This piece by Brian Thomson should not be allowed to go without comment and maybe controversy. I'm pleased to see that women, for example, were well-represented at the most recent TAM but I question the claim that, "it's essential that no one feel unwelcome or excluded due to race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation" (my emphasis).
Thomson goes on near the end to complain about religious believers often being made uncomfortable at Skeptic events.
But why, exactly, is it essential that no one feel unwelcome or excluded because of her religion? Surely at least some religious teachings must fly in the face of everything that the James Randi Educational Foundation and TAM stand for, no matter how narrowly JREF interprets its remit. So why wouldn't it be perfectly natural and inevitable that people who believe at least those teachings feel somewhat unwelcome?
Case in point: what if my religion teaches, contrary to everything discovered through the last four or five centuries of scientific investigation, that the universe is 6000 years old, that fossils are the remains of animals killed in a great flood a few thousand years ago, and that the diversity of human languages was caused by a miraculous act when a divine being decided to make communication more difficult (as a punishment for human hubris)? If I have those religious beliefs, surely I'm likely to feel rather unwelcome if I attend a conference such as TAM. Furthermore, surely there's a limit to how far organisers and other attendees should bend over backwards to make me feel welcome. Doubtless they should treat me in a friendly, courteous way, as long as I reciprocate, but they shouldn't go out of their way to leave my views unchallenged.
There can, of course, be reasonable disagreements about how far the remit of an organisation such as the JREF should extend. That's a matter for James Randi and others who get to make the decision. There can also be reasonable disagreements about how far the remit of the Skeptic movement, more generally, should extend. How far, in particular, should it involve itself in sceptical scrutiny of the supernatural claims made by religion? Different people may, reasonably and rationally, want to draw lines in different places.
But are we really going to say that your religious beliefs should make no difference at all to how welcome you feel at a conference such as TAM? Really? No matter what the content of those religious beliefs may be?
And what about other beliefs? Why single out religion? Even if you think religion should get a free pass, and that religious believers should be coddled, there must be at least some beliefs that organisers and attendees should not bend over backwards to coddle. Should TAM and other such conferences be run so that no one feels unwelcome because she believes in astrology, or in the existence of ghosts, or Bigfoot, or in UFOs stocked with bulging-eyed aliens and anal probes? Once again, by all means be friendly and courteous to such people, but you can't expect them to feel especially welcome within a movement devoted to debunking these kinds of ideas.
I see two issues here - first, the remit of the Skeptic movement. How narrowly should it confine itself in the things that it submits to sceptical scrutiny? No matter how narrowly it confines itself, at least somebody is going to feel not entirely welcome, and the broader the movement's remit the more people that will be. Doubtless there are reasons - at least in many cases - to express disagreement in a civil way. But you simply cannot guarantee that everyone, no matter what her ideas may be, will feel entirely welcome to the meetings of a movement that actually exists to be sceptical about ideas.
Second, this is an example of the unfortunate tendency to think that ideas are analogous to the sorts of personal attributes that include biological sex, gender identification, sexuality, skin colour, ethnic or socioeconomic background, and the like. We have very good reason not to discriminate against people on the basis of these attributes. These things have little or nothing to do with the things that we really value in people, such as good character (kindness, honesty, courage, and so on), talent, and skills; and it is cruel and destructive to act as if they do.
But it is not, generally speaking, cruel or destructive to disagree with someone's ideas. There can be exceptions, as when ideas are attacked as a mere excuse to treat someone badly when you are actually motivated to do so on other grounds (skin colour, perhaps, or perhaps just idiosyncratic dislike). Generally, however, disagreeing with ideas, disputing ideas, choosing to assist or oppose people on the basis of their ideas, and so on, are all perfectly legitimate. Such things as people's religious beliefs, moral beliefs, and political ideologies simply do not belong on the same list as "race, gender ... or sexual orientation".
Perhaps, after much introspection and debate, the Skeptic movement will decide that its remit is sufficiently narrow that it will not submit religious doctrines (any of them) to sceptical scrutiny. It's hard for me to imagine how it could come to that view in any principled way, but even if it does so that will have to be the outcome of a long internal argument. The movement can't adopt as a starting point the thesis that it must never make anyone feel unwelcome because of her religious beliefs.
Frankly, the idea, expressed in a blanket way, that no one should feel unwelcome or excluded because of her religion is sententious claptrap. It is, in fact, a form of sententious claptrap that merits sceptical exposure, scrutiny, and opposition. The Skeptic movement can aim at courtesy and other good behaviour, but it cannot give a free pass to one subset of ideas so as to guarantee that people with those particular ideas will feel at home. Not if it wants to be principled.
The Skeptic movement itself stands for certain ideas and for the scrutiny of ideas. That means that contradictory ideas or ideas that fail to withstand scrutiny will be, to some extent, unwelcome. People who adhere to those ideas will find that the movement is not for them. This is inevitable, and it's not a bad thing. A movement based on ideas and on rational scrutiny simply can't be all things to all people.