Why Skeptics Don’t Have to be Atheists

Skepticamp2009-DeDora

Michael De Dora speaks about atheism and skepticism at Skepticamp NYC 2009.

[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 Dover case 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, 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 Delusion or 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.

Conclusions

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.

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43 comments to Why Skeptics Don’t Have to be Atheists

  • Fouridine

    I didn’t quite agree with Michael De Dora’s talk either. What you wrote exactly verbalised my thoughts. Thanks. I think what he meant by atheism is more like Dawkin’s definition in the God Delusion. One is considered an atheist if one is like 90% sure that there is no God. I do feel that atheism is a stance with which the only way of advocating it is through skeptical thinking (the method). I don’t know about the rest of you but I don’t really care about advocating atheism, that is something that one comes to a conclusion on one’s own. A bit like a personal philosophy. Rather, I do hope more people develop critical and skeptical thinking. I suspect this is also Richard Dawkin’s more recent stance. Although he proudly calls himself an atheist, he does not encourage people to become atheists just as we shouldn’t label children by any sort of ideology. People should come to their own conclusions through rational, critical thinking. Nobody likes to be told they are wrong about their beliefs, they have to come to their own conclusions.

  • Andrew

    Sorry to be blunt, but you’re wrong.

    I think our main point of disagreement is with the definitions. Atheism is simply a lack of believe in god(s) or goddess(es). Agnosticism is a lack of knowledge about god(s) or goddess(es). They deal with two different things: belief and knowledge.

    If someone asks you whether you believe in a god or not, and you answer that you’re an agnostic, you haven’t answered the question. You’ve deflected to a different question: do you have any knowledge about a god.

    I try to think of the two along a Cartesian grid. Theism to atheism lays on the y-axis and gnosticism to agnosticism is along the x-axis. This creates four broad categories for dealing with god questions. Answers can range from Agnostic Atheist to Gnostic Theist to Gnostic Atheist to Gnostic Theist.

    Of course it all depend on which god is being talked about. I would consider myself to be an gnostic atheist when it comes to Zeus, but an agnostic atheist when it comes to a generic deistic god.

    Which leads me to ask: based on what you say above, are you really agnostic about Zeus? Really? How about fairies? While I agree we lack any evidence that they don’t exist, we also lack evidence that they do. At this point we need to look at prior probability to determine whether a belief in something is reasonable or not. From everything we understand about the way the universe works, fairies and unicorns and big foot and homeopathy, don’t exist.

    Finally, I think that atheism (and agnosticism) both fall under the broad umbrella of skepticism. Skeptics are critical thinkers. And a true skeptic has no sacred cows; they question everything, even the existence of god. Removing that one question from discussion shows preferential bias. It’s like some people got together and said, “let’s for a skeptic’s club. It’ll be great. Just as long as we don’t talk about ghosts. Those things are real.” Ridiculous. Everything should be questioned and nothing should be accepted without reasonable evidence.

    • I agree that everything should be questioned, but unfortunately, science doesn’t disprove.

      You ask if I am agnostic about Zeus. Yes. Fairies. Yes. Any specific claim that can be made about them can be disproved, and as with the god question, I move through my life as though they don’t exist, because I have never been given evidence that they do. However, from a scientific perspective, I have to be able to accept evidence if it is presented to me. This does not mean that I wouldn’t be scrupulous about examining that evidence, it doesn’t mean I’d accept whatever crap was handed to me, but it does mean that if I could validate the evidence, I would have to change my view. Granted, I sincerely doubt this evidence will ever emerge, but from a scientific perspective, I cannot say that that evidence does not exist.

      When I label myself as agnostic, it’s because I view the supernatural as inherently unknowable. I’m not saying that I don’t know, I’m saying that I can’t know. I would put forth that “knowledge” about a supernatural event could only be knowledge as defined through philosophy. I have no problem with the field of philosophy, but it is a different sort of knowledge than what we ask for in science, which requires tangible facts in the real world.

      Unfortunately, the language isn’t really precise enough for me to say this clearly, but I’ll give it a shot anyway. I don’t care about belief. It doesn’t make up any part of my day. Nor does disbelief. What I care about is what I can know, and what I can’t, it all sort of goes into the big folder of things I can’t know about, and probably never will. You may define that as atheist, but I don’t. For me at least, the term “agnostic” is the one that fits.

      • Andrew

        I agree that the best way to take on god claims is one characteristic at a time. However, if enough of these claims are addressed, it becomes possible to rule out the existence of certain gods.

        Take Zeus for example. What are some characteristics he has? His most famous one is that he throws thunderbolts. But we know how lightning and thunder works, and it doesn’t involve a guy living in the clouds.

        How about Poseidon? He causes earthquakes. But again we know that earthquakes are caused by tectonic plates slipping. Poseidon also is in charge of the weather at sea. But again we know about meteorology and oceanography, and they don’t involve a sea god.

        So, while some gods may exist which we want to call Zeus or Poseidon, if we’ve eliminated all the characteristics of Zeus or Poseidon, is it still Zeus or Poseidon? Or is it just some other god with different characteristics?

        Also, my position that Zeus, Poseidon or any other god(s) or goddess(es) doesn’t exist isn’t final. I too would be swayed by new evidence. Taking a position on an issue doesn’t mean that that position is final. (Whether or not I would worship such a being is another matter.)

        Finally, I appreciate what you mean when you say you don’t run your life based on beliefs or disbeliefs, but on knowledge. For the most part I agree, but there are issues where this system doesn’t apply. When we come to things like value judgments or morals and ethics, we can’t determine what is right or wrong objectively. Here we need to turn to our beliefs. While you may not live your life based around belief, a lot of other people do. People who would teach creationism in our schools, abstinence only health education, America is a Christian nation history, and many other false notions. Beliefs inform our actions. Science and reason can guide those actions, but they cannot tell us which to choose.

