Why Skeptics Should be Atheists

Enrapt audience at SkeptiCamp2009 (photo by Mitch Lampert)

Enrapt audience at SkeptiCamp2009 (photo by Mitch Lampert)

Editor’s note: this is a rebuttal to The Quixotic Man, about De Dora’s talk, “Skepticism Includes Atheism (So Deal With It),” at SkeptiCamp NYC 2009. TQM’s post can be found here.

Jacob, it was nice meeting you at SkeptiCamp NYC 2009, and thanks for inviting me to join this back-and-forth about skepticism and atheism. We  seem to agree on at least one thing, that the conversation is worth having. I tend to think we agree on more than just that, and that some of your “disagreements” with me, outlined in your post Monday, are actually due to poor communication work. I suppose the following will tell us if I’m correct. (On the topic of communication, I’d like to quickly thank Scott Stafiej, Michael Rosch, and Julia Galef for clearing up some of what I meant in their responses to your post. They did such a wonderful job I urge everyone to read their comments, because I can’t cover everything even in a 2,000-word essay).

Skepticism Includes Atheism (So Deal With It)

Let me briefly provide some background on my talk.

I gave the talk because I have reservations with the skeptic community for avoiding religion. One example would be the historical divide between my own organization’s (Center for Inquiry) Council for Secular Humanism and Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. More recent examples would include the NYC Skeptics’ choice to not partake in the recent Big Apple Coalition of Reason “Good Without God” humanist ad campaign; and, in related efforts to coordinate the local rationalist community, the skeptic refusal to be identified under such words as “freethought” and “secular.” Of course, another example would be the negative response to my talk.

One unfortunate (or fortunate, it was on a Sunday) aspect of SkeptiCamp was that our talks were short — about 25 minutes — meaning speakers couldn’t cover all their bases. Fortunately, the SkeptiCamp format allowed for discussion after the day was over, so I was able to converse with some attendees and clear up misconceptions about my ideas. Allow me to briefly do the same here. In my talk, I argued that given their approach to the world, skeptics ought to be atheists, in the same way skeptics ought to be ahomoeopathists and non-astrologers. I argued that skeptics were avoiding atheism and discussion on religion, and might be compartmentalizing beliefs. I argued the avoidance is mistaken and hurting the general cause. I did not argue that people should be booted from the movement for being religious (more on that later), and I did not argue skeptics should redefine themselves or their organizations as atheist. In fact, I do not think “atheism” is something we should huddle under (I’ve said in prior talks that I prefer words like reason, science, evidence, humanism, and skepticism).

Atheism and Agnosticism

First we need to define our terms. Atheism (a philosophical position) means one lacks belief in gods. That’s about it. Notice how small — and at the same time, large — atheism is. Besides your stance on the gods, the atheist label tells us nothing else about you, such as whether you are active in your disbelief, hate religion, think religious believers are dumb, or even reject modern science and medicine. The word is just not equipped to do so. Atheists can be great people, terrible people, or somewhere in-between.

Agnosticism, as argued by Jacob, is the position that we do not, or cannot have knowledge of the gods, therefore opinion is suspended Whether one cares about religion is again another matter. Atheism and agnosticism here are different — and not mutually exclusive — in that the former deals with belief, the latter with knowledge. Let us consider this difference with examples from Jacob’s writings. He wrote in his piece the following:

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.

Let us now switch just one word:

I can’t say that [gods] cannot possibly exist.  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.

Here you have the reasonable atheist’s position, and that of my own. As an agnostic, I argue we do not, and perhaps cannot, have knowledge of or about the gods — that we cannot know for certain either way. But because I have yet to see good evidence — philosophical, scientific, or otherwise — to support religious claims, I live under the assumption there is not a god or gods above,  making me an atheist. I am still open to evidence, just with rigorous philosophical and scientific standards. A perfect example to sum up the co-existence of these labels comes from what Jacob posted in the comments to his piece. “You ask if I am agnostic about Zeus. Yes. Fairies. Yes.” But, then, Jacob is also an aZeusist, and an afairist. That is, he lives without belief in Zeus or fairies.

