[edit: This issue continues to be relevant in the skeptical community. I’ll link this.]
Within the skeptic community, there is a sort of fault, a split, that is often avoided because it is an issue of some contention. And we know how much skeptics avoid contentious issues! I mean, to do that would be unfortunate–one might stir up some deep-held beliefs that people have.
I’m an atheist. I’m also a skeptic. And while I have participated in the atheist community longer than the skeptical community, I have been part of both for some time. I listen to Skepticality regularly, will often refer to skepdic.com or snopes.com when looking up information. And while I have not yet gone to TAM (but would very much like to this year), I have had the honor of meeting Randi himself once [and later again at DragonCon 2010, where I had dinner with him and Jamy Ian Swiss], who was very friendly in introducing himself with a joke during an Anti-Superstition party in Philadelphia a few years ago. This coming weekend I am attending the Atlanta Skepticamp. In general, I demand evidence for claims, as any good skeptic should.
That is what skepticism is all about, right? According to Skeptic.com’s about page,
“[s]kepticism is a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas — no sacred cows allowed. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position.”
A good start. Like science, skepticism is not so much about what we conclude as being true (or at least supported by evidence) but the method by which we approach finding answers. It is a disposition, perhaps, more than any set of conclusions.
To be skeptical is to demand evidence upon hearing a claim about the world. Of course, non-extraordinary claims may not be sufficient to demand evidence; claims such as “I had eggs for breakfast,” for example, may not get your skeptical dander up. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence (said Carl Sagan). The common usage of the term ‘skeptic’, however, is often to conflate it with the term “cynic” (which is itself a term that has diverged from it’s ancient roots), which implies a kind of dismissive attitude towards claims rather than a desire to seek evidence for the claims. Skeptics are not, ideally, debunkers of beliefs so much as investigators of beliefs and seekers of evidence. And when such evidence does not exist (or is dubious), the belief is not held by the skeptic.
Within the skeptical community you will hear talk of cryptozoology, UFOs, psychics, and astrology, for sure, but not too much discussion about religion or faith. Why is that? Well, it is because many people who identify as skeptics are, nonetheless, religious. That is, they believe things about the universe such as the existence of god(s), but apply their skepticism elsewhere.
OK, well, let’s step aside for the moment and take a look at atheism. I’ve addressed my definition of atheism before (as well as whether it can be considered a religion), and so I won’t go on at length. Essentially, my definition oft atheism is the position of not having any belief in any gods. That is, if ‘theism’ means belief in god(s), then atheism is simply the negation-causing ‘a-‘ attached to that term, meaning the lack of such a belief in god(s). It is not the belief that there are no gods, because that is a subtle but importantly different position to hold; there is a difference between saying that there are no gods and saying that I don’t currently believe that there are. The former assertion brings with it the burden of proof, while the latter lack of belief does not bring any burden of proof into play.
My position, as an atheist, is that of a response; when someone says that they think there is a god or that god exists, I simply am saying “I don’t believe you.” This is an essentially skeptical position. I am saying that the evidence is not sufficient, from my point of view, to accept such a claim. Any person who calls themselves a skeptic must hold this position unless they have evidence for the existence of god; evidence which I have not seen (or accepted as sufficient). If they believe by faith alone, then they are not applying their skepticism to their belief in god(s), and thus lose some skeptical street cred (see video below). Faith and skepticism are at odds here.
Matt Dillahunty, the current president of the Atheist Community of Austin, host of the Atheist Experience and the Non-Prophets (both of which I have been following for several years now), has come out strongly with essentially the same position as mine (I think), as can be heard in the following:
Matt and I corresponded a little while back concerning a post at skepchick.com that addressed this very issue. And while it is true that none of us are completely rational about everything, the bottom line is that by ignoring such a large aspect of one’s life, such as the belief in a god (whether one is a deist or a Christian) is a hit against one’s skeptical credentials. Simply admitting that one is not being rational about something does not excuse the lack of skepticism. It would be sort of like an astrologer admitting that they are not being rational about their belief in astrology, but considering themselves a skeptic because they are skeptical about vaccinations causing autism and Bigfoot.
So, can one be a skeptic and be a believer in god(s))?
No, I don’t think so.
I contend that there is no good evidence for the existence of a god. If there is, I have not seen it. And if there is good evidence or reasons to believe in god(s), I want to see it. But in my many years of having discussions, thinking about this issue, and writing about it, I have not yet been presented with good reason to believe. Not even those skeptical theists have good reasons to believe, from what I have seen. Thus, believing in a god, despite the lack of evidence for it’s existence is a non-rational position. A skeptic is supposed to reserve belief for positions that are supported by evidence, not believed despite the lack of evidence (or evidence to the contrary). A skeptic believing in a god despite the lack of evidence is no different than a skeptic believing in the Loch Ness Monster with similar scanty evidence.
And despite the fact that stating this may cause some rifts among certain ‘skeptical’ people, I think it is important to address because of one very important reason; it is true. And if it is not true, then it must be argued to be so, not simply stated. If it is possible to be a consistent skeptic and be a believer in god(s), then that implies that there is good reason to believe in such entities. And if there is reason to believe in deities, then the issue between skeptics and atheists is that atheists are wrong to lack belief in gods because there is evidence out there that is sufficient for belief.
But if there is not sufficient evidence to believe in any gods, then to be a skeptic and a theist is a contradiction. A skeptic, being consistent, will be an atheist. They will not say there is no god, but they will join me in saying that they simply see no reason to believe there is a god.
I’ll leave you with some more video: