Skepticism and Religion

May 9, 2013

The divide within skepticism over religion is centuries old, and won't go away. Fasten your seatbelts.

PZ Myers just announced his divorce from the Skeptic Movement, based on manifestos by Jami Ian Swiss and others. Many have commented on this development. Daniel Loxton has supplied a lengthy defense of Skepticism's "No Comment" attitude towards the heart of religiosity, carefully explaining why Skepticism must give an exemption to essential religious claims about supernatural and transcendent gods and the like.  

I can't say who really "speaks" for the skeptic movement. I can observe that much of the current leadership of Skepticism (capitalized and organized) advocates only scientific skepticism. Scientific skepticism was not promoted by scientists centuries ago (few scientists could afford to even be openly agnostic). Nope, the biggest public advocates for scientific skepticism were modernizing theologians during the Enlightenment era and after.

Why does modern theology benefit from scientific skepticism? It's a simple matter: so long as religion's supernatural claims cannot be contradicted by anything science would ever say, then religion can continue to enjoy its own reasonable autonomy as a source of genuine knowledge about god. All scientific skepticism has to do is agree to this proposition: Where science can never disprove, science must fall silent. The Enlightenment bargain was struck: science is limited to knowledge about the natural world, and religion knows about the supernatural world. Not all of Christianity agreed to that bargain, of course -- fundamentalists insisted on observable miracles, visible angels, hurtful demons, and the like -- but much of Christianity has moderated to the point where plenty of good Christians don't really believe much of that outdated claptrap anymore. Which was one of the goals of modernizing theology. 

Enlightenment theologians had to strike a bargain with scientific skepticism since they were terrified by a different, far older kind of skepticism: ancient Greek Skepticism. This rationalistic skepticism demanded high standards of provability before accepting anything as knowledge. The basic idea for a rationalist skeptic during the Enlightenment was something like this: Where reason and empirical inquiry cannot confirm, it must be disbelieved as unreasonable. For this rationalist skepticism, all the gods must go. The core of religion, and not just the claptrap, is entirely unreasonable and unbelievable, since no theological argument demonstrates a god's existence and no empirical evidence is sufficient to support a god's existence. Instead of saying "No Comment" to religion's core claims, rationalist skepticism says "That's unreasonable for anyone to accept."

To this day, many skeptics rely on both scientific skepticism and rationalist skepticism. It's all about the appropriate use of reason. That is why being a genuine skeptic means being a disbeliever and being open about disbelieving everything religions talk about. But joining up with this current Skeptic(TM) movement means never having to tell the faithful how their god isn't real. Is that too big a price to pay, to get more science accommodated by society?

 

Comments:

#1 Barbara Drescher (Guest) on Thursday May 09, 2013 at 12:39pm

Whenever I hear someone talk about what other people should/should not accept/believe as if they know the absolute truth, I wonder how they differ from all of the other people who think that they, too, know the absolute truth.

#2 Iain (Guest) on Thursday May 09, 2013 at 12:39pm

Your link “Skepticism must give an exemption to essential religious claims” is to a post entitled ““TESTABLE CLAIMS” IS NOT A “RELIGIOUS EXEMPTION””. Prima facie, this suggests pretty clearly that you have not applied the principle of charity to Loxton’s argument.

#3 H.H. (Guest) on Thursday May 09, 2013 at 1:03pm

Whenever I see someone purposely conflate the standard of reasonable plausibility with absolute certainty, I think of all the other people who intentionally misrepresent arguments in order to avoid having to address them.

#4 MichaelD (Guest) on Thursday May 09, 2013 at 1:05pm

@1 Barbara Drescher
Next thing you know he’ll start telling parents to get their kids vaccinated.

#5 Barbara Drescher (Guest) on Thursday May 09, 2013 at 1:06pm

Whenever I see someone assume that they understand someone else’s motives, I wonder about theirs.

#6 H.H. (Guest) on Thursday May 09, 2013 at 1:17pm

So the conflation was unintentional, then? I’ll look forward to your retraction, at which time I’ll issue my apologies for questioning your motives.

#7 Daniel Loxton (Guest) on Thursday May 09, 2013 at 1:17pm

John:

Thank you for considering my arguments. You are of course correct that there are wider forms of philosophical skepticism which long predate the modern skeptical movement. My argument regarding those wider rationalisms is not that they are incorrect, but that they are different projects than the one that scientific skeptics set out to do: to see what light can be shed upon paranormal and fringe science claims using the tools available to empirical investigators. As you suggest, rational doubt and even a priori scoffing were already options that were available before the work of Houdini or CSICOP or the other skeptics in this distinct modern “scientific skepticism” movement commenced. They are still available for those who want them.

