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A challenge for ‘skeptics’ July 22, 2010

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: , , ,

So, in recent months the issue of skepticism and atheism has come up a few times.  It didn’t start here, but I’ll trace some of the narrative from there.  I replied with my own post here, which led to some conversation with people here in the Atlanta skeptical community, and the issue died down a little, at least in the blogosphere.

Then this post hit skepchick the other day.

Matt Dillahunty responded, again, and here we are.

The issue here seems simple.  I understand that skeptics believe that there are more pressing issues than this game of “nit-picking” and “semantics,” but that is not the point.

I also understand that there is a point in that we need to focus on common ground in order to build a community of people who want to help confront anti-science and combat charlatans.

But, within the skeptical community, isn’t skepticism the common ground? Isn’t the skeptical tool-set the basis for the community? Since when did not criticizing religious beliefs (specifically faith, IMO) become part of the common ground for so many in the community? I understand that what is meant here is to not cause divisions within the community, and this is important for SOME reasons, but should it trump skepticism itself?

Why is the issue of atheism so divisive in the skeptical community?

Because theists exist within the skeptical community, and they are not comfortable having their beliefs criticized.  It’s the exact same reason why atheists are still demonized, even by other atheists, within the larger cultural conversation.  Skepticism is having the same argument as the rest of us; affirmative atheists are dicks.

So? What if pro-psychics existed in that same community? What if they demanded that there views were beyond skepticism?  What if they whined and moaned about divisiveness? Sure, we would be allowed to criticize them, but when we criticize faith even a little we have to tone it down, use kid words and gloves, and certainly don’t challenge the label of ‘skeptic’ for anyone not being skeptical.

The essential question is whether the belief in any gods can stand up to skeptical scrutiny. The idea that it is outside the purview of skepticism is related to the issue, within scientific and atheist communities, of whether science and religion are overlapping or not (you know, Gould’s NOMA).

If science (the primary tool of a skeptic) cannot address religion, faith, etc, then perhaps a theist could get away with calling themselves a skeptic.  But what about the null-hypothesis? What about the idea, within skepticism, that without evidence for something, lack of belief is considered to be the rational position?  We don’t say that we have proved that psychic powers don’t exist, we point out the lack of evidence that it does.  Same with god.

But, further, what if science CAN address religion, faith, etc?  Well, I believe it can, despite what Massimo Pigliucci and Eugenie Scott have argued (and I like Massimo and Eugenie personally, so don’t say I’m being a dick to them, please).  I believe that the claims of religion are testable, scientifically.

True, if one defines God as being transcendent or somehow beyond empirical verification, then science cannot test this being (if that term is applicable here) directly.  But this ‘God’ is said to have effects, and those can be tested.  Further, the historical, philosophical, and sociological aspects of religion and faith can be tested (and have) to the lack of satisfaction for the hypothesis.

But I’m digressing.

The bottom line is whether the ‘skeptic’ theist is being consistent in believing in a god.  Is their belief justified after applying the tools of skepticism? And further, are they deserving of special exceptionism within the skeptical community out of a desire to not cause in-fighting? Would a skeptical community accept, into their community, someone who were working against the evils of religious groups but who accepted psychics as real with the same vigor?

I’ve seen theists proudly speaking at skeptical events (Laverne Knight-West at the Atlanta Skepticamp this year as an example), and they are often loudly applauded for their skepticism, incomplete as it may be.  In the case of the Skepticamp speaker, when she was challenged on whether her skepticism might contradict her faith, she simply rattled out the old canard that she has other things to worry about.

That’s. Not. The. Point.

I’m not asking all of the skeptics out there to worry about, do anything about, or even care about atheism.  Hell, if you don’t really care why are you arguing so hard against my criticism? I’m asking them if they were to apply skepticism to theism, even if just once for fun, would they conclude that theism is a good solid skeptical position?

