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.


#1 ckoproske on Friday December 11, 2009 at 11:51am

Thanks John, this is a very astute, and necessary point.  I get the sense that many enjoy the psychological and social “status” that comes with taking the so-called middle ground on issues like these.  Atheists are called arrogant and smug, but in my mind no one demonstrates those qualities more than the postmodern “liberals” in the mold of Robert Wright, Karen Armstrong, etc.

#2 Melody (Guest) on Friday December 11, 2009 at 12:00pm

Nice blog.

“[If] atheism is defined as the claim that no god exists.”

Atheism has a definition and it makes no claims. Atheism only means that one does not hold a god belief. We must understand the definitions of the words we are using if we are going to have a meaningful debate in the issues.

#3 dougsmith on Friday December 11, 2009 at 1:41pm

Atheism is the belief that God does not exist. (Where God is taken in the narrow classical sense of a person who is omnicompetent and created the universe).

Agnosticism is the lack of belief in both the proposition that God exists and the proposition that God does not exist. Or in other words, it’s uncertainty, or professed lack of knowledge, about whether or not God exists.

These semantic debates have been going on for years in the CFI Forum, and there’s no end to them. I just go with the simple definitions I’ve always heard.

#4 Randy on Friday December 11, 2009 at 2:03pm

I partially agree with Melody.  Broadly, atheism sees gods as if they were, say, fire-breathing dragons.  We don’t claim such dragons don’t exist.  We don’t (all) claim you can prove they don’t exist.  We just claim there is no proof now.  Indeed, some religious folk agree with us on this point, and are proud of the lack of proof, because it illustrates their faith.

Where we differ with the religious is we say we shouldn’t base our behaviours on these dragons as if they do exist, because there’s no proof.  Rules should be based on reason.

I personally also go further than that, and say we should discourage faith-based rules, or at least fashion rules that require the least faith, least assumption.

Regarding agnosticism, I have understood that to mean one does not believe that a god’s existence (or not) can or will be proven.  But it’s hard not to have an opinion.  Many agnostics still choose to be religious or deny gods, in the face of that lack of proof.

#5 Jerry Schwarz on Friday December 11, 2009 at 2:56pm

“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”

If by “skeptic” you mean a person with a certain philosophical point of view then perhaps there a “plenty” of such people.  But if by “skeptics” you mean member of organization that identify themselves as a “skeptic organization” (CSI, JREF, Shermer’s organization, ...) then I don’t think there are.  I’ve been hanging around (and a member of) skeptic organizations for more than 20 years and when the subject of religion comes the discussion is always why religion is wrong and frequently shades over into religion bashing.  There are probably a few religious people who keep their heads down in such discussions but certainly not enough to describe them as “plenty”. 

The reason that skeptics organizations shouldn’t concern themselves with religion isn’t that there are any legitimate rational arguments in favor of religious positions but rather that if the subject of religion becomes part of the charter of skeptics organizations, it is likely to dominate the agenda.  There are plenty of atheist organizations out there to take up that fight.  Skeptics should concentrate on alternative medicine, parapsychology and other areas where there aren’t a lot of competing organizations promoting rational points of view.

#6 Melody (Guest) on Friday December 11, 2009 at 2:58pm

I respectfully disagree with you, Doug. With atheism, no claim needs to be made. Atheism speaks to belief and agnosticism speaks to knowledge.

#7 dougsmith on Friday December 11, 2009 at 3:44pm

Melody, but typically in philosophy knowledge is just a form of belief. That is, knowledge is true justified belief, or some such thing.

Agnosticism speaks to knowledge because the agnostic makes no knowledge claim about God. He or she simply says “I don’t know.”

The atheist makes a knowledge claim, viz., the atheist claims to know that God does not exist. That should be seen to have the same force as any knowledge claim about nonexistence (like, I know that there are no pink unicorns in my closet).

#8 ckoproske on Friday December 11, 2009 at 6:23pm

These debates will never end because there is no way to determine whether Melody or Doug are right about what atheism means.  I personally side with Melody in thinking that atheism requires only a lack of belief in gods.  An atheist CAN claim to know that no gods exist, but I think asking that he MUST make that claim is very unwise and harmful to the cause.

I tend to think that the most reasonable position is “agnostic atheism”, which I take to mean that I don’t believe in gods, although I don’t think we can prove their existence either way (if god is defined broadly).

