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Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on November 9, 2009

The Atheism issue revisited

My entry on skepticism and atheism from a while ago, has been getting quite a bit of attention lately with comments being posted on the comments section of the entry itself and on Twitter. The issue of atheism has become quite sticky, I think, in the skeptical circles. My diagnosis is that some skeptics are not applying skepticm consistently when the issue of religion/God is involved. In this entry I will try to rehash the arguments and hopefully be a little more clear as to why I take such a position. My only request to would-be commenters is to criticize my directly stated arguments/premises. I have noticed that this argument tends to drift away into other areas that are not implied/stated and becomes a useless war of words where both sides are not talking about the same thing. If there is something wrong with my definitions/premises/arguments let us pick that apart. If not you must grant that my argument is valid.

The first thing that needs to be clear before we can engage in a meaningful dialogue, is what atheism is. What does it mean to be an atheist? How do you define atheism? Another thing I have noticed is that people hold various ideas of what atheism is. It has even been said to me that because people hold various ideas about atheism, my argument basically becomes invalid. I do not think that is the right way to go about this. Regardless of how many competing definitions of atheism there may be out there, we must agree that surely we should try to use the one that most acurately describes us, regardless of the multitute of other definitons. It doesn’t matter what most people think an atheist is or should be, all that matters is what an atheist actually is!

So how do you go about defining a group of people? Well, I would think that you would start with the characteristics that they all share. You would have to be able to find something that they all have in common, so that you could point to this something and say “any person that has characteristic X” becomes part of this group of people. So if you look accros the spectrum of atheists what is the one (or more) common characteristic? What is the one thing that they all share? I propose that this thing is the lack of belief in Gods! That’s it, pure and simple.

Point of contention #1 – You disagree that my definition of atheism is the most correct one that applies to all atheists. Please provide your arguments.

Now on to skepticism. I think this one is harder to nail down correctly, but easier for most of you to agree with.  A skeptic is a person that applies skepticism. Ha, I know that’s a bit circular, but I’m not done. Skepticism is a method of evaluating the truth value of a claim, which relies heavily on the rules of logic and the scientific method. Now I know that those philosophy lovers out there can go on forever talking about what relying on the rules of logic and what the scientific method really entails, but I do not intend to get into much of that, for many reasons. That could be food for thought in another entry but not this one.

Point of contention #2 – You disagree that my definition of skepticism is the most correct one that applies to all skeptics. Please provide your arguments.

So having these two definitions down I make my claim: Skepticism must lead to atheism. Skepticism doesn’t equal atheism; they are not one and the same, but one (skepticism) leads to the other (atheism). I’ve made that point at my other entry already. People can be atheists for various reasons, and a committment to the rules of logic and the scientific method is but one way one can use to reach atheism. Being an atheist does not require one to be a skeptic. But I do think that being a skeptic requires one to be an atheist.

If we agree on the definition of atheism as stated above this is almost too obvious. Either the evidence presented for Gods is sufficient (thus you must declare belief in God), insufficient (thus you must lack belief in God) or is somewhere in between leaving one unsure. Now most skeptics, almost every single one I’ve ever known fall into the second and third camps, either they are declared atheists or they seem to be unsure, using terms such as “agnostic” to describe their stance. Which introduces another term that needs to be defined, agnostic, but I will sidestep that bomb and simply say that agnostic captures the third category, the first two being theist and atheist. And please let us not get into a discussion about agnosticism. I can choose not use the word agnostic, and go with something like the-jury-is-still-out to describe this camp. The definition of agnosticism is not at all relevant in the argument that I am putting forward.

So how can a skeptic apply skepticism consistently AND not be an atheist, meaning lacking belief in God (i.e. being agnostic about God)? Well, it can be done only if one can show somehow that there is at least some evidence, which is consistent with the standards of evidence that skeptics require of all other claims, that supports the God Claim. I claim that all the evidence that has been presented in favor of the existence of God does not hold up to the standards of evidence that we apply to all other cryptozoological creatures or pseudoscientific/paranormal claims.

