Atheism and Skepticism: Fight to the Death!

Cross-posted from Startled Disbelief.

I’m a little tired of this.

Jeff Wagg’s article Are Atheists Delusional? Thoughts on Skepticon3 started the firefight, with answering volleys from P.Z. Myers and Jen McCreight, with the Matt Dillahunty, Russell Glasser, Shilling Cadena, and Dennis Loubet of The Non-Prophets soon joining the fray.

Needless to say, I’m on the everyone-but-Jeff-Wagg side.

Skepticism ≠ Atheism

Jeff Wagg makes this point several times, and I agree!

But similarly:

rectangle ≠ square
oval ≠ circle
human ≠ mammal

Many people arrive at their atheism as a result of their skepticism, and I would contend that atheism is a skeptical position. In most cases, atheism is a subset of skepticism, as squares are subsets of rectangles.

Can Skepticism Address Religious Claims?

Jeff Wagg’s position seems to be a (qualified) “no”:

I believe that if you equate skepticism with anything other than science, you’ve missed the point. As for Christianity, skepticism has nothing to say except about testable claims associated therein. Bleeding statues? Yes, skepticism comes into play. Jesus rose and is in heaven? Seems unlikely, but there’s not a lot more to say.

But evidence is not the only thing in our skeptical toolbox. As I’ve explained before, we look for many things, including (but not limited to):

  • Plausibility: How well does this idea fit with what we currently know about how the universe functions?
  • Falsifiability: Is the claim well and rigorously defined? Is there a way to prove it false, at least in principle?
  • Evidence: Has the claim been previously investigated? If so, what were the results of the investigation?
  • Sound Reasoning: Does the claim rest upon logical fallacies or cognitive biases?

Here’s what Jen has to say:

But to those of us who came to atheism through skeptical analysis of religion, it was literally inconceivable how skeptics couldn’t be atheists. The only explanation the panelists could think of for this current debate was that it was based on public relations, not intellectual merit – that yes, skepticism leads to atheism, but please hush about it so we don’t scare away the religious members. Yet there’s another explanation often given – that you can’t directly test the God hypothesis, therefore please hush about it.

And that’s where I must call bullshit.

Agreed! I’ll just quote something that you’ve probably seen before:

In cases where no unambiguous evidence is forthcoming, the burden of proof dictates the default position. There are two possible default positions for belief in a proposition when evidence is absent: (1) believe every proposition until proven false; or (2) withhold belief until propositions are proven true.

The problem with the first option is that it is logically inconsistent. I’ll illustrate by way of example.

Proposition 1: “Leprechauns place a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow.”
Proposition 2: “Leprechauns do not exist.”

With no evidence forthcoming, option (1) forces you to accept both propositions, even though they are mutually inconsistent.

For this reason, we accept option (2), and conclude that the burden of proof lies with the claimant. If you claim that a deity exists and it created the universe, you bear the burden of proof.

The Skeptical Litmus Test

Jeff sez:

I’m convinced that a litmus test over who’s a skeptic and who isn’t based on religious belief is harmful to both movements.


No one said there should be a skeptical litmus test. Well, maybe someone has, but if so that person is an idiot. Imposing such a test would be very counterproductive, indeed inimical to the freedom of expression for which the skeptical community strives.

Of course you can be religious and still be a skeptic. But you can also believe that homeopathy works and still be a skeptic. You can believe that George W. Bush is a reptoid alien and still be a skeptic. You’re just not universally applying your skepticism. We’re probably all guilty of this from time to time—we probably all have our sacred cows—but, as skeptics, we should try really hard to recognise these tendencies in ourselves and eliminate them where we find them.

Freedom of Thought and Expression

Although I disagree with Jen when she says that “[r]eligion is one of, if not the most important issue [sic] people should be skeptical about”. I think that alt-med probably wins out—but it’s debatable. That said, I’m of the opinion that religion is probably the most interesting topics that we can discuss.

