Skepticism VS Atheism: The Stupid Fight

I’m not sure why this is, but there seems to be a faction of Skeptics, not all of whom are religious, who have a problem with Skeptics who like to talk about Atheism. They are concerned that people conflate Atheism and Skepticism. I’m not sure who these theoretical people are, but let’s assume that this is a real concern and not one just made up.

Skepticism is just a way of thinking, sort of a “Well, then prove it” attitude towards life and knowledge. There have been people who claimed to be skeptics who believed in God, and who believed that global warming wasn’t real for that matter, so there’s no litmus test for being a Skeptic, it’s a goal to strive for. Most people don’t actually achieve Skepticism towards everything in their lives.

Why, just the other day I refused to click on a link because it was going to disprove some something or other, some story that I preferred to believe was true because it was a really nice story. Now, I don’t remember what it even was, so undoubtedly I’ll continue believing it was true. That would be a SkepticFail on my part.

Some people will claim that God is not a testable hypothesis, and these people are sort of right. The deistic god that doesn’t do anything so might as well not be there, that god is an untestable claim — the Christian or Muslim or Jewish or Whatever Religion’s God is a testable claim because those religions claim that their God can *do* things. A skeptical approach to religion leads you directly to the conclusion that no religion has a god that exists as they describe it. This is agnosticism if not atheism.

This doesn’t mean you can’t be a skeptic and also believe in God, you absolutely can.  You can be a skeptic and believe in homeopathy, or UFOs, or be a Birther, or a 9/11 Truther, or any number of things.  It just means that you aren’t applying good thinking to one or another of your worldviews.  I believe people are fundamentally good, that’s probably also a testable claim that I’d just as soon not see the results on.

Here’s what I don’t understand: how is saying “skeptics should be skeptical of religion” is the same as saying “skepticism and atheism are the same thing”? Who are these mysterious people who assume that skepticism and atheism are the same thing?  It’s not the people who want to talk about atheism at skeptic conferences, they think that skepticism should lead to agnosticism.  In case that isn’t clear, that’s not the same as saying “Skeptic = Atheist”.

I don’t know that anyone is arguing that deism or agnosticism is a bad thing, but there are many bad things that religions do. Perhaps the thing that ought not be conflated is belief in a god and belief in a religion.  Atheists who speak at Skeptic conventions want to encourage Skeptical thought towards religion and towards religious beliefs that hurt people.  How many lives have been ruined by believers in UFOs?  How many lives have been ruined by believers in religion?  Or, to be even less confrontational, how many people believe in UFOs and how many believe in religion?  Is it really unreasonable to spend some time throwing Skeptical thinking at such a large and pervasive target?

If you had a skeptic conference that focused on disproving homeopathy rather than disproving religion, would calling it a “Skeptic Conference” be wrong? Are we only arguing about this because some people are afraid that offending the religious is going to scare people off? Are we so concerned with religious people’s sensitivities that we’d compromise our own willingness to tell the truth and ask questions?

I will say that I’m highly skeptical of this claim that Atheism is not an important part of the Skeptic movement.

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About ashleyfmiller

I write, give occasional speeches, and am currently getting my PhD in Mass Communications from South Carolina. Before going back to school, I worked in Los Angeles in reality tv, web series, and film.

Posted on November 21, 2010, in atheism, Posts Worth Going Back and Reading, Religion, skeptic and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 37 Comments.

  1. “…who have a problem with Skeptics who like to talk about Atheism. ”

    Then you should remove a link to my site, thanks?

    My research on paranormal beliefs and a forthcoming paper which looks at the work of Orenstein, 2002 (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1468-5906.00118/abstract) and compares it to a sample of Australian believers is all about atheism, religion and skepticism. Hardly an example of not wanting to investigate such issues! It’s the basis of my research and something I’ve even presented internationally.

    There’s also several examples of people who do conflate in my blogpost, including a quote from radio host Desiree Schell of Skeptically Speaking about how it’s happened with scientists she interviews. Hence the first handful of paragraphs on my site. It’s not a ‘hypothetical’. Hell, have a look at the comments on the likes of PZ’s and other’s sites, if you’re doubting they exist! ;)

    What you’re missing is the the statement ‘You’re not skeptical enough if you’re not skeptical about religion’.
    Or, as summarised offensively in the original phrase – ‘you’re not fucking skeptical enough’.

    What does that make of your article? Where do you draw the line as to ‘a true skeptic’ or a ‘true atheist’?

    “Is it really unreasonable to spend some time throwing Skeptical thinking at such a large and pervasive target?”

    Name the claims. Then take it from there. If you don’t have a target, then why are you claiming it’s a part of skeptical inquiry? You can read that in my blogpost as well.

    Your phrase ‘skeptical thinking’ is part of the problem – define skepticism, thanks? Do you really mean CRITICAL thinking? Because they’re different!

    As one of the MC’s of the Global Atheist Convention this year, I worked with many atheists and continue to do so. I’ll also be proud to be on the same stage as Dr Pamela Gay in less than a week’s time. You can check that out on the Amazing Meeting Australia site and on the Skeptic Zone podcast.

