It’s All Semantics – That Doesn’t Mean We Shouldn’t Argue It

You can handle one more article on this before it blows up all over again at Skepticamp, right?

Once again that membrane which has been pierced so many times on this blog, has been broken, allowing us to once again wade hip-deep into the demarcation between skepticism and atheism.  Joy of joys.  On the bright side, I think I can safely say that this time it wasn’t my fault, but that the lance wielder du jour has been my dear Mr. Rosch.

There’s this funny thing that happens whenever we start talking about where skepticism ends and atheism begins.  Someone brings up the word “agnosticism” and all of a sudden people pounce on that person shouting that they don’t want to get embroiled in an argument of semantics.  I have unfortunate news for those people: the discussion on atheism and skepticism already IS an argument about semantics.  The confusion people have, however – and trust me, I’ve had this one wrong in the past – is that the discussion isn’t really about the definition of atheism.

The definition of atheism is one that atheists have fought for a good long time about.  That definition, that atheism is a lack of belief in god(s), has been whittled into this sort of perfect non-positive statement.  By definition, an atheist doesn’t have to prove anything and believers are, by default, on the defensive side of the argument.  Any believer foolish enough to say “well why don’t you believe in God?” has broken the rules of argument, that the one with the claim is the one with something to defend, and can be summarily told so.  Well done, atheists.

Agnosticism too has been argued into a well-polished nub of a word.  Agnosticism can be defined as the lack of definitive knowledge as to something’s existence.  Normally we use the word in relation to god(s), but if someone wants to they can state that they are agnostic about really any claim.  When we’re talking about skepticism and atheism, the word can almost be thrown out.  If we are honest we can all say that we are agnostic to the existence of god(s).  Knowledge is about evidence, and on the question of deities we have no evidence to go on.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a theist or an atheist, you can still be an agnostic because you admit that your belief is not based in evidence.

The word being discussed in this argument is not “atheism,” it’s “scientific skepticism.”  We need to have a strong definition of skepticism from which we can actually move forward, and once we have that definition, we have to evaluate it and determine whether the question of belief falls into its rubric.  I, and many others, would define scientific skepticism as a methodology built upon scientific naturalism for evaluating evidence and evidence based claims.  Scientific skepticism is about how we know what we know.  And I think the reason that I would put a huge demarcation between skepticism and atheism is that skepticism has nothing to do with what we do or do not believe.

Belief is the antithesis of knowledge.  Belief is a philosophical statement about something’s existence while evidence is absent.  Atheism is a statement on belief.  Your reasons for your lack of belief may be evidence based, but your atheism is still a statement about what you do not believe.  Because skepticism is a methodology for evaluating evidence and belief is a statement about a stance on something where evidence is not present, when we try to use skepticism on a belief we find no evidence to evaluate and the methodology is no longer relevant.

(The irony of a person of faith trying to show proof that god(s) exist is that if they could find facts showing incontrovertible proof in their deity that person would suddenly be an atheist since all of a sudden s/he would not have belief in their god, but knowledge that the deity existed.)

This does not mean that we cannot evaluate specific claims from religious people.  It does not mean that they get a pass.  Any specific claim where evidence is presented is a claim where skepticism can be brought to bear.  But it does mean that a non-evidence based claim can avoid skeptical inquiry.  You can believe there are large hominids out there that we haven’t found all you want, but state that Bigfoot’s hanging around Georgia and there’s a problem.  You can believe homeopathy is a magic elixir if you wish, but tell me it cures malaria and I want to see the evidence.  Believe that psychic power is possible?  Fine.  State that your friend Barry can transmit messages to his friend across the world, prove it.

The argument we need to have here has nothing to do with tactics.  It has nothing to do with confrontation or accommodation.  This is an argument of semantics, and it’s an important argument of semantics.  What it has to do with is how do we define ourselves and what are the ramifications of that definition.

There is a massive overlap amongst skeptics and atheists, and many skeptical atheists (or if they prefer, atheist skeptics) want to bring the word that defines their belief and the word that describes their methodology for determining knowledge together under one roof.  I would argue that by definition, since belief and knowledge are separate, a statement of belief is separate from a system of knowledge, and that therefore atheism is separate from skepticism.

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7 comments to It’s All Semantics – That Doesn’t Mean We Shouldn’t Argue It

  • “Belief is a philosophical statement about something’s existence while evidence is absent.”

