Why Skeptics Don’t Have to be Atheists

[You can read Michael De Dora’s response to this post here, and an additonal commentary by Massimo Pigliucci here.]

A disclaimer.

It is Sunday Night.  I have just returned home from Skepticamp NYC.  It’s been a long day, I may not be thinking my best, and right now I’m getting ready to piss off… I dunno, maybe half of you.  Joy of joys.  Let me go back a step.  Right before we broke for lunch today, Michael De Dora Jr. gave a talk he called “Skepticism Includes Atheism (So Deal With It).”  After the talk, I pulled Michael aside.  “Hey Mike,” I said.  “I’ve been writing for the Gotham Skeptic and, well I’m like the only person still writing two pieces a week (okay, sometimes Page does too…), and I’m really trying to find a way to only write one this week.  So I’m going to write up why I think you’re totally wrong, and if you want, you can have my Thursday spot to refute everything I say.”  He agreed.

I’m an idiot.  I should have just found a way to turn some skeptical story into a dick joke.  Oy.

This is always true, but sometimes, like right now, I feel it should be stated loud and clear.  The views expressed here represent only me, Jake Dickerman.  They are not representative of everyone who writes on the Gotham Skeptic or the NYC Skeptics in general.

Why Skeptics Don’t Have to be Atheists

I have previously on this blog defined myself as an agnostic.  That said, I grew up as one of the few Jews in my white, rural, working class upstate New York town, and I frequently felt isolated by religion.  Seriously, I don’t know how to play basketball because when I wanted to sign up for the youth league as a kid, the sign up sheets were at one of the many churches in town and we just didn’t know that sign ups were in a church or which of the three churches in town they were in.  So I get why it would be a good feeling to have a group of people around who are there to buy you a beer when you finally burst into “There is no God!”  At the same time, my family is a fairly accepting one.  Though almost all of us identify as Jews, my mother has never believed in God.  I understand that all families are not like mine.  I’ve been told by many friends that it was scary to “come out” as atheists, that they were worried people wouldn’t accept them for it.  People should be accepted for what they believe, or don’t.  I’m glad there’s a support network out there.  If they would also like to become skeptics, I’ll be happy to have them.

Defining Atheism

In his lecture, Michael defined atheism as the lack of belief in God.   Though it may sound like a quibble, I don’t agree with his definition.  By Michael’s definition, agnostics are atheists.  I don’t think he’s right.  And though Michael placed himself in this category, I believe his own words have disproved that.  When I asked him if he believed Kenneth Miller, the noted evolutionary biologist who was one of the key witnesses in the Kitzmiller v Dovercase and is also a practicing Roman Catholic, would have a place in an atheist skeptical movement, Michael responded that he didn’t want to keep Ken out, but that he did think Ken was wrong in his faith.  I’m sorry.  That’s not agnosticism, that’s atheism.

It’s the difference between saying we don’t know whether or not god(s) exist and saying that we do.  Michael said that his atheism was one of those things that he felt confident about, and I don’t begrudge him for that but it is different than agnosticism.

I would define atheism as “the supposition that there are no gods.”  I would agree that agnostics do not believe in any god, but I would distinguish them from atheists in that their lack of belief is passive, where I feel that an atheist’s must be active.

Rather than being a belief, or lack thereof, skepticism is a methodology.  Heavily seated in the realm of methodological naturalism, it is the act of not believing in something without evidence to back it up, although I would remind everyone that the threshold of evidence insisted upon by any particular person is up to that person and that person alone.  In general, skepticism has been moving into the realm of a sort of science advocacy, including using scientific standards to define the worth of evidence.  As skeptics, we believe in promoting critical thinking and using rationality to dispel as much pareidolia as we possibly can.

Skepticism, by embracing the precepts of naturalism – which I am defining here as the desire to find non-superstitious causes for all observed events – is inherently agnostic.  God will always be an unfalsifiable hypothesis, and thus, outside the realm of science.  Certainly, we can falsify just about any event described in a religious text, but this is still not proof that there is no God.  I see skepticism as a scientific position.  I see atheism as a philosophical one.  And though I would agree that the naturalism science and skepticism are rooted in is a philosophical position as well, it is a different philosophy.  Science does not disprove.  The unfortunate nature of skepticism is that we are inherently unable to say that all the crazy woo out there isn’t real.  I can’t say that homeopathy cannot possibly work.  I can say I don’t believe in it, that there’s no evidence for it, and that it has no basis in any theoretical or physical realm I’ve ever understood, but I must always leave open the possibility that evidence will arise which vindicates it.  If that evidence arises, I must change my stance.  Until then, all we can ever say is that there is no evidence for it, and thus no reason to believe in it.  This is a subtle distinction, but I believe it is important.

