Via Joe Nickell we get, what to date, is the best, most concise definition of skepticism I have come accross.
That is, with Science as a basis, one approaches some question or mystery using past Knowledge and acquired Evidence to form Postulations (or hypotheses) which undergo Testing to rank them, with Impartiality (i.e., guarding against bias) and Criticism (the act of making judgments), finally conducting an Investigation (targeted research) that results in Solving (or determining the most likely explanation for) the mystery at hand, providing Mastery over it.
Pure deliciousness! I didn’t know one could wax poetic about the word skepticism but Joe just did! Smooooooth! Love it!
Masala Skeptic weighs in the skepticism-atheism debate over at the Skepchick Blog, in an entry titled Faith and Fury. I am a little torn; I’m not sure myself what kind of reaction I’ve had to her arguments, but I’ll try to articulate it here anyway. She starts off with a fairly uncontroversial statement:
Indeed, there are several people within the skeptical community who are deists or theists or even (GASP) Christians.
Which is true of course, otherwise there wouldn’t be a skepticism-atheism debate at all. She then introduces us to Hal Bidlack, who apparently is a deist, and an excellent skeptical activist. I haven’t had a chance to listen to the old Skepticality episode that Masala refers to, but I will over the weekend. I assume that will give me a better understanding as to what Hal believes and more importantly for this conversation, what he claims, what he asserts about the deity. Because that is what this whole skepticism-atheism issue boils down to, in my opinion, the claims being made.
When we speak of god, we generally mean the god of the major Abrahamic religions, solely because that is the most widespread one, the one we’re most familiar with. But there are also other less widespread religions, with their own gods and their own rituals. The one underlying assumption that almost all these religions share, or better the one claim that almost all of them make is this: There exists a being that they call God. This is a claim that is made, which is to be distinguished from simple belief. Any other sort of belief system that does not make this claim, I agree would be outside of the scope of skepticism. No claim, not within the realm of skepticism!
Again, I must go and listen to the podcast to understand exactly what it is that Hal proposes. Deism can be a complex beast to deal with; there is less of a central doctrine, some would say none at all, so when someone says they’re a deist, we don’t know much about what they believe or what they claim, aside from the very vague “they believe in something”. Now Hal, can very easily believe in something without making any claims about that something existing, what in some circles would be referred to as an agnostic theist. “I believe there is something out there beyond the material world” is a different statement from “There is something out there beyond the material world”. One is a belief, a feeling, which a person may not have control over. Reason does not dictate feelings and emotions.
So if someone walks up to us and says: “Look, I know I have no reason to believe in X, but I believe it nevertheless” there’s not much we can say as skeptics. However, if that same person walks up to us and says: “Look I believe in X because X exists” that is a different statement which we can scrutinize as skeptics. To the second statement we can say, “Ok, where is your evidence for X’s existence”. Please be careful to note here that as skeptics we are addressing the existence claim, not the belief one.
So I still see this issue as clear-cut: If one makes a claim that god (any iteration of this creature) exists, that person must provide evidence that supports that claim. If they cannot provide the evidence we must not accept the claim as skeptics, thus we are not justified to accept that claim, thus we ought to be atheists. However, if one makes no such claim; if one merely voices a feeling of there “being something out there”, we cannot, as skeptics, address that. We could put on our philosophy hats and discuss, but that’s the end of our skeptical inquiry.
And, it appears that Hal is taking exactly the no-claim position.
But there’s a big difference between a practicing psychic and a deist. Hal freely admits that his beliefs are not rational. He understands that they exist outside his skeptical world view. Hal doesn’t try to put his worldview or belief system forward as being true or real or scientific. He makes no claims that are testable and if he does, he knows that it is free game for his friends in the skeptical community to question them and ask for evidence.
Which is exactly what I was saying. But you know how else I read this paragraph? To me at least this is saying that Hal knows he shouldn’t really be believing (as he admits his beliefs are not rational, which implies the rational position is not to believe) but that he can’t stop believing nevertheless, which is completely acceptable. And that is precisely the point I have been making for what feels like decades. The rational position that skeptics ought to take is atheism. It appears, at least so far as the above paragraph can be relied upon, that Hal is conceding that point, but can’t change how he feels, which is also perfectly acceptable; feelings are not something you reach through a rational process.
