Take Back Skepticism, Part II: The Overkill Window

First, if you have not read Part I, please read it now. The most important part of that post is:

…I suggest is this: Skepticism, as a movement, is not hindered so much by the conflation of atheism and skepticism, the ridicule of believers, or attempts to promote values-based ideology as it is hindered by the blatant ignorance, arrogance, and irrationality displayed when those acts are committed.

In a field dedicated to reducing ignorance and irrationality, a field in which arrogance is toxic, I find this kind of behavior offensive. It is time that we reclaim Skepticism and restore its credibility and integrity.


When I can’t tell the ‘good guys’ from the ‘bad guys’, there are no good guys.

At the World Atheist Convention, there was a panel called Communicating Atheism. Video from this panel was posted to YouTube. The comments were almost as disturbing as the video, with Rebecca Watson on the receiving end of all manner of misogyny (and my definition of this is much narrower than hers) and the others being cheered on without thought to the contradictions in their statements. The most interesting part about this is that the most rational person on the panel, and the one to receive the least support from internet commenters, was the one most closely associated with skeptical movement, Rebecca Watson. Next was Richard Dawkins, who is also associated with Skepticism*, although less so than he is with atheism. The least rational were the other two panel members – people I had never heard of until I saw this video. All made reasoning errors of some kind.

The panel was about communicating atheism, however, Rebecca chose not to talk about that. Instead she talked about sexism in the atheist movement. It would not be until later that I would discover just how badly this needed to be discussed. I will remind you at this point that I am usually somewhat critical of Rebecca and that this is the very appearance which sparked elevatorgate. Since I have already chimed in on that, it should be no surprise that I have little negative to say here and I will just leave it at that.

The last person to talk (but more rational than the other two) was Richard Dawkins. He made a statement that I appreciate: he specifically stated that he does not advocate ridiculing believers, but rather ridiculing beliefs. I am not generally against ridiculing beliefs myself, however I believe that goals and context are vital in determining if such ridicule is appropriate. But then he really stepped in it. Dawkins is a highly intelligent and relatively rational person, yet he used weasel words. What exactly is this consciousness-raising that he keeps talking about? He did not define it, but suggested that it was akin to enlightenment. These weasel words were the cornerstone of his statement. Flimsy, Dawkins. Really flimsy.

What’s more, Dawkins began his statement with this:

Last year at the TAM conference, Phil Plait got a lot of applause for a talk about how to communicate atheism… uh, and he began by taking a vote of people who used to be religious and were now atheists and he got a great show of hands and then he said, ‘How many of you changed your mind as a result of being called an idiotic retard?'”

That’s not at all how I remember it.

So, let’s see what Phil really said. After all, the video is freely available on the internet and there is even a partial transcript which includes that opening:

Let me ask you a question: how many of you here today used to believe in something — used to, past tense — whether it was flying saucers, psychic powers, religion, anything like that? You can raise your hand if you want to. [lots of hands go up] Not everyone is born a skeptic. A lot of you raised your hand. I’d even say most of you, from what I can tell.

Now let me ask you a second question: how many of you no longer believe in those things, and you became a skeptic, because somebody got in your face, screaming, and called you an idiot, brain-damaged, and a retard? [Very few hands go up]

Perhaps the conflation of atheism with skepticism was deliberate, or perhaps he just remembered it that way, but does Dawkins really care so little for his own work that he couldn’t be bothered to spend five minutes preparing? Really?

AronRa is YouTube famous. That’s all I know about him. He told the story of how he came to be an evangelist for evolution and atheism. Most of what he discussed was anecdotal and he stated that he does not believe that we can be certain of anything – a fundamental scientific principle. However, his ‘bottom line’ contradicted all of his statements about truth and science (bold mine):

You can’t reach these people. Religion has this basis of… the purpose of it is to make believe – now where I come from we call that ‘pretend’ – but that is the goal. You can’t question the conviction…”

This is simply not true. ‘Fantasy’ is not the goal or purpose of religion, even if that is what the beliefs boil down to in the end. Many religions even encourage questioning and testing one’s faith. A great many people have been “reached” through education. Think about how many current activists were once people of faith. Michael Shermer studied Christian theology before changing his major and eventually gave up religion, but not without a few years of education and many hours of discussion. Perhaps AronRa isn’t reaching anyone because his approach does not consider the audience’s current point of view. If you want to educate people, you need to understand where they are coming from.

“To me, honestly matters. Only accurate information has practical application. And accountability matter. If you’re going to teach something, make sure that you’re going to teach something that is correct.