Why Is It Important to Distinguish Skepticism from Atheism?

One of the things which struck me as odd about Michael’s lecture was that he seems to have divorced the atheist movement from atheism.  In conversation with him later on, he even told me that he absolutely did not believe that the existing atheist and skeptical movements should be merged.  Personally, I don’t think they can be separated so easily.  Perhaps, as Julia Galef, who will be co-hosting the upcoming Rationally Speaking Podcast with Massimo, was saying to me later, this is simply a distinction of tactics from theory.  I believe, however, that when you talk of setting atheism as one of the pillars of skepticism, you cannot avoid discussing the ramification of bringing atheism and skepticism into one big uncomfortable package.

For starters use best recumbent bikes, although organized atheism and organized skepticism may have a huge overlap, this overlap does not encompass the entirety of either movement.  Skepticism has its Kenneth Millers where atheism has its Bill Mahers (although at dinner tonight, it was insisted to me that Bill is not in fact an atheist, but a non-religious theist… I don’t really have enough evidence to go one way or the other, but the wider atheist movement has embraced him, and he is an unscientific crackpot – REMEMBER THE DISCLAIMER).

More than just the overlap, and this is the place where I’m going to piss you off, I have some real problems with the atheist movement.  For a while, the skeptical movement was sort of trying to get its bearings.  At this point in time, like I said before, we’re sort of moving into a position of advocating science and critical thinking.  These are good, positive goals, but they’re exceptionally difficult to implement because they aren’t really tangible.  I think that as a movement, we’re working on it, but we’re not there yet.  Atheism has this same problem, but magnified.  Because atheism doesn’t even have that first  step, an overarching positive goal.  Why do you need a positive goal?  Because it tells you what your organization is trying to achieve and lets the members act towards things instead of against them.  In the absence of a positive goal, I find that organized atheism tends to devolve into being anti-religious.  This gets to something I know Michael will argue with me about.  He might ask, “Why is it a problem to instantly come off as against religious people?”

I believe that the only way skeptics will ever have a truly positive effect on the world around us is if we are able to communicate with those outside of the skeptical realm.  We are a small group, and we are going to continue to be one.  Maybe one day, we’ll have the size and clout so that politicians (on both sides, Benny) will want to do things that make us happy, but I doubt it’s going to happen for quite some time.  The best we can hope to do is to help the non-skeptical world see things a bit more like we do.  But people are never going to listen to us if we start out by saying that their most cherished beliefs are wrong.  Guys like Dawkins and Hitchens tend to have the same effect on the religious as people like Ben Stein and JB Handley have on us.  I know that there are a lot of people out there who really like Dawkins and I have no problem with that, but the fact is, naming a book The God Delusionor a television series “The Root of All Evil” (I know that Dawkins has said that the title wasn’t his idea, but honestly, I think that if he’d really wanted it changed, he could have gotten it changed.  I know I don’t have the evidence on my side here, call it a gut feeling from a person who’s worked in production) is going to instantly set you as against all religious people which, last time I checked, outnumbered us non-religious folk by quite a great margin.

If the organized atheist movement wants to spend its time improving the image of atheists or fighting religion, I have no issue with that.  The first is a great goal, and the second, hey, I might not agree with it but if they feel it’s important than I say have a ball.  What we must realize, however, is that this is an agenda of the movement, and it’s an agenda that I believe will be contrary to the skeptical movement’s goal of spreading critical thinking to those not already in our choir.

A caveat.  I do not want to make it seem like I don’t think atheists should be allowed in the skeptical movement.  That’s not where I stand.  Where I stand is that I don’t believe atheism is our fight.  If you want me to help fight for atheist rights, that’s a civil rights issue and I will gladly carry your banner.  I’m not gay, but I get plenty of emails from the Courage Campaign.  But telling the world that there is no god… if I was convinced, I’d be on your side already.


I hope you folks found this interesting.  One place I agree with Michael is that I think this is a discussion that is worth having.  If you think I’m wrong, I’m sure you’re not alone and I’ll love you a bunch if you decide to comment and tell me just how wrong I’ve got it.  But be gentle.  I’m only a flimsy agnostic, I can’t even figure out whether or not there’s a god.  Michael will be responding right here on Thursday.  I hope you’re looking forward to it as much as I am.