Point of contention #3 – You disagree with the above sentence. You think some good evidence exists in favor of the God Hypothesis. Please provide said evidence.

So I have provided folks with at least 3 points of contention that can topple my argument. And let me recap my argument quickly:

Atheism=Lack of belief in gods.

Skepticism = Relies in rules of logic and scientific method

No convincing evidence has been put forward for the God hypothesis

The lack of evidence must lead to lack of belief in gods (not certainty of their inexistence)

Skeptics, which rely on evidence, thus must lack belief in gods

Skepticism must lead to atheism

Another point to make here is that there is one major unstated premise in my argument: I am relying on the definition of God as the one that the major monotheistic religions of our day see him: a God that is directly involved in the creation, and running of our universe; one that is meddling in all the time with miracles and such; in other words God as most people believe him to be from Muslims, to Christians, to Jews. I am aware that if someone claims that God does not interfere at all with our universe, that he just set he wheels in motion and is now sitting back, completely undetectable, that falls outside of skepticism, and I would say outside of humanity’s ability to know period. To those folks I have only one thing to say: What the hell is the point in believing that, and isn’t that a bit of special pleading or moving the post? Does this not remind you of Sagan’s invisible, non-heat fire breathing dragon in “Demon haunted world” (that is the correct book right? I’m pulling that from my memory!) But that’s their choice.

That is why I say that unless one is willing to take the same position about other claims, such as Bigfoot, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or Russell’s teapot, they cannot give the God Hypothesis this preferential treatment. But many do, and that is what I call the big Skeptical Blindspot, the inability to see how this “agnosticism” about God, but not about unicorns, conflicts with skepticism. If I am wrong please tear this argument apart. I am not particularly attached to the conclusion “Skepticism-> Atheism”, I just happen to think that, based on my reasoning above, it is the right one.

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9 Responses

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  1. Naumadd said, on November 10, 2009 at 10:53 PM

    You’re right to bring up the “deism” point toward the end. It speaks to the idea of the “default position”, i.e., without sufficient factual and logical reason to suggest one pursue the “god” question, one remains whatever one was before the question was put forward. In other words, you do not begin a “theist” who loses their belief, but rather an “atheistic” naturalist that’s been given no reason to even ask “is there a god?”. The same is true in the “deism” issue. If, as the deists say, “god” created it all and is now “somewhere” else, unobservable and incommunicado, from what exactly does one deduce this unobservable incommunicado “god” in the first place? “Deists” must explain their claims just as theists, otherwise, there is no question to ask and no viewpoint to take regarding nature other than the naturalistic one. It is wrong to treat whatever pops into one’s imagination as equal with what is genuinely possible. Even possibility requires fact and logic to support it. It is insufficient to say, “a creator god” is possible without adequately supporting why you think it possible. Far too many individuals treat “I imagine it” as equal in definition to “it is possible”. They are not. That one can imagine a thing does not necessarily make it possible, let alone likely. Without such supported possibility for the “absent god” hypothesis, again, the default viewpoint is that nature – the universe – is rational, observable and, thus far, it’s specific origins are unknown to us. “Deists” go that one unsubstantiated step too far and make a claim that cannot rightly be deduced from nature.

    • Skepdude said, on November 11, 2009 at 11:24 AM

      Defintely. Too many times people confuse “possible” with “probable”. While pretty much everything one can immagine is, strictly speaking, “possible” without any shred of evidence or logic to back it up, as you properly point out, it becomes infinitesimally improbable. Soo many times people stick with the possible even if the probability is basically 0. They fail to take that second step of figuring out the probability. It’s kinda like the ID “argument” of giving both sides equal time in my mind.

