Atheism and Skepticism

[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 or 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’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 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:

15 thoughts on “Atheism and Skepticism

  1. The idea that one cannot be a deist of some sort and still be considered a “skeptic” is absurd and wrong on at least three grounds.

    First though let me say I am emphatically NOT a deist. I don’t see any compelling evidence the universe was “designed” by a human-like intelligence at all. But I’m not 100% sure there is no “purpose” (as broadly as “purpose” can be construed) for the universe,whether or not human beings play an integral part in ANYTHING at all, for that is another question-(we probably don’t).

    Ok back to the grounds of skepticism:

    1. Who is this BUNCH of mythical “skeptics” who reject UFOs, ghosts, ESP, etc., but embrace God? I don’t think they, like Bigfoot, exist. For on semantic grounds one can say we’ll I’m a procrastinator, but the first day on the job or in front their boss or with respect to something important they may not be a procrastinator. Nobody except for a few professionals like Michael Shermer and James Randi can legitimately be defined as “skeptics. ” I doubt very much a non-impostor or journalist at an Amazing Meeting would spend the money to attend and not be a skeptic in such a limited sense.

    Show me 1 unaffiliated persons who was not an activist/journalist/impostor who credibly denied the existence of ghosts, ESP, Bigfoot, alternative medicine, paranormal activity, the Kennedy assassination, and afterlife experiences but believed in the resurrection of Jesus and attended the Amazing Meeting and participated in Skeptic groups.

    2. What evidence confirms or dis-confirms deism? If a “skeptic” wants proof of a UFO landing there are (or should be) lots of potential candidates: a piece of alien tech, genuine photographs, large numbers factored etc. And the same is true of ESP and ghosts. But what would constitute evidence of a deistic God?

    Now you say we’ll there’s no evidence for it so why believe it:

    But is a person who find’s the anthropic principal, Fermi’s paradox, and the Rare-Earth hypothesis compelling just the same as those others?

    3. Are string theorists never to be considered “true” skeptics? There’s no evidence (At all) their claims are true and they use a healthy dose of anthropic reasoning (albeit in subtly different ways)

    They believe on faith, without evidence, in the beauty of their formulation. Some of them, like Steven Weinberg are on the board of CSICOP!! Should he be kicked off? Why/why not is he a skeptic?

  2. 1. Hal Bidlack, who often MC’s at TAM, is a prime example. Unaffiliated? Why would that be a criteria? I have met other people that fall into that category including a woman (a Christian) who presented at Skepticamp here in ATL yesterday. I’ll make sure to tell her she does not exist.

    2. Irrelevant, as it does not address my point at all. One does not have to confirm or dis-confirm deism at all to not believe in it. You were right; there is no evidence or reason to believe it so why would anyone? That’s the point, that’s why I’m an atheist (lack of evidence). Therefore, being a deist and a skeptic would be like believing in Nessy and being a skeptic. Your other examples might classify as well, depending on the evidence (or proof) for each.

    3. I don’t know enough about String theory to say. In a recent podcast I listened to, it seems that string theory is not (yet) supported by evidence, thus a skeptic should, well, be skeptical about it. The math seems to check out (according to the expert who was interviewed), but perhaps a bias for elegance is to blame, much like Kepler’s belief that planetary orbits must have been perfect circles. That was his analogy, not mine, btw.

  3. …continued….

    I also completely reject the notion that religion doesn’t get much coverage within the skeptical community. I have every single issue of Skeptic magazine affiliated with the Skeptic’s society and and almost every issue of the Skeptical Inquirer published by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (formerly csicop) from the past 20 years.

    Skeptic regularly includes features on religion and the very existence (or non-existence) of God. Tim Callahan their religion editor frequently eviscerates religious (primarily Christian) claims and trashes books that try to prove God’s existence. While EVERY SINGLE ISSUE of Skeptic promotes books like Randal Helms’s The Gospel Fictions and George Smith’s Atheism: The case against God among NUMEROUS others. All the books by the “New Atheists” were favorably reviewed.

    Perhaps more importantly Skeptic openly promoted the Brights movement which WAS a controversial move but not because Skeptic seemed to take a stand on God but because of the silly name and purpose. see the piece Big Bright Brouhaha.

    The Skeptical Inquirer evolved out of The Zetetic and has traditionally had a more paranormal focus. Still they often deal with survey’s on religion, NDE’s and promote/review the same books as Skeptic with similar outcomes. Sometimes SI HAS been controversial-when it verged into politics like after Ann Druyan’s (Sagan’s widow) attacked the Bush administration.

