Skepticism and Atheism December 16, 2009

Skepticism and Atheism

by Jesse Galef –

Tomorrow is my first Cafe Inquiry discussion group! The topic is “Does Skepticism Require Atheism?” We’re meeting at the CFI-DC chapter at 7:00PM (Thursday). It’s right by a metro (map) so those of you in the DC area have every reason to attend!

But for those of you outside the DC area, we can start having the discussion here! This question was inspired by a talk titled “Skepticism Includes Atheism (So Deal With It)” given at Skepticamp by Michael De Dora Jr., Executive Director of CFI-NY. It inspired some dissent (Why Skeptics Don’t Have to be Atheists) on the Gotham Skeptic blog, followed by a rebuttal by Michael (Why Skeptics Should be Atheists) and eventually a third post when Massimo Pigliucci of Rationally Speaking decided to weigh in (One more on the relationship between atheism and skepticism).  There’s quite a lot to sift through!

It’s an interesting back-and-forth-and-forth, and I’ll try to give my take. It’s important to acknowledge that they got into the differing definitions of the words (atheism vs agnosticism, science vs skepticism), but I’ve discussed that particular question ad nauseum recently and need a break from it. I’ll use ‘skepticism’ to mean the attitude that one should scale confidence in a belief to match the evidence, and ‘atheism’ to mean the lack of belief in a god. With these definitions, the two are clearly related.

The discussion had two main prongs – how skepticism and atheism interact in an individual and how the two interact in a movement.

The former seems like a more specific form of the common question: “are science and religion compatible”. If a person is skeptical, we expect them to embrace atheism because that’s where the evidence leads. But there are different degrees of skepticism, and people sometimes have topics that somehow elude their usual scrutiny. A person can be skeptical when it comes to evolution but not religion – see Ken Miller – or skeptical when it comes to religion but not vaccines – see Bill Maher. I’m sure most, if not all, of us have beliefs to which we don’t apply full skepticism (I’m sorry, your children are probably NOT the smartest in the whole world.  No, I don’t care what grades they’re getting.)

It obviously hurts someone’s “skepticism street cred” to say they believe strongly in creationism, or a vaccine/autism link, or ghosts.  There is no good evidence for these claims, so for someone to believe them strongly they’re being unskeptical.  The same applies for claims about God – this was part of Michael’s original point.  A pure skeptic applies scrutiny to all views including religion. But while I find these instances interesting, I don’t expect much disagreement on the actual facts. It boils down to whether or not – or to what extent – we are willing to call these people skeptics.  [We should have a scale for how much your “skepticism street cred” (SSC) drops according to different beliefs!]

The latter question is more centered around the tactics of the skeptical movement. Since the principle of skepticism requires religion to be treated with scrutiny, how should the movement deal with the fact that scrutiny leads to atheism? This is the “So Deal With It” part of Michael’s talk title.

By now, we are painfully aware that atheism has negative stigmas.  Being too strongly associated can alienate potential allies like Ken Miller or potential supporters like religious moderates.  But if someone is turned away by our atheism, to what extent were they really an ally or supporter in the first place?  I think the cause of skeptical, critical thinking is best served by refusing to skirt around the issue of religion.  If people get the sense that religion is a ‘sacred cow’, critical thinking hasn’t really advanced. What to do?  Michael suggests:

Dealing with my message — that skeptics should be atheists, friendly to the atheist message, working on more issues relating to religious belief — means actually taking what I am saying and putting it to practice. It means hosting lectures and panel discussions, writing essays, and generally caring more about religion and surrounding issues — raising human consciousness about the critique of religion and existence of better approaches to life. So, now that semantics are out of the way, what are you going to do?

I think he’s right.  And I can specifically speak to the good job CFI-DC is doing on this front.  Come see for yourself tomorrow at 7 or discuss it here – or both.

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  • TychaBrahe

    I still believe that the universe is closed. I will teach that it is flat tending toward permanent expansion, because that is the current science, but I find this depressing. I do not want the stars to go out. I want the universe to be closed so that it can collapse and a new universe born from the crunch. Perhaps I am the space cadet equivalent of someone determined to believe that there is an afterlife. I don’t care.

    However, I will not discriminate against those who accept that the universe is flat, deny them rights, no, not even those who believe the Sun goes around the Earth, although I reserve the right to try to educate them. But I hold onto my unscientific beliefs.

