Sunday, November 21, 2010

Skepticism and Atheism—Is there a Difference?

 
PZ Myers reports from Skepticon III in Missouri that some people are upset because there's too much atheism at a skeptical meeting. This leads naturally to a discussion about the difference between being a skeptic and being an atheist. Can you be a theist and still be genuinely skeptical?

Jim Lippard has an interesting point of view on this question. You should read his blog posting [What to think vs. how to think] and join the discussion on The Lippard Blog.



18 comments:

  1. Yes, there's a difference.

    Back when I was involved in a religion, I was still a skeptic. I guess that's why I ended my involvement.

    At present, we have some pretty insane ideas coming from religion, particularly the religious right. So it is hardly surprising if skeptics seem to be particularly concerned with religion.

    And that reminds me. I have long been bothered by the fact that people are not skeptical about skepticism. And I say that, because quite a bit of what I see coming from skeptics is what seems to be a knee jerk kind of skepticism, rather than a considered analytic skepticism.

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  2. My thought is that any atheist skeptic should be very understanding of theist skeptics that they meet.

    Religion has ideas embedded within it that make it extraordinarily difficult to leave it behind. Some people cannot do that and that should not be held against them. Keeping people from being religious is far easier than bringing people out from under it's clutches.

    Nobody's going to accuse Martin Gardner or Pamela Gay of Astronomy Cast fame of not being of great benefit to skeptics everywhere. Gardner was a Deist and Pamela is a Christian.

    To me, skepticism is a process, not a conclusion - reasonable people can, do and should come to differing conclusions.

    Does this mean that I think religion is a good thing? No. But the level of information about and regarding my rejection of it is a vast thing, and not something that can be easily tossed over to someone in even a year or two. It took me decades of learning to be where I am today and I'm not going to begrudge anyone who doesn't wish to go through the steps necessary to arrive at the place where I'm at.

    What I will do is inform the curious, speak out against the Fred Phelps of the world and engage in reasonable debate with theists to show other interested parties the problems with the other side's position. People who have no wish to confront something as scary as leaving a religion may well be 'part of the problem,' but shutting them out is missing a great chance to allow them to absorb the information they need to discover the truth and people who identify as skeptics are well on their way.

    So, don't shut out theists, bring them in. You're not going to change every mind, but that's an unrealistic goal anyways. Do what you can, be good about it but don't shy away from debate should they engage you. Close enough is often good enough. Spread the word effectively, but don't play the exlusionary games that religions play - that's both wrong and stupid in my view.

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  3. Atheism is fundamentally an *ideology*. Therefore, one cannot seriously expect an atheist to be skeptical with respect to his own worldview.

    The best example of how atheism obstructs science is seen in how naturalists refuse to accept the manifest objections to much of evolutionary theory - they obfuscate, censor, ignore and avoid any evidence that is presented which detracts from their atheist perspective.

    No, an atheist cannot be skeptical and objective. He is as fanatical in his ways as any fundamentalist.

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  4. Reza:

    Strawmen are non-arguments. You weaken your position by attempting to pass off a Strawman as an actual argument.

    Your argument is valid, but it is unsound and therefore, ignorable.

    One can reach an atheistic viewpoint by simply asking for the evidence to back up the claims of the various religions.

    I study philosophy of religion & I have yet to see a convincing argument that wasn't fallacious or a non-fallacious argument that was convincing except in one case: Deism. I ultimately reject the claim towards Deism, but there are valid, sound arguments that imply it. They're vastly overmatched by the arguments that imply naturalism, but a reasonable person can accept deism and not be inconsistent with what we observe of nature, thought and morality. As soon as you start adding attributes to the Divine, something gives.

    In your case, it seems to me that what gave was the ability to be inconsistent with nature.

    If you want to understand evolution, start with a book that at first glance, has nothing to do with it: Godel, Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. You need to understand the ideas behind recursion, repetition, reinforcement and complexity that Douglas explains so well.

    After that, you might want to dive into some pop-sci chaos theory books, to cement your understanding. Tangentially related is A New Kind of Science by Wolfram. It's not the best book ever written by a long shot, but again, Wolfram is able to espouse the nature of complex systems arising out of simple rules to an extraordinary degree. The book also has the advantage of being free online.

    Then, and ONLY then, should you attempt to approach science, whether evolutionary or otherwise. Your lack of understanding is clear, but the journey towards that understanding is fun and amazing!

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  5. "Atheism is fundamentally an *ideology*."

    And he's going to out himself as a creationist in 5 ...

    "Therefore, one cannot seriously expect an atheist to be skeptical with respect to his own worldview."

    4 ...

    "The best example of how atheism obstructs science is seen in how naturalists"

    3...