    In fact the global warming debate makes it abundantly clear fault lines among skeptics are FAR more often drawn along political lines than religious ones.

    Finally both the Skeptic’s Society and CSI along with many smaller more local organizations regularly host debates between believers and atheists. If there are believers that are committed to these groups they simply CANNOT BE the type that is afraid or offended by analysis or debate with respect to the existence of God. Moreover many religious conservatives like Michael Medved, Dennis Prager, and Hugh Hewitt have weekly pieces were they debate or set up debates between theists and atheists.

    I hope you are not becoming another victim of the New Atheist ideology wherein Christians are to be smeared for imaginary offenses. A few weeks ago you fell for the completely bogus claim that documents indicate the Pope was involved in a sex-scandal cover up. Now ironically during a post on skepticism you claim to be a skeptic yet offer no evidence to support the claim that professional skeptics shy away from religion but merely imagine it to be true and caused by even more imaginary fearful Christians.

    I of course could be wrong but I’d like to see some evidence.

  4. All good points. They really don’t address what I was writing about. Yes, the conversation exists within the skeptic community. However, in many local groups there are people who call themselves skeptics and yet believe in a god. I’m simply making a philosophical point that this is an absurd position. I’m arguing against those (like Maria who writes at skepchick and who I know personally) who say that one can be a skeptic and be a theist. That’s all I’m trying to address. Your points are well-taken, accepted, and largely agreed upon by myself, but the points you make don’t address the purpose of this particular post.

    It seems like you just need to argue with something I say, even if it is completely tangential. Like I’ve said before; that’s fine. I welcome dissent.

  5. I do like to argue with you as I like to argue with many people. One of the reasons I’ve never started a blog of my own is that I fear I wouldn’t get anything else done in between researching my pieces and respoinding to my critics were I lucky enough to have any.

    However my disagreements with you on this are, I believe, legitimate. Correct me if I’m wrong but your points primarily seemed to be the following:

    1. Skeptic’s groups are relatively quiet on the God issue out of respect for theists in their ranks.

    2. It is not possible to be a theist of any sort and be a committed skeptic.

    To which I say:

    1. I think I can easily show among large groups this claim is demonstrably false, but even smaller groups like fact Phact deal with religious issues and you are making an assertion that has little support. And remember Skeptics groups will necessarily have different aims and foci than atheist ones.

    2. The post you referenced by Maria specifically concerned a deist and my arguments specifically focused on deism. You seem to try to redefine what skepticism is from a provisional approach to claims to a method that reaches a particular conclusion about a specific metaphysical assertion. I don’t think that’s justifiable for several reasons starting with those mentioned above.

    But I too could redefine skepticism and claim that anyone who is more or less sure other minds exist cannot be a skeptic. Then of course I would be substituting solipsism for atheism as a necessary condition for skepticism. I would hope you find this stipulation problematic.

    Skepticism is a method for approaching analyzable real-world claims, using it to codify metaphysical dogma should alarm any skeptic’s baloney detector.

  6. The difference between radical skepticism (a philosophical position, for sure) and the provisional skepticism that surrounds most skeptical communities is important. We have evidence that other minds exist. Sure, we could say that this is only our mind projecting them, but at least we literally have some evidence, even if it does not prove that the other minds exist.

    To say that one who is “more or less sure other minds exist cannot be a skeptic” betrays your (perhaps unconscious) awareness of the difference. One who is more or less convinced of something, even a god, is at least tackling the question from a skeptical point of view. That is, they are doing some sort of skepticism.

    On one end of a scale (which I may be inventing now, I don’t know) are people who say they know their god exists (because they experience said god, their book says so, etc). These people are not skeptical nor are they skeptics. A person who believes but has doubts is at least using skepticism somewhat, even if they should not be considered full skeptics because they hold something to be true that has no evidence supporting it. That person probably uses skepticism for things around their theism, and may entertain the question but will not take the skeptical method to its logical conclusion concerning their belief in a god. Towards the other end of the spectrum are people who don’t believe in god even if they have some emotional attachments to the idea, find some sort-of compelling but not rationally defensible arguments for god, etc. Their skeptical methodology led them there because that is what the skeptical position (the null hypothesis, essentially) demands. They are being consistent, even if they don’t particularly like it. The extreme other end are people who just know there is no god. Those people are not skeptics either.

    A person (near the middle of that scale) who says that they have used skepticism to analyze their own belief in a god and still believes either has rational evidence for god, has overlooked a fallacy in their reasoning, or is lying. I think most of those people fit into the second category.

