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.