"Crop circle are messages from extraterrestrial beings!"
"No, they’re not. They’re hoaxes, elaborate man-made pranks."
"Absolutely not! Men could never made something so complicated!"
"How can you say that? You’re not being scientific! You’re just close-minded!"
This is a practical guide to spot pseudoscience, or to be close-minded if you prefer*, useful because you don’t always need to debunk all the improbable things gullible people believe, you can save time and say: “that’s bullshit”.
#1 An extraordinary claim is made about the world, that doesn’t fit with all the evidence we have about how the world really is.
”The Universe, the Earth, and all the life forms, were created as they are 10000 years ago.”
#2 An extraordinary claim is made about a phenomenon that is impossible to detect empirically.
“People have auras the characteristics of which are related to their personality.”
#3 An extraordinary claim is made without any evidence to support it, arguing that it’s sufficient that there are no evidence against it.
“The dead can communicate with the living through dreams and other means.”
#4 An extraordinary claim is made that is supported only by anectodical evidence.
“A disease can be cured with prayer and other religious rituals.”
#5 An extraordinary claim is made that the claimant states cannot be acknowledged by science because science is wrong or insufficient in some ways.
“Alternative medicine works but western medicine is too reductionist to admit it.”
“Vaccines are bad, but medicine is owned by the pharmaceutical companies that produce them, so your doctor won’t tell you.”
Other clues that should make your skeptic sense tingle:
- reference to authority rather than to direct observation and empirical tests;
- obscure, vague, or misleading language;
- the extraordinary claim has not been verified by other source except the claimant and the belief circle to which he belongs;
- smell of a political, ideological, or religious agenda.
“We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language." - Benjamin Lee Whorf
Most people don’t know what the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is. The first time I heard of it was in a Chuck Palahniuk’s novel several years ago (I think it was ‘Survivor’, but I don’t remember really).
The DSM is without any doubt, the most important book in psychiatrists’ clinical practice. It’s a reference guide full of lists of symptoms that define mental disorders. The DSM determines the type of diagnoses clinicians make. Psychiatrists move inside the boundaries defined by the DSM.
The book has undergone several revision, the current version is the DSM-IV-TR, published in 2000 that contains little updates compared with the previous version, the DSM-IV, published in 1994. So the upcoming version, the DSM-5, will be the first substantial change to psychiatric diagnosis in more than 20 years, (and some say more than 30).
The new version will probably be published in May 2013, and in 2010 the American Psychiatric Association posted a draft on their Web site open for comments. A good thing, if you ask me, that has allowed a large number (500000) of people to read and comment on such an important book.
The APA received several criticism about the new criteria and diagnoses. I will try to sum up some of them.
But first I need to adress a simple yet important fact: there are no biological tests for mental disorders. Maybe there will be, one day, but for now psychiatry has a diagnostic system without objective tests.
Psychiatric diagnoses are descriptive diagnoses based on lists of symptoms on which there is a certain degree of agreement. Nevertheless some research showed that these criteria are not always reliable.
Different disorders have many common symptoms making difficult to distinguish what diagnosis best applies, and it is suggested that the same disorder can display different symptoms in different cultures or environments.
The new version of the DSM tries, at least in part, to adress this problem, eliminating some less distinct diagnoses or merging them under more comprehensive categories. This is one of the reasons the DSM-5 will no more contain a distinct diagnosis for Asperger’s syndrome, Autistic disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder (CCD) or pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), thought to be too similar to each other. There will be instead the diagnosis for Autism Spectrum Disorder that will encompass all these disorder in one larger categories.
The attempt to achieve more accurate diagnoses has led the DSM-5 Task Force to implement in the new version a rating system to grade the severity of the patients’ symptoms. Doubts have been cast: how will insurance companies respond? Will they demand that the patient’s symptoms meet a certain severity to agree in order to cover for the treatment? Will psychiatrists use this system in their clinical practice given that it will probably require more tests, evaluations, paperwork and time?