  • Revyloution

    It really comes down to who you consider to be an authority, and why.

    Those of us who favor science know that humans are fallible and require independent tools to weed out truth. We love Carl Sagan, but as soon as he said he believed in ghosts, we would demand a great deal of evidence. I don’t believe what a man says because he has PhD behind his name, I trust what he says because there are thousands of other men in his field that he has corroborated with to come to a common conclusion.

    If you apply this rigor to religion, you find that there is no consensus amongst the ‘experts’ (clergy, priests, imams, shamen, et al.) Seeing that there is no agreement on the nature of the unmeasurable world of the supernatural, we take the logical stance of “I have no need of that hypothesis” and dismiss any argument that cannot be shown to be true.

    Those scientific minded people who are also religious make one leap of logic. They assume their clergy are experts. Once this leap is made, then they can use the same rigorous logic that serves them so well in the real world. They can construct large complex diagrams of the supernatural, declare universal laws based on its texts, and feel they are intellectually satisfied.

    It is that leap of logic that must be shown false, not the arguments of men like William Lane Craig. Arguing for some creative yet unseeable grand motivator is a pointless argument. Arguing for or against Deism is a ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’ question. The meat and potatoes of any discussion of religion must begin with “Who do you consider the experts on your faith? Who did they consider experts? How can we test their conclusions against the arguments of other religions?” Those are the kinds of questions skepticism can answer.

  • Trace

    No, skepticism doesn’t require atheistm.

  • Skepticism is an attitude and a process (it’s also a movement, but let’s treat that as a separate domain of definition). Atheism is a particular claim. Now, I happen to think that atheism(or at the very least, rejection of the dogmas of any and every particular sect) is an inevitable outcome of that process, followed to its logical conclusion. Of course, I would say that, given that’s how it worked out in my case ;-).

  • flawedprefect@gmail.com

    Agreed – skepticism does not require atheism. It may, however, require a certain level of agnosticism. The same kind of agnosticism one might find in the lab.

  • Renacier

    Skepticism may not require atheism, but good skepticism leads to it.

    The fact is that the bulk of religious claims are insupportable by what we know of the universe. So a skeptic who isn’t an atheist is giving a those beliefs a ‘bye’, and that’s not really very skeptical, is it?

  • David D.G.

    Greta Christina’s excellent recent blog entry “Show Me The Money” (http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2009/12/show-me-the-money.html) happens to more or less address this topic; she mostly explores the ways that theists try to armor religion against skeptical scrutiny, but eventually she pretty much says that’s because, basically, that’s all they’ve got.

    Greta points out that if religion (any religion) had any decent real evidence to back up its claims, it would present it. And when, occasionally, it does try to present evidence (from famous relics like the Shroud of Turin to a supposed facial image on a grilled cheese sandwich), all of it is found wanting.

    So I would say that, yes, skepticism requires “pure” agnosticism at the very least, and the most reasonable skeptical conclusion is agnostic atheism. And even then, certain concepts of a god (e.g., the Judeo-Christian-Islamic deity) can be ruled out entirely as logically impossible.

    ~David D.G.

  • To mean, skepticism doesn’t equal unbelief, or denial of something. Instead, I view skepticism as being able to critically think about something, regardless of what your final position on something is.

    If you read articles about vaccines, and you read into both sides of the discussion honestly and openly, then I think it makes you a skeptic no matter which side you choose.

    I find it interesting that people can say that clergy and imams don’t always agree, but somehow believe that science is this perfect, authority. As someone with a Masters degree (and 2 years of PhD so far) I know that the scientific method is flawed and “knowledge” is subjective no matter who is teaching it to you.

    Therefore, I believe questioning, and weighing as many positions as possible before making a position is the wisest decision we can make within our human limits.

  • “We expect them to embrace atheism because that’s where the evidence leads…”

    Only when you set fairly narrow parameters for “evidence”… I think by “evidence” you mean that’s where an understanding of the world based on scientific naturalism leads.

    For some of us scientific naturalism is a good starting point, but not an end point.

  • muggle

    No, of course, skepticism doesn’t necessarily make one an Atheist. And it’s a silly empirical claim to make. Let’s see some evidence of that.

