The Course of Reason

Does Skepticism Imply Atheism?

October 10, 2011

Many skeptics also identify as atheists, to such an extent that these two groups often look identical. But the relationship between the two philosophies is not one of equality, and treating them as such can be detrimental to the cause of skepticism. Skepticism is a mode of thought, whereas atheism is an actual claim about the universe. As is true with all such claims, atheism can become dogmatic. This is the danger it poses to skepticism through its association, because skepticism inherently gives no validity to dogma.

Imagine a hypothetical skeptic. She’s a paragon of rational thought, and probably a scientist to boot (since the skeptic’s tools are so similar to those of the scientist). Assume further that she has seen no evidence for a conscious higher power in the universe. Due to her skepticism, this person is an atheist. Being otherwise would mean she’s claiming something about the universe that, as yet, has no observational support. But one day, perhaps on the way to Damascus, something blinds her and strikes her down.

Now a voice says, “I am God”. Because this God, like so many throughout history, is insecure, it truly wants our skeptic to believe it’s real. So this God goes on to say “The next time you get sick, pray to me. Ask for help and you will be healed.” The skeptic, because she’s a scientist and a tester-of-hypotheses, gives it a try. Sure enough, she’s cured of her illness the moment her prayer is over. So far, the evidence to this skeptic for a God is strong; there were initial observations (the voice), and then an experiment to further test God’s existence.

This skeptic and atheist would now tack strongly to theism because of the mounting personal evidence she’s collected. An outside observer, also a skeptic, would probably roll their eyes at the claims of “he spoke to me, and then cured me of my sickness”. And isn’t it more likely that the person on the road to Damascus had a visual and auditory hallucination, followed by a coincidental cure from sickness? Absolutely-in fact the probability of these is far higher than the probability that God exists, so atheism is still the more likely choice. But what person would explain away what happened to them in this way? If we can’t trust our senses to a certain extent, can we really be skeptics? The outside observer will place very little credence in what’s happened to our theist. But she can hardly be blamed for changing her beliefs, and is still absolutely a skeptic, though no longer an atheist.

I use this conversion example not because it’s common. In fact, it’s exceedingly rare. There are also many examples of people who have heard voices claiming to be God, and later seen evidence of the power of prayer. Assuredly, most of these people were religious before, and probably weren’t true skeptics. But the fact remains, my conversion example is not impossible, which means that skepticism cannot imply atheism.

While skepticism can’t fully eradicate god from personal beliefs, it can remove god from scientific hypotheses. The problem that intelligent design inherently contains is postulating an unknowable force to explain biology. Introducing god into an explanation of the events won’t satisfy the skeptic at all, because it needlessly complicates those explanations. If a phenomenon occured, it doesn’t add anything to say “that phenomenon occurred because of an unknowable force”. It’s like Moliere’s “virtus dormitiva”, that opium causes sleep because it contains a “sleep-inducing agent”. Was anything learned by that explanation? Certainly not, and a skeptic would have a hard time accepting it. The difference here from our case above is that only one skeptic observed some evidence for god, while no one else did. If god regularly interacted with the natural world, and left evidence of himself that could not be explained by other natural events, then he could be investigated scientifically and would be far from “unknowable”. It is this that the skeptic objects to, the alleged unknowability and supernatural character of god.

Regarding the dogmatism I mentioned at the beginning, an atheist could certainly pick his belief in the non-existence of god irrationally. In fact, if our skeptic above still clung to atheism after his experience on the road to Damascus, saying “my father was an atheist, and how could he be wrong?”, then she’s not much of a skeptic. This would be dogmatic atheism, something clung to even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Truth is not something that an authority gets to name, it is something anyone with a rational mind (a skeptic) can stumble upon. So as skeptics, we must reject dogmatism, no matter how close to our personal beliefs the underlying issue is.  It’s a counter-intuitive point, but the religious person on your left might be more of a skeptic than the atheist on your right.

This post originally appeared on the Secular Students and Skeptics Society blog.

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About the Author: Matt Reichenbach

Matt Reichenbach's photo
Matt Reichenbach is currently studying mathematics at CU Boulder. He's associated with the Secular Students and Skeptics Society on campus, and philosophizes in his free time.


#1 Cory Brunson on Monday October 10, 2011 at 8:01am

I've had this idea thrown at me before, and i find it unconvincing. As a first note, however, that atheists need even be skeptics or even exceptionally rational people by virtue of being atheists is of course false, and that it is false is beside the point.

"So far, the evidence to this skeptic for a God is strong[.]" Well, the evidence for having had an unusual experience (the memory of it) is strong, but i suspect that not many scientists would agree that the single trial here constitutes strong evidence for the efficacy of prayer, or that many philosophers would agree that combined evidence for personal communications with transcendant beings and the efficacy of prayer constitute strong evidence for the existence of a creator god.

