns resulting from supernatural claims.  Taking those things together, examination of supernatural claims because of concerns about the ethical implications of said claims, it looks to me that there is good reason for skeptics in their roles as skeptics to look at this issue.

Skepticism is compelling because we realize that bad arguments and blind appeals to authority are dangerous.  Not only is it acceptable for skeptics to criticize the Church’s heinous cover-up, it’s the right thing to do.  That’s one of the things that makes skeptical inquiry valuable.

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