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‘Show me the compassionate atheist communities’

Do you know any good poo and wee stories? This is the question that confronts me as I arrive at Windsor Hill Wood, an open-door community run by the writer Tobias Jones and his wife Francesca, in Somerset. They live there with their three children – Benedetta is eight, Grace is five, and Leo is three – and there are five beds for guests. In the open-door tradition of Christian communities like Pilsdon and Little Gidding, those beds are available to anyone who turns up looking for shelter. For £10 a night, you get food and board, as long as you obey the three rules: no drink, no drugs, no physical or verbal violence. As a bonus, you get to field unusual questions from the children.

Tobias Jones

Windsor Hill Wood is a refuge for the wounded (particularly those suffering from substance addiction) and an experiment in communal living. It’s also a family home. The Jones children are full of life and mischief. Benedetta is at the age where she is amused by poo and wee, so, in an attempt to limit her dinner-time interjections, Toby has suggested setting aside a brief period after-dinner for ‘poo and wee stories’. Benedetta informs me of this as soon as I arrive, and says I have an hour or so to think up some good poo and wee stories. After dinner, she turns to me expectantly and says, ‘Here’s my story: when I was younger I peed in the bath. Now what’s your story?’ Grace, on my right, is amused by my name. ‘Jules? Like crown jewels?’ And she immediately sets to work making me a crown from some cardboard and feathers. I feel honoured.

Toby says he was inspired to set up the community by the Sermon on the Mount. Every morning and afternoon, he goes to prayers in the  wig-wam chapel on the edge of the wood. The prayers are 15 minutes of silent contemplation, and are completely voluntary. Guests are expected to take part in woodland work in the mornings – feeding the chickens and pigs, chopping wood, making furniture in the workshop, tending to the vegetable patch, fixing stuff. Every meal is taken together.

I first came across Toby last year, at the Hay-On-Wye book festival. He was there to talk about the detective novels he writes, the profits from which he uses to subsidize Windsor Hill Wood. In the festival bookshop, I picked up his book Utopian Dreams, a brilliant account of his travels with his wife and the one-year-old Benedetta to visit various spiritual and religious communities – a Quaker retirement village, a new age commune, a Catholic village without money or TV, and finally the Pilsdon open-door community in Dorset.  Their stay in Pilsdon inspired the Joneses to set up Windsor Hill Wood. The book is also a meditation on community and faith. Toby tells me: “We used to live under one shared sacred canopy – Christianity. Now faith has been privatized, and turned into a lot of little personal umbrellas.” ‘Cocktail umbrellas?’ I suggest. “Yeah, right!” And the price of that privatisation, Toby thinks, is that we have become alienated and lonely.

It’s not all bad, though, is it? I point out that the ‘shared canopy’ that existed before the Enlightenment involved the ruthless extermination of those who didn’t accept the dominant umbrella, whether that be Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Gnostics, pagans or free thinkers. And community isn’t all good: I’m quite glad I don’t live in a village where the vicar checks to see if I’m behaving myself. I like the freedom to choose my own beliefs, my own path.

Still, Toby offers a serious challenge to secular humanism, one which leaves me pondering as I drive back up the A303 to London. In Utopian Dreams, he wondered why faith seemed so important an inspiration to community. Someone in the book asks of the charitable and voluntary sector: “Where are the humanists and Fabians and socialists?” I ask Toby to explore that point further. He says:

Some friends sometimes say ‘you could do this without the religious element’, and I always reply ‘show me the atheist communities that do it. Where are the humanist communities that have an open-door policy, that genuinely look after all the people in need?’ And I’m afraid they don’t exist, or I haven’t discovered them. Even those iconic charities that are now secular in the way they run, like Save the Children or Emmaus or Amnesty International, their inspiration was religious. I’ve yet to discover the agnostic or atheist community that shows that degree of compassion. In theory, love of humanity is a sufficient motive for compassionate communities. But show it to me in practice. I’m more interested in the fruits than the roots.

If that’s the case, I ask, why would that be? Toby replies:

What does it say about religion? That it’s true. You can’t re-package religion for a secular age and say ‘the sacred is really useful,  because it helps us build community and makes us compassionate, ethical people. So let’s take the Sermon on the Mount and forget about God’. That’s not going to work. The core of religion is true, not just the fringe benefits. All the other stuff is a consequence of God. I know I’m in a tiny minority, but I don’t think you can put the cart before the horse. Religion gives humanity an extra gear for cruelty and stupidity and witch-hunting and all the stupid things religions have done for millennia. But it also gives humanity an extra gear for fellowship and compassion. Religion should in theory entirely remove the focus from the self, so that the paramount thing is no longer me and what I’m going through, but something external. That works on the personal level and at the community level, because the community has something outside of itself that is sacred and paramount. We can get together to be reciprocal and compassionate to each other, but that doesn’t suffice. You need something external that gives devout purpose to a bunch of human beings.

The fruit, not the roots

Albert Ellis. Good man. Atheist.

This got me thinking. Certainly there are many noble charities and organisations which were inspired by religion, from the Red Cross to Alcoholics Anonymous. But there are also many worthwhile institutions that weren’t inspired by religion, such as the entire United Nations and all its works, including UNICEF and UNDP. I can also think of many humanists and atheists who have done a great deal to relieve human suffering (if we’re talking about the fruits and not the roots). Albert Ellis, the inventor of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, was a fervent atheist, and quite an egotist, but the therapy he developed has helped millions of people out of suffering. Not to mention all the scientific advances that have relieved human suffering, from penicillin to the household toilet. Some of the scientists who helped build the modern age were religious, but many were not. Some might not even have been that kind or sociable. But their inventions have dramatically improved the conditions of our life.

The secret of the modern age compared to the religious age is that it’s not about the saintly charismatic individual – the Mother Theresa or the Jean Vanier. It’s about effective laws, effective technologies and effective institutions. That might not sound very soulful but, as Jeremy Bentham pointed out, a good pragmatic reform like the minimum wage is more important to relieving human suffering than any number of saints or Salvation Armies. And sometimes good inventions and good laws are made by not very saintly people, like the philanderer Lloyd George. As Adam Smith pointed out, sometimes not very moral behaviour (like status-seeking) has pro-social benefits (like higher economic growth).

There is a big evangelical revival in western Christianity at the moment, a revival in the belief in miracles. That revival is often fuelled by westerners traveling to the Third World, particularly Africa, and witnessing miracles there. Some of my Christian friends are very inspired by this revival and the power of faith and charisma to heal sickness. In some ways, I think this revival is a flight from modernity. Look at child mortality rates or life expectancy in countries with a low level of faith and a high level of scientific expertise, like the UK, and compare it to life expectancy in African countries, which have high levels of faith and low levels of scientific expertise. Faith may sometimes work wonders, but chemotherapy cures more people of cancer. Post-religious societies like the UK are also, on the whole, less violent than intensely religious societies like, say, Pakistan, Israel or Nigeria. I know it’s simplistic to lay those countries’ problems entirely at the door of religion, but religions seem to me to get in the way of solving those problems, rather than helping people arrive at pragmatic and effective solutions.

But of course, secular liberalism has its downsides. As I put it in Philosophy For Life, we have won our privacy, but at the cost of terrible loneliness. We have relied heavily on the scientific, the instrumental, the technocratic. We have relied on scientific expertise divorced from human feeling. And that has sometimes led to vast bureaucratic institutions like the welfare state or the NHS, which can sometimes feel impersonal, un-compassionate, soulless even.  They are contractual rather than transcendental. We meet in them as service-users and service-providers, rather than humans.

We still hunger for loving communities, we long to be joined together in a common sense of the sacred and transcendent. In the last few months, several humanists have suggested the need for ‘humanist churches’ in recent months, from Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists and the School of Life, to the humanist chaplains of Harvard, to the new atheist church in Islington, set up this month and run by two comedians. I’ve taught classes at the School of Life, and I think it’s a wonderful initiative. It offers ideas, stimulation and community to people without faith in God. It is a platform for some of our best thinkers and writers – this week it hosted Richard Sennett. The School means something to people. It helps them think about their values. And yet Toby’s challenge is a good one to consider.

The problems with humanist communities

One of the wonders of the universe: Brian Cox’s ego

Firstly, do humanist communities have good moral leaders? Do they offer us worthwhile moral patterns we can embody in our own life? Many of the most prominent humanists are prominent not because of their emotional or moral qualities, but because of their scientific skill. But not everyone can be a world-class scientist like Richard Dawkins, so that sort of leader is of limited use as a pattern to imitate. And in many humanist leaders, I see an egotism which is not present in the best religious leaders like, say, Jean Vanier. I follow one of Harvard’s young humanist chaplains on Twitter. Every other tweet of his is a retweet of a compliment someone has paid him. He seems to be motivated by the desire for publicity and approval. Nothing wrong with that. Me too, and I’m older than him and should know better. But I want my spiritual leader to be better than that. I want them to be above the desperate desire for fame and publicity that affects most of us (particularly me). I think of that line in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Thine is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory.’ Thine is the glory. Without God, I think we can easily end up glorying in our own images. Watching Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe, I was amazed how often Cox’s own grinning face fills the cosmos. Again, nothing wrong with that, why shouldn’t media personalities have big egos? I’m just saying, we hope our spiritual leaders are better than that.

Secondly, do humanist communities have the emotional depth of religious communities? How low do they go? Are they capable of facing the depths to which the human spirit can sink? Are they open not just to the educated and well-heeled, but to the broken and wounded, and to human suffering in all its ugliness and awkwardness and blood and poo and wee? Much as I love the School of Life, I think it caters essentially to the middle – the middle-class, and the middle-suffering. I don’t think it would be much help to the truly broken, to the sick, to the dying. I think Roger Scruton is right that secular humanism struggles to find appropriate emotional reactions to major life events, like death. It often becomes mawkish and sentimental, or simply bathetic. Life isn’t all ha-ha hee-hee. The atheist writer Alom Shaha visited Islington’s atheist church recently, which is run by two comedians, and wrote:

The emphasis on making people laugh (which is no bad thing) may, to some extent, have been inevitable considering the background of the organisers, but I hope that The Sunday Assembly might move away from being performer and entertainment driven (similar to events like Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People) and become more, dare I say it, serious and thinker-driver (if that makes sense).

Yes, it does. But fellowship isn’t just about learning facts, nor is it about TED-like solutions for better living. It’s also about facing failure, suffering and death together.

Is it possible, then, that Toby is right, and that having something in common outside of us – God – allow us to open up and be vulnerable to each other and to share our imperfection and woundedness? Does it enable us to take off our masks and meet each other? One thing that strikes me about my Christian friends is the central importance they give to friendship and meeting. They listen to each other, honour each other. They take their relationship with God very seriously, and they also take their relationships with other humans seriously. I admire that.

Finally, does humanism place too much emphasis on the rational autonomous self? I’ve met some addicts who enjoyed reading Philosophy for Life, and who commented on the parallels between Stoicism and the various Twelve Steps programmes like AA or NA. Both, for example, emphasise knowing the wisdom of knowing what you can control and what you can’t. But AA goes deeper than that. It says that we’re not in control, we can’t do it on our own. We need God and other people to help us.

Well, this is a complex area. Let me end by telling you my poo and wee story. I had broken my leg skiing in Norway, and was flown back to the UK and picked up from the airport in an ambulance. We were driving down the M4 to London, and I needed to pee. So the medic next to me gave me a urine sample bottle to pee into. But I really needed to pee, and it became rapidly clear to me that I was going to pee more than the capacity of the bottle. ‘I’m going to fill it!’ I said. ‘Is there another bottle?’ There wasn’t. As we sped down the M4, the medic and I looked around desperately for another container. Then a voice came back from the driving seat. ‘Use this’. And the driver passed back his lunch box. Sighing with relief, I peed into that. Was the ambulance driver a theist or a humanist? I don’t know, but I was grateful for his help.

I interviewed Tobias for a podcast for Aeon Magazine, which will be released shortly. 


In other news:

Here’s former LPC speaker Peter Kinderman on why grief and anxiety aren’t illnesses, with reference to DSM V.

Next Tuesday, come and hear Jacqui Dillon, director of the Hearing Voices Network in England, talk at the LPC about her experience hearing voices, why the experience can be meaningful, and how the Network helps voice-hearers to help themselves.

On February 6th, come to the School of Life and hear me talk to philosopher Havi Carel about how philosophy helped her when she faced a potentially terminal illness.

I’m launching a six-part evening course on Philosophy For Life at Queen Mary, University of London. Every Tuesday evening from 6pm to 8pm, starting Tuesday 5th February. It’s free. Details here.

The OUP has published a new Handbook on Happiness, with contributions from leading UK positive psychologists like Ilona Boniwell and Felicia Huppert, and well-being policy pioneers like Nic Marks and Geoff Mulgan. Looks great, if expensive.

Struggling to get PhD funding? Head for Asia.

Get ready for Slavoj Zizek, the opera. And three Oxford undergrads are launching John Rawls’ Theory of Justice: The Musical. I like this new trend.