Let’s stop talking about common grounds, divisiveness, etc in this issue, because that’s not the point.  The point is that many in the skeptical community are creating a rift between themselves and atheists who feel like skeptics are accommodating religion in inconsistent ways.  It is inconsistent because the merit of theism is no greater than that of psychics, homeopathy, or anti-vaccination.  The difference is that people’s religions are more emotionally tied to them, and so they don’t tend to let skeptical tools near those beliefs.

That’s a weakness of those particular skeptics, and the desire for common grounds and working together should not trump the unifying ground of these communities; skepticism.  If people run away from skepticism because their beliefs are challenged, perhaps they aren’t ready for skepticism except where it does not really challenge them.

It’s easy to apply skepticism to UFO’s, psychics, and anti-vax, especially if these may have been things accepted with little to no emotional attachment.  What is difficult is applying skepticism to things that really matter to us, deep down.  If you don’t want to apply skepticism there, then that is not a strength to be applauded, it is another, larger, hurdle, to overcome.



1. Tomkinson - July 22, 2010

Again where is all this evidence that the professional skeptics community frowns upon skeptical analysis of religious belief?

I told you before I have the entire run of Skeptic and and nearly every issue of the skeptical inquirer from the past 20 years and religion is ALWAYS analyzed, criticized, and occasionally mocked while atheism is the assumed default position. In the latest issue of Skeptic we have the following articles:

“The stigma of being an atheist”

“The rise of the nones and the growth of religious indifference”

Along with a thorough criticism in the book review section of “The reason for God: Belief in age of skepticism”

In the current SI we have:

“Brain Science Good Science: Why religion endures”

“How religion resists the challenge of science”

“War of the weasels: An evolutionary algorithm beats intelligent design”

“How to test a miracle”

And of course the keynote speaker at TAM this year was well known hypocrite atheist dickhead Richard Dawkins. I’m sure he didn’t shy away from religious criticism.

And where are all these fundie skeptics? If a theist is engaged in the foolish activity of being a proactive skeptic I’m sure they are exposed to critiques and either ignore them as not important or do not find such critiques persuasive-who cares.

The problem I have with people like you is A. that you hide behind semantics for many of your points and B. you are not skeptical enough of the kind group think and radicalization that arises when you create groups out of things that should never be. And these groups always violate their alleged principles when power is at stake

Like people that voted for Obama, for a platform that insisted we could cut the deficit by adding a new trillion dollar health care entitlement. Virtually every atheist and so-called skeptic I know voted for this incompetent loser and/or supports many of the most outrageous and mathematically impossible plans that have failed every “historical, philosophical, and sociological” test.

I can accept that people can still call themselves skeptics yet support in spite of a vast amount of counter-evidence a liberal political agenda its just a failure of their skepticism caused by ignorance, lust for power, and brainwashing.

You wrote: “The essential question is whether the belief in any gods can stand up to skeptical scrutiny.”

Foe me the answer to that is NO. But as I’ve said MANY MANY times to you I’m not a methodological essentialist and thus while that may be an “essential question” it is not at all an important one.

I’m a science fiction fan but…I hate Star Wars. Does that mean I’m not REALLY a sci-fi fan? Or is it just a failure of my fandom?- What is the “essential question” here?-who cares

You need to ask yourself If you care more about practical reality than dogmatic purity. If its the former you should welcome most of the theists who decide to be proactive in combating junk science and superstition and engage them about atheism from time to time.

However if its more important to you that everyone who calls them self a skeptic have the same rigorous philosophically trained high standards that you have, form your own narrowly focused group and kick out all the heretics.

Of course you could choose to realize the fundamental silliness of joining any group and be like me!

2. shaunphilly - July 22, 2010

I never said anything about kicking anyone out of any group. I never said that “the professional skeptics community frowns upon skeptical analysis of religious belief.” Your reading comprehension skills are lacking, methinks.

Your conservative political views are not relevant here either.

Your sci-fi analogy is absurd.

I’m just trying to be consistent. Your criticism, while welcome, is not even addressing my points, just telling me that my points don’t matter because you care about other things.

3. Tomkinson - July 23, 2010

No methinks it is your reading comprehension that is lacking but unlike you I’ll offer evidence to support this.