I also think that Dawkins puts it nicely when he says that he’s 99% sure that there are no gods.  That solves our problems - it shows more than agnosticism, but it also maintains the epistemological uncertainty agnostics are looking for.

#9 dougsmith on Friday December 11, 2009 at 8:01pm

Re. Colin’s point about Dawkins, I take Dawkins (99% certainty that God doesn’t exist) as a classically atheist position. It is incorrect to claim that one has to posit 100% certainty in order to claim knowledge. I claim to know that this table is before me, yet as Descartes showed us, I could very well be dreaming now. I cannot be literally and completely 100% certain of any extrapolation from sense data to the physical world, and yet I can know about the physical world. Hence knowledge does not require (absolute) certainty.

It’s the same with God. I, like Dawkins, would never claim literal absolute certainty that God does not exist. There is an infinitesimal chance that the God of the Bible is real. But that is not enough to remove my conviction that I know he is fictional. As with Russell’s example of the teapot in orbit around the earth: I do not believe that such a teapot exists. I am an a-teapot-ist. Am I literally absolutely 100% certain of that? No, it’s always possible that there’s a teapot floating around up there, but until I have evidence otherwise, I believe that there isn’t. That’s based on simple reasoning from the prior probabilities.

Re. “agnostic atheism”, it all depends on what we mean by “proving God’s lack of existence”. I don’t believe that there exists a logical or rational proof that God doesn’t exist; as I’ve said, there remains a miniscule possibility of it. But in its ordinary sense we prove plenty of things that are not logically forced upon us. For example, the constable proves that Moriarty is the murderer. In that sense of “proof” we have proven that God doesn’t exist. Viz., the evidence and reason militate against it. And that leads the skeptics among us to atheism, the belief that God does not exist.

For those who are still unsure, who shall we say have a belief in God that is well below 100% but well above 0%, there is the word “agnostic”: the claim not to know whether or not God exists.

#10 dougsmith on Friday December 11, 2009 at 8:14pm

Let me just add for clarification: I am an atheist, and I advocate for atheism, in the same way I disbelieve in all of the sundry items that are on the list of skeptical disapproval. E.g., my attitude towards God is the same as my attitude towards Bigfoot, alien UFOs, therapeutic homeopathy, ghosts, past life regression, etc.

It’s not enough simply to say that I suspend judgment about these things. Of course, in a sense I do: I am always open to further evidence. But in the operative sense, I don’t. I know that they are false. By which I mean, I know that they are false in the same sense that the constable knows that Moriarty is the murderer. I have seen the evidence, and done the ratiocination.

So, to say that a skeptic should be an atheist is more than to say that a skeptic should not have a belief in God (as though he should also “suspend disbelief”). It is that a skeptic should believe that the evidence and reason is firmly against the existence of God, and hence that one should believe that God does not exist ... pending further evidence, as always.

#11 ckoproske on Friday December 11, 2009 at 9:39pm

Agreed on all points Doug!  So we know what an atheist SHOULD believe (near certainty that there are no gods), but we still don’t know what the term “atheist” MUST entail…  I still think agnosticism is an epistemological claim about the “knowability” of something, and thus a different kind of thing from atheism.  That agnostic simply means “we can’t know” and atheist simply means “I don’t believe in god(s)” is unsatisfying - b/c neither capture the sense in which we actively believe in the nonexistence of god(s) - but still more semantically correct I think…

This is why some have made a distinction between “strong” and “weak” atheism.

#12 dougsmith on Saturday December 12, 2009 at 7:49am

Well, yes, I take it that the agnostic at least says “I don’t know whether or not God exists”. I suppose there is a stronger sense of agnosticism that says that “We can’t know whether or not God exists”, although I don’t think that’s strictly necessary to be an agnostic.

And I take it that the atheist says, “God does not exist”, which is more than simply saying, “I don’t believe in God”, since that doesn’t distinguish between the atheist and the agnostic. Neither of them believe in God.

I’m not sure what you mean by “capturing the sense in which we actively believe in the nonexistence of god(s)”; I don’t think of beliefs as active, or if they are active, they are all active to the extent of the probability with which we hold them to be true.

Re. strong vs. weak atheism: right, I know, but except in the thinner air of the academy these terms confuse. An atheist is a strong atheist. Atheism used to mean “weak atheism” is a vaguer term since it covers a range of possible cognitive approaches to God, so I think its use should be avoided unless it is specifically understood in the context to mean “weak atheism”.