Here’s an article in the Daily Mail (sorry) about the Liverpool reading project and its latest neuroscience research into what complex poetry does to our brain.

Here’s an article about Drake’s philosophy of YOLO (you only live once).

This week’s newsletter is sponsored by NIETZSCHE BARS.

What’s missing from geek culture

The geeks are inheriting the Earth. BBC News magazine this week explores how geeks and nerds are no longer the marginalised losers they once were. Now, it’s hip to be geeky:

Things have changed since the 1984 film, Revenge of the Nerds. The Social Network in 2010 came in a very different social milieu. Today when people think of “geeks” and “nerds” they might very well name the likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg – people whose imagination and grasp of the technical made them billions. New York Times blogger and geeky statistician Nate Silver has been hailed as an unexpected star of the US presidential election after correctly predicting the outcome. “Memo to wannabe presidents: hire geeks, not pundits,” advises this week’s New Scientist magazine. A slew of comedies over the past few years have had geeks as heroes, such as Tim Bisley – the comics, video game and Star Wars-obsessive of Spaced – and Sheldon Cooper, the precocious physicist of The Big Bang Theory.

One might add that geek authors like Jon Ronson and Malcolm Gladwell now top the best-seller list, geek chefs like Hester Blumenthal are globally celebrated. In TV, the era of rugged heroes like MacGyver, Knightrider or BA Baracas is over – almost all our TV heroes are geeks, from House to Holmes, from Doctor Who to the loveable wonks of the West Wing. Really, the geek musical ‘Loserville’ is mis-named: does anyone think geeks are losers any more? They’re the new elite.

But what exactly is a geek? Let’s try and define the contemporary cultural type.

They sometimes wear glasses

They are probably above-average intelligence

They are perhaps slightly obsessive in their interests

They are likely to be mathletes, or physics buffs, or tech-heads and hackers, although they could also be evidence-based policy wonks

They are likely to get excited by machines or systems

They are likely to say ‘cool’ and ‘awesome’ a lot. They have an endearingly goofy enthusiasm for their obsessions

They probably like sci-fi, fantasy and superhero books, TV, comics, films and computer games

They are typically portrayed as somewhat lacking in social graces, and perhaps being somewhere on the autism spectrum

They are more likely to be boys than girls

They may have been a bit of an outsider or loser at school, but now, in their 20s or 30s, in the brave new knowledge economy, they make their fortune, get the cheerleader, and inherit the earth.

They are likely to be atheist / Skeptic

There is much to like about the rise of the geek. Our society is, on the whole, scientifically illiterate, which is the main reason we’re not taking climate change seriously. So we need more geeks – to take the issue seriously, and to invent ways for us to cope with it. Plus geeks invent cool stuff that we now all use, like iPhones or Facebook. Thank you geeks! And, in the US, geek-skeptics are brave insurgents against the tyranny of the religious right, symbolised for me in the heroic stand of Nate Silver, the evidence-based pollster, against the religious faith of Romney and his team that they would win. We need more geek politics.

Nonetheless, I don’t think of myself as a geek, and don’t want to jump on the geek bandwagon, even though I tick several of the geek boxes (glasses, love of ideas, social awkwardness etc). I think this is because I’m from a humanities background, rather than sciences. I studied English Literature at university, and now work as a journalist writing about philosophy, and even though my arts and humanities friends are on the whole pretty geeky (in the sense of being fairly cerebral) none of us self-identify as ‘geeks’.

I think that’s because we wouldn’t think of ourselves as being geeky in the sense of emotionally challenged or awkward about feelings or social interactions. On the contrary, arts grads like to think they’re fairly emotionally self-aware and relatively socially-competent. To be a good arts and humanities scholar, to some extent you have to be emotionally intelligent, I think. You have to be interested not just in ideas, but in feelings, in self-knowledge, and empathy for the experiences and world-views of others. And you’re trained to appreciate culture and art which intelligently explores people’s subjective experiences and emotions. This may be why girls are good at it – according to the OECD, two thirds of arts grads are women, and three quarters of health and welfare graduates. In the sciences, by contrast, 60% of graduates are men (check out this handy graph from The Economist:)

Women out-number men in arts, health and welfare degrees, and men out-number women in science degrees – a cognitive / empathy gender divide?
Dire, dire love-scenes

I like a lot of geek culture – fantasy like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, science fiction like Philip K. Dick, superhero movies like X-Men, Avengers Assemble, Dark Knight and so on.  I’m a huge fan of Spaced – although since Simon Pegg stopped working with Jessica Hynes his work has become more geeky and less emotionally interesting. But in general, geek culture is missing a lot. At its worst, it is emotionally flat, autistic even, replacing deep emotional experience with techno FX – think of the dire dialogue of James Cameron movies, or the appalling, almost robotic, love scenes between Anakin and Padme in George Lucas’ Star Wars, or the techno-autism of Transformers and Battleships. There can be something infantile about geek culture  – an obsession with childish things, like the toy or the comic or the computer-game, seal-wrapped and never opened, as if trying to preserve the innocence of childhood before adulthood came with all its confusing and messy feelings and interactions.

Geek culture can be somewhat infantile

I find it strange that the Skeptic movement, which prides itself on being the ‘cognitive elite’ (as Christopher Hitchens put it), should be so closely entwined with fan-boy culture (Skeptics In the Pub originally grew out of a science fiction meet-up, for example; and there are now Skeptic mini-events within some big comic and sci-fi conventions). Because you couldn’t say that comic book culture is particularly artistically or emotionally advanced. Quite the opposite. Even the very best of it – Alan Moore, say – is not that emotionally sophisticated, compared to a 19th-century novel for example. I know Alan Moore has a great reputation, but honestly, V for Vendetta is not that good. From Hell is pretty infantile. Even the Watchmen is only good in comparison with most other superhero comics. Compared to Middlemarch, say, it’s pretty silly stuff. So why should the ‘cognitive elite’ be so into bad art?

One speculative answer is that Skeptics are drawn to fantasy, sci-fi and superhero stories because they are a substitute for the common myths of religion, which Skeptics have rejected. Comic book culture draws heavily on old animist myths, folklore, magic and esoterica, and lets Skeptics / geeks find an emotional outlet in these myths, but without having to sign up to any ridiculous superstitions or obey a hierarchy of priests. It gives them a common mythology to bond over: instead of knowing the chapter and verse of the Bible, they recite the issue and page number on which the Silver Surfer first appeared. But it’s a disposable mythology, an irreverent one, half-serious half-mocking.

