Thursday, December 10, 2009


Skepticism and atheism

The New York City Skeptics just had an event last weekend, SkepticampNYC. I didn’t attend, but I read the blog: on their blog, Gotham Skeptic, there’s a post this week that stems from a session at the event. The post is exploring whether one must be an atheist if one is a skeptic. A speaker at SkepticampNYC thought one did; the blogger disagrees.

A lot of the discussion about it involves defining "atheist" in some precise way, and distinguishing that clearly from "agnostic". I think that’s a red herring. I don’t care what you wants to call yourself; if you think you’re an atheist, you don’t have to fit my definition of it. And if you don’t believe in God, but prefer to apply “agnostic” to yourself (or “non-theist”, or “spiritual, but not religious”, or something else) that’s OK too. The point isn’t semantics.

The point, really, is whether belief in God is consistent with skepticism. I think it can be, but that it’s somewhat of a tough sell. If skepticism involves looking at evidence and making conclusions from the evidence, it’s certainly possible that one might analyze the evidence and decide that it points to God. There isn’t a defined “skeptic position” on things, and we don’t all have to agree.

But many people keep trying to pull it back to faith. There are frequent claims that atheists (or skeptics, or scientists, depending upon the context of the discussion) are “believers” too, but we just believe in different things. (Contrast that with the claims that atheists “believe in nothing,” whatever that might mean.) Many argue that atheism is as much a religion as any other.

Along that line, in a related discussion, someone made this comment:

Are you claiming that scientists don’t have faith?! I bet there are many things in the science text books that you believe, but have never seen direct evidence for yourself.

The writer, here, misunderstands — perhaps intentionally, as a rhetorical mechanism — the point of evidence. There’s far too much to know for us all to see everything for ourselves. Yes, we rely on others to record it for us. And what’s been recorded has detailed observations, measurements, and other clear data. It’s well documented by multiple observers. It’s reproducible, and it’s been reproduced. We can go check these things out for ourselves; it’s because it’s so well documented that we generally don’t have to.

There’s a vast difference between that and what some believe on faith. “I measured the effect of the moon’s gravity, and here are my methods and data for your inspection,” is a very different thing from, “I felt the hand of God protecting me,” or, “I saw Jesus in the sunlight of my window,” or, “God spoke to me and told me what I must do.” These may be very real to the people who are saying them, and they may serve to convince the ones who had the experiences. But they are not evidence that can be examined by anyone else, and they’ll get not a moment’s consideration from a skeptic.

But, say some, if atheism is not a religion, why are there atheists trying to convert people? Why don’t all atheists go off happily disbelieving, and leave the believers alone. Indeed, most of us do, most of the time. I’ve often said that I don’t make a point of insulting people for what they believe, and I’m mostly OK with consenting adults believing anything they like.

There are two problems.

One is in how this affects children. We find it acceptable, by way of encouraging their natural imagination, to let them believe in unicorns, ghosts, witches, and Santa Claus for a time, but as they begin to mature, we wean them from such fantasies and steer them toward learning about the real world. It’s still OK, of course, for an older child to like unicorns... as long as the child understands that it’s just imagination.

And, yet, as we pull them away from one fantasy, we lead them to another, teaching them that they’re being watched over, that they will be protected, that their prayers will be answered, if only they believe. It’s easy to look at all the devout believers who are not protected, and whose prayers are not answered to see how demonstrably false this is, but many children are taught it as truth, and go on believing it into adulthood. Can we really be thought to consent, as adults, to a belief system that was loaded into our programming when we were children?

The second problem comes in adulthood, in the way we set up our society. By encouraging belief in fantasy, we blur the line between pseudoscience and real science, as one fantasy leads to another. If we can take one thing without evidence, why not others as well?: astrology, dowsing, auras, homeopathy, fortune telling, and all manner of other nonsense — all of which are shown not to work when we put them down to real tests, when we try to look at the evidence.

Worse, we give people divine support for whatever they decide to believe in, and whatever they choose to do about it. People moved by religion will starve their children waiting for God to provide, drown their children to keep them away from Satan, kill and threaten to kill those who disagree with them. They will fly planes into buildings to kill non-believers, incite deadly riots over cartoons they find insulting, and limit the rights of others because they think they know what God wants.