    One thing you can be sure of? People who go around saying ‘you’re not fucking skeptical enough’ aren’t going to say it to Pamela Gay’s face. Which makes me wonder why you’re giving people who write it online any of your time? ;)

    IF, however, you want to base your entire article on a misinterpretation and limited reading of someone else’s site, go right ahead. But find someone else to do it with.

    • Forgot to add – ‘the stupid fight’ – yes, it is indeed stupid. If we’re starting with undefined terms and people don’t make an effort to understand the broader implications of comments that sum up to no more than ‘I think you must be this skeptical to go on this ride!’

    • Wow, can we ratchet down the hysteria for a second here?

      I don’t agree that your stated examples are guilty of conflation of atheism and skepticism. If you’re saying that people who think being skeptical of all things must be atheists are saying atheism is the same thing as skepticism, I disagree.

      Assuming you actually read my piece, you’ll see I do define the term skeptic and that I also disagree with the premise of a ‘true’ one. I also fail to see the difference between critical and skeptical thinking.

      There are lots of religious claims, and only one of the offending talks at skepticon isn’t talking about them, which is greta christina’s talk about feminism and atheism. The others are talking about Christian claims and myths that can be refuted with factual evidence, things like the power of prayer, comparison with other myths, the historical likelihood of jesus. None of these are a proof against god, nor are they meant to be.

    • And if we’re going to talk about misrepresenting someone else, how about how you treat Jen McCreight’s article? She’s just saying religious claims should be investigated, what, exactly, is the problem with that?

      • There is nothing like a firm belief or disbelief. Everything starts from hypothesis(set of assumption),which is temporarily hold as a basis for experimentation under consideration.
        At every instant we experience validation of our assumptions with variable degree of awareness.
        Sum total of our experience makes us believe or otherwise in it to the hypothesis at that instant.
        No body is 100% believer or disbeliever of god or any such concepts.
        Everybody takes up stand ,which is most suitable to the individual at that moment. which keeps of changing in light of his individual’s assessment of situations, awareness level and self image.
        Murphi’s law hold good.The things going to happen will happen irrespective of anything.But being human being we have ego,desires,value system etc.We derive the pleasure in discussions,actions,convincing others and so on.

      • No problem to investigate any claims of religions.My understanding of religion is set of rules to maintain harmony in society.
        I sound theoretical,I know,but ..?
        What is the priority of spending time,energy in such issues,when so many real life problems ( real and imagined) we are facing.
        Please try to understand GOD ( what so ever form you contemplate ) is the existence.All of us are like blinds trying to perceive elephant in our own way and insisting that is the truth.
        Science and religion are two sides of the same coin.Third side is our own perspective.Let both progress , it is possible.( We unnecessarily believe in Zero sum Game).
        We are experiencing both good and bad effects of both.Gandhian philosophy helps.There is sufficient for everybody’s need but not for greed.
        Do spend energies,time as per the real priorities of society.

  2. Ok, I am one of those questioning types, and I am also religious. I take the matter of faith as a way that I can navigate through life using guidelines I have determined that my faith offers for living a life of integrity while offering comfort when life sucks.

    I also question quite a bit about my faith’s methodology on several things, as well as other non-religious minded topics. Some things in my faith, I reject outright, as they really don’t add up the simple basic tenets of that faith, others I am dubious about, others I accept without question. I used to go along because I thought it was expected of me, and I was programmed in my early religious experience not to question. I always thought there was something wrong with that line of thinking.

    I learned along the way, that just because someone says it’s true, does in no way prove it. I also understand that not all things are easily provable. I also understand that I will have a whole pile of people who vehemently disagree with me. I can’t help at times at asking why they do.

    I think critical thinking is a wise way of learning, and of communicating. Those little things such as faith, or personal views on alternative medicines etc. can be compatible, IF we take a bit of time to even consider another’s point of view. They may have validity, they may not. We can then decide to see where we stand, and if our views have changed or not. But at least we took a look.

    • I think there has to be both and it’s impossible to strike the right balance all the time. There has to be respect for personal beliefs and for the people who hold ones you disagree with, but that doesn’t mean people can’t or shouldn’t be highly critical of those beliefs when they negatively impact others.

      If you believed homeopathy worked, for example, and you generally kept it to yourself, fine, but if you encouraged others to stop taking conventional medicine, you’d be guilty of hurting others with an irrational belief. Likewise, with faith, whatever your personal beliefs are don’t really matter until I find religious beliefs in the law or hurting people like the lgbt community. It’s very difficult for the non-religious to respect the religious because from the outside it looks like brainwashing and a reason to believe hateful things.

      • You are right, it is a balance we need to maintain. I get hit all the time by people who want me to go along with their beliefs on something, especially in faith matters. I smile and nod, and as gently as possible change the subject. If they ask my opinion, then I’ll give it, but if not, I won’t.

        I try to see value in other’s views, I don’t always, in fact I often don’t, but I have to remember that that is their opinion, and I don’t really have the right to try to force them to change it.

        However in a general sense, I feel compelled to stand visibly apart from some things I feel are wrong, in both mindset and in practice. In those times, it is even harder to maintain a balance of respect for those who see things differently while making my point.

        I’m still trying to learn my way through it.

