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Skepticism and Atheism: Twins, brothers or distant cousins?

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on December 24, 2008

It is a common topic in skeptic circles. Where should we stand in matters of religion? Does skepticism imply atheism? Or is it the other way around? What is the connection? Is there one? Should we even bother? Do we mention this at all?

I am going to share my thoughts on the issue. I don’t suppose I’ll be changing anyone’s mind, but that’s not the purpose of this entry anyway.

What this boils down to is to a person’s conception of what skepticism and atheism are. It is a matter of definitions and using different definitions you could reach various answers to the above questions. Therefore, before I proceed I want to give broad definitions of what atheism and skepticism mean to me. The ensuing discussion is based solely on such definitions.

Atheism – Lack of belief in God/Gods.

Skepticism – A method of acquiring and interpreting information based on the scientific method, which includes a requirement of scientifically acceptable evidence to back up any claims and which categorically excludes all and any fallacious arguments.

So, starting with the above two definitions let us examine the relationship, if any between the two.

Does Atheism lead to Skepticism? - Not necessarily. There are many reasons why a person may lack belief  in God. A devotion to facts and evidence is only one such reason. Other reasons include personal tragedy, dogma, or simply lack of exposure to religious beliefs. None of these necessarily imply or lead to a skeptical worldview. It is very possible for a person to be an atheist and at the same time believe wholeheartedly in astrology and homeopathy. Lack of belief in one supernatural phenomenon does not necessarily imply lack of belief in all supernatural phenomenons, let alons lack of belief due to lack of evidence.

Does Skepticism lead to or imply Atheism? - It must. If one is bound to evidence and the scientific method as a skeptic, there is no real scenario under which a skeptic could also be theistic or even agnostic. Each of these two positions requires a temporary suspension of one’s skepticism. There is as much evidence of God’s existence as there is for Bigfoot’s existence. The lack of evidence must necessarily lead to rejection of the claim under the skeptical worldview as defined above, regardless of the claim. Unless one is willing to call themselves a skeptic who believes in Bigfoot or is agnostic about Bigfoot’s existence, one cannot call themselves a skeptic and believe in God or be agnostic about God’s existence.

Honestly that would amount to nothing less than special treatment for the God Hypothesis, treatment that is not extended to any of the other hypotheses the skeptic usually investigates. I find this position indefensible from a logical standpoint, and dare I say hypocritical.

Should we identify ourselves as atheists as well as skeptics, or should we keep quiet on the issue? This is more of a personal choice each one of us must make. It is well known that atheist as a group are not very well liked especially in the US. So from a marketing point of view I can understand why one may shy away from professing their atheism while wearing their skeptic hat. I mean, one bad rap is bad enough without having to complicate it with a second bad rap right?

Nevertheless, I think that we must be true to ourselves and fight every injustice in every front. Just like  a black gay does not have to choose if he should fight for equal rights for gays or blacks, we shouldn’t have to choose if we’re gonna fight the skeptic fight or the atheist fight. We can, and we should, fight both to the best of our abilities. That is not to say that people shouldn’t specialize in one or another, and spend most of their time in one area, in order to be more effective. It simply means that we should not shy away from a religious/atheist argument solely because we don’t want that to interfere with our skeptical agenda.

A real skeptic is also an atheist (as defined above), or he’s not a real skeptic. What’s your take on this whole thing?

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10 Responses

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  1. scott said, on December 30, 2008 at 12:12 AM

    I think you have a good argument here. I find, however, that when talking to those who are susceptible to woo in general AND are religious that it is not helpful to drop the atheist bomb in a confrontational way. For most people (at least those around me), religious beliefs seem to be the least of their problems caused by non-skeptical thinking. CAM, spending money (and listening to!) fortune tellers/psychics, and generally forming their opinions based on a non-questioning view of the media are much bigger fish to fry.

    One more point. Though I agree that it seems contradictory to be a skeptic AND be religious, there might be some wiggle room there. Perhaps one could not be strongly religious and also truly skeptical, but I could see someone holding out a little hope for his/her religious beliefs to be true in some way and to some extent, even though the person admits that there is no reason to be confident about this belief.

  2. Jim Lippard said, on October 21, 2009 at 6:43 PM

    I disagree with your second argument. The fact that you come to believe something contradicts general philosophical skepticism, under which *all* beliefs are to be doubted, including the existence of the external world, but that’s not your definition of skepticism.