The Paranoids Will Get You If You Don’t Watch Out

Last week, I happened upon the 2002 video clip of Buzz Aldrin punching a moon-landing conspiracy theorist in the face–a joyous artifact that had never before come to my attention. The punchee was filmmaker Bart Sibrel, who confronted Aldrin (then 72) and his stepdaughter outside a Beverly Hills hotel, screaming ”You’re the one who said you walked on the moon and you didn’t!” Aldrin warned him to back off, at which point Sibrel called him a “thief, a liar and a coward.” When Sibrel initiated physical contact (as attested to by several witnesses), Aldrin hauled off and clocked him one.

As skeptics, we’re supposed to be elegant in our arguments, relying on the power of sweet reason and airtight logic to flummox the opposition. But I don’t think I’m alone in tipping my hat to old Buzz. Even for those of us who fight our battles with words — maybe especially for us — there’s a primal, meaty satisfaction in watching a judiciously wielded fist interact with an eminently deserving face.

In the vast panoply of hoo-hah merchants, conspiracy theorists are simultaneously the most infuriating and the most difficult to dismiss. Infuriating because their theories come cloaked in righteous wrath; point out the holes in their reasoning and they hurl thunderbolts of moral indignation. Difficult to dismiss because, unlike proponents of homeopathy, for example, they are not trafficking in physical impossibilities. There is nothing intrinsically irrational about the notion of a conspiracy, though the use of the word by paranoid extremists has given it a certain wild-eyed, arm-waving taint. A conspiracy, after all, is merely a scheme — a plot by two or more people to do something nefarious. It happens all the time.

So how do you tell whether the conspiracy theory in question is genuine or jive? One way is to check how far the conspiratorial tentacles extend. (Considering how lousy human beings are at keeping secrets, I’m always amazed at the faith conspiracy theorists have in people’s ability to sit on juicy and potentially profitable information for indefinite periods of time). So: the mafia ordered the assassination of John Kennedy? Not obviously improbable. Kennedy’s assassination was plotted by an intricate network of conspirators including the CIA, Lyndon Johnson, and the White House men’s room attendant? You’re probably talking to a loon, and/or Oliver Stone.

Another telltale sign can best be illustrated by consulting Monty Python, specifically Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979). Set during the time of Jesus, the film concerns a hapless fellow named Brian who is mistakenly acclaimed as the messiah. Pursued by hordes of rabid followers, Brian turns to them and yells, “But I’m NOT the messiah!” A disciple responds, “Only the true messiah denies his own divinity.”  Exasperated, Brian responds with reverse psychology: “All right then, I AM the messiah!” The crowd, its beliefs confirmed, shouts, “He IS the messiah!”

Heads I win, tails you lose.  If you tell a conspiracy theorist he’s right, you’re simply confirming his world view. Unfortunately, if you tell a conspiracy theorist he’s full of it, you are also confirming his world view, since the very act of denying the conspiracy proves that you’re in on it.

In an article titled “Who Are the Birthers?”, which takes on the pitiful Obama birth-certificate flap, Brian Montopoli quotes Michael Barkun of Syracuse University on the psychology of the conspiracy hounds. ”There are people out there who firmly believe that the truth is always hidden….That whatever is presented as public knowledge is necessarily false….[I]n a strange way, conspiracy theories are comforting….They give people a feeling that we know the truth…That we have secret knowledge, and that we know how the world really works.”

In any dubious area of “knowledge,” the true mark of the crank is a stiff-necked, righteous refusal to be persuaded. If a conspiracy theorist won’t revise his opinion in light of new information, he’s not dealing in theory at all, but in revelation.…

On Rituals of a Non-Skeptical Nature

Yesterday began Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. All over the world, Jews are fasting, and though I am a proud member of NYC Skeptics, I am among them.

By spending the day fasting, I do not feel that I am cowing to some angry sky-daddy, hoping he doesn’t put my name in the book of death. I do not believe in any god so petty that he would kill me for a year of non-perfect adherence to a set of mostly arbitrary rules designed to separate me from other people because my parents were Jews and their were not.

But to acknowledging that I have an origin, a people that have survived thousands of years of heartache and strife, for me the hunger is worthwhile. I believe that if one wants, even a skeptic can find a place for a little ritual in their lives.