  3. The way I see it, critical thinking is the engine that drives skepticism, just like natural selection is the engine that drives evolution. In this way, critical thinking and skepticism are intimately related.

    Like you pointed out, it is obviously possible to be a skeptic and not an atheist, but I do feel it is possible to be a good skeptic and a bad skeptic. I’m not saying people are “true”skeptics and “false” skeptics, just that there is a continuum. The more you are intellectually consistent in applying skepticism and critical thinking, the better a skeptic you are.

    It just so happens to be if you have the courage and intellectual integrity to fully apply skepticism and critical thinking to religion (no matter how much you may cherish it), the outcome is agnostic atheism.

    There are, however, many people who will take some beliefs and put them in a special mental box, shielding them from skepticism. Just about everybody does this to some degree or another, and many of them are skeptics; it’s just that they’re selectively skeptical.

    Those who don’t like discussing atheism at skeptic events just happen to be selectively skeptical when it comes to religion. Either they don’t want to step on toes, or have their toes stepped on. At the end of the day, this is a real travesty since like you mentioned, UFO’s may be fun to talk about, but UFO belief isn’t causing anywhere near the level of harm that religion is.

  4. I agree with Ashley and godlesspaladin, and think that Kylie is missing the point to such an extent that it’s hard not to imagine that she’s doing so intentionally.

    While Jen’s post did end with a statement that you’re not really skeptical if you aren’t willing to apply skepticism to religion, she did not claim that all skeptics have to be atheists in order to be part of the club. As I read it, she was just saying that criticism of religion falls within the purview of skepticism.

    Ashley and godlesspaladin have echoed that thought here in a slightly more nuanced form, elaborating on the idea that atheism is not a requirement for skeptics, but it is a common and likely outgrowth of skepticism and critical thinking.

    I really don’t understand how Kylie can miss Ashley’s and Jen’s points, and insist on twisting their words into a claim that skeptics must be atheists. It’s quite plain that they were not making that argument at all.

    As for Kylie’s request for a definition of “skeptical thinking” and her insistence that it’s different from critical thinking… I don’t understand what she was getting at, in the context of the atheism/skepticism debate. It would have been much more helpful and effective if she had given her definitions of the two, and then explained how the difference supports her argument.

    I would agree that using terms properly and precisely is necessary in order to have a productive conversation. To that end, here is Merriam-Webster’s definition of skepticism:

    1: an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object
    2 a : the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain
    b : the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism characteristic of skeptics
    3: doubt concerning basic religious principles (as immortality, providence, and revelation)

    Maybe I’m just being dense, but I don’t see anything in that definition that says skepticism should not extend to religion—quite the opposite.

  5. My pleasure. I left a similar comment on Kylie’s blog, but it hasn’t appeared yet. I don’t know whether it got lost in the aether, or is just waiting for moderation.

  6. Isn’t it the responsibility of the event organizers to mix it up and keep it interesting? Of course, bashing paranormal beliefs or homeopathy seems a little… confrontational. I mean, people really BELEVE these things and they get rather offended when people go out of their way to bash their beliefs. They event organizers should mix it up with a variety of topics that don’t offend people.

  7. While I agree that mixing it up at skeptic events can be fun, I disagree that the motivation should be fear of offending someone’s cherished sensibilities. People are going to get offended no matter what. Either homeopathy is right, or it is wrong, either the paranormal exists or it doesn’t. Finding out the answers by fully applying critical thinking and skepticism, even when it may be uncomfortable, is how we discover the answers. If we shied away from examining beliefs simply because the believer has a great deal of time/money/emotion invested in a belief, they we’d still be sitting around campfires in animal furs, dying at 25. :-\

  8. (sorry, I got redundant on the “finding out the answers line”, can you edit that to cut out “Finding out the answers by”?

  9. RE: “we’d still be sitting around campfires in animal furs, dying at 25″

    Well, I’m pretty sure they lived at “one with nature” in perfect harmony with the environment and under the gently tutelage of Mother Earth. It wasn’t until pudgy bald men driving red sports cars conquered the world that everything went to heck in a hand-basket.

  10. With all due respect I couldn’t agree more. The idea of Native cultures living at one with the land in a Disney like world until the cruel white man showed up is a complete myth. Native cultures had the same capacity for cruelty and destruction that European cultures did. The Aztecs demanded daily blood sacrifices, the Mayans helped collapse their society with constant deforestation in order to feed the lime furnaces to paint their cities, the Easter Island natives completely destroyed their island’s ecosystem in the pursuit of building statues to their gods. The North American tribes were constantly warring and taking prisoners. Sorry, but the innocent and harmonious native is a myth.

  11. Couldn’t disagree more** wow,my apologies, I can’t type tonight.

  12. RE: With all due respect I couldn’t agree more.

    Thank you!

  13. I don’t see any of the Skepticon people as equating skepticism and atheism, but I expect that many newcomers to the discussion might well have left Skepticon 3 with that mistaken impression in tow, and if I’m right about that, I consider it to be quite unfortunate. I also share some of the other concerns expressed by some in the “faction” you cite. SOME.