But a religious person is not automatically an enemy of critical thinking or the scientific method. If someone decides to put aside rationality and believe in a higher power at an emotional level, it is unfair to say that this precludes them from being a skeptic. Unfortunately, what I see is a lot of atheists who say that any spiritual belief is simply bad thinking. Skeptics with faith are therefore often treated with condescension and considered stupid at best, hypocritical at worst. They are the black sheep of the skeptic family, tucked out of sight when company comes over.
This paragraph is very important and we ought to pay special attention to it. Faith, in and off itself, does not make one an enemy of critical thinking or science. Assuming the contrary would be a grave mistake. If someone decides to put aside rationality and believe in god, they are free to do that, but they must concede that they are putting aside rationality and that the rational position is not to believe; and that is all I’ve been, or should have been if I hadn’t been clear enough, advocating all along: skepticism must/should lead to atheism, but a skeptic should have the right to put skepticism aside so long as he openly and clearly accepts that he’s doing that. However, if he maintains that he is a religious skeptic AND he is not putting skepticism to the side when faith is concerned, that his faith is rational, that’s when I clear my throat and say: “Excuse me……”
So I guess, here at the end it seems that me and Masala are pretty much on the same page, tha we overall share a similar attitude towards this issue, with the most notable exception probably being my strong assertion that skepticism ought to lead to atheism, except that it doesn’t always because people should be allowed the right to take off their skeptical hats, so long as they understand and freely admit that is what they are in fact doing. I am not sure how this would apply to the christian skeptics; that would require long conversations with one of them, but my suspicion is that it would turn out that these folks would hold some sort of a hybrid deist-christian belief, not a purely christian one. Nevertheless, that belongs to another entry. Ramen!
Of course without religion we’d have no morals. Who would show us, by example…over and over again, what immorality looks like? As reported in the NYTimes:
Vatican Declined to Defrock U.S. Priest Who Abused Boys
Top Vatican officials — including the future Pope Benedict XVI — did not defrock a priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys, even though several American bishops repeatedly warned them that failure to act on the matter could embarrass the church, according to church files newly unearthed as part of a lawsuit.
The internal correspondence from bishops in Wisconsin directly to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope, shows that while church officials tussled over whether the priest should be dismissed, their highest priority was protecting the church from scandal.
The documents emerge as Pope Benedict is facing other accusations that he and direct subordinates often did not alert civilian authorities or discipline priests involved in sexual abuse when he served as an archbishop in Germany and as the Vatican’s chief doctrinal enforcer.
The Wisconsin case involved an American priest, the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, who worked at a renowned school for deaf children from 1950 to 1974. But it is only one of thousands of cases forwarded over decades by bishops to the Vatican office called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, led from 1981 to 2005 by Cardinal Ratzinger. It is still the office that decides whether accused priests should be given full canonical trials and defrocked.
In 1996, Cardinal Ratzinger failed to respond to two letters about the case from Rembert G. Weakland, Milwaukee’s archbishop at the time. After eight months, the second in command at the doctrinal office, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, now the Vatican’s secretary of state, instructed the Wisconsin bishops to begin a secret canonical trial that could lead to Father Murphy’s dismissal.
I have decided to come out of my Illuminati closet and openly embrace the truth. In order to do that I have commissioned another noted Illuminati, Brian Dunning, to prepare my Disinformation Badge which I proudly share with you below. You can commission Brian to get your own coming out disinformation badge here.
Well it’s only one kid, the thinking goes. Isn’t there something called “herd immunity” that is supposed to protect my child so he/she doesn’t have to get stuck with a needle? I’ll be slick; let everyone else’s kid get STUCK WITH A NEEDLE and mine won’t have to! Smart right? What’s the harm anyway? Well, since you asked, how about infecting another 11 unvaccinated children, 3 or which were babies too young to have received the vaccine, one of which was hospitalized for three days with 106 degree fever? If that is not enough, how about $177,000 in taxpayer money spent in containing and treating this infection outbreak?
