One of the criticisms which has appeared over the last several years, in response to the rise of the atheist/skeptic community, is that we atheists/skeptics are just like those religious people (as if that were a criticism worth taking seriously). But even while that criticism is silly, we can still step back and take a look at commonalities of human behavior, including how these behaviors inform and compel behavior of people in both religious and non-religious communities.
In the skeptical community in particular, emphasis is often on methodology. What tools are we using to figure things out? How much emphasis do we put on empiricism? How about rationalism? Most skeptics utilize, primarily, the scientific method which utilizes logic, empiricism, and applies a probabilistic approach to truth.
But these tools are used with the intent of discovering what is true (or at least what is likely to be true). And so once we have those answers, how certain should we be? Should we be willing, once a conclusion seems to be very certainly true, to defend it as the right answer?
This tension, between the best methodology and the best answers, is reminiscent of the tension throughout much of religious and theological history between orthopraxy (correct action/practice) and orthodoxy (correct belief/doctrine). If you look at the history of religion, this tension plays out over and over again and can teach us quite a lot about human behavior.
My general view of religion is that it follows the rules of how culture operates. If you want to understand religious behavior, understand cultural, social, and idividual behavior. As a result of this view, I could also say that if we were to track some of the arguments between skeptics/atheists about whether it is the conclusions (or definitions) which matter more than the methodologies we use, you might see the similarities start to emerge from the mess.
The Best of Religion and Skepticism
If we were to be forgiving of the many atrocities (both of practice and of beliefs) of religion, we could take a look at the many mystical, introspective, and social boons which religion provides to so many people. At its best, religion provides a perspective of ourselves, our communities, and the world itself which is both beautiful and awe-inspiring. So long as we can avoid the metaphysical bird-catchers* that these perspectives are often glued to, we can walk into and within religion without detriment to ourselves or the world around us.
Of course, we could have those same perspectives and experiences without religion. Science and logic do not strip away such things, although they may often cause our minds to reject them for the sake of what appears to be a cleaner and more precise description of the world (and it often is such, but perhaps not always).
And whether or not we step away from religion, insofar as we are capable of practicing good skepticism, we will be armed with a methodology which can aid us in a plethora of ways and provide us with yet more peep-holes into reality, including the murkiest part of reality; ourselves.
Skepticism gives us a sieve through which falls bias, delusion, and deception. What remains is a jumble of truths, in need of structure and meaning, which we can push and pull with our fingers like children at play with rocks, toys, or sand.
What may become a problem is what happens when we start to build castles out of that sand. For, in a sense, we are prone to see what we make as the truth. Objects made of truth do not necessarily make larger truths, for truth is also contained within structure, and not merely components.
Getting caught up in constructions
We create narratives, structures, and often monuments of truth. Now, I personally believe that a real world exists, and in many cases our descriptions of this reality are reliable and ‘true’, if by ‘true’ we mean that it coheres with our experience and stand up to scrutiny. Some Platonic TRUTH simply has no meaning, at least not one that we, sentient and subjective beings taht we are, can participate in.
So I believe that it’s valid to say that we know something, insofar as that thing has survived skeptical analysis, especially if it has done so repeatedly and without significant contradiction. So we can say that our understanding of how gravity works (insofar as we understand how gravity works) is true because the description keeps predicting and explaining results. Similarly, we can say that evolution is a fact which is explained by the theory of natural selection (among the other parts of biological theory related to evolution) because the theory keeps being supported by evidence.
These facts about the world are real things which we can point to and demonstrate why we accept them as true, but this demonstration is dependent upon the methodology. Methodology is the thing that determines the structure of truths, after all. Again, trye structure is as important as true components. The “correct” answers which science provides for us would be meaningless without the methodology by which we discover and construct those answers.
If we are to have a new set of facts replace such an answer, it would be the methodology which would bring it to us.
Deconstructing our sand castles
Let’s go back to religion. I’m going to unequivocally say that the largest failure of religion, in general, is the set of facts it proposes as the truth. This is for two reasons.
The first reason is that when science and religion butt heads, science always either agrees or it wins. In the places where science and religion agree, all religion has done is either used, somewhere in the past, some skeptical methodology to find that answer or it simply got lucky. It is the accidental nature which leads us to the second reason.
The second reason that religion fails in the face of science is that when it comes to belief, the very methodology of religion is backwards. Where religion finds answers that work, it can only do so by borrowing from science or by getting lucky. Religion does not try to prove itself wrong, it looks for support for what it already believes or merely asserts without an attempt to provide evidence, and then calls it “faith.”
In the skeptical world, the tension between method and answer works differently than it does in religion; with religion, the tension between orthopraxy and orthodoxy ultimately revert back to the right answers; to orthodoxy. Even in religious traditions which tend to lean heavier on practice over doctrine, it is the doctrines, or at least metaphysical beliefs, which anchor it as a religion rather than a philosophy.
Even with religious interpretations which focus on moral action, personal growth, etc, it is the beliefs of that group which act like a gravitational center. Otherwise, you would not have a Buddhist or a Muslim, you’d just have people who value certain ways to live, surrounded by Buddhist or Islamic scenery. The more individuals in religious communities move away from doctrine as their focus, the more they move away from religion and towards secular philosophies.
We humans must be more careful with how closely we attach ourselves to conclusions. Conclusions create a center of gravity, which does help create a community, but it also can be the parent of tribalism, groupthink, and ultimately the narratives which become doctrine.
Within the skeptic/atheist world, certain centers of conclusion-gravity exist as well, and they define the borders between factions, not unlike what has happened with religion except that so far those lines have not become full walls which define different sects.
Not that some of the distinctions are not important; and not that I don’t think that some factions in the rift are more right than others, but I worry that the focus will become, just like with religion, the conclusions themselves, rather than the method by which they came to those conclusions. Tribalism breeds orthodoxy and diminishes focus on methodology–on orthopraxy.
Over there on this side, they all know that this thing is true that this person over there is like that and so they all dislike that person. This person becomes not part of the other group, and any contribution from them is suspect to them. Next thing you know, all the friends of this person have created their own narrative and then we have factions, tribes, and points of conflict. They have banners to put on flags, for when they arrive at the field of battle. They have identifiers to make sure they don’t kill their own.
You know, “friendly fire.”
And rather than focus on how we got to that battle field, why they chose that banner, or even what the other people with another banner think, the soldiers focus on the narratives, gripes, and injuries that their friends have suffered. And thus skeptics, atheists, and other people who think of themselves as intelligent fall prey to the oldest of humanities weaknesses; rightness.
What orthodoxy do you cling to? How do you know that thing and what are you going to do, how are your going to live, and what right actions are you going to practice to either confirm or deny that right doctrine. How are you going to justify that righteousness of yours?
Is skepticism or atheism like religion? No
Are skeptics and atheists like religious people? Yes
Because we’re all people.
Let’s focus on why we disagree, more than what we disagree about. Once we have a better handle on why we disagree, the disagreements will still be there, probably. In the end, we may still hate each other, but at least we didn’t merely bow to a flag that may or may not even be true.
Good luck out there.
*”To confront man henceforth with man in the way in which, hardened by the discipline of science, man today confronts the rest of nature, with dauntless Oedipus eyes and stopped-up Odysseus ears, deaf to the siren songs of old metaphysical bird-catchers who have all too long been piping to him “you are more! you are higher! you are of a different origin!”—that may be a strange and extravagant task but it is a task” (Beyond Good and Evil,§230)