    Under your definition of skepticism, it’s possible to be a strong atheist (not just a weak atheist as you’ve defined atheism above) or positive atheist with regard to any conception of God that entails contradiction with well-established scientific evidence or facts. Why do you think agnosticism isn’t a possible position for a skeptic? And how does your definition of agnostic differ from weak atheism?

    I think your definition of skepticism suffers from the fact that there is no single “scientific method” and there is no consensus about what counts as “scientifically acceptable evidence.” Your argument that skepticism necessarily precludes belief in Bigfoot or God seems to be an a priori claim about what evidence might be forthcoming. Although it is often claimed that there is no possible scientific evidence to support the existence of God, I believe this is only the case if God doesn’t exist. If God does exist, then surely he could engage in communication with human beings that would involve measurable interventions in the physical world.

    It also suffers from the fact that we all make mistakes in our reasoning, and all hold beliefs that we will subsequently find to be false, and probably all hold beliefs that are false that we will not ever find to be false. Those failings don’t mean that we aren’t “real skeptics” any more than scientists who make mistakes aren’t “real scientists.”

    • Skepdude said, on October 21, 2009 at 10:31 PM

      Jim, I may have not explained myself properly but just to clarify quickly: there is a general scientific method, which involves data collection, hypothesis formulation, hypothesis testing, result replicability etc etc. Now the term “Scientifically acceptable evidence” is a little more vague I accept. What I mean by that is generally stuff like excluding anecdotes, weak photographic/video evidence, relying on ones memory, etc. etc.

      It is not true that I think that skepticism precludes belief in Bigfoot. I brought in the Bigfoot example to illustrate another cryptozoological creature (which is what I humorously consider God to be) for which there is just as much evidence in my mind, but for which no Skeptic would claim to be agnostic about. You do not hear skeptics saying they are agnostic about bigfoot, or the loch ness monster, so my point is why do they give God a special treatment? It is an inconsistent stance and I am pointing that out. As I said “The lack of evidence must necessarily lead to rejection of the claim under the skeptical worldview as defined above, regardless of the claim”. It is solely the lack of evidence that leads one to not believe in Bigfoot, it is not an a priory rejection of the Bigfoot hypothesis.

      You are right, if God exists he could communicate with us, but would he be willing too? A lack of communication in God’s part does not necessarily imply lack of existence as well.

      You are also right that we all make mistakes and all of us hold false beliefs. But I think the issue at stake here, the agnostic stance many skeptics take, is not an issue of a failing. And even if it was, once the inconsistency is pointed out a skeptic must be willing to change his position. Yet most of them insist on maintaining this position while at the same time not calling themselves agnostic about Bigfoot. There is more going on here than a mistake. It is a PR issue I think, and many skeptics want to shy away from the bad connotation the label atheist carries, unfortunately, in our society so they trade in consistency for comfort, and I think that is a bit of a dishonest stance to take.

      • Jim Lippard said, on November 7, 2009 at 11:39 AM

        I don’t think that “It is not true that I think that skepticism precludes belief in Bigfoot” and “It is solely the lack of evidence that leads one to not believe in Bigfoot, it is not an a priory rejection of the Bigfoot hypothesis” are consistent with each other.

        It’s not just lack of evidence that leads one to not believe in Bigfoot, it’s evidence and arguments *against* the existence of Bigfoot. Those include the existence of cases of fraud, the lack of *expected* evidence (such as droppings, nests, and sightings), the fact that observations follow the same pattern as bear sightings, and so forth.

        • Skepdude said, on November 9, 2009 at 10:23 AM

          To be sure there are counterarguments that reduce the probability of Bigfoots existence, such as the ones you mentioned. I do not mean to imply those do not exist or are unimportant. But at the end of the day absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. I can sit around all day listing all things we should expect to have found if BF existed, and as impressive a list I can come up with, it it no way constitutes proof of any sort that BF doesn’t exist. Nevertheless, all of what you mentioned on your second paragraph constitutes what I consider lack of convincing evidence.

  3. Jim Lippard said, on October 21, 2009 at 11:57 PM

    Your list of conditions for a general scientific method includes replicability, which rules out at least a good portion of the historical sciences.