You wrote:

“I never said that “the professional skeptics community frowns upon skeptical analysis of religious belief.”

Really? Then what does this mean:

“Since when did not criticizing religious beliefs (specifically faith, IMO) become part of the common ground for so many in the community?”

When placed into context with statements like:

“I understand that skeptics believe that there are more pressing issues than this game of “nit-picking” and “semantics,” but that is not the point.”


“Why is the issue of atheism so divisive in the skeptical community?”

The conclusion is inescapable. You hold that skeptics hold their fire when it comes to religious faith for fear of alienating theists in their midst. That’s exactly what you’re saying.

You further undermine your dodge when you write:

“But what about the null-hypothesis? What about the idea, within skepticism, that without evidence for something, lack of belief is considered to be the rational position? ”


“But, further, what if science CAN address religion, faith, etc? Well, I believe it can”

But skeptics groups CAN AND DO offer philosophical pieces on why the null hypothesis is the rational one and they analyze and test the scientific bases of faith and fraudulent empirical evidence for God, prayer etc.

In fact some of the recent articles I mentioned do precisely that. By writing what you did you imply that this doesn’t go on and that it doesn’t go on because they’d rather make common cause with theists.

And if that wasn’t your point, what the hell was it then?

And regarding this:

“I never said anything about kicking anyone out of any group.”

That’s technically true but what do you imply by these statements:

“Would a skeptical community ACCEPT, INTO THEIR COMMUNITY, someone who were working against the evils of religious groups but who accepted psychics as real with the same vigor?”

“That’s a weakness of those particular skeptics, and the desire for common grounds and working together SHOULD NOT TRUMP THE UNIFYING GROUND of these communities; skepticism. ”

What do you feel is the appropriate response here? It can only be that theists in skeptic communities must be constantly badgered until they renounce their faith or they leave on their own or they are kicked out.

My political views are not at all conservative I’m just pointing out that one of many reasons I’d never consider joining these pointless groups is that they fail to tackle the most pressing and dangerous irrational ideas. Believing in the mathematically impossible is even less skeptical than believing in the highly improbable.

My sci-fi analogy is absurd because its isomorphic to your argument which is absurd.

4. shaunphilly - July 23, 2010

the larger organizations, magazines, etc surely do talk about religion, criticize religion, etc. I do not dispute that.

However, within actual local groups, especially when there are well-liked theists as regular members, the issue of atheism is certainly avoided much more frequently.

But you don’t join such groups, so it is no surprise that you have not seen this.

There is a debate going on right now in many skeptical communities about how to think about the relationship between atheist communities and skeptical communities. It is a part of the larger conversation about the relationship between science and religion, and there are at least two main opinion-sets being discussed.

Some, like Pigliucci, Eugenie Scott, and Chris Mooney lean towards an accommodation to religious belief in order to deal with what they see as more important, pragmatic, issues. You seem to be closer to their side in this conversation.

Others, such as the “worthless” (that was your descriptor, was it not) PZ Myers and Matt Dillahunty argue that while it is great that we can work along side people we disagree with, the fact is that theists are not applying skepticism to their god-belief.

I’m obviously closer to that side of the conversation.

So, what do we do with them? We welcome them into our communities if they want to be there and take what help they have to give. But I think it’s fair to point out to them that they are not being consistent. I think it’s fair to point out the fact that they are holding onto a belief that they have not, and I think cannot, justify scientifically or rationally. If they continue to believe, then it’s fair to point out that they may not be full skeptics, even if they apply skepticism to other things.

My question about whether we would accept certain other people into the skeptical community was to point out that I think, and I can’t prove this, that someone who accepted psychic abilities, homeopathy, or ghosts would not be as quickly defended by others in the community the way theists are defended.

That’s what bothers me. It is not that theists are allowed to be there, but that they are defended as skeptics, despite this non-skeptical position.

Your analogy about sci-fi was only superficially isomorphic. Yes, atheism is a sub-set of skepticism. Yes, star wars is an example of a science fiction story. But one does not logically derive being a fan of any particular sci-fi (including star wars) from being a science fiction fan. One does logically derive atheism from skepticism. The analogy fails.