    Wait, this is an enormous statement here. Do you mean *any* belief at all? Or religious belief? Because most philosophers — and people — understand belief in a different way:

    “Contemporary analytic philosophers of mind generally use the term ‘belief’ to refer to the attitude we have, roughly, whenever we take something to be the case or regard it as true.”

    Notice that says nothing about evidence. When we start discussing beliefs that lack of evidence, we are then discussing faith; that is, belief held despite the lack of evidence, or even in spite of. Faith is still belief, but to say all beliefs are statements that lack evidence would be to upturn what is commonly accepted.

    • Well like I said, this is all about semantics here. I’m not saying all of my definitions are necessarily correct and I think it’s important that we figure out right here exactly how we’re defining all of our terms, because this stuff winds up being pretty fuzzy.

      Belief is a tough word. My father and I were debating it and the difference between “belief” and “faith” and we couldn’t quite figure out how to quite quantify the difference, besides stating that when it came to “faith” the conviction was never arguable and in terms of “belief” it could be argued, perhaps not from empirical purposes but certainly from a logical one.

      The other problem is that belief is a word that’s used… fuzzily. You say that belief is the precursor of knowledge, would you argue that belief in God is the precursor to knowledge of God? Part of what’s fuzzy about it is that we skeptics have been pushing away from the word belief, denoting a possible change in our usage of the term. I don’t know many skeptics who would be comfortable saying “I believe that evolution is the cause of life’s diversity,” and maybe that’s just because then Creationists spring up and say “It’s a belief! Well, I believe that Jesus pulled the Giraffe’s neck until it was long!” and we find that to be annoying. Perhaps we need to be specific about what sort of belief we’re talking about here. Also, what differentiates belief in something impossible from belief in something real? And what differentiates belief and faith? Would saying that atheists don’t believe in God be the same as atheists don’t have faith in God? Would saying that a theist believes in God be the same as having faith in one?

      I’m glad we’re having this discussion. I think if we can try to stay logical here and discuss the semantics of belief, atheism, skepticism, and agnosticism, perhaps we can actually push this conversation forward as opposed to just circling around shouting at each other – which is something that I could certainly be accused of doing. Sorry, Scott.

  • Also:

    “Belief is the antithesis of knowledge.”

    In my eyes, belief is a precursor to knowledge. One could argue belief is necessary even when we have knowledge.

  • Paul W.

    Michael’s right.

    Knowledge is commonly defined as justified true belief. (And that’s at least close to right.)

    If belief and knowledge are mutually exclusive, knowledge doesn’t exist.

    That can’t be right.

    If you’re going to argue semantics, i.e., meanings of words and statements, you ought to at least know the meanings of the words.

    “Belief” is a perfectly good word, used in its basic, central sense. If you know someone is lying, and say “I don’t believe you,” that makes perfect sense and has nothing to do with the perverted sense of “belief” popular in religious discourse.

    We can’t let the religious redefine perfectly good and important words like “belief” and “truth” and “knowledge”; we have to tell them that they’re using the words wrongly, or we end up with no good words to express our own ideas—and beliefs—with.

    “Belief” is often used as a code word for clearly unjustified belief that is somehow justified anyhow, and even counts as “knowledge.”

    That’s doublespeak, and it’s nonsense. That’s the point.

    Atheism, done rationally and skeptically, is not belief of that sort. It’s justified belief, and if it’s correct, it’s knowledge. (Maybe not definite, certain knowledge that there is no God, but at least knowledge that there’s not likely a god.)

    In these sorts of discussions you always need to be very clear on the central meanings of somewhat ambiguous words like “belief” and “knowledge” and “certainty.”

    Beliefs may be justified or unjustified.

    Whether or not a belief is justified, it may be either true or false.

    Justified true belief—knowledge—need not be certain, and in general it isn’t. Most knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is provisional and defeasible—there’s an outside chance you could somehow be wrong, despite having good reason to be pretty sure.

    If you’re paying close attention, you might notice that I just said something contradictory—that knowledge could turn out to be wrong. If knowledge is justified true belief, that’s not right.

