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Skepticism and Religion – Again

Posted in Neurologica by Skepdude on April 5, 2010


The topic of skepticism and religion comes up on a regular basis within skeptical circles, and I find I have to define my position on a regular basis. Because I host a skeptical podcast and contribute to several skeptical blogs, it cannot be avoided. This week’s episode of the SGU featured Eugenie Scott as a guest rogue, and the question of skepticism and religion came up. And, as predictably as the dawn follows the night, the old debate sparked up again.

Genie takes a position very similar to my own – that science is agnostic toward untestable claims. Science follows methodological naturalism, and anything outside this realm is by necessity outside the realm of science. It’s not a choice so much as a philosophical/logical position. (I will call this the “agnostic” position for simplicity.)

However, I think many people are confused when we discuss this topic, especially since we often refer to “religion,” which can create the false impression that we think science cannot address any claims that falls under “religion” – it may, depending on what those claims are.

Science is a Process

I think the primary confusion stems from this – defining science vs religion as a set of beliefs vs a set of methods or processes. A commenter on the SGU forums represents this confusion well when they write:

“…what the hell kind of skeptic movement would give an approving nod to the theist saying ‘I’m a skeptic–I won’t believe in ghosts without good evidence, …unless they’re holy ghosts.”

His comment focuses entirely on the beliefs themselves, but the agnostic position is about method not beliefs. It is absolutely not about ghosts vs holy ghosts – it is about methodological naturalism (science) vs faith (not necessarily religion). Any belief which is structured in such a way that it is positioned outside the realm of methodological naturalism by definition cannot be examined by the methods of science. In short, this usually means that the beliefs cannot be empirically tested in any conceivable way. One can therefore not have scientific knowledge of such claims, and science can only be agnostic toward them. Any belief in untestable claims is therefore by definition faith.

The content of the beliefs, however, does not matter – it does not matter if they are part of a mainstream religion, a cult belief, a new age belief, or just a quirky personal belief. If someone believes in untestable ghosts, or ESP, or bigfoot, or whatever – they have positioned those claims outside the realm of science. This, of course, is Sagan’s invisible floating heatless dragon – creating a belief that cannot be tested.

It is important, in my opinion, for skeptics to be crystal clear on this point, because often the purveyors of pseudoscience will try to evade falsification or the negative effects of evidence on their claims by positioning the claim outside of science. At that point the skeptic must acknowledge that science can no longer demonstrate that the claim is likely to be false, but rather the claim is no longer scientific and can only be an article of faith. You can believe in the kind of bigfeet that are immune to all scientific investigation, but then you have to also stop claiming to have evidence for this bigfoot, or that you are doing science. Belief in bigfoot has become a tenet of your faith.


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