Critical Mass

The weekend before last was Easter, and all week I’ve been reflecting on my experience with my family on that day, how it relates to my expectations, and the current state of the skeptical movement. I’ll start with some background. As many of you know, I come from a very religious family. They had been devoutly Catholic throughout my childhood, but due to a confluence of several spiritual experiences by several different family members about 15 years ago, pretty much the entire extended family on my Mom’s side (which consists of her 7 siblings, their respective spouses, and their 30-some collective kids) coalesced into a very cohesive, charismatic Catholic enclave. As the second oldest member of my generation, and the first to openly leave the church, I’ve often felt very much an outsider with regard to my family for many years now.

This has been a frequent cause of sadness and anxiety for me, not just because they are my family, and I love them, but also because I think they are mostly really cool people that share many of my quirks and interests. Christian or atheist, we are all, in one way or another, geeks. Which I love.

The problem has been that for a very long time now, every time I would see them, the conversation would inevitably turn to matters of religion or politics, and certain family members would go on and on as though everyone in the room was on the same page (And how could anyone not be on the same page? They were right, after all.) which basically made me feel invisible, and put me in the position of deciding whether to stand up and argue the other side, alone, or just remain invisible. So I mostly stayed quiet, seething inwardly and venting later to understanding friends.

For all of these reasons, I was dreading Easter dinner with my family. I wondered if I should waste a precious day off from my current 70 hour/week schedule feeling like a pariah, and almost didn’t go. But, hopeful as always, I decided to brave it, if nothing else for the kick-ass food. I’m glad I went.

Apart from the obligatory mealtime prayer, I heard no mention of either religion or politics. I had pleasant and casual conversation with my Mom’s sisters about books, Tim3P0 and I geeked out with a cousin about the rocket sled on Mythbusters (which is still blowing my mind, btw), the food was indeed awesome, and we basically had a great time. I hope this isn’t a fluke.

Ever since, I’ve been thinking about what’s changed. I think it comes down to critical mass. As the members of my generation have begun to come of age and bring new significant others (I have to say, I was ecstatic to see two of my cousins accompanied by punk-rock-looking, pierced girlfriends) and spouses into the family, we’ve started to diversify a bit. I’m no longer the only non-Catholic, and I think we’ve reached a point where they can’t be sure who agrees with them and who doesn’t, so they tend to keep things light and relatively secular in this relatively new influx of mixed company. I hope the trend continues, because I think it’s important to be exposed to many different kinds of people. It expands our in-group, and I think it makes us better human beings. Plus, I really like hanging out with my family, and look forward to getting to know more about them in other ways than their religious views.

So what does all this self indulgent spouting have to do with the skeptical movement? Well, I’ve noticed some things lately that are making me think we’re approaching a similar critical mass in society at large. Maybe I’ve got my rose-colored glasses on, but it seems like we’re starting to get noticed, and I think we’re starting to make a difference. Due in large part, I think, to the visibility of the New Atheist movement, more and more nonbelievers are realizing that they aren’t alone, and they’re getting together and speaking out with a confidence few had known previously. Many of these people are also skeptics, who, prior to being exposed to the online atheist community, didn’t realize that there was also a community of skeptics. I am one of them. These are my biased perceptions, of course, and I may be completely off base, but I think it would be interesting to look at the numbers.

What does this mean, and why bring it up at all? Well, I think it’s good to see some progress for all our hard work; it keeps us going. There is still a hell of a lot of bullshit out there, and I don’t delude myself that it will ever be gone entirely, but we are an ever growing force in the battle for reason, and that makes me very hopeful.

So keep speaking up, and writing, and activism-ing, and thinking, and living, and building up to that critical mass which will make us impossible to ignore.

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  1. I’m glad you had a calm Easter gathering :)

    I think it’s interesting (assuming you’re right about the influx of new people and ideas) that some of the more hard-baked Catholics in your family don’t want to talk about religion in that setting, ostensibly to keep things polite. That says that on some level, they know forcing their unsolicited opinions on people is rude. My own family probably would have appreciated it if my brother and I had figured that out long before we did :)

  2. Just out of curiosity, did any of them at any point express even a little frustration about some of the stupid things coming out of the Pope the last few weeks? Or is that not likely to be the sorta stuff they share with skepchickal types?