    "refuse to accept the manifest objections to much of evolutionary"

    ... oh fuck, that was even faster than normal. Doesn't he know the score? He's meant to pretend to be openminded for at least 400 words before he says 'take Noah's Ark, for example'.

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  6. "Atheism is fundamentally an *ideology*."

    And he's going to out himself as a creationist in 5 ...

    "Therefore, one cannot seriously expect an atheist to be skeptical with respect to his own worldview."

    4 ...

    "The best example of how atheism obstructs science is seen in how naturalists"

    3...

    "refuse to accept the manifest objections to much of evolutionary"

    ... oh fuck, that was even faster than normal. Doesn't he know the score? He's meant to pretend to be openminded for at least 400 words before he says 'take Noah's Ark, for example'.

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  7. My feeling ... a religious person who is truly sceptic is sceptical towards their own religion. The scepticism is more important to them than blind faith or taking what their priest says on trust.

    A thoughtful theist who brings the full force of their reason onto their religion, who hates faith and demands logic and evidence. Good. If they are still theists after that, then it's because they've thought about it. Personally, I don't see how any religion stands up to even basic sceptical scrutiny, and the lengths religions go to punish those who try speaks to that. But I know a lot of smart, thoughtful people who are religious for the right reasons. They're on our side.

    As for scepticism and theism ... what are the demands? If it's play nice, then: no. We'll play fair. Yahweh gets the same treatment as Thor and unicorns.

    I'm a sceptic about my atheism. One piece of evidence for God, I'd be a theist. My atheism would become an ethical choice. If God exists, he's horrible. If we find proof He existed, the next step would be to find a subtle knife and take the fight to the smelly old tyrant.

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  8. I agree with what was repeatedly stated (particularly by PZ) during Skepicon 3.
    If you apply skepticism to your religion, you'll end up atheist.
    But plenty of people can be skeptical about many things and box away other things away from critical scrutiny.
    I see no reason to kick people out because they haven't applied skepticism to all their views (yet, hopefully). They should be welcomed in.
    However, neither should they expect cherished beliefs to be immune to scrutiny. If your belief in 911 being an inside job is something you can stand to hear others criticize, you shouldn't be hanging out with skeptics. Same with your god box, homeopathy, or whatever else. You're welcome to be there to help discuss bigfoot and acupuncture. You just can't tell the rest of us to shut up when we move on to other topics.

    And to be clear, Reza's comment that atheism is an ideology is complete bunk. He's just flat wrong and clearly has no idea what he's talking about.

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  9. People who have no wish to confront something as scary as leaving a religion may well be 'part of the problem,' but shutting them out is missing a great chance to allow them to absorb the information they need to discover the truth and people who identify as skeptics are well on their way.

    So, don't shut out theists, bring them in.



    I mostly agree with you, but you seem to have forgotten that there are some people who do not want the topic of theism confronted at all, and who feel that this very act is a shut out of theists. In other words, hey we have theists in the camp, don't say anything about their theism or they will leave the camp!

    I welcome theists into the skeptic camp, and I do believe that they can make valuable contributions to skepticism, but theism does not get a free pass, and if I'm required to give them a free pass to get them to stay, then I would rather they just leave because the free pass is self-defeating -- skeptics should not engage in special plead exemptions.

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  10. The best example of how atheism obstructs science is seen in how naturalists refuse to accept the manifest objections to much of evolutionary theory - they obfuscate, censor, ignore and avoid any evidence that is presented which detracts from their atheist perspective.

    Your best example is a gross generalization completely devoid of any specifics? If you're going to troll, at least put some effort into it, man.

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  11. andlp said:
    "I mostly agree with you, but you seem to have forgotten that there are some people who do not want the topic of theism confronted at all."

    Those people are free to start their own Skeptic-Theism=Con. They are rather missing the point of skepticism, aren't they?

    However, not all theists (or I would add, in my opinion even MOST theists) are in that camp.

    I think the best course of action in reply to people like that is to point out exactly what you said: Skepticism applies to everything - religion gets no free passes. And since religion is a very large force in the world, it's very important for skeptics to address it - skeptically.

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  12. "Skepticism applies to everything - religion gets no free passes."

    The other thing ... you can't be sceptical about 'religion', you have to be sceptical about religious *claims*.

    We can chip away at the individual claims.

    Theists who don't want religious claims examined strike me as being like the theists who feel religious claims are outside the scope of science. Claims like 'we know how the universe was created' ... which is about as scientific a statement as it's possible to make.

    The other thing ... theists are sceptical about other theists, most are sceptical about many of the claims of their own holy books. They're already involved in the 'sceptical about religion' business.