  • I’d have to basically agree with Andrew. The only reason that religion/God seems to get preferential treatment is because there are simply so many of them in the world and so you have a good chance of offending a theist if you say that what they believe is not true. Skeptics are fine doing this for ghosts and homeopathy, but religion is still a “sacred cow”.

    I would suspect most atheists would happily “convert” if they were given conclusive proof that God exists. So there is no reason to make an arbitrary separation because of fear of offending people (in the skeptical realm… obviously dealing personally with friends and family is another matter entirely from a practical standpoint). As Andrew pointed out, we have absolutely no evidence of fairies or even Zeus, but everyone is happy to call that nonsense.

    The distinction between “I don’t believe a god exists” and “I know god doesn’t exist” obviously matters if you are a philosopher, but for lay folks like myself… there is no difference. Both collapse to “I have no/not enough evidence to give me a reason to suppose that god exists.”

  • One of the reasons I tend to avoid this issue is exemplified in these comments. The difficulty in defining the terminology to address this is a persistent and pervasive problem. Any given atheist can define what the word means to them until they are blue in the face, but there is the unavoidable obstacle that others may, and probably will, define it differently based on their own perception of what it means to live without a belief in god.

    So instead, why not define atheism by what an atheist does? Therefore, we are not talking about a definition of atheism per se, but a definition of the current atheist movement. Michael De Dora, I think, advocates for promoting the atheist movement, and decreasing the prejudice against those that align with that movement. Stated as such, these are two POSITIVE goals that the atheist movement can promote, as TQM requests. BUT! Are these two goals in line with the goals of the skeptical movement?

    Stated more specifically… along with promoting critical thinking and skeptical inquiry (the main goals of the skeptical movement), should we specifically include the goals of promoting atheism?

    I’ll withhold my personal answer to this for awhile.

    • Andrew

      I think there is a problem in trying to define an atheist by what an atheist does. That problem being, we can only take actions based on what we do believe, not what we disbelieve.

      I would argue that no one has ever taken any action based solely on default (disbelief in any gods) atheism (Strong atheism (belief that no gods exist) is another matter). I disbelieve a lot of things, like invisible dragons, or Mi-go or many others. But I don’t go around thinking, “I’m going to do X because I don’t believe. I’m going to do X because I do believe something.” That something may be improving life on this planet or filling my belly with food, but everything I do is based on something I do believe, not something I don’t.

      Again, tying this back to what atheists do: atheists form communities and other things not because they lack a belief in a god, but because they believe that fellowship and communities are a worthwhile thing to have. They help glue society together and promote general prosperity. They may fight against faith-based measures being made into law, again not because they lack belief in a god, but because they do believe that our laws and society should be run by sound reasoning, logic and evidence. Their atheism may influence these actions, but none of them are taken solely on their lack of belief.

  • Personally I would see no reason to promote atheism explicitly as part of the skeptical movement. Rather the skeptical movement, in it’s promotion of critical thinking, should continue to demonstrate the lack of evidence for any god. Any evidence that might be presented as part of religion in general or perhaps a specific sub-idea (such as Creationism/ID) should be investigated just like any other claim.

    I think the _net_ effect might be the promotion of atheism in that the default view — based on prior probability… though this would probably be a contentious point given that in fact many/most do believe– is that there is no god. Effectively, religion should have no higher or lower place than any other view.

  • You are right, Michael is wrong, if for no other reason (and there are plenty more) than, as you state: “I don’t believe atheism is our fight.” It isn’t, but people outside our movement have a hard time seeing that.
    I do think you’re an atheist though, not an agnostic.

  • Jennifer Murphy

    I am fairly new to the skeptical community, SkeptiCamp was actually the first event I have been able to attend. I was drawn to the skepticism because of it’s simple and daunting goal of promoting of critical thinking and scientific inquiry. I would think the only requirement for a skeptic would be the desire to learn, apply and promote those tools. Skepticism can be applied to any subject and I agree with Josh, “religion should have not higher or lower place than any other view”.

  • Jamie F

    There are some who like to keep to common ground with skepticism. Anyone should be able to increase their skepticism and critical thinking skills despite their religious/philosophical or political labels.

    Eugenie Scott, for instance, keeps a strict line between religion and science so that the very real issues of education and public policy are focused on what every child should be learning about science.

    The agnostic/atheist debate will be with us as long as religions continue to attack critical thinking.

    Some people like to keep their skepticism and politics separate as well. But as long as lobby groups promote their own profits over good science and critical thinking, we will have that debate.

    If I could,I would post a Venn diagram for this!

    • Skepticism and religion should definitely be separated. The issue becomes when an idea that can be disproved by the science/evidence is made. There is absolutely no way to disprove the existence of a god. We can, however, demonstrate robustly that the Earth is well over 6000 years old. We can demonstrate that evolution via natural selection. Prayer has been shown to have no efficacy within the realm of medicine. These are claims that do not stand up to the evidence.

      But having religious views that are more philosophical in nature (e.g. “I believe in evolution, but I think that God endowed humans with a sense of morality) can’t be, as far as I know, disproved. They can be shown to be unlikely — many animal exhibit altruistic and otherwise “moral” behavior — but not actually disproved.

      That’s where I would agree that there is a line between two two… so far as religion is not making falsifiable claims.

  • Atheism is the lack of belief in any gods. Agnosticism is about our knowledge about their existence. Hence, all atheists are really agnostics since it would be terribly ignorant and arrogant to claim an absolute knowledge about something that cannot be proven.

    Richard Dawkins talk about this quite a bit in the God Delusion. Remember his scale of belief, from 1 which is absolute knowledge that God exists, to 7 which is absolute knowledge that there is no God? He puts himself as a 6 or 6.5, and I think anything more than that would be missing the point of skepticism and join the ranks of fundamentalists and looneys everywhere.

