PZ Myers, Pamela Gay, and atheistic skeptic organizations PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by D.J. Grothe   

I love PZ Myers and his blog Pharyngula — a mix of science education and social commentary from an atheistic perspective — way more than some of my more temperate and low-key friends would approve. He is for me what I imagine Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck is for fiscal, religious or cultural conservatives. Except that PZ is reasonable and on the right side of the issues, unlike Limbaugh and Beck. (Of course, fans of Limbaugh or Beck must think the same thing of them.) PZ Myers is one of the two or three best polemicists that people of my worldview have to rally around. I cheer when he sticks it to my cultural competitors. I enjoy reading his uncompromising stance. I like that he is direct and funny and pulls no punches, and convince myself sometimes that this might allow other skeptics and atheists to take different, more diplomatic approaches when addressing religious or paranormal beliefs.

 

That others take different approaches is something PZ doesn't seem to like.

 

I invited Pamela Gay, the popular astronomy podcaster and public science educator, to be a speaker at the Amazing Meeting 8 this year. She is one of a number of theist skeptics on the program, despite some hullabaloo that the Amazing Meeting has been turned into an atheist conference (I guess this is because both Randi and I might be considered raging atheists; at least no one is yet wringing their hands that it has been turned into a gay conference).

 

I really like Pamela Gay, and enjoy her company. I appreciate her great work in science education and science popularization, and consider her a fellow skeptic, an ally in the fight to advance critical thinking in the world. I have lectured on critical thinking and legerdemain for a college class she teaches. I have seen her inspire and charm at Dragon*Con.

 

That she is a theist of some sort is beside the point for me. And PZ seems to agree. He calls her a "credible skeptic," even if other bloggers may not think so. In a recent blog post titled "Should skeptic organizations be atheist organizations?," PZ lists "eminently reasonable rationales for not pressuring skeptical organizations to join ranks with and become inseparable from atheist groups." He also lists what he thinks are some bad reasons that skeptic organizations shouldn't be identical to atheist organizations, like the desire not to offend religious folks who are allies in advancing skepticism and critical thinking, as long as it doesn't undermine theism. Because he doesn't see the need for skeptics organizations to become atheist organization, he doesn't seem to object to Pamela Gay being included in the pantheon of skeptics.

 

Unlike some skeptic-atheists out there, I do not believe that skepticism is a subset of atheism. I believe, and I wonder why it isn't obvious to everyone, that atheism is a subset of skepticism. Skepticism, among other things, is simply a method of inquiry, an approach to knowledge claims. I have recently argued in a speech what skepticism is and what it is not. Over the years, I have met many avowed atheists whom I would not consider to be credible skeptics, who are not very skeptical of the sorts of claims James Randi would call "woo woo." Sure, they lack belief in God, but believe in the New Age, or the power of crystals, or other paranormal or supernatural folderol. Yes, many skeptics are atheists and vise versa. But atheism is skepticism about only one sort of supernatural claim, the God claim. And in my view, atheism is not enough to make you a credible skeptic.

 

As an equal opportunity skeptic, I personally try to apply my skepticism to every sort of claim — to the Holy Ghost, and to ghosts in general. I think that if you consistently apply skepticism to all areas of your life, you will necessarily abandon many of the basic beliefs of the majority of people around you. Theism is just one belief you may abandon. But I don't think abandoning theism is a necessary result of skepticism, if only because I don't think every skeptic is always going to be completely consistent in her skepticism.

 

(Some may consider me inconsistent in my skepticism, by the way — for instance, I am persuaded by some of the arguments made by so-called transhumanists, and am cautiously optimistic about the emerging science of human life-extension; some of my fellow skeptics consider me completely gullible in this regard as a result.)

 

Even though PZ considers Pamela Gay a credible skeptic (that is, despite her theism), he took issue with her recent blog post in which she recounted and justified students giving religious explanations for how the universe would end on an astronomy exam. Because of this, and also because not all credible skeptics are admitted atheists, and because this seems to be something that perplexes many of us (but not PZ or me, it seems), I thought I'd ask Pamela Gay herself to comment on a few related questions.

 

SWIFT: How can you be a skeptic and a theist at the same time?