    A skeptic could be agnostic about Bigfoot, if they thought there might be some legitimate evidence, or that the evidence was relatively even for and against, but most of us are in agreement that there is good evidence against the existence of Bigfoot and not much, if any, good evidence for. A better example might be something that has some controversy within skepticism, such as anthropogenic climate change. Can one be a skeptic and accept anthropogenic climate change? Sure, and I think that’s the right conclusion. It’s also possible to be a skeptic and reject anthropogenic climate change, though I think that’s mistaken. Can one be a skeptic and believe that there are experimental results from parapsychology which are well-done experiments with positive results? Yes, because that’s the case. There is no reason to expect that all skeptics will have the same beliefs, any more than to expect that all scientists will have the same beliefs–less so, in fact, since most skeptics are not scientists but are laymen whose access to scientific work is typically through popular works of varying quality which themselves may not have been written by scientists.

    I agree that a lack of communication from God doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist, though the “divine hiddenness” problem can be used to formulate an argument which provides evidence of God’s nonexistence, as it has been by John Schellenberg, Ted Drange, and others.

    It appears to me that you may be defining skepticism to require a priori rejection of certain classes of claims (e.g., paranormal, supernatural, and cryptozoological). That’s not what I mean by skepticism, and that’s not how it’s been defined by CSI, Skeptics Society, or JREF. That’s what Marcello Truzzi referred to as “pseudoskepticism,” and what the Michael Lynch paper I posted a link to on Twitter recently referred to as “vulgar skepticism.”

    Truzzi’s article: http://www.anomalist.com/commentaries/pseudo.html
    Michael Lynch paper: https://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/SpontaneousGenerations/article/viewArticle/2968

  4. Jim Lippard said, on October 22, 2009 at 1:10 AM

    I think I’ve figured out the source of our disagreement–to check, I’m going to ask a few questions and give my answers, and then you can point out how your answers to the same questions would differ. (I’ve also posted these questions and answers at my blog, and would be happy to post your answers there as well, if you permit.)

    Do we have voluntary control over what we believe?

    In general, no. The credence we place in various propositions–our belief or rejection of them–is largely out of our voluntary control and dependent upon our perceptual experiences, memories, other beliefs, and established habits and methods of belief formation and revision. We can indirectly cause our beliefs to change by engaging in actions which change our habits–seeking out contrary information, learning new methods like forms of mathematics and logic, scientific methods, reading books, listening to others, etc.

    How does someone become a skeptic?

    People aren’t born as skeptics–they learn about skepticism and how it has been applied in various cases (only after learning a whole lot of other things that are necessary preconditions–like language and reasoning). If skepticism coheres with their other beliefs, established habits and methods of belief formation and revision, and/or they are persuaded by arguments in favor of it, either self-generated or from external sources, they accept it and, to some degree or other, apply it subsequently.

    When someone becomes a skeptic, what happens to all of the other beliefs they already have?

    They are initially retained, but may be revised and rejected as they are examined through the application of skeptical methods and other retained habits and methods of belief formation and revision. Levels of trust in some sources will likely be reduced, either within particular domains or in general, if they are discovered to be unreliable. It’s probably not possible to start from a clean slate, as Descartes tried to do in his Meditations.

    Is everything a skeptic believes something which is a conclusion reached by scientific methods?

    No. Much of what we believe, we believe on the basis of testimony from other people who we trust, including our knowledge of our own names and date and place of birth, parts of our childhood history, the history of our communities and culture, and knowledge of places we haven’t visited. We also have various beliefs that are not scientifically testable, such as that there is an external world that persists independently of our experience of it, that there are other minds having experiences, that certain experiences and outcomes are intrinsically or instrumentally valuable, that the future will continue to resemble the past in various predictable ways, etc. If you did believe that skeptics should only believe conclusions which are reached by scientific methods, that would be a belief that is not reached by scientific methods.

  5. podblack said, on November 7, 2009 at 11:49 AM

    The Deist Skeptic – Not a Contradiction, from the Skeptical Inquirer site.
    Pretty much says everything I’ve had to say on the subject. :)

  6. […] entry on skepticism and atheism from a while ago, has been getting quite a bit of attention lately with comments being posted on […]

  7. […] to be a long rehashing of older arguments (which I have laid out here, here, here, here, here and here), but a comment on Daniel Loxton’s latest entry, on Skepticblog, that touches on this […]


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