The Course of Reason

I’m an atheist, but…

December 13, 2011

I think it is important that the skeptic community not be subsumed by the atheist community.  What am I talking about?  I’m talking about something as seemingly trifling as a name.  At Skepticon IV this year, Dave Silverman gave a call-to-arms talk about why we in the skeptic community should adopt ‘atheist’ as our preferred nomenclature.  I think the term ‘atheist’ is a fitting description, but only in the context of the God question.  Other than that, it says very little about the movement, or community, or whatever.

 

Silverman’s argument is basically this:

1. “Atheist” is the broadest category that we all fit under.

2.  If we all go by the broadest category in describing ourselves, then our movement/community will be more unified and politically powerful.

3. We want that to happen, so, let’s all go by the name “Atheist.”

Let me start by saying that I think it is important to have a strong and vocal atheist community, both to let politicians know that many Americans are atheists, and also to let theists know that one can be an atheist and a decent person.  However, I think there are a few problems with placing priority on the issue of atheism, and by describing the community as a whole with the term ‘atheist.’ I’ll mention these problems, and suggest that the community is best described as the skeptic community.

You might wonder, who cares about a name?  As Silverman mentions, names are important for asserting political presence.  In particular, he mentions those questionnaires about religion in America.  By all means, if you don’t believe in God, that is, if you lack a belief that God exists, respond with ‘atheist’ on those questionnaires.  Often there are alternative responses available to a non-theist, like ‘agnostic,’ ‘secular humanist,’ etc.  Even if ‘skeptic’ is an available choice, I suggest marking ‘atheist.’ The wealth of response options only serves to fragment our representative numbers, and allows the questionnaire’s data to support claims that under-represent the number of non-theists in America.  Of course, atheism is not a religion.  But, it is a position about religion.  In fact, that’s all it is.  That is why it is so broad, and Silverman is correct to assert that on religious questionnaires, we are all atheists (if we are doing skepticism correctly…).

But not every issue that our community cares about centers on the question of the existence of a personal God.  Our community’s core values are so much more than the lack of a belief in God.  The term ‘atheist’ does not convey any commitment to critical thinking, science advocacy, or sincere inquiry.  These are the fundamental values at the core of the community, the positive contribution we offer to someone who joins, and to society as a whole.  Skepticism is what we offer, as a disposition to adopt for life in general.  Of course I don’t mean the radical philosophical skepticism of Descartes, or even Hume.  I mean the skepticism described by Paul Kurtz, founder of CFI, Skeptical Inquirer and CSICOP, Prometheus Books, former editor-in-chief of Free Inquiry, and of our very movement itself.  It is the skepticism of skeptical inquiry, the search for good reasons to believe claims, and the commitment to epistemic integrity.


Uri Geller; Huckster

Skepticism is the promise to oneself not to be gamed by the hucksters out there.  Atheism is one consequence of this, but there is so much more.  Atheism does not even begin to describe the community’s commitment to science or its methods.  Atheism does not describe one’s stance on critical thinking.  In fact, I’ve encountered many an atheist boasting only limited critical thinking skills, without any desire to improve them, content instead to broadly assert things without support.  People like that are not skeptics.  They don’t share my epistemic values.  They lack the humility of skepticism.

Through skepticism, we force ourselves to own up to our biases and flaws.  We practice this constantly, and seek unbiased support for our beliefs, or not finding any, we cease to have the beliefs.  We recognize that an intuition or feeling of confidence means very little when it comes to the justification of our beliefs.  Without evidence, without reasons, our beliefs are nothing more than suspicions.  This is the humility of skepticism.  Atheism does not describe this.  Atheism describes one’s position on the question of God.

Atheism does not describe the community’s commitment to science-based medical treatment.  The skeptic community has always been the debunker of bunk medicine, of homeopathy, of faith healers.  Skepticism describes the method of debunking.  You might think atheism better represents opposition to faith healing, but you’d be wrong.  Skepticism opposes faith, not because it describes one’s commitment to there being a God, but because it is epistemically irresponsible.  Skepticism opposes faith in general, no matter what crackpot belief it underlies.  Atheism opposes faith in God.  But even Atheism’s opposition need not be due to epistemic principles, but may merely be due to a disagreement with the belief.  As I said, there are many epistemically irresponsible atheists.

Silverman with inaccurate Venn diagram

Silverman mentions that not all skeptics are atheists, and that not all atheists are skeptics.  This is true.  I would rather side with a skeptic who is not an atheist than an atheist who is not a skeptic, because it is more important to me that a person share my epistemic values, listed above, than the person’s position on the God question.  An atheist who is not a skeptic is just another troll, as far as I’m concerned.  A skeptic who is not an atheist is open to the arguments and the evidence, and will probably be an atheist soon.