    There's one exception I'd make - we shouldn't discuss the existence of God. But not because it's not a valid topic, but just because it's completely mined out. There is absolutely no evidence for the existence of God. There is a tiny linguistic and philosophical loophole that allows him to possibly exist. That's it. All a sceptic can do, at a con or otherwise, is state that. If people still want to pray to that, we're not going to be able to stop them.

    My aim, as an atheist, isn't that one day I'll write down a formula that proves God doesn't exist. It's that one day, everyone understands that believing in God is a colossal waste of time and effort, that all the positives (and some of the negatives) credited to religion are just what people do anyway. The scientific model doesn't need gods. Neither does a moral human being. 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you' is great advice. That's presumably why Jesus plagiarised it. It's the next bit 'because a supernatural force says so' that's the bullshit.

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  13. J.Random,

    I understand "evolution" perfectly well. It is a fact - life is evolving and adapting, albeit mostly being in stasis.

    The atheist-naturalist-evolutionist, however, wants to suppose that minor changes in organisms can translate into major biological developments: this is not science, it is *ideology*.

    All of the valid objections made to the idea that natural selection can build complex and holistic features. for example, are simply ignored and obfuscated. The atheist-evolutionist can't bear to accept that he is wrong so he makes an argument from wishful thinking and regards it as being "scientific."

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  14. Reza,

    Argument from Failure of the Imagination is hardly something worthy of your time, or mine.

    If you don't 'believe' in evolution, then you don't understand it. Really, it's that simple. Not 'believing' in evolution is precisely like not 'believing' in electrons.

    If you do not believe that evolution can create the forms that it has created in the past 500Gy or so, then you do not understand enough of the concepts of racheting or massively parallel operation or dynamical systems to make an accurate mental representation of what is actually being said by people who are trying to educate you.

    I suggest you go through and read the books I presented upthread. You may, of course, deny yourself the opportunity to learn, but to my blackened, baby-eating atheist heart, willful ignorance is the only unforgivable sin. In point of fact, none of the books I directed you to have anything to do with evolution, they just talk about concepts that are broadly applicable in virtually every field of study. You'll be a better person for having read them, regardless of how you feel about the great conspiracy of evolution.

    Also, you might want to just provisionally accept what people with far, far better educations that you say, it'll rid you of that rather silly persecution complex. Then, you can educate yourself in the matter with a clear head and critique things in such a way that people who know what they're talking about will take you seriously, because until you can demonstrate that you have even the smallest level of understanding regarding evolution, you are a non-participant.

    Peace.

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  15. @J Random

    Well, I am not an amateur to molecular evolution and I have recently published an article on the subject of natural selection:

    http://www.springerlink.com/content/q767h613177m34r1/

    I suggest you download and read it.

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  16. @ reza,
    If you are not an amateur in the
    'business' of biology, so why
    didn't you published your article in a properly pubmed listed, peer reviewed 'biological' journal ?
    Why did you choose to publish
    it in the "Journal of Bioeconomics" ?
    Why do you ignore basically all the relevant "literature" ? You should at least give credits to the Dico fellows and Answers in enesis...

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  17. @ reza

    What is Bioeconomics ?

    Why would I want to pay USD$35 to read your paper published in what appears to be a social science journal whose articles are not cited in any papers that are published in real peer reviewed journals ?

    Why doesn't the abstract for your paper give a precis of what mechanisms are "capable of producing the kind of innovation necessary for the more revolutionary changes in an organism’s systems" since you seem to rule out natural selection ?

    You wouldn't happen to be some sort of ID troll would you ?

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  18. I think the biggest problem for me is this: what does it mean or entail to be skeptical?

    Now, I have, in general, some issues with skeptcism far beyond religion or theism. I disagree, for example, with this quote from Jim Lippard from that article:

    "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)"

    I don't think that follows from skepticism at all. I think you can do all that without accepting skepticism. I think I DO all that without accepting skepticism. I've argued in the past that I think some methods for doing all of that sometimes work best when they DON'T use skepticism, and in fact when they explicitly reject skepticism.

    But this all depends on how skepticism is defined. It's actually quite possible that, in attitude, my view could be called skeptical by what today's skeptics mean by "skeptical". But then my epistemic beliefs come into play. Because I don't think that being skeptical, in and of itself, can support the contention of "If you don't have enough evidence for something, the only rational position is to not believe". I reject this, depending on how stringent the "enough evidence is". I tend towards an idea of "If you don't know if it's true or false, choose to believe it or not based on how it fits with the other things you believe".

    If I need to hold that strong of a default to be a skeptic, then I may never be a skeptic ... but then I think that I can be skeptical about that skeptical commitment.

    While at the same time not believing in homeopathy, astrology, and most of the things that people are saying it's skeptical to reject, or that you need skepticism to challenge.

    So, am I a skeptic, or not? And should I really care?

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