The other day, I was sent a thoughtful email from a former supporter of the James Randi Educational Foundation who expressed concern that under my leadership the JREF has taken "on a very pointed role as an atheist organization." It seemed to him as if I appear to insist that "that skepticism *must* lead one to atheism." He stated he would no longer be financially supporting the Foundation, which is troubling, considering the JREF's increased need for support as we continue to expand our programs. I want to publicly address some of his concerns here, in case others share his views.
It is certainly true that I am an outspoken and enthusiastic atheist, and that I often criticize extreme religion in talks and articles for its harmful effects on believers and on society. But have I made the JREF into an atheist organization? (That some have argued I have also somehow turned it into a homosexual organization will remain unaddressed.)
While theism — belief in god — is a supernatural claim, it is not our primary focus at the JREF. Instead, we focus on advancing critical thinking in general and skepticism about pseudoscience, the paranormal, and the supernatural in particular, especially when the supernatural beliefs are testable. We do this in a number of ways, including:
- digital outreach (such as e-publishing, supporting podcasts such as Skeptics Guide to the Universe and For Good Reason, and distributing top-notch video programming online for free)
- regional skeptics workshops (in cities such as St. Louis, Chicago and Louisville, so far -- these three were on dowsing, I might add -- not on religion/atheism)
- the JREF speakers bureau (we sent our speakers to events in dozens of cities this year throughout New Hampshire, Florida, Nebraska, Georgia, California, Florida, New York, Missouri, Illinois and British Columbia, with not one of them once speaking on religion or atheism. In addition, Randi recently did a speaking tour of European cities; his topic was not atheism)
The JREF also works to advance our mission by providing resources to a growing network of local skeptics groups, and to teachers through our new grants for educators program and through scholarships to academics who advance skepticism in their work.
In addition, as announced this last July in Las Vegas at The Amaz!ng Meeting 8, we are expanding our famous Million Dollar Challenge, our chief means of raising awareness about irresponsible paranormal claims in society and their harmfulness, with plans to take live Million Dollar Challenge demonstrations on the road, and to increase MDC video content online.
I should reiterate that all of these new programs we launched since I have become president of the Foundation in no sense focus on atheism. (Not that atheism is something we are ashamed of or try to hide, mind you; it is just that atheism is largely beside the point of our organization).
But are we actually an atheist organization in another important sense? Since I apply skepticism equally to belief in ghosts and to belief in the Holy Ghost, I am a skeptic of the claim that God exists. I am an atheist. And James Randi has been an outspoken atheist for years. Does this therefore mean that the JREF is an atheist organization by default, and that therefore there is no room at the JREF for religious believers who would like to partner with us to advance critical thinking about pseudoscience and the paranormal?
At the most recent TAM, we increased the number of theists and non-atheists on the TAM program to the highest number yet, and invited some to blog on the relationship of skepticism to religious belief on randi.org. As an example, check out Pamela Gay's thought-provoking piece on the topic.
Yes we are atheists at the JREF, most of us. But as individuals, not as an organization. In this sense, the JREF is no more an atheist organization than the U.S. is a Christian nation merely because the majority of folks in this country are Christian.
The email from our supporter mentioned a couple other topics I think merit attention, including the on-stage discussion I had with Richard Dawkins at TAM 8. Richard Dawkins is one of the world's leading public intellectuals, and easily the world's most influential and important atheist. He is a good friend to the JREF. Some have argued that inviting him to TAM 8 automatically turned it into an atheist conference. That seems like sloppy thinking to me; not only had he spoken at TAM years before, but the religious beliefs of a speaker do not solely determine the focus of a conference.
In the nearly 250 interviews I have done over the years on Point of Inquiry and For Good Reason, I have often been characterized as something of a "devil's advocate," and many listeners seem to like my approach. In the on-stage discussion with Dawkins at TAM 8, which he requested we do, I argued that skepticism and atheism are not identical, nor even necessarily continuous, citing as examples Bill Maher and Joe Rogan. Bill Maher is an atheist, but in my view he is not sufficiently skeptical since he peddles a kind of undue credulity in complementary and alternative medicine while fomenting suspicion of "Western medicine"; Joe Rogan is an atheist, but denies the moon landing as a hoax.
To me, being atheist is not enough. I suggested in the Dawkins discussion that being a mere atheist is less a worthwhile goal than being a skeptic more broadly. In no sense was I trying to argue that if you are a skeptic you will necessarily be an atheist, although I do personally favor a consistently applied sort of skepticism where no questions or claims, not even personal religious ones, are protected from scrutiny.
(I spoke about why atheism may result from skepticism but that it is not a sufficient condition for skepticism, and therefore why a more broadly applied skepticism is more important to me than mere atheism, in my keynote address at NECSS earlier this year.)
In his email, our thoughtful and concerned donor also argued that skepticism — both as a movement and a way of looking at the world — ought not to become an ideology, nor merely something like a "statement of non-bleliefs." I completely agree, and spoke about this exact topic last weekend at the Skeptics Track at Dragon*Con in Atlanta, Georgia. I believe skepticism is best when it is a method of inquiry, and not a doctrinaire set of conclusions. As such, the JREF has begun working harder to reach out to thought-leaders who are not necessarily identified with skepticism nor the JREF but who advance critical thinking and the method of skepticism in their work. This is one of the reasons there were a number of new faces on the program at TAM this last year.
I hope that addressing this again on randi.org helps clear up any possible misunderstandings about whether I am turning the JREF into an atheist organization. I hope that skeptics, whether religious or not, can see why the work we are doing is worth much wider support. I am happy to say that both religious people and atheists alike currently support the Foundation, all united in a shared commitment to help foster critical thinking and bring about a saner world when it comes to widespread belief in harmful nonsense. And as something of a professional skeptic, that is something I can believe in.