  • I’m with Andrew as well. While it’s easy to say that you’re “agnostic about Zeus,” let’s face it. You don’t really go through life seriously concerned about the possibility of Zeus’ existence because its likelihood is so small as to not warrant serious consideration.

    The only reason special pleading is done for Yahweh and Allah is because large populations today happen to believe in them and otherwise rational people wish to avoid alienating them by being honest. It’s nothing more than a tactic. It’s about trying to get converts who will just say they accept science even if they refuse to recognize its implications.

    Atheism is the neutral position. Since there’s insufficient evidence for a god, you either believe in a god on insufficient evidence or you don’t. There’s no well maybe, kinda, sorta. This is not a false dichotomy. It’s like a light switch. It’s either on or its off. And even if you get the switch to stick somewhere in the middle, the light is still only capable of being either on or off. And if the light’s not on, then it’s off. If you don’t believe in god, then you’re an atheist whether you choose to call it that or not.

    I will happily admit that I personally do have a positive belief that no gods exist, however, that’s not a scientific position and it’s not a position I argue. The position I argue from is that there’s no evidence for any god’s existence. And that position requires no belief in any meaningful sense one way or the other and is entirely agnostic. The position that the evidence is insufficient to prove a god is an objective statement of knowledge. You can call that a belief if you’d like, just like you can call 2+2=4 a belief technically. I just don’t think it’s in any way meaningful to do so and find that it does little more than confuse people for the sake of reducing an issue of logic down to a semantic argument.

    Divine revelation just isn’t an adequate basis for knowledge. Science-based beliefs may be technically “beliefs” but they’re of such higher validity that I’d just sooner call it knowledge while calling anything asserted with insufficient evidence, speculation and conjecture. Now I don’t object to all psychological delusions. If someone wants to believe that the rabbit’s foot in their pocket gives them good luck, they’re welcome to it. As far as delusional thinking goes, it’s pretty benign. The same, however, can’t be said of religion, which is directly responsible for dogma, authoratarianism, holding back scientific progress, anti-condom hysteria, tribalism, apartheid, and global human oppression.

    But what has been dubbed the accommodationist position (perhaps unfairly) seems to condescendingly say that while you and I might be able to understand the full atheistic ramifications of science, some people aren’t as smart as us, so we need to feed them science-lite first to ween them off religion slowly to a less honest middle ground. Then once they reach science OT Level III, we can tell them the full truth about Xenu–err, I mean we can eventually get them to embrace full science a lot easier once we’ve gotten them to this bogus middle ground position we originally told them was correct.

    It’s just a strategy, a deceptive tactic for manipulating people in order to convert them to our way of thinking. But that’s not what scientific-minded people should do; that’s what the cranks do. We’re better than that. We should be teaching people critical thinking, honestly challenging and ridiculing unsupportable ideas, and have enough confidence in our scientific conclusions to expect critical thinkers to embrace the full implications of evolution, for instance, on their own. Even if we assumed that the more accommodationist tactic was more effective at getting more evolution converts than just being honest with people by admitting the atheistic implications of the science, I’d still prefer honesty to what Chris Mooney once, very tellingly, said was, “giving them some more moderate stopping off points along the way.”

    My final point is that this is no different than any other issue skeptics face. Take homeopathy. Skeptics have no objection to saying homeopathy doesn’t work. But like every other pseudoscience, no matter what the evidence shows, homeopaths will always move to an unfalsifiable claim to hold onto their belief. Does the skeptical community make a special point to distinguish themselves as homeopathy agnostics instead of disbelievers in homeopathy? No, they don’t. Because that would be absurd.

    • Scott Stafiej

      “It’s just a strategy, a deceptive tactic for manipulating people in order to convert them to our way of thinking. But that’s not what scientific-minded people should do; that’s what the cranks do. We’re better than that.”

      AMEN BROTHER!

  • Just wanted to add that this is a GREAT discussion to be having and I’m very pleased people are speaking out on it. :) Have blogged today a link to this article and some other news regarding the skepticism / atheism equivalent attitude and what is being shown in the media.

  • Scott Stafiej

    This article seems like a misrepresentation of what Michael D. said.

    He defined his terms:

    Skepticism = withholding belief in any claims until sufficient evidence has been provided

    Atheism = lacking belief in Gods or withholding belief in any gods until evidence has been provided

    He then simply explained that if one is not a “compartmentalized Skeptic” s/he would apply his/her skepticism (read: withholding of belief) to everything including claims of god. Thus, skepticism includes atheism.

    Quixotic Man, you disagree with his definition of atheism, but you are wrong to do so. Atheism is defined philosophically as the lack of belief in a god. If an agnostic claims no knowledge of God and thus does not place belief (read: a significant level of credence) in God, then he, by definition, is also an atheist. What you are right to disagree with – and what any thinking human being should disagree with – is the “strong atheist” claim that one can “know” that there is not a god. One cannot “know”; one may only grand credence to claims in direct proportion to the evidence for those claims. Michael did not make a strong atheist claim.

    If you disagree with Michael’s definition of skepticism, please offer an alternative one. If you do not, please explain how his logic is wrong. If a “skeptic” withholds belief until evidence is in, then shouldn’t that be applied to everything including the more narrow theistic subject?

    What I find slightly disappointing is the mis-characterization of what Michael said. Michael was asked, “So is there a list of “skeptic things” that everyone who claims to be a skeptic has to agree with?” His response. “No”. Simple as that. When Michael and I discussed this later, he further elaborated. His words to me (paraphrased):

    “Imagine if there is a list of Skeptic things: skeptical about homeopathy, skeptical about telepathy, skeptical about UFO stories, etc. Now imagine that one person believes in homeopathy but doesn’t believe in any of the other woo. Does this make them not a skeptic? No, not necessarily, but it does make them not skeptical about something making significant claims that doesn’t provide evidence for those claims. Now if that person were to also believe in UFOs and telepathy, they would be quickly sliding down the ‘skeptic spectrum’, so much so that one would most likely be justified in removing the skeptic label.”

