Friday, November 26, 2010

Non-skeptical atheists

Our story so far...

Jim Lippard complains about "blurring the lines" between atheism and skepticism.

I reply, harshly, to Lippard's deficiencies.

Lippard comments in his own defense (reproduced in full):
I call false charge of fallacy on your "category mistake" claim.

You write: "The implication appears to be that atheism is about holding a particular position without regard to using the best method to find a reliable answer to questions about the existence of God."

That's correct--what makes one an atheist is not believing in gods, regardless of how one came to that position. You go on to talk about *skeptical* atheists, and I agree that there are such--I'm one of them.

The rest of your post is a straw man--I've not told anyone to shut up. My point is simply that there is a distinction between skepticism and atheism, and that it can cause confusion to blur that distinction.

I also pointed out on Twitter on Nov. 23 (!/lippard/status/7074762350133248): "Seems to me a better argument than I've heard for the name "Skepticon" would be: we want to promote *skeptical* atheism, not just atheism." and (!/lippard/status/7074762350133248) "Did I just miss it, or is that an argument it hasn't occurred to any "Skepticon" defenders to make? And is it even the case?"
First, I don't follow Twitter; I'm not responsible for knowing what anyone's said on that channel.

But Lippard's defense is weak. Of course it is true that "what makes one an atheist is not believing in gods, regardless of how one came to that position." And it is equally true that what makes one a believer in evolution is, well, believing in evolution, regardless of how one came to that position. The same is true of any position. Furthermore, "can" is a pure weasel word: Anything can cause confusion. It can be just as "confusing" to blur the distinction between belief in evolution (perhaps because the Pope has (to some extent) endorsed evolution) and how one came to believe evolution is true. If Lippard is not speaking entirely vacuously, we must read him as saying that people actually are causing confusion.

But who is doing so? Where are the non-skeptical atheists who are blurring the lines between skepticism and a particular belief? I read Planet Atheism every day; I have a standing query in my reader for blog posts containing "atheist" or "atheism"; and I frankly can't remember the last time I saw anyone endorsing atheism for reasons incompatible with or confusing skeptical methodology.

Lippard doesn't just say that he himself happens to be a skeptical atheist, but that there are skeptical theists: In his original post, he says, "The organized skeptical groups with decades of history... have been represented by skeptics of a variety of religious views in events of lasting consequence. [emphasis added]" The implication therefore is that atheism is not a consequence of skeptical thinking; if it's not a consequence of skeptical thinking, it must be an a priori belief. The only rebuttal to this charge is to say that atheism is a consequence of skepticism, but we should ignore some "skeptics'" theism because of their contributions. Lippard is on the horns of a dilemma: either address the arguments that atheism really is a consequence of skepticism, or admit that some beliefs deserve an exemption from skeptical inquiry. And if religion deserves an exemption, why not evolution? Or vaccination? Or homeopathy?

Remember, this whole "controversy" starts with J. T. Eberhard and Skepticon organizing a conference to presumably subject religious claims to skeptical scrutiny. Lippard (as well as other critics) are not members of that organization and are not protecting its interests. They appear to want to protect skepticism itself from atheism. As one of the original critics claims, atheism is "not skepticism. The pro-atheist cause is an entirely different endeavor" from the skeptical cause; the only similarity is in an overlapping community. And he says this despite publishing Eberhard's clear and unambiguous assertion that "it is the opinion of most of our organizers that skepticism leads directly to some brand of atheism/metaphysical naturalism... [emphasis added]"

If Lippard wants to make the argument that theism is actually philosophically (and not just psychologically) compatible with skepticism, let him make that argument; I'll listen with an open mind, and argue the issue on its merits. But he has to actually make the argument, not simply uncritically and unskeptically make the assertion and condemn atheists for failing to adhere to his skeptical dogma.

Until then, he can kiss my hairy white skeptical atheist ass.


  1. Even if one thinks that correct application of skepticism in all historical and social contexts everywhere and always produces a conclusion of atheism (a dubious position), human beings are fallible and can come to incorrect conclusions. Thus it is entirely possible for someone, exercising critical thinking, logic, science, and the best reasoning and evidence available could come to the conclusion that agnosticism is on sounder footing than atheism or even that theism is a live and philosophically and evidentially supportable option. I happen to disagree that the latter is a correct conclusion, but I don't have sufficient argument or evidence to say that it is impossible.

    The specific skeptical theists I made reference to included Martin Gardner and Ken Miller, though neither of them purported to use skepticism as a method for reaching their religious views.

  2. Even if one thinks that correct application of skepticism in all historical and social contexts everywhere and always produces a conclusion of atheism (a dubious position)...

    Duh. The same could be said of any position. Should we tout the achievements of Intelligent Design skeptics? Young Earth Creationist skeptics? Anthropogenic global warming skeptics? Should we refuse to associate skepticism with any particular conclusion? If some people are skeptics about everything but evolution, should we refuse to skeptically inquire into Intelligent Design so we won't alienate such people?

    I'm not upset that you disagree. I'm upset that you're using arguments that stink on ice.


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