Are Skeptics feeling left out in the cold?


The relationship between skepticism and atheism is complicated. For starters, skepticism is a process with which you evaluate information and claims, while atheism is merely the absence of belief in the supernatural claims of various religions in regard to a “higher power”. Despite the fact we all agree that skepticism is more of a “toolkit” to evaluate claims rather than an actual belief, invariably there are bound to be strong correlations between hard-nosed skepticism and disbelief in God.

There are serious skeptics who are religious, and undoubtedly these people are upset skeptic conventions are being dominated entirely by religious discussions. Jeff Wagg feels strongly about the fact Skepticon is being invaded with talks that, while critical of religious belief, may have too little to do with skepticism. He called his article “Are Atheists Delusional”. I’ll answer that question Jeff. No, we really aren’t.

Yes, there are many aspects of skepticism which have nothing to do with religion. I think, however, the biggest issue today is how uncritical, faith based reasoning has allowed the majority of the population of this planet to associate themselves with one religion or another. Their beliefs, unsupported by any evidence, are so sacred that society is expected to tolerate and even celebrate views which are, more often than not, in complete opposition to science and skepticism in general.

I think the bigger problem here is the inclusion of atheism is creating a divide in a community that also has religious believers as members. The perhaps uncomfortable discussion which never seems to take place, namely that faith is in direct opposition to skepticism, is now front and center, and it’s bound to leave a lot of folks angry about the “atheist takeover”.

Jeff claims skepticism is entirely a “scientific endeavor”, and God is an untestable hypothesis beyond the purview of skepticism, but that’s simply untrue. Religions make claims about the physical world that are testable: prayer has an effect, a virgin gave birth to a human, and miracles happen, to name only a few. Sure, the Spinozan God is abstract, impersonal, and untestable, but so is the flying spaghetti monster and we have no qualms about rejecting these kinds of hypothesis. Why does religion and God get a free ride on this skeptic train?

If you’re religious and a skeptic, I’m sorry to say you’re shitty at both. Rejecting the claims of iridology, homeopathy, and acupuncture but accepting a god-man was born of a virgin and resurrected after his physical death, means that you really haven’t been applying the “toolkit of skepticism” to all aspects of your belief. Odds are you compartmentalized that part of your beliefs in order to avoid uncomfortable questions about your own faith. It sucks for those skeptics out there who also have a belief in God, but as a species we can’t keep coddling childish beliefs that enslave minds. You may not like it, but trust me when I say the atheist invasion has just begun. Is it a coincidence that Skepticon is now bigger than TAM and CFI’s conferences?

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Comments (14)

  • avatar

    Jan Schipper

    I agree, Skepticism does lead one to inquire all claims on the basis of evidence. No credible evidence has yet been put forward for the existence off any god(s), therefore we should conclude that bronze-age texts are not really the best way to inform us about how to live our private and public lives.

  • avatar

    Roger

    I like a reply Jeff got from “AZAtheist”:

    There was a “skeptic’s” conference recently in Tucson that dealt with only UFOs. Jeff, do you say that that is not skepticism?

    Questioning religion’s claims is not atheism. It may lead, however, to a lack of belief. Not all skeptics are skeptical about everything in the same way. There is no set list of things you can or cannot question if you are to be called a member of the self selecting club we call skepticism. Quite frankly, what gives anyone the right to define what is an what is not skepticism?

    At the local university there exists a “Skeptic’s Club.” Their main activity is dealing with the religious proselytizing that occurs at the university. It is their choice and I’d guess a decision as to how to best spend their time. Jeff, what gives you the right to tell them that “they’re doing it wrong?”

    Seriously, I’ve been trying to put my finger on why this new movement of “you’re doing it wrong” or “you’re not helping” that seems to have taken hold a little ahead of TAM 8 bothers me so much. I think what bothers me is that there are self righteous folks that think that they have the keys to skepticism. That only they know the “enlightened path” to skepticism.

    In summary, who defines what people can or cannot be skeptical about? Who says that all conferences must cover all aspects of skepticism? Be very careful when you’re tempted to say, “But it’s not skepticism.” You may be putting your foot in it.

  • avatar

    Jeff Wagg

    Yes, you are confirming my fears here. You’re also a bit confused.

    While the notion of God can’t be defined let alone tested, specific claims can be. You seem to equate the two when you say “God is an untestable hypothesis beyond the purview of skepticism, but that’s simply untrue. Religions make claims about the physical world that are testable: prayer has an effect, a virgin gave birth to a human, and miracles happen, to name only a few.” Testing a specific claim doesn’t rule out the existence of a god.

    At any rate, I suspect your “side” is winning. Skepticism and atheism are becoming the same thing in the minds of many, which I think means the end of the skeptics movement, and the marginalization of the atheist cause. I don’t think either is desirable.

  • avatar

    LaVerne Knight-West

    Good points Jacob. I don’t think that “God”should get a free ride on this skeptic train. I just think that while it might be at the forefront of today’s discussions it is not the only discussion as you pointed out.