Lastly, I cannot respect your willingness to sit along the sidelines and criticize groups for what they are doing wrong. If you really think that you have something to contribute, then speak at a skeptics meeting, write an article for Skeptic, or at least throw your argument to the skeptical community via a guest-blog. Hell, guest blog here if you like. If you think we are overlooking something important, put your damned money where your mouth is, and stop being the grumpy old man who starts off all his rants with some variation of “those damned kids with their rock music…”

If you have a good argument, the community will respond to it, and you may find people that agree with you. But not participating except to say we’re doing it wrong…that’s just cowardice.

5. Tomkinson - July 23, 2010

Though I’ve never officially joined any group I do, usually around once every two years or so, attend the local Philly group PhACT meetings and I used top go semi-regularly about 10 years ago. This official PhACT statement lends some support for your position :

“[PhACT] does not attack religions, although it may investigate specific religious claims when they are alleged to have a factual basis.”

However you will notice they will investigate empirical claims made by religious groups. And like all sizable local skeptics groups they have guest speakers drawn from the community of professional skeptics who as you agree do not shy away from criticizing religion.

A look at PhACT’s meetings will show regular attacks on or dissections of creationism, intelligent design etc. They don’t have a Christmas party they have a Winter Solstice party. The discussion boards contain anti-religious conversations, they organize attendance at atheist symposia, have the major skeptic publications and books on their reading lists and so on.

I think theism IS inconsistent with skepticism. If a few members of these groups are theists (I highly doubt they’re fundies) I can’t see it as significantly hampering the skeptical project unless that project is primarily a quest for philosphical consistency.

But if that IS the skeptical project there are more significant inconsistencies in skepticism that have larger social consequences. Those would be certain political views.

Fortunately a few skeptics like Michael Shermer and Penn Jillette are beginning to point out the serious flaws in liberalism. But given the fact there a far more liberals in skeptic communities and the consequences far more impactful, MUCH more needs to be done.

So my question can formulated like this:

If a lack of consistency about something metaphysical and abstract is so serious why does the far more widespread and obvious lack of consistency among liberal skeptics not bother you?

And by the way I don’t think not having a blog is cowardice. I don’t have the time to do the proper research for a useful blog. However I do have the time to criticize what are the relatively obvious faults in facts or reasoning on the part of others. Since I’m a critical rationalist I believe that criticism is far more important than argument and that only out of error do we learn anything.


6. magx01 - July 24, 2010

It’s amazing how much the meme of “religion as sacred” has permeated our culture.

It’s to the point where supposedly rational, free thinking skeptics (many of whom are atheistic), people who have NO ISSUSE being polemic when it comes to psychics, astrology, homeopathy, etc, suddenly clam up when it comes to the supernatural claims of religion.

Suddenly, we’re being overly polemic and assholish.

Sorry, but you’re the problem here. If someone is going to compartmentalize their beliefs to the point where they are a skeptic in every facet of the word save for their religous belief, then I am going to call into question the veracity of their “I’m a skeptic” claim.

This is nothing but a case of doublestandards, strawmen and semantics, and it’s starting to spread like some insidicous little meme.

It’s basically special pleading. It’s like those so called skeptics who are also into astrology. You talk about bigfoot and they’re all “yeah, yeah!” but you turn your attention to astrology and suddenly you’re being mean/overly polemic.

7. Tomkinson - July 25, 2010

“Memes” exist only as a weak metaphor. Its surprising how many alleged “skeptics” believe they exist as something else and even use them in their theories (Dennet, Dawkins, Blackmore etc.).

Its truly funny that someone would bring them up to bash people they believe have inadequate skepticism. Irony thy name is essentialism.

I also doubt very much there are committed skeptics that believe in astrology. Could you name one of them please.

8. magx01 - July 25, 2010

““Memes” exist only as a weak metaphor. Its surprising how many alleged “skeptics” believe they exist as something else and even use them in their theories (Dennet, Dawkins, Blackmore etc.).”

