Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Are non-skeptical atheists really atheists? (redux)

The least important component of my atheism is that I don't actually believe that any god exists. It's not that I don't really care whether or not you believe a god exists, it's that I'm vastly more interested in why you believe what you do. In just the same sense, I don't care nearly as much that you believe evolution explains the characteristics of life, or General Relativity explains the behavior of bodies with very large mass, or String Theory explains... well, whatever it is it's supposed to explain. And I'm not interested only in why you believe what you do, but how you place that "why" in a moral and ethical context.

I know that in theory there are non-skeptical atheists. If you don't believe that any personal god exists I suppose you could in reasonably good conscience call yourself an atheist. When I was posting at the Internet Infidels Discussion Board, we accepted deists and pantheists as "freethinkers" and "infidels" as a matter of policy. One could also, I suppose, say that Scientologists and reincarnation-friendly Buddhists count as atheists. One could even, I guess, say that a dogmatic Marxist might be an atheist because Marx proclaimed atheism as part of communist dogma. (I must hasten to add that although I have some pretty sharp disagreements with a lot of my fellow communists, many of them quite radical, I've met very few actual communists who actually behave dogmatically, and all of those were decidedly marginal.)

The thing is, though... I don't actually know anyone like this. The people who go to the trouble of self-identifying as atheists, the readers of my blog, the contributors to atheist discussion boards (when I was participating), the members of atheist groups: these people are thorough skeptics. They did not wake up one day and decide no god exists and construct a "worldview" or even a social life around that decision. Rather, they decided to think skeptically about the world, and applied that skeptical thinking to their beliefs about god, and came to the conclusion, perhaps inevitable, that no god exists. There are a few exceptions, people who happen to believe that no god exists but are not thoroughly skeptical, but I've noticed a tendency of such people to fall (or get pushed) away from the community of self-identified atheists. While it's certainly logically possible to be a non-skeptical atheist, they are at best only marginally represented in what passes for the "atheist community."

Even people who succumb to various forms of "retail" non-skepticism, people who accept one form of "junk science" or another because it supports one deeply-held belief tend to fall away. I had a conversation the other day with a person who was profoundly opposed to the legalization of marijuana. She offered as "evidence" the fallacy of reverse causality (most of the fucked-up people she knew smoked marijuana); when I pointed out the fallacy, she retreated into the odious "we all have our different truths opinions" line. I don't expect instant acquiescence, but I do expect at least, "Hm. That's an interesting point. Let me think about it." I'm just not going to stand for anything that even smells like, "I'm going to hang on to my opinion regardless of the evidence." I managed (barely) to keep my temper, but she undoubtedly could see the steam coming from my ears. And surprisingly enough, she hasn't (to my knowledge) returned to the group.

In contrast, my own communism is reasonably well-received in atheist circles. Communism is not a mainstream opinion in atheist circles; atheists are by and large reasonably moderately prosperous middle-class people against whom the capitalist system has not (yet) unleashed its awesome power to completely fuck over. I have some advantages: I'm reasonably competent at constructing and expressing skeptic-friendly arguments. I don't of course receive instant acquiescence, but most everyone listens respectfully, asks good questions, quickly abandons obvious myths, and immediately concedes minor points. It doesn't hurt that I'm willing to concede errors of past communists.

The community of self-identified atheists is composed not just mostly of but predominantly of skeptics, and they are skeptics in every sense of the word: they subject beliefs to critical scrutiny, including their own. These are people who don't just have the "right" opinions, they consistently employ the "right" methodology to evaluate their opinions. It is bad to exempt an opinion — any opinion — from skeptical scrutiny. Skepticism is not just something that atheists happen to enjoy, they consistently display a moral duty to subject their own opinions to critical scrutiny, and they try to impose an ethical obligations on others to subject their opinions to the same scrutiny.

"Atheist" is as much or more a matter of self-identification as it is a purely descriptive term. Indeed, most of the people I know who do not believe any god exists but do not believe that all beliefs should be subject to critical scrutiny do not self-identify as atheists. They at most self-identify as agnostics; they usually do not include their religious beliefs or their epistemic methodology at all in their self-identification. People who actually do self-identify as atheists are almost always skeptics, and non-skeptics who "try on" the atheist label rarely last long in the community, and only the most stubborn hold on to the label. So no: They may be agnostics or non-religious, but such people should not in any practical sense be considered atheists.


  1. This is something that has been annoying me for a long time. Right now there are many people calling themselves "atheist" and I almost fear that this term will become a fashionable thing rather than indicate someone who actively knows the effects of dogma and wants religions horrible curse removed from our planet. Your main point about skepticism is a good one though. Are all atheists skeptics? The answer is most definately.... NO! And for the life of me I cant think why. If you have (apparently) taken the time to go through a process of using critical thinking to debunk doctrine, then why the hell havent you used that logic in other areas of woo? I have almost 1300 friends on FBook, and all declare themselves as "atheist", yet many say they believe in ghosts, UFOs, alternative medicine etc. I mean, just how do you say you dont believe in god but you believe in ghosts?? Get the f*** out of here! Idiots in my mind. And in some ways I see it as a kind of laziness where these "atheists" wont take the time to use their (alleged) skeptical minds and apply their critical thoughts to other worldly hogwash.

  2. I have almost 1300 friends on FBook, and all declare themselves as "atheist", yet many say they believe in ghosts, UFOs, alternative medicine etc.

    Interesting. I know several people who believe in ghosts, etc., but none of them really self-identify as atheist. I am, however, an old fogey without a facebook account.

  3. "String Theory explains... well, whatever it is it's supposed to explain."

    Pretty much nothing. :) Hence the books deriding the hype around it (and the consequent suffocation of competing musing). It's physicists thinking up models that cohere with existing accepted models, but have no (experimental) way of differentiating themselves from the old models, or other new models.

    In a coincidence, I happened upon someone talking about the survey of philosophers conducted by Chalmers and another person I can't recall, about their beliefs on various philosophical questions.

    As I recall, 80% described themselves as atheists, but 40% are Platonists about universal objects. And, if you ask me, being a Platonist is sort of a 'sophisticated' version of believing in ghosts/souls/what have you. At least, assuming I'm correctly interpreting Platonism there. They don't believe in the big god of philosophy, but they believe in an infinity of tiny philosophical gods. And that's at least 20% of philosophers.

  4. "String Theory explains" ... Pretty much nothing.

    Yes, I know. That's my point. I'm not interested in the scientific theory du jour, I'm interested in why you believe what you do.


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