Repost from April 30, 2012
(note: in this post I use gross generalities and paint with a wide brush. I realize there are exceptions and that not everything I say here applies to all skeptics everywhere. I use the word skeptic to encompass atheists, agnostics, humanists, and none of the above)
In recent weeks I surveyed the various enclaves within the skeptic community and have come to some sobering conclusions. I am a blue-collar kind of person, having grown up in poverty and lived in areas dominated by manufacturing. “My people” are what is commonly called the working class. Most of “my people” do not have a college education. They are white and poor or middle class people. They are overwhelmingly Christian.
In my survey of the various groups that make up the skeptic community this is what I found. The skeptic community is overwhelmingly:
- College educated
- Dominated by scholars, professors, scientists and people with white-collar jobs
- Middle and upper middle class
- Regionally centered on the East and West coast or in major cities.
The Skeptic community is dominated by the educated, scholarly class. The books they write reflect their education and place in life. The conferences they hold reflect their upper middle class lifestyle, complete with expensive conference fees, hotels, and meals.
Now, this is not a criticism of skeptic community demographic. Skepticism naturally demands that people be educated and informed about matters of importance. Who better to turn to than the scholars,professors, and scientists?
I am thinking about “my people”, the high school educated, Christian, blue-collar worker. Why does the skeptic community find it so difficult to reach “my people?” Why are so many of my fellow working class people turned off by the skeptic community? Why are there few working class people found among the skeptic community?
Let me try to answer these questions….I answer these questions as a skeptic but also as a life-long member of the blue-collar working class. The skeptic community has failed miserably at making inroads with working class people. Why is that?
Working class people generally have a mistrust of educated people. Sometimes, their mistrust is quite irrational but, at times, their mistrust is quite justified. Working class people, especially poor working class people, generally feel they are without a voice. Politics are dominated by the educated élite, the rich. Working class people go to work just to make ends meet. They likely will never amass large sums of money. Owning a home and driving a late-model car is a sign of success. Life is one of simplicity and struggle.
Their distrust of educated people comes from the fact that educated people often talk down to them and treat them like an unwashed mass. Every four years the political class asks for their vote and then spend the next 4 or 6 years trying to demolish the working class and their attempt to hold their head above water.
Educated people tell them to “trust us.” They are the experts. They speak of double dip recessions and anthropogenic global warming, while all the working class person wants to do is get to tomorrow. They want to go to work, pay their bills, and enjoy the weekend. All this talk of this or that, in complex terms, falls on deaf ears. Why can’t the experts present their facts in the language of the commoner?
They go to their doctor and he speaks to them in Latin and with words having lots of syllables. They leave the doctor’s office confused and uncertain about what is really wrong with them. Why can’t the doctor speak to patient in way that can be understood?
The working class person has, or most likely had, friends who went off to college and got an education. They don’t interact with each other like they used to. Education has brought a distance between them. The blue-collar worker laughs when he hears the educated, white-collar person complain about how hard they have to work. The blue-collar worker knows what so many educated, white-collar workers have forgotten…that the hardest jobs, the jobs that require the most effort and labor, pay the least. They find a perverse satisfaction when one of the white-collar workers are demoted to the floor or when they find out that so and so they work with on the line has a college degree. See, what did all that education get them?
They laugh at Mitt Romney and his wife’s talk of doing hard work, yet they will likely vote for him in the upcoming presidential election. Inconsistency exists in the working class world just like it does everywhere else. Most working class people routinely vote against their economic interests and religion is the reason they do so.
With religion, the working class person finds certainty, comfort, and support. They want to hear of a life that matters. They want to know that there is a better life that awaits them beyond the grave.
In the church house they feel they are as good as anyone else, that social status doesn’t matter. (even though churches are often governed and controlled by educated, moneyed, white-collar people) With Jesus they find someone who is their friend, a friend who promised to never leave them or forsake them. The Bible, regardless of how inconsistently they interpret it, is their source of strength, comfort, and hope. In the Bible, the poor, the working class are exalted and often are portrayed as those closest to God and this message resonates with working class people.
Along comes the educated, middle/upper middle class, white-collar skeptic ever ready to rob the commoner of those things they hold dear. With big words, lengthy books, and the like, the skeptic pronounces Christianity a great evil and suggest only stupid, poorly educated people still believe in superstitions like God, Jesus, Satan, and a divine Bible.
On cable news, in the newspapers, and at gatherings like the Reason Rally, the uneducated, working class person hears their beliefs and lifestyle routinely denounced by the luminaries of the skeptic community. In their mind they think skeptics view them as stupid, ignorant, hillbillies. (and more than a few skeptics do)
If the skeptic community hopes this approach will increase their ranks they are sadly mistaken. Yes, more white, educated, white-collar people, people less likely to be religious, will be drawn to them. But, what about blue-collar working class people? What about people who have only a high school education? The group of people, by the way, that make up the majority in the United States. (and most everywhere else in the world) Is the skeptic community effectively making inroads with them?
If the goal is for skeptics to move the United States towards becoming a true secular society where science, reason, and rationality are the norms, then they MUST change their approach.
Let me say at this juncture that I am not suggesting that educated, economically flush, white collar people deny who they are. To suggest they be anything other than what they are is bigotry. However, I would like to suggest that a change of approach is in order.