    I’ve been both a small-s skeptic and a non-believer with regard to religion for my entire life (yes, even as a child). But I’ve also been a resident of SW Missouri for most of my life. As a result, the whole religion vs. atheism debate has grown predictable and tiresome for me. More important, I see religion as but one branch (albeit a big one) of the Ugly-Tree that applied skepticism must properly help to excise. But the fact that the root of that tree — careless, irresponsible reasoning — is going largely untouched concerns me greatly. Or, to borrow an increasingly neglected maxim from medical science, “treat the cause, not the symptom.”

    I understand that regional religiosity and pseudoreligious bigotry was the original catalyst out of which Skepticon arose, and I have no Big Problem with their chosen focus. As to what should be “allowed,” they’re damned well free to call it Yaoicon, and then confound all by spending a week ridiculing Norwegian typesetting, if that’s what they want. Obviously.

    But debunking religion is a single specialist application of skepticism, worthy of its own show, sure, but not worthy of owning the network. Meanwhile, mocking the religious is at best just filler, and I have little remaining interest in sneering at random handfuls of God’s Cannon-Fodder. Worse, atheism’s “right wing,” if you will, is anything but skeptical about it’s own dictates — and in such cases you can bet their selectivism doesn’t end there, but positive representation sure does. I am extremely skeptical, you might say, of the practical merits of trying to indoctrinate someone (or enlighten onlookers for that matter) by means of testosterone-fueled recitations of invective. And there was some of that among the rabble. Then of course there are those who get offended, or are twitchy about confrontation. They are omnipresent. That’s just a given. But for many of us, myself included, these things simply have limited appeal and/or usefulness. So, to the extent that Skepticon doubles as Atheistcon — and especially to the extent that otherwise uninitiated attendees are inadvertently led into mistakenly equating skepticism with in-your-face atheism (and I think that’s a valid concern) — the piggybacking of one on the other should be expected to have something of a self-marginalizing effect. And that’s not so good for the cause of promoting skepticism. How bad is it, really? Well, whothefuck knows? But if “erring on the side of caution” doesn’t have at least a few paragraphs in the New Skeptic’s Field Manual, then maybe it’s time for a second edition.

    Now, I’m sure many of those arguments have been made, ad nauseum. But owing to my own tastes and priorities, I, for one, would be mighty pleased to see Skepticon adopt a “broader mandate,” as it were, focus less on particular applications, and more on fundamentals and activities that more directly show the value and promote the skills of critical thinking, responsible reasoning, and, dare I say, skepticism — in ALL it’s glory!

    And, living in the belly of the beast, my interest in positive outcomes is far from hypothetical — I have four decades of negative outcomes burned into my flesh — and religion is by NO means the only assailant.

    • I don’t think many people disagree with the point that skepticism should be about more than just religion and debunking religious claims. And I think primarily what skepticism has going for it is the thought process. However, I think that conventions are made up primarily of people who already know the selling points of the movement — these are people who are willing to pay to go hang out with other skeptics. I suspect that the better place to focus teaching critical thinking fundamentals would probably be in outreach programs or local communities. Not that it’s bad to have them at conferences, but I don’t think conferences are really reaching out to outsiders, nor is that the point of conferences generally.

      But on your general points, I agree.

      • Thanks. You’ve opened up one perspective I hadn’t thought to consider.

        Perhaps the creators/organizers of Skepticon intended more for it to be a sort of conveniently located “Skeptics’ Retreat,” and far less a public symposium for “spreading the word.” If that’s the case, it was not made evident to me via the website or any other channels. But maybe it just hasn’t yet occurred to anyone to spell it out. I’m no convention buff, but I also wonder if the “free and open to the public” selling point lends to the confusion as well.

        But on one point, I’m afraid, I must go on being an obstreperous zealot: I will now and forevermore insist that ANY event is a good event for vigorously jamming Thought back onto our society’s list of educational priorities! :-D

  14. First of all, I have to say that the comments here on this post are some of the most thoughtful, considerate posts I’ve come across, particularly on this topic. Because of that, I’d like to contribute, if I may.

    I am, in fact, a member of this faction of relative skeptics who have a problem with [some] atheists, but I think my reasoning differs a bit from those mentioned above. Or, at least, those who agree with me haven’t yet said it as directly as I hope I can here.

    I have no problem with being properly skeptical about religion or anything else. My problem is that skepticism is not an entire worldview, yet many atheists treat it as such. They are not conflating skepticism and atheism, but skepticism and disbelief. A skeptic needs evidence in order to be “right” in some sense, and thus demands evidence from ever person that claims anything to be true. This is perfectly fine for claims that are falsifiable, or those for which it is possible to gather evidence on one side or another. But, in the complete absence of evidence on either side, a proper skeptic is equally skeptical about belief and disbelief, and assumes neither side.

    Directly stated: skepticism can say nothing about unprovable beliefs and disbeliefs.

    Skepticism about religion leads to agnosticism (as stated above), but not the kind of atheism that ridicules any and every belief in something outside of science. It’s okay to chastise the members of Congress who quote the bible as evidence for or against a piece of legislation, but not okay to chastise someone for stating simply, “I believe in a god.”