    I’m not shitty at both. First, not all religion involves the Virgin Mary. Not all religion involves Mohamed. (sp). What all skeptics need to get is that this battle for the minds of people will not be won by a teariing apart but rather by an common ground. You are the people who tell me not to ascribe to an authority. As I see it for every study there is a counter study. And I think it a waste of time to argue in this country over the effect of prayer when in Uganda “real” skeptical advocates like James Oden, are fighting to save lives from religious and superstitious zealots. I say take that fight there where they will kill you for it. I think that to sit behind a computer and sputter words of war on the wrong folks is cowardly. Of course….it has its place….because those who speak out keep us thinking. And thinking is what saves us.

    No one can do it alone. Slaves didn’t set themselves free. It was through some critical thinking and joining of forces and voices that action…that people saw that slavery was wrong. The NAACP had the help of Jews even though most Blacks at the time were probably Christians. If we believe that we can do it with just one message we are in for trouble. As I said before…there are no chosen peoples. And when ANY FACTION BELEIVES THAT they are in trouble.

    I am the person who beleives that this country is in trouble when atheists are the most hated group in America. Not all atheists are the same. And are good, decent, and caring folks. I am the person who will stand between a gun muzzle and an atheist…because to silence you is to eventually silence me. Diversity is the key to success.

  • avatar

    Jacob Fortin

    ^ I really don’t think it means the end of either Jeff. As for testable claims that don’t rule out God, I think it just goes back to the atheist position that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, but the same could be said of the huge variety of pseudo-scientific garbage we reject all the time.

    I suspect the real motivation here is irrational beliefs that have not yet been properly scrutinized, God being the biggest one. Sure, skepticism in general doesn’t want to alienate believers who could benefit from having the baloney detecting kit”, but why the fuck do we have to coddle ignorance?

  • avatar

    Jeff Wagg

    “I think it just goes back to the atheist position that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I’ve never thought of that as an “atheist” position. Interesting.

    If you assume the null set, as I do, then there is no evidence for any definition of god as a deity that I’ve encountered. But I’m just me. Other people can come to other conclusions, and I’m fine with letting them. I can’t tell someone who has a god-belief that they’re a “shitty skeptic and religious” person. I don’t have the evidence necessary to back up that claim. I don’t have their experience, so unless they have a specific claim, or they’re trying to persuade me to their point of view, I have nothing to say on the matter.

  • avatar

    Jacob Fortin

    I don’t think “experience” is a good way to evaluate a claim regardless. If the belief in God is nothing more than deism, then you are right; I can’t refute their claims. But I think you’ll find that only a fraction of believers fall into that category. The rest all make very specific claims about the world, and the Universe, none of which have ever had confirmation (beyond their own anecdotal stories, of course).

    I’m willing to keep an open mind, but in the same way I am in regards to any other discipline. Why is it that the claim of religions are somehow beyond the ability of skeptics to question and ultimately repudiate? This year’s Skepticon speakers seem to be aiming at Christianity in general. If in their speech they never once referred to atheism, would it still be as divisive to you?

  • avatar

    Jeff Wagg

    I’ve said repeatedly that the claims of religion are under skeptical scrutiny so long as they are testable. Nothing gets a pass. “God loves you” isn’t testable. “There is a heaven and hell” isn’t testable. “We are born again after we die” isn’t testable. Etc.

    If the conference were designed to analyze testable claims that are made by Christians, such as “prayer can heal the sick” or “statues bleed” etc, I’d think it was within the realm of skepticism, albeit a bit narrow in focus. I don’t care if atheism is mentioned or not. It’s not a dirty word, though it is one that means different things to different people.

  • avatar

    Oscar

    All claims can become untestable given enough ad hoc rationalizations.

    e.g. God Created the world 6,013 years ago and planted evidence to the contrary to test our faith.
    “The Secret” lets you manipulate the universe with your mind and every test that would prove this claim was retro-causally changed when you “observed” the results to agree with your Skeptic bias.
    An extraterrestrial spacecraft crashed in my backyard but the Government came and hid all the evidence.
    There is a dragon in my garage but it is invisible, incorporeal and breaths heatless fire.

  • avatar

    Pained

    That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence. — Christopher Hitchens

    This appears to sum up most of your arguments. You know who you are. If you cannot handle the pain of self critique, why bother with the banter?

  • avatar

    the snide atheist

    If someone claims to be both religious and a skeptic, I doubt they really understand either.

  • avatar

    Eric S.

    I think Jeff et al are wildly inconsistent in the application of skepticism and respect for the role of evidence.

    Saying “God loves you” is untestable is wrong.
    It’s wrong in two ways.

    First, the believer of such is saying they know the mind or intentions of God. How do they know that? Does God speak English? Did he emote over tea? Is his love platonic or does God require roofies? Mary deserves to know. Martyrs and zealots truly need to know.

    Next the entire statement implies a God exists. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Absence of evidence is a terrible reason to continue belief or deference to the belief in something so extraordinary.

    Belief in anything should not be maintained without evidence if you’re going to keep your skeptics badge.

    In short, the blathering of “God loves you” is no different than the blatherings of a lunatic. Both have identical evidential foundations. One is just shielded by a long history of deference that you gladly kowtow to.

  • avatar

    Adam_Y

    Eric then how do you explain the fact that a significant number of skeptics and atheists use that argument all the time when talking about evolution and the eye.

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