Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Atheism and Skepticism

I've talked about the Skeptics' Schism before...and I'm sure I'll talk about it again. Here's today's take on the subject.

I'd recommend reading D.J.'s post at the JREF site, and PZ Myers' post that it links to.

Seriously. They're good posts and provide the needed context and background for this quote from Pamela Gay:

"To me, skepticism applies to testable parts of my life. Through science, I can test ideas and make predictions. As a skeptical thinker, when I'm confronted with data I have to be willing to change my ideas about reality, and if the predictive powers of science fail me, I have to admit my science is wrong. A belief in God is a belief in something frustratingly untestable. I can make no testable predictions using religion, but instead find myself faced with having to make an opinion-based judgement. I have made the choice to believe. I admit I have doubts - I am not so strong a person as to say my faith is complete and that in the dark of night I don't worry that I'm wrong. But in the absence of data, I have made the choice to believe in a God."

Here are the questions I'd like to ask:

1. If something isn't testable, how do you justify believing it?

2. How is this not simply a shifting the burden of proof - accepting an answer, without data to support it, and holding that position until data is presented to contradict it?

3. What makes you think belief is simply a choice? Did you really consciously choose to believe a god exists in the absence of supporting evidence or was there more? Isn't it more accurate to say that you've become convinced for reasons that are admittedly not rational or supported by evidence...reasons of which you may not be full cognizant? Was it a choice or is there some underlying presupposition that you're not recognizing?

4. Do you care whether or not your beliefs are justified?

5. Is it hypocritical to selectively apply skepticism?

I'm not picking on Pamela here - these questions are for any skeptic that identifies as a theist. They've been asked before and I have yet to hear any satisfactory answers. Pamela is simply the most recent, relevant example. And, while I shouldn't have to say this, I'm not raising this to attack her - I'm addressing the claims.

Anyone can be skeptical of something. It's probably the case that every sane person is skeptical of many things. It's natural for us to be curious and skeptical. But when someone identifies as a skeptic and we identify others as a skeptics, we're not talking about "natural skepticism" or being skeptical, we're talking about "applied skepticism" - the conscious application of skeptical ideals as tool for evaluating claims.

How skeptical do you have to be in order to qualify as a skeptic?

Skeptics strive (even if they fail) to be skeptical of all things, don't they? That, to me, is what skepticism is. If it's nothing more than picking and choosing what you'll be skeptical of, where is the usefulness? How can you criticize untestable claims while holding your own and claiming they're immune? When I hear that people like Paul Kurtz are claiming that we shouldn't be skeptical of everything, I have to wonder exactly what's going on.

Don't misunderstand, I agree that we can only adequately investigate testable claims - but we should be skeptical of all claims. What would we say if James Randi, for example, stated that he received an applicant for the Million Dollar Challenge who presented a claim that was untestable but that he was going to go ahead and "choose to believe" this untestable claim (though not aware the prize) despite the lack of supporting evidence?

Pamela writes:
"Someone who compartmentalizes their life - placing religion in one box and skepticism in another - is tearing themselves apart"
... yet she tries to claim that her religious beliefs are untestable and immune from skeptical examination. How is that not compartmentalization? If her beliefs are untestable, why believe? If her beliefs are not untestable, why claim they are...and why believe? How is this different from someone who makes any other untestable woo claim?

None of us are perfect in our application of critical thinking and skepticism, we're all going to make mistakes. We're going to accept bad evidence. We're going to allow our emotions and desires to color our evaluation of evidence. We're going to show a little special treatment for the things we treasure.

But shouldn't skepticism be about recognizing those errors and striving to overcome them? Shouldn't it be about a diligent pursuit of the goal to hold the best possible understanding of reality? When confronted with an error like this, wouldn't we expect a good skeptic to acknowledge the error and change their position? Isn't that the hallmark of skepticism?

I've said, many times, that I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible. Both sides of that coin are critical. If you're only concerned with believing as many true things as possible; believe everything. If you're only concerned with believing as few false things as possible; believe nothing.

Skepticism shuns both of those extremes (credulity and cynicism) and cares solely about serving as a filter to separate information into piles marked 'reliable' and 'unreliable'. It is an ideal predicated on the desire to have the most accurate understanding of reality that we're capable of.

Pamela even notes this when she writes; "the natural outcome in skepticism is acknowledging doubt". That's true and beautiful but it's only part of the story. It's not simply about acknowledging doubt (because that allows people to misrepresent the burden of proof), it's about attempting to doubt appropriately - to discover which bits of information are reliable enough to be believed and which are not.