Comic book culture: a disposable mythology

But still, comic book culture isn’t on the whole that deep or emotionally intelligent. I wrote a long essay looking at the links between superhero stories and old animist myths, and I did a lot of research on comic book culture. I watched a lot of superhero movies, read a lot of superhero comics. And by the end, I was sick of it. It’s just not that emotionally sophisticated or interesting, with the exception of the films of Haruki Murakami.

Again, I ask: if geeks are the cognitive elite, why aren’t they more into great culture, rather than comic books? Are they perhaps a cognitive elite, but emotionally challenged? (Christopher Hitchens was, perhaps, an exception among Skeptics in the sophistication of his cultural tastes – but then he was from a humanities background. He was no scientist.)

Do geeks have an emotional deficit, and is this why they often fail to have any appreciation for religion? A more intelligent, cultured and well-rounded Skeptic, like William James for example, recognises that religious traditions have interesting things to say to us about humans’ emotional experiences, and that many of our most scientifically credible ways to transform emotions come from religions – meditation, from Buddhism; or CBT, from Stoicism. Richard Dawkins is completely uninterested in that, because ultimately he is not interested in feelings, he is interested in facts. By his own empirical standards, there is no such thing as love – you can’t measure it, you can’t prove it exists, therefore it doesn’t.

So why is geek culture so cognitively-sophisticated and emotionally-challenged? Here’s a very speculative and non-evidence-based attempt at an answer. James Flynn, the leading IQ researcher, argues that our IQs have been rising sharply over the last century because we have been forced, as a species, to acquire what he calls ‘scientific spectacles‘, or the ability to think hypothetically, conceptually and systemically. But perhaps this cognitive transformation came at a great emotional cost, and is the reason for the dramatic rise in autism, particularly among men. Perhaps that’s the dark side of the rise of geek culture. Well, it’s just a theory – what do you expect of an arts graduate…

Is the rise of geek culture connected to the steep rise in the incidence of male autism?

What also turns me off about geek culture is its celebration of its own intelligence. I find that gauche, just as I find Mensa gauche and lacking in social conscience. It’s a sort of ‘nuh nuh, we’re smart and the rest of the world is dumb’ attitude. It ignores the social privilege and education that enables geeks to be smart. Too often, it translates in reality into affluent people mocking poor people for their ridiculous belief in things like astrology or psychics. Well, if you were at the bottom of society maybe you would have an emotional need for God as well. Geek culture can also sometimes translate into men laughing at women for not being geeks – think of the dumb blonde in The Big Bang Theory, or the dumb brunette in the IT Crowd, or the whole weird internet argument about ‘fake geek girls‘.

Oh Jesus this looks like me

Of course one could equally weigh in to the ranks of humanities graduates for their scientific illiteracy and their tendency to cling on to very bad ideas like, say, psychoanalysis, a pseudo-scientific theory which today only survives among humanities scholars, and the French. One could criticise humanities graduates for adding nothing much of value to the world in the last 30 years, while scientists are still making great advances in particle physics, genetic biology, nanotechnology, and so on. Where are the great novels, the great paintings, the great symphonies, the great ideas? Pushed to the margins of culture, the arts and humanities graduate ends up turning their back on the world of evidence and instead cultivating and savouring their precious emotions. In extremis, they become fey aesthetes, melancholy, backward-looking, out-of-joint with the modern world. They become hipsters.  If I had to choose between a geek and a hipster, give me a geek any day of the week. Geeks may be emotionally-challenged but at least they invent something other than a electro-folk album with a fucking polaroid photo on the cover.

Nonetheless, would it not be great to combine these cultures, to combine the geek’s cognitive intelligence, love of science and respect for evidence, with the emotional intelligence and cultural sophistication of the arts and humanities graduate? That’s what some Skeptics manage to do – like Jon Ronson for example, or Brian Eno, or Oliver Sacks. It’s what Jonah Lehrer was trying to do: forge a third culture of culturally and emotionally-sophisticated geekdom. Come back Jonah, all is forgiven.

An encounter with the Mountain King

Right at the end of my book, I talk about a strange experience I had on a mountain in Norway a decade ago. It was, you might say, a religious or mystical experience. I tucked it away at the end of the book for a very important reason: I wrote the book for theists and atheists, and I didn’t want to put off any atheists (at least, not until the very end). Ancient Greek and Roman philosophies are a meeting ground for theists and atheists, a common drinking-spot in an acrimonious time, so I was tempted to leave my own God-thoughts right out of it.  In addition, I wasn’t sure whether to talk about such a private experience, and risk commodifying it. It fact, I only put the account into a very late draft, when my publisher said the book was too short…and I was still in two minds whether to do it.

When I was promoting the book in Holland last week, some interviewers asked me about that moment as their very first question, which showed at least that they’d read the whole book.  So, today, I’m going to talk briefly about what happened, and explain why I still haven’t joined a religion, why I remain ‘spiritual but not religious’, and why I think science is the friend of God and not the enemy.

Back in 2001, I had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder for roughly five years. It was caused by a couple of LSD bad trips when I was a teenager, which left me scarred, withdrawn, socially anxious and uncertain of reality. For five years, I became more and more lost and paranoid, a stranger to myself. Then, in February 2001, my family travelled to Norway, to the Peer Gynt region, where my great-great grandfather built a hytte. We share it with the extended family, and my family usually goes there once a winter, mainly for the cross-country skiing. Here is a photo of our hytte:

This year, we decided to do some downhill skiing on the first day. We also, for some stupid reason, decided to go down the black slope first. Oh fateful choice! It was snowing up there at the top of Valsfjel, visibility was poor. There was an ill wind from the north. The owls were restless in the trees. We set off down the slope, down the particularly steep slope at the beginning and….I smashed through a fence on the side of the slope and fell…








I fell 30 feet or so, broke my left femur, broke two vertebrae in my back, and knocked myself unconscious. Then, I’m not sure if it was while I was unconscious or after I had woken up, this happened: I saw a bright white light, something like this:

….and felt completely filled with love, and a knowledge or gnosis that there was something in me and all of us that cannot be broken, that cannot die.  Everything was OK.

I realised where I was and what had happened, and I immediately tried to wiggle the toes on my left foot, to see if I was paralysed. I could wiggle them. So I also knew that the worst that had happened was I’d broken my leg, and that, on a more terrestrial level, everything was OK. It was funny how calm and detached my mind was as it checked out the injury – I think that often happens in a bad accident, before the shock kicks in.