The point is that we are not left in a quagmire of indecision because we can’t know something (to quote Austin Dacey “being fallible doesn’t keep us from thinking we’re right”) or because science can’t tackle the god hypothesis (science can’t answer many questions, but we answer them anyway). We still have our conscience, our ability to decide what makes most sense based on critical thinking and experience, and when informed by science, we can come to reasonable conclusions. But to do this, we must see belief on a scale, low to high, not black and white (or in the middle). As the evidence goes up, so does the strength of the belief. To quote the skeptical philosopher David Hume, “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.”

Agnosticism is often seen as the most respectable position because it plays a middle ground, but we should also realize that even the non-atheist 50-50 agnostic is making a relatively objective claim about the world. Jacob wrote that my statement about religious biologist Kenneth Miller being wrong in his faith is a statement from that of an atheist. And yet could not the agnostic also make this statement? The non-atheist agnostic actually believes both theists and atheists are mistaken, that the truth is somewhere in the middle.

The very hard fact to get around is that one either lives under the assumption a god exists, or one does not. If you live under the assumption that gods do not, you are an atheist.

The Difference Between Skeptical Inquiry and Skepticism

In my talk, I differentiated between skepticism and scientific skeptical inquiry. Skeptical scientific inquiry, as defined by Massimo Pigliucci, is:

The critical examination of evidential claims … that are amenable to scientific inquiry because they refer to things that we can observe, measure and perhaps even repeat experimentally.

These include claims of the para- or super-normal (UFOs, ghosts, telepathy, clairvoyance), history (Holocaust denial), and pseudoscience (vaccines and denial of global warming). But note that it also covers religious ideas (young earth creationism, Noah’s Ark, Exodus and other Biblical stories).

As for skepticism, Jacob wrote that he sees it as a scientific position, but consider how Michael Shermer’s Skeptic Society describes skepticism:

Skepticism is a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas — no sacred cows allowed. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position. Ideally, skeptics do not go into an investigation closed to the possibility that a phenomenon might be real or that a claim might be true. When we say we are ‘skeptical,’ we mean that we must see compelling evidence before we believe.

The difference between skepticism and skeptical inquiry should now be clear: skeptical inquiry, a scientific endeavor, hits on specific claims, whereas skepticism, a philosophical outlook based in science and reason, hits on all claims, religious, moral or otherwise. Remember: no sacred cows. This means the skeptic (like the atheist), armed with science-informed philosophy, can weigh and discuss the existence of god — and considering the religiosity of this country, and the globe, it would seem necessary he or she does so.

Skepticism and Atheism

What should also be clear is the difference between skepticism and atheism. Skepticism is a more comprehensive philosophical approach, while atheism is a position on a specific claim that follows from the skeptical outlook. Two other corrections to disagreements with my talk now immediately come to mind. I am not arguing skepticism and atheism are the same thing, nor am I arguing, as Jacob said I was, that atheism is a pillar of skepticism. I am arguing atheism is an endgame of the skeptical outlook. Skepticism is a philosophy that leads to atheism.

So, why do skeptics avoid atheism? Some object on tactical grounds. Jacob argued that the word atheist tells others we are against their religious beliefs, a problem also cited by atheist-weary humanists and others. First, atheism does not necessarily do that — it merely tells another you do not believe in his or her religion (see: Bruce Sheiman). Second, does not the word skeptic also tell people what you do not believe in? If I tell someone I am a skeptic, is it not an almost automatic I don’t believe in alternative medicine or ghosts?

In essence, this objection amounts to “don’t alienate certain people, in this case the religious.” But why? Why are skeptics so harsh on Jenny McCarthy and Oprah but so reluctant to endorse a godless word – and world? Why should religion be treated any differently, especially considering it’s power? Jacob argues that battling religion will work against the skeptic goal to spread critical thinking, but it is the other way around: we must spread reason and take it wherever it may go, especially toward religious claims, which hold enormous sway in this society.