We find them everywhere. In the order of how we make a meal, to lighting a cigarette, to any of the myriad things we do on a daily basis. Rituals can keep us grounded to each other, they can help us cope. When my father’s best friend, Charlie Purpora, died a few years ago, the rituals of grieving my father gained from Judaism helped him move forward. Charlie had been my mentor, and I can’t say I didn’t wish for a little while that I could take as much from those rituals as he could. Certainly, it would have helped me find time to grieve, and probably it would have stopped me from hiding in a failing relationship, just so I’d have someone else to comfort me.

But for me at least, observing Yom Kippur, in my small way, is more than just about the ritual. Judaism has been important to my life, and as strange as it sounds to my atheist friends, my skepticism is linked to it. The core that I have taken from my father’s father’s beliefs is the need to create distinctions, ask questions, and seek knowledge. Being a Jew allowed me to find a distinction between the beliefs and the practices of my people, and following some of those practices has helped me feel more connected to a people, a history, and a story that have helped construct my character.

As skeptics, there are many things we rightly reject. We come together to celebrate rationalism and the pursuit of science. We tend to deride each other’s “sacred cows,” and perhaps right now you’re seeing this article as little more than my justification for mine. And maybe you’re right about that, as I have no evidence to the contrary. But that doesn’t change the fact that as I fast today, I know that I am not alone in doing it. And that’s something I wouldn’t give up for all the rationalism in the world.…

Neti pot or nutty pot?

I have a sinus infection.

And I have been thinking a lot about three conversations I have had recently about neti pots. One of them was with someone wholly un-skeptical, who assured me that he has fewer sinus infections since he started using the neti pot. I asked how he knew he was having fewer sinus infections or that it was specifically the neti pot which was preventing them. He gave me an uncertain look, and I dropped it (because I really hadn’t looked into neti pots myself and did not have much to offer by way of evidence for or against them, although my instinct was to be skeptical of their efficacy). The second conversation was with a fellow skeptic, who said she swears by them. Again, I did not have anything to offer the conversation, but moved neti pots up on my prioritized mental list of “Things that I need to research more deeply.” A few days ago, a fellow biologist who suffers from severe allergies also promoted the use of a neti pot for flushing out the sinuses.

So I set about to answer a couple of questions pertaining to neti pot usage:

What is the history of neti pot usage?

Is the use of a neti pot harmful, neutral or beneficial?

Is neti pot usage a valid therapy to prevent the occurrence of sinusitis (sinus infections)?

And to be honest, I was all ready to write up a post about how a true skeptic changes her mind when the evidence is compelling. I wanted to shout from the roof tops that I was initially wrong, but that I have educated myself and now understand! Instead, and I will reveal the punch line now, I remain unconvinced either way.

What is the history of neti pot usage?

My first stop was Wikipedia. Not by choice, but because it is invariably one of the top hits you get when searching for anything these days. Wikipedia was helpful in confirming the proper spelling of “neti” and (in addition to this awesome picture) provided me with additional search terms “saline nasal irrigation” and “nasal lavage.” Well, that sounded much less fruity to me, and I soon learned that the neti pot is just one of many tools for successful nasal irrigation. This technique is originally a Yogic and Ayurvedic treatment and describes the simple technique of pouring saline into one nostril and letting it run out through the other. Blech, but if it helps, I’m totally down to try it. So, if this technique has been floating around this long, AND has a fancy modern term to describe it, there must be LOADS of clinical research into the technique’s possible benefits… Eh, not so much.

I didn’t read much of the Wikipedia entry; instead, I scrolled to the bottom and looked through the list of references. Wikipedia cited some well known medical journals, some less well-known academic journals, and a few sketchy websites. A mixed bag of citations; not bad, but not great. Off to the literature for me.

Is saline nasal irrigation harmful, neutral or beneficial?

Almost every article I read attested to the safety of the treatment. Side effects, like a burning sensation or nasal irritation, are mild and rarely reported. One study had patients irrigating 2 to 6 times a day! It would appear that most studies agree that saline nasal irrigation is not harmful. Neutral or beneficial seems to be the key question…

Is it a valid therapy to prevent the occurrence of sinusitis (sinus infections)?

Side note: I have access to a library with institutional licensing for academic journals; if you do not, I highly recommend befriending someone who does. Everyone who calls themselves a skeptic needs to make an effort to read the primary literature whenever they can, otherwise you will always be dependent upon others’ interpretation.