    Unfortunately, my interactions with the “new” vocal atheists venture more often than not into this groundless disdain of belief. I have even been called a “pussy agnostic” by a self-proclaimed atheist, as if my skepticism about religion should somehow morph into a disbelief of anything for which there is no evidence.

    To illustrate my distinction further, I’d like to use an example from my work as a researcher in the biological science. I was at a conference on biological systems, and the presentations I saw very clearly fit into two categories, though I’m not sure if everyone would agree with me. I call these two categories “inference” and “simulation”. The first type, inference, involves using experiments and data to infer the causes and effects of particular events in complex biological reactions. The second type, simulation, consists of constructing a model that produces the experimentally observed results. The key distinction is that inference tries to determine what is fact, and simulation provides a suggestion of the mechanism that produces the observed results.

    Given these two halves of science, skeptics would likely prefer the first—believe nothing unless we can show that it is true—and the faithful might prefer the second—provide a suggestion and see how well it fits its purpose. Both are necessary in science and the world. In fact, one might say that most of theoretical physics belongs to this simulation category of belief.

    Either way, some level of belief is necessary for science, and for skeptics or atheists to attack belief so close to its foundation—to say that belief in a higher power is irrational—is irresponsible and dangerous.

    [In case it's necessary to avoid attacks on this point, in this last paragraph, I am not generalizing to all atheists and skeptics. I mean this about only the people who attack belief itself and not its negative consequences; and, yes, in my experience on the internet and in person, there are many of them, and most of them call themselves "atheists".]

  15. Apparently I took too long to write that comment, as the one from dkmnow wasn’t there when I started. :-)

    That’s a really, really good comment, though. I agree that skepticism marginalizes itself by associating too closely with atheism, particularly the right-wingers thereof. I have no experience with Skepticon, but in the future I would much rather attend if I thought the cause would be treated and not the symptoms, to borrow the analogy.

    • There are certainly some “angry new atheists” but I’ve found that this general belief comes either from stereotypes or internet forum discussions where everyone is an asshole. Whenever I’ve attended places where there are atheist and non-atheist skeptics, the atheists have been respectful of the non-atheists and even laid of the harshness of their critiques. I’m not saying that there are no angry anti-social jerkfaces, but I don’t think they’re anywhere near the majority.

      I don’t think that skepticism marginalizes itself by associating with atheism, for a couple reasons. One, I think that skepticism and non-belief are too closely intertwined for skepticism to not be associated with atheism regardless. Two, I think that the recent increase in interest in skepticism and the swelling of numbers at places like TAM and Skepticon comes from a new interest from new atheists.

      I, for example, would never have heard of skepticism as a movement or known about things like homeopathy if I hadn’t first been an atheist. Maybe atheism isn’t as popular as religion, but I think that there’s a huge groundswell of atheism and backlash against the religious right that skepticism would be well-served to be a part of.

  16. This are some really thought provoking comments. ^_^

    @dkmnow: I really agree with you that religion is just one, if not abnormally large, branch of an ugly tree, and that the solution is not to attack the branches but the root. I also agree that Skepticon (and skepticism as a larger movement) should adopt a broader mandate. While cons my be fun to get together with other skeptics, we should really be focusing on community outreach and pushing for logic courses in highschool. (Argument and reason usually aren’t even offered until college, and even then it’s an elective. I think this is a travesty since the skills are crucial to making good decisions in life)

    @Brian: If I may humbly disagree on a few points:

    ” But, in the complete absence of evidence on either side, a proper skeptic is equally skeptical about belief and disbelief, and assumes neither side.”

    I feel this is problematic for several reasons. It seems to express the notion that belief and disbelief are two equally untenable positions, ultimately canceling each other out, leaving the skeptic to be skeptical of both.

    Being involved in the sciences, I’m sure you’re familiar with the concepts “burden of proof”, and “null hypothesis”. These two concepts alone make belief and disbelief unequal. Disbelief does not require evidence since it is the default position in the face of claims, as stated by the null hypothesis. (Something I’m sure you use every day in science) Are their gnostic atheists out there making the positive claim “there is no god”? Unfortunately, yes, and we should ridicule them for being just as illogical and fallacious as the religious they condemn. The vast majority of atheists, however, are agnostic atheists (and thus logically consistent.)

    “It’s okay to chastise the members of Congress who quote the bible as evidence for or against a piece of legislation, but not okay to chastise someone for stating simply, “I believe in a god.””

    I disagree. Irrationality should be confronted as often as possible. Now that’s not to say you need to be a flaming jerk about it. There are rude ways and polite ways, proper times and improper times. It’s a matter of tact .

    Per your example, I disagree that skeptics would prefer inference over simulation. As you pointed out, in the real world both are needed. Seeing how they are equally part of scientific process of discovering knowledge, separating them seems fallacious. Indeed, the second “provide a suggestion and see how well it fits its purpose” is intimately part of the first “believe nothing unless we can show that it is true” in that it attempts to assign a probability to the way something is done.

    “Either way, some level of belief is necessary for science”
    What beliefs are you referring to? As far as I’m aware (I may be wrong) and from what I’ve heard other scientists say on the topic, science makes only one assumption: The universe exists and it obeys a set of rules. That seems to be the only article of “faith” required for science to work.