A second skeptic objection was posited by Benny Pollack of the NYC Skeptics, who said that atheism isn’t part of the skeptic’s fight. Here we enter back into the substance of skepticism. We all have our own interests and pursuits, and that is fine. Nobody is calling for true uniformity. But weigh the core values of the skeptical movement — science, reason, rationality — and it is hard to justify belief in gods or related claims. Moreover, the fight against bad ideas — a fight that will inevitably hit religious ideas — and the fight for good ones is everyone’s fight.

This line of thinking got me in a little trouble after my talk. “Does that mean you want to kick people out of the movement merely for believing in god?” I was asked. No, I do not. The issue is more complex than that. As Scott Stafiej pointed out, I cleared this up after SkeptiCamp. Consider again the case of Kenneth Miller. Here’s what I said:

Imagine if there is a list of skeptic things: skeptical about homeopathy, skeptical about telepathy, skeptical about UFOs, etc. Now imagine that a person believes in homeopathy but doesn’t believe in any of the other woo. Does this exclude them from being a skeptic? No, not necessarily, but it does mean they are not skeptical about significant claims that do not have evidence, claims the skeptical community has refuted over and over. 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.

One response to this argument I expect to hear is that “everyone has different levels of required evidence” for claims, which even Jacob said. But what would skepticism look like if it heeded to epistemological relativism?

A Matter of Semantics?

I’ve noticed people arguing that I am caught up in semantics. Perhaps I am, but I wouldn’t necessarily see that as a problem. I am not asking skeptics to drop everything and focus solely on semantics. Yet semantics is an important field of study. In fact, this entire situation might be overblown due to poor communication. Language has meaning, and it’s worth discussing what that meaning is for all of us. How else can we communicate clearly?

However, in closing, let’s go back to the title of my talk, and recall the second half, where I said “So Deal With It.” I wasn’t discussing only semantics in my talk: I was also saying “now that semantics are out of the way (and I think I’m right), what are you going to do about it?” Dealing with my message — that skeptics should be atheists, friendly to the atheist message, working on more issues relating to religious belief — means actually taking what I am saying and putting it to practice. It means hosting lectures and panel discussions, writing essays, and generally caring more about religion and surrounding issues — raising human consciousness about the critique of religion and existence of better approaches to life. So, now that semantics are out of the way, what are you going to do?

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11 comments to Why Skeptics Should be Atheists

  • Douglass Smith

    Excellent post, Michael. Agreed entirely with the main thrust of your piece. Skepticism is a particular approach to epistemology; namely, that evidence and reason are the only ways to true beliefs. Any beliefs which are not justifiable on those grounds must be discarded. That includes beliefs about God or gods.

    There may be disagreement within the skeptical community as to whether belief in God or gods can be justified by evidence and reason. If so, let’s discuss the evidence and let’s discuss the reasons, just as we would if we were discussing the existence of ghosts or the supposed effectiveness of homeopathic treatments. The fact that belief in God or gods is of some cultural importance should perhaps urge us to be more careful and thoughtful in our analyses, but it should not stop us from pursuing the investigations or drawing conclusions from the evidence.

  • I made much the same points a short while ago. The main “counter-argument” I’ve gotten is that lack of belief is not what most people think when they think of atheism, a weird appeal to popularity fallacy about what the best definition of atheism should be, and this has come from some pretty well known skeptics. To say the least, it is discouraging to hear otherwise straightforward logical folks get into these sort of games.

    My suspicion, is that the word atheism carries a bigger stigma in the public opinion than the word skeptic, thus skeptics make a PR/Marketing choice to avoid being associated with that word and instead choose to use agnostic. I personally can’t do that, but then I guess certain trade-offs are required if you’re on the verge, or trying, to get established in the mass media/pop culture which is what efforts such as The Skeptologists are all about. Now I can accept that some skeptics are indeed believers. I don’t think they should be tossed out of the movement, but I can tell you that those people either aren’t applying skepticism properly to their sacred cow, or they have access to evidence and information that is consistent with the skeptical inquiry method and leads to a belief in God. I personally haven’t seen it anywhere.

