Saturday, November 27, 2010

Skepticism is not equal to atheism

First, I want to make the context of this discussion absolutely clear. This controversy is not about the members of some specific organization such as JREF or CFI debating how best to focus their own organization, their own reputation, and their own time, money and effort. If some organization wants to focus skeptical inquiry on evolution, or global warming, or faith healing, then groovy. Knock yourselves out. I might or might not actually join you, but I'll be at least cheering from the sidelines. I have never seen any atheist demand that any skeptical or scientific organization of which they are not a member stop focusing on whatever they focus on and focus on religion.

This controversy is about an organization, Skepticon, deciding to use their own organization, reputation, time, money and effort, to skeptically inquire into religion. And some so-called skeptics have howled in protest: How dare you mention skepticism and atheism in the same breath! They have nothing to do with one another.

The controversy apparently starts with Jeff Wagg's post, Are Atheists Delusional? Thoughts on Skepticon3. Wagg commits a logical fallacy so egregious that he is saved from charges of mendacity only by making the fallacy explicit; we are forced to conclude, therefore, that Wagg is either completely stupid or fails to understand basic logic. Wagg's reasoning is as follows:
  1. Skepticon organizer J.T. Eberhard says, "[I]t is the opinion of most of our organizers that skepticism leads directly to some brand of atheism/metaphysical naturalism."
  2. Wagg concludes, "[T]he organizers of Skepticon believe that Skepticism = Atheism
  3. But skepticism is not equal to atheism; one could be an atheist without being a skeptic
Wagg's intellectual incompetence is truly breathtaking. Eberhard's claim that skepticism leads directly to atheism claims an asymmetric, non-commutative, non-identity relationship (a leads to b does not entail that b leads to a or that a and b are the same thing). Equality is a symmetric, commutative, identity relationship (a=b entails that b=a; a and b are the same thing). Wagg is changing Eberhard's claim. This is a tactic more characteristic of philosophers, theologians, politicians, and advertising executives, not skeptics and scientists.

Intellectuals have to take intellectual honesty and integrity seriously. I'm just a freshman in community college, with very low standards. If I put a howler like that in a paper, any of my professors would reject the paper. If I didn't actually include the quotation, I would be kicked out of school for academic malfeasance. Just putting out such a dishonest interpretation is at least irresponsible; as we have seen, commenters will quote the interpretation without the source. Wagg's defenders, when repeating the "Skepticism = Atheism" claim without including the original quotation are actually lying, and Wagg has at least irresponsibly facilitated this lie.

Wagg is correct on his second point: Skepticism is not equal to atheism. But so what? Skepticism equals only skepticism; there is no specific position at all about this particular world — evolution, vaccinations, global warming, medicine, etc. — that only a skeptic can hold. To single out atheism as being somehow different because an atheist is not by definition a skeptic is an obvious fallacy of special pleading. To dishonestly change a claim to hide the fallacy just compounds the incompetence and irresponsibility.

Atheist such as myself typically agree with Eberhard: We claim the relationship between skepticism and atheism is that skepticism leads to atheism. Skepticism leads to atheism in precisely the same sense that skepticism leads to evolution, anthropogenic global warming, Special and General Relativity, the germ theory of disease, aerodynamics, a 13 billion-year-old universe and a host of other scientific conclusions about the world. We have the evidence we have, we have the skeptical method of inquiry, and applying that method to the evidence available leads inexorably to particular positions. Among those positions is that no god exists, for conceptions of god held by billions of people.

Now this claim might well be mistaken. I welcome an honest argument on the merits of the claim. I'd like to see an argument stronger than trivial psychological compatibility. I'd like to see an argument stronger than that we atheists are hurting some cause by alienating the religious. And I definitely do not want a dishonest, irresponsible straw man argument escaping mendacity to incompetence only by explication.

Since I'd welcome an argument against, it behooves me to make an argument for the claim.