My uncle skied up and I heard him say ‘Oh God’. I tried to tell him that it was fine, that I’d had a remarkable experience, a peak experience (or should that be ‘off-peak’) but the words came out as gobbledy-gook, either because I was speaking in tongues, or I’d knocked myself silly. Then a motor-sledge came towing a stretcher, I was taken down to a hut at the bottom of the mountain, and put on a table while they staunched the bleeding. My father came in to the hut at that point. Here’s a picture of my father:

My father and I had not had a great relationship for the years immediately preceding the accident, because I was so uptight, anxious, and defensive towards the world, particularly the world of work. And, to a large extent, my father represented the world of work to me – the world of the office, the city, the career. My failure in that area of life (I was a business journalist, struggling with social anxiety, and very bad at getting on with co-workers and banker-contacts) felt to me like I was failing my father, who was very good at his city job and very charming with everyone he met. So I was quite defensive around him, which came across as hostility. It didn’t help that my father endlessly offered me advice on how to do things better, from clothing to shaving to even opening a tin of beans, which made me feel a Grade A Dufus. So, we had a somewhat strained and antagonistic relationship at that point.

Well, it was a strangely beautiful moment when he came into that shed – beautiful for me anyway, probably fairly horrifying for him. All that antagonism left, and I was simply his son, who had hurt himself. We’ve had a great relationship pretty much since then (we had a great relationship when I was growing up too, there was just four years in the middle which were a bit tricky…he had no idea I was internally miserable from drug-related trauma. None of my family or friends did. I was a master at hiding my feelings).

So, back to the story. A helicopter came and carried me away. I was taken to Lillehammer hospital, and went straight under the knife. I still have the metal pole in my leg that the surgeon put in that day. I spent a week in Lillehammer hospital, my father visiting me every day. I was very weak and whacked out. I remember I read Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, but to this day I can’t remember a single detail of the plot. Anyway, I felt fantastic – not physically, but spiritually. I felt like the crash had re-connected me to myself, to my heart and soul. For five years, I had felt completely detached from my feelings, or at least, from any good feelings. I hadn’t been able to love, or to relate to other people – all those pro-social feelings had been frazzled by the trauma. And now, for some reason, they came flooding back. I went from paranoia to eunoia. My inner Furies were transformed into the Eumenides. It was like spring after a long winter.

Of course the euphoria died away. But I retained an insight into my condition. I realised what caused my five years of suffering was not necessarily a drug-induced chemical imbalance in my brain, as I had feared. There was nothing permanently wrong with me. In fact, even if the drugs had triggered my trauma, what sustained it was my attitudes – specifically, my fear of others’ judgement of me, my fear of being labeled a failure or outcast. I looked to others’ judgements for self-validation, and this raised other people above me like a God, and made me permanently anxious and afraid of what that God might say. It also created a feedback loop between my idea of self and the reactions of other people. My defensive expectations became a self-fulfilling prophecy, like this: (I have spared no expense with this graph…)

And I realised, on that mountain, that I didn’t need to look to other people’s approval for self-worth. It seemed to me, in that moment, that we all have an immortal and invaluable soul within us, worth far more than any fleeting public approval. It’s always there, it never deserts us, its value does not rise or fall with the approval or disapproval of the world. The Gospel of St Thomas says: ‘The kingdom is like a man who had a hidden treasure in his field without knowing it.’ Rumi said: ‘Why are you so enchanted by this world, when a mine of gold lies within you?’ Experiencing that directly, and trusting in it, I could relax, and not see others as judges or executioners, but simply as fellow humans, as brothers and sisters.

When I relaxed and accepted myself, many of my ‘demons’ calmed down and became friends. By demons I mean parts of ourselves that we can’t accept, that we push away and demonize because they don’t fit our public image. If we learn to accept them, they become allies and give us strength – the Furies become Eumenides. But sometimes we have to let go of our false public images and stop trying to live up to worldly expectations, to accept and placate the demonic bits of the psyche (getting a bit mystical here, forgive me!)

Alas, even that insight faded after a while. I went back to work, hobbling on crutches, and before long I was depressed and anxious again ( I was in a job I disliked, after all). The bad old mental habits came back. And that’s when I discovered Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and recognised that it fit the insights I had gained on the mountain.  I realised the connection between CBT and Greek philosophy, and the Greeks’ idea of trusting in the God within. CBT gave me a systematic way to change my habitual beliefs and actions – that’s what I needed.

Why, you ask, did I not become a Christian after that experience?

Peer Gynt meeting the Mountain King

Well…I’m still not sure what happened on that mountain. It could have been my unconscious, engineering a situation in which I could be wounded and could go through the healing process I had denied myself. It could have been God…but which god? My own guardian-daemon? Some local mountain spirit? In fact, the mountain I injured myself on, Valsfjel, is famous in Norwegian mythology for being the home of the Mountain King in the myth of Peer Gynt. Peer knocks his head on a rock, goes to see the Mountain King, and learns the essence of the Troll way: “Be true to yourself and to hell with the world.'” Perhaps the Mountain King helped me!

To be honest, I do believe I was helped by something outside of me, and I do think there are benevolent non-human forces in the multiverse that sometimes help us when we need help. But alas, they don’t appear to be all-powerful. The universe is a messy, chaotic and imperfect place, closer perhaps to the Olympian universe than the monotheistic one, and in that universe people can suffer terribly, and unfairly. But I believe, as the Stoics did, that there is a higher law that roughly shepherds gods and men, and that law is connected to consciousness and compassion. It seems to me that humans’ idea of God has never stayed still, it is always evolving, as we discover more about the cosmos. We must be prepared to give up our definitions, and follow the discovery wherever it leads.

Of course, you may think it’s strange that my philosophy should be so much about control, and self-knowledge, and self-mastery, when it emerged from an experience beyond my control, beyond my knowledge, beyond my power. Well, such paradoxes are in Greek philosophy too – it emphasises reason and self-mastery, yet its word for happiness is eudaimonia, which literally means ‘having a kindly daemon within’.  The daemon within us appears to work hand-in-hand with reason. Perhaps in some ways it is reason, although it also talks to us in dreams and  visions.  I don’t know where those insights on the mountain came from – but they made sense to my reason long after the white light had faded from my memory. And you don’t need to believe in God to apply them. In that sense, I don’t see science and spiritual experience as enemies, I see them as allies in our exploration of reality.


Here are some other links, back on planet Earth:

If you live in the North of England and are interested in community philosophy, the charity SAPERE is looking to train some people in community philosophy facilitation in a course this January. Details here. 

This Tuesday in London, Natalie Banner of Kings College London is giving a talk at Pub Psychology on mental illness. Details here.