    I’m claiming that there is no evidence of any god existing. And if you point out that people have experiences that they think are god (similar to how a solipsist might say that they have experiences that some others think are other minds–this, I think, is your essential point of criticism), then I’ll reply by admitting that in neither case can the case for god nor other minds be proven. I would say that any skeptic who says they are absolutely sure of other minds existing has overlooked the question (same with people who claim absolute certainty about there being no god).

    But I think that the question of radical skepticism gets us nowhere, so we should discard it because if it isn’t true then it doesn’t matter at all, and if it is true then things are as they appear (more or less). I accept the reasoning that other minds exist because if it were not true then there is no more conversation to be had. There literally is no point in continuing this. I don’t know that other minds exist, but I assume it (while occasionally keeping the question in mind) because applying the logical conclusion of being skeptical to it merely waves everything else out of existence which gets me nowhere.

    Applying my skepticism to the existence of some god does not take away the rest of the universe, just a quasi-explanation for it which does not stand up to scrutiny. Do other minds stand up to scrutiny? Perhaps not, but it stands up to more scrutiny than the god hypothesis.

  7. A question which could end this:

    Is there a minimum set of reasons and level of certainty (this question has two degrees of freedom) that a deist could have that wouldn’t convince you of his position but would admit him into the class of skeptics?

    “I assume it (while occasionally keeping the question in mind) because applying the logical conclusion of being skeptical to it merely waves everything else out of existence which gets me nowhere”

    You’re saying you accept something something without proof not on the basis of evidence but on what is essentially more psychologically satisfying to you. After all even if the world is your creation or the creation of a demon or the robots that built the Matrix, you can still explore it.

    Lets ignore the slippery slope of solipsism for a second and consider radical behaviorism.

    Would Quine have been correct in suggesting I’m not a skeptic because (in his view) there’s no good objective evidence consciousness exists?

    I do have some reasons for believing in the validity of inner states and I don’t see any disconfirming evidence. I also find most behaviorist theories to be deeply problematic scientifically and philosophically. So although the nature of consciousness is still an open question I’m fairly certain mind talk cannot be reduced to brain talk. Of course Quine would not find my reasons strong enough but I don’t think that justifies a refusal to refer to me as a skeptic.

    The deist may have various reasons like the ones I mentioned above among many others and he may also find the ad hoc explanations for say the anthropic principle (like the purely speculative suggestion that the reason an initial entropy of just 1/(10^10^123) of the entire phase-space volume required for a universe compatible with life is not improbable is because an an infinite number of randomly varying universes exist [for which we have zero evidence])

    And of course the deist may find his assumption more psychologically satisfying and it may fit into a coherent philosophical framework that resolves other questions. Without any disconfirming evidence or potential candidates for tests just because you are not convinced of his position is not enough to say he isn’t a skeptic unless you redefine what skepticism is. This a particularly true of the deist who keeps an open-mind on the issue. You are smuggling in the attitude of classical skeptics (“we can’t be certain of anything”) then falsely imputing a groundless certainty on the part of deists then using that to eject them from the class of modern skeptics whose provisional approach works best primarily on pseudoscience, paranormalism, urban legends, and public policy.

    There are a host of metaphysical and quasi-metaphysical questions wherein the position one takes should not be applied against one’s skeptical bona fides. The deism/atheism debate is closer in spirit to the induction/falsification debate than to the homeopathy debate and the comparison with the mostly virtuous man who occasionally murders whores (both examples from the “non-prophets”) is flat out ridiculous.

    Finally there are disagreements among skeptics about questions which are at least in theory testable, memes, global warming, etc. To say the group on either side of these debates cannot be skeptics because their reasons aren’t good enough for the other side is historically unjustified and counter-productive.

  8. If a deist could provide any good reason to believe that an intelligent and/or purposeful entity started the universe then they could be a skeptic and a deist. But because there is no good reason to believe that claim, then a skeptic would have to reject the proposition. Just like I cannot disprove the existence of unicorns on planet 113-c Beta (or whatever), I cannot disprove that being that created the universe. BUT I HAVE NO REASON TO ACCEPT THE CLAIM! Once that burden can be met, then we can talk about levels of certainty. No deist I have heard an argument from is there yet.

    You said:
    “You’re saying you accept something something without proof not on the basis of evidence but on what is essentially more psychologically satisfying to you. After all even if the world is your creation or the creation of a demon or the robots that built the Matrix, you can still explore it.”

