This piece was originally published in Free Inquiry.
(Content note: passing mentions of spousal abuse, rape, intense racism, homophobia, transphobia)
Does being a good skeptic mean listening calmly and patiently to every idea, and considering every idea with a completely open mind?
Strike that. Let me phrase that question in a more honest way, a way that makes my position clear: Where on Earth did we come up with the cockamamie notion that being a good skeptic means not having an emotional response to terrible, harmful ideas, and not treating those ideas with the contempt they deserve? Where did we get the notion that being a good skeptic means treating every idea, no matter how ridiculous or toxic, as equally worthy of consideration? Where did we get the notion that bad, harmful ideas should not make us angry, and that we should never get angry at anyone who brings them up?
Ron Lindsay recently wrote a piece, “Questioning Humanist Orthodoxy: Introduction to a Series” (No Faith Value blog, May 18, 2015), in which he criticized, among other things, humanists who respond angrily and emotionally to supporters of the death penalty, and who don’t calmly make what Lindsay considers to be good, rational arguments against it. PZ Myers has already responded to the core content of Lindsay’s essay (“Brave Ron Lindsay,” Pharyngula blog, May 19, 2015), so I’m not going to do that here. And in any case, I don’t want to pick on Lindsay: he is very far from the only person to put forth this idea. Several prominent atheists and skeptics have chided progressives for expressing anger over debates about abortion (citations collected at “Having a Reasonable Debate About Abortion,” Greta Christina’s Blog, March 13, 2014), and Massimo Pigliucci described these debates about abortion as “a tempest in a teapot” (“David Silverman and the scope of atheism,” Rationally Speaking blog, March 14, 2014).
This is a very common idea in the skeptical world: the idea that being a skeptic means being willing to entertain and discuss any and all ideas, with a completely open mind, with no attachment to any particular outcome — and with no emotional response.
And it’s an idea that should be taken out into the street and shot.
Let’s set aside abortion and the death penalty for a moment. Let’s use some different examples, ones that will make my point more clear. Let’s imagine that someone shows up at your dinner party, or comes into your online forum, and says that husbands should be allowed to beat and rape their wives. Or that homosexuality is a serious and dangerous mental illness, and gay people should be locked up in mental institutions. Or that black people aren’t fully human.
How are you going to respond? Are you going to say, “Hm, that’s an interesting idea — I don’t agree, but I’m curious why you think that, let’s calmly look at the evidence and examine the pros and cons”?
Or are you going to say some version of, “That is vile. That is despicable. The fact that you’re even proposing that is morally repulsive. Apologize, or get the hell out”?
And assuming that you did call the idea vile and toss the person out — how would you respond to someone telling you, “You’re a bad skeptic! You shouldn’t be so emotional! If someone is questioning black people’s basic humanity, you should be willing to debate that dispassionately, and with an open mind!”? Continue reading “Skepticism, and Emotional Responses to Terrible Ideas”