    “I mean this about only the people who attack belief itself and not its negative consequences”

    At the risk of sounding like one of the people you’re alluding to, belief is not separate from the negative consequences it engenders. To reuse the tree analogy, negative consequences are the branch protruding from the root of belief. Irrational thinking and reality denial may be harmless in some individual situations, but the net effect is very much to the detriment of humanity.

    (Although I disagree with you, I don’t mean for this come across as rude or abrasive. I thought your comment was very well thought out and gave me a lot to consider.)

    Lastly, this is just a pet peeve of mine, but I feel people are mixing up the definitions of “agnostic” and “atheist” as if they were two separate positions when in reality they are separate answers to separate questions. One can be both. In fact, I’d venture to say that the vast majority of disbelievers are both. ( I won’t lengthen this reply unnecessarily, but if you want to see exactly what I mean, here’s the link http://godlesspaladin.wordpress.com/2010/10/14/atheist-or-agnostic/ )

  17. Wow… this is continuing to be a really good discussion. I assumed the comments were moderated, but unless Ashley is a moderation ninja, now I’m guessing not.

    @Ashley: I agree with you that internet people are much worse than “real” people, but I try to separate the wheat from the chaff online and I’ve had relatively similar experiences face-to-face. It’s not that these atheists are angry, but just that they want desperately to show that any belief in anything without evidence (particularly dealing with gods) is irrational and illogical. Godlesspaladdin above is a perfect example. He (I’ll use the masculine pronoun out of ignorance) provides coherent arguments, is exceedingly polite, and not only wants to eliminate religion’s effect on practical matters, but also wants to show that belief without evidence is irrational or illogical. I have no problem associating with him, but since most self-identified “atheists” share this position, I refuse to count myself among atheists (weak, strong, positive, negative, passive, whatever…).

    Also, I should have been more clear in my one sentence; it should have read: skeptics marginalize themselves *IF* they associate too closely with atheists. I think this particularly because there is a certain atheist dogma (the position I mention the the previous paragraph, and which I will expand below in my response to godlesspaladdin) that seems to be growing which I believe contradicts skepticism and/or logic.

    Otherwise, I think skepticism as a movement is great, as long as people are skeptical about taking it too far.

    @godlesspaladdin: Thanks for being so polite. I appreciate that, but you really don’t have to tiptoe with me. I can take a counterargument without resorting to name-calling like Ashley’s “jerkfaces”. :-)

    I’ll try to address your points in approximate order, though I know that they will get all jumbled up.

    I am actually not really a scientist, but a mathematician working in the sciences, so I am very familiar with the idea of a null hypothesis, as well as burden of proof. An atheist friend of mine has used this argument on me before, and I’m not sure I dealt with it very well. I’ll try to do better here.

    Null hypotheses and burdens of proof don’t exist in a vacuum. They require some decision-making construct to make them relevant. A null hypothesis needs a statistical test/decision and a burden of proof needs something like a judicial case. Without this larger context, speaking of a null hypothesis or a burden of proof is meaningless. That being said, both null hypothesis and burden of proof are chosen by the person who sets up this construct. Naturally, you choose “there is no god” as your null hypothesis because you feel that nonexistence is somehow more natural, but there is no logic or science to back you up. (By the way, whenever I say “god” I mean a thing or a force that is by definition unmeasurable, so there is no evidence at all for or against existence). The same thing goes with a burden of proof.

    So, let’s look at a scenario in which there is a trial involving one party who wishes to use the existence of a god as an argument. In most practical cases, I think you’ll agree with me that gods are irrelevant, and that using a god as evidence is irrational and illogical. However, if there were a trial where the main question to be answered is, “is there a god?” then of course the existence is relevant (it is, in fact, the main issue). So, if you imagine this court case where one side says “there is a god” and the other side says “there is no god”, it would probably be a pretty dramatic trial, but in the very end, there will be no real evidence on either side. The “no god” side’s primary argument would [rightly] be there their opponent has no evidence, and if the “god” side were smart, they would use the same argument. And, notably, there is no reason for the judge to favor one side or the other. They both have a claim, and neither has evidence.

    Now, that same friend of mine who cried “burden of proof!” in our argument also said that, to paraphrase, existence is easier to prove than nonexistence since you have only to find one specimen, as opposed to “looking everywhere”. While this is true in some special cases, this is not true in general (particularly in logic and math), and would need further qualification in order to pass as a valid argument against the existence of a god.

    I apologize in advance for the self promotion, but I wrote my next point in a blog post a while ago, and I’ll link and paraphrase it here to save space:

    http://briangodsey.blogspot.com/2010/10/logic-textbook-to-rescue-atheism-again.html

    Mainly, I quoted a logic textbook that said, “To show a view to be false, we must do more than just refute an argument for it; we must invent an argument of our own that shows the view to be false.”

    To take that idea further here in this comment, I’d like to consider the three types of “atheists” I have encountered. They can be summarized by their opinion on the existence of gods; consider these my working definitions:

    Strong atheist: “There is no god.”
    Medium atheist: “There is likely no god.”
    Weak atheist (agnostic): “I don’t know if there is a god.”

