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.