Saturday, January 8, 2011

Skepticism and Atheism

          I have in recent months seen what appears to be a gulf growing between the atheist movement and the skeptic movement.  Now, let me clarify a bit by offering that I do not think that the two groups are somehow about to become enemies.  However, it does seem to me that some skeptics are trying to distance themselves from being associated with atheism.

            I was acutely reminded of this when I ran into a recent forum discussion on a site for skeptics, and as I had just decided to start a blog dealing with these two topics it seemed a good idea for my first post to speak about this issue.  The discussion was started by a well-meaning theist, a Christian to be exact, who expressed his interest in being a skeptic, and in his appreciation of skeptical thinking, yet wondered if the skeptics thought he could, as a religious person, really be a skeptic and wanted to hear their thoughts. (I have left out a link to this conversation since it was on Facebook and people were using their real names)  Invariably most, if not all, of the posters took a very soft approach, none of them said outright that there was no incompatibility with religious thinking and skepticism, but they were careful not to say there was such a discrepancy either.  Though, some did point out that he would need to compartmentalize his beliefs in order to do this.  This is hardly the first time I have seen this particular scene play out. 
Now to some extent can understand the impetus to for many skeptics to behave this way from a P.R. standpoint.  That is to say, that skepticism deals with many issues in which religion does not play even an incidental part.  Furthermore considering that a major concern for those in the skeptical movement is the garnering of public support for their causes it seems quite reasonable that many would temper their speech in order to maximize support for other issues.   If, for instance, a theist felt strongly about speaking against the anti-vaccination movement there is no reason we should prevent them from adding their voice to the issue. 

There is another reason why we may not want atheism and skepticism too closely associated.  Quite frankly, not all atheists are skeptics, nor are they rational.  I see no reason to name names here, but it is possible that if the two become synonymous many people from outside the movement will invariably associate the actions and ideas of some of the crazier atheists out there, with skeptical thinking.  So it may be best if the view presented to the public is that these are related but still separate movements.

Of course I could argue that this tactic is could alienate fellow atheist allies, but truthfully I doubt this is the case.  For one, most of the best known people in the skeptical movement are not very religious themselves, and while I cannot speak for every atheist out there I am not about to withhold my opinions or support on other topics like pseudo-science in some pointless feud.  Secondly, as I said, I am forced to admit that being an atheist is not a guarantee of a person’s ability to reason or think skeptically.

Our prefrontal lobes are too small
while our adrenal glands are too big.
Still we are left with the question the theist posed.  Can a person believe in a religion and still be a skeptic?  In part the answer to this question depends on how one defines the word “skeptic.”  We could conservatively suggest that the only people who count as skeptics are those who are always reasonable, never biased, and never hold any beliefs unless they are justified by a reasonable amount of evidence.  However, if we did that it would almost certainly be impossible to call anyone a skeptic.  As Christopher Hitchens has said “Our prefrontal lobes are too small while our adrenal glands are too big.”  The higher brain functions that allow us to think skeptically evolved rather late in the process and it still requires quite a bit of work to think rationally.  In fact, science itself is designed the way it is because of this, the concept of empirical falsification, the peer review process, this is all designed to weed out the personal bias and poor reasoning that seeps into every one of us as individuals.  

The most I can personally say is that I do my best think rationally and skeptically about my beliefs, and that I try to be open to changing them when evidence dictates that I do so.  However, this is arguably not exactly what the theist in question was doing, or what I see most theists doing in the skeptical movement.  Ironically, in a way I could get along better on this issue with a fundamentalist believer.  To most fundamentalists their religion is not only true, but can and HAS been demonstrated to be true in scientific terms.  Of course I think they are quite wrong on this count, but the point is that they believe this to be important.  The theist who posed this question and many others seem to want to remove their beliefs from open discourse all together.  They openly admit that none of their beliefs can be justified using reason, skepticism, or science, and seem to want their core beliefs to simply be exempt from questions.  They want others to be ok with the fact that they do not question their own most cherished beliefs, and sometimes ask that even we refrain from questioning them as well, yet by claiming to be a skeptic they must be willing to questioning others beliefs.  This, I believe, will eventually result in the theist either abandoning their religious beliefs, or they will invariably end up acting hypocritical.

To explain, let us look at the anti-vaccination movement.  I think most reading this will agree that the scientific claims behind anti-vax are quite bad, and the movement has caused damage to our society in several ways, but this does not negate that many people involved in the movement are there for reasons that are quite emotional and personal.  It is a fact that many of the people involved in anti-vax have autistic children and have latched on to it because no scientific explanation for autism has been found yet.  Yet, as skeptics, we believe we must correct their ideas despite the emotional appeal of them, and the potential hurt these people might feel as a result of our criticism.  

Now, the theist I mentioned would seemingly be willing to take part in this criticism but refuse to turn those same tools of criticism on their own ideas.  This is something that I must take issue with, as many of these same theists seem to take offense when their own beliefs are criticized because of the of personal nature of their beliefs, while assuming that because another persons views are not religious in nature they do not deserve the same respect.  Whether the theists in question want to admit it or not they are engaging in behavior that is both hypocritical and morally suspect.  Furthermore, I personally think that every skeptic needs to start at home.  The beliefs that one ought to criticize most harshly should be their own.  Can anyone claim to be a skeptic if they are entirely unwilling to allow their own ideas to be questioned?  Does such a person sound particularly skeptical to you? 

Skeptical cat doesn't think so, and neither do I

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