    Here’s a link to what I had to say, should you be interested in reading. http://tinyurl.com/ykv7tws

  • Doron

    I Agree with you that semantics are important, and cant be trivialized.

    Im not sure i agree with this statement:
    “The very hard fact to get around is that one either lives under the assumption a god exists, or one does not. If you live under the assumption that gods do not, you are an atheist.”

    I argue for a superposition of a sort, namely, exists or not, i don’t care.

  • James Dillon

    Good post, Michael. I agree with you, and I think the fundamental point of disagreement between you and Jacob is the rather well-worn argument about the distinction, if any, between atheism and agnosticism. As a lawyer I tend to view this question in terms of burdens of proof, and I think the illusory distinction collapses, as you point out, when the issue of proof is taken into account. Shermer’s definition of skepticism (“When we say we are ‘skeptical,’ we mean that we must see compelling evidence before we believe”) summarizes the point quite well– the proponent of belief in a phenomenon, be it homeopathy, gods, or the efficacy of compound X for the treatment of condition Y, bears the burden of producing sufficient positive evidence to overcome the default position of non-belief that is at the core of the skeptical methodology. In the absence of such evidence, the skeptical position (indeed the only rational position) is provisional non-belief. Like you, I label myself an atheist on the basis of my provisional non-belief in gods, which rests on the absence of sufficient evidence for their existence. My methodology in arriving at this conclusion is no different than my non-belief in unicorns, psychics, and homeopathy, yet no one would argue that skeptics should remain merely “agnostic” with respect to those phenomena. Nor, as you point out, does the provisional non-belief of atheism imply a denial of the possibility that evidence of gods may yet be produced, or contain an affirmative assertion that such evidence cannot exist, any more than my lack of belief in unicorns denies the conceptual possibility (however remote) that one may yet be found hiding behind a tree. (Even Dawkins acknowledges this in The God Delusion, though I don’t have the book handy to cite a page at the moment.)

    When the “semantic” point of the atheism/agnosticism distinction is settled, the rest of Jacob’s argument quickly collapses except for the strategic argument that the skeptics’ movement’s resources are better spent addressing other issues. Maybe that’s true– maybe the costs of taking a stand on religion in terms of public relations damage outweigh the benefits when there are other kinds of pseudoscience and irrationality out there, and other organizations already have the God beat covered. But that’s a different argument than the conceptual one about whether atheism follows necessarily from the application of skeptical methodology to the question of religion, which, in the absence of a convincing argument that the available evidence supports belief in the existence of a god, it certainly does.

  • BillK

    Atheism (the lack of belief in gods version) must be a natural result of applying skepticism and critical thinking to the questions surrounding religion and the existence of gods, unless, of course, someone is using greatly relaxed standards of acceptable evidence – which defeats the whole purpose of skepticism. And the overwhelming majority of atheists are what so-called agnostics claim to be – people who don’t really know for sure but are willing to accept the existence of gods should sufficient credible evidence become available. So I think that trying to make a distinction between agnosticism and atheism is somewhat disingenuous and facile.

    And as for tiptoeing around the issue for fear of offending the religious, I think that is an outright betrayal of the skeptical movement, not to mention being intellectually dishonest.

    At least that’s how an uneducated dummy sees it.

  • Chris Everett

    You hit the nail on the head, Michael. Atheism is the skeptical stance towards the existence of gods, and I don’t think any more needs to be said about atheism.

    As for agnosticism, I’m not sure what the history of the term is, but I consider it anachronistic at best. Thanks to David Hume and others, we know that the truth of propositions about the nature of reality are never absolute, since all we can ever do is engage in informed speculation about it. So agnosticism, to me, is just a blanket statement about the limitations of human understanding.