Here’s a good Slate piece on Petr Kropotkin, anarchist prince, prison-escapee, and prophet of the evolution of cooperation.

I chaired an event at the RSA earlier this week, where I met the film-maker Stephen Trombley and one of the RSA’s delightful events people – Mairi Ryan. Mairi told me about a competition the RSA organised for young animators to animate their talks. Here’s one of the winners, animating Susan Cain’s talk on introversion.

Well done Obama.  For the Republicans, however, it was a rude collision between faith-based politics and evidence-based politics. A clash, if you will, between the geeks and the bible-bashers. And the geeks (ie Nate Silver) won. Here’s Jon Stewart failing to hide his glee.

I gave a talk today at the British Arts Festivals Association, on philosophy at festivals. Here are the slides.

The School of Life is opening in Australia!

Here’s a nice Guardian piece by Alok Jha (journalist and one of the presenters on the Science Club on BBC 2) on how science became entertaining and grass-rootsy.

Here is a sweet letter from William James to his 13-year-old daughter when she was suffering from low spirits, as he often did (thanks to Francesca Elston for sharing this one).

See you next week – and thanks to the person who did the 24th review on Amazon, I was stuck on 23 for ages! The more the better. Not that it matters, at a cosmic level.


PoW: Mutual aid in public health: back to the 19th century?

There’s a new spirit of self-help and mutual improvement blowing through public health policy. I first felt its breeze in Scotland’s national mental health strategy, which was published in August, and which made much of its ‘person-centred approach’ to mental health in Scotland. One of the main themes of the strategy is “embedding more peer-to-peer work and support”,  for example via a network called the Scottish Recovery Network, which trains people who’ve recovered from mental illness so they can help other people recover. Seems a good idea. Scotland’s strategy also emphasised the role of self-help in mental health services:

NHS 24 has developed, piloted and now delivers the Living Life Guided Self Help Service, under which self-help coaches guide individuals over the phone through a series of self-help workbooks to help them understand some of the reasons why they are feeling low, depressed or anxiousNHS Health Scotland managed the Steps for Stress resources which contain practical ways for people to start to deal with stress.

A similar approach is evident in the Welsh government’s Together For Mental Health strategy, published this month, which includes self-help provisions like the Book Prescription Service  (bibliotherapy as national policy!). And the self-help / mutual aid spirit is front-and-centre in a new report from the Centre for Mental Health, called Implementing Recovery through Organisational Change. The report looks at how the Coalition government’s healthcare reform is giving a lot more power to Health and Well-Being Boards (HWBs) at the local government level, and how HWBs are increasingly looking to work with user-led community organisations:

This might include peer support groups, advocacy, tenancy support, adult education and training opportunities, sources of information and advice, eg on welfare rights or employment, as well as resources that support overall wellbeing and quality of life…From walking groups to literacy and numeracy classes, from learning English to managing debt, finding out about sources of low cost credit, tenancy maintenance, cookery classes and gardening projects, access to natural spaces and places to ‘stop and chat’…

Dance you monkeys! Keep dancing until the minister leaves!

No doubt for some of you the words ‘self-help’ and ‘mutual aid’ set off alarm bells, because it sounds like an excuse for slashing public service budgets, rolling back the barriers of the state and returning to the 19th century, when we didn’t have an NHS and if poor people needed support they had to sing for their supper at the Salvation Army. These are valid concerns.  According to a Young Minds survey, 52% of councils said they planned to reduce their budget for children’s mental health services next year, sometimes by up to 30%. David Clark, the pioneer of Improved Access for Psychotherapies, the government’s flagship therapy policy, warned recently that budgets for IAPT were also being cut, sometimes by 30%. Even the best self-help book is not a replacement for trained counselors.

Some of you may also think that ‘self-help and mutual aid’ smacks of a neo-liberal approach – pull yourself together and get on with it, and don’t rely on the state to help you. The Norman Tebbit approach to personal growth. A lot of self-help can certainly be a bit like that. But self-help / mutual aid doesn’t have to be neo-liberal, individualist or laissez faire capitalist. The Centre for Mental Health report says that the recovery approach “means an emphasis not only on personal development, but also on the need for collective support and reciprocity to allow people to build decent lives and for their communities to flourish.”

The report highlights the work of a group called the Personalisation Forum Group, a ‘user-led organisation’ in Doncaster, which helps people with mental health issues to help each other, and also work collectively to represent themselves and campaign for better mental health services and personalised mental health budgets in their local community. Sounds awesome – though, to be a tiny bit cynical, how ‘user-led’ is the PFG really? It was set up by a social worker, Kelly Hicks, and seems to be very politically tuned-in and publicity savvy for a new organisation supposedly run by people with mental health problems. It’s already won multiple awards (‘social worker of the year’ for Kelly!), has secured Ed Miliband’s support, and set its sights on the total reform of the national mental health system to make it more user-based and personalised.  I’m not sure that people with mental health issues would call their self-run support group the ‘Personalisation Forum Group’? That sounds like academic policy-wonk speak. And I notice Kelly is also CEO of a company called Personalisation Plus, offering councils advice on personalised mental health budgets. So who is the PFG serving? Its users or the mental health professionals who set it up and promote it? (Perhaps the answer is both).

Ben Franklin's Junto: a mutual improvement club that met every Friday in Philadelphia

Anyway, I’m a firm believer in mutual aid, ever since I was helped to overcome social anxiety by a support group over a decade ago. I love the tradition of mutual aid – the Quakers, Samuel Smiles, the coop movement, Benjamin Franklin’s Junto, Peter Kropotkin, Alcoholics Anonymous, tenant boards. And I see the potential for grassroots philosophy clubs to play a role in local mental health policy, by working with Health and Well-Being Boards, with NHS well-being centres, with community colleges, to expand the provision of practical philosophy for ordinary people.

But there would be real risks to this engagement of grassroots philosophy clubs with local or national mental health policy, as my fellow community organizers warned me, at a recent seminar. There’s the risk of being co-opted into political goals, being forced to meet bureaucratic box-ticked well-being targets.  There’s the risk of a confusion of public and private interests, and of financial mismanagement – look at the example of A4E, the welfare-to-work organisation currently being investigated for massive fraud (and check out the incredibly bad interview its CEO, Emma Harrison, gave on Channel 4 this week).There’s the risk that community organisations become PR vehicles for personal and professional self-aggrandizement and publicity rather than genuine mutual improvement. Perhaps the greatest risk is that social enterprises or charities get more focused on winning funding than on helping people. They can end up more worried about sustaining their own existence rather than supporting their users. And political bureaucracy can be deadening to the community spirit: I look at the alphabet soup of formal adult education – NIACE and the BIS supporting the WEA through SDIs or whatever – and think, that’s all just dead bureaucrac-ese and nothing to do with real, intimate human relations.

