--It is worth noting that this is the second draft of a research paper I am writing, and not all of the information has been properly cited yet.
In the 1970’s in America, there was a resurgence of interest in the occult and all things spiritual. There was a fear in members of the scientific and academic community that this heralded a “new” (used loosely) wave of irrationality. Perhaps as a backlash against this, in 1976, the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) was founded. By 1990, the organization’s publication The Skeptical Inquirer had grown to 35,000 subscribers in 62 countries (Hansen).
CSICOP was founded by philosophy professor Paul Kurtz, and grew over the years with the support of great thinkers and science popularizers like Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov (Christopher & Radford). Granted that skepticism in and of itself is nothing new (one could go as far back as the Socratic Method to find examples), this form of it in an organized and social form definitely is. In 1952 Martin Gardner published his acclaimed Fads and Fallacies In the Name of Science and continued writing essays and books over the next four decades, providing inspiration to many young aspiring scientists (Shermer 1997).
Michael Shermer is another prominent skeptic to rise out of this upsurge, who founded the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine, which has national and international membership and circulation. “There is today a burgeoning group of people calling themselves skeptics - scientists, engineers, physicians, lawyers, professors and teachers, and the intellectually curious from all walks of life – who conduct investigations, hold monthly meetings and annual conferences, and provide the media and general public with natural explanations for apparently supernatural phenomena” (Shermer 1997).
It is worth noting that being a skeptic does not necessarily make one an atheist, and vice versa, nor necessarily a humanist. However when taking a look at the skeptical movement as a whole, you are likely to see a very large overlapping of these themes, so much so that the term atheiskeptihumanist has been coined and tossed around in like minded internet social forums. Being skeptical and demanding evidence for what one accepts as true about the world is likely to lead one towards the fountain of scientific agnosticism, leaving unknowns unknown when no evidence is available. As Paul Kurtz himself wrote, reflectively looking back at the history of CSICOP, “This form of skepticism is based on the realization that the progress of science is the result of the continuing application of the methods of science, and that skepticism is an intrinsic part of the process of inquiry.”
This is all well and good, but how has the movement come since the 90’s? There is a stunning lack of real measurable data, or perhaps more accurately put, a lack of research done on any data out there that might put some real numbers on the skeptical movement today after the onset of Web 2.0. Podcasts, YouTube, smart phones and a host of other media transfer and connectivity technologies have made information and networking available to more people than ever before, all across the world. This is an ongoing trend that may herald the dawning of a new age in human history, as each day more and more people are brought into this great connective fold.
Scientists, skeptics, atheists and humanists from all across the world can share their ideas and work together to spread science and critical thinking skills to places starved for these fruits of the enlightenment. So how has this movement come along? It depends on how one interprets the numbers. Americans are notoriously schizophrenic on their views on science and technology, due largely to a lack of basic understanding of them. For example, in a Gallup poll designed to reveal what Americans think about technology, it was found that the American public is unanimous in regarding the development of technological literacy as an important goal for people at all levels and there is a near total consensus that schools should include the study of technology in the curriculum. On the other hand, many Americans view technology narrowly, as “mostly being computers and the internet” as opposed to its more scientific definition, “the ability to change the natural world to suit our needs” (Rose & Dugger).
I would contend that Americans are fond, in fact addicted to science and technology, but will simultaneously deride these gifts when they impinge upon religious belief. A microcosm of this exists specifically in the “evolution debate.” I would not be the first to point out the irony in the fact many anti-evolutionists and fundamentalists use computers and the internet in their crusade against science. It’s worth noting that by and large, scientists do not debate whether evolution has occurred. There is indeed no debate to be had, the fossil record, biology and genetics, physics, archaeology, and geology all offer multiple correlating lines of evidence that flesh out the same beautiful picture. Modern biology does not make sense unless it is viewed through an evolutionary lens. The only thing being debated by credible biologists is how evolution has occurred, whether by punctuated equilibrium or gradualism. But the fact that evolution happened is as fundamental to modern science as gravitational theory.
But if you asked Americans on the street about this specific area of science, their unanimous support of it and technology would sharply decline. A frightening study done by the California Academy of Sciences in 2009 shows that only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun. Another Gallup poll from 2004 reveals that 35% of Americans do not think evolutionary theory is supported by any evidence and perhaps to their credit, another 29% chose the “Don’t know enough to say” option (Newport 2004).
The study itself shows that when scientific theory threatens to impinge upon people’s religious beliefs on the origin of mankind, they disregard it. The same study shows that 45% of Americans think that god created man as he exists today, roughly 10,000 years ago, which is patently, provably false. Another 38% believe that man may have evolved with god as the guiding hand of the process. One might wonder why god found it necessary to play with dinosaurs for 200 million years before destroying them with a rock 180 kilometers across to allow human mammals to rise to power, but I digress. (look up the Chicxulub crater for more fascinating details!)