    But this wasn’t always so, and among the religious still isn’t so. Religious doctrines tend to assert that there are two routes to knowledge – the “dim glass” of empiricism and the absolute truth of divine revelation. Against this background, agnosticism can be seen as a repudiation of the latter – a repudiation I agree with, but which is not really discussing, if only because those who disagree are, by implication, incapable of rational discussion anyway (they “know” the truth, end of story).

    That leaves the mealy-mouthed middle definition of agnosticism as the necessity to entertain the notion of gods despite the repudiation of divine revelation that would “prove” their existence absolutely. Such a stance is incoherent, since it would require the entertainment of any and all ideas, simply on the grounds that they can be thought of. (In fact, this is a generous statement, since I don’t think “god” is even an idea – it is more of a placeholder for that about which we are incapable of forming ideas.)

    So the bottom line is:

    Atheism – My mind, it ain’t so open that anything can crawl right in.
    Agnosticism – My mind is so open that anything can crawl right in.
    Theism – I opened my mind too much, my brain fell out.

    Props to Howard Devoto and Tim Minchin.

  • Fouridine

    Thanks for the clarification! So what you are saying is atheists aren’t necessary skeptics while skeptics are most probably gonna be atheists in the sense of “lack belief in god”.

    I think most of the conflict arises from what is perceived as the meaning of atheism. Most people might go by the absolutist meaning of atheism. In Merriam Webster, atheism is defined as “a:a disbelief in the existence of deity b : the doctrine that there is no deity” or dictionary.com “1.the doctrine or belief that there is no God. 2.disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.” Both definitions of which hold rather absolutist stance as oppose to an less certain stance “lack of”. The less certain stance is more commonly attributed to agnosticism. I myself think of atheism as being 90% sure of no god argument only because of the God Delusion.

    If this perception is prevalent and Michael’s meaning has the authority, then perhaps this is an issue that the atheist movement/ community needs to rectify. Maybe the atheist movement needs a re-branding exercise? Perhaps work to change the meanings in dictionaries?

    Meanwhile, but don’t the skeptical community already discuss religion such as the psychology aspect of it? What other topics of religion that are science/ evidence based be discussed? I havn’t joined the skeptics community (at least not a physical one) for very long so I am curious.

  • Scott Stafiej

    Great rebuttal Michael.

  • Smitty

    Fouridine:
    I think whether or not both definitions of atheism hold “absolutist” stances depends on how you define “disbelief.” If disbelief means “believing to be false” then yes, those definitions don’t leave room for weak atheism. If disbelief means simply “not believing,” then one definition describes strong atheism (dfn a. in the case of Webster) and the other describes weak atheism (dfn b. in Webster).

    It seems to me that the best definition of “disbelief” is “not believing,” rather than “believing to be false.” In this case, the definitions you listed of atheism wouldn’t need to be changed. When checking the definition of disbelief, though, I was surprised to find that Merriam Webster defines it as “the act of disbelieving : mental rejection of something as untrue.” Further searching, though, revealed that some sources do define it according to my favored definition. I found the following, which seems to indicate that the “rejection of something as untrue” definition comes from the 1913 Webster dictionary, and that there is room for the alternate definition of “doubt about the truth of something.

    (http://www.webster-dictionary.org/definition/disbelief)
    (http://onlinedictionary.datasegment.com/word/disbelief)

    It’s also defined here as “Refusal or reluctance to believe.”
    (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/disbelief)

    So, I think the word “disbelieve” doesn’t necessarily mean “believe to be false.” Therefore, the dictionary definition of atheist doesn’t need any changing to accommodate “weak atheism,” “agnostic atheism,” or whatever you want to call it.

    I think that the definition of “lack of belief in gods” is clearly better than “belief that there are no gods” based on etymology (you’re literally attaching the prefix “without” to the term “belief in god”) as well as the fact that a vast majority of atheists seem to use the first definition (I could provide a dozen or so examples, but I’d rather not take the time… suffice it to say that I have seen many atheists explain it this way, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen an atheist argue to the contrary). After looking it up, I would now add that the dictionary definition of atheism also supports this understanding of atheism, although there is admittedly some confusion about the definition of “disbelief.” This is why I think theists and agnostics who say that atheism entails a positive belief that there are no gods are wrong – every consideration for defining terms points to “lack of belief in gods” as the best definition.