It seems to me that this is mostly a public relations issue. People probably want skepticism to keep its hands off of religion because religion is the superstition of choice ’round these parts. In trying to grow the skeptical movement, many vocal skeptics don’t want to offend the public’s deeply held convictions, because it will make us less popular.

And I can understand that.

But I think that the idea that all propositions are open to question is fundamental to skepticism. Freedom of expression is important. Regardless of whether or not they have come to the same conclusions, I think that it behoves skeptics to be open to questioning these sorts of ideas.

The Winnipeg Skeptics is not an atheist organisation. In an email exchange that I had with John Feakes of Winnipeg’s creation museum a few months ago, I had to clarify this:

The Winnipeg Skeptics is not an atheist organisation. It is dedicated to a method of inquiry, not to any conclusions. The reason that it has the “atheist” Meetup tag attached to it is that it’s the sort of organisation that appeals to many (but not all) atheists, and many skeptics find it via Meetup’s search functions. Although it’s true that the majority of our members are atheist, deists and even Christians have attended our meetups in the past and are always welcome. There is no skeptical litmus test that one must pass to be a member.

And that’s the way that it should be.

Hat tip to Pharyngula, Blag Hag, and The Non-Prophets.


7 thoughts on “Atheism and Skepticism: Fight to the Death!

  1. I’m not sure exactly where we disagree. You state that you’re “not on my side” and yet you end up agreeing with me on everything. It’s kind of confusing.

    1. Great! Sorry for the confusion, then!

      Many of the places in which I disagreed with your article were fairly subtle, and I tried not to blow them out of proportion.

      For example, in terms of skepticism ≠ atheism, I agreed. At the same time, I don’t think that anyone had suggested that skepticism was the same as atheism. You seemed to be implying (or at least, I was inferring) that the fact that Skepticon had a large number of talks about religion/irreligion meant that the organisers were conflating atheism with skepticism. I don’t think that they were. The fact that Skepticon’s organisers recognise that a relationship exists between the two does not mean that they believe them to be identical.

      Another example. You say:

      Jesus rose and is in heaven? Seems unlikely, but there’s not a lot more to say.

      Where I disagree is with “there’s not a lot more to say”. I think that there’s plenty more to say, as I attempted to highlight above. Not only that, but there are many religious claims that, while not empirical claims (like the bleeding statues), can still have a huge negative impact on the lives of others: the claim that abortions are always morally wrong; the claim that human beings are inherently sinful or evil; the claim that in order to be good, one must accept a certain deity; etc. Regardless of whether these claims can be addressed by evidence (the last one may be, of course, if you can agree on a definition for “good”), I think that it behooves us to say, “Whoa, hold on—if you make claims like that, you’ve got to back them up!”

      You also say:

      I’m a skeptic, and I don’t see that skepticism must lead to atheism. I’m convinced that a litmus test over who’s a skeptic and who isn’t based on religious belief is harmful to both movements.

      I don’t think that anyone is attempting to apply a skeptical litmus test. I can’t imagine that the folks at Skepticon turned anyone away because they were religious. I certainly hope that religious folk weren’t denounced as unskeptical.

      I’d also like to note that I think you were unfairly criticised for (to quote P.Z.) “deploring that 3 of the 15 talks are explicitly atheistic”. I was pretty sure that it was more than that, and that you had just picked three examples, but when I visited to verify it before posting, the site was down—all that came up was one of those placeholder sites with a bunch of ads and links to Google searches. I assumed that it was down for maintenance or some such, and it’s back up now.

      In fact, looking at the roster, I can safely say that I wouldn’t call it Skepticon. So I sort of agree with you there, too. At the same time, I don’t think that calling it Skepticon is inaccurate, for the same reason that calling a square a “rectangle” isn’t inaccurate—it’s just imprecise.