Those are the risks that community organisations have to consider before getting involved with local or national government – and I know many informal philosophy groups want to steer well clear of politics. Then again, for all the achievements of community philosophy, it could still be a lot bigger than it is. We’re still in a country where most people don’t see any relevance or usefulness in philosophy. If you want to change that, as many of us do, then is working through public policy a necessary evil?


Here are some good links from the last week:

Here’s two interviews I did with pioneers of grassroots philosophy – first, one with Roman Krznaric, a founding faculty member of the School of Life, and another with Paul Doran, co-founder of Philosophy In Pubs. And here’s an article about Christopher Phillips, founder of the Socrates Cafe movement in the US.

Here’s a Radio 4 obituary of Paul Kurtz, philosopher and founder of the modern Skeptic movement (it’s 14 minutes into the show). I was invited onto the show as an interviewee, and they also interviewed James ‘the Amazing’ Randi. I talk about how, in his last years, Kurtz fell out with the institutions he founded – particularly the Center for Inquiry – because he thought they had become too ‘new Atheist’ and aggressive in their ridiculing of religion. So they kicked him off the board!

That story reminded me of what happened to Albert Ellis, the pioneer of cognitive therapy, who was also kicked off the board of the Albert Ellis Institute in the last years of his life. The AEI then employed someone called Jeffrey Bernstein to be their CEO. This week, Bernstein was convicted of grand larceny for stealing millions from the AEI. Good going AEI. Top recruitment there.

Here’s a scary Times Educational Supplement story by a teacher about internet porn and its effect on teenagers today – the first generation to grow up with constant access to hardcore porn. Some shocking stories in there.

Derren Brown’s new show, Apocalypse, involved him purportedly hypnotising someone into believing civilisation has collapsed and the survivors have turned into zombies. Brown has said the show is inspired by his reading of the Stoics, and their exercise of imagining the worst to appreciate what you have (I don’t think Seneca had zombies in mind!) Was the show an elaborate hoax? People on the net are suggesting the experiment subject – supposedly a 21-year-old ne’er-do-well – is actually an aspiring actor, and my friend the hypnotherapist Donald Robertson says he doesn’t think Brown would have got a license to hypnotise someone for entertainment if there was a risk of distress. Wouldn’t be the first time Brown has hoaxed the public – the Stoics would be shocked!

Here’s Sir Isaiah Berlin on Desert Island Discs, which includes a very funny story of how Churchill mistakenly invited Irving Berlin, the song-writer, for dinner at Number 10 during WWII, when Isaiah Berlin was a diplomat in Washington. ‘Do you think Roosevelt will win the next election?’ Churchill asked Irving. ‘Well, I voted for him last time and might vote for him next time’ Irving replied, much to Churchill’s confusion.

If you’re in London, there’s a great two weeks of events starting today on the 365th anniversary of the Putney Debates – a wonderful moment in grassroots radical philosophy during the Civil War. Details here.

And if you’re in Holland, I’ll be there all of next week, doing talks and workshops, including one on Monday evening on Stoicism. Email or tweet me for further details.

Finally, some publishing stuff. News emerged that Penguin may be sold to Random House. The new company is provisionally called Penguin House, with the new logo unveiled this week (on the right), although ‘Random Penguin’ is still garnering votes. Meanwhile Penguin’s hottest signing, Pippa Middleton, failed to sparkle at the launch for her book on party-organising. The event was held with some 6-year-olds, who it was hoped would not ask difficult questions. Unfortunately one of them, after being told by Pippa she would love pink princesses when she was older, declared ‘I hate princesses…I like vampires!’ Well, you know, they’re kind of the same thing…

See you next week,


Paul Kurtz, founder of modern Skepticism, dies at 86

Sad to hear of the death of Paul Kurtz, philosopher and arguably the founder of the modern Skeptic movement, yesterday. As it happens, I am writing today about Kurtz in my report on modern grassroots philosophy movements.  Kurtz appears to have possessed in abundance the quality that all great grassroots philosophy organizers need: ‘the uncanny ability to herd cats‘.

In the last years of his life, Kurtz fell out with the movement he helped to found. In 2010, he was forced out from the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Center for Inquiry, both of which he founded, and to which he was the largest donor, after criticising their ‘mean-spirited ridicule’ of religion and their support of Blasphemy Day.

In some ways, the fact he fell out with the movement he founded shows grassroots philosophy at its best – and worst. What was started, by him, as a top-down movement run by a handful of academics turned, in the last decade, into a genuine grassroots movement made up of clubs, blogs, Facebook groups and millions of ordinary people. No one is in control of that movement anymore, it is ‘a bottom-up, self-organised movement’ as Michael Shermer puts it, which is both a good thing, and a bad thing (bad in that the online Skeptic debate, in particular, can be pretty vicious and untempered). Here’s what I wrote about Kurtz and the Skeptic movement in my report:

Skepticism is a remarkably successful grassroots movement, which has proved that millions of people want to spend their leisure-time learning, socialising and discussing ideas. Today, the Skeptic movement has, by some reckonings, over a million members worldwide. There are large and well-funded Skeptic organisations like  the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the James Randi Educational Foundation, as well as a flourishing grassroots – roughly 40 Skeptics In the Pub groups around the UK, as many as 200 local Skeptic groups across the US, and other Skeptics groups in Australia, India, continental Europe and beyond. In the last few years, the movement has started producing ‘skepticamps’ – small, informal and self-run pop-up conferences. The Skeptic movement also has several larger conferences like The Amaz!ng Meeting, which attracts around 1500 attendees. There are several popular Skeptic magazines and podcasts, and posts on the leading Skeptic blogs regularly attract several hundred comments. Skeptic books by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Jon Ronson and others top the bestseller list.

The Skeptic community evokes strong feelings of affiliation and belonging among its members – as Barry Karr, director of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, puts it: “People say coming to Skeptic groups is like meeting their family.” Perhaps for that very reason, arguments within the community can be quite vicious and bipartisan.  Skepticism is arguably the most vital community within grassroots philosophy, though its growth has brought teething problems.