If you would like to make it short, there are two kinds of critics:
Some psychiatrists contend that the volume still contains more disorders than actually exist, encouraging superfluous diagnoses—particularly in children. Others worry that the stricter, more precise diagnostic criteria may inadvertently give insurance companies new ways to deny medication to patients who need it. - Psychiatry’s “Bible” Gets an Overhaul
The APA uses a statistic called kappa to measure the reliability of different diagnoses. The higher the value of kappa, the more reliable the diagnosis, with 1.0 representing perfect reliability. The APA considers a diagnosis with a kappa of 0.8 or higher miraculously reliable; 0.6 to 0.8 is excellent; 0.4 to 0.6 is good; 0.2 to 0.4 “could be accepted” and anything below 0.2 is unacceptably unreliable. - Field Tests for Revised Psychiatric Guide Reveal Reliability Problems for 2 Major Diagnoses
Some ask (doubting) if the American Psychiatric Association is best equipped to develop and monitor such an important diagnostic system, one that can profoundly influence the lives of many people, alone. Criticisms have pointed out that the APA has refused to subject the new criteria to a more large and independent scientific review.
At least one previous research (Cosgrove, Krimsky, Vijayaraghavan & Schneider, 2006) has showed how the majority (56%) of the psychiatrists who contributed to the diagnostic criteria produced for the DSM-IV and the DSM-IV-TR had one or more financial associations with companies in the pharmaceutical industry. Pharmaceutical companies are not so likeable, so some people see conspiracy in these matter. But others say that:
This is not true. The mistakes are rather the result of an intellectual conflict of interest; experts always overvalue their pet area and want to expand its purview, until the point that everyday problems come to be mislabeled as mental disorders. Arrogance, secretiveness, passive governance and administrative disorganization have also played a role. - Break Up the Psychiatric Monopoly
Anyway there are several reasons for concern. One of this is the proposal to eliminate the “bereavement exclusion”, a criteria now in use in the DSM-IV for the diagnosis of Major Depression which recognizes that depressive symptoms are sometimes normal in recently bereaved individuals. This is not just a failure in recognizing the difference between a proportionate response to a devastating emotional event and a mental illness that carry the risk to make a caricature of psychiatry, but also a problem that could lead to overdiagnosis and overmedication.
From the online release of the draft version of the DSM-5, a enormous quantity of articles have criticized the new diagnostic system, and even if sometimes these criticisms misread or simplify too much the problems, it is clear that something is wrong.
The DSM taxonomy, representing putative categories that demarcate boundaries between normality and abnormality, seems to be wide-ranging, making efforts to describe many supposed human aberrations.
Psychiatric labels can influence perception powerfully. Categorization or labeling can assist in understanding and organizing phenomena in our complex social world, convey information in a simplified manner, and aid in making predictions. Additionally, psychiatric labels may assist in understanding the cause of behavior, facilitate communication among professionals, and provide a framework through which behavior can be described, explained, and treated.
However, to the extent that psychiatric labels facilitate understanding of behavior, they also have the potential to bias judgment.
- Iatrogenic symptoms in psychotherapy. A theoretical exploration of the potential impact of labels, language, and belief system (2002) by Boisvert and Faust.
Psychiatric labels can lead to erroneous interpretations about patients experiences as resulting from his/her disorder; too readily personality attributions about the cause of the problems; overattributing greater maladjustment than what actually is; tendency to focus on the client rather than on the situation thinking that the problems reside inside the person, etc. Psychiatric labels can also “contribute to negative self-perceptions and stereotyping, jeopardize social acceptance, and generate negative attitudes in the public" (ibidem).
Even without considering all these possible negative consequences of the DSM taxonomy, it should be acknowledged that the DSM has a large impact in many ways, including shaping ideas and expectations about mental disorder and people affected by them.
I think that the current version of the DSM is flawed in many ways and I think the new version will not be a great improvement (if it will be an improvement at all).
