Friday, November 26, 2010

Atheism and skepticism

Jim Lippard wants to distinguish between what to think vs. how to think. But he's making a category error: how you think determines to a large extent what you think. The underlying issue is whether skeptics should be atheists: "Skepticism is about critical thinking, inquiry, investigation, and using the best methods available to find reliable answers to questions (and promoting broader use of those tools), while atheism is about holding a particular position on a particular issue, that no gods exist." 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.

But skeptical atheists typically hold the opposite position. If you use the best methods available, you will find definite, specific reliable answers to questions about the character and diversity of organisms (evolution), the shape of the earth (roundish), the motion of objects with or near objects of substantial mass (gravitation), and the efficacy and safety of vaccinations (effective and many orders of magnitude safer than having a lot of communicable diseases running around). In just the same sense, if you use the exact same methods to find reliable answers to questions about God, you will indeed find a definite and specific answer: no god exists.

To a certain extent, I will grant that atheism also entails a "extra-skeptical" component: a lot of god talk does indeed consist of "non-testable claims", i.e. meaningless blather. But quite a lot of god talk does consist of testable claims, and the meaningless blather is being used to provide a "philosophical justification" for the actual testable claims. I have no idea what atheists say at skeptical conferences (they're not my cup of tea, but if they're yours, more power to you), but if any critic of atheist participation wishes to persuade me, they can actually argue that the atheists are either actually mistaken or making philosophical points at a skeptical conference. Lippard does neither.

It's bad enough that atheists are accused of "dogmatically" adhering to skepticism, but I can deal with that. But it burns my fucking shorts when skeptics insinuate that atheism is an a priori dogma. And it also burns my fucking shorts when skeptics demand that I shut up not because I'm wrong, but because I'm hurting their cause, such as when Lippard says,
The broader skeptical movement produces greater social benefits by promoting more critical thinking in the general public than does the narrower group of skeptical atheists who primarily argue against religion and especially the smaller subset who are so obsessed that they are immediately dismissed by the broader public as monomaniacal cranks.
If I wanted to support your agenda, I would support your agenda. But I have my own agenda, and I don't demand that you shut up because you're not supporting me. Tell me I'm wrong and I'll listen, but if you tell me to shut up because I'm unpopular then you're just going to get a big fat "Go fuck yourself."

So, go fuck yourself, Lippard.


  1. 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?"

  2. That scepticism = atheism is really a claim that sceptical inquiry would conclude that there was no god - and that this would be so *in any conceivable universe*.

    So confusing scepticism and atheism is a species of confusing method and conclusion.

    Lippard also correctly identifies how atheism may be the result of other processes than scepticism. Adherence to certain political beliefs would be one of these, and these political beliefs may be founded on a rather uncritical and even anti-sceptical outlook.


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