I could not agree more with this statement, but…

“Faith itself is inherently dishonest because faith is an unwarranted assumption that is inserted [sic] with unreasonable conviction. It would be unwise to hold an absolute conviction even when there is evidence, but we’re talking about something that it is asserted with no reason at all other than some subjective thing. “

Who says that all, or even most, believers ‘hold an absolute conviction’ or even that their beliefs are ‘unwarranted’? Who says that they have ‘no reason at all’ to believe? Do believers all agree that their evidence is subjective? Is subjective experience worthless? Does it equate to “no reason at all”? Absurd.

Then he finishes with this:

“Some of us have a need to believe and others have the desire to understand. Those who have a desire to understand will improve their perspective and will find the faults and will correct them. Those who have the need to believe will not correct anything and will remain just as wrong as they started out, at least.”

AronRa doesn’t know why people believe. Belief is not that simple.

Most people think that their beliefs are rational and that the beliefs of other people are emotional or otherwise irrational. This is a good example of the self-serving bias, which is probably second only to the confirmation bias in driving human behaviors today. For example, when Michael Shermer asked readers with religious beliefs why they believe in God, the most popular answers were related to rational arguments and the complexity of the universe. However, when he asked those same preople why others believed, the most popular answer was because it is comforting; belief is consoling and gives meaning and purpose to life. In other words, “I believe because I am rational. You believe because you need to.”

AronRa makes assumptions about why people believe because he does not understand why other people cannot see the world as he does. He discounts their reasons for believing. He discounts the evidence that they believe they have seen with their own eyes or heard with their own ears. It doesn’t matter if their evidence is refutable because they do not believe that their claims have been refuted; usually, it is not the evidence that is the problem, but one’s interpretation of it.

Essentially, AronRa’s claim that these people have no reason to believe is arrogant and disrespectful. What’s more is that he makes this claim with no evidence to support it, which is ironic. He placed people into two categories: those who need to believe and those who want to understand, a false dichotomy if I’ve ever heard one. People are much much, much more complicated than this. AronRa’s assertion also assumes that everyone has the capacity to understand. AronRa believes – assumes – that he is rational, yet in the midst of his criticism of others is an irrational argument to promote his beliefs about the difference between atheists and theists, a belief grounded in a little bit of casual observation and whole lot of assumption. How is this different from religion?

Then the most offensive and irrational panelist spoke. Tom Melchiorre’s website sports the tag line, “Making a World of Difference With a Positive Voice for Atheism”. Positive. Right.

Mr. Melchiorre talks about “…not just communicating atheism, but advancing atheism.” So, he is not just interested in secularism. He is not just interested in the right not to practice a religion. But he is also clearly not talking about education, so how does a lack of belief in something advance? As for the “positive” part, when discussing a model for activism, he mentions a motto of the LGBT movement, “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.” But he says,

“I have a version that’s ‘We’re here, you go to your hell, you crazy religious bastards. Get used to it.'”

This, of course, receives a round of laughter and applause. Melchiorre then justifies his meanness and intolerance by giving a history lesson. I wondered, though, if Melchiorre was also from Texas (AronRa’s home), because his version of history was definitely a little bit tilted:

“Malcolm X was a very dark black and he wore very dark clothes and he spoke ominously. He scared the shit out of white people…they did violence – verses Martin Luther King, who was strictly passivist…In reality, Martin Luther King in his movement as a pacifist would not have gotten as far as fast had Malcolm X not provided an extreme opposite and pretty much forced the white population in power to say, ‘Okay, we don’t want to deal with this violent black civil rights person, so who do we deal with? Oh, here’s this nice sweet guy over here, Martin Luther King, Jr., very pacifist.’ But who’s to say the two of them were not talking behind the scenes?”

At this point, Richard Dawkins did a double-take. That last sentence is very enlightening; Melchiorre is just making stuff up. That is fantasy.

“We need to have a second movement of atheism along side the hardcore – the hard atheists, the new atheists, and that’s pretty much what I’m calling the soft atheists, or the pacifist atheists. So that when the religious get a little upset and want to do something about our demands, but are afraid to talk to us angry, hardcore, confrontational, hostile, evil atheists, they don’t have to. They can go next door and talk to the softer, gentler, you know, pretty atheists who don’t shout at them.”

Melchiorre never mentioned The Overton Window, but some of the language he uses (such as “demands”) is reminiscent of other discussions about the application of this theory in other realms and discussions on the blogosphere last year about the relative contributions of MLK and X in the movement.  His description above fits with suggestions of The Overton Window quite well and even sounds a little like something out of Glenn Beck’s novel The Overton Window. No, I didn’t read it, but I have read some of one blogger’s review of it:

This, perhaps (though I am open to suggestions otherwise) is the most ridiculous moment of the chapter:

Just like Dr. King, we aim to eliminate evil, not those who perpetrate it. To speak of violence in any form is to play right into the hands of those who oppose us. They’ve already invested countless hours into portraying us as violent, hateful racists, and they are just waiting for the chance to further that story line. Don’t give it to them. Instead of Bill Ayers, give them Benjamin Franklin. Instead of Malcolm X, give them Rosa Parks. Instead of bin Laden, give them Gandhi.

