A response to “Faith and Fury”
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!