What began as a family trip to Switzerland in 2008 ended up as a public health nightmare in California.The family’s 7-year-old boy, who was intentionally unvaccinated against measles, was exposed to the virus while traveling in Europe. When he returned home to San Diego, he unknowingly exposed a total of 839 people, and an additional 11 unvaccinated children contracted the disease.
Three of those infected were babies, too young to have yet received the measles vaccines, and one of the babies was hospitalized for three days with a 106-degree fever, according to a report to be published in the April issue of Pediatrics.
“Measles is just a plane ride away, including places like Switzerland and the U.K.,” said one of the researchers, Dr. Jane Seward, deputy director of viral diseases at the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“This study serves as a reminder that measles can be a very serious disease that can lead to severe complications and death, and that the measles, mumps, rubella [MMR] vaccine is highly effective and the best way to prevent measles. It’s also a reminder that people who choose not to vaccinate don’t just put themselves and their children at risk, but also their communities, which includes infants who are too young to immunize,” she said.
This 2008 outbreak was the first in San Diego since 1991, according to the report. Before the introduction of the measles vaccine in 1963, as many as 500 children died each year from the measles, and nearly 50,000 were hospitalized annually in the United States because of the virus, according to background information in the report.
In recent years, however, the virus has resurged as many parents choose not to vaccinate their children, often because of fears about serious side effects. In fact, a recent study from the University of Michigan found that even among those who do vaccinate, more than half are concerned about serious side effects. Many of these fears stem a reported link between the MMR vaccine and autism. This link has been disproved in numerous studies, however.
Folks, stop being kids and vaccinate your kids!
I was catching up on my unread feeds on Google Reader when I came across a blog entry by Michael De Dora J. at the CFI blog titled “The Problems With the Atheistic Approach to the World” in which Michael spells out his arguments against atheism, or more specifically his arguments against atheism as a reliable alternative to religion (so far as I understand).
Michael starts off with giving a very concise, and correct, definition of atheism, one which I have myself proposed as the best definition on various occasions, although not so eloquently.
Firsts: what is atheism? By definition, atheism means the absence of belief in theism or God. Atheism doesn’t imply whether a person believes “God definitely doesn’t exist” or whether he or she is a bit more lenient on the matter. Atheism does not tell us how much one cares about religion; it does not tell us if one is friendly to religion, or hates it. It does not tell us if one is absolutely unreasonable in his or her other beliefs generally. There are terrible atheists. Atheism is not encompassing in any other sense than, because it is so broad, many people might be atheists that do not realize it. As Robert Ingersoll once said, even if God does not exist, humans still have their work cut out for them. Atheism isn’t enough.
Which is of course right on the money. Saying one is an atheist doesn’t tell us anything about that person, except that he lacks belief in gods. From that point on, any atheist is free to choose the path he takes. There is no central doctrine atheists share, no rule-book to follow. The necessary and sufficient requirement to “join the club” is a lack of belief in gods. However, Michael sees that as the first problem with atheism.
This is the first argument against atheism. It is not a philosophy or a worldview, it is a lack of a specific religious belief, and that isn’t enough to carry us forward in any meaningful way.
Which is, strictly speaking, correct, however why are we assuming that atheism ought to be a philosophy or a worldview and be able to carry us forward? There are many other things that people do not believe in, but we do not require those unbeliefs to carry us anywhere specific, so why would we expect atheism to be any different? Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not a worldview; it is not meant to carry us forward. So why criticize it for not being or doing what it isn’t meant to be or do? The answer comes from the second argument against atheism.
This brings us to the second argumen t: atheists tend to view religion as either the problem, or the cause of the problem, even when other problems are apparent. But while theism is a problem, it is not the problem, and while atheism might be correct, atheism is not the answer.