To achieve a more reliable diagnostic system it’s needed a more scientific approach, more studies investigating the validity of the proposed criteria that lead to actual changes in those criteria when changes are needed, more openness to independent scientific review, and also more contributions from outside the fortress of psychiatry : psychologists, for example, could be a big step forward, but I think also to epidemiologists and neuroscientists.
Without a tremendous shift of approach, the DSM will remain an almost totally arbitrary cookbook of symptoms.
Knowing that I will probably post more about my experiences during my traineeship, I think I need to clarify some things.
In Italy (where I live) psychiatric hospitals have been closed in 1978 and they have been replaced by community mental health services. Right now the National Health Service have Departments of Mental Health that are responsible for specialist mental health care in a regional community. Within these DMHs there are various facilities: Community Mental Health Centers, Day Care Facilities, General Hospital Psychiatric Units and Residential Facilities.
I’m doing my traineeship half in a Mental Health Center, half in a Day Care Facility.
The work in the Mental Health Center is both with new patients with no history of previous psychiatric treatment, as with patients with a long history of psychiatry illness. The actual work involves: clinical psychiatrists’ activity, forensic psychiatric assessment, psychological assessment, psychotherapeutic treatment, a bunch of nurses’ activities (like nurse’s home visit or administering psychotropic drugs) and social support activity provided by social workers. The patients treated in a Mental Health Center are usually very ill. All the patient I have seen have psychotic disorders.
The work in the Day Care Facility is very different. The patients arrive to a Day Care Facility usually after a long history of psychiatric treatment; they probably have lived for some time in a Residential Facilities. They all have a serious mental illness, but they managed to have a certain autonomy in their lives. In a DCF are done all kind of rehabilitative and socializing activities like: interpersonal and social skills training, occupational activities, leisure and socializing activities, psychomotor and creative therapy, outpatient contact with rehabilitation therapist, sheltered employment activities, individual and group psychotherapy.
In my case (there are different rules in different organizations, and even in the same organization rules change between different tutors) traineeship means that I can assist during some activities, but I can’t do anything alone.
The things are a little more flexible in the DCF. There, patients arrives even without an appointment, maybe drink a coffee, talk with a nurse or a psychologist about anything, read a newspaper, stay some time, and then leave. Of course there are also more structured activities, but the fact that it’s a more free space, makes easier for me to interact with patients, usually in an informal way (although I find that most of them usually end up talking about their problems). These conversations are, for now, the more interesting part of my traineeship, but they are, I want to underline this, simple conversations. This means I can talk about whatever I want, without having in mind a therapeutic goal, being these conversation part of the socializing activities, the therapeutic goal is achieved in the conversation itself.
Why am I saying all this stuff?
One reason is for some of the comments I received on this post, comments like: ”Is that wise?" or "that doesn’t seem like a very good approach…”.
It would be probably not wise and definitely wouldn’t be a good approach if it was my patient and we were talking in a therapeutic setting, but it wasn’t that the case. As I explained, in that situation we were just two persons having a conversation. My point of view is that I’m entitled of talking about anything I like (but I should say I don’t usually start conversations, so most of the times is the patient who choose the subject) unless it’s clearly an upsetting topic.
The other reason I’m saying this is this message (and other comments alike).
“Could you explain why you feel the need to talk about Schizophrenics like they’re an alien race?”
The person who sent this message must be a new reader of this blog. I think it’s clear to anyone who have taken the time to read some of the stuff I write from time to time, what is my position about mental illness.
For example, I never refer to someone as schizophrenic, or depressed, or bipolar or whatever. I always (always, really) say something like: a patient with paranoid schizophrenia, a person with anxiety disorder, etc. This is because I really think that having a mental illness doesn’t define your whole identity, it’s just part of your identity.
Trust me when I say I have difficulty even in saying “patients”.