    It’s the ususal thing that mystifies us. How can someone so intelligent believe these ancient myths that aren’t supported by the evidence? Yet there are those who persist in doing so. Some point where they choose not to be logical and/or skeptical and just accept on that annoying faith.

    As far as ghosts, etc., there’s every possibility that some phenoma exists that just hasn’t yet been explained by modern science. Science has barely even investigated so who knows. I don’t think there’s dead souls and all that jazz wandering around but I’m open minded to some natural phenoma that has been misinterpreted as that.

    Yes, and that’s from someone who isn’t Agnostic about “God”. Go figure.

  • JulietEcho

    I’ll say it: I think this isn’t a conversation worth having in this kind of format. There’s bound to be so much disagreement on semantics alone (as you’ve pointed out in your post) – and even if everyone could come to an agreement on what the terms mean (which they won’t, being human and opinionated and all), there are always going to be tons of theists/deists who consider themselves skeptics (and “good skeptics” to boot), and plenty of atheists who think that “good skepticism” inevitably leads to atheism and if yours doesn’t, you’re doing it wrong.

    And who’s “right” and who’s “wrong” depends entirely on the semantics and/or on whether or not you already believe that the evidence best supports an atheistic position.

    There, that’s it. That’s the discussion. The only reasons to pursue this further (that I can see) is if you really enjoy arguing or if you’re interested in the tangents the discussion will inevitably create. I’m a big fan of both discussion and debate (I mean, check out the forum, seriously!) but I think that some discussions aren’t going to be fruitful, and this is one of them.

  • Revyloution

    Im accusing JulietEcho of being anti-semantic.

  • jose

    I don’t see how God is different from the dragon-living-in-my-garage®.

    @muggle: atheists are open minded. If someone offered evidence for God tomorrow, atheists would become theists. But for now, I can’t see why I should believe in invisible dragons that love me and died for my sins and now live in my garage.

    Both examples require faith. But faith is the opposite of critical thinking.

    Ok, people can believe in God while being skeptical with homeopathy or Atlantis or whatever at the same time. That’s simply because we humans are so good at willing suspension of disbelief. Those skeptic people don’t believe in stuff until there’s a good reason to do so (including non-testable stuff such as conspiracy theories: Hey, maybe the men in black are really good at hiding things. It might be true); but apparently, when it comes to God, a different standard is used.

    The Gotham guy says critical thinking doesn’t lead to atheism because God is beyond the realm of science. He says:

    “God will always be an unfalsifiable hypothesis, and thus, outside the realm of science … I see skepticism as a scientific position.”

    But critical thinking isn’t limited to science. People use it all the time with stuff not related to science. Employers use it in job interviews. Voters use it when they’re watching some political debate on TV. You better use it if someone tries to sell you NBA Finals tickets for 1 dollar (yeah, I got em from my uncle! He’s some NBA big-wig!). It’s just some kind of pragmatic, healthy common sense that protects you from being bamboozled.

    God may be beyond the realm of science, but still I don’t see why I should believe in God. So I guess I’ve ended up as an atheist.

  • I don’t think it’s particularly important who is a skeptic and who isn’t. It’s not a clean cut between the two, and it’s not as if merely being a skeptic confers you some special authority.

    From the practical standpoint of running a skeptical group, I find it is a bad idea to place any constraints whatsoever on people’s beliefs. You end up getting a wide range of views, and any attempt at conformism is doomed. Also, there’s very little need to actively focus on religious topics; skeptical folks will end up talking about it a lot with hardly any effort at all.

  • MarkP

    I have yet to see a convincing argument (either here or in the original comments) that skepticism should at least lead to agnosticism. The argument has, instead, revolved around whether lack of belief is atheism or not. It seems both sides agree that there is not sufficient evidence to support belief in god(s).

    Michael De Dora’s piece makes it clear that he does not believe that skeptics should exclude theists, nor that skeptic groups should actively promote atheism. He is arguing that the application of skeptic principles to religion mean opposing religious claims. To exempt the claims of religion from skeptical inquiry is to abandon skepticism.

    The Quixotic Man’s argument, particularly as fleshed out in the comments, boils down to: We can reject all religious claims that impact the world (such as most claims in the Abrahamic religions and other religions) but we cannot definitively state that a deistic being does not exist.