Now I am not very sure what is meant by “the problem” here. Surely religion is a problem, but I don’t think any of the mainstream New Atheists is arguing that religion is the root of all evil (and before someone points me to the Dawkins documentary please be advised that the title ends with a question mark), and if anybody does, she’d be wrong! I find this argument very vague; what is this problem that atheism is supposedly trying but failing to answer? The way I understand it, atheism addresses one question, and one question only: Do you believe in gods?
Atheism is not an alternative to everything that religion offers people, let’s be clear about that. For example, religion has a moral aspect to it that atheism can’t, it isn’t meant, to replace. Atheism has nothing to say about morality; moral philosophy does. The only thing that atheism can imply about morality is that one does not need religion in order to be moral, that one can be moral without god, and that secular moral principles are just as good as the religious ones. However, it doesn’t, it can’t, tell one how to behave. So I don’t believe in gods. Fine, should I steal or not? Atheism is not meant to handle that question. Religion is more than just belief in god; it is a social construct that has many dimensions and atheism is not meant to replace those dimensions. The only thing atheism can do is to address the fundamental assumption about god’s existence. After that other disciplines must step in to fill the void: philosophy, science, skepticism etc.
The thir d argument against the march of organized atheism is it’s tendency toward an angry, uncompassionate line of attack. It is argued that the general approach to the matters taken by, foremost, Dawkins and Hitchens is one of sneering at religious belief, thinking that anyone who believes in God or other religious claims is stupid. In fact, neither of these men believes all religious people are stupid, as they have both written and spoken about how a large problem humanity faces is that very smart people can cordon off certain beliefs — for example accepting all the benefits of the modern life sciences but rejecting the what underwrites it, the theory of evolution.
However, there is something to hearing these men speak, and reading certain of their writing, that sends the message they have a short temper for religious belief (and the occasional believer).
I must ask: is Dawkins’ or Hitchens’ attitude any more “strident” than that of a preacher that condemns all of us atheists to a painful afterlife in hell? Why should their “line of attack” be compassionate? When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger was she doing it with compassion vs. the people who were oppressing her? Poll after poll has shown that atheists are the most discriminated against minority in the US, so why would we be expected to be quiet in our revolt? Because that is what it is, a revolt of a group that’s tired of being treated as second-rate citizens. Let us be clear, this is a civil rights issue. There are states in the US that have laws forbidding atheists from holding public office on the books; and even if the laws are repealed no atheist would be chosen for public office if he declared his lack of belief. We use words like “fight for our rights” and “line of attack” yet we expect the fight and the attack to be peaceful?
I guess the idea behind this third argument is that this strategy is not the best to win over converts to atheism; yet let us ask ourselves: is that really the purpose that Hitchens and friends have set up for themselves? I can’t read minds, but I see their work as being more about mobilizing closet atheists to stand tall and proud, rather than converting religious folks to atheism. I think what they are trying to do is, in Dawkins’ words, “raise awareness”, especially within our own atheist community. I think that what they are telling us is that it is not ok to be quiet in a corner; it is not ok to accept discrimination; and that if we don’t stand up for ourselves no one else will. Furthermore, as Michael rightly points out, they are bringing the issue out in the open, making it clear to religious folks as well that atheists are human beings just like them and that we won’t be treated as outcasts anymore. And there really isn’t a peaceful, compassionate way of doing that.
However, it must be said that being steadfast in our beliefs and our demands for equal treatment, should not lead to arrogance; and we’re all guilty of slip ups in that area, especially blog writers, given that a blog entry is an off the cuff thing. I agree that we should not be calling people stupid, but that does not mean that we should shy away from calling nonsensical religious dogma nonsense. Ridiculing religious ideas is not the same as ridiculing people. I think the first is fair and the second not quite so. We should blaspheme, but we should not engage in ad hominems.
This brings us to the fourth argument: this view of the world divides people rather than bringing them together. This is a symptom of the atheist tendency to see the world through religion. It is seemingly as divisive as seeing the world as a Catholic and nothing else. While I am no friend of theistic beliefs, and one could argue dogma and faith are found — and kindled — more in religious circles than anywhere else, focusing mostly or even entirely on theism divides us too cleanly on religious affiliation. Defining oneself as an atheist gives off the impression to those who do not define themselves as atheists that you have nothing in common. There are many good things included in religion (to be sure, they are found elsewhere and many are a product of the evolution of human nature) that cut to the core of human experience — community, fellowship, awe and wonder, a desire to transcend yourself and do collective good. To stand opposed to all religion is to give off the impression you deny these.