There's a difference between being skeptical and being a skeptic - or there should be. If someone claims to be a skeptic, yet believes in god or auras or ghosts without presenting supporting evidence, is that a problem? Not so long as they recognize that on that particular subject, they're not properly applying the skepticism they advocate. Essentially, they're hypocritical in their application of skepticism.

Does that mean they're a lousy skeptic? On that subject, yes. Overall? That depends. Some skeptics will recognize and acknowledge that they're not properly applying skepticism. Others will claim that skepticism isn't relevant to that subject. I'm having a really difficult time deciding which of those is more dangerous and which represents the greatest hypocrisy.

Is the willful rejection of skeptical values in order to cling to a cherished belief more or less detrimental if that rejection is acknowledged? Is it better to say, "Yes, I'm not being skeptical about this - because it makes me feel good" than to say "Skepticism simply doesn't apply here"?

I've got to think that the latter is a gross conceptual error about what skepticism is, if we're going to distinguish it from simply "being skeptical".

It's very likely that each individual case is different. It's a complicated landscape and this isn't about assigning people a score, as though I'm 92% pure skeptic and they're 89% or 96%. There are plenty of things that I've been insufficiently skeptical of - but when I've been challenged on those things, I've acknowledged it and reevaluated my position. I've never said or implied that I hold some belief that is beyond the realm of skeptical inquiry.

It may be the case that some of these willful rejections of skepticism amount to no more than traveling slightly over the speed limit, but if you're part of a movement that encourages people to adhere to the speed limit, you don't get to willfully ignore it without being called out for hypocrisy.

I like Pamela. She seems to be a nice person, she's smart, she's probably a good scientist and, apart from her religious views, she seems to be a pretty good skeptic. I not only don't object to her speaking at TAM 8 (The Amaz!ng Meeting), I was happy to hear she'd be speaking. Unlike some people, I actually hoped that she'd be specifically addressing theistic skepticism - as that's a subject that I find fascinating (if not frustrating). I also don't object to Hal Bidlack (another skeptical theist) serving as MC for TAM. Hal's someone I liked, despite the fact that we may disagree about the relationship between skepticism and theism.

What I object to are the attempts to curtail discussion on this subject. What I object to are the attempt to portray some skeptics as troublemakers, negatively affecting the whole, simply because they're not hesitant to say that they're skeptical of the claim that "theistic skeptic" isn't oxymoron.

Pamela writes:
"There is currently a philosophy that “skepticism is a proper subset of atheism: that is, not all atheists are skeptics but all skeptics are atheists.”" [snip] "This is false logic. Being a skeptic does not preclude a belief in a God. Being a skeptic simply means I have to admit that there are things I know are scientifically true and based on evidence (such as the age of the universe), and there are things that in the absence of sufficient data I may choose to believe in or not believe in (such as God)."

D.J. agrees with Pamela (in part):
"I do not believe that skepticism is a subset of atheism. I believe, and I wonder why it isn't obvious to everyone, that atheism is a subset of skepticism."

It's true that skepticism is not a subset of atheism, in that context. I agree with D.J. that this should be painfully obvious. Atheism deals with a single claim and that is insufficient to serve as a superset for skepticism. But we're talking about 'isms' in that context. Skepticism could include a bunch of "isms" under its umbrella...that tells us nothing about whether or not skepticism supports or precludes theism.

Pamela, though, shifts scopes - both from 'skepticism/atheism' to 'skeptic/atheist' and also from 'is' to 'ought'. Of course there are theists who identify as skeptics - that's not in question.

Here's the simple question that seems to be avoided like the plague:

Does the proper application of skepticism support theism?

Anyone who thinks the answer is "yes", please defend that position - just as someone who felt that their belief in ghosts was supported by the proper application of skepticism.

If the answer is "no" - then it is clear that the proper application of skepticism supports the atheistic position, in the sense that (skeptical) atheism rejects theistic claims as unbelievable due to insufficient evidence. Read that twice. Insert the word "nontheism" for "(skeptical) atheism", if it makes it more clear. (I'll bet I still get someone e-mailing about middle ground...)

That's what we're really discussing here: Is theism consistent with the proper application of skepticism?

Pamela would like to have us believe it is and she attempts to do so by claiming that her theism is untestable and claiming that "Being a skeptic does not preclude a belief in a God."

