Strand 1 Statement 2 by Thaumas Themelios

This is a response by Thaumas Themelios to the Strand 1 Opening Statement by Stephanie Zvan. All of the Opening Statement by Stephanie Zvan is quoted within this response.

By Thaumas Themelios (with input from a working group including these individual volunteers: Jack Smith, Renee Hendricks, Skep Sheik, and Aneris F. Nord but not necessarily reflecting the entirety of each of their views)

SZ (1): The key to working together under these circumstances is to understand that there are myriad solutions to each of these problems. None of them are complete in themselves, but together, they provide a strong force for change. Additionally, pursuing multiple strategies at once allows us to take advantage of the diverse talents and motivations of those who find value in promoting all or any of these ideals.

(1) I agree with this with reservations. The ‘many approaches’ approach supports and encourages multiple ways of pursuing activism, and I’ve argued this also. However, when you state that none are complete, but together they are strong, this omits mentioning a critically important caveat: Some ways can also be misguided and actually harmful. History is littered with tragic examples of good intentions resulting in more harm than good. And it’s not always clear at the outset which approaches are the misguided ones and which not. There will be disagreements on this topic and it seems our current ‘rift’ is an example of this. Speaking only for myself (Thaumas) here, I do not believe we can answer the question of “How we can work together … in the real world” without each of us also asking ourselves: Where do I draw the line? Do I support everyone regardless of approach (all inclusive)? Do I go it alone (all exclusive)? Somewhere in between? And what is the basis for this decision? Each person will have their own answers, and our individual criteria for making this decision will ultimately decide “How we can work together … in the real world”, depending on how they overlap. So, in the interests of moving the dialogue along, here are my own views:

  1. I may not like or prefer some particular approach to activism myself, so I might not actively support it. But so long as there is no clear evidence that such activism is likely to lead to more harm than good, then I will not actively oppose it either. Diversity of approaches is generally a good thing. This is the basis of my support for ‘many approaches’.
  2. However, if I consider some particular approach likely to lead to more harm than good in the long term — even if it is intended to promote some cause or idea with which I agree — then I will not support it. Indeed, I may actively oppose it, especially if it involves the promulgation of potentially harmful, unsupported ideas in society. This is the basis for my skeptical and atheist activism in the first place (i.e. against theism/religion, faith-based reasoning, pseudo-science, etc.).

SZ (2): To use science as the least contentious (currently) of these topics, we already recognize that there are different roles to be played. We recognize the bench scientist and the field scientist. We recognize the physicist and the sociologist. We recognize the philosopher of science and the critic of methods. We recognize the lab manager and the lab technician. We recognize the grade-school science teacher and the PhD student. We recognize the peer reviewer and the science journalist.

(2) I agree with this with reservations. I readily endorse the methods and findings of mainstream science (pending future shifts in scientific consensus, of course). And that does not preclude discussions on emerging advancements or areas of active scientific debate. However I do not accept the latter type of discussions as beyond question or debate as they do not form part of mainstream scientific consensus.

  1. Furthermore, no one has a complete and thorough understanding of all of mainstream science. So in my view part of our role as skeptic activists is to educate both the greater public and indeed ourselves on a continuous and regular basis. This allows us to further develop the public understanding of even the most basic aspects of science, as may well be needed.
  2. Many of us are inspired by famous popularizers of science, such as Carl Sagan, Einstein, and many others. We are deeply curious about everything in this universe. We want to fully explore science ourselves. There are no dumb questions, only dumb answers. The most tragic honest question is the one unasked, for whatever reason. The most dangerous answer is the one which cannot be questioned. Some of us delight in being asked even the most mundane questions, because it offers us an opportunity to ask ourselves, “Hmm! How do I really know that for sure?”

SZ (3): There are far more roles to be played in promoting science than I’ve listed, but this gets the idea across. We require all those people and more to do good science, and we understand that. We don’t expect Neil deGrasse Tyson to be Shinya Yamanaka or either of them to be Mary Roach. We don’t tell them they’re hurting science because they’re not doing each other’s job. We all understand this.

(3) I agree with this with reservations. Some people in some roles taking some actions can be positively harmful to the promotion of science and reason. We cannot blindly accept all efforts, however well-meaning, as inherently valid and immune from critique. Further, some critics of science offer no useful criticism but serve only to undermine public understanding of science. For example: Post-modernism, Intelligent Design, the Templeton Foundation, Scientology, pseudo-scientists, ideologically motivated academics and scholars (such as some Bible historians for example), alternative medicine, etc. These are exactly the kinds of pseudo-allies we need to be wary of and should be allowed to question.

