Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Atheist Skeptic Dialogue, Round 1

I'm not much given to participating in Internet forums, but the Atheist Skeptic Dialogue touches on a lot of areas that I find interesting so I figured I'd give it a try. I've posted comments in response to both of the opening statements which have, after some delay, made it through the moderation queue. It's interesting to see the modifications that the moderators felt were necessary to keep my comments within the guidelines. My comment on Stephanie Zvan's opening statement orginally contained the following sentence at the end of Item 1:

To pick a recent example, reasonable people may disagree over whether the American Atheists "slavery billboard" (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/13/atheist-slavery-billboard-pennsylvania-raises-tempers_n_1342268.html) advanced the cause of atheism.

which the moderators apparently had some sort of a problem with, given that they removed it and added the note

Mod Note: Moderation team removed an example from the end of (1) in order to keep dialogue within the guidelines.

Not that big a deal, but I specifically added the example in order to conform to guideline 2.a.5 ("Provide sources if asked, or modify (or retract) your claim if unable to do so."). I was honestly expecting that they'd balk at what I said about teleology and moral facts in 4c, given that it was a strong, but unsupported, assertion. I suspect that right now they're primarily moderating/editing for tone, trying to keep unduly inflammatory material out of the discussion too early to keep it from getting derailed.

My comment to Jack Smith's opening statement originally included

Please feel free to strike the following if it is felt to be off-topic:

General criticism: One of the root causes if schism within the skeptical community is disagreement over concepts/definitions, what they mean, and who gets to do the defining. As such, coming to a consensus defintion of terms is a necessary precondition to further progress. For example, we should define the following terms that were referenced in items 1 - 10 above:

  • Ethics
  • Morality
  • Values
  • Equality
  • Justice

I believe that we could also benefit from an explicit enumeration of the core principles of skepticism.

2) Disagree; we should not conflate the "atheist" and "skeptic" communities. Atheism requires nothing more than a disbelief in god(s); one can be an atheist and disagree with the core issues from item 1. By definition, however, one cannot be a skeptic and disagree with these issues. It is true that there is significant overlap between the two groups, but only the skeptic community holds enough core beliefs in common to make discussions fruitful.

They struck all of it. My response to item 2 was pretty tangential, but on reflection I think I should have held my ground on the definitions bit. Guideline 2.a.3 says: "Define words and/or terms when you are asked to do so. Pre-empt such questions by defining, at first use, words already known to raise this question among participants on either 'side' (e.g. 'feminism')."; it seems reasonable that statements should be held to the same standard. I sent a note to the moderators in that regard:

I do think it would greatly improve the general discussion to explicitly tackle definitions. Note that guideline 2(a)3 states "Define words and/or terms when you are asked to do so. Pre-empt such questions by defining, at first use, words already known to raise this question among participants on either “side” (e.g. “feminism”).". If that's what is expect for comments it seems reasonable that Statements be held to the same standard. I recognize the (admirable) desire not to get sidetrack by definitional issues, but I think that disagreements over definitions are part of the core problem the dialogue seeks to address.

It's interesting to see how things are shaping up; here's a quick tally of the responses to date:

Responses To Stephanie Zvan's Opening Statement
ItemAgreeAgree With ReservationsDisagreeOther
163
272
310
4621
54124
6811
7811
891
982
1091
1182
12414
13631
1481
15811
1682

The commentariat tends to agree with most of Stephanie Zvan's opening statement; the "other" comment tends to be requests for clarification or commentary about vagueness. The strongest reaction so far has been to Item 5:

5. According to these people, we may not or we may or we must include religious skepticism under our skeptical umbrella. We may not or we may or we must build friendly working relationships with religious institutions with similar goals. We may not or we may or we must shape our agendas to appeal to groups of people whose relationships to these various issues are very different from the relationships of the white, cisgendered, educated, middle-class to upper-class men who have shaped the traditional concerns of our movements.

Needless to say that last bit about white/cisgendered got people's dander up. It's pretty clear that the moderators are granting significantly more leeway to Statement authors; given what got excised from my own response I expect that sort of language would have been removed from a comment.

Responses to Jack Smith's opening statement
ItemAgreeAgree With ReservationsDisagreeOther
3411
4a5212
4b5311
4c532
4d82
4e5311
5a5112
5b631
5c4221
5d6211
5e541
5f5221
63331
7713
863
963

There's significantly more disagreement regarding Jack Smith's opening statement. My take is that this is due, in part, to the nature of the claims he was asserting; they were a more specific and thus give people more to disagree with. Though, interestingly enough, he seems to have agreement of at least a plurality of commentors on each item.

One thing which I think I was only tangentially aware of is that there are (allegedly) "sides" to this discussion, which seems to me like a gross oversimplification. I have big disagreements with both Jack Smith and Stephanie Zvan; I don't think I belong to either camp. Nor do I see much in the way of evidence of "sides" in terms of the responses of the commentariat. I suspect that there are distinct "sides" in the sense of clusters of viewpoints, but that we haven't gotten deep enough into fundamental differences for those clusters to have reveal themselves.

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