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Sunday, May 05, 2013

Atheism, Skepticism, and Canada's Centre for Inquiry

The Centre for Inquiry logo (above) is from the CFI Canada Facebook page. It's an amazing piece of work because it embodies one of the key features of CFI as an umbrella organization that brings together a number of different groups to unite around common goals.

This is a lot harder than you might think. I think of myself as a skeptic and an atheist but I am not a Humanist. If an organization like CFI were to be taken over by Humanists, I could not be a member. Other people are worried that CFI might be dominated by atheists and an atheist agenda. Some of them have left the organization because they think of themselves as skeptics who are not anti-religion.

Lately the conflict between (some) skeptics and atheists has claimed another victim. PZ Myers is so upset with the narrow view of skepticism promoted by Jamy Ian Swiss [see Skeptics have the amazing superpower of being simultaneously fierce and timid] that he now declares, "I officially divorce myself from the skeptic movement."

What's the problem? It's that some skeptic movements want to concentrate on pseduoscience and pseudomedicine and leave religion alone. They are atheists and accommodationists. Not content with just ignoring vocal atheists, they criticize their tactics as being offensive and inimical to the important skeptical causes. I don't agree with that version of skepticism and neither does PZ Myers. However, unlike PZ, I think the solution is to make it clear that people like Jamy Ian Swiss are wrong to exclude atheism from the skeptical movement.

If the skeptical movement becomes officially accommodationist and anti-atheist then I will have to abandon it just like PZ Myers did.

The advantage of CFI is that it can "accommodate" all these points of view, if we are careful. It can promote an "Extraordinary Claims" campaign that links skepticism about religion and skepticism about pseudoscience and quackery. It can launch a campaign against religion in the schools without antagonizing believers. It can promote charitable causes that bring together freethinkers, humanists, and atheists. It can sponsor Humanist officiants who can preside at weddings and funerals. It can do much to promote what all those groups have in common. All we have to do is tolerate the occasional cause that we might not completely agree with.

It's a bit ironic that PZ Myers is offended by the direction that skepticism is taking yet seems blind to the re-branding of "freethought" that he supports. I'm hoping that in Canada we can avoid the competing conferences that pit freethoughters against skeptics and atheists against humanists. So far, we seem to be on the right track with the Committee for Advancement of Scientific Skepticism (CASS) and CFI events celebrating Dawkins & Krauss and "The Unbelievers" as well as Eschaton 2012, and the upcoming Imagine No Religion.

UPDATE: Jack Scanlan of Young Australian Skeptics says, "A person can be a skeptic and believe in a god." [PZ’s Problem: Does Skepticism Makes An Exemption For Religion?]. I disagree.


Delt Machine said...


Lippard said...

"If an organization like CFI were to be taken over by Humanists, I could not be a member."

Wasn't CFI *founded as* a Humanist organization, and run by Humanists?

The Center for Inquiry was created as an umbrella organization for what is now the Council for Secular Humanism (formerly the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism) and what is now the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (formerly the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal). Is the Canadian Centre for Inquiry not affiliated with and modeled after the U.S. Center for Inquiry?

Veronica Abbass said...

I like this post so much I re-posted it. Thanks Larry!

Larry Moran said...

CFI America was, indeed, founded by Paul Kurtz and had a distinctly Humanist flavor until he was ousted. CFI Canada was founded by a group of organizations but humanist groups played a major role.

The American and Canadian CFI organizations have effectively distanced themselves from Humanism so that today it's not fair to all them Humanist Organizations.

That was the point of my post.

Larry Moran said...


Theo Bromine said...

The assertion that "A person can be a skeptic and believe in a god" is true, it's just that such a position is inherently unstable and unsustainable, and in the long run the person will be faced with either abandonning the theism or sequestering the skepticism.

Jem said...

I think there's distinction to be made between 'religion' and 'specific truth claims made by a religion'.

I think something like the Turin Shroud presents a physical object that could be the subject of skeptical, scientific inquiry. The Catholic Church has always been careful not to make any official ruling on its authenticity, but has allowed (limited) scientific testing.