    So does belief in God mean that we should “kick someone out of the movement” (whatever that means)? No. What it does mean is that said person is not being skeptical (read: placing belief without evidence) in his claims.

    ————————————————————————–

    Page, while I don’t agree with your premise that one should “define atheism as what an atheist does”, the question that you – and that Julia Galef – are posing seem like the correct one for this discussion.

    “Along with promoting critical thinking and skeptical inquiry (the main goals of the skeptical movement), should we specifically include the goals of promoting atheism?”

    I believe – and this is only my humble opinion – that in order for the skeptical movement to be honest it must include atheism without necessarily promoting it. What I mean by this is that the skeptic movement does not necessarily need to throw all its resources into disproving the claims of the religious. As skeptics, we are known for going after woo and conspiracies. However, to attempt to ignore or sidestep religious claims – in blogs, conversation or otherwise – seems to me disingenuous. If critical reasoning should be applied to everything then it should really be applied to everything.

    This does not mean being exclusive. It means welcoming people in to the movement/community liberally while not avoiding pointing out their bad ideas…in whichever topics they hold them.

    Thanks for catalyzing this discussion.

    • Hey Scott. Just to reply to one of your points quickly, I would disagree with Michael’s definition of skepticism. Though I would agree that the definition you have above, “withholding belief in any claims until sufficient evidence has been provided,” is a thing that skeptics do, but I don’t think it’s a good definition for what skepticism is. Skepticism is a methodology used to view the world by embracing the precepts of methodological naturalism and scientific standards of evidence. Though there are many things that all skeptics would agree upon, by its nature, skepticism is not a series of beliefs.

      I would also point out that the definition of skepticism you provide, “withholding belief in any claims until sufficient evidence has been provided,” would in fact allow for theists, depending on what the standard of evidence they required for a god’s existence were. Granted, they might not be standards of evidence that you and I agree with, but that’s an individual decision.

      Just to repeat what I mentioned to you at Skepticamp, I really enjoyed your lecture. For those people that didn’t see it, Scott gave a lecture on building communities without communal faith.

      • I agree that skepticism can allow for theists and I believe Michael De Dora said as much himself. But I also heard that discussion afterwards that Scott paraphrased above, and I think the the sliding down the ’skeptic spectrum’ idea makes sense, Ken Miller being a great example. While I don’t think Miller has good reason to hold whatever his religious views are (though he calls himself a Catholic, I’ve never heard him elaborate on the specifics), he obviously seems to fit in with a skeptic crowd in general. But then take someone like Francis Collins who seems to believe in a literal Genesis. Clearly, Miller does not and there’s a huge difference between how much each is willing to accept on insufficient evidence. Skeptics can have a few sacred cows but at a certain point, you have to just say someone isn’t a very skeptical thinker. I’d still call Miller a skeptic. But while Collins is clearly a brilliant scientist and may be skeptical of many things that skeptics care about, believing in a literal Genesis seems to be a rather significant black mark in one’s record as a critical thinker.

        • I see where you’re going, I think we, as skeptics could probably distinguish them though by asking which one is publicly espousing views which contradict the physical evidence. I mean, as soon as you get into the whole literal genesis thing, you’ve put your deity in the driving seat of the natural world, and at that point, you’ve pretty well left the skeptic’s table.

      • Scott Stafiej

        TQM, you make a very good point; my definition was lacking. Your definition is much closer to what skepticism really is:

        “a methodology used to view the world by embracing the precepts of methodological naturalism and scientific standards of evidence”

        I would also agree that “skepticism is not a series of beliefs.” It is, as you stated, a process through which one filters beliefs according to the standards of naturalism and scientific evidence.

        But, even under this improved definition, isn’t atheism still the outcome? I would perhaps concede that a pantheistic view of the natural world may be encompassed by skepticism, but even here it seems doubtful. If one runs his/her beliefs through the filter of skepticism (a filter based upon naturalism and scientific standards of evidence), from where does the logical or empirical basis for even a pantheistic worldview come?

        I am certainly not a true philosopher, so I am sure there can be coherent statements made about a pantheistic view of nature that I do not have the skills to refute. However, I have not yet seen or heard coherent arguments in these regards.

        Thank you again for this discussion and for your kind words about my talk. I’m glad that we are building a community where this type of discussion can take place openly and in such a positive manner. I look forward to seeing you at future events!

        • Honestly, here’s what I think it comes down to. I’d say that skepticism is about how we look at the evidence presented to us. When it comes to something like homeopathy, we don’t just have a lack of evidence for it working, we have a great deal of evidence for it not working. When religions make claims of their deity having an effect on the natural world, that’s a hypothesis that we can step in and disprove. Healing by prayer, I think we should go after it because they’re claiming a real effect and kids die because of it. The earth is six thousand years old? Bullshit. Evolution? We should be doing as much as is humanly possible to teach people that it’s… you know… real science. But if someone comes up to me, says “I believe in God. I don’t think God has any sort of effect on the world, but… you know, I feel a presence from God, God makes me feel connected to the world around me and I gain comfort from that connection.” I say go to. I have no evidence to dispute this person’s claim, and this person can still be looking at all evidence in a scientific manner. Is it a skeptical claim? No. But skepticism is a way of looking at the natural world, and that’s a world that deity would not exist within.