First, let me provisionally define "narrow skepticism" as the position that we should determine the truth of testable claims about reality by testing them. In this sense, religious believers make many testable claims about reality: statues crying blood, faith healing, miracles, people rising from the dead, and so forth. On skeptical inquiry, one must determine that these testable claims are false. If one is like billions of religious believers, who are religious because they believe these testable and testably false claims about reality are true, skepticism does lead one to abandon this sort of religion.

What about non-testable claims about reality? Perhaps skeptics should not discuss these topics in the framework of skepticism; they certainly do not fit "narrow skepticism" as defined above. There are two big problems with this position, however. First, any skeptical conclusion can be denied in a non-testable manner. Don't like evolution? Propose the omphalos hypothesis or a non-testable version of Intelligent Design. Don't like anthropogenic global warming? Simply propose some as-yet-unknown natural mechanism; scientists can't exclude everything. More importantly, skepticism really is a method of thinking, and skeptics really are charged with promoting this method. Integral to this method must be not just testing testable claims, but also thinking about the world in terms of testable claims. To simply remain silent about non-testable claims about the world is to allow people to abandon skepticism as a method by thinking about the world in exclusively non-testable ways.

The religious make many non-testable claims about the world, chiefly in the area of ethics and morality. They claim it is is a truth about the world, about which people can have mistaken opinions, that gay people should not have sex. It is a truth about the world that a woman — at least a dirty slut who fucks — is a slave to her uterus. It is a truth about the world that those in authority deserve unquestioning obedience, because all authority is endorsed by God. It is a truth about the world that hurricanes, earthquakes, tidal waves, epidemics are God's judgment for sin, and the victims of these disasters deserve their fate. If we take a methodological view of skepticism, if we commit to think about the world in testable ways, then these claims must fall. Skeptical inquiry into these beliefs will inexorably lead a religious person to abandon that sort of religion.

What about non-testable metaphysical claims, claim not about the world, but about philosophy? When you start trying to talk about "God" at this level, you're either not making any sense whatsoever (the string of words, "God is the ground of all being" is just nonsense) or you're already an atheist. As Greg Egan observes:
As Paul Davies has said, most Christian theologians have retreated from all the things that their religion supposedly asserts; they take a much more "modern" view than the average believer. But by the time you've "modernised" something like Christianity - starting off with "Genesis was all just poetry" and ending up with "Well, of course there's no such thing as a personal God" - there's not much point pretending that there's anything religious left. You might as well come clean and admit that you're an atheist with certain values, which are historical, cultural, biological, and personal in origin, and have nothing to do with anything called God.
So just thinking about "God" metaphysically — precisely because one adheres to skepticism about the world — leads inexorably to atheism. Once you've taken God out of the world, you've taken God out.

Skepticism does lead to atheism. Religion — at every level — is a valid subject for skeptical inquiry. The "skeptical" critics of atheism are not "protecting" skepticism, they're diluting it, presumably because they want people to accept the conclusions from skeptical inquiry without demanding they commit to skeptical methodology. And, as we've seen, "skeptical" critics of atheism are only one small step above the utter intellectual dishonesty of Young Earth Creationists.


  1. Interesting argument, but I have to wonder about the reflexivity issue. That is, are claims about skepticism (i.e.-'we ought to embrace the skeptical method') testable or non-testable claims? If they're non-testable then it seems we should discard them for the same reasons we should discard the non-testable claims of religion. If they're testable, then I have to wonder what tests we use on them.

  2. That is, are claims about skepticism (i.e.-'we ought to embrace the skeptical method') testable or non-testable claims?

    Ethical claims are in some sense not claims about the world; more precisely, their claims about the world inside our heads, not the world outside our heads. Skepticism is a metaphysical position about ontology, not a meta-metaphysical position about metaphysics.

    In another sense, though, to the extent that skepticism is an instrumental normative value, it seems that accurate information about the world — and the attitudes that maintain accurate information about the world — are indeed testable. It's testably better to know the objective truth about gravity before you step off a cliff.


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