That, though, is a dishonest shifting of the burden of proof. She might as well have said "Being a skeptic does not preclude a belief in the supernatural/ghosts/auras." It'd be just as true and just as irrelevant. Skepticism does't preclude belief in anything provided that you assert that your belief is justified until disproved. Skepticism is about investigating all claims to discover truth. It's about discovery, not just debunking.

Isn't it one of the core principles of applied skepticism that if something is untestable, then belief is unjustified? How can one justify belief without supporting evidence?

I'm baffled by the unwillingness of some skeptics to state the obvious when it comes to religious claims: they haven't scratched the surface of meeting their burden of proof. Some act as if honestly acknowledging that someone's beliefs are not rational and not consistent with a skeptical assessment of the evidence is somehow a disservice; as if we don't want to hurt the feelings of our skeptical friends who have bought into a particular brand of woo. What sort of friend are you being when you do that?

It's not as if we're trying to kick people out of skeptic groups or exclude them from meetings and events. It's not even as if we're unwilling to consider their case - but pretending that there isn't a dilemma here that should be defended? That's a disservice.

If there's a theistic skeptic who would actually like to defend their views, why not encourage that? Why not arrange for a public debate or panel discussion at TAM9? I suspect that the answer has more to do with image and the perception that such a discussion might alienate people that are otherwise supportive. Honestly, though, I think it probably has more to do with finding a skeptical theist willing to publicly defend that position.

If anyone needed evidence of the pernicious, nefarious, deleterious effects of religious beliefs and their ability to protect themselves while affecting their surroundings; they need look no further than the collection of otherwise committed skeptics who not only shy away from the subject but encourage others to do the same.


  1. >find myself faced with having to make an opinion-based judgment.

    And who is forcing her to make this judgment? No one "has" to decide if there is a Big Foot. If there is insufficient evidence to justify the position, then hold out until you have sufficient evidence. Accepting the claim as though one must decide, as though it's a burning building with only two unlabeled exits, pretends there is some actual pressing reality requiring an action or a choice. But until there is evidence to justify the claim "god exists" all of the immediate threats of religion do not count as reasons to "have to" choose.

    In other words, you have to believe it first, before you can count the threats or rewards it offers as support. They can't be used as pressing reasons if the we can't even say the god threatening or offering is even there.

  2. Yeah, the "opinion-based" mindset is consistent with the "not touchable by science or skepticism" deceptions...but the idea of being forced to reach a conclusion.

    Here's a thought, why don't you conclude that you don't have enough evidence to believe instead of opting to believe and shift the burden of proof?

  3. I can have a go at explaining a theistic skeptic, but it is a tough sell:
    If a skeptic has a profound experience (brainstorm, drug induced, orgasmic, whatever) and it affects their worldview to the extent that they thought they were one with a caring entity (god, the universe etc.) then that experience is subjective and hard to disprove.
    If the skeptic then tries to recreate the experience to test how it occurred, as they should, and they discover the second experience to be similar but not the same, they may conclude the first was different. If they then get involved with people who have had similar experiences and come to similar conclusions then they get 'evidence' and confirmation bias that entrenches and solidifies their belief.

    This is all based on subjective experiences, but when presented with lots of people with a similar subjective experience then the explanations of science may seem inadequate for what they went through.

    This may seem extremely rational to them, and when they have a belief they think is rational then they can continue to be a skeptic, in their heads at least, while being theists.

    They have effectively got enough subjective evidence in themselves to partially believe theism is true and when added to the large body of subjective 'evidence' from theists they can possibly think that they have met the burden of proof internally while knowing they can never prove or justify their beliefs properly to a non-theistic skeptic.

  4. Am I the only one who sees this as a no-brainer? If you deliberately exclude religion and/or the supernatural from critical enquiry then you are a somewhat dishonest skeptic - in that you're being dishonest in relation to the principles of skepticism.

    I think the best counter to their claims that the supernatural, which includes religion, is outside of naturalism/materialism and consequently outside of the realm of skepticism and its tools (empiricism, evidence basis, etc.) is the one about whether something interacts or affects the natural world of reality. If it does, it's fair game using those tools of skepticism and therefore shouldn't be excluded. If it doesn't, it's useless and no different to either not existing or just being a delusion.