Who believes memes to be anything other than a metaphor? It’s a descriptive deivce. A word used to describe ideas that spread from person to person via a number of ways. You’re not saying anything revelationary.

“I also doubt very much there are committed skeptics that believe in astrology. Could you name one of them please.”

I have encountered a few over the years online, and know one in person. However, you set up a bit of a strawman there when you said committed. I never said committed. Now, if you want to accuse me of setting up my own strawman on the issue of (supposedy) skeptical people who believe in astrology, go ahead, but I have encountered a few (and work with one).

Btw, my original message wasn’t amed at you (or th eblog writer). I was ranting about those who started this whole thing by telling us to play nice with theists.

9. shaunphilly - July 25, 2010


I do take issue with some aspects of liberal tendencies in thinking. Specifically, the idea that we should be tolerant and accepting of difference in all cases, hence this post. I have other concerns with liberal ideas, and they likely differ from what you mean, as I generally consider myself more liberal (especially socially) than average.

I never said you were a coward for not having a blog, I said you were a coward for not contributing anything more than non-constructive criticism. You align yourself with Penn Jillette and Michael Shermer (and many skeptics do), and i would not. Penn, in some of his episodes of Bullshit, demonstrates some poor thinking and strong bias, and Shermer may or may not be in your camp.

The thing is, I actually like Michael Shermer. He doesn’t seem to fit into PZ’s definition of libertarian:

“Libertarianism. A simple-minded right-wing ideology ideally suited to those unable or unwilling to see past their own sociopathic self-regard.”

10. shaunphilly - July 25, 2010

Oh, and as for memes as a metaphor, yes of course they are metaphors. But all metaphors have referents. Some ideas fit better into our psychological tendencies, and they will thus tend to stick around better. Our brains are environments, and certain patterns will exist there with greater ease than others.

All language is, in a sense, metaphor. All ideas, are, in a sense, metaphor. ‘Meme’ is a metaphorical linguistic device used to talk about the metaphors that the processes of our brains tend towards.

Essentially, that is…

I’m using the term ‘essentially’ in no metaphysical way. I’m using to say that “the basic idea I’m saying is this….”

11. Tomkinson - July 25, 2010

“Who believes memes to be anything other than a metaphor? ”

Umm I believe I named three of them namely (Dennet, Dawkins, Blackmore etc.).

ME-“I also doubt very much there are committed skeptics that believe in astrology. Could you name one of them please.”

So here is the answer: “I have encountered a few over the years online, and know one in person. ”

WHO ARE THEY!!! I submit you know nobody that is a committed skeptic and a serious believer in astrology.

And for Shaun I didn’t “align” myself with Jillette or Shermer I just pointed out they are among the few “skeptics” that realize liberalism is worse than theism.

For an idea of what real philosophers think about politics I offer this from Kelly L. Ross

* Libertarians: Ideological crackpots, tilting at windmills, who nevertheless are the most sensible people around — an appalling circumstance.

* Republicans: Who think that it is more important to attack Charles Darwin than to enforce the Constitution or stand for principles that will make the Democrats and the media call them names.

* Democrats: Who hate almost everything about America, including the very ideas of limited government, individual rights, private property, self-defense, free enterprise, free speech, etc. A history of slavery, sexism, and homophobia naturally discredits everything about America and its history — but these are are only minor idiosyncrasies in Islâmic fundamentalism, which of course is fully redeemed by its hatred of America (and, well, Jews). Any Democrats who do not agree with attitudes like these, it is time for you to get out of that Party. If you don’t believe that the Party involves attitudes like these, it is time to get wised up. .

12. shaunphilly - July 26, 2010

Well, I’m not a libertarian, Republican, or Democrat. However, I find only some aspects of libertarians sensible, but rarely do I find them compassionate.

I find Republicans as having been taken over by many loons, but still having some principles, many of which I disagree with.

Democrats…that’s a strange description; one based on a very conservative point of view.. See, Johnny, you are a seriously biased conservative. Your description seems to come straight out of Glenn Beck, Papa Bear O’Reilly, or Limbaugh even. I am not familiar with Kelly L. Ross, but those definitions are not even trying to be fair to any of those descriptions, especially the last one.