      Lots of people seem to take what are really very small disagreements and blow them way out of proportion. We saw this most recently with Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a Dick” speech. What seemed to me to be a minor disagreement about the prevalence of the “dick” problem somehow erupted into histrionics about free speech or the right to be a vocal atheist or the right to criticise intellectual dishonesty. I want to avoid that, wherever possible.

      Apparently our disagreement remained so small that it was indistinguishable from no disagreement at all. I’m okay with that. 🙂

  2. Jeff,

    Explain to me how a person can be a skeptic of my favorite topic, Creationism, and not follow the ladder down to the root of the argument. The argument is rotted in the legitimacy of Religion (in north America Christians are the main purveyors of this myth). How can you not explore this topic and come to the conclusion of religion being a man made fantasy to justify actions or events in nature. Creationism is impossible to defend in concept based on current evidence and it will only become direr for religious communities as more and more evidence surfaces. Short of a world wide divine intervention, I do not see this movement to rational explanation slowing.

    I would suggest that Skeptics do not equal Atheists. Skeptics identify more with secularism. Keeping superstition out of scientifically proven evidence is important to a skeptic. Skeptics are also not anti-Christian. That is an arrogant statement if it is made. Skeptics are secularists who want to explore plausibility using scientific concepts rather than religious doctrine. Explain to me Creationism and leave out god and the bible. That being, the only evidence put on the table of legitimacy, makes it an impossible task. But I challenge any creationist do so.

    Skepticon can still be Skeptical of Religion as, let’s face it, it’s the most popular farce in existence in the world today with the largest following. If there where over 5 billion people who read a book that said someone spotted Bigfoot on a spaceship from mars, we would be having a completely different conversation. Unfortunately, 5 billion people have imaginary friends and do not subscribe to Bigfoot sightings.

    I speak for my personal opinion and not those of Winnipeg Skeptics. I would just hope that they agree with me. Ha! Ha! Ha! Please feel free to challenge my opinion.

  3. I discovered this site through Carolin’s piece in the Freep.
    Five years ago when I started blogging, my mandate was to seek out new forms of intelligent life and make fun of “Creationalmalism”. From the getgo my mantra was, “If you are overtly diagnostic about Life, you’ll probably DIE Agnostic.”

    What inevitably happens in cyberworld is that we usually end up preaching to the choir of like-minded bloggers.

    Now that I’m in my mid-fifties and running low on testosterone, I’ve no illusions about changing anyone’s mind..especially about their faith. Like a lot of folks, I arrived as a born-again empiricist via decades of yo-yoing betwixt both worlds. I was a Pentec’hostile’ in the 80s. My inquisitiveness eventually delivered me from that indefensible point of origin.

    I still have many friends who adhere to their faith and they really don’t care about the details..although none of them are Creationists. What I find utterly bewildering is that they don’t seem to sweat what they consider the “small stuff”. That attitude goes against every angstrom of my DNA. To me it is unfathomable to not know WHY you believe. It is perplexing that so many people choose to accept the supernatural option and refuse to invest the energy into researching the W5 questions. C’est la vie.

    The recent Hitchens/Blair debate in ‘Taranna’, on whether or not Religion is a force for good in the world, proves that the USA, is an unusually religious country where 3/4s of the people believe that religion is good, as opposed to the 1/3 of Canucks who agreed. However the thing that excites me is that we are starting to talk about it. Soon the genome mappers a will wade in with all sorts of evidential evolutionary findings.

    This is easily the most exciting moment in history for honest (hyperbole-free if you can resist the temptation DOH! the flesh is weak) discussions about Reality. We should be mindful of others and not abuse our freedom, paid for in blood and ashes by some very brave people, about what it means to have evolved so far, that we are able to create our very own extinction level event…maybe even before the Rapture.

    1. However the thing that excites me is that we are starting to talk about it.

      Agreed! To me, that’s the most important thing!

      Thanks for your thoughts, Donn.

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