The Boundaries of Skepticism: An Interview with David McAfee

Humanists place a primacy on human reason and ethics beyond the encouragement or authority of what’s perceived to be sacred texts. Toward this end, critical thinking is an important guidance mechanism that grants us an ability to detangle from conformist intuitions. To better explore the topic of rational, evidence-based values and its wholesale implications applied to humanism, social issues, and everyday life, I felt it important to speak with someone with a public platform dedicated to raising awareness about scrutinizing deeply held beliefs.

It’s my pleasure to present a dialogue I had with journalist and secular author David McAfee. McAfee is an outspoken atheist who writes for Canadian Freethinker magazine and American Atheist magazine. He’s a member of the Secular Student Alliance bureau of speakers and manages a popular social media page that addresses biblical literalism, specifically, and skepticism in general.

Q: Those who know me probably think of me more as a gadfly to counter mainstream atheist narratives than as someone who appreciates accessible, scientific skepticism. However I am both of those things and a big fan of your secular activism. The Belief Book, which you published last year, is something I’ve reviewed with my son, for example. Please share your motivations, process, and goals when it comes to emphasizing the importance of skepticism and examining vague or unsubstantiated claims.

David McAfee: My goal isn’t to make more people atheists or to denigrate religious believers—it is to encourage education and to help people question ideas to which they’ve grown accustomed. It might be that a religion is the familiar but false notion, but it could also be any number of other things, including other supernatural beliefs or violent, racist, or misogynistic views in general. I want people to think for themselves whenever possible and feel comfortable being open about beliefs that might be considered unpopular in society.

Promoting rational skepticism and critical thinking is my highest priority, and exposing flaws within mainstream arguments and behaviors is a part of that. Nobody should be above scrutiny and that includes people I respect and those with whom I agree on a number of subjects. A lot of secular activists, for instance, say they hate religion. This is something I just can’t say for myself. I love religion because it’s an interesting phenomenon—a cultural universal. I love learning about religions and how they interact with one another. It’s only when these faith-based traditions invade secular governments and take away others’ rights that I see a problem.

Q: I often emphasize the problem of “single issue propaganda,” or the limitation of single variable politics. What I mean by this is, there’s a tendency for atheist-centered platforms—whether they be groups, organizations, blogs, or podcasts—to be preoccupied with addressing Christian privilege, religious buffoonery, and church-state violations.

Since the majority frequenting atheist circles are cis-gendered, heterosexual white men, this demographic imbalance produces an atmosphere that diminishes the value of issues not representative of “mainstream” concerns. As a result, there’s a dearth of analysis regarding social, political, and economic inequalities that beset women, people of color, LGBTQ communities, and other marginalized groups.

I know you function within a specific niche, and that’s cool. However, how do you view this overarching issue? What are your thoughts about ways the atheist movement could be more inclusive?

David McAfee: I want to start out by saying I don’t consider myself a part of the “atheist movement,” although I respect and admire many people who do.

Atheism, to me, isn’t a very important issue except as it relates to discrimination of nonbelievers in areas overrun by religious fundamentalism. I write about atheism to encourage more people to be open about their nonbelief and to show that not believing in a deity has no effect on a person’s moral compass, but there are far more important issues out there.

For instance, religious fundamentalism in general, whether it originates from Christianity or Islam or even Buddhism, is a real concern that can have real negative impacts on other issues like human rights. This goes beyond mere belief in a deity. But religion isn’t the only contributor to rights violations or impediments to scientific advancement, either, so I think it’s important that we address all these various issues as they arise.

The “atheist movement” has no obligation to do anything except for promote a nonbelief in deities, which is perhaps why I’m not affiliated with it in any traditional sense. I feel that, as individuals and activists, we have a responsibility to take on all sorts of inequities and injustices. The atheist movement could become more inclusive by merging with a group that has more admirable goals unrelated to belief or nonbelief. Atheist activists should emphasize skepticism, humanism, secularism, and reason, and do so with compassion and understanding.

Q: When I first came on board with the American Humanist Association, there was a press release in which I was quoted as saying, “Humanism’s dedication to critical thinking should not just be applied to matters of religious faith and supernaturalism but also to racism, sexism, and other harmful prejudices within our society that impede progress.”

Curiosity, skepticism, and critical thinking are virtues that arm rational thought. Unfortunately, there is a tendency for those within atheist circles to remain single-minded in how they conceptualize these cognitive tools at the expense of discounting their applicability to social issues that fall outside the domain of critiquing religious hegemony and god beliefs. What are your thoughts about the intersection of critical thinking and the scrutiny of widely accepted beliefs many uncritically observe that perpetuate social inequalities?

David McAfee: I love your quote, and I would say it accurately describes my thoughts on critical thinking in general.

In fact, in April 2014, I said, “By advocating for critical thought and logical reasoning, we can directly combat things like religion in government, racism, and much more.” And in September of that same year, I said, “I love talking about critical thinking because, when properly applied, it can positively affect every part of life—and every global problem.”

The beautiful thing about good, clear thinking is that it can be applied to much more than just religion and ghosts and psychics. We should apply scrutiny to all ideas put forth in the marketplace, but it is important to pay special attention to those claims that might be negatively affecting individuals or social or cultural groups. Ultimately, skepticism is a good thing for all of these issues because it will help us uncover the truth and then build from there in a way that helps minimize negative consequences.

Q: Secular humanist author Dale McGowan once said, “Atheism is the first step. Humanism is the thousand steps that follow.” I really love this idea. It reminds us that the mere rejection of supernatural claims doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels because the journey’s just begun. It emphasizes the importance of the humanist call to action, which is centered on a commitment to rational solutions to life problems. As a humanist who is also an atheist, it’s clear to me we won’t be receiving any divine assistance, so it’s up to us to help each other, confront injustice, and build towards a brighter future ourselves.

Tell me about what comes to mind for you when you read McGowan’s inspirational statement.

David McAfee: I had never heard this quote, but I love it!

I think that it makes sense for a lot of people for whom atheism is the first step out of a fundamentalist upbringing, for instance. For others, atheism may never be important but humanism always will be. The same goes for skepticism.

Atheism is only important because of the predominance of theism, but it isn’t an inherently helpful or important concept when you consider the larger issues we are facing as a society.

I see a lot of people who start off thinking atheism is the most important topic, but they move over time to issues that are more inclusive and more beneficial to people in general. As opposed to focusing on not believing in deities, I prefer to fight against real problems (to which religious ideals contribute), so humanism and skepticism are much more valuable to me than atheism itself. I’d say Dale McGowan has it right!