…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).
What am I talking about? Here is a (surely incomplete, and I’m even more sure, somewhat debatable) list of bizarre beliefs I have encountered among fellow skeptics-atheists-humanists. No, I will not name names because this is about ideas, not individuals (but heck, you know who you are…). The list, incidentally, features topics in no particular order, and it would surely be nice if a sociology student were to conduct a systematic research on this for a thesis…
- Assorted nonsense about alternative medicine. Despite excellent efforts devoted to debunking “alternative” medicine claims, some atheists especially actually endorse all sorts of nonsense about “non-Western” remedies.
- Religion is not a proper area of application for skepticism, according to some skeptics. Why on earth not? It may not be a suitable area of inquiry for science, but skepticism — in the sense of generally applied critical thinking — draws on more than just science (think philosophy, logic and math).
- Philosophy is useless armchair speculation. So is math. And logic. And all theoretical science.
- The notion of anthropogenic global warming has not been scientifically established, something loudly proclaimed by people who — to the best of my knowledge — are not atmospheric physicists and do not understand anything about the complex data analysis and modeling that goes into climate change research.
- Science can answer moral questions. No, science can inform moral questions, but moral reasoning is a form of philosophical reasoning. The is/ought divide may not be absolute, but it is there nonetheless.
- Science has established that there is no consciousness or free will (and therefore no moral responsibility). No, it hasn’t, as serious cognitive scientists freely admit. Notice that I am not talking about the possibility that science has something meaningful to say about these topics (it certainly does when it comes to consciousness, and to some extent concerning free will, if we re-conceptualize the latter as the human ability of making decisions). I am talking about the dismissal-cum-certainty attitude that so many in the CoR have so quickly arrived at, despite what can be charitably characterized as a superficial understanding of the issue.
- Determinism has been established by science. Again, wrong, not only because there are interpretations of quantum mechanics that are not deterministic, but because a good argument can be made that that is simply not the sort of thing science can establish (nor can anything else, which is why I think the most reasonable position in this case is simple agnosticism).
- Evolutionary psychology is on epistemic par with evolutionary biology. No, it isn’t, for very good and well understood reasons pertinent to the specific practical limitations of trying to figure out human selective histories. Of course, evopsych is not a pseudoscience, and it’s probably best understood as a science-informed narrative about the human condition.
- The Singularity is near! I have just devoted a full column for Skeptical Inquirer (in press) to why I think this amounts to little more than a cult for nerds. But it is a disturbingly popular cult within the CoR.
- 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.
- Feminism is a form of unnecessary and oppressive liberal political correctness. Oh please, and yet, rather shockingly, I have heard this “opinion” from several fellow CoRers.
- Feminists are right by default and every attempt to question them is the result of oppressive male chauvinism (even when done by women). These are people who clearly are not up on readings in actual feminism (did you know that there have been several waves of it? With which do you best connect?).
- All religious education is child abuse, period. This is a really bizarre notion, I think. Not only does it turn 90% of the planet into child abusers, but people “thinking” (I use the term loosely) along these lines don’t seem to have considered exactly what religious education might mean (there is a huge variety of it), or — for that matter — why a secular education wouldn’t be open to the same charge, if done as indoctrination (and if it isn’t, are you really positive that there are no religious families out there who teach doubt? You’d be surprised!).
- Insulting people, including our close allies, is an acceptable and widespread form of communication with others. Notice that I am not talking about the occasional insult hurled at your opponent, since there everyone is likely a culprit from time to time (including yours truly). I am talking about engaging in apologia on behalf of a culture of insults.
The point of this list, I hasten to say, is not that the opinions that I have expressed on these topics are necessarily correct, but rather that a good number of people in the CoR, including several leaders of the movement(s), either hold to clearly unreasonable opinions on said topics, or cannot even engage in a discussion about the opinions they do hold, dismissing any dissenting voice as crazy or irrelevant.