A challenge for ‘skeptics’


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.