With the American election rapidly approaching, much of the talk in the media has been political. I don’t usually like to talk politics on my blog because it only serves to make people irrationally angry; however, there have recently been several stories that discussed the connection between politics, culture, and alternative claims, all trying to claim the moral high ground for a particular ideology.
Here’s a brief overview of some of these stories: Rebecca Watson, the “SkepChic,” published a piece in Slate documenting her experience with gender-based harassment and discrimination within the skeptical community. Ancient Aliens pundit Philip Coppens criticized the creator of Ancient Aliens Debunked for being a believing Christian. The skeptic and philosopher Paul Kurtz died, and journalist Chris Mooney continued to promote and build on The Republican Brain, which claimed a unique anti-science mindset for conservatives. Add to this a plethora of stories about politicians’ gaffes involving God and sex, as well as a new documentary about creationist efforts to manipulate Texas textbooks to present religiously and conservatively motivated positions.
The dominant way of understanding these issues falls into a dichotomous paradigm: skeptic vs. believer, secular vs. religious, and liberal vs. conservative. But I don’t think these paradigms hold at anything but the most general level, and they certainly can’t be combined to claim a solid connection between skeptics, the secular, and liberals on one side and believers, the religious, and conservatives on the other.
The late Paul Kurtz was in large part responsible for constructing the philosophical underpinnings of the modern skeptical movement. Later in life, Kurtz attempted to argue that science could produce a set of objective ethics that were inherent in the material composition of the universe. This, in turn, led to something of an iron triangle of skepticism, atheism, and secular humanism, which his late work (and through the overarching framework of the Center for Inquiry) argued were essentially part of a coherent and complete belief system in harmony with the facts of the material world. Sam Harris, the celebrity atheist, echoed this same idea in his recent work, attempting to find a “scientific” morality.
As I wrote about this in 2010:
In other words, quarks and neutrinos don’t give two figs for your ethical code. Ethics are entirely in the mind of the ethicist; they can be rationalized, but they cannot be deduced from nature because they involve values, which are subjective.
The upshot of the presumed atheist-secular humanist-skeptical alliance is a general belief that skeptics and rationalists are politically liberal, something reinforced by Chris Mooney, with his claims that conservatives are uniquely anti-science. Mooney’s work, however, shows only that conservatives are ideologically opposed to particular sciences, typically evolutionary biology and climate change. Liberals are more likely to be open to astrology, alternative medicine, and other New Age nonsense, but because this is less politically consequential, it is often ignored.
Even the same anti-scientific beliefs, like ancient astronauts, can attract people from across the spectrum. Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels, mystic-minded anti-scientists, were political leftists (albeit in France), while Erich von Däniken (a Swiss) has conservative politics, as seen in his letter to Gerald Ford and the anti-liberal pronouncements in his books. All these writers imagined scientists in a conspiracy to suppress truth. By contrast, Chris White—the Christian creator of Ancient Aliens Debunked—proves that one can be believer in one aspect (his Christianity) while still engaging in skepticism in other areas of life. (Almost no one is perfectly skeptical on every issue.)
The long and short of it is that I don’t see a hard and fast dichotomy between opposing forces. I have always thought of skepticism as an act rather than a belief. One performs skepticism, much as one performs science. Similarly, science is neither liberal nor conservative, and so far as I can tell is embraced only when it conforms with the observer’s ideology.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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