The Overton Window is well known in the field of activism (Desiree Schell talked about it in her talk at TAM9) and I have been told that ‘new atheists’ sometimes evoke it, although I have not read much of this myself (I do not tend to follow their conversations). However, there is no scientific support for this theory.

The Overton Window simply describes any set of cultural norms. It also attempts to explain how those norms can be changed. Unfortunately, I did not find it in any of the academic literature in political science or sociology. The Overton Window is a pop-political science (bordering on pseudoscientific) concept based on a technique for persuasion called “door in the face”, which is found in abundance in the psychological literature. The door in the face technique starts with a much larger request than one hopes will be accepted. For example, if you were a charity asking for money and hoping for $50 from each household, you might ask for $500 to start. Once this request is refused and you ask for $50, the new request seems reasonable in comparison. You are much more likely to receive something from the target than if you simply asked for $50 outright.

The idea of The Overton Window theory is that starting with outrageous demands such as “abolish public schools!” will move the window of acceptable demands enough to receive support for what you really want (e.g., school vouchers).

There are probably some kernels of truth to this theory and the tactics it dictates may work in some specific situations, but lasting change is unlikely. Humans are very good at anchoring and adjusting. In other words, we use points for comparison. However, psychological effects involve the behavior of individuals on average and in a limited set of situations. Groups of people are not individuals and do not behave like individuals. Political affiliation, religion, and other attitudes are often much, much more complicated than such a simple theory could predict. There are many more factors involved in what makes culture. For example, who says that anyone has to listen to either the person with the extreme view or the moderate? And, as Desiree Shell mentioned, even the theory says that people need to be able to tell the difference between these two and they need to care about that difference.

There is an abundance of literature which suggests that the stronger or harder the sell, the less likely an individual will respond by changing their view. They are much more likely to become more polarized in the other direction. Skeptics demonstrate this all the time. So do atheists. What are believers to think when they meet activists who approach believers with belligerence, insults, and arrogance? It is more likely to mistrust any atheist than they are to compare the behavior to that of other atheists they meet.  My prediction, or rather an analogy of what I predict, is found in the comic I commissioned from my son(click to enlarge), dubbed The Overkill Window.

The Overkill Window

Even if he was not thinking of The Overton Window, Melchiorre’s example of Malcolm and Martin is a story, nothing more. There is no evidence to support the history he described. In fact, it is not the most parsimonious explanation for the success of the civil rights movement. During the 1950s and 60s baby boomers were hitting puberty and early adolescence. What happens during adolescence? Kids rebel. Against everything. The Korean War, the impending Vietnam War, the momentum of civil rights prior to this time, the fact that the black community in the United States grew much more quickly than the white community, and many other factors overshadow the inner conflicts in the movement itself.

Melchiorre’s suggestion that Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were collaborating is completely irrational. He said this with absolutely no evidence whatsoever and even provided the counter-evidence that they met only once. But he saved the most offensive stuff for the end (bold mine):

“They can go next door and talk to the softer, gentler, you know, pretty atheists who don’t shout at them. Now, those are not humanists. Those are not freethinkers. Those are not rationalists. All of whom pretty much share our view, they just go by a different name. But if we want to communicate and advance atheism, we have to deal with the religious as one group. Atheists as one group. We can’t have the religious going to the humanists, because that means we’re still marginalized as atheists. To advance atheism, we have to be atheists as a group.”

Um. Who are not humanists? Is “You go to your hell, you crazy religious bastards” what humanists say?  Who are not rational? Is it those who evoke unproven theories and squeeze and mold them to meet one’s needs?  Who again? And how could Malcolm and Martin be both different and one group?

What I would really like to see happen: atheist activists take their ball and go play in their own yard. I have nothing against those who work in both fields and know the difference. I know many. Most I would consider secular activists rather than atheists. But people like AronRa and Tom Melchiorre make the job of Skeptics much more difficult when they, or those like them, claim to be fighting the same fight as Skeptics. Although I did not sense that AronRa or Melchiorre were familiar with Skepticism, Richard Dawkins and Rebecca Watson suggested that Skepticism and Atheism are interchangeable (and they are not alone, not by a long shot).

In Part III, I will talk about offensive ignorance, arrogance, and the Dunning-Kruger Effect.


*”Big-S Skepticism” refers to the work of the skepticism movement in promoting the practice of skepticism.

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13 comments to Take Back Skepticism, Part II: The Overkill Window

  • usethebrainsgodgiveyou

    I used to have a different moniker. It’s a long story.

    Thanks for at least attempting to give pause to some who use their atheism as a sword to cut down others. Rationality is more than atheism.