  • Smitty

    ***NOTE: It seems that I messed up the block quote tag on my first try. This is my intended message, without bothering with the blog quote. Hopefully my first one can just be deleted.***

    Fouridine:
    I think whether or not both definitions of atheism hold “absolutist” stances depends on how you define “disbelief.” If disbelief means “believing to be false” then yes, those definitions don’t leave room for weak atheism. If disbelief means simply “not believing,” then one definition describes strong atheism (dfn a. in the case of Webster) and the other describes weak atheism (dfn b. in Webster).

    It seems to me that the best definition of “disbelief” is “not believing,” rather than “believing to be false.” In this case, the definitions you listed of atheism wouldn’t need to be changed. When checking the definition of disbelief, though, I was surprised to find that Merriam Webster defines it as “the act of disbelieving : mental rejection of something as untrue.” Further searching, though, revealed that some sources do define it according to my favored definition. I found the following, which seems to indicate that the “rejection of something as untrue” definition comes from the 1913 Webster dictionary, and that there is room for the alternate definition of “doubt about the truth of something.

    **********
    “Webster’s 1913 Dictionary
    Dis`be`lief´
    n. 1. The act of disbelieving;; a state of the mind in which one is fully persuaded that an opinion, assertion, or doctrine is not true; refusal of assent, credit, or credence; denial of belief.

    WordNet Dictionary (2005)
    Noun 1. disbelief – doubt about the truth of something
    Synonyms: incredulity, mental rejection, skepticism
    2. disbelief – a rejection of belief
    Synonyms: unbelief”
    (http://www.webster-dictionary.org/definition/disbelief)
    (http://onlinedictionary.datasegment.com/word/disbelief)
    **********

    It’s also defined here as “Refusal or reluctance to believe.”
    (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/disbelief)

    So, I think the word “disbelieve” doesn’t necessarily mean “believe to be false.” Therefore, the dictionary definition of atheist doesn’t need any changing to accommodate “weak atheism,” “agnostic atheism,” or whatever you want to call it.

    I think that the definition of “lack of belief in gods” is clearly better than “belief that there are no gods” based on etymology (you’re literally attaching the prefix “without” to the term “belief in god”) as well as the fact that a vast majority of atheists seem to use the first definition (I could provide a dozen or so examples, but I’d rather not take the time… suffice it to say that I have seen many atheists explain it this way, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen an atheist argue to the contrary). After looking it up, I would now add that the dictionary definition of atheism also supports this understanding of atheism, although there is admittedly some confusion about the definition of “disbelief.” This is why I think theists and agnostics who say that atheism entails a positive belief that there are no gods are wrong – every consideration for defining terms points to “lack of belief in gods” as the best definition.

  • Scientific skepticism (as opposed to philosophical skepticism) no more necessitates atheism than it does amoralism. Your argument would seem to suggest that skeptics shouldn’t hold any positions that can’t be established by empirical science, which would seem to limit skeptics to descriptive, rather than normative, positions on morality and basic (as opposed to instrumental) values.

    “Skepticism” does have the sort of inherent ambiguity that “science” does, in that it can refer to process, product, or institution. I favor a methodological view of skepticism as a process, rather than defining it by its outputs. Organizations, however, seem to coalesce around sets of agreed-upon beliefs that are outputs of methodology, not just beliefs about appropriate/effective methodology; historically that set of agreed-upon beliefs has been that there is no good scientific support for paranormal and fringe science claims. As the scope of skeptical inquiry that skeptical organizations address has broadened, that leads to more conflict over issues in the sphere of politics and religion, where empirical science yields less conclusive results.

    I’d rather see skeptical organizations share some basic epistemic and ethical values that are supportive of the use of science than a commitment to a set of beliefs about the outputs of skeptical methodology. The latter seems more likely to result in dogmatism.

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