It would be a little ironic if the Catholic Church was broadly skeptical about the Turin Shroud, but the skeptic movement avoided subjects like it for fear of offending them.

Being skeptical of 'religion' as a category is pointless. Five minutes into any study of theology, even the most fervent believer concedes that the core claims of religion are untestable. We can't disprove 'gods' as a concept or as a physical reality somewhere in the universe. We *can* and *should* examine and debunk individual truth claims. Again the priesthood of religion X will happily invite its flock to be skeptical about *other* religions. Exposing fraud is not insulting religion.

We should do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

Claudio said...

Isn't that many believers are skeptical about science?

roger shrubber said...

Will the various organizations be publishing creeds and catechisms to help understand which beliefs are sanctioned? That will make it easier to identify the heretics.
Is there an offical policy on whether this is the Narcissism of Small Differences, or the Tyranny of Small Differences?

andyboerger said...

Jack Scanlan said...

Hi Larry, glad you've read my piece. But can you elaborate about exactly why you disagree with my quoted statement? I'm interested in your perspective.

judmarc said...

We can't disprove 'gods' as a concept or as a physical reality somewhere in the universe. We *can* and *should* examine and debunk individual truth claims.

Not at all sure it's so neatly divisible. From the individual miracles to the most fundamental claim that prior to the existence of particles or energy there was also somehow a being sufficiently powerful and intelligent to poof the universe into being, these seem to me to be "truth claims" aimed at showing the 'reality' of god(s). If the truth claims are debunked, what godly accomplishments are left?

Larry Moran said...

Skeptics challenge those who believe in bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and fairies. The reason skeptics don't believe in these entities is because there's no evidence that they exist and it is irrational to "believe" in imaginary things.

All gods fall into the same category as bigfoot etc. Therefore, skeptics challenge belief in god(s). It is not rational to call yourself a skeptic and believe in fairies. It is not rational to call yourself a skeptic and believe in god(s).

Skepticism and atheism go hand-in-hand. You can't be a "true skeptic" and believe in god(s). You can, however, be an atheist and not be a skeptic.

Christian said...

I agree that skepticism and atheism can exclusive, if skeptics do not wish to take up the challenge of debunking religion. Why they would be afraid to (or not feel the need to) is what I cant understand at all. But yes if the skeptics become accommodationist, then let me catch the train with you. :)

K said...

"It is not rational to call yourself a skeptic and believe in god(s)."
Somewhat playing devil's advocate here, but what about Fideists like Martin Gardner? i.e. believers who are upfront about the nonrationality of their position.

Andre said...

Prof Moran

What evidence are you looking for? A tag inside a molecule that says "Made by God?"

Or do you want Him to fly in on the clouds and show you his Glory?

How about this simple statement.

"The universe declares the glory of God"

Is the existence of a universe with intelligent beings not enough for you? I mean if you really ponder on it deeply how did nothing become something?

If it was by God its supernatural if it was by material processes it is still supernatural because how did nothing become something?

Where did the laws come from? How did unintelligent genes build Nano molecular machines without a blueprint? How does random do that? How can chance do it, if chance is only mathematical term? How about time what is time? From then to now... It has no constructive powers it can not cause or create.

So no matter the chance or the time matter can not assemble itself and come alive Pasteur has shown this.

steve oberski said...

Good old bait and switch Andre Gross burbles:

What evidence are you looking for?

and then proceeds to provide precisely none.

And then puts his ignorance on an altar and worships it as a god.

Sort of like that crazy Uncle Mort who lives upstairs and occasionally escapes and runs around the neighbourhood waving his penis around until recaptured and gently led away.

What say you go back to your empty TV set, add some more wood to the fire burning inside and wait for the big flying birds to arrive bearing cargo from your dead ancestors.

That at least is grounded in honest ignorance and is remedied by education and a willingness to honestly engage new ideas.

Anonymous said...


I don't know what Larry would tell you, but I think I can help you understand some skepticism a bit, and skepticism about god(s) in general.

1. I am not looking for any evidence for gods. If I were that would mean I think there's reason to look for gods, but I find the notion of looking for evidence for gods as ridiculous as looking for evidence that there's pink unicorns flying around Mars, or for evidence that there's a neverland where we don't age and Peter Pan still lives as a kid.