  • So I was reading your article here and when I got to the quote comparison from Plait/Dawkins and I realized you were arguing semantics. Admittedly Dawkins was obviously paraphrasing, but seriously nit-picking to make a point?

    As an educated person my self the minute I read that, it completely took away from the article, left me to question if you objectivity remained throughout the paper at all? I got started on it thinking this may be a good read until that point, though I think your a bit to absolute in you positions. Claiming to be open minded and flexible yourself.

    I would reconsider reading your articles in the future now. At the very least I will be scrutinizing it with a careful eye, if I should read another.

  • Thank you for illustrating my main point.

    OK, really!?!?! You want to argue semantics? Sementics as a Problem of “real Skeptics” Versus “Atheist Skeptics”…

    Not to mention one could argue the Not true Scotsman issue here..

    But over all: You Seemed to have missed MY POINT…

    Just saying…

  • Maybe I should rephrase, I am admittedly not very clear in my writing, its always been an issue that I am continually working on.

    So, with that:

    You are presenting yourself as an authority on the issue, or at least have some educated position on the subjects. Yet you argue a point of semantics, which ultimately is what Plait said just paraphrased…


    “how many of you no longer believe in those things, and you became a skeptic,

    (changed your mind)

    because somebody got in your face, screaming, and called you an idiot, brain-damaged, and a retard?

    (as a result of being called an idiotic retard?)

    “How many of you changed your mind as a result of being called an idiotic retard?”

    That is NITPICKING and takes away from your position as an observer with an objective point of view. It then becomes a rant, and since you NITPICKED such a small issue (WHICH Ultimately said the SAME THING,) you pulled you own argument down to a 4th grade I am better than you word play on the playground.

    Oh but it didn’t say the same thing? Is that what your saying? I am sorry but it did, running it by a Linguist friend of mine, who said:

    “The outcome was the same the word play was on the exact wording of ‘idiotic retard’ which ultimately came across in both statements anyways”

    So do you get it now? Let me summerize.
    Your initial page (part one) came off a bit preachy but was over all keeping my interest in your point of view, right up and until you brought down the level of your article with 4th grade neener neener bullshit…

    • Wow. You pulled out the words that matched. Yeah, I could have done that, too, but then I would be missing all of the words that don’t match.

  • Yet, I assume, you call yourself an academic?

    • But wasn’t the point that Dawkins translated Plait’s discussion about skeptics into a discussion about atheism? Plait talked about skepticism and Dawkins claimed that he’d said that about atheism. Which, it seems, it far more than semantics when a lot of the point in these articles is that you shouldn’t conflate the two.

      • I’m tempted to make jokes about points flying over heads and such, but I guess it’s more likely that the people complaining that it’s just semantics didn’t actually read the articles. The caveat of “I was enjoying it until this point” is an attempt to appear open-minded. Some of the commenters here cam directly from PZ Myers’ post, a post which mangles mine to the point that it is unrecognizable. Most of them probably skimmed that, but just came here to leave their 2 cents.

  • Beth

    I liked your article. I thought the Dawkins thing was a bit of a nitpick, but other than that, it is very good.

    A minor detail regarding Malcolm X. In his autobiography he talks about being a very light skinned black man. It goes along with some discussion of skin tones among blacks. My recollection is that he couldn’t be a male prostitute because his skin wasn’t dark enough. So when Melchiorre said “Malcolm X was a very dark black”, he was making a false statement.

    • You know, I didn’t even think about that, but it is relevant. I never realized that racism was so prominent within ethnic groups until I read “There Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neile Hurston.

  • I’m tempted to make jokes about points flying over heads and such, but I guess it’s more likely that the people complaining that it’s just semantics didn’t actually read the articles.

    Hmm well being as I had already stated that I read Part 1 and STOPPED in Part 2 at the point of what appeared to be nit-picking then yeah I didn’t read ALL the articles. I did read up to the point however, So I assume you are meaning that I just glanced through it, Not true. What was it teachers told us in school about our writing?
    “if you didn’t get your point across, who’s fault is it? The readers?”

    The caveat of “I was enjoying it until this point” is an attempt to appear open-minded. Some of the commenters here cam directly from PZ Myers’ post, a post which mangles mine to the point that it is unrecognizable. Most of them probably skimmed that, but just came here to leave their 2 cents.

    I, and I center on myself here as I am the only one “complaining” on this thread. did NOT come from PZ’s post. I was directed to here from my google+ site. So your making reaching assumption and even accusation at this point, why? You have already decided NOT to answer the inquiries I posed But you feel the need to try to insult and riducle?

    Also if PZ’s Post:

    mangles mine to the point that it is unrecognizable

    Then perhaps his mangling and my “misreading” of your points are a fault of bad writing, not our understanding…

    No couldn’t be…