The Candle is Out
Posted by Ethan Clow on August 2, 2013
Carl Sagan, my personal hero, wrote a book called the Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. It’s a book that had profound implications on my life. Upon reading it, the foundations of skeptical activism were set, and while it would take some time, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
In the book, Sagan uses the analogy of a candle to describe the predicament of our civilization. Science is that faint glow of light holding back the darkness of superstition, pseudoscience, backwards thinking – and if we want to extend that analogy – homophobia, sexism, intolerance, dogmatism etc.
Last month I announced my resignation from CFI Canada and since I know people are curious, I’d like to explain some of my thoughts on this and why I decided to go in this direction.
The truth is, I’m not just resigning from CFI Canada, but skepticism in general. I’m not going to be blogging or podcasting. I’m not going to attend events like skeptics in the pub or lectures or engage in online discussions about the nature of skepticism or humanism.
For me, the candle is out.
I’m not going to dive into worthless gossip and give credence to half truths and other clock and dagger silliness. This is strictly my point of view and strictly about me. Take it for what its worth.
Skeptical activism has long been a kind of wonderful hobby for me. I could sit down, read some articles, do some research, write a blog post or a segment for Radio Freethinker and feel content. Likewise with CFI, I always felt energized after a good meeting or event. I loved to chat with other group leaders and discuss strategy. I felt like I was doing something that made the world a better place. I saw it less as a job and more like some awesome thing I got paid to do.
When my personal life started to get very stressful and unpleasant, I saw CFI and skepticism as my escape. I could forget about my worries and dive into a new project. I knew in the back of my mind that sooner or later I was going to have to deal with life and so I would occasionally take breaks and let the talented volunteers handle things here and there.
Things were going along nicely. I was still riding a high from the Imagine No Religion 3 conference and my head was buzzing with ideas and projects and we were eagerly getting started on some of them. Then news from the board of directors hit and I found that Michael Payton, the National Executive Director of CFI had been relieved of his duties.
I was floored. Michael had been doing a fantastic job and his removal was like having the rug pulled out from under me while I was moving a piano.
After a long week of emails, phone calls, and discussion – I was no closer to understanding the reasoning behind removing Michael than I was when I first heard the news. I disagreed with the board’s decision, I disagreed with their method of arriving at that decision and I disagreed with their vision of moving forward.
Through this process I arrived at the conclusion that while I don’t think the board of directors were/are a bunch of cartoonish villains twirling their mustaches, their vision of CFI Canada is not one that I share or particularly see myself a part of.
That’s fine. People have different ideas of how to do things. Reasonable people come to different conclusions all the time. But (sparing you the details) this method of doing things didn’t sit well with me.
You might be surprised, but I think I could probably have worked through all that. Several people I respect, are going to do just that. Building something like this takes time and there will be setbacks along the way, and this is a major setback, but people intend to fix it and move on to the next challenge. Good for them.
For me, the problems run deeper than that. I’ve always said this type of work; skeptical activism, is a thankless job. Whenever I interviewed new volunteers, I would reiterate this to them. “When you make a mistake, expect someone to call you out on it. No matter how small or mundane it might be, someone will try to spin it like its the worst thing you’ve ever done.” They would usually smile and assure me they’re ready for it.
A Reactionary Movement
“Skeptics are mean.” A volunteer from a different organization once remarked to me. And not in those exact words, but I’ve heard similar issues from volunteers. They want to help out, but quickly feel embattled and leave.
I’m not trying to disparage anyone or any group, but I think its worth pointing out that this sort of issue is real and I’ve seen it personally.
Here are some examples:
It’s common for me to receive forwarded emails between people planning things, when it comes time for my contribution the whole conversation is sent to me. On one such occasion, the conversation began with “I knew Ethan would screw this up…”
While going through some old documents, looking for accounting information, I found a note written by an individual makings some pretty libellous assumptions about me. Later, I found another note by someone else complaining about mean-spirited gossip being spread around.
Other situations that I’ve been told about include:
- Volunteers being called up early in the morning and yelled at.
- Explosive arguments over mundane topics that result in vows of “I will not work with this person until they are kicked out!”
- Skeptical activists trying to organize boycotts of other skeptical organizations because the said group has a policy etc. someone doesn’t agree with.
I could go on but let’s stop there.
In the past I’ve talked about the skeptic/freethought community being overly reactionary. I would use the term in the sense that skeptics typically have knee-jerk responses to problems, but you could also imply that the movement is built on reaction itself. Consider, what are the principles of the freethought movement? Do we have positional statements or end goals or is our entire policy tree growing on the concept of reacting to other ideas?
“You can’t treat X with homeopathy”
“You can’t put the ten commandments there”
“You can’t find Bigfoot”
“Those aren’t UFO’s”
“That’s not a picture of a ghost”
It would seem that all of our core positions are actually reactions to other beliefs and policy positions. In theory there’s nothing wrong with that, but I wonder if this hasn’t created some kind of feedback loop for the movement.
I lamented in a previous blog post (All You Need is Love (and Skepticism)) that many (if not all) of our internal “deep rift” disagreements could be solved by having a different internal communication strategy. Instead of making our disputes public – we should first try private communication, a phone call or email.
Dan Dennett has a system where if he takes issue with something someone has said, he first contacts them and summarizes their point to them “is this what you meant to say?”
Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: ‘Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.’
A Professional Movement
The running gag has been that organizing skeptics is like herding cats. An expression I’ve heard is “the best thing about freethinkers is that they’re free thinkers and the worst thing about freethinkers is that they’re free thinkers.”
I’ve debated whether there actually is a discordant element in the community or if that’s just confirmation bias. There does appear to be plenty of reasons why freethinkers might be so hard to organize. There is a certain element of intellectual arrogance inherent in skepticism – a slight tendency towards know-it-all-ism. This could create a situation where the average skeptic just doesn’t accept that someone else could know better than they could.