    Imagine that these three atheists walk into a bar (sorry, I had to) and meet a theist. The theist says, “There is a god,” and by the house rules of the bar (it’s a strange bar), the three atheists are required to respond with their own views on this statement. There responses must be something like:

    Strong atheist: “You are wrong.”
    Medium atheist: “You are probably wrong.”
    Weak atheist: “Okay. Fine. I’m happy for you.”

    None of these three atheists is allowed to say “you are being irrational” unless he himself can provide a valid argument or evidence against the existence of a god. See the quote from the logic textbook. Since there is no such evidence, no one is allowed to say “you are being irrational”.

    On the other hand, if the statement is something for which there is evidence, for example “the earth is 6000 years old, and dinosaurs co-existed with man”, then any of the atheists is allowed to say “you’re being irrational” because there is evidence to contradict this falsifiable claim.

    No honorable statistician would accept the null hypothesis (which he created) simply because he couldn’t find any evidence against it.

    To your comments on belief in science and inference/simulation:

    In a lot of ways, “simulation” as I have described it is exactly like proposing that a god controls the things we don’t understand. While inference works from the bottom up, proving what is fact, every simulation is a suggestion of the explanation of certain phenomena. No respectable physicist will say that Einstein’s relativity equations are “true” any more than they will say that Newton’s gravity equation is “true”. Both are models that explain some aspect of the data we collect from our world, but to say they are “true” is wrong. They are merely the best explanation we have at the moment, and any work we do which is based on them requires a belief in the equations.

    A few months ago, I read about a physicist who proposed that gravity was not a fundamental force, but a consequence of entropy. Unfortunately, the guy hadn’t worked through all of the equations yet; here made only very specific points and a few generalizations, but he was going to keep working on it. This is a revolutionary idea, and most physicists think it won’t hold up under scrutiny, yet since there is no real evidence on either side, no one can call him a crackpot yet. That’s analogous to the god question. No evidence: no conclusion.

    That’s why belief is necessary in science. This guy believes his theory even before he has conclusive evidence. We don’t have to believe him, and that’s our choice. However, if he uses his theory to say that the sky is green, we have every right to call him an idiot.

    —-

    Lastly, belief is indeed separate from its consequences. Back to the tree analogy: the tree has good and bad branches; there’s no need to cut the whole thing down.

    —-

    Man, I wrote way more than I planned. Sorry I wasn’t as polite as some; I hope I’m not being rude at all.

    Thanks for the great discussion!

  18. I can’t believe I wrote “There responses must be….”. THEIR. I hate that. I wish I could edit it. Sorry.

  19. Brian,

    I share your appreciation for the quality of this comment thread, and don’t worry—you were exceedingly polite.

    I’d like to revisit your curious bar. Like godlesspaladin, I consider myself an agnostic atheist. I am personally convinced that the evidence does not support the idea of an active, theistic god, but I have no basis for claiming that a deistic god (one who just racked up the cosmic pool balls, made the break, and then never made another shot) doesn’t exist.

    So, when the bar’s theistic greeter makes his statement, my response would be “That’s fine, as long as you don’t try to tell me you have any knowledge of god’s intentions, desires, or preferences. At that point I’m going to ask how you gained this knowledge. That will lead to discussions of arguments from authority, antiquity, and popularity, confirmation bias, the human tendency to find patterns and agency in random events, etc., etc., etc.”

    God may exist, but so what? Science is the best approach we’ve come up with for understanding how the world actually is—anyone not living naked in a cave would be profoundly hypocritical to deny its efficacy. We’ve learned a lot about archeology, paleontology, astronomy, geology, biology, and human psychology.

    In the light of that knowledge, it becomes clear that religious teachings are just myths; their claims about history and nature are simply wrong on the facts, and their claims about god’s desires are wildly contradictory and much more likely to be artifacts of human brains than inspirations from a universe-encompassing deity.

    So if everything you’ve ever been told about god is wrong, what basis for belief is there? Well, there’s that common feeling that there must me something more, some agency making things happen out in the world, some voice inside our head guiding us.

    I think those phenomena are best explained as products of our brain’s evolution, but it doesn’t bother me much if you prefer to imagine them as signs that there must be a god.

    That belief, however, can become a problem for me if you base your actions on it. As soon as you start believing that god is telling you something, then it follows that you should do what god asks, because god has to be right, and so any contravening arguments, logic, and evidence must be ignored.

    Belief leads to illogic and irrationality like gravity makes things fall down.

  20. I agree with you that ” religious teachings are just myths”.But those were possibly required in the period of evolution of that religion.
    In the process of evolution,even scientific rules get modified in light of recent understanding.
    The critical thinking will bring changed beliefs in science and religions.God( beliefs..?) in me and you ( sounds …?)decides our actions.
    Sorry if you find this post out of the context.

  21. @Brian
    Sorry if I was too polite, I’ll try to be more angry and hostile. ~_^

    I honestly am open to having my mind changed in lieu of a good argument. Yeah I have my views, but it’s not like a team that I must cling fast to in order to “win.” Therefore I don’t consider myself “dogmatic” in my agnostic atheism.

    I read your other blog post and found it really interesting. As to “we must invent an argument of our own that shows the view to be false,” would not refuting an argument be an argument in itself as to why a position is false?