    A deistic being bears no resemblance to the god(s) proposed by the world religions which Michael De Dora suggest skeptics should oppose. Religion should not get a pass on skeptical inquiry

  • Miko

    Since I personally have thought deeply about every issue in existence and reached the logical conclusion best supported by the evidence in each case, it’s clear that saying a person is a skeptic is just a shorthand way of saying that they agree with my position on every single issue from the existence of Bigfoot, to religion, to politics, to the proper position of the knob on the toaster.

    As an evidence-based philosophy, skepticism can’t logically require a person to hold any specific belief. If a god descends in a cloud car tomorrow and performs suitable miracles under scientifically-controlled conditions broadcast on every television channel, then those that remain atheists would be the opposite of skeptics. (Even if we acknowledge the god’s existence, we still wouldn’t necessarily have to begin worshiping the deity or think that it was good, of course.)

    Those who want skepticism to imply atheism would do better to introduce a new word that means both skepticism and atheism (I suggest skepatheicism). Then they can freely state that skepatheicism implies atheism. As a bonus, they can also state that skepatheicism implies skepticism.

    This kind of taxonomic classification isn’t really so important. The argument “You’re a skeptic, so you should be an atheist” is going to convince absolutely no one. It may be that the best reasons to be a skeptic are also good reasons to be an atheist, but in that case one should appeal to those reasons rather than appealing to skepticism per se.

  • Miko

    Those scientific minded people who are also religious make one leap of logic. They assume their clergy are experts.

    I doubt this. Most would appeal to some form of personal revelation or just call it faith. I doubt one in a hundred would say that their religious beliefs stem from the expert status of their particular clergy.

    It is that leap of logic that must be shown false

    Logical steps can be valid or invalid. Only propositions can be true or false.

    I have yet to see a convincing argument (either here or in the original comments) that skepticism should at least lead to agnosticism.

    At least? I personally don’t think that skepticism must lead to atheism, but I do think that that claim is much more reasonable than saying that skepticism must lead to agnosticism. While the term is often misused, note that agnosticism (or, strong agnosticism) literally means that one believes that the existence of a god could never be proven either way. But if a god existed, the god itself could easily prove its existence, so one can only believe that the existence of a god can’t even in theory be decided one way or the other if one also believes that a god doesn’t exist. (And even that is just a necessary condition, not a sufficient one.) Anything which leads to agnosticism but not to atheism is unworthy of the name ‘skepticism.’

  • geru

    Any atheist or skeptic worth his salt would surely acknowledge that atheism is not the only acceptable answer. So atheism cannot be a true prerequisite for being a part of the “skeptics club”.

    But that said, I’d say that being a theist requires one to be forcefully ignorant towards a certain subject. Would you consider someone a true skeptic if they said that alternative medicine is out of bounds for them, and that they believe in faith healing and homeopathy and angel energy and they’re not willing to discuss it?

    What if they said that alternative medicine should altogether be left outside skepticism because it’s such a personal subject to so many people? Isn’t this exactly what happened recently in some skeptic meeting, TAM or whatever, when someone said the same thing about religion?

    Or maybe I’m mixing to separate things here. I guess there’s no trouble with being a skeptic if you simply say that you’re not interested in certain subjects and will probably not be keen to discuss about them, but you cannot take the position in which you proclaim certain things but then refuse to discuss them as Bill Maher has infamously done.

  • MarkP

    Miko said

    …it’s clear that saying a person is a skeptic is just a shorthand way of saying that they agree with my position on every single issue…

    Nobody is arguing that theists should not be allowed in skeptic meetings. They are arguing that to accept any currently practiced world religion, is to not treat it with the same level of skeptical inquiry which skeptics generally approach other issues.

    I also agree with you entirely in regards to the term agnostic. My point was not that agnostic, as you and several others have defined it (and I agree with) is a logical or defensible position. It was that even those who say skepticism does not lead to atheism seem to think it should lead to agnosticism as they define it (definitions which I don’t agree with).

    Again, I have yet to see an argument that there is potentially sufficient evidence for theism. The only arguments seems to be that skeptics shouldn’t exclude anyone and about the definition of the term “atheist.”

  • “They are arguing that to accept any currently practiced world religion, is to not treat it with the same level of skeptical inquiry which skeptics generally approach other issues.”

    Any skeptic who holds on to a belief despite convincing evidence to the contrary is an idiot.