          When I say skepticism and science are agnostic, I’m not saying that they haven’t made a decision about the existence of deities. I’m saying there are no ways to test these claims scientifically. Dowsers, acupuncturists, faith healers, spoon benders – all these people are making claims that we can falsify, but I think a deist or theist can come up with an unfalsifiable deity by simply removing that deity from the natural world. I know there are a lot of people here that don’t agree with me on this, but I just don’t think a completely supernatural claim with no tie to the world we can experience with any of our senses is a scientific claim. It’s a philosophical one, and though I’m sure that it’s a great conversation to have amongst self-professed skeptics, it’s not a question for our field.

  • Doron

    UFO being unidentified flying objects, do exist. the definition of a UFO is a skeptic position on a witnessed event, it does not imply that said object is a spaceship of a remote intelligence design, simply unidentified. This is a good time to recall that popular explanation of a word often do not bare to its actual designed meaning.

    The Drake equation posits a possibility of extra terrestrial intelligence, we have never seen one, or communicated with one, neither do we see faeries, but there is a wide scientific body that actively searches for them based on a probability we might find them, (little green men, not faeries) and i wager most astronomers would not deny the possibility of ET. I suppose on a cultural level we narrowed the statical probability of faeries dramatically, i am not sure we have narrowed that probability of a god to the same extent, though pretty close. the definition of god are also of prime importance, and the personified god is just one of them.

    There is also possibility of a person growing up in atheistic environment never questioning his disbelief of a god, or pondering the possibility of his existence, thus never employing skeptic tools to examine his indoctrination. i.e an Atheist may or may not employ skepticism.

    “I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste.” Marcel Duchamp.

  • Fouridine

    Wow, so much discussion. So, Micheal De Dora’s Venn Diagram is atheism is within skepticism while Quixotic Man’s venn diagram is atheism merely overlaps with skepticism? I was just reading an article in the latest Skeptical Inquirer (from the skeptic camp :P no I don’t subscribe to it), Heidi Anderson mentions in her article “Skeptical Parenting: Raising Young Critical Thinkers” that she was a practicing atheist before she encountered or practiced critical thinking. This raised a question in my mind. Is it possible to be an atheist without being skeptical and critical? Suppose one was raised with the idea that there is no god, and the individual accepted it without ever questioning it, he or she would be an atheist without being a skeptic. Are there such atheists? If so, Quixotic Man’s venn diagram would hold true.

  • Hmm. I find myself disagreeing with both Michael and TQM, and agreeing.

    First, I agree with TQM that atheists and skeptics strongly overlap. I also believe that agnostics overlap with both. As a previous commentor said, they are orthogonal to each other. An atheist claims to have no belief in any gods. An agnostic claims that gods are unknowable. An agnostic atheist has no belief in any god, but acknowledges the chance there might be one, however defined, somewhere we haven’t or can’t discover. An agnostic theist would be someone who believes there is a god, but that he works in mysterious ways and you must come to the belief through faith, not reason. Gnostic theists would be those who think they can demonstrate the existence of a god, and gnostic atheists claim to demonstrate the non-existence of a god.

    Personally, I think that the non-existence of most gods can be demonstrated using the supposed characteristics of said gods. The rest can’t only because they really lack any real definition. This is really the crux of the matter. Gods are pretty much undefined. Try to pin a theist down on what, exactly, they are claiming to exist and they inevitably start defining it by other vague terms such as spirit, ghost, or “energy”. The best they can come up with is defining a god by its actions, which of course can be refuted by evidence.

    The best evidecnce against there being a god is the religion’s own claims. If you look into the history of each religion, you find that they are man-made. Their texts reflect the knowledge and culture of the people that wrote them, not any divinde knowledge. In fact, if you compare the god stories with any other myth, superstition, or urban legend, you find similar basis and structure. And, of course, there is much evidence that people tend to make up and strongly believe in such stories. This is positive evidence that gods, as defined by those religions, are made up. This, I believe, is why Michael is claiming that all atheists must be skeptics.

    Michael is wrong, of course, because you can also come to the atheist conclusion by following other myths. Any belief can be had through good or bad reasoning. The Raelians is a common example of a group of atheists who didn’t come by their atheism rationally. I would not consider them atheist skeptics.

    TQM is also wrong, though, because you can show postivie evidence that religions, and the gods in those religions, are made up stories. The reason I know Peter Pan doesn’t exist is because I know it is a story made up by J. M. Barrie. I’m not agnostic about the existence of Peter Pan. I have evidence that Peter Pan actually doesn’t exist. It is not absolute evidence, but then again, science never has absolute evidence. Science doesn’t do proofs.

  • Doron

    Maimonides, one of the great Jewish theologians posited back in around 1180 a position that is different than what is usually posited by many people of faith. he claimed that all descriptive language about God is either false or inadequate and possibly close to idolatry (idolatry being mistaking the symbol for the thing it represents) because of the radical otherness of God from the human world. One cannot subsume God under any genus or species, and therefore one cannot apply to God categories used to describe human reality (RE:science). The familiar anthropomorphic religious position is therefore for people who cannot think about the divine reality in noncorporeal terms.

    all attempts at descriptions of God violate the uniqueness and unity of God,It is not that human descriptions of God are false; rather, they are religiously inappropriate. This position affords for the dismissal of arguments about the factual accuracy of the Bible. The biblical descriptions of the creation of the world and other such interventions are interpreted within the conceptual frameworks of the LEGAL tradition rather than as FACTUAL historical accounts. The sanctity of the Bible in Jewish life is not a result of a fact of revelation but results from the legalistic decision of the authoritative teachers of the Talmud to endow the twenty-four books of the Bible with sanctity. The theistic vision found in the Bible does not need to be seen as factual truth.

    This version of god does not concern (the word concern does not apply) with the affairs of humans, and no reward or punishment exists, and he is not the super administrator of health insurance. this offers a possibility of a skeptic to exist within a framework of theism, it requires no metaphysics for belief.