13% of those polled in the Gallup study said that man evolved from more primitive creatures and that god had no part in the process. That may seem dismal for the skeptical movement, but is it? Another Gallup study asking directly about belief in god, showed that when taking the “doubting” denominations and putting them together, you again get about 12-13% of the population that is at least skeptical if not claiming outright denial in the existence of god. It has been said that we cannot all be scientists; however it is worth noting that 12-13% of the United States population is about 38,375,818 people according to the 2009 census. This is basically the same number you get when you tally the African American population, a part of the electorate that is at least acknowledged to exist and fought for in some elections. Granted not all of them are active members of the skeptical movement, it’s simply worth noting that unbelievers are a significant part of our society, and certainly an almost vehemently ignored part of the electorate.
Web 2.0 has allowed this notoriously solitary and fragmented part of our society to come together in a manner never before possible. No longer are atheists, skeptics and humanists left only with large organizations like CSICOP, the James Randi Educational Foundation, and the Skeptics Society as their ties to likeminded people and writings. Local groups are becoming more and more popular. Meetup.com is perhaps the most popular social networking site for atheists, skeptics, humanists and all other manner of freethinkers.
If you had done a search for the word “skeptic” on the website on November 15th 2010, you would have found 580 groups. If you had then spent the next 8 hours sifting through the twenty-something pages of groups, filtering out only the ones dedicated in some way to skeptical inquiry, freethinking, humanism and atheism, you would find just under 67,000 active people, most but certainly not all of which are in the United States. There are groups in Australia, England, New Zealand and elsewhere. So we’re looking at a movement with at least 38 million like minded people in the United States alone, with tens of thousands of active, motivated individuals from all around the world working together to spread critical thinking skills far and wide.
This movement is most notable when looking at young adults in college. The Secular Student Alliance, which has been described as a sort of godless Campus Crusade for Christ, have grown from 80 campus affiliates in 2007 to 174 in fall of 2009. At least three universities, including Harvard, now have humanist chaplains meeting the counseling needs of the un-believer. (timenewsfloweringcollege atheists)
About three-quarters of young adults taking part in the National Study of Youth and Religion profess a belief in god. This study was following the trends of belief as teenagers move into young adulthood, going off to college. According to their findings, young adults are less likely to be religious. The number of those who described themselves as “not religious” nearly doubled, to 27% in young adulthood.
There is a veritable sea of published literature on the nature of belief, atheism, humanism and even skepticism. If you wish to find an overview of those topics, I would point you elsewhere. Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark has perhaps become the gold standard in literature for introductory skepticism. What I am more concerned with, is the evolution of this diverse, intellectual, far-reaching and growing movement of people who question, who promote science and reason, who fight for science based public policy and the like.
The numbers are there, and many organizations are starting to realize this. Converting the pseudoscientific to the skeptical outlook is all well and good, but to pick up more immediate momentum with the communication technology at our disposal in our modern society, reaching out to the solitary doubter out there is perhaps easier, as they need only motivation and not convincing. The author of this paper is another proof of this concept, in a long line if similitude with other individuals.
It is still too early to see the long term, far reaching effects of this wave of reason. There is still internal conflict within the movement itself, exemplified in the debate between proponents of “passive skepticism and atheism” and the “outraged skepticism and atheism” camps. Arguments abound about the implications of not controlling our anger, be it justified anger or not. The anger of the “new” generation of freethinkers is due perhaps to the fact that this is more and more, as noted before, becoming a movement of the young and the emotional, as opposed to the elderly and the academic as in most of its history. There is much outrage to be had and the largely religious public is willing and capable to stake out these battlegrounds in the public sphere. The young patriot and academic might scoff, or seethe with rage when he or she hears about how Texas, a major player in the American text-book manufacturing market, has decided to remove figures like Thomas Jefferson from their history books in favor of more religious figures like Thomas Aquinas. Apparently, they are still upset about that whole 1st Amendment-no-law-respecting-an-establishment-of-religion thing, and the resulting policy of the separation of church and state designed to prevent us from becoming another in a long line of imperial theocracies.
The freethinking community has by and large accepted that there are internal debates to be had, but that the goal remains the same. In other words, “there are bigger fish to fry.” I look forward to the future, to see how this movement will progress. Being moral for humanities sake rather than being moral out of fear of divine retribution or to secure a place in heaven for all of eternity, and being scientifically literate and able to change our position on an issue in light of new evidence are all traits which would do this pale blue dot a world of good, in respects to the widespread religiously motivated violence and intolerance which we currently live amidst as mammals.