    While many Christians make leaps of faith because they’re brought up believing in God I would say there’s a reasonable amount of evidence for theism – assuming one does not find the arguments for atheism from naturalism particularly convincing.

    I am skeptical of all other religious claims and most supernatural claims – and yet I believe the accounts of Jesus life to be evidence for his deity, and I believe that the complexity of the universe lends itself to a creator not to randomness.

    Both these claims are possible to skeptically justify depending on your approach to the “evidence”… skepticism is a subjective thing.

    You don’t, as other commenters have mentioned, need to throw out every idea you can’t personally test in order to be a skeptic.

  • MarkP

    Nathan:

    I believe the accounts of Jesus life to be evidence for his deity

    The point raised here is that there is no convincing corroboration for the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life. There is no evidence to support it, and reason to suspect that none of the accounts were written by contemporaries, much less by eyewitnesses.

    and I believe that the complexity of the universe lends itself to a creator not to randomness.

    The natural explanation for the universe is not randomness, you are setting up a false dichotomy.

    You don’t, as other commenters have mentioned, need to throw out every idea you can’t personally test in order to be a skeptic.

    Agreed. A deistic creator of the universe who established the physical laws of the universe and has since ceased to interfere in the affairs of the creation, is not testable. However, the claims made by Christianity regarding the natural world (such as the effect of intercessory prayer) can be tested. Each of these tests has failed to support the claims of Christianity. The proposition that invisible pink unicorns exist is also not testable; that does not mean it is reasonable to believe in it.

    As I have said, I don’t advocate preventing theists from being a part of the skeptical movement, nor do I believe it is necessary for skeptics to advocate atheism; however, I have yet to see an argument for theism which passes a reasonable assessment from skeptical inquiry.

  • Mark,

    Thanks for your response…

    “The natural explanation for the universe is not randomness, you are setting up a false dichotomy.”

    Perhaps my choice of words was inaccurate.

    I believe, based on observations of the universe, and the nature of mankind, that the case for a creator is greater than the case for chance.

    I think it is more likely that everything originated with something big and powerful than with something small accidentally colliding and creating a sequence of improbable events over a long period of time.

    I’m not picking fights with the science of evolution here. I’m more concerned with the logical notion that we are a natural product of an infinite universe over infinite time with the paradoxical rejection of an all powerful God who acts the way the Christian God does… Why can’t you apply the same logic to the creation or origin of God that you do to the creation or origin of the universe?

    I don’t see how choosing this philosophy as pertaining to the origin of life, the universe and everything rules me out of skeptically assessing claims about the nature of God(s) or about any other claim.

    The word “skeptic” should not be synonymous with non believer but with reasoned believer. You can, despite what the atheist propaganda says, be a rational believer in the supernatural.

  • Captain Werewolf

    I think that skepticism, like the scientific method, or methodological naturalism (those are arguably the same thing) is a way of gaining practical knowledge about the world. In that respect, a “good skeptic” would not hold religious views that include claims about the natural world that contradict the conclusions derived from these methods of inquiry.

    To the extent that a religious belief system contains claims about the supernatural, it is unfalsifiable and is not subject to the scientific method, though. You can make up whatever metaphysical world you want, but just don’t get your metaphysical chocolate in my physical peanut butter.

    Most religious beliefs don’t maintain the NOMA-like distinction I’ve described above, because they essentially posit a god(s) that has effects on the natural world. To that extent, I don’t think a “good skeptic” can believe in an interventionist god, like Zeus or Yahweh. The god of the deists? Maybe. There can’t really be evidence either way.

  • “Most religious beliefs don’t maintain the NOMA-like distinction I’ve described above, because they essentially posit a god(s) that has effects on the natural world.”

    Is it not possible that Yahweh is the author of the way things work and relate to each other – and that our observation of these systems and the way they repeat themselves don’t actually discover anything other than the processes created by Yahweh?

    I think a skeptic can assess the information presented about Jesus – and if convinced by the Biblical account – can reasonably believe in an interventionist God.

  • jose

    @Captain Werewolf

    The god of the deists? Maybe. There can’t really be evidence either way.

    Skeptics don’t believe in stuff unless there’s a god reason to believe. This applies to everything, not only religion. Politics, art, gossip, whatever.

    Now, is there a good reason why skeptics should believe in the God of the deists?