SZ (4): For whatever reason–possibly because the secular and skeptical movements in their current incarnations are much younger, smaller, and more consistently besieged than the broad institutions of science and science popularization–we lose that insight when talking about these movements and their priorities. All sorts of people suddenly seem to know The One True and Proper Way to conduct the campaign for the Pure and Shining Platonic Ideal of…whichever issue we happen to be promoting.

(4) I agree with this with reservations. Your paragraph appears to be describing dogmatists and ideologues. Could you give an example from within the atheist/skeptic community to illustrate your comment that “All sorts of people suddenly seem to know The One True and Proper Way to conduct the campaign for the Pure and Shining Platonic Ideal …”?

SZ (5): According to these people, we may not or we may or we must include religious skepticism under our skeptical umbrella. We may not or we may or we must build friendly working relationships with religious institutions with similar goals. We may not or we may or we must shape our agendas to appeal to groups of people whose relationships to these various issues are very different from the relationships of the white, cisgendered, educated, middle-class to upper-class men who have shaped the traditional concerns of our movements.

(5) I cannot agree or disagree without clarification. Could you please define who these prescriptive people are and include evidence to support that?

SZ (6): All of us. May not. Must. Things can get very prescriptive very quickly.

(6) I agree with this, and don’t like it.

SZ (7): That kind of prescriptivism is no more necessary for us, however, than it is in science. Beyond the basics of ethics and efficacy, we can take as many approaches as we have time and/or money, talent, and motivation for. Beyond ethics and efficacy, the more prescriptivist we are, the more people we exclude, because we don’t offer meaningful work that motivates them and puts their talents to work. The demand for active volunteers is high. They can always find another issue that motivates them with groups behind those issues that will welcome their work instead of endlessly insisting it’s the wrong kind of work.

(7) I agree with this with reservations. If by prescriptivism, you mean dogma, then I agree.

  1. I agree with second sentence. I endorse a ‘many approaches’ approach. This kind of diversity is very healthy and more importantly it works very well to counter dogmatism and to reach a wide variety of people from all backgrounds.
  2. I’m concerned with your vague usage of the word ‘efficacy’. How are you measuring efficacy? What are the criteria for separating effective from ineffective? Are you allowing for context-dependence? Are you unintentionally letting in a form of prescriptivism through the back door by importing, without realizing it, assertions of ‘what is effective and what is not’ which are not themselves open to examination?

SZ (8): So some of us find church-state separation law motivating, and we (in the U.S.) become members or follow action alerts from the Freedom from Religion Foundation or Americans United for Separation of Church and State or American Atheists or the ACLU. Some of us follow politics very closely and sign up with the Center for Inquiry’s Office of Public Policy or the Secular Coalition of America. Some of us are particularly concerned about science education and support the National Center for Science Education. Some of us want to see big-name speakers in front of crowds promoting our agendas and support the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science or the James Randi Educational Foundation. Some of us like the think-tank approach of CFI and its related organizations and publications. Some of us work with our local groups to create change in our own communities.

(8) I agree with this. As indicated already I fully agree that people should be encouraged to pursue their atheist activism in any manner in which they see fit. This assumes their activities are in compliance with the principles of equality and avoidance of harm as laid out in our opening statement point 4a) and also this response point 1.

SZ (9): Some of us are particularly in developing younger activists and support the Secular Student Alliance, have joined Secular Woman because we’re motivated by the assault on women’s rights to bodily autonomy, or feel that the Black Skeptics Group Los Angeles do important work with young adults that no one else is doing. Or we’ve joined some other specialized affiliation group that speaks to our interests. Some of us take our advocacy for skepticism or secularism with us into our other advocacy work because those principles can and should make our most important work better. Some of us consider our advocacy for skepticism and critical thinking our most important work and insist that we apply these principles to our shared advocacy work do for exactly the same reason. And on and on and on.

(9) I agree with this with reservations. See point 8 above. In addition as already stated no person or group of persons has the right to impose their particular brand of advocacy on anyone else.

SZ (10): Some of us don’t work with existing groups at all. We’re writers or vloggers or filmmakers or singers or graphic designers or interviewers who are producing independent content. We volunteer at our kids’ schools to improve education and watch what our local school boards are up to. We encourage our kids to ask questions and do their own hard thinking. We stop the annoying email chain letter with an annoying link to Snopes. We talk about politics and religion around the dinner table. We send letters to the editors of our local papers and make sure to talk to our politicians when given the chance. We share cool science articles, xkcd strips, and “I fucking love science” memes on social media. We do a thousand and one things to make the tiny differences as well as the large ones.

(10) I agree with this. As noted in point 1 above, I myself have argued in support of the ‘many approaches’ approach.