I find it sort of remarkable that a post at the CFI, the umbrella organization for CSICOP (CSI)—the architects of “testable claims” skepticism—would not give weight to the possibility that the distinct project of scientific skepticism may be valuable and useful. After all, there are as you say other and older traditions available for those who wish to pursue a wider rationalism. Why should scientific skeptics not be entitled to a clear mission of our own? And if scientific skeptics are somehow selling out by doing so, why not level the same criticism at other distinct projects with distinct methods and subject matter, such as geology or dentistry?

Iain:
In fairness, it is probably true that the empirical framework of scientific skepticism “must give an exemption to essential religious claims”—not religious claims in general, but to some especially metaphysical claims that are important in some traditions—just as we must give “an exemption” to many other kinds of equally untestable claims (or claim-like utterances) in philosophy, poetry, and fantasy. “Simply not meaningful in scientific terms” or “not even wrong” is not necessarily a very comforting exemption, though.

#8 Barbara Drescher (Guest) on Thursday May 09, 2013 at 1:27pm

There was no conflation. I assumed a level of certainty that would justify presenting one’s personal beliefs as “the truth”. The correctness of that assumption actually has no effect on my response.

#9 H.H. (Guest) on Thursday May 09, 2013 at 1:55pm

Barbara, we are discussing “levels” of certainty. <i>You<i> were the one shifted the discussion to absolute certainty, apparently in order to smear advocates of reasonable plausibility as being impossible to differentiate from “other” religious zealots. It’s a cliched slur, at this point, and one that was never accurate to begin with.

#10 David (Guest) on Thursday May 09, 2013 at 2:06pm

Its a little disingenuous to imply that your only problem with atheism in the skeptic movement is that its all about untestable claims. Its a bait and switch tactic, the conversation is about specific gods with specific claims and bam the “untestable mystery god” who is immune to any reasonable inquiry is brought up as a shield.


No one cares about someone who says “I believe in god” it only becomes an issue when they say ” I believe in god therefore…”

#11 Barbara Drescher (Guest) on Thursday May 09, 2013 at 2:09pm

H.H., you seem to have missed the whole point of my comment. If you are certain enough to insist that anyone who comes to a different conclusion is simply wrong and must adopt your beliefs, I fail to see the distinction.

The issue here isn’t what you believe or I believe or John believes. The issue is in what we insist that others believe. Skepticism is about alternative explanations for phenomena, evaluation of evidence, and, yes, reason. We promote method over personal beliefs because that’s what we can share with others. But we recognize people have the right to come to their own conclusions and insisting that yours are “THE truth” is pure arrogance.

#12 David (Guest) on Thursday May 09, 2013 at 2:23pm

Barbara you do realize that there is absolutely no field of skeptiscm that your statements can’t be applied to homeopathy, vaccination, bigfoot, agw, anyone who suggests they know the “truth” about these things is a zealot I guess?

#13 Daniel Loxton on Thursday May 09, 2013 at 2:30pm

Its a little disingenuous to imply that your only problem with atheism in the skeptic movement is that its all about untestable claims. Its a bait and switch tactic, the conversation is about specific gods with specific claims and bam the “untestable mystery god” who is immune to any reasonable inquiry is brought up as a shield.

David: If someone advances specific god-related claims that can be framed as scientifically meaningful hypotheses, then there’s no disagreement. Essentially all commentators on every side of these questions—scientific skeptics, scientists, humanists, atheist activists, wider rationalists, and even typically theists—agree that such claims are fair game for science and science-based skepticism. Skeptics have indeed tackled countless such claims with gusto, and we continue to do so routinely. Busting testable religious claims is an ordinary, ongoing part of the work we do. Nor need anyone accept my assessment about which god claims are testable. If you can figure out how to test any given claim, then go for it.

#14 David (Guest) on Thursday May 09, 2013 at 2:37pm

Oh there’s your problem then, you thought atheists were talking about that untestable god no one believes in. Let me clear it up for you, they were talking about the fully testable abrahamic gods.

#15 Iain (Guest) on Friday May 10, 2013 at 6:48am

Daniel: my point was that is was uncharitable to describe a post arguing that there is no special religious exemption in scientific skepticism as “carefully explaining why” there is a religious exemption. But, since you are the best arbiter of whether or not you were charitably interpreted, I’ll drop it, and say instead that I think you are wrong to allow your position to be characterised as allowing an “exemption”. To me, this is like allowing a pro-lifer to characterise the pro-choice position as giving an exemption to the rule that murder is wrong. It is not an exemption if the rule doesn’t apply in the first place: if we accepted that abortion was murder, we would be forced to admit that it was wrong; there can be no exemptions. Similarly, I think that it is wrong to say that any religious claims are exempt from scientific skepticism; rather, the method just doesn’t apply. Once you let in the “exemption” language, you’ve lost the rhetorical battle.

