Claire Klingenberg on Atheism, Humanism, Rationalism, and Skepticism in Europe

by | September 8, 2018

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Claire has a background in law and psychology, and is currently working on her degree in Religious Studies. She has been involved in the skeptic movement since 2013 as co-organizer of the Czech Paranormal Challenge. Since then, she has consulted on various projects, where woo & belief meets science. Claire has spoken at multiple science&skepticism conferences and events. She also organized the European Skeptics Congress 2017, and both years of the Czech March for Science.

Her current activities include chairing the European Council of Skeptical Organisations, running the “Don’t Be Fooled” project (which provides free critical thinking seminars to interested high schools), contributing to the Czech Religious Studies journal Dingir, as well as to their online news in religion website. In her free time, Claire visits various religious movements to understand better what draws people to certain beliefs.

Claire lives in Prague, Czech Republic, with her partner, and dog. First interview with us, here.

Jacobsen: When it comes to the skeptical and atheist communities in Europe, what are the main issues? In other words, the items that come to the fore. That Americans may not know about.

Klingenberg: That is first greatly depending on the European country that we’re talking about. In Ireland, the church has a huge influence over the legislature. The atheist group there, it is fighting heavily for secular legislation, for a secular government.

You can see this distinction in European countries in general. Usually, when there are a lot of influences of the church over the government, you do not have skeptic groups. You have mainly atheist groups.

If the country is secular, it is more likely to have large skeptic groups rather than atheist groups. In Poland, there are mainly atheist groups because that is mainly their issue. It hinges on that.

In Europe, the bigger issues are the popularity of alternative medicine and different forms of alternative medicine. These are often based on different spiritual and religious practices. That is the main overlapping point between the atheist and the skeptic groups.

Jacobsen: What are some of the consequences socially of being an atheist and skeptic in Europe that do not occur in America, and vice versa?

Klingenberg: It is individual. Skeptic has a negative connotation in some European countries. In Romania, they use “rationalist.” Other countries use “free thought.” In Germany, their group name is something like, if translated, “promotion of science.” 7

Being a skeptic, as in following the skeptical method and philosophy, it doesn’t have any social connotations.

But it can have some in certain countries if the word skeptic in the country that you’re using it has a negative view of the word.

Jacobsen: How far back is this difference in terminology, e.g., skeptic, rationalist, atheist, humanist, and so on?

Klingenberg: At least the 90s. Europe is historically divided into before and after communism. After 1989, these groups popped up. Not only skeptic and humanist groups, different religious groups too.

The thing with the word atheist is that it is connected to the communist regime because it was communist. In no way does this mean modern atheism is communist, that would be a wrong assumption.

There has to be a distinction made between what is seen in the word atheist and what it implies. In my country, in the Czech Republic, when you say “Atheist,” it means you’re against the Catholic Church. It doesn’t mean that you do not believe in some higher power.

It means that you’re anti-institutionalist and anti-clerical. The atheists in Poland, it means you are anti-Catholic Church and is a statement, a big one, that you do not believe in God. These atheist and rationalist groups arose in the 90s.

That was already given by the context of the words in that particular area or country. I think that this differentiation was there from the beginning. That was the reason those words were chosen.

Jacobsen: Other than the concerns fro many European skeptics and atheists, and the differences in terminology. How much more powerful are the religious institutions in the United States than in the European Union?

Klingenberg: In the US, there are so many different types of religious institutions. Of course, there is this overall belief in God. There is this big pressure of the Christian believers, even if they belong to various branches of the Evangelical movement.

From what I can see, it has more pressure than the church has here. Because here, it is an institution like the Catholic Church, which does carry historical power and influence and is very rich. But the now the influence comes from the institution, not from its followers. But again, it depends on country-to-country.

However, they generally, it doesn’t have a direct effect on the legislature. Unless, for example, it is Spain, Ireland, or Poland.

Jacobsen: What other organizations represent the European Union as a whole or mostly? That people can look to support in the skeptic and other domains.

Klingenberg: The European Council of Skeptic Organizations is the only umbrella organization, which binds together skeptically and rationally oriented groups, regardless of name. But there is also the wonderful group called Centre for Science. It is in Brussels. It does skeptical science work. They are an organization, non-profit. They are not a movement or a group.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Claire.

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