So first I had to learn a bit about what a sinus infection is:

Healthy people’s respiratory tracts are protected from airborne contagion and debris by a mucociliary layer that lines the sinonasal cavity. This layer consists of columnar, ciliated epithelial cells and goblet cells bathed in mucus. Foreign particles are trapped in the sticky layer of mucus, and ciliary action propels the entire mucous layer out of the sinuses toward the nasopharynx. When this transport mechanism fails, rhinosinusitis occurs, usually in response to a virus, bacterium, irritant, or allergen.[2]

Blech. Rhinosinusitis is near the top of the list of most common disorders for which antibiotics are prescribed, and perhaps over prescribed. Rhinosinusitis accounts for huge health care costs and a large loss in productivity due to missed days of school or work.[3] It is a big problem that affects loads of people.

But somewhat surprisingly, there really isn’t a vast body of literature on the topic of nasal irrigation. The first problem with researching this technique is, how do you create a sham procedure to give to a control population? How do you fake shoving water up someone’s nose? Suggestions from the peanut gallery?

Therefore, the majority of studies assessing nasal irrigation have relied on qualitative data collected by interviewing patients on their perceptions of nasal irrigation usage and their self-reported changes in their symptoms. There are several types of questionnaires that get at quantifying the symptoms of rhinosinusitis and how they impact the patient’s quality of life; one of these is cheekily named the Sino-Nasal Outcome Test (SNOT20).  I read several of these studies and was subjected to data such as one patient’s report that, “for me this is the magic cure for my sinuses.”[4]Really, that was an honest example of the data collected by this study. Then I found a neat meta-analysis that analyzed these types of studies, choosing only those few that met rigorous design standards (maybe one day Lisa will talk about the pit-falls of the meta-analysis, but they have many merits).[5] Long story short, their conclusions were that:

  1. Science Speak: Saline irrigation was better than no treatment for improving symptoms and disease specific quality of life scores. Plain English:Shoving water up your nose was better than doing nothing at all. Studies reported that patients viewed nasal irrigation as empowering because they had full control over the treatment. My main concern is that many of these studies lasted only a few weeks, and none of them lasted longer than 6 months, so there was very little control of the effect that seasons can have on your sinuses. If I filled out a SNOT20 today, and a few weeks from now, chances are my acute sinusitis attack will have cleared up and my scores would improve.
  2. Science Speak: Saline irrigation did not improve disease specific quality of life scores over a placebo treatment. Plain English: We compared nasal irrigation to other silly treatments, like reflexology, and they were all about the same.
  3. Science Speak: Saline irrigation improves disease specific quality of life scores as an addition to oral antihistamine therapy. Plain English: If you do this in addition to taking drugs, you will feel better, but this doesn’t tell us any more than the first conclusion did.

So, nasal irrigation with saline water makes people “feel” better. It leaves patients with the sense that their symptoms have improved, a finding that is supported by statistics. And there is some indication that using nasal irrigation translates to fewer days taking medication and few doctor visits. All very positive.

But what I really wanted to know is whether or not washing my nose with salt water prevents bugs and nasties from setting up house. What I was hoping to see was a comparison of two populations that suffer from chronic rhinosinusitis, one that used nasal irrigation and one that did not. Follow those groups for a couple years, and tell me if the group that is diligent about flushing water up their noses has fewer incidents of acute sinusitis attacks, after controlling for season, age, individual variation, etc. There was only one study that I found to be suggestive of the benefits of nasal irrigation, and interestingly, it was rejected from the meta-analysis because it was not a randomized controlled trial. This lone, not-yet replicated study showed that saline nasal irrigation reduced histamine concentrations in snot for up to 6 hours after treatment when compared to baseline histamine concentrations.[6]Histamine concentrations are indicators of mast cell activation indicative of infection or inflammation. A very tenuous link between sinus health and nasal irrigation, but perhaps the first step in collecting some compelling evidence.

Now this little lit review I have done here is far from exhaustive, but for me, it was far from convincing. So, I won’t nay-say if someone tells me using their neti pot makes them feel better, evidence suggests that is absolutely true. However, neti pots as a “magic cure for my sinus,” I think not. For now, the technique requiring use multiple times a day just doesn’t seem worth the trouble (if you would like some not-yet-agreed-upon clinical guidelines, check out the Mayo Clinic or U. Wisconsin Department of Family Health). I’ll stick to using tissues and decongestants.…