Skeptics getting skeptical towards Atheism

December 11, 2009

Over at The Gotham Skeptics blog, the perennial split among skeptics has been put on full display again.  This split is hardly new, nor are peace-keeping efforts. Skeptical Inquirer from its inception was never overflowing with criticism of religion.  There is no easy solution.  There have always been plenty of pro-reason skeptics who believe in a god, plenty of pro-science skeptics who regard God as beyond science's criticism, and plenty of atheists who believe in UFOs or alternative "medicine". 

All three of the major components of positive freethought -- rational skepticism, scientific naturalism, and ethical humanism -- have their characteristic splits where religion is concerned. Some skeptics wonder why they have to sign on to aggressive atheism when reason can't prove to religious people that no god exists. Some naturalists wonder why they have to antagonize religious people when science education and evolution urgently need promotion. Some humanists wonder why the struggle for a progressive and wise ethics must be based on atheism when so many liberal religious people could help with that ethical struggle. Given that the three components are each divided, one wonders how these six camps (and we haven't even counted compromise positions) could be herded together for very long. 

There is a robust philosophy that keeps skepticism, naturalism, and humanism coherent and cooperative.  This is not the place to elaborate this philosophy (hint: John Dewey, Paul Kurtz).  Let's survey some starting points for thinking about the current debate among skeptics.  Here is a brief guide to these debates, picking out key points heard in the debate.  Point One supports skeptics getting skeptical towards the atheist agenda.  Points Two and Three find common ground between skepticism and atheism.

Point One.  If skepticism is the prioritization of science, and atheism is defined as the claim that no god exists, then skepticism and atheism are going in different directions. Science by itself cannot prove that no god exists. Why antagonize religious people with rude atheism when they really need more appreciation for science? Skepticism is about neutral science while atheism is just mean politics. Skepticism CANNOT equal atheism. 

Point Two.  If skepticism is the prioritization of rationality (common sense and basic logic), and rationality raises severe doubts against god, then skepticism and atheism are going in the same direction. Only silly compromisers or simple cowards could hope to advocate skepticism by holding reason back from criticizing religion. Skepticism SHOULD equal atheism. 

Point Three.  If skepticism is refusing to believe where there is insufficient reason/evidence, and atheism is judging that there is insufficient reason/evidence for any god, then skepticism and atheism are going in the same direction. Someone who sees how there isn't enough reason/evidence for a god is both a skeptic and an atheist. Skepticism MUST equal atheism. 

One final observation for now. Skeptics backing away from a fight with religion under the white flag of agnosticism are only helping religion nowadays. There’s a tactical reason why religion’s defenders suddenly love agnosticism. If God is safely placed beyond the world known by logic and science, then atheism could look pointless to those not paying attention. The preaching to the masses has changed tone. A crowd of liberal and postmodern theologians are trying to convert everyone into humble agnostics, to make the world safe for unquestioning faith. Will skepticism supply helpful cover for faith? Skeptics will prove to be helpful allies if they aren’t careful. If you want to be just pro-science and leave religion alone, liberal religion already designed a perfect compromise for you. If you want to be pro-reason, then demand reason for all beliefs or else you will hypocritically violate rationality itself.