First, the skeptic community must change how it is perceived. As long as they are perceived as arrogant, argumentative, educated god-haters, the people who make up the majority in the United States will turn a deaf ear and blind eye to them. They must come down out of the ivory towers and walk among the uneducated. They must be seen as normal, every day folk, as people who understand the plight of the uneducated, working class community.
Second, the skeptic community must simplify their language. Again, if the goal is the greater good of the United States then the skeptic community must learn to talk in the language of the commoner. They must develop relational skills that help them understand the people they are trying to reach. Their books, blogs, and the like must be written in a way that a high school educated person can understand their arguments. Regardless of what one may think of Bart Ehrman, he has mastered the ability to take complex arguments and make them accessible and understandable to the uneducated. Neil Degrasse Tyson is another person who has a unique ability to make complex matters of science accessible to those lacking a science education.
Third, the skeptic community must stop its bombastic, over the top, rhetoric about Christianity. Deny it all we might, we are far too often viewed as angry, argumentative, mean-spirited assholes. The very kind of people that many of us left behind when we deconverted. I don’t intend to get into the whole accommodation vs. confrontational debate. I know that accommodating religion is rarely the answer BUT I also know that the confrontational approach rarely works. Oh it might stir the faithful and make them think what people of power we are but back in the hinterlands of America such an approach is viewed as offensive and does little to change anyone’s mind.
Fourth, the skeptic community must make their events more accessible to working class people. In my survey of the skeptic community and their annual events and conferences I found that the conference fees and associated costs were quite expensive. Lowering these costs would allow more people to attend and result in more people being reached with the gospel of skepticism. The skeptic community could learn a few lessons from Evangelicals on how to effectively have conferences and events that are priced right and reach a lot of people. As long as conference costs are high, working class people will not be able to attend.
Fifth, the skeptic community must realize that there is a part of the Unites States called the Midwest. Rarely are conferences and events held in the Midwest. The skeptic community seems to love the coasts, and while I understand this, I must point out that a vast number of people are being ignored by continually holding conferences and events only on the East and West coast.
Sixth, the skeptic community must become more diverse. Where are the Hispanic, Asian, and African-American skeptics? Yes, I know the few that are……and that’s the problem…they are so few every skeptic knows of them.
The skeptic community has fallen into a trap that I often saw in my days as a pastor. There are those speakers that seem to speak at every event. They become the royalty of the community and far too often their words are treated as god-like. In E.F. Hutton like fashion, when Richard Dawkins speaks everyone listens. Again, this reinforces the notion that the skeptic community is for a certain class of people.
How about mixing it up and inviting speakers that don’t fit the typical skeptic profile? How about inviting speakers that no one knows? Some of the best preachers I ever heard were men who pastored 50 people at a church on the backside of some hill in West Virginia. One preacher’s conference I attended made sure it balanced the program with big-name and no-name speakers. This sends an important message to the public……everyone has a voice that matters. Right now, in the skeptic community, it seems the voice of a handful of people matter. The rest of us? Sit down, listen, buy our books, see ya at the next gig, or so it seems.
Seventh, one the most effective means of outreach is the printed page, be it magazine or books. Every author or publisher wants their material read by as many people as possible. As a blogger, I want my writing to be read everywhere by as many people as possible. If the skeptic community really wants to reach out beyond the faithful then they are going to have to make their materials more affordable, even if this means less profit. Again, what is our objective as skeptics? Magazine subscriptions that cost 30-50 dollars a years are beyond the reach of working class people. I know it is expensive to publish a magazine, but somehow, some way, the subscription cost must become affordable for people who do not have the means to pay 35 dollars for a magazine published 5 or 6 times a year. Again, religious publishers have this figured out and they make their subscription costs quite affordable for everyone. The skeptic community must find a way to do the same.
Books must also be priced in a way that everyone can afford them. I went to Amazon today to order a book I read a review on in a skeptic magazine. The book, 300 or so pages long, was almost 40 dollars. Only the devoted skeptic will shell out this kind of money. If the objective is to have a book read by as many people as possible then the book must be priced accordingly.
In recent months, I have read several articles written by skeptics that suggest that religion is dying or becoming irrelevant, and that skepticism is rapidly gaining ground. While this kind of thinking reinforces what skeptics really, really, really want, reality, something we skeptics supposedly consider important, is far different.
Yes, the Reason Rally was a wonderful event. Yes, the census says more people are nontheists. Yes, books are flying off the shelf. All these things are good, great in fact, but let’s not deceive ourselves into thinking we have reached critical mass and the grand principles of skepticism will be embraced by all. The majority of Americans remain unreached by the good news of skepticism. We are still a Christian nation dominated by the Christian Bible. Recent polls suggest that the creationists and climate-change deniers are holding or gaining ground. For all our blustering against the Christian God, most Christians remain unconvinced. Maybe it is time to rethink our approach.
I am not suggesting we lie down and let Christians walk all over us. There is a time and place for standing up and fighting back. However, if we hope to reach our long-term goal of the Unites States becoming a true secular state where science, reason, and rationality are the norm, we must carefully consider our image, approach, and methodology. Above all, we must find ways to accommodate both the educated and uneducated. If we are unwilling to do this we will remain outliers, cranks, and critics, who have little voice in the affairs of our country.