In explaining the limits of scientific skepticism, I sometime find it more helpful to focus on the epistemic attitude of the claimants, rather than the claims themselves. Consider an analogy: A group of kids are kicking a ball around in the playground. Suddenly, one of them picks up the ball and starts running with it. You tell him that they can’t do that; it’s against the rules of soccer, but he responds “I’m not playing soccer, I’m playing rugby”. At this point, it is futile to continue explaining the rules of soccer, and detailing exactly why his actions are not permitted by those rules: he’s not playing by those rules. A very different kind of argument, involving the social ettiquette of pick-up games, is required. I think that the religious believer who declares that their belief is based on faith alone (or on a priori theological argument) is like that kid, and that it is futile for the scientific skeptic to try to explain to him that there is no scientific evidence for his position. He is simply not playing that game, and won’t care that he is breaking its rules. The faith-based religious believer has simply rejected the fundamental presupposition on which scientific skepticism is based. And it is begging the question to try to refute that position by citing the very evidence he denies is necessary. What is needed is a philosophical argument, justifying the epistemic stance of skepticism, to the effect that we should limit our beliefs about what exists to that for which there is empirical evidence.

This last point is what I think lies at the heart of the incomprehension between the two sides of this debate: those who rail against special exemptions aren’t seeing the difference between using the skeptical method to evaluate a claim, and justifying the use of the skeptical method itself. (If course, that would require acknowledging that there is a role for philosophy in this debate, and a number of the scientists involved have an irrational contempt for philosophy!)

#16 Daniel Loxton on Friday May 10, 2013 at 8:58am

Daniel: my point was that is was uncharitable to describe a post arguing that there is no special religious exemption in scientific skepticism as “carefully explaining why” there is a religious exemption.… Similarly, I think that it is wrong to say that any religious claims are exempt from scientific skepticism; rather, the method just doesn’t apply. Once you let in the “exemption” language, you’ve lost the rhetorical battle.

Iain: Agreed that the “exemption” language is an inappropriate and loaded way to describe the limits of the methods of science. I was just trying to be as a charitable as possible myself regarding John Shook’s decision to describe my post in the exact language that my post is dedicated to rejecting. I do think it’s possible that readers who do not follow the link might come away from Shook’s post with an inaccurate understanding of what my position actually is.

#17 Nathan Bupp (Guest) on Friday May 10, 2013 at 11:44am

“The skeptic is not passionately intent on converting mankind to his or her point of view and surely is not interested in imposing it on others, though he may be deeply concerned with raising the level of education and critical inquiry in society. Still, if there are any lessons to be learned from history, it is that we should be skeptical of all points of view, including those of the skeptics. No one is infallible, and no one can claim a monopoly on truth or virtue. It would be contradictory for skepticism to seek to translate itself into a new faith. One must view with caution the promises of any new secular priest who might emerge promising a brave new world—if only his path to clarity and truth is followed. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to temper the intemperate and to tame the perverse temptation that lurks within.”

—Paul Kurtz, “The Transcendental Temptation.”

#18 SocraticGadfly (Guest) on Friday May 10, 2013 at 5:31pm

Hey, John, I started Skeptics(TM)! Right in this blog post that says a partial pox on both the Gnu Atheist AND the Skeptics(TM) houses, though more on PZ’s.


socraticgadfly.blogspot DOT com/2013/05/pz-myers-aka-phrayngula-and-scientific.html

#19 SocraticGadfly (Guest) on Friday May 10, 2013 at 5:37pm

John, that said, your point about philosophical skepticism is something I’ve said more than once to “scientific skeptics.” That’s why, just as I don’t use “atheist” to describe myself, because Gnus have blown that, I don’t normally use “skeptic,” because it’s too narrow, and I’m using it to refer to either David Hume or, say, Pyrrho. (Look him up, Skeptics[TM].) I prefer the term “naturalist” to “atheist” and the phrase “critical thinker” to “skeptic.”

And, in for a penny, in for a pound, when are you guys going to write anything about Brian Dunning?

#20 GrzeTor (Guest) on Sunday May 26, 2013 at 2:16am

This “testable claims” religious exemption is bogus. It doesn’t take into account that we live in the age of Big Data and powerful discovery algorithms. In today’s world we have petabytes of data gathered EXPLICITLY FOR DISCOVERING of things. Think about Large Hadron Collider - 15 Petabytes of for-discovery data per year.  Large Synoptic Survey Telescope is expected to produce 150 Petabytes of data. All this data is not about having it in an archive. It’s a data that is heavily processed by computers, with algorithms specifically designed to find things. Both new objects that conform to our current models of the universe, as well as object that don’t conform to our current models of how things work (these should be detected by for exaple anomaly detection algorithms). 

So the case is clear - if these powerful computers, using powerful detection algorithms, working over petabytes of data, gathered specifically for-discovery haven’t yet found gods or supernatural, then we can say with high confidence level that gods and supernatural are not there. It’s clear that modern science, in the age of Big Data supports a strong atheist position.

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