Other explanations could be an anti-organizational or libertarian philosophy, an embattled personality, or an unwillingness to work together.
Another possible explanation which recently I’ve come to consider quite carefully is that a large group of skeptics don’t consider themselves a “professional movement.” What I mean by this is that for many people, the free thought movement exists in the social sphere of extended hobby. It’s an opportunity to get together, have a few drinks and discuss like-minded interests. And that’s about it. Taking the next step from discussing such interests to actually organizing around them, is not something everyone is keen to do.
And of course, that’s fine. I enjoy playing and watching hockey, that doesn’t mean I’m going to try out for the NHL.
The problem is, you have professional organizations, many of which are incorporated as non-profits or charities, they ask for donations, they put on events and preform activism. There are some that operate with volunteer staff and others that employ people and pay rent for buildings.
As I see it, there is a severe disconnect between how these organizations operate and who they serve. Since I’ve personally run the gauntlet of working within such groups, as a volunteer, as a staff member, as a person in leadership roles, or in administrative roles or in policy making roles, I feel like I have a strong understanding of this disconnect.
Roughly speaking, its a circular problem.
While there are a lot of hard working volunteers and staff people out there, these groups generally have limited experience in non-profit management or business. And while most are great at punching above their weight class, there’s a lot of unrealistic expectations that are being sold to donors and the skeptical community.
Unfortunately the community is littered with the bones of reformers who have tried to come into the movement and reshape some of the larger organizations to put them more in line with other non-profits. Advice about communication and public relations have largely fallen on deaf ears and this can be seen in the relatively small size of the movement. Estimations of the number of non-believers, atheists, agnostics around the world is considerably higher than what you would expect looking at the membership lists of the groups in the free thought movement.
Lots of people have read books by Dawkins, Sagan and Hitchens, yet the movement has failed to pull many of these people into the fold. Many of the skeptical “celebrities” that exist in the movement are relative unknowns in the large social milieu.
Essentially, you have organizations (which lack the expertise they need) who have expectations that aren’t realistic and worse, given their size and situation, usually aren’t what they really need. Meanwhile, you have the supporters of such organizations who have equally unrealistic expectations for the groups they support, of which most are ambivalent to what the supporters actually want and don’t want to spend the time necessary to inform them of what is realistic. (Assuming they know what is.)
The sheer number of groups and organizations that exist to the serve the free-thought movement is evidence of these facts. That many of these organizations got their start as fractured arguments between leaders of one organization who then took their ball and went home, is an unwelcome sign of these unrealistic expectations having disastrous effects on our community.
I want it all and I want it now
In talking with other activists and people involved in other non-profit causes, the mantra for success seems to be pragmatism. Charities, as a matter of necessity, ask for the moon. This is because they need to galvanize their supporters and present an appealing and hopeful outlook. Behind the scenes, this is often at odds with a careful strategy of baby steps and achievable objectives.
I liken this to the anti-proliferation of nuclear weapons. Sure, we say we want all the nukes gone…but if they offered to remove 25%, we’d take it.
I’ve already mentioned the issue of realistic expectations, but there’s another way that pragmatism needs to be reflected. The ability to put aside disagreements and work to common cause, which has been the Achilles heel of many organizations.
I want to tell a story (so unbelievable that people will think I made this up but it actually happened) I was involved in a meeting of various skeptical activists and we were tossing around ideas for projects and potential group efforts. A particular idea was being discussed when one participant spoke up, to paraphrase: “I don’t like this idea, and if we go forward with it, then fuck it. I won’t help or be involved.”
In discussing this problem with others, I’ve come to wonder if it’s a feedback loop caused by the fact that those most likely to volunteer and take on leadership roles, also have strong personality types that make working with others difficult. Another possibility is that leadership positions in skeptic/free thought groups often fall on the person with the most time and energy and not necessarily the best training or experience (in things like time management, human resources etc)
Unfortunately I’ve seen this issue repeat itself time and again. Individuals who won’t work with other individuals for unrelated reasons. And I’m not talking about things like “I don’t want to work with X because he gropes people.” I’m talking about people saying “I won’t work with him because he supports a different political party” or “I just don’t like her.”
The People’s Front of Judea
I don’t want to give the wrong impression here. I’m very proud of the accomplishments I made as a skeptical activist. I feel perfectly at ease hanging my hat on them and I consider the hard work that was put into them – time well spent.
I don’t want people to walk away thinking that I feel like I wasted my time or resent the community of freethinkers. In fact, my time working with CFI, doing Radio Freethinker, getting involved in the community and attending conferences was great fun.
But even when you have fun, you notice the ways things could get better. Unfortunately, I don’t really know how to fix any of these problems. I’m not entirely sure they’ll ever get fixed because I know that there a plenty of people who will deny they exists till their blue in the face.
I know that some people will read this, roll their eyes and say “whatever.” I know that there are people who have written me off paragraphs earlier. And since I’m not offering any real solutions, I don’t exactly blame people for dismissing this. But at the same time, I feel like my involvement with the skeptical movement is worth some consideration. These are problems I have noticed repeatedly and I’m starting to hear other people mention them as well.
This leads me to believe that I’m on to something here.
I realize that for someone reading this, it all seems a bit vague and obtuse. I don’t cite specific examples or name names or anything like that. In reality, I could. I have emails, I have documents, I could share it all and let it hit the fan.
But, given the serious nature of such claims, I won’t. I’d don’t need lawyers knocking on my door or accusations that could damage my career or the careers of others. So whether you decide to take my ramblings with a grain of salt or consider them deeply, the choice is up to you.
These are my thoughts, and if they can have some impact on the movement, that’s enough for me.