The fact that after talking to a patient I think about what happened, that I reflect on both his and mine behavior, that I write about that trying to analyze it, and even that I find the irony in having a conversation so similar to some I have here on this blog in an environment so different, it’s part of my “job” and it definitely doesn’t mean I “need to talk about Schizophrenics like they’re an alien race?”.
Tumblr is planning a new policy against self-harm blogs. This includes “blogs that glorify or promote anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders; self-mutilation; or suicide.”
Tumblr will prohibit to post content that actively promotes or glorifies self-injury or self-harm and will start posting ““public service announcement”-style language whenever users search for tags that typically go along with pro-self-harm blogs.”
Some years ago I went to a little conference about this issue. I was studying psychology and I ran a tiny blog, so I was interested in the matter. An Italian blogs platform (recently closed) promoted this event in which a bunch of so-called experts were invited to give their opinions. Let’s say it was a complete failure, and the two executives of the blog-publishing service that were present admitted it was a failure, and I could see that their expectations had been dramatically disappointed. Of course none of the “experts” understood anything about what they were asking to them. One of these experts is a well known psycho-something that never misses an opportunity to show up in any talk show, saying common-sense things as if they were groundbracking truths. Another is a psychiatrist (a famous one, besides teaching in a university, he runs a professional organization and an institute for cognitive psychotherapy) that later I had the great displeasure to know because he was a promoter of “riparative therapies”, the criminal practices aimed to turn an homosexual back into a straight person. I wrote a post about this on my blog, and he came claiming I was defaming him.
It was some years ago (2007, sigh!), but those “experts” were still back in the 70’s (and maybe even further). They stated that internet is bad for people, that it reinforces maladaptive behaviors and narcissism, and that it promotes mental illness. They were (are) morons.
I remember that that blogs platform was facing the same dilemma Tumblr is facing now, censoring or let the things as they are. They were well aware that if they had decided to censore those kind of blogs, those users would have simply changed platforms.
I feel the same about the new Tumblr policy. I’m not saying that they are making the wrong decision, in fact I’m very glad they acknowledged this issue and decided to think about something to do, but I’m worried that even if their new policy could really eradicate this kind of blogs (and I’m not entirely sure it can, they say it will work searching for key words tipically associated with pro-self-harm blogs, and we all know how simple it is to bypass this kind of filters), those users would just migrate to some other blog platform.
I haven’t a solution to this issue. I’d like to read some serious researches on the subject, but from what I saw there aren’t any.
I ask myself if this kind of blogs can actually promote something, if they can really influence other people, if a girl who is at risk for anorexia, or a boy at risk for self-harm, can really be pushed by those blogs, or if those girls and boys would find a way of expressing their problem anyway. I ask myself what is the real function of this kind of blogs for the people who write them, if besides being a way of expressing themselves and their emotional distress they are also a way of creating a bond with other people who face similar issues, a way (not an adaptive one) to feel less alone and therefore even a way to try to auto-medicate.
After writing this post I searched for posts about the new policy and I spent several minutes reading the opinions of some of those who run this kind of blog. It was somehow educative.
To answer this question I need to address two different kind of problems.
In fact I think that politicians and journalists deny climate change for different reasons than common people.
There are numerous powerful corporations that have interests in deny climate change and undermine the public understanding of this matter, mostly because a different energetic policy would mean more cost for them. Corporations tentacles move a lot of money and their ties are countless.
Politicians, especially conservatives ones, are advised to deny the existence of climate change. Newspapers publish articles in which, just to make an example, a bunch of non-climate scientists says that there’s no compelling scientific argument to take action against climate change.
The rhetoric of denier’s discourse is well known. It can be traced back to the arguments that climate science lack of scientific certainty, that there’s lack of scientific consensus, and that climate change is natural, instead of anthropogenic.
Then, there are the common people, like you and me. Why they don’t believe in climate change is a matter that concerns very complicated aspects of human psychology. There are a lot of studies about the psychology of risk perception that address this issue, for example.
