A few days ago, my date-for-life, Kandace, posted a strip from the delightful web comic, “Cyanide & Happiness,” which she had come across thanks to the popular Facebook page, “I Fucking Love Science” (sorry, that’s the name!). (Due to this daisy chain of sources and the fact that it’s difficult to find a particular strip directly at the “Cyanide and Happiness” website, I am providing a link to the Facebook page here for proper credit, as well as posting a copy of the strip in question:)
This made me laugh, but it also got me thinking about the skeptic movement and its message, and what aspects of the skeptic message and worldview are perhaps inherently limiting in its appeal.
And by appeal, I don’t just mean, “who signs up.” I’ll begin with a digression (bad idea, I know): One of my cofounders of the New York City Skeptics [www.nycskeptics.org] commented in the early days of our organizing that there must be more than a just few hundred skeptics in New York City, that is, the ones joining our organization or showing up at our events. My response was to say that, yes, there are doubtless more – perhaps a few million, for all we know – but that doesn’t mean they are going to all show up at our meetings, and nor should they. The world is full of people with a skeptical, rational, scientific worldview, who don’t necessarily self-identify as skeptics, or wish to publicly identify themselves as skeptics, or who might not even understand the meaning of the term – and, more importantly, may just have other things they’d rather do with their time.
It’s important to recognize, I think, that there’s nothing wrong with this. The skeptic movement needs to do whatever it can to build community, make ourselves visible and welcome to people of like mind, and perhaps try to motivate people who are innately or passively skeptic into becoming activists, in order to help spread the messages we care about it. However, it’s unfair and unreasonable to expect that every person who harbors a scientific worldview owes it to us and the world to come to our monthly lecture series or attend one of our conferences. If you share our scientific worldview and are making decisions about your life and the lives of others you affect based on these common grounds, then as far as I’m concerned, you’re making the world a better place and I, for one, am glad you’re in it. Even if you’re not attending the meetings!
But, as I said, I digress. What the Cyanide and Happiness comic got me to thinking about was the fact that the fundamentally existential worldview held by many skeptics is one that is most appealing to the privileged – the happy, if you will, or at very least perhaps, the reasonably satisfied.
Skeptics tend not to believe in the afterlife. And the afterlife, after all, comprises both the major stick and carrot of organized religion. Do as we tell you here and we’ll take care of you there – in the next life. Be happy with your lot here (even if it’s miserable) because it’s the next life that really counts.
This suggests (to me at least) that people with education and enough money to live comfortably beyond subsistence level are people most likely to accept, much less embrace, that afterlife-less worldview. If we only get one chance to be successful or happy – namely, while we’re here – then it’s a lot easier for people who are reasonably successful or happy to embrace that news flash.
Whereas, if you are struggling to survive, to pay your rent or feed your kids, it suddenly becomes a lot more difficult to sign up for that “you only get one go ‘round” policy.
And worse, still, consider that if you find yourself on a lower rung of the socioeconomic ladder in a system that contains fundamental inequities – unfair hiring practices, unequal pay for equal work, unequal and uneven social, economic, or political opportunity – then that possibility of doing better the second time around in an afterlife becomes more appealing than ever. And the one-ticket, one-ride approach is even less appealing.
So perhaps my opening digression was not entirely without purpose. On the one hand, just because someone is skeptical doesn’t mean they are going to show up and join our movement; we have to create other appeals and motivations.
And just because we offer a rational and factually supportable worldview doesn’t mean that people are going to show up and join our movement if they are struggling on the underside of an unfair system. Until the system helps lift everyone up equally, some people are never going to feel optimistic enough to be satisfied with the idea of living one life, just once, regardless of the outcome. Much less induce them to declare, “Holy shit, that’s awesome!".
Jamy Ian Swiss is Senior Fellow at the JREF. He blogs regularly at randi.org.