    This is a conversation. A conversation assumes at least two minds. If I accept the proposition that other minds don’t exist because I don’t have unquestionable proof that they do (although I have good evidence), then it isn’t a conversation, and it literally gets me nowhere to be THAT skeptical. I’m assuming that this conversation is really happening because I’m having it (or appear to be). It’s a pragmatic decision. Day to day I carry the same assumption for similar reasons.

    I accept that you have a mind because to do otherwise literally makes this pointless because I’m arguing with myself. Thus, I operate as if you have a mind. It’s the same as with free will; I don’t know I’m actually free, but if I’m not it doesn’t matter so I act as if I am, just in case I am. I act as if you have a mind just in case you do. There is no loss if I am wrong. It is not exactly Pascal’s wager for the theory of mind or free will, although there are similarities. I think you probably already get why they are different, so I won’t insult your intelligence by explaining it (or mine, if you don’t actually exist).

    “….This a particularly true of the deist who keeps an open-mind on the issue.”

    I keep an open mind about the issue. The person claiming that it is true without evidence or reason is doing more than keeping an open mind, they are regressing to a faith position. Faith and skepticism are in tension here, and a deist must believe on faith; without evidence or reason to believe their claim.

    “You are smuggling in the attitude of classical skeptics (“we can’t be certain of anything”) then falsely imputing a groundless certainty on the part of deists then using that to eject them from the class of modern skeptics whose provisional approach works best primarily on pseudoscience, paranormalism, urban legends, and public policy.”

    I partially agree with this. I disagree that the imputing of groundless certainty is occurring. I’m saying that it does not matter how certain they are; they are making a claim that is not supported. They could be 25% sure or 75% sure, but it does not matter because either level of certainty is unfounded. They don’t have reason to be certain at any level. It’s like placing a bet on a game they can never watch or even find out the result of (or know exists in the first place). How could that be skepticism to accept the claim in such circumstances?

    Again, I’m saying that a skeptic (cannot/should not/does not(?)) accept a claim unless there is at least some reason to accept it which is not immediately countered by a logical contradiction, fallacy, or dis-confirming evidence. A proposition has the burden of proof, and a deistic god is a proposition (by deists). Again, I’m claiming that a deist does not meet this burden; they don’t have any evidence or reasons TO SUPPORT THE CLAIM. If I propose a 8 foot tall invisible bunny, I have to support this claim, and so does the deist. Thus, a deist cannot be a skeptic until that burden is met. Once I hear some reason to believe in a god (even a deist one), I’ll change my opinion about this.

    Yes, you are correct that there are subjects of debate. I don’t think many people who call themselves skeptics would disagree. The question then becomes where the evidence points to. The skeptic may provisionally accept one side or the other until the data comes in. Those who, for example, say that global warming is not happening have a ton of data to explain. Those who say that it is not being effected by humans at all do too. Those who claim it is not all our fault probably have a good foundation to stand on. The question of degrees of responsibility creates the point of debate, of course. But that does not effect the question of proposition of a being who created the universe, for which there is no evidence or reason to believe at all. Points of debate exist around subjects with complicated sets of data, not around ideas for which there is literally no evidence at all, and only poorly thought-out reasons.

    I want to hear more about the deism/atheism and induction/falsification idea. I think there might be lots of room for discussion about that. I’m not sure this makes my points (above) invalid, but it may be something to think more about.

  9. There are obviously at least two entities in the universe: my mind and everything else. Clearly, some things are separate from my mind simply because my intelligence is not capable of inventing all the things I see. Saying that some other ‘I’ that I’m not aware of is doing the generating merely proves the point, there are at least two distinct things. Therefore, whether other minds ‘really’ exist or whether they are merely manifestations of Entity 2 (everything that isn’t me), they exist separate from myself and are minds in every meaningful sense.

    Therefore solipsism is demonstrably bullshit.

    The difference between God and Global Warming is obvious. Global Warming is a phenomena that happens and can be measured. No one is questioning the existence of the climate or carbon emmissions. The question is how the climate is reacting to our behavior.

    There is no similar common ground for the existence of a deist god or any other god. There is simply no evidence of any kind or even a consistent logical argument that can be based in evidence of any kind that such entities exist.

  10. Sorry, I am not convinced.

    I see opinion and conjecture, but no proof. It is like abductees arguing over whether they were abducted by aliens from Tau Ceti or Zeta Reticuli.

    Each is absolutely convinced and unlikely to be convinced otherwise. Each claiming that the other simply isn’t properly examining the evidence.

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