    Unfortunately, there’s an ambiguity in the term “knowledge.” We often call things we’re pretty sure of “knowledge” on the assumption that they’re actually true. When we talk about “scientific knowledge,” for example, we’re assuming that well-justified scientific beliefs are generally actually true. Given that they’re generally provisional, we can’t actually know that they’re really knowledge. When we talk about things like “scientific knowledge” that’s using “knowledge” as a shorthand for “justified beliefs that we assume in this context are actually true, hence actually knowledge.”

    That’s annoying, but it’s the kind of ambiguity you get in natural language. People who are familiar with this kind of discussion generally assume that that’s what’s meant, in context.

    As for belief vs. knowledge, though, you really need to make it clear that you understand that knowledge is necessarily belief of a sort, or the discussion is off the rails from the get-go.

  • ponderingturtle

    Some of this is also about what is skepticism, is it a ideology with doctrine that would roughly equate it with strict naturalism. Or is it a methodology namely the scientific method. This is an important distinction when it comes to non testable claims.

    If it is the ideology then it is sensible to attack things that violate that ideology, if it is a methodology then you have to accept that there are issues it can not address. A clear example of that would be Young Earth Creationism, if the belief system is one that claims that the evidence supports YEC then this is a testable claim and can be addressed by either. Now if the belief system is that some supernatural agency hid all the evidence so that the only evidence found will be of an old earth then only ideological skepticism can address that claim as methodological skepticism realizes that the claim itself means that there will be no evidence for it.

    Everyone thinks religions should be challenged when they make testable claims like with faith healers, that is entirely with in the realm of skepticism how ever you define it. It is how to deal with people who broadly agree with us in principle but have some non naturalistic beliefs that is the issue.

  • Paul W.


    Some of this is also about what is skepticism, is it a ideology with doctrine that would roughly equate it with strict naturalism. Or is it a methodology namely the scientific method. This is an important distinction when it comes to non testable claims.

    I think a lot of the ambiguity here is inevitable; that’s just how natural language works.

    Consider the term “science.” Is “science” just a method, or a body of knowledge?

    It’s both. The term can mean either or both according to context, and I don’t think that can ever change, because of the crucial relationship between scientific practice and the accumulation of scientific knowledge. Science isn’t “just a method,” because it’s unscientific to reject established scientific knowledge without very good reason. It’s a method with a necessary connection to a particular body of knowledge. (That wasn’t true before there was much scientific knowledge, but it’s true now, and has been for a long time.)

    Science is not necessarily connected to strict naturalism. Naturalism is provisional and defeasible. If we actually had good evidence for the supernatural, it would be unscientific to reject it.

    (Think of Mulder and Scully in The X Files. In the bizarro universe of The X Files, Mulder is the rationalist—Scully stupidly rejects actual evidence. She’s not a rationalist, she’s a rationalizer, like the stereotype of “closed-minded” scientists.)

    Similarly, “skepticism” (in the sense of scientific rationalist skepticism) is ambiguous between an approach and an established set of particular non-beliefs. (E.g., in alien abductions or Bigfoot or homeopathy.)

    It’s more ambiguous than that, because the root meaning of skeptic is very broad—it just means non-acceptance of belief. You can be a scientific rationalist skeptic, or an irrational skeptic. (Like anti-vaxers who reject established science for poor reasons, or like Scully on The X Files, who rejects paranormal phenomena that she repeatedly observes herself.)

    A lot of the recent wrangling over whether “atheism is skepticism” has been muddled by this sort of ambiguity.

    Obviously, atheism is literally skepticism in the plain root sense of the word. It is exactly the non-acceptance of a belief (in god(s)). It says so right there on the label.

    IMO, atheism is also skepticism in a much stronger sense. Done right, it is the rational rejection of unwarranted beliefs.

    Some have quibbled that atheism isn’t necessarily a form of rationalism—some atheists aren’t rationalist, or are ignorant and reject god beliefs for the wrong reasons. (Maybe there really are atheists who are rebelling against their parents, who they think are generally full of shit.) There’s no “necessary” connection between atheism and rational skepticism.

    I think that’s mostly a silly quibble, because the same people don’t normally apply that strict criterion to their own use of the word “skeptic.”

    By that very strict standard, skepticism isn’t skepticism. Not all skeptics in the broad, root sense are rational scientific skeptics. Worse, not all skeptics in the skeptic movement are actually rational, scientific skeptics. Some jump on the bandwagon without a whole lot of thought and likely for mostly emotional reasons, and some are skeptical of some things out of ignorant knee-jerk responses. They’re tribe members, and not much more.