Paul Kurtz and the founding of modern Skepticism

The modern Skeptic movement, as an organised force, arguably first appeared in 1976, when the philosopher Paul Kurtz proposed the establishment of a Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) at the American Humanist Association annual convention. CSICOP launched as a committee with founder members including the magicians James Randi and Martin Gardner. The founders were startled by the popularity of paranormal and New Age beliefs in the 1970s, and the extent to which paranormal claims by gurus like Uri Geller were disseminated unchallenged in the media. CSICOP’s charter called for the establishment of a network of Skeptics to investigate claims of the paranormal, as well as a magazine (initially called The Zetetic, then Skeptical Inquirer) and conferences to spread Skeptic thinking.

The Skeptic movement grew out of Humanism and atheism, which established themselves as social movements in the mid-19th century. But while the Humanist movement attempted to be a positive belief-system and often copied aspects of organised religion (hymns, rituals, holy days and so on), Skepticism confined itself to joyfully debunking others’ outlandish truth-claims, particularly belief in wacky phenomena like UFOs, Big Foot, astrology, spoon-bending, psychic mediums and so on. It was more irreverent, and more aggressive, than traditional Humanism, and it was also arguably more media-savvy and more entertaining, thanks to the magicians in its ranks, like James Randi, and later to the many comedians who supported the movement.

In the 1980s, CSICOP started to set up local groups: the first was in Austin, Texas in 1981, followed by the Bay Area Skeptics in 1982. CSICOP organizers travelled the world, building networks of correspondence and inspiring the foundation of other Skeptic organisations and local groups in the UK, Australia and elsewhere. The magician James Randi, in particular, played a tireless missionary role, nurturing the global Skeptic community both through his TV appearances and tours, and through his correspondence with Skeptics around the world. His visit to Australia in 1980, for example, inspired the foundation of Australian Skeptics and its Skeptic magazine. He has also encouraged the UK’s Skeptics In the Pub movement, through his friendship with Sid Rodrigues (see the appendix for interviews with Randi and Rodrigues.

James Randi at the Vancouver Skeptics In the Pub

While the Skeptic movement continued to grow in the 1990s, arguably it really took off in the noughties, thanks to the internet, which enabled Skeptics to organise into groups, and to communicate with each other via podcasts, blogs, forums and email lists. The grassroots of the movement started to blossom, without any intervention from larger organisations like CSICOP. In 1999, philosophy PhD Scott Campbell launched Skeptics In the Pub in London, inspired by Australia’s Philosophy In Pubs and Science In Pubs movements (see the appendix for an interview with Scott). Skeptics In The Pub events typically feature a well-known speaker giving a talk for around 40 minutes, followed by a question-and-answer session and general drinking and socialising. Scott says: “The events tended to be less serious than Humanist events. They were not very solemn at all, more jolly and drunken.”

In 2003, the James Randi Educational Foundation started to hold an annual conference, called The Amaz!ng Meeting, which hosted a mixture of scientists, magicians and comedians. TAM has run every year since then, and attendance has grown from 150 in 2003 to 1650 in 2011. Other Skeptic, atheist and free-thinking conferences include Skepticon, CSICON, Skeptical, NorthEast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS), the European Skeptics Conference, and the World Skeptics Congress. There are even Skeptic cruise-ship package holidays.

The Skeptics movement reached a critical mass in the last five years, in part thanks to the success of New Atheist books by thinkers such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who have also been prominent speakers at Skeptic events. In the last two years, over 15 Skeptics In the Pub groups have been set up around the UK, bringing the total number to around 40. The movement has gone from marginal to mainstream, much to the consternation of some members.

Skepticism has become more politicised – see The Geek Manifesto for a recent rallying cry – and in the UK, it successfully campaigned to reform English libel laws after one of its prominent members, Simon Singh, was sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association (Singh won the case). The British Skeptic community has also recently supported the ‘Science is Vital’ campaign to protect government funding of science, and has waged public campaigns against the truth-claims of homeopathy.

While the ranks of the Skeptics has grown, it remains dominated by white, middle class males. According to a survey by Rodridgues, 98% of attendees of London Skeptics In the Pub are white, and around 70% are male. The age demographic may have broadened in the last decade, however, with 27% of attendees under 30, 23% under 40, and the remainder over 40.

The movement prides itself on its intelligence and academic qualifications: a survey in 1991 found that 54% of readers of the Skeptical Inquirer had an advanced degree and 27% a doctoral degree. It may be becoming less academic as it broadens into a mass movement, and there is some evidence that many recent ‘converts’ to atheism have a lower-than-average standard of education, but Rodrigues’ 2010 survey of London Skeptics still found that 40% had a degree and 34% a postgraduate degree. Roughly 80% of London Skeptics are atheists, according to Rodrigues, and 8% agnostic.

The movement’s teething problems

The success and rapid growth of the movement over the last five years has brought some “teething problems”, in the phrase of Rodrigues. On the one hand, there have been concerns within the Skeptic community about the aggressive tone and incivility of discussions, particularly on blogs. Paul Kurtz, the founder of the movement, resigned “under duress” from the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Center for Inquiry (CFI), both of which he founded, after protesting against CFI’s “mean-spirited ridicule and criticism” of religion, including its sponsorship of ‘Blasphemy Day’.

Others have complained that the movement is becoming scientistic, close-minded, anti-philosophical and even anti-intellectual (see, for example, the concerns expressed by prominent Skeptic Massimo Pigliucci in an interview in the appendix). The movement is also going through a internal wrangle over the continued gender imbalance in the movement and the (alleged) misogyny of some male Skeptics online and at Skeptic events. An incident involving Rebecca Watson being propositioned in an elevator (since canonised as ‘elevator-gate’) led to a bitter, vitriolic and on-going debate within the community about the degree to which the community is male-dominated and sexist.

These criticisms (or self-criticisms) are not new. Soon after CSICOP was founded almost 40 years ago, one of its founders resigned in protest, saying it was not objectively investigating paranormal activity but instead was banging the drum for a materialist world-view while suppressing any data that didn’t fit that world-view. Kurtz came in for particular criticism by other CSICOP members for not publishing scientific data that suggested a connection between the position of Mars when one is born, and the likelihood of one being good at sports. In the 1980s and 1990s, psychic and paranormal investigators criticised Skeptics for being aggressively scientistic and rude, and also for the movement’s dominance by old white middle-class men. They also noted the movement’s Manichean sense of ‘Us versus Them’, and its almost apocalyptic rhetoric.

But perhaps these issues have become more pressing as the community has grown in size, and started to mean more to its members. As more people self-identify as Skeptics and feel emotionally affiliated to a ‘Skeptic community’, arguments over the identity and governance of that community become much more emotionally-charged. This, in some ways, is the paradox of the ‘Community of Reason’ – as soon as it becomes a genuine community, it becomes less rational, and more emotional and dogmatic.