“You can’t blame God for that!”, you say? No, I don’t; there’s no God to blame. What I blame is our acceptance of belief in fantasy. It’s more than acceptance, in fact: we consider it a great honour to have faith, a show of strength to maintain belief despite all evidence to the contrary. One result is that we don’t need to think for ourselves and reason out what makes sense. We know what God wants, we know that God will take care of us, we know what we need to do in God’s name and in His defense. Only, each one “knows” something different; each side of every war has God on its side. They can’t all be right.

To be sure, everything I linked two paragraphs above comes from extremists. Most of us can put a teaspoon or so of belief into our teacup, and live a mostly rational life with just a little fantasy to make us feel good from time to time. That isn’t what most atheists are on about. We’re concerned with the big picture. We truly worry about a society that puts value on living outside reality. We see the importance of understanding the real world. And we know that we must choose our leaders not on the basis of what God they believe in, or don’t, but on the basis of what actions they will take, and how they will lead.

Update, 9 a.m.: And then, on the extreme side, there’s this guy. Oy.


Sue VanHattum said...

I like your position overall, and haven't felt much need to argue with it in other posts. This post is so well-written, I think I'm beginning to understand better where we differ.

But I don't know if I can write about it coherently yet.

I am pagan, and to me that's not about faith, it's about honoring the sacredness of the earth.

So there seems to be no conflict, as your complaint is with faith.

And yet... I'm thinking about Carolyn Merchant's book, The Death of Nature, which describes how the scientific revolution brought with it a mechanistic worldview that allowed for the exploitation of the earth.

An important part of my sense of ethics is thinking of everything as alive, and honoring that life. (Humans are not above, better than, or more important.)

Scientific reasoning works best when it can be used to look at small pieces. The big picture gets devalued. We consume ourselves into a position where we don't know how to back away from the harm we're causing.

Barry Leiba said...

«your complaint is with faith.»

Indirectly. My complaint is with belief in fantasy. Because "faith", as we're talking about it here, is belief in something with no evidence to back it up, it enables belief in fantasy.

I want to make that clear, because the word "faith" covers a lot of ground. People talk about having faith in their friendships, for example, which is a different aspect and one that I'm certainly not against.

I'm not sure where you're going with the rest of it (and I think it's tangential, but that's OK). You may say "pagan" and I may say "environmentalist", but I think we share that ethical sense that it's our responsibility to take care of our planet and the life on it.

And I don't think you're saying that technological advancement should be curtailed because it leads to environmental destruction.

It's clear to me that as we apply science and technology, we have to consider its environmental impact and make sensible and ethical decisions about what to do with it... and what not to do with it. There are certainly scientists, technologists, industrialists, manufacturers, business leaders, and government leaders who are environmentally conscious, just as there are those who are not. Those who are not give us superfund sites, withdraw us from the Kyoto Protocol, pass the ill-named "Clear Skies Act of 2003", have us drill and mine in wildlife refuges, and deny the evidence that we are causing acyclic global climate change.

I don't think this has a direct relationship to scientific reasoning. I think science and ethics are both important, and that technology must be used responsibly.

Page said...

Skepticamp NYC was great, Barry! We missed ya!

Sue VanHattum said...

>And I don't think you're saying that technological advancement should be curtailed because it leads to environmental destruction.

Depends on what you mean by curtailed. Nuclear power is a technological 'advancement' that should be curtailed. There is no way to properly deal with the radioactive wastes.

When I think about some of the technology most of us use daily and find indispensable, I often think we're choosing to make ourselves guinea pigs in a huge experiment. We have cell phone towers everywhere. Do we really know there will be no long term bad effects? We use microwaves so much. Do we really know they don't interfere with the nutritive quality of our food?

(I have no microwave at home. I use my cell phone sparingly. Until last month, I avoided wireless for my computing. I used to call myself a luddite, semi-jokingly. I'm way too into the internet these days to make that joke.)

I think there are probably wiser ways to proceed. And I think our faith in science makes us way too trusting of technology.