  3. carr2d2: I’m really glad to hear that you had an enjoyable easter gathering :)

    I share your experience of being one of the only ones with a ‘dissenting’ opinion in my family and I took the other path from you. Years ago, I made the decision to, as you put it, “…to stand up and argue the other side, alone…”

    From experience, you made the right choice. It’s taken me years to rebuild some of the family connections I accidentally burnt by refusing to back down from my insistence “right” was not a result of numbers and “fact” was not something open to judgment as opinion, (one of my more distant relatives is a YEC. I’m not welcome at family gatherings from that part of the family).

    That all said, I hope you are right about skepticism. Though I agree with you that atheism is approaching a point where it will receive mainstream acceptance, atheism has no real connection to skepticism except by a fluke of self-identification correlation*.

    Personally, I have seen no evidence at all that skepticism, or even basic critical thinking, is on the rise. So though I hope you are right about this, I don’t think you are.

    Still, I am really glad you had a good time.

    –(the explanation below can be ignored by anyone who already understands what I was saying above. I’m trying a new thing to make my post easier to read and less tedious.)

    * = what I mean by, “self-identification correlation”, is that a high percentage of people who actively self-identify as ‘skeptics’ also self-identify as ‘atheist’. However, the reverse is not true. Additionally, self-identification as an atheist or agnostic is not a necessary pre-requisite for one to self-identify as a ‘skeptic’.

    Further, beyond the self-identification issue, if a minimum standard of critical thinking skills is imposed before acceptance of someone as a skeptic, (for instance, I think we all discount the attempts of YEC ‘skeptics’ who are questioning science as any sort of ‘real’ skeptic), then skepticism can not be presumed for any group other than core critical thinkers, (eg. it can not be presumed that atheist, scientist, engineers, Zen masters, or anyone else is a skeptic just because of their membership in some other group).

  4. Thanks for the story. Yeah, I’m Catholic. I know that my critical thinking and questions have changed my family. Whilst my beloved boyfriend was at the National Atheist Convention, the kids and I visited another Catholic Church for Mass. Afterward, we went for Midnight truffles at Dairy Queen…we always eat ice cream on Easter. I brought up the discussion about the Pope and condoms…yes…I have three sons…and they are all old enough to talk about the stupidity er…lack of sense…er inconsistency yeah that’s it… I see in his Holiness’s latest statement on condoms. Imagine my horror when my 17 year old told me that a the reason we have all of these wars and economic problems is because of so much ‘sin’ in the world. If we would back off all that sex and greed it would be better and that disease will be here always because we are all….’sinners’
    I looked and said “who are you and where did you live for 17 years’ I can not stress the importance of making your children critical thinkers! For one of mine has some how become a little God of the Gaps Professor. Tying it all together in one glorious “Because God said it he did it” thought. Okay, I know this is obviously from his “father’s Evangelical Pentecost driven side of the family. EEEESH. We ended by me being the mommy and saying..”okay you can keep that woo for now…but absolutely no one at this table better try and tell me the earth is 6 thousand years old or I’m putting you up for adoption”…at which point some nice lady in church clothes looked a little surprised.
    Ahhh…life in the world of a newly forming skeptic….its…well Heaven…

  5. I’m always a little surprised when I go to my Aunt and Uncle’s house for Thanksgiving, Christmas or Zombie Jesus day and my uncle lays down the pre meal prayer that they never question my non participation in said prayer. I just sit there quielty and let them thank their god for running to the store and slaving in the kitchen all day. Oh wait.

    I guess they are respecting my non belief but in a way I wish they would ask me about it. I mean I’m kind of proud of myself for “Letting Go of God” and I enjoy talking about it when it comes up. Though I’m sure it would make them feel awkward.

    Come to think of it I have not come out to any of my family as an atheist. I don’t hide it persay it’s just not the sort of thing you drop on them at Christmas dinner and honestly, I think my mom is afraid to ask me.

  6. hehe, “in-group”… anthro-geeking?

    I know what you mean about feeling like a pariah, big time.. My life wasn’t made much easier when my son’s father told his family that he was breaking up with me because I was an atheist…. uuugghhh (to clarify, this was a lie).

