The skeptic’s dilemma: to be or not to be…
An atheist that is. Welcome to my whateverth stab at the good old skepticism vs. atheism issue. Actually, this entry is not meant 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 subject. Daniel recently published a book, called Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be, a children’s evolution book that has been getting great reviews in the skeptic/scientific circles, except for a few paragraphs that is. Some big names, PZ Myers for example, have taken exception at Daniel’s take on the old religion vs. science debate.
What about religion?
This is a question people often ask when wondering about evolution. They want to connect the discoveries of science to their religious understanding.
Unfortunately, this isn’t something science can help with. Individual scientists may have personal opinions about religious matters, but science as a whole has nothing to say about religion.
Science is our most reliable method for sorting out how the natural world functions, but it can’t tell us what those discoveries mean in a spiritual sense. Your family, friends and community leaders are the best people to ask about religious questions.
We’ll leave to scientists to debate between themselves if science has anything to say about religion. I do not intend to get involved in that discussion as I am not a scientist by training. Some of these critiquers (I know the correct word is critics ok, just having some fun, dont’ bother me about this in the comments) seem to be making an unwarranted assumption though about Daniel’s reasons for including the paragraphs above in his book. Here is what a reviewer said:
Loxton’s inadequate reply was unavoidable, given the unwritten social rule that religion has a special role in our society. That we are not allowed to criticise religion. Any properly adequate reply would have lead to people being “offended” and campaigns to exclude the book for schools.
Now how someone can proclaim to know that Loxton really means to come down hard on religion, but doesn’t because of these “unwritten social rule” escapes me. I for one do not profess to have the ability to read minds. From what I’ve read of Daniel’s writings before, this seems to be a very consistent position that he has always maintained, not a new one he adopted for the book release. It appears to me that when Daniel says that science has nothing to say about religion, he really means it. I have nothing to say to that. It also appears to me that when he says skepticism is a “different project than atheism” he also means it. I have had plenty to say about that in the past, and my position has not changed.
I do agree with Daniel, that much of what religion peddles out cannot be evaluated scientifically. The afterlife promises for example are so set up as to be unassailable from a scientific point of view; but on the other hand we have done experiments to test NDEs, and those haven’t turned out so good for the religious claims. Furthermore, I don’t think we can hide behind the “we can’t evaluate something therefore we don’t have to worry about it” argument. A staple of critical thought is the idea of the burden of proof. The burden of proof falls upon those that make the claims. Religion claims Gods exist; they have provided not one shred of acceptable evidence to support this claim.
Let us be clear, the god hypothesis is an existence claim; it is different from moral/ethical claims. An existence claim that is so set up as to make it impossible for us to test said existence, might as well not been made at all. Also I want to point out the real beef I have here: an existence claim has to be supported by evidence, that we all agree on. However, if someone says “X exists” but I can never provide you with evidence that X exists, that should make the claim rubbish in the eyes of the skeptic, not a claim to be placed in a special bucket, as is being done with the god hypothesis. The special treatment is not warranted. Imagine if someone came out tomorrow, as will invariably be the case just maybe not tomorrow literally, with a claim that they’ve seen a new cryptozoological creature but they have no proof, not even a grainy video or an out of focus photograph. Would we as skeptics say “well let’s put this claim on the side until later” or would we say “sorry no evidence, your claim is not accepted”? That what it really comes down to, are we willing to relax the burden of proof requirement when it comes to god? If yes, why?
Daniel will agree with me on these points: that the religious have made a claim, and that they have nor provided adequate evidence to support the claim; where we go next from here is where we part ways. From this point on Daniel maintains that (someone please correct me if I am making a bad assumption) since the idea of God has evolved to the point that he/she/it has been almost completely shielded from scientific inquiry, skeptics cannot take a position on god’s existence. I maintain that since the burden of proof falls on the religious, and they haven’t provided any proof, that skeptics ought to reject the claim until better evidence is provided, thus leading to atheism (defined appropriately as just lack of belief). So I still maintain that skepticism, properly applied, ought to lead to atheism; Daniel still maintains it doesn’t.
The second question that seems to come out of Daniel’s writings is this: Should skepticism make atheism one of its branches? In other words, should skeptics even bother to fight the atheist fight, or is it something that they shouldn’t bother with. The answers to this will vary, even within camps that agree on the whole skepticism->atheism issue. I can see how people on my side of the argument can go with either yes or no on that one, for various reasons, one of which is the fear of not wanting to break the unwritten rules that society does have about critiquing religion. However, in order to have that fear one must be on my side of the argument, and Daniel clearly isn’t, as such accusing him of taking the expedient solution, and thus indirectly accusing him of intellectual dishonesty, is unfair and unwarranted. We may disagree with him on the issue itself, but we should be careful not to arrogantly think we know why he did what he did, better than Daniel himself!