The Great Skeptical Blindspot
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.