  5. this is along the lines of something i included recently in my blog.

    this is a quote by carl sagan:

    'after i give lectures—on almost any subject—i often am asked, "do you believe in UFOs". i'm always struck by how the question is phrased, the suggestion that this is a matter of belief and not of evidence i'm almost never asked, "how good is the evidence that UFOs are alien spaceships?"'
    - carl sagan

    i've been thinking lately about how often we give theists a free ride, even in the questions they pose. the existence for god is, as r. dawkins says, a scientific question. consider substituting some words from the above paragraph:

    'after i give lectures — on almost any subject — i often am asked, "do you believe in god". i'm always struck by how the question is phrased, the suggestion that this is a matter of belief and not of evidence i'm almost never asked, "how good is the evidence that god exists?"'

  6. This sort of behavior is bizarre to me, even though I think I engaged in it at some point. In my case, I think it was because the last piece of religion I held onto was this idea that God was a source of hope, meaning, etc. In retrospect, that was mostly a combination of the usual awe that people feel from time to time (regarding nature or human potential or what-not) and an in-group mentality, where my value and identity were tied to being one of these people who had a connection to God and not one of those people who were either ignored or spoken poorly of by my friends and family. I wonder if this sort of social pressure or compartmentalized "othering" of atheism is what drives theist skeptics.

    I think it's rather sad that people who normally have a good grasp on the intellectual "rules of engagement" use this cop-out answer about skepticism not applying, just because of some psychological block that they are unwilling to tackle. Unfortunately it makes them hypocrites, which is perhaps not the worst thing to be but is still terribly exasperating.

  7. Damn it! Now I have to start believing in the monster under my bed again...

  8. I agree. If you are going to use a label, it should apply to the whole. To say that someone can be a skeptic without applying skepticism to some subset of claims doesn't make sense to me. One could say that they are a theist, believe 9/11 was a conspiracy, alien abductions occur, etc. and still be able to call themselves a skeptic because they are skeptical of testable claims or a specific subset of claims. It basically dilutes the label to make it near meaningless.

    "there are things that in the absence of sufficient data I may choose to believe in or not believe in"

    How does this fit with the notion of skepticism? If you are a skeptic, and you lack sufficient evidence for belief, you choose "not believe." Unless I'm missing something, by her own words, she described herself as not being a skeptic.

  9. Just keep raising the issue with people. Isn't the whole idea of skepticism that there are no sacred cows? If raising this issue with people pisses them off for some reason, it's their problem. That's what being a skeptic is...or should be. If someone showed up at TAM claiming to have a remedy that cures a cold no one would flinch to question it. I know that religion is a much more deeply embedded belief, but I don't see how that excuses it from being brought up as an issue.

  10. This is just chock full of damn good points. Bravo.

    I gotta say I find the 'controversies' within the skeptical community far more interesting than the arguments between atheism and theism.

    At least with an argument between skeptics you're more likely to actually get somewhere.

  11. So much of this type of discussion centers around certain words; in this case, the word
    "belief." Problems arise when we try to treat language like mathematics, and words like
    constants, when, in fact, the same word can mean many things. When these differences about words arise, I think it is useful to ask folks to restate their ideas with different words. For example, how can you "believe" something for which there is no
    evidence? Boggles my mind. I would like to know what Pamela thinks "believe" I might even agree with her if I knew what she was talking about.

  12. A good read, I agree that this argument smacks of someone defending two "treasured beliefs."

    If I may take issue with an -ism word that you used...:

    "Skepticism shuns both of those extremes (credulity and cynicism)"

    I do not think that "cynicism" is a good word for the proposition: "I believe nothing." I submit that the word "cynical" defines better as: "a sense of humor (or schadenfreude) in the face of an unpleasant or harsh belief."

    A better -ism word for a "belief of nothing" would be: "nihilism."

  13. Another problem is that the particular claim, that of the Christian god, IS testable. This god is described as one which interacts with this Universe, which answers prayers, causes miracles, talks to people, etc. Anything that interacts should be testable. Only if one proposes a god which created the Universe then stepped back and no longer interacts, would I consider the claim untestable.

  14. They're interpreting constant negative results as signifying that the claim is untestable, when really it's a negative result, supporting non-existence. What if the guys who failed to find the aether had claimed that it just meant the aether was undetectable, and all scientists had accepted that without further experimentation?

  15. Sorry, one more comment. Matt, if you see this lady again, please ask if failure to detect the Higgs boson would suggest to her that the particle exists but is undetectable, or if it was a negative result suggesting non-existence. Perhaps ask her WHY her god claim is untestable, even though it supposedly does all these things.