2. You might say that the universe declares the glory of sponge bob square pants, and it would have the very same effect on me.

3. A universe with intelligent beings tells me that there's a universe with intelligent being. It doesn't tell me anything about gods though.

4. How did nothing become something? I have no idea. Physicists seem to think they do have some idea. I don't even know if there was a nothing ever. If that was so, a nothing becoming something, then I go for "I don't know" rather than postulate a fantasy just to feel as if I have an answer, when all I would be doing is the very same thing when ancient people's thought that volcanoes and thunder are gods. No evidence, just ignorance, therefore gods. Not very convincing.

5. If by "material" you meant "physical" there would be nothing supernatural about it. True, it seems rather hard to imagine something from nothing. But I don't remember our capacity to imagine ever being the rule about how nature works.

6. Where did the laws come from? I don't know myself. Physicists seem to still be working on this issue. I don't know if it's even an issue. Maybe it's not an issue, maybe that's just the way things are in nature. But, again, if you rather imagine that some gods did it, you are doing exactly what those ancient people's did with volcanoes and thunder: they did not know what those things were, therefore gods. Again, not very convincing to me.

7. Random? Chance? You just talked about natural laws, how can you forget them and now talk as if there could be any process that is completely random? Anyway, we do understand how in nature things arise from processes combining some randomness and the way nature works. But, suppose we did not know. That does not mean that the absence of gods immediately leaves, as only option, complete randomness. Of course that would not work at all. But the false dichotomy is built only to convince those who have little training in logic. Now, picture this: if mass is somewhat randomly distributed, we can expect that some lumps will start arising out of uneven gravitational pulls. With time, enough mass makes for enough gravitation that matter starts to collapse until, bum! you get a star with lots of matter circling around it's gravitational field. Because of the combination of momentum, and centrifugal forces, the mass starts forming something of a flat disc, then some lumps appear (because the flat disc is not even due to some randomness), and these start attracting other materials, and there, planets start forming, and they tend to be in the same plane as each other ... notice that we get a solar system with no intelligent being involved. It took some randomness, but physical laws, meaning the way nature works, are also involved. The same goes for biology. Pure natural processes, with some randomness, do the trick.

Remember, I wrote the above not to convince you that there's no gods, but to help you understand why ignorance and false dichotomies are not very inspiring for someone like me to start thinking: "eureka! gods!" To me, ignorance is ignorance, not excuses for gods, while false dichotomies are false dichotomies, not excuses to avoid trying to understand how things work, just to fantasize that gods must be involved.

Faizal Ali said...

I've never really understood why theists think "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is such a difficult question. The question rests on the assumption that "nothing" must have preceded the existence of "something". But this is nothing more than an assumption. It is not clear that the existence of "nothing" is even possible. Even if it is possible, there is no reason to presume that the existence of "nothing" is more probable than that of "something."

Anonymous said...



Mikkel Rumraket Rasmussen said...

"How did nothing become something?"

Disregarding the fact that we don't even know whether there was ever such a thing as "nothing", and disregarding that it's nonsensical to state that "nothing" can be...

How did magicman supposedly create the universe from nothing? This is what apologists like Bill Craig asserts happened. That there was nothing, but somehow there as also magicman, and that magicman simply wished the entire universe into existence out of this "nothing". How can this "explanation" you're trying to shovel into another gap in knowledge even be remotely satisfying to you Andre? Allakhazam, goddidit! ... FROM NOTHING!

How can there even be a magicman if there is nothing?

Mikkel Rumraket Rasmussen said...

Andre is engaging in gap-theology. God hides where science hasn't yet found all the answers. The last three holes for god to hide in: The origin of life, consciousness and the universe. Classic arguments from ignorance.

Andre can't comprehend how the natural world could have done it, so an incorporeal, omnipotent and personal mind with human and animalistic emotions (like love, anger and jealousy) that can exist in the absense of a physical brain, outside of space and time, did it... by divine miracle. Magic. Through it's mysteriously unknowable wishful thinking.

Where we don't know the answer, that's the placeholder we shovel in to satisfy our thirst for completion and answers.