  • This argument really seems to be about semantics, and for that reason it’s difficult to find an absolute (or at least most likely) resolution. I agree with Jake that atheism does not equal skepticism. I too, have also considered an atheist to be someone who believes there is no god and an agnostic to be someone who doesn’t find evidence for god (and yes I think that there is a distinction). A person who believes in god is doing so with exactly the same data that a person who believes there is no god – the atheist just came to a different conclusion.

    Michael De Dora opened by stating his definition of atheism is a lack of belief in god. A quick scan of some source material will turn up this defintion, but it also turns up several others including what I’ve always considered to be agnosticism.

    However, even if both of these definitions are accepted, a lack of belief in god or the belief that there is no god, it still isn’t a solid foundation for stating that atheism is intellectually dissimilar to skepticism.

    This is also not to say that the skeptical community probably doesn’t have a larger proportion of atheists than the non-skeptical community, I think there’s evidence to demonstrate that it does. However, the skeptical community also seems to have more men; does that mean that being a skeptic is the same thing as being a man? The skeptical community also seems to have more liberals, are these the same? There’s another subset of libertarians, so, if I’m a skeptic, should I also be a libertarian? One person yesterday pointed out that at skeptic events the predominant population are college educated, so, does having a college education render one a skeptic?

    Obviously no, to all of these things.

    Skepticism isn’t a mindset, it’s a method. Atheism is a conclusion. Sure, a predominant number of people employing a skeptical method to their thinking and reasoning might arrive at the same or similar conclusion(s), but this does not mean that they equate one another. Skepticism is an activity of thought, atheism is a decision.

  • BJ Kramer

    I was really bummed I couldn’t make it to SkeptiCamp. But after reading through these (excellent!) comments, I’m *furious* with myself for not making it to SkeptiCamp.

    It seems to me we have a few separate issues:
    – definitions (skepticism, atheism, agnosticism, God)
    – skepticism, atheism: methodology, philosophy, or community?
    – philosophical purity vs. practicality (tactics)
    perhaps more

    I would argue that skepticism (philosophy) includes atheism (MdD’s definition, philosophy-wise), but skepticism (community) certainly need not include atheism (methodology, community).

    It seems to me someone needs to plot out at least 24 Venn diagrams…

  • Julia Galef

    Just to clarify what I was saying to TQM on Sunday: I wasn’t making any argument about whether the skeptic movement should or shouldn’t be actively promoting atheism. I was simply emphasizing that that is a tactical question and separate from the philosophical point that Michael was making: that atheism (using Michael’s definition of “lack of belief in god(s)”) follows logically from the skeptical approach.

    My impression in our conversation, TQM, was that you were saying “Michael’s wrong because it would be counterproductive for skeptics to promote atheism.” Which is why I replied, “That’s not the question Michael was addressing.” You may feel the tactical question is a more interesting or productive question than the philosophical one, but if you’re going to disagree with Michael you have to disagree with the points he was actually discussing, not the points you think he should have been discussing.

    Now, your blog post *does* seem to be disagreeing with Michael’s actual argument, but only by using a different definition of atheism than the one Michael was using. Of course it doesn’t make sense to say a definition is objectively right or wrong; as long as we’re clear on what we’re actually discussing, it doesn’t matter what word we apply to it. However, I do think definitions can be more or less *useful*. And I think your way of defining atheism and agnosticism is much less useful than Michael’s. That’s because you seem to have defined atheism in a way that makes it essentially a straw man, and agnosticism in a way that is so watered down that it’s functionally useless as a word.

    • Julia,
      I hope you don’t feel I was misrepresenting what you were saying, as that was in no way my intention. I brought up your point when launching into the part of my essay on what I thought problems would be with integrating the atheist and skeptical movements, what I felt you fairly pointed out did not directly go against Michael’s points. If I used your words unfairly, I apologize. I still feel that considering atheism as part of skepticism without discussing the ramifications of that move would be folly, but I also agree that it is a separate argument. I actually appreciate talking to you about all this stuff on Sunday night. I didn’t have a ton of time to write this article, and you pointed out a valid flaw in where I was thinking. Moving on to your comments:

      I didn’t agree with Michael’s definitions, as I believe I have made clear. Honestly, I felt his definition of atheism was too broad, and that his definition of agnosticism just shunted that system of thought out of existence. Frankly, I don’t believe Huxley would have equated atheism and agnosticism either, but that’s not really something I feel I need to address again. I’ve already tried to make my stance clear in a few of these comments, and if I haven’t done that yet I’m not going to be able to. I would object to the idea that the definition of atheism I’m using is a straw man. I view atheism as a perfectly valid philosophical viewpoint, I just don’t view it as a scientific one. And that brings me to the crux of the matter.

      As this discussion has continued, I’ve been able to zero in much more on where I disagree with Michael, and disregarding any definitions of atheism or agnosticism, where I truly disagree with him is in his definition of skepticism itself. I felt Michael was defining skepticism based around what things we don’t believe in, but skepticism is not a system of belief. It is a methodology for examining evidence from a scientific perspective. As I said to Scott, though there are specific scientific claims made by some religious people that we can address using the scientific method, (constructing a hypothesis and then creating a test, the results of which could either disprove the hypothesis or act as a bit of proof of it) there are plenty of definitions for god which we can’t. A deity that does not effect the natural world is not a testable hypothesis, and thus, it’s not a question to be answered scientifically. Skepticism is not about our beliefs. It’s about the way we view evidence.

      I view atheism as a philosophical stance, and if you want to answer the god question, it’s at least as valid an answer as any other. It’s simply not a scientific one. That said, god doesn’t need a scientific answer. It’s not a scientific question.