  16. In the "subset" part of the discussion, when Pamela said this:

    "There is currently a philosophy that “skepticism is a proper subset of atheism: that is, not all atheists are skeptics but all skeptics are atheists.”" [snip] "This is false logic."

    I think she meant to say this:

    "There is currently a philosophy that “[people who are skeptics] is a proper subset of [people who are atheists]: that is, not all atheists are skeptics but all skeptics are atheists.”" [snip] "This is false logic."

    It inverts the subset-superset relationship that you and DJ are talking about. If atheism is a subset of philosophical skepticism, i.e. if atheism is just one part of properly-applied skepticism, then [people who are skeptics] would be a subset of [people who are atheists] - all consistent skeptics would be atheists, but atheists aren't necessarily skeptics.

  17. It would be interesting to know exatly what tenets of for example christianity these skeptical theists actually believe in. It's one thing to say you believe in god and it's another thing to say you're a christian. Even if the specific claim of a gods non-existence is untestable any religion has lots of beliefs that are testable.

  18. I often feel encouraged by the seemingly rising number of people in advocation of rational thought/skepticism but to think that a supposedly credible skeptic can justify and ultimatly advocate a stance for theism with arguments as logically flawed as those used by Ms Gay is disheartening.Matt...great job on the breakdown of Ms Gays fallicies.It should be either you or one of the other TAE or NP's hosts/cohosts speaking at TAM in my opinion.

  19. I think the issue is with the term "skeptic". If someone claims to be a skeptic, it doesn’t tell you if they’re just skeptical about the topic at hand or if they’re skeptical of any insufficiently evidenced claim, or if they’re skeptical of all but theistic ones or if they’re skeptical of everything including theistic claims but totally buy in to acupuncture or whatever.

    MattD has talked about weak and strong atheism, I think there's a need to distinguish between weak and strong skepticism. I'd say that a 'weak skeptic' is someone who rejects most but not all things due to insufficient evidence, whereas a 'strong skeptic' rejects any claim not sufficiently supported. If someone is suffering from theistic cognitive dissonance, then they’re not really a skeptic, at least not a strong one in my opinion. Realistically however, given human nature, true strong skeptics would be few and far between as nearly everyone has their sacred cows. I’d like to think I’m a strong skeptic, but I’m sure I have cracks in my skeptical armor. For instance, in the back of my brain I kinda sorta believe in dice karma. I always feel the dice are working against me in tabletop gaming even though intellectually I fully understand it’s nothing more than confirmation bias, sometimes I still think they’re out to get me.

    It’s not a perfect parallel, strong atheism is an active claim that there is no god, whereas strong skepticism is simply a holistic requirement of evidence. Maybe another term would be better.

  20. It's quite simple. Replace the word "god" with the word "fairy" in Pamela's first statement. If that doesn't make it painfully clear why one cannot be a fully, 100% skeptical if one is a theist.

  21. Matt you nailed it. Thanks for saying it so well!

  22. Matt, thanks for your intelligent assessment on this issue. I was previously unaware of the referenced blog posts and I've read each of them to understand the context.

    It is relatively easy to confront someone who believes in astrology or alien visitations in comparison to religious claims. There is safety in numbers when dismantling ideas that have been relegated to the fringe, but, of course, belief in a god is far from being on the fringe. My guess is that is why religion is the elephant in the room that goes unaddressed by some skeptics. There is a fear of upsetting more people than one can win over with rational arguments. However, it is disingenuous to call oneself a skeptic while purposely tiptoeing around the topic of religion.

  23. THANK you, Matt!

    I was at TAM. Bidlack seems like a nice enough guy in general but he left a sour taste in my mouth by starting off the whole thing basically reprimanding us not to talk about "the untestable -- the UNTESTABLE -- claims of religion."

    So you can be a theist and a skeptic? Where is that line drawn? Can you be a homeopath and a skeptic? Most of TAM8 was spent slamming homeopathy openly and gleefully, why shouldn't we be making the tent bigger for them? How about people who believe in the invisible noncorporeal dragon in their garage?

    There's a difference between being skeptical about some things, and being a skeptic. Everyone's skeptical about certain things, but to actively seek to apply that to every aspect of one's life, and to every belief, even and especially near and dear ones -- that's what it is to be a skeptic.