Do you agree with those quotes? If so, I guess the reason that you reject the conservative label is the same reason that pessimists reject that label; they are all realists, right?

You are loony.

Those three (and others) who see memes as more than mere metaphors probably agree, as I said, that all language is metaphor, so the observation that memes are metaphors is not revolutionary. The question is whether there is any material basis for the metaphor, and I think there is one, and you seem not to.

Your cognitive biases are showing again.

13. shaunphilly - July 26, 2010

Yeah, this is totally not an issue within the skeptic community. That’s why things like this get created:


14. Tomkinson - July 26, 2010

The reason I reject the conservative label is because I am not a conservative or interested in retaining traditional values for their own sake. I disagree with conservatives, especially those you mentioned on almost every issue.

I’m pro-choice, anti-death penalty, believe the Second Amendment is NOT an individual right (although gun ownership doesn’t bother me), for legalizing drugs, accept that there is pretty good evidence for global warming, for taxing churches and getting rid of the pledge of allegiance, I believe the Arizona immigration law is not only unconstitutional but stupid (though boycotts of Arizona are even dumber), I supported Obama’s strong-arming of BP to create an escrow account for damages. I’m only against gay marriage because I want to eliminate ALL marital rights (though I do think you can make a case for hetero marriage, government endorsed gay marriage is just absurd.) Still I don’t think homosexuality is immoral and I support repeal of don’t ask don’t tell and support gay adoption.

If you reject those descriptions that’s because you are ignorant of the history, philosophy, and aims of those parties. Maybe you should read the full essay they came from, then specify exactly what you disagree with:


When you say you rarely find libertarians compassionate that may be so but they are almost certainly more so than liberals who according to the data are the least compassionate. Liberals sure do love to spend other people’s money though. When they spend their own money its usually to do what feels good (for them) but IS bad e.g. giving hand outs to the homeless. Genuine compassion often requires doing what feels bad though it is good e.g. ignoring the homeless or having them arrested.

When liberals enact policy in the name of compassion it often makes the problem worse like the “great society” programs. The closing of mental hospitals in the 1960’s was meant to be compassionate (to be fair the dems were aided in this by the other loser party) but it was the single biggest contributor to the homeless problem.

I’m pretty thoroughly versed in American law and history, economics, and political philosophy from Plato to Walzer. I don’t think any of my pragmatic Constitution-based classical liberal positions are loony. If you do its because you’ve spent too much time making your skepticism consistent and not enough time on your politics or your history.

And BTW regarding memes you are getting bogged down in language again. A gene is not a metaphor, the word “gene” in so far as it is a token my mind uses when thinking and talking about genes is. So there is no need to point that out. In other words the observation that all language is metaphor is not revolutionary and is exactly why I wrote ““Memes” EXIST ONLY as a weak metaphor.”

That being said what evidence is there for a material basis for memes?

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16. shaunphilly - July 28, 2010

Man, Johhny, you got some serious biases there. In other words, if I agree with you I’m ignorant of history etc. I’m so done listening to you.

17. Tomkinson - July 29, 2010

What? I said you may be ignorant of history etc. because you seemed to DISAGREE with those political descriptions. And if you a referring to what I said about language and metaphor well we don’t really agree on that either.

You dismiss what I say as being conservatively biased but not only do I use as many objective facts as possible (biasing me only toward what we have all as citizens consented to) but the positions I’ve arrived at could only be considered conservative by someone wholly ignorant of what that word means thereby cementing the case that you are indeed ignorant.

Furthermore when you claim Libertarians are not compassionate and get your political analysis from someone who describes themselves as a “godless liberal” its obvious to anyone how biased you are being.

Go ahead and continue to pick the low-hanging fruit of skeptical theists rather than the much larger and more socially problematic group of skeptical liberals. Its safer, easier, and best of all you don’t have to worry about having to abandon a group and start thinking for yourself.

P.S. I’m still waiting for that evidence of a material basis for memes.

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