  • From a blog entry I never bothered posting because it seemed unnecessary considering I though anyone who actually cared already knew all this. Aside form the distinction regarding belief and knowledge, consider the following:

    Absence of a Belief Does Not Constitute an Opposite Belief

    “Atheism is a belief. The belief that God does not exist – a disbelief is still a belief, it’s just a belief that a statement is false.
    To have no belief about God you would have to be agnostic.”

    This is a common false dichotomy put forth by many people that do not bother to take the time to find out what atheism and agnosticism actually are.

    Agnosticism and atheism are not mutually exclusive concepts. Less than five minutes of research on the internet is all that is required to educate one’s self on these concepts.

    From Wikipedia:

    Atheism can be either the rejection of theism, or the position that deities do not exist. In the broadest sense, it is the absence of belief in the existence of deities.

    Agnosticism is the view that the truth value of certain claims—especially claims about the existence of any deity, but also other religious and metaphysical claims—is unknown or unknowable. Agnosticism can be defined in various ways, and is sometimes used to indicate doubt or a skeptical approach to questions. In some senses, agnosticism is a stance about the differences between belief and knowledge, rather than about any specific claim or belief. As such, the term agnostic does not necessarily signal a particular view about religion or God, as some agnostics also identify as theists or atheists.

    Consider the following:

    I do not believe that Bruce Willis wears flip flops when he goes outside to retrieve the morning paper, but I do not believe he does not wear flip flops when he goes outside to retrieve the morning paper. I am both atheistic and agnostic about whether he wears flip flops when when he retrieves the morning paper. I don’t even know if he gets a morning paper or whether he retrieves it himself if he does.

    If I believed that he definitely did not wear flip flops when retrieving the morning paper, this would constitute what is called strong atheism or anti-theism.

  • A definition of skepticism as “Skepticism = withholding belief in any claims until sufficient evidence has been provided” sounds like philosophical skepticism rather than scientific skepticism, and suffers from the problem of digging a hole so deep you can’t get out of it. We learn things as children that include language and basic conceptual frameworks for which we *don’t* have evidence, yet we need them to evaluate evidence at all. Some of our basic background beliefs, like the existence of an external world that exists independently of our experiences, are not things that we can even have empirical evidence for.

    Even much of science cannot meet the standard of that definition–knowledge in science is built upon the knowledge held by multiple scientists (working together and independently), where often no one person has all of the relevant evidence, but instead rely upon the reports of others.

    I agree with the idea that skepticism is a set of methods, though that also includes associated beliefs about what those methods are, normative views about how they should be applied, and so forth. That set of beliefs does not entail atheism–one could apply skepticism, but have religious experience that one concluded were best explained by the existence of God, for example. Atheism is not a subset of skepticism, nor are atheists a subset of skeptics, though they certainly overlap. People can be atheists for irrational reasons, and dogmatic, and unskeptical.

    The definition of atheism as mere lack of belief has as a consequence that atheism is not a position, but a lack of one, and so cannot justify any inferences or actions (though meta-beliefs about a lack of belief in gods could do so). This is probably why most people understand the English word atheism to mean a disbelief in gods, rather than the mere lack of belief. And that, of course, is not the default position and has a burden of proof.

  • Julia wrote: “… the philosophical point that Michael was making: that atheism (using Michael’s definition of “lack of belief in god(s)”) follows logically from the skeptical approach.”

    That’s not correct. One can reasonably hold that the skeptical approach, correctly applied to the question of the existence of God, would lead one to atheism, but that’s a matter of contingent fact, not a logical consequence. The nonexistence of God is not logically derivable from the set of beliefs that describe the skeptical approach.

    • Well Jim, it specifically depends on the following:

      Atheism definition
      God definition
      Evidence presented in favor of the God Hypothesis

      If people can’t agree on the first two, there is no point on discussing if Skepticism->Atheism or not. And those two definitions are exactly where the gallons of e-ink are being spilled, wouldn’t you agree? We need to have a reasonable debate about what is the best definition for atheism first. That should not center on what the popular perception of atheism is. We’re tying to derive an ought and as Hume famously said one can’t derive an ought from an is.

  • Defining atheism the following idea crossed my mind. I’m a Christian and I’m an atheist is not such a contradiction as it seems. In fact, Christianity is to a variable degree atheism already. Judaism clearly is not. That is why so many Jewish atheists gather in skepticism circles, by the way. Christian atheists, by contrast, still can find a place within their faith.

    This may sound rather provocative on these pages, I admit, but the core of Christianity is to worship a man who had been killed because of his peaceful struggle for a better world. Praising the merits of a human being instead of an imaginary God is atheism, isn’t it. Well one may counter, many Christians also praise God, inconsequentially.

    Defining skepticism an other idea crossed my mind. Skepticism is denying the obvious, it is questioning all what is held for granted, it is leaving the box of dogmatic thoughts and profane explanations, it is challenging the dominating tenures, it is widening the horizon, and it finally results in new ideas. Skepticisms is the Mephisto principle as employed in Goethe’s Faust: “the spirit to invoke evil but to cause progress”. Of course, inside the cardboard walls of a religion skepticism spells atheism as the believe in God is the principal doctrine there, but in so many academic ivory towers doctrines became outdated too …

    I restrain from naming some, as it’s enough now. That’s too much provocation already for just one comment, I suppose.

  • Well one thing is for sure here and it is that this whole discussion hinges upon the definition of atheism. I have made my point previously and I’ll reiterate here.

    We must agree that the best way to define a group of people is going by the characteristic(s) that, ideally all, members of such group share. The argument is that the ONLY thing all atheists share is a lack of belief in God. Not a supposition that there is no god, not a claim to knoweldedge that there is no God. Someone needs to do a poll where selfprescribed atheists can choose all the statements they agree with from a goup of statements, one of such statements being “I do not believe in gods” and I predict that this statement will be the one that will be picked the most.

    If we want to have any meaningful discussion here, we must agree on the correct definition of atheism, otherwise BOTH sides will simly keep changing this definition to best conform to their arguments.

