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23 November 2010

Atheism and Skepticism: Fight to the Death!

I'm a little tired of this.

Jeff Wagg's article Are Atheists Delusional? Thoughts on Skepticon3 started the firefight, with answering volleys from P.Z. Myers and Jen McCreight, with the Matt Dillahunty, Russell Glasser, Shilling Cadena, and Dennis Loubet of The Non-Prophets soon joining the fray.

Needless to say, I'm on the everyone-but-Jeff-Wagg side.

Skepticism ≠ Atheism

Jeff Wagg makes this point several times, and I agree!

But similarly:

rectangle ≠ square
oval ≠ circle
human ≠ mammal

Many people arrive at their atheism as a result of their skepticism, and I would contend that atheism is a skeptical position. In most cases, atheism is a subset of skepticism, as squares are subsets of rectangles.

Can Skepticism Address Religious Claims?

Jeff Wagg's position seems to be a (qualified) "no":

I believe that if you equate skepticism with anything other than science, you've missed the point. As for Christianity, skepticism has nothing to say except about testable claims associated therein. Bleeding statues? Yes, skepticism comes into play. Jesus rose and is in heaven? Seems unlikely, but there's not a lot more to say.

But evidence is not the only thing in our skeptical toolbox. As I've explained before, we look for many things, including (but not limited to):

  • Plausibility: How well does this idea fit with what we currently know about how the universe functions?
  • Falsifiability: Is the claim well and rigorously defined? Is there a way to prove it false, at least in principle?
  • Evidence: Has the claim been previously investigated? If so, what were the results of the investigation?
  • Sound Reasoning: Does the claim rest upon logical fallacies or cognitive biases?

Here's what Jen has to say:

But to those of us who came to atheism through skeptical analysis of religion, it was literally inconceivable how skeptics couldn't be atheists. The only explanation the panelists could think of for this current debate was that it was based on public relations, not intellectual merit - that yes, skepticism leads to atheism, but please hush about it so we don't scare away the religious members. Yet there's another explanation often given - that you can't directly test the God hypothesis, therefore please hush about it.

And that's where I must call bullshit.

Agreed! I'll just quote something that you've probably seen before:

In cases where no unambiguous evidence is forthcoming, the burden of proof dictates the default position. There are two possible default positions for belief in a proposition when evidence is absent: (1) believe every proposition until proven false; or (2) withhold belief until propositions are proven true.

The problem with the first option is that it is logically inconsistent. I'll illustrate by way of example.

Proposition 1: "Leprechauns place a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow."
Proposition 2: "Leprechauns do not exist."

With no evidence forthcoming, option (1) forces you to accept both propositions, even though they are mutually inconsistent.

For this reason, we accept option (2), and conclude that the burden of proof lies with the claimant. If you claim that a deity exists and it created the universe, you bear the burden of proof.

The Skeptical Litmus Test

Jeff sez:

I'm convinced that a litmus test over who's a skeptic and who isn't based on religious belief is harmful to both movements.


No one said there should be a skeptical litmus test. Well, maybe someone has, but if so that person is an idiot. Imposing such a test would be very counterproductive, indeed inimical to the freedom of expression for which the skeptical community strives.

Of course you can be religious and still be a skeptic. But you can also believe that homeopathy works and still be a skeptic. You can believe that George W. Bush is a reptoid alien and still be a skeptic. You're just not universally applying your skepticism. We're probably all guilty of this from time to time—we probably all have our sacred cows—but, as skeptics, we should try really hard to recognise these tendencies in ourselves and eliminate them where we find them.

Freedom of Thought and Expression

Although I disagree with Jen when she says that "[r]eligion is one of, if not the most important issue [sic] people should be skeptical about". I think that alt-med probably wins out—but it's debatable. That said, I'm of the opinion that religion is probably the most interesting topics that we can discuss.

It seems to me that this is mostly a public relations issue. People probably want skepticism to keep its hands off of religion because religion is the superstition of choice 'round these parts. In trying to grow the skeptical movement, many vocal skeptics don't want to offend the public's deeply held convictions, because it will make us less popular.

And I can understand that.

But I think that the idea that all propositions are open to question is fundamental to skepticism. Freedom of expression is important. Regardless of whether or not they have come to the same conclusions, I think that it behoves skeptics to be open to questioning these sorts of ideas.

The Winnipeg Skeptics is not an atheist organisation. In an email exchange that I had with John Feakes of Winnipeg's creation museum a few months ago, I had to clarify this:

The Winnipeg Skeptics is not an atheist organisation. It is dedicated to a method of inquiry, not to any conclusions. The reason that it has the "atheist" Meetup tag attached to it is that it's the sort of organisation that appeals to many (but not all) atheists, and many skeptics find it via Meetup's search functions. Although it's true that the majority of our members are atheist, deists and even Christians have attended our meetups in the past and are always welcome. There is no skeptical litmus test that one must pass to be a member.

And that's the way that it should be.

Hat tip to Pharyngula, Blag Hag, and The Non-Prophets.

Edit: Jeff Wagg has responded to my comments at the Winnipeg Skeptics blog. Check it out if you're interested.

1 comment:

  1. "Can Skepticism Address Religious Claims?"
    Yes! Absolutely! Depending on the claim.