    (Consider the global warming debate. No matter which side of that issue you’re on, it’s clear that there’s a nontrivial number of skeptics who are either ignorant or irrational about it. Ergo, some skeptics aren’t skeptics, so saying “skepticism is skepticism” is false.)

    I think it’s pretty clear that most of the people saying that atheism is skepticism” are right, in the senses that they clearly mean it. They mean that the atheism in the sense of of the atheist movement is literally a kind of skepticism in the sense of the skeptic movement. Some individuals may not do it right, but the kind of atheism that they’re promoting is a kind of skepticism in the same sense that the skeptic movement promotes skepticism.

    Sure, some people may do it wrong and be atheists for non-skeptical reasons, but that’s true of skepticism quite generally, not just skepticism of god belief.

    Another common quibble about “atheism is skepticism” says that “skepticism” is an approach or method or attitude, not a particular set of disbeliefs or nonbeliefs. Therefore atheism, being a particular nonbelief “isn’t skepticism.”

    That’s rather like equating “science” with the scientific method in a vacuum, without taking into account the importance of established scientific knowledge to that method. By that standard, if you use the scientific method to come to a belief, it’s a “scientific” belief, even if it goes against established scientific knowledge that you happen to be ignorant of. That can’t be right. At best, it’s misleading.

    Similarly, a “skeptic” who applies the “skeptical method” may be a skeptic in that knowledge-free sense, and only that sense. Christians can be skeptics, if they don’t understand the weakness of the evidence for God and Jesus, but then, if we push the argument far enough, we can even say that young earth creationists can be skeptics, too, provided that they’re ignorant enough.

    That can’t be right, either. Clearly, that is not what anybody involved in the discussion usually means by “skeptic.” They usually don’t count people as “skeptical” who are so woefully ignorant that they (forgivably) believe a lot of important things that run counter to established scientific knowledge.

    Except, of course, when it comes to religion, and specifically “moderate” mainstream religion. Funny, that.

    I think it’s also interesting to note that when people say that “skepticism” is an approach or method, not nonbeliefs, they’re going against the central, literal meaning of the word.

    In its core literal sense, skepticism is exactly nonbelief, and not a method.

    The people who say “atheism isn’t skepticism” say that atheists who disagree are “conflating” or “equating” a method with a claim.

    But that’s exactly what they themselves are doing with the word “skeptic”—they are conflating its core, literal sense of nonbelief with a derivative sense, about particular connotations they want the word to have, i.e., doing it right.

    The people who say “atheism is skepticism” are just acknowledging that skepticism—even with the desirable connotation of informed rationalism—is centrally about nonbelief. In the sense we mean it, it’s specifically about nonbelief for the right reasons, but it’s centrally about nonbelief nonetheless.

    Atheism is skepticism, in both the central root sense and in the usual connotative sense. It’s a nonbelief, and it’s prototypically a nonbelief for the right reasons. Surely there are exceptions—irrational and ignorant atheists—but that’s also true of movement skepticism in general.

  • ponderingturtle

    Well it depends on how you define atheism as well. Agnosticism is skepticism is something that few would have an issue with, because that deals with ambiguity. Atheism is the assertion of non existence with out evidence, and given the broad variety of ways god is defined in it not simple like refuting cryptozoology because of a lack of evidence. With cryptozoology we have fairly good ideas what evidence we would see if an animal similar to the ones believed actually existed, with god there are plenty of definitions that preclude evidence. You trying to redefine Atheism away from being a definitive statement into an ambiguous one.

    See how can you say that science refutes a claim that is not based on evidence? Science can not address Last Tuesdayism(the belief that the world was created last Tuesday but with everything and everyone believing it is older). The only arguments against this are philosophical ones, not ones based on evidence. So skepticism if it can address that becomes a dogmatic philosophy.

    As you seem to be all about redefining terms as you see fit, well if you are using non standard definitions it is imperative on you to first explain your definitions of words before you use them.

    I am an atheist sure, but for philosophical not skeptical reasons. I am an agnostic for skeptical reasons. It is only people who claim to be theists because of evidence that skepticism can address it.

    As for unwarranted beliefs, there are all kinds of popular beliefs that are not believed because of evidence. This is just dogmatism in that you get to define what beliefs are unwarranted or not.

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