  2. red rabbit said, on November 15, 2009 at 10:44 PM

    There is another camp of people who simply do not put much thought into this, a supposedly central part of their daily existence. These are people who are often quite skeptical (in your sense of the word) about many things, examining claims about various quantities in a thorough and logical manner, but they for various reasons choose not to consider deeply their “beliefs.”

    (It’s a bit like getting into your car and driving it without putting any thought into how the internal combustion engine works. We all do it with some aspect of our lives.)

    These people would, I submit, fit the definition of skeptic quite well, though remain theistic or deistic. Many of these people wouldn’t bother to argue about this with you, however, because there is a part of them which wants to protect the comfort they get from their beliefs which they instinctively know would not stand up to their usual logical scrutiny.

    If you started out in a religious community, this argument will not be a surprise: remembering the struggle to work through all I had been taught as a Catholic, I can see many points at which it would have been simpler (and I might have been happier) to turn away and worry about my homework or some other mundane thing, rather than to examine the beliefs with a skeptical eye.

    • Skepdude said, on November 16, 2009 at 10:42 AM

      That is exactly what I am trying to draw the attention to.

  3. red rabbit said, on November 16, 2009 at 8:11 PM

    As far as I see it then, it would inevitably lead to atheism IFF skepticism was accompanied by sufficient curiosity to push aside the objections within oneself in terms of alienating the family and friend network, in terms of shaking up one’s worldview, and in terms of giving up one’s idea of heaven.

    There are an enormous number of people who don’t have the curiosity to drive all that. They are not likely to become atheists because the comfort > the curiosity.

  4. Jim Lippard said, on November 16, 2009 at 11:10 PM

    Point of contention #1: While many atheists today have adopted weak atheism (lack of belief in gods) as the definition of the term rather than the traditional definition of strong atheism (belief that there is no god), the latter is still the way the word is commonly understood among the general public. There is the further problem that the former definition implies that anything that lacks beliefs is an atheist, as pointed out by Bill Valicella:

    Point of contention #3: When you say “skepticism must lead to atheism,” is that a claim of logical necessity? If so, that’s a pretty strong claim that requires justification, and it doesn’t seem to hold up. There are skeptics who believe in God, and there are arguments and evidence that is given in support of claims of the existence of God, including claimed religious experiences. Those of us who haven’t had such experiences are not in a good position to believe those claims unless we’ve had them ourselves, and there are probable counter-explanations in terms of, say, anomalistic psychology, neuroscience, similarity to drug experiences, etc. But it’s certainly not *logically necessary* that those theists are in error.

    Even if they are in error, they may still have applied skepticism in getting to that conclusion. Someone could consistently apply skepticism to the best of their ability, yet still conclude that a God exists.

    • Skepdude said, on November 17, 2009 at 3:44 PM

      Point of contention #1 – I already made the point that it doesn’t matter how the word “atheist” is commonly understood by the public. I mantain my definition is better, albeit not the most popular, but my argument rests on the assumptions that we ought to go with the best definition not the most popular one. You still have not shown that my definition is inferior to the “popular” understanding of the word atheist.

      Point of contention #3 – I disagree. I gave justification, in fact I spelled out my thinking clearly why someone who is a skeptic must be an atheist. I wrote it out in words and in a more concise step by step logical chain. You have to show where I went wrong; simply claiming that my argument is “a pretty strong claim that requires justification, and it doesn’t seem to hold up” is not a counter-argument. I know that there are skeptics that believe in God, that is exactly who I have a problem with. Their existence does not mean my argument is invalid. As I said, if said people have in fact applied skepticism, then they must be able to provide evidence that, were it provided in relation to other matters such as Bigfoot and UFO abductions, they would consider acceptable as skeptics, and I maintain that they can’t. It is up to them now to provide the reasoning for their unreasonable in my opinion, position.

  5. […] “regardless of which definition you choose” I couldn’t disagree more. I’ve already made the case for a (in my opinion the most appropriate) definition of atheism. And since I’ve put up the […]

  6. […] 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 […]

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