Print Friendly

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.