A couple of days ago, on 1 April 2011, I posted a brief blogpost setting out why "skepticism" was just another cult.
It was, of course, an April Fools' joke.
However, the joke consisted of two parts, the second more subtle and (for me) entertaining than the first.
There was the post itself. It was intended to have a superficial plausibility. However, anyone aware that I am founder and convener of Westminster Skeptics and on the Editorial Board of The Skeptic (as well as a speaker at numerous Skeptics in the Pub groups), should have at least twigged that I was not being entirely serious.
Nonetheless, the post was taken seriously by quite a few people, especially on Twitter. Scalps included - wonderfully - David Aaronovitch (author of the excellent Voodoo Histories), who assured me that his experience of Skeptics in the Pub groups was quite contrary to any cultist behaviour.
Others taken in by the post were various earnest sorts, many of whom not entirely supportive of skeptics and our ways.
(By "skeptic" in its American spelling, I mean those affiliated with Skeptics in the Pub, The Skeptic magazine, and such things, and those self-defined as "skeptics" who promote an evidence-based and critical approach to questions where such an approach can be applied. Apart from the self-conscious use of the term, there should not really be any practical difference between skepticism and scepticism.)
The second part of the joke was a little more subtle.
This blog has pre-moderation for its comments. However, and somewhat naughtily, I did not set out my "comments moderation" policy at the foot of the post (as I usually do). Then, for the rest of the morning, I only published comments which did not spoil the April Foolery.
Some of the comments which were published that morning were deliciously sombre and worthy; others were clearly clever and ironic. But quite soon, the apparent fact that none of the commenters were "getting the joke" was itself becoming an issue on Twitter.
But those guffawing at the lack of intelligence and awareness of the commenters were as much April Fools as the tricked commenters themselves.
For every one who fell for the original post, there were at least five who fell for the seeming lack of intelligent and aware commenters. Somehow, people wanted to believe that people could be that stupid
By noon, only about a dozen commenters were taken in. In the meantime, I had received - but not published - over a hundred comments by those who had seen the joke. (All those comments are now published, and so it is now difficult to distinguish the fooled comments.)
So not a bad result for a brief April Fools' post.
However, the question lingers: is skepticism a "cult"?
Have I unwittingly spoken truth in jest?
Some people are even maintaining that my subjective intention is irrelevant: like a Shakespearean Fool on April Fools' Day, I have said many a true word...
Of course, one cannot logically refute such an allegation by a simple denial.
But I can set out why I do not believe it to be true, and I will contend that the very fact of my hoax blogpost evidences that skeptics are perfectly capable of the self-criticism and self-awareness which is inconsistent with "cultist" thinking.
Anyone who organises or attends skeptic events will know the force of what I have said elsewhere, that "when cats complain, they complain of herding Skeptics".
The only thing which most "skeptics" seem to have in common is an instant readiness to tell someone else that they may well be wrong. And there is no immunity from this even if one professes oneself a skeptic.
The seeming adulation that is granted to the likes of Ben Goldacre or Richard Dawkins is not universal amongst self-defined skeptics. There is instead a self-correcting mechanism to stridency and fervour, and my blogpost is a small part of that. By suggesting that skepticism was a cult, I am - perhaps paradoxically - showing a very un-cultish approach to facets of the skeptic phenomenon. But I am certainly not the only one, for example hear Frank Swain speak about the problems of skepticism - to a pub full of skeptics.
One must admit that there are certain ultimate positions, such as homeopathy or creationism, which are unlikely to be held by anyone adopting an evidence-based and critical approach. One must concede that such ideas are derided.
But even in those cases, the emphasis in skepticism is to ask for the evidence and to scrutinise the reasoning. Any homeopath or creationist who wants to offer evidence and reasoning will be heard.
And skepticism is also not the same as atheism, though there is an overlap in supporters. There are certain metaphysical questions which do not admit easily (or at all) to a rational analysis. All one can say is that there is no good evidence for, or no way way of proving, such propositions.
One can conceive of a skeptic Christian or supporter of a form of complementary health: the important thing is how those views are treated and tested, not that those views are held at all. I do not believe in gods or ghosts or fairies at the bottom of my garden, but I will admit the possibility of their existence, and I can tell you what I will need to see as evidence. That is the essence of skepticism.
There is no sense in saying skeptics are a cult. There isn't even a skeptic movement, in any meaningful way. There are various skeptic groups, websites, and publications; and there are those who go along (or not) and self-define as "skeptics". But there are not any "leaders" or "congregations" or even "holy texts". There are some who bother to organise events, some who put their views out for challenge, and there are certain texts one recommends to those who may share an interest. But all that is true of many groupings generally: it does not add up to a cult.
As I said, trying to get any coherence with constantly-questioning people is a struggle, and I am amazed there is any organisation at all.
One could almost say that skepticism could actually do with becoming more cultish; but I will perhaps save that suggestion to next year...
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