According to the American Psychological Association Task Force on the Interface Between Psychology and Global Climate Change (2010), “the understanding of climate change, both in its causes and in its likely effects, by the average citizen across different regions of the world is very limited”. Climate change is indeed a complex issue. Climate change is hard to detect from personal experience, for example climate is a statistical concept, and weather events, even extreme events, are not necessarily indicative of changes in the climate, contrary to what sometimes people may think.
Because climate change is so hard to detect from personal experience, it makes sense to leave this task to climate scientists. This makes climate change a phenomenon where people have to rely on scientific models and expert judgment, and/or on reports in the mass media, and where their own personal experience does not provide a trustworthy way to confirm the reports. For most people, their exposure to and experience of “climate change” has been almost entirely indirect and virtual, mediated by news coverage and film documentaries of events in distant regions (such as melting glaciers in Greenland) that describe these events in relation to climate change.
Take this in mind.
When people feel lack of knowledge or confusion, they are not motivated to an unbiased search for information, instead they are always more likely to trust someone or something that is familiar to them and “to avoid learning about the relevant issue when information is negative or when information valence is unknown” (Shepherd & Kay, 2012).
But very often scientists are not perceived as trustworthy. There are many cultural reasons, J.A. Paulos trying to understand why americans don’t elect scientists says that:
"Americans have long privately dismissed scientists and mathematicians as impractical and elitist, even while publicly paying lip service to them. One reason is that an abstract, scientific approach to problems and issues often leads to conclusions that are at odds with religious and cultural beliefs"
You can see why the role that politicians and media can have in shaping public understanding of climate change is so important. Denying the reality of climate change they say to people: “it’s all ok, don’t worry”.
They sell a comforting fiction.
Asperger’s Disorder is characterized by a severe and sustained impairment in social interaction, and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior.
It is often present an inability to use non-verbal behaviors such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression and body postures, to regulate social interaction and communication. The failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level is another key feature of the disorder.
You can take a look here If you are interested in the “more specific” diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s Disorder. However, take in mind that for the upcoming new edition of the DSM, it was proposed that this disorder should be “subsumed into an existing disorder: Autistic Disorder (Autism Spectrum Disorder)”.
According to the DSM-V, studies have not demonstrated the validity of the subtypes of DSM-IV, especially that of Asperger disorder. The main reason most studies have not been able to distinguish between Asperger disorder and autism is that the DSM-IV criteria were vague and difficult to use.
For these vague criteria Asperger’s Disorder have an history of over-diagnosis.
Benjamin Nugent tells his story:
For a brief, heady period in the history of autism spectrum diagnosis, in the late ’90s, I had Asperger syndrome. […]
I exhibited a “qualified impairment in social interaction,” specifically “failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level” (I had few friends) and a “lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people” (I spent a lot of time by myself in my room reading novels and listening to music, and when I did hang out with other kids I often tried to speak like an E. M. Forster narrator, annoying them). I exhibited an “encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus” (I memorized poems and spent a lot of time playing the guitar and writing terrible poems and novels). […]
The thing is, after college I moved to New York City and became a writer and met some people who shared my obsessions, and I ditched the Forsterian narrator thing, and then I wasn’t that awkward or isolated anymore. According to the diagnostic manual, Asperger syndrome is “a continuous and lifelong disorder,” but my symptoms had vanished.
He was diagnosed when he was 17, but later, in his adult life it “became clear” that he didn’t have asperger’s disorder. He point out that:
Under the rules in place today, any nerd, any withdrawn, bookish kid, can have Asperger syndrome.
The definition should be narrowed. I don’t want a kid with mild autism to go untreated. But I don’t want a school psychologist to give a clumsy, lonely teenager a description of his mind that isn’t true.
I recently have had an experience that made me think about this diagnosis. After a 7 days-long neuropsychological screening, the doctors said to the mother of a kid I know, that he needed to see an asperger’s specialist, to see if he has asperger’s disorder, or if he’s just shy.
