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?