    But I, too, have contemplated the way free thinkers and skeptics have been more mainstream lately.. I ask myself if I’m just more aware of it now,because I know what to look for… but I do honestly think that “closeted” people, like I was, are gaining a little bit of bravery…. life gets easier when you know you aren’t alone…..

    I love the way free thinkers and skeptics are networking to become a force to reckon with in politics, media, and our social groups… Refreshing and definitely a positive thing.

  7. Way back in 1995 when I started what became I had little idea that we’d come so far so soon. In those days the evangelical movement was still on the rise where only a handful of notable people (Penn Jillette, e.g.) could be open about their godlessness without paying a significant price to their career. Now to identify oneself as atheist barely raises an eyebrow!

  8. I hope I doin’t sound like a ignorant fool, but can anybody enlighten me and explain what a YEC is? (as refered to by MoltenHotMagma in post 4)

  9. @nath3380: YEC=young earth creationist.
    @MoltenHotMagma: i don’t know…i really think there is more to the atheist/skeptic link than you are granting. yes, it is true that not all atheists are skeptics, and not all skeptics are atheists, but it seems to me that people who ask questions about the nature of things, and apply logic to answer those questions (read: skeptics) are much more likely to reject religion.

  10. @MoltenHotMagma:

    But isn’t atheism/agnosticism simply skepticism applied to religion? It’s garnering more press because it’s so pervasive in our culture and historically so rare for people to publicly reject it. You don’t get the same emotional reactions from people if you step into a crowded evangelical church on a Sunday morning and announce that you do NOT believe in the Loch Ness Monster.

    No one truly believes all of it. Even the most credulous woo-woo doubts something. You can think Sylvia is a true psychic without believing your chiropractor can fix leukemia, for example.

    I think the core of this New Atheism holds a critical look at the evidence and then boldly marches to the logical conclusion, which is precisely the same thing we do with homeopaths, UFO abductees, anti-vaxxers, and palm readers.

    I don’t have any numbers to support or refute anything. This is all conjecture :) But the “new” part of “New Atheism” may mean that all these new atheists have not yet let those thought processes spread into less controversial arenas. Or we might have legions of new skeptics that are shying away from the religion question, because most people’s families aren’t going to kick you out if you let it slip that you have doubts about Atlantis.

    Or they reached a different conclusion. Those online polls never seem to have a spot for deists.

    I think there is a definite link, but the God question is so big, it’s going to take time to reach an equilibrium point.

    Time will tell :) The only stat I have is watching TAM getting bigger and bigger every year.

  11. @carr2d2: “…but it seems to me that people who ask questions about the nature of things, and apply logic to answer those questions (read: skeptics) are much more likely to reject religion.”

    Oh! I agree with that statement entirely. My point, though, is that it isn’t a two way street. Though there is a strong coloration between being a skeptic and being/becoming an atheist, in my experience it doesn’t work the other way at all. My experience is that, as a group, there are plenty of non-critical thinkers within atheism. Because of that, an increase in atheism doesn’t actually indicate an increase in skepticism with any surety, just an increase in secularism. Had you phrased it the other way around, (more skeptics – therefore more atheist), well I wouldn’t have raised any objection to that at all.

    @phlebas: “But the ‘new’ part of ‘New Atheism’…”

    Interesting point. I don’t have a lot of experience with ‘New Atheist’, as opposed to atheist, so I couldn’t say if they are more skeptical, (as a group), than atheist in general or not.

    “…The only stat I have is watching TAM getting bigger and bigger every year”

    True, (and gads I wish I was going to be there this year :/, I haven’t been to one yet), but how much of that is the normal growth associated with spread of knowledge through the existing population? What I mean by that is that if we assume there were X number of critical thinkers/skeptics even before the modern skeptical movement, then it is safe to project that a subset, Y, of that population will be attracted to the current movement. Even if no new critical thinkers are added to the total number, it is going to take time for all of the group, Y, to become aware of the current movement and get active in it. During that time, events like TAM will constantly grow as a reflection of the new people becoming aware, not any new people becoming skeptical. So how much of TAM’s growth is an artifact of information spreading through the existing population of interested critical-thinkers, Y, and how many of the people are actually new?

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