When you can’t understand if a kid is just shy or if he has asperger’s disorder, there’s something wrong.
This will be a long post, a classical tl;dr kind of post. I read something this morning, I read this post about asexuality and the show Sherlock. It made me think, and given that asexuality was a topic on which I discussed sometimes, but that I never thought with proper attention, I decide to educate myself. I searched for scientific articles on this matter, and I found only 10 of them. This post is almost entirely based on Bogaert’s ‘Toward a Conceptual Understanding of Asexuality’ (2006). If you don’t get too bored and read this throughout, in the end I will say something on the other articles I found.
This post is about what I learned reading about asexuality, and contains some personal opinion, but contrary to my normal posts, this is for me just like it’s for you, because sometimes I need to write things down to make them clear.
Ok, let’s start.
How we define asexuality?
Storms (1980) proposed a model of sexual orientation that includes asexuality. In his model, heterosexuals are those who score high on attraction for members of the opposite sex; homosexuals are those who score high on attraction for members of the same sex; bisexual are those who score high on attraction for both sexes; and asexual those who score low on attraction for both sexes.
In this model asexuality is defined by the lack of sexual attraction, not by the lack of sexual behavior. This fact implies that these individuals don’t necessarily have no desire for sexual stimulation (for instance: do not masturbate) or that they are incapable of experience sexual arousal or to engage in romantic attraction to others and therefore don’t have the desire to form a romantic relationship.
Bogaert (2006) defines asexuality in more general terms:
“anyone who does not have sexual attraction toward people, objects, and so forth is defined as asexual.”
Of course this definition involves some problem:
”[…] a deficiency or absence of sexual fantasies and desire for sexual activity. […] Low sexual desire […] There is little motivation to seek stimuli […] Persistently or recurrently deficient (or absent) sexual fantasies and desire for sexual activity.
These fragments of definition are not so different from the one above, and yet, they are defining Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder, a Sexual Dysfunctions included in the DSM-IV-R.
It’s easy to see how these two definition somehow overlap, but expert argue that there are also important distinctions:
- in contrast to people with HSDD, asexual people may still experience some degree of sexual desire, arousal and may engage in sexual activity even deriving pleasure from it;
- HSDD have some subcategories: “generalized” vs “situational” and “life-long” versus “acquired”, and it’s argued that most people with HSDD do not have a generalized lifelong absence of sexual desire.
I have to admit that I have some problem with these two distinctions. Let’s be clear: I’m not saying that asexuality is a mental disorder, I’m saying that I don’t see any differences between the definitions of “generalized lifelong HSDD” and asexuality, so, or there is something wrong in the DSM-IV-R definition that must be corrected adding better criteria, or “generalized lifelong HSDD” is just asexuality and therefore we better take it off from the DSM.
Once we have defined asexuality we should ask: should asexuality be considered a sexual orientation?
Some argue that it should not, because people who describe themselves as asexual exhibit pattern of sexual attractions/arousal similar to sexual people when the arousal in measured in laboratory. It is argued that if these people perceive a lack of sexual desire but show a physical arousal, their psychological experience is different from the physiological one, and therefore these people have a traditional underlying sexual orientation (heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, etc).
Others claim that people who report very low sexual desire or attraction have an underlying sexual orientation and that in fact their sexual desire could be boosted with interventions such administering testosterone.
While the first objection underline an aspect of the issue that I think it’s important, the second one seems to me pretty stupid, you can administer to me testosterone and boost my sexual desire and my aggression, but this doesn’t mean that I’m actually that way.