"If we can’t trust our senses to a certain extent, can we really be skeptics?" This is the wrong question to ask. (The answer is that we must trust our own senses to some extent in order to do or think anything at all.) The question is to what extent we trust our own experiences over the collective and collaborative experiences of all people, scientists in particular. As skeptics, we owe it to ourselves to question our own experiences with an intensity suited to the level of disagreement between what they imply and what our more reliable processes and institutions have concluded. When Sean Hannity complains that anthropogenic global warming is false because it snows in Texas, this is a failure of such perspective. (How many of us are convinced of anthropogenic global warming strictly because of the accessible quips about it that we've read on Facebook? We should also then be convinced that the gold standard should be reintroduced.)

This conversion example is not impossible, but it is still a failure of skepticism.

There are still some counterintuitive implications, which i've had to concede: Given the most convincing evidence or argument for the existence of a creator god i could imagine, such a strong case that i couldn't help but feel obligated to believe it, i would have to withhold judgment so long as society at large still behaved as though the argument were unconvincing — so long as other people who truly listened to it remained unconvinced. People are widely known to be easily misled, and people are known to be extremely delusional from time to time, and i have no reason to suspect that i'm immune from such an infliction. I trust the scientific process and the exchange of ideas and so on more than i trust my own cognitive faculties (which have a much shorter and more localized track record). Does that make me less of a skeptic than the hypothesized former atheist?

#2 Benjamin Smith (Guest) on Monday October 10, 2011 at 10:17am

The problem is that even when it's only personal, the evidence for God simply doesn't exist. For example, if praying worked, God would occasionally answer prayers for cancer patients and the miraculous recoveries would happen at least every so often.

Yet numerous studies have not demonstrated that prayer has any effect at all on your likelyhood of getting better. As further evidence of this, ask yourself how come insurance companies don't give better rates for religious people?

Being a skeptic does imply atheist, because time and again, the evidence for a God is only anecdotal at its best. I won't ignore evidence found for God's existence, but I will take it in the context of the world in which we live.

Thus, I am a skeptic, and this makes me an agnostic atheist.

#3 spitz (Guest) on Monday October 10, 2011 at 10:56am

They wouldn't have strong evidence until they could show that the voice was actually from a particular being(it is simply something they heard) and had a strong understanding of how their sickness was cured. Even if they prayed for it, the prayer is only a request; after the request is made, something would have to be done to make the illness go away, and that is unknown.

In other words, after going over everything, they would come to the conclusion that they heard a strange voice and that they couldn't explain how their illness went away. If someone is taking "I don't know what this is" and turning it into "therefore, god exists", they're not being skeptical. And if you were to create a scenario where they did learn what bizarrely powerful being they were interacting with as well as how it performed its feats then you'd have deviated pretty far from reality.

Also, there's an example of someone who remained an atheist after having crazy visions in this video:

#4 spitz (Guest) on Monday October 10, 2011 at 10:58am

oh, I'm a guest. Well, the link would have been to the show called "God on the Brain" that was run on the BBC years ago. The answer to what kind of people would suspect their crazy visions is people who know they can have crazy visions. "I'd get myself checked" being one of the more common responses people give when asked what they'd do if they saw a god.

#5 Matt (Guest) on Monday October 10, 2011 at 10:59am

Atheism isn't a claim. It's a response to a claim. It is an important difference.

A skeptical approach to religious claims, just like any other truth claims, is to withhold belief until sufficient evidence is presented. I agree with Benjamin. With regard to religious claims, agnostic atheism is the default position for skeptics.

#6 ShaunPhilly on Thursday October 13, 2011 at 12:09pm

this argument is deeply problematic. It says that skepticism cannot lead to atheism because it's logically possible that evidence for god could be experienced by a skeptic. The problem is simply that there is no evidence for god. If there were, then skepticism would lead to theism. This hypothetical narrative is not helpful.

The claim is not that in all possible worlds the skeptical methodology must lead to atheism, the claim is that in this world, with the facts as they are, skepticism, properly applied, necessarily leads to atheism. That will remain true until actual evidence is presented for a god.

#7 Cory Brunson on Thursday November 10, 2011 at 7:52pm

I was mulling over this again a few days ago, and as the first rebutter perhaps i'll defend the spirit of Matt's post with a question: Has everyone here (with email notifications) at least identified the circumstances under which they would seriously consider and perhaps tentatively accept the existence of a world-creator who concerned itself with human affairs? I'm working on it — particularly working past the cop-out that the "Matrix" scenario is more likely than any sufficiently miraculous experience — but it's taking me a while.




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