SZ (11): All of that is working toward common goals, even when it isn’t working hand in hand. It’s working together without having to agree at every point or even to work closely with anyone else. Everyone gets to do what motivates them–to a point. We do still have to consider ethics and efficacy.

(11) I agree with this with reservations. See point 1 regarding the risk of unintended harm.

SZ (12) : I’ll assume I don’t have to get into ethics at this point. I will later if it becomes necessary.

(12) I agree with this with reservations. I think discussion of ethics is critical to establishing common ground. See point 1.

SZ (13) : When we’re talking about promotion of ideals and behavior, attending to efficacy is particularly important and not always easy. I recommend two resources highly. The Skeptical Activism Campaign Manual (pdf) by Desiree Schell, Maria Walters, Trevor Zimmerman, and K.O. Myers is an amazingly detailed resource for thinking your way through activism, including who your target audience is, how you expect to reach them, and how you’ll measure your success. I would also recommend Todd Stiefel’s presentation on Strategy and Leadership that he’s given at a couple of conferences. It covers a similar sort of planning but at the organizational level and over a longer period. Both resources strongly promote an “eyes on the prize” perspective.

(13) I agree with this with reservations. Efficacy needs to be defined. See 7b.

SZ (14): That’s an important perspective. We become emotionally invested in the groups and activities in which we invest our efforts. If we hear that we’re not successfully reaching everyone we’d like to, it’s all too easy for us to find reasons to dismiss that feedback or blame the failure on others. Setting benchmarks ahead of time protects us from our own biases–as well as those of other people who might have their own reasons for persuading us to change.

(14) I agree with this with reservations. Whilst benchmarks might be suitable for the objectives of certain individuals or groups within the activist communities, no person or group has the right to impose benchmarks on any others. Benchmarks will vary according to the individual’s or group’s motives or final targets and they are the ones best able to formulate their own criteria for establishing them. It may even be undesirable for some groups or individuals to set any particular benchmarks as their beneficial activities speak for themselves. Finally, many people may have no interest in having a formal structure by which they are required to adhere.

SZ (15): Sometimes that analysis of our efficacy will lead us back to a single, more prescribed approach. For example, we may want to craft a single message that can be broadcast to as many people as possible while alienating as few as possible. Sometimes it will lead us to use more parallel approaches, perhaps because we expect an issue to be important to different demographics for different reasons. Either way, our behavior going forward will be based in evidence rather than our innate or learned biases.

(15) I disagree with this. I already assert that establishing efficacy is problematic. Therefore to impose a prescriptive approach on that would be extremely troubling. Not only will this require a high authoritarian and top-down approach to activism it risks destroying all the bottom-up flexibility that we have already established as crucial to the movement’s success. Furthermore, who is in a position to assert on others which particular standard of efficacy we should follow? This comes across to me as a potentially highly dogmatic way of trying to control people who have no wish to be controlled. I firmly reject this as a concept. While people can lay down the rules on their groups or themselves, they have no right to try to impose that on others. In fact this whole statement seems to fly in the face of what was said in paragraphs 4, 6, and 7.

SZ (16): So, in short, we work together by not always insisting we all have to work closely on the same projects in the same ways and by keeping an eye on our ethics and efficacy in order to make sure we don’t overlook opportunities for outreach.

(16) I agree with this with reservations.

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2 Responses to “Strand 1 Statement 2 by Thaumas Themelios”

  • Submariner says:

    I agree with all points but especially with

    15) Strongly agree. The groundswell of atheist activism is having real effects. There are excellent new YouTubers, bloggers, podcasters, etc. that are making progress via the worlds largest information exchange medium, the internet. This “grass roots” activism is an example of the diversity of methods (the “myriad solutions”) mentioned by Ms Zvan. The national and international organizations may wish to find a few highly effective methods of “getting the message out there” (television commercials, billboards, appearances on TV news/talk shows,etc. but the ground level individuals reach niches that the organizations may not.

  • A Hermit says:

    A hasty response…

    (1) I agree with most of this. Seems to me that asking if the approach in question is doing more harm than good is the same thing Stephanie is saying when she talks about “efficacy”…

    (2) There’s an excellent point in here bout the need to educate ourselves on a regular basis. What we think we know about a subject and what the facts really are may not always be the same thing. Which tends to reinforce the need for expert opinions…

    (8) This whole statement seems to be going in circles from arguing that we must never impose any ideological test on others to insisting here that we must resist any advocacy not conforming to the principles of equality and not causing harm. Which I agree with, and which actually sounds exactly like the A+ idea to me…could it be we’ve actually reached a consensus already!?


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