Let me say something more about the first objection: it’s interesting that a person can have a subjective perception of lack of sexual attraction and yet exhibit sexual arousal, and it makes me think about alexithymia (in which a person can’t perceived his own emotions but those emotions show up if measured by physiological correlates) or the avoidant attachment style of children (in which children that are separated for small periods from their mothers don’t exhibit manifest discomfort -like crying- but their level of stress measured through physiological correlates is very high, higher than the one of children who cry). However, I would not say that these people have an underlying traditional sexual orientation, I quote Bogaert:
[…] the view that many cases of asexuality should not be viewed as having a unique sexual orientation because there is an underlying sexual orientation toward others (or some object) seems to assume a strong “essentialist” position with regard to sexual orientation. In other words, this view assumes there is an underlying, presumably biologically determined (e.g., prenatal organization of anterior hypothalamus of the brain) sexual orientation toward others that all people have before adolescence and that will reveal itself in adulthood under adequate social and hormonal circumstances.
I think that this “essentialist” position is the same position held by those who say that homosexuality is a disease, I think this position is wrong, because it implies that asexual people are wrong, broken or sick.
I decided to not cite empirical findings here, like the percentage of people who describe themselves as asexual, or other things like that, because I looked at the researches (of the 10 articles I found, 5 were empirical researches): all the researches but one used internet surveys on subjects recruited on websites for people who identify themselves as asexual (in fact, just one website: AVEN). I have many doubts on this kind of survey. The one research that used a face-to-face interview, had only 4 subjects, not exactly a representative sample. Anyway, if you want to take a look at some data, you can read this presentation by Brotto and Knudson: ‘Understanding Asexuality’.
Considered that, I think there is a lack of research on this topic.
Did I learned something about asexuality reading all this stuff? Yes, of course. While I continue not to agree with many of the things I happen to read on tumblr, I think I have acquired a more complex vision of the issue.
Why do I refer to myself as an atheist instead of an agnostic?
To answer, I need to point out what is it, in very simple terms, agnosticism. Agnosticism is the position in which you claim you can’t say if God exists or not, and so, you declare you neither believe nor disbelieve that God exists.
I think it’s a weak position that you can claim only if we confine our discourse to divinity.
So, let’s talk about the invisible pink unicorn.
I think it’s rather difficult that you could say you are agnostic about his existence, but you should, in fact, the evidence for the existence of the invisible pink unicorn are the same as for any other supernatural being (god included).
I think, the most reasonable position everyone could have about the invisible pink unicorn is that it doesn’t exists.
Since, in principle, I don’t see any difference between the concept of God or the concept of an invisible pink unicorn, I think agnosticism is not the most reasonable position to have.
If there are no evidence, I choose disbelief.
Why do I think militant atheism is needed?
You probably heard or read about some statement against militant atheism, there are at least two arguments against it:
- militant atheism is a form of fundamentalism just like religious fundamentalism;
- it is contradictory to actively negate the existence of something you claim doesn’t exists. Or more simply: To attack something, you need to believe in it.
The first argument is silly, I think it doesn’t deserve attention, at least because even if you consider me a fundamentalist atheist, I think you would prefer me as a neighbor instead of a real religious fundamentalist, like those who kill doctors or those who stone women to death.
The second argument is something like this:
"how can you be a militant atheist? How can you be militant non-stamp collector? This is really what it comes down to. You just don’t collect stamps. So how can you be a fundamentalist non-stamp collector? It’s like sleeping furiously. It’s just wrong."
So, in simple words, atheists are “right” only if they say “I don’t believe, I don’t care”.
This kind of arguments do not take into account that religious belief is not just a individual position that affect only the person who hold it. Religious belief manifest itself into society, religion influences society in many ways.
Jon Elster (Nègation active et nègation passive, 1979) wrote that “militant atheism can’t do without the believers it fights”.
When religious beliefs influence government policy, so that laws that matter for public health, or scientific research, or education, are based on religious position, it’s not just something you can say “I don’t believe, I don’t care”, because those laws, and those government choices, affect also you.
So, while atheism is a personal position of disbelief, militant atheism is saying “I don’t believe, but I do care if what you believe affects my life”.
If other’s religious beliefs will stop influencing society (and therefor my life too), I’ll stop being a militant atheist, and I will be simply an atheist.