Silverman with accurate Venn diagram

Finally, as with any good skeptic who is also an atheist, it is in principle possible to convince me that God exists.  All it would take is evidence and a good argument.  If you are an atheist, and you maintain that there is no way you would ever believe in God, then you are not a skeptic.  However, even if I were somehow convinced that God exists, I would not cease being a skeptic.  I would still adhere to the same core epistemic values of critical thinking, honest inquiry, and empirical support for beliefs.  I would still be a science advocate.  These are things about me that will not change, no matter how my particular beliefs may shift.  I’ll note that I think it is highly unlikely I will ever believe in God, but it is still in principle possible.  Because these core values will remain constant, I think I am best described by a term that captures these core values.  That term is “skeptic.”

So, I suggest that one does respond to religious questionnaires by describing oneself as an atheist.  But that is because the skeptic community is not focused on the question of god, but instead embodies a much broader set of core values, that typically lead one to atheism.  But the term “atheist” is not appropriate for the community as a whole, because it is about only one question, and it is too inclusive.  An atheist who is not a skeptic simply does not make the cut.  A person like that may as well be an evangelical; s/he and I have almost nothing important in common.  We merely agree that there’s probably no God.

Here is Silverman’s talk.

 

About the Author: Seth Kurtenbach

Seth Kurtenbach's photo
Seth Kurtenbach is pursuing his PhD in computer science at the University of Missouri. His current research focuses on the application of formal logic to questions about knowledge and rationality. He has his Master's degree in philosophy from the University of Missouri, and is growing an epic beard in order to maintain his philosophical powers. You can email Seth at Seth.Kurtenbach@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter: @SJKur.

Comments:

#1 Cory Brunson on Tuesday December 13, 2011 at 8:30pm

I agree with your points, though after watching Silverman's talk i also find myself agreeing with his. As a movement — that is, as we talk amongst ourselves or with other movements (e.g. environmental and civil rights organizations) — we might better describe ourselves as <i>skeptics</i>; but as a demographic — not just on demographic surveys with boxes for religious affiliation but when people ask what our religious beliefs are or when open forums get into the subject of religion, or even if people ask what meetings or events we're attending — we should identify as <i>atheists</i>.

Anymore, when someone tells me that they're religious (outside the workplace) i'm taken aback, and i show it. This isn't because i make a conscious effort to show incredulity but because i've become genuinely surprised at the ability of people in scientific circles (and educational / academic environments generally) to maintain religious beliefs. I attribute this change in attitude more to familiarity with atheists than to personal conviction that the religious position is epistemically unsound, and that familiarity came with being around a lot of atheists <i>and being aware of it and vocal about it</i>.

On a more subtle note, several people i know who maintain beliefs in alternative medicines or conspiracy theories are quite welcoming of atheists and often are themselves, yet less trusting of self-described skeptics. Is this common? I suspect that it would be immensely helpful for skeptics of such things to identify as atheists. This indicates that we are not simply adopting the mainstream view but are willing to seriously consider their claims, and that we consider them no more fringe or absurd than the theistic majority.

#2 Cory Brunson on Tuesday December 13, 2011 at 8:32pm

("consider them . . . than" -> "consider their ideas . . . than those of")

Also, enjoy my html tags.

#3 Dren Asselmeier on Wednesday December 14, 2011 at 8:40am

"A skeptic who is not an atheist is open to the arguments and the evidence, and will probably be an atheist soon."

I really like this discussion because it seems like Silverman's idea is kind of the new school, but I wouldn't call Seth's idea old school. There are a few things I can bring up.

I recently got to help out at Skeptic's Toolbox in Eugene, OR. It is a skeptics meeting that Committee for Skeptical Inquiry puts on every year (and has for a very long time, though it is a smaller and more intimate workshop style conference). The audience is older than similar groups at Skepticon or even TAM. I talked to several people who are die-hard skeptics, but do not have any interest in discussing religion. Some of them even said that their spouses are religious and they just don't talk about it. They found skepticism as a world view long ago and yet religion is either off-limits or not of interest to them.

It's bizarre to me because I just don't know how you can section off religion as something unapproachable. At the same time, there are some skeptics who like to talk about religion, alt med, and other claims, but don't care about monsters or "cryptozoology" because it just doesn't interest them, so maybe that's how religion is to others.

In any case, I think that Seth is right semantically. "Atheism" in name and in its history has only meant a lack of belief in a god. But, if enough people who are skeptical and atheist exist and we decide to try to change the connotation of the word, do you think that in some years we might see "atheism" become something that implies skepticism and critical thinking? Or would we have to come up with another term to encompass both? Do we need to? It will be interesting to see.

#4 tom (Guest) on Monday December 19, 2011 at 9:03pm

Skepticism usually leads to atheism, but not all atheists arrived at that conclusion through critical thinking. It's a very broad term and the only thing the people have in common who fall under it is that they don't believe in a god.

For this reason I am against what Dave Silverman has suggested. Does he really want all skeptics and critical thinkers to be affiliated with the likes of S.E. Cupp?

#5 Tim (Guest) on Thursday January 19, 2012 at 9:29pm

I agree that the trm atheist does not adequately describe the breath of our worldviews, but the fact that we are still arguing over what to call ourselves makes me want to give up and go find God.

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