    So let’s open the floor to discussion: what is a better definition of atheism than lack of belief in gods and please give your argument why this is so (in other words why your definition applies to more atheists than the above). I maintain the above is a necessary and sufficient requirement for one to be called an atheist. Am I wrong? If yes where?

  • Paul

    It is not always a good idea to define a term by what the majority accepts, especially in scientific discussions. Scientists genuinely believe that the majority is stupid, and though I feel this is not always reasonable, I’m still convinced a scientist has the right and even the obligation to challenge what appears to be generally accepted.

    Take your sweeping definition of atheism. If you called atheists all those who don’t believe in gods, you would include not only people that based on their humanistic knowledge don’t accept silly and simple explanations any more; you would also call atheists those who believe in ghosts, aliens, devils or any other superstition, which is, in my opinion, the most primitive of all faiths, much dangerous than believing in god.

  • A great lot of this discussion implies that atheism is negative. In the below article that I wrote for the magazine, Secular Nation, I think I make it fairly clear that atheism is not negative nor is it without positive purpose!

    ATHEISM IS NOT NEGATIVE

    I am overly fed up with the use of the term, atheism, as a negative epithet. And I am now just about as fed up with how we tolerate eminent humanist writers saying atheism is a negative concept; it may look like a negative word; it is not a negative concept; it is a nonnegative concept.

    Paul Kurtz himself has repeatedly called atheism a negatively offensive term. And Chris Brockman, in his review of Ronald Aronson’s Living Without God (The Humanist, May-June 2009, p. 46), writes “…the very terms nonbeliever, atheist, agnostic, and skeptic are negatives and don’t … point towards any unifying set of positive principles.” (By the way, is Living Without God a negative title or positive? Sounds kind of atheistic to me.)

    Now my (mostly forgotten) Greek is probably somewhat better than average, so hold on regarding the Greek prefix, alpha, being negative. As for the actual concept of atheism being negative, I will unswervingly go for the two negatives making a positive here. We atheists are nonbelievers, nonbullshitters! Are you going to try to tell me that the second term is negative! If something is nonscientific, that sounds negative; if something is nonfalse, that is positive; so is nontheism, atheism.

    So it is time for all of us atheists to ‘quit hiding our light under a bushel.’ The term, secular humanism, is not generally as positively clear in its uplifting realistic meaning as is the term, atheism. When we atheists admit who we are and call ourselves by our right name, the believers are positively impressed; they positively know where we stand.

    As for atheism ‘not pointing towards any unifying set of positive principles,’ I think that is patently false. Most sincere atheists are positively convinced that this natural, asuperstitious [sic] life is the real life that is the only real positive source of reliable human happiness. And to be true to ourselves, we work to make this the best possible life for ourselves and our planetary neighbors, hopefully friends.

    If I had my ‘druthers,’ I would suggest that all of our secular humanist sympaticos admit to the positively clear posture of atheism and let all the world know clearly and positively that we are one positive bunch of friendly kin trying to make our common neighborhood better.

    In fact, I would like for all of us freethinkers to win the friendship of our planetary neighbors as we gently, but unequivocally, let them know what our positive principles of friendship really are. Very happily I am finding less shock and negativity connected with atheism than at any time in my life. The unifying hope I have for every reader and his/her neighbors is expressed in the following little ditty:

    I MET A FRIENDLY ATHEIST TODAY

    I MET A FRIENDLY ATHEIST TODAY
    I know ‘atheists are bad people’ some say.
    But this nice person was really good for me
    and helped me drop a childish fantasy.
    Atheists I know now are not all bad;
    I hope that makes no one sad,
    for here and now I enjoy this life more;
    their New Golden Rule helps my spirit soar,
    for now that I know this life’s no rehearsal,
    with mutual help we manage every reversal.

    Stephen Uhl, Ph.D., http://www.OutOfGodsCloset.com
    Author of Out of God’s Closet: This Priest Psychologist Chooses Friendly Atheism.

  • Bill

    There are many different types of atheism possible. I personally am an atheist in that I reject the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). There are two main reasons for my stance: 1: I am repulsed by the genocide and bigotry of the Old Testament, and 2: the Bible and the Koran strike me as the sort of literature one would expect from ancient barbarians rather than something inspired by an infinitely wise loving, and all-powerful deity.

    But I am open to most other religions, simply because I am mostly ignorant of them. There could be some other religion that is true.

    As for being sure there is no god, I am fond of the idea that there is a god who created the universe with a purpose in mind, and he has a chosen people, who are purple snails in a distant galaxy. To create them, he had to create a universe capable of evolving life, and we are a product of that, seen by the creator as a unintentional and repugnant fluke.

    I think that what skeptics do is investigate claims using reason. Some claims are not falsifiable, and therefore skeptics can’t really do much about them. Reincarnation, karma, and an afterlife strike me as claims that are basically impossible for the skeptic to investigate, they are quite unfalsifiable. Even miracles — we can investigate whether a given “miracle” was fraudulent, but what test can be constructed to verify whether the laws of science are, at unpredictable times, briefly suspended? Especially when people claim this has happened, but not within the last couple of millenia? It is only when the religious make a claim that can be investigated, like that their prayers regularly heal, or that the world is 6000 years old, that they become worth the skeptic’s attention.

    On a pragmatic level, there are also many people who do not want to announce themselves to be atheists for social reasons — they’re married to a believer, they don’t want to upset their family, they benefit too much socially from participating in a religion, who would otherwise make good skeptics, and it is not in the interest of skeptics as an organization to alienate those people.

    We have plenty of atheist organizations in existence, and why not leave atheism to those organizations?

  • Rich Sander

    Religion will be the zit on the forhead of a skeptic and every once in a while it needs to be popped.

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