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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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