 

Pamela Gay: To me, skepticism applies to testable parts of my life. Through science, I can test ideas and make predictions. As a skeptical thinker, when I'm confronted with data I have to be willing to change my ideas about reality, and if the predictive powers of science fail me, I have to admit my science is wrong. A belief in God is a belief in something frustratingly untestable. I can make no testable predictions using religion, but instead find myself faced with having to make an opinion-based judgement. I have made the choice to believe. I admit I have doubts - I am not so strong a person as to say my faith is complete and that in the dark of night I don't worry that I'm wrong. But in the absence of data, I have made the choice to believe in a God.

 

 

SWIFT: Do you think there are domains of belief that should be off-limits to skepticism?

 

Pamela Gay: Someone who compartmentalizes their life - placing religion in one box and skepticism in another - is tearing themselves apart. The characteristics that define us are built on a foundation of personal philosophies, work ethics, and morals that are reflected in our actions. This means a skeptic must find a way to integrate their way of approaching reality with their belief or atheism. It doesn't mean skepticism can decide all the answers. To me, and I know many will disagree with me on this, the natural outcome in skepticism is acknowledging doubt. I am haunted with my uncertainty in God and envy theologians like CS Lewis and Ravi Zacharias who claim pure belief. I can't imagine a skeptical atheist not having the same moments of "But... what if?"


Within the skeptics community (and the world at large!) discussion is healthy. I believe everyone should live an examined life and be challenged to consider why they believe what they believe. I've been kicked out of Christian groups for challenging people's beliefs. (Dinosaurs did not co-exist with humans, and Neanderthals are not just humans who lived hundreds of years and grew new bone structures in their old age. If you believe those things, I will shred your understanding of geology, one sedimentary layer at a time.) At the same time, while people need challenged to live examined lives, I also respect that some people may not want to share with everyone their personal reasons for believing or not believing, and it is sometimes enough for someone to say, "Yes, examined that. New topic please."

 

SWIFT: What is more important to you: proving a student wrong when you think she is wrong, or helping a student see other viewpoints even if she doesn't adopt them?

 

Pamela Gay: I don't think this question has a black or white answer. If a student thinks moon phases are caused by the moon passing through the Earth's shadow (a common misconception), I need to remove the incorrect idea completely and replace it with our actual understanding of how the solar system works. If they are instead certain that the universe will end as is described in revelations, I need to get them to set that aside, and get them to understand how physics and astronomy say our universe will end, and get them to be able to hold onto both ideas at once. In this case, it shouldn't be a fight. Think of it this way - I may know with certainty that the ground hog in my backyard will eat any strawberries that grow in the garden, but I can know from a biological stand point exactly what should happen to those strawberries if they are allowed to grow, ripen, and fall from their vines. It is possible for me to hold both these futures in my mind without conflict, and it is important as an educator to get our students to see the world through the lens of science.

 

SWIFT: How often do religious questions arise in your astronomy classes or public lectures?

 

Pamela Gay: I don't think I've gotten all the way through a semester without a student raising their hand and asking me if I believe in God, and I think more then 50% of the public events I've spoken at have included people asking my beliefs. For reasons I don't understand, people — deists and atheists —  often think the religion of a scientist is more important than the quality of their science in determining if they are worth listening to.

 

SWIFT: Do you think such existential questions have a place in science education?

 

Pamela Gay: No. Science already has a hard enough job teaching facts-based science! In addition to what we know, there are also amazing unknowns in science that can be debated - multi-verse theories, string theory, the nature of dark energy. Facts and scientific debates are enough to populate our science education programs several times over.


We also need to be careful not to let the multi-cultural acceptance that is to be respected (to a point) in the humanities to also get applied to science. Astronomy as we teach it in the US contains the same facts as astronomy taught in India. I've dealt with too many people who think that just as we should allow people adhere to Islam, or Judaism, or Christianity, we should also let them adhere to Big Bang, or 7 Day Creationism, or the story of the Sun God and the Spider Woman. Cultural acceptance doesn't apply to science results, and an argument of Genesis versus Big Bang is like arguing if it is better to give someone antibiotics when they're sick or to like the color blue. Sure - you can have the argument, but it doesn't make any sense.


Life is complicated, and educating someone to intelligently handle life is a challenge all of us educators struggle to live up to. I will happily leave existential questions to the humanities faculty (and think science majors should have a liberal arts education), and stray no closer than discussions on the Drake equation with science. In my classroom, I want to create critical thinkers who ask "why do we think that?" If I succeed in that, I'm happy.