#13 T.H. WOTH (Guest) on Saturday December 12, 2009 at 8:58am

This article is also discussed at fourm :

#14 aaron carrcallen (Guest) on Saturday December 12, 2009 at 9:47am

LaRae, I think the unicorn analogy is apt. I am agnostic towards unicorns.  They are silly ideas not supported by evidence. Calling my self an “A-unicornist” is absurd and gives too much credit to unicorns (because they are silly made up ideas). I don’t think that aliens live on the sun. But attaching the label “anti-sun aliens” gives them far too much credit. Also I think that calling yourself an atheist gives god (another silly made up idea) too much credit. Why should god get this special distinction? LaRae, there is nothing light about my agnosticism. God isn’t real. Lot’s of things aren’t real. Ghosts aren’t real, where’s the label for that? Intellectual honesty means that you are making logically sound arguments. A friend of mine was writing a paper in her 400 psych class and was discussing the scientific legitimacy of “ghost hunters”. I simply commented that there is no compelling evidence for ghosts and ghost hunters don’t do real science. She was irritated with my comment because she believes in ghosts and gave me an earful! I stated “I am not saying that ghosts cannot exist, just that there is no evidence for them.” this is being intellectually honest.
If you think that this approach does not have an impact or is not “effective” you would be wrong. I have seen this work. And have been an important factor in several friends’ recovery from false ideologies. I have seen that engaging with people as though this is a “war”, doesn’t allow people dignity. Dignity is important because then people can become introspective and start the long process of dismantling the many complicated cognitive biases that have built up their false beliefs.
This is not a war. It just looks like one when people think they are preaching to the choir.  Get someone alone (except for the very tiny percentage of mentally disordered) and speak reasonably with them, if you are prepared and knowledgeable, kind, and have respect for where they are coming from, then you see that this is not a war. It requires an application of knowledge and education and kindness. I understand why you feel so much anger for those who subvert our society for their own Ideologies. I find it maddening. But we have to do the hard work of maintaining a rational approach. Why?  Because it is the way to affect change, and isn’t that what we are really standing up for? Aren’t we standing for a rational and logical approach to the world? I have another point about atheism, but I have gone on too long already so I will leave you with two words…Bill Maher.

#15 chris mcmurtry (Guest) on Monday December 14, 2009 at 10:17am

Knowledge can be said to exist as degrees of probability. Alhough I cannot absolutely definitively “prove” there are not unicorns in my closet, and even if I look in there and see none, keeping Descartes in mind, I simply do not require “absolute” certainty, because before I looked,  I was 99.999% sure there were no unicorns, and after actually looking in there, I am 99.x percent sure there still are not unicorns in there, where x = 2 to the negative exponent of a very large number.  That is, 99.99999999999999999 etc etc etc etc percent-sure.

Who needs certainty with odds of incalculable billions to one against?

#16 Albert J Rogers (Guest) on Wednesday December 16, 2009 at 9:58pm

OK, science can’t prove God doesn’t exist.
But any reasonably observant, tender-hearted being can surely see that if God were Love, the world of disease and parasitism would not exist.

How can rabies be considered the work of a God who loves even little doggies?

I can think of ways in which electromagnetic fields in the Sun could have the properties of living beings far more easily than I can believe in any of the gods whose putative existence causes so much trouble.

#17 Kevin Patton (Guest) on Thursday December 17, 2009 at 1:06pm

Win through your actions, not through your arguments.
As long as god-fearing “pro-lifers” are willing to mmaim and kill people who disagree with them, I feel obliged denounce their beliefs, regardless of probability.

#18 Chris McMurtry (Guest) on Saturday January 02, 2010 at 3:32pm

aaron carcallan said
“Dignity is important because then people can become introspective and start the long process of dismantling the many complicated cognitive biases that have built up their false beliefs.”

I agree 100%. This is very important. Discourse should remain civilized, or people will resist new knowledge no matter how much evidence there is for it. Not everyone is decidedly rational. Remember being a child? Surely you have different beliefs now; and dont (hopefully) criticize yourself foryour ignorance. Knowledge is a process, and it takes time and steps. One must remain patient and take baby steps when trying to explain something to someone that they dont “believe”. Do not look down on people. They have a great deal of emotion tied up in their beliefs, and it is unwise to snatch away someone’s worldview in one fell swoop. Be nice to the theists, for their own good, or they wont listen to reason. LOL!

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