Well, actually I disagree; I think the religious worldview divides people with its sectarianism and it’s rules of conduct. The divide has been created by religion and its treatment of “heathens” and “infidels”, not the other way around. Atheism is rejecting the assumption (god) upon which such divide has been built and justified, and if that does not go down well with religious people there isn’t anything atheism can do about it. Religion created the divide and swept atheists under the rug, as if we didn’t exist; all the new atheists are doing now is crawling out from under the rug and saying “excuse me, but I’m still here“.
Those last couple of sentences bother me to no end. Community, fellowship, awe and wonder are not exclusive to religion; in fact most atheists one way or another in their debates with religious people will find themselves justifying how a secular lifestyle does not exclude any of these things. Only very poor communicators will come across standing opposed to such values; and only those that are not willing to listen to what we have to say will maintain this misconception of atheists. But then can we really change the mind of someone who is not willing to listen to us?
The fifth argument against using “atheist” is that atheists already face is that people have the tendency to see the atheist approach as “against” and not “for.” Of course, one cannot debunk or be against anything without really being for something. We are seemingly only able to critique if we have something to weigh the critiqued belief against. When Hitchens rips apart a religious idea, he is surely tearing something down — but he is doing so because he values evidence, reason, critical thinking, science, democracy, and more. The term atheism doesn’t tell others the reasons for critique.
Well, Michael provides the answer to the fifth argument himself. Hitchens does value evidence, reason, science and critical thinking, and he makes it very clear whenever he is debating folks, as do most atheists I know or whose works I’ve read. What Michael is hitting upon here is the popular misconceptions about atheists. Now the options are to either come up with a different label (anyone remember the Brights fiasco?) or correct the misconceptions. I think it is best to correct the misconceptions, because regardless what label you choose for yourself, the moment you answer “no” to the question “Do you believe in god” people will immediately in their minds say “Ah, he’s an atheist” and attribute to you all the negative connotations they attribute to atheism. As such it is better to fight to educate the public and change the misperceptions than try to coin new labels.
We need to move beyond and above atheism. I am not arguing we ought to avoid admitting who we are. I am also not arguing all atheists want to organize their lives around atheism (11). But many do, and given what I have said, it seems to be a mistake: it is too empty, too narrow-minded, and too divisive. Instead, it would seem smarter to develop something more comprehensive (12).
But we do have everything in place. We have science, skepticism, moral philosophy (humanism for example). Atheism is only a small part of what we are. Michael said it himself, all atheism can tell us is that a given person does not believe in gods. Everything else has to come from other places, and we have these other places already set up; we just have to popularize them. But we will not be able to do that until we’ve first established our existence, that we are here to stay and that we’re not going to accept the second-rate citizen treatment anymore.
Forget that thimerosal has not been shown to cause any diseases (read autism). Forget that homeopathy has never been shown to work under properly controlled scientific conditions and it’s getting its butt kicked in the UK. Nope, none of that matters because, of course, if you dilute it enough something good is bound to come out of it, no? Enter,homeopathic thimersoal, in 30C dilution selling for only $9.95 or $19.95 per bottle! What does it cure? Well, nothing specific apparently (except for the subtle implication that it may help with autism, obviously).
Thimerosal can be used to treat a wide range of diseases, all of which have a unique general pattern of effects upon an individual. Homeopathic medicine seeks to treat the whole person and not just a symptom or two because we are whole beings and not collections of unrelated symptoms.
Well that’s nice isn’t it? A “wide range of diseases” followed by the usual, make-em-feel-precious , standard holistic CAM “treat the whole” nonsense! Wouldn’t you expect the description to be a little more specific though as to what exactly this wide range of disease is comprised of? I mean, will this help with diarrhea, ’cause I smell a lot of BS!