    Something that keeps popping up in my head is how it is impossible to prove a negative. Therefore it is irrational to ask atheists to provide evidence to prove the negative of “god does not exist.” I try to avoid saying “there is no god” for exactly this reason, but then you also made clear you believe retreating to “there is very likely no god” to be equally unsound.

    “A null hypothesis needs a statistical test/decision and a burden of proof needs something like a judicial case. “

    I’m a little confused here. I think I understand what you mean by “a judicial case” if that includes evaluating claims outside of a courtroom setting, like at a used car lot, but I’m unclear as to “statistical test/decision.”

    “Naturally, you choose “there is no god” as your null hypothesis because you feel that nonexistence is somehow more natural, but there is no logic or science to back you up.”

    Hmmm…I’ve been sitting here for over an hour trying to come up with a response to that. Currently I’m stumped and you might very well be right. I’m probably going to spend the rest of the day thinking about it. (And of course, Murphy’s law, while I’m trying very hard to concentrate and manipulate these concepts, the neighbor brings out the leaf blower right next to my window >.<)

    To echo somewhat what HMN said, I've noticed that most of the time when we're discussing god, we've been discussing the deist god. Like HMN pointed out, since he/she/it doesn't do anything, there are no claims of anything observable to refute. The only claim made about him/her/it is that thy created the universe. This is very much a “god of the gaps” since we currently don't know what happened before
    10^-43 seconds after the big bang. Once we do figure that out, Occam's razor will cut the deist god out of existence. Will that “prove” the deist god doesn't exist? Of course not, but he might as well not, seeing how he's completely superfluous. Unfortunately, most believers today do not believe in the hands off deist god. They believe in a very active interventionist god, which does fall within the purview of science.

    (I apologize if I sound like a broken record, or like you're not getting through to me. I'm going to spend the day thinking about what you said, and hopefully this damn leaf blower will be gone later)

  22. “Naturally, you choose ‘there is no god’ as your null hypothesis because you feel that nonexistence is somehow more natural, but there is no logic or science to back you up.”

    Hmmm…I’ve been sitting here for over an hour trying to come up with a response to that.

    I think that Occam’s razor is enough to tip the balance towards “there is no god” as a null hypothesis.

  23. I also addressed Occam’s Razor when I was arguing with that same friend of mine, but I forgot to include it here. Here’s what I said:

    “Occam’s Razor is neither evidence nor a valid step in a logical argument. It is merely a guide used when making generalizations from relatively few observations. When we have zero observations, as we do in this case, it does not apply.”

    It’s actually in the comments to my blog post I linked above.

    —–

    @godlesspaladdin: I like that you’re considering my arguments, as I am yours. Maybe I was a little sloppy with language, though. I had never heard the difference between theism and deism, so I’m sorry for getting them confused. I think I usually mean a deist god, when I speak of a god.

    To explain my sentence:

    “A null hypothesis needs a statistical test/decision and a burden of proof needs something like a judicial case. “

    I just meant that a context is necessary. So, yes, a courtroom is not necessary, but there must be a decision to make and at least two opposing sides, each presenting arguments or evidence. Outside of this context, neither a null hypothesis nor a burden of proof can exist.

  24. That’s why belief is necessary in science. This guy believes his theory even before he has conclusive evidence.

    Actually, I’d say that curiosity, creativity, dogged persistence, and the courage to admit when you are wrong are necessary for science. Belief is exactly what the scientific method seeks to counteract.

    If the physicist who thinks that gravity is entropy works for years without arriving at a coherent and testable hypothesis, yet still maintains that he is right and the rest of the scientific community is wrong, then his belief has moved him into the category of pseudoscience.

    I’m curious about your statement that you are probably a deist. As I mentioned above, the deist’s god is distinguished by being absent and undetectable.

    Given that lack of presence, what is it that leads you to suspect that such an entity exists? Do you have some idea about its characteristics? What is the source of your knowledge?

    • As per Hindu scriptures, god is the existence and hence omnipresent. All sciences and religions are trying to frame set of rules to understand its governance .To understand this “whole ” by means of infinite-decimal ” part ” has its own limitations.Our own knowledge ( total humanity put together) is delta -> zero ,even with our own known present set of knowledge (compare Human existence with estimated existence of earth,leave apart universe.)Being part of the existence, everybody of us is a infinite-decimal god.
      God (as an individual is perceives it)is absent, being very very limited knowledge ,it is undetectable.It is something like zero concept.( in it’s (perceived)absence it is still ,a part of any large figure)i.e. it appears to exists and non exists at same time.(Analogy of calculus : constant of integration is unknown).
      But still we continue our mission of understanding it more and more and change our actions in light of whatsoever little incremental knowledge we get and it is right.
      Regarding “pseudoscience”: All scientific hypothesis like “earth is round”,”Relativity theory” may have appeared as “pseudoscience” at one point of time,because majority of so to say intellectuals don’t agree with it.But in due course of time because of advancement in technologies and knowledge base they subsequently established as scientific facts.
      Let us allow such “odds ” to experiment at their own resources.In due course of time, it will prove or disprove itself.

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