    I had the opportunity to speak with Dawkins at one of the "the conference is closed and the bars are not" evening events, and asked him his thoughts on the "Skeptic's Schism," and the idea of whether or not you could be both a theist and a skeptic. Paraphrased from my admittedly fallible memory:

    "I think it's fine propaganda, if all you want is to play a numbers game and build membership. But as intellectual honesty goes, I don't think it can be supported."

    After my conversation with him, the next person to introduce themselves to him was none other than Pamela Gay, who made sure to inform him that she was not an atheist, but a Christian.

    Dawkins gave me a look like "Ah, I see what you mean." We shared a moment. It was pretty, er, amazing.

    Fortunately, not everyone took the accomodationism seriously. Sean Faircloth gave an impassioned (if a little over-polished) speech about taking the US back from the religious nutters, Paul Provenza read atheist-friendly excerpts from his book Satiristas, and Dawkins repeated what he said to me onstage during the keynote presentation in conversation with D.J.

    Apparently Martin Gardener was of the type of theistic skeptic who acknowledged that he did not view his belief in God with the same skeptical eye as the rest, because his belief in God made him feel good.

    This is apparently good enough for Randi. It's not good enough for me -- like you, I find it hypocritical -- but hey, I wasn't friends with the guy. Maybe Randi knows something I don't.

    Incidentally, I was disappointed not to find anyone from TAE in attendance at the conference. Although in the end-of-conference surveys, I did suggest they get Matt to give a presentation next year. :)

  24. Very well put, its exactly what i was thinking watching the whole thing unfold.

    Can't you guys get Pamela on the next show over skype?
    It would be great to have a discussion with her about this.

  25. March:

    Here's an explanation: I've been successfully indoctrinated. I realize there is not sufficient evidence to support belief, but I can't stop believing it. The idea a god exists persists, and I've no idea why. Since I can't justify it, and I also can't lose it, I will just admit it, stop trying to address it, and go on as if it's not hypocritical.

    I feel for those who are indoctrinated. It's not an easy thing to overcome. But someone like Pamela should be the fire under our asses to see how insidious indoctrination can be. If it can cripple even an avowed skeptic--beyond any other brand of woo--how powerful, how dangerous should it be considered?

  26. Pamela's god is a deppity. The difference between a diestic god and no god is so thin the distinction is pointless. It's completely a sacred cow. When I started following the podcast Skeptoid, there were a few topics I skipped at first because I did not want to have that challenged. Observing that I did it convinced me it was even MORE important to listen to those episodes. Skepticism needs to drive home that the more you think your claim is untestable and shouldn't be challenged...the more you have to personally challenge it.

  27. Hi Matt,
    Great post all around, but I do have to take issue with two things, and I don't really want to be verbose here, so I'll try to condense my points.
    First, whether deliberately or not, you seem to slant Pamela's views towards theism. Based on what I've read, I've decidedly classify her views as being that of a deist, that is to say that she slowly chips away at all tenets of theistic belief by applying skepticism, until her theistic god is reduced to an absentee landlord. I think that's significant because, and I've heard Christopher Hitchens say this many times, it is nearly impossible to argue with a deist - at its core, the very basic difference between us and a deist is that they substitute ours "we don't know yet" with "god did it."
    Second is that you seem to say both that the only way to be a skeptic is to apply it fully and that skeptics are allowed to not apply it sometimes. As best as I can describe skepticism is that it is not a volume knob like you seem to imply (where you can go from either none to full or somewhere in between), it is like an equalizer - there are different levels of skepticism that we apply to different situations, and we adjust constantly. None of us are fully skeptical of everything at all times - we do take things on .. for lack of better word .. faith on regular basis - ordering a pitcher at the Hole in the Wall you have faith that it's Shiner.
    Otherwise, like I said, great post all around.

  28. Great article. I have been annoyed with all the logical gymnastics theist skeptics try to perform to justify what is essentially a sacred cow. I always felt it was basically as simple as you put it somewhere around the middle of this article.

    Being a Skeptic theist is okay as long as you admit that you are being a poor skeptic in that area.

    Admitting to it is better than trying to pretend it is special while trying to get others to dispel with their irrational beliefs.

  29. Nice job, Matt.
    @ tracieh: yeah, I agree that this is a perfect example of the dangers of religion. I hope we will see the time when humanity (or better said: the majority of humanity) will break free from religion. (But I am skeptic about that. It's more likely that it will never really happen...)

  30. I'd like to reply to how Dr. Gay's comments reflected on TAM8 and the JREF's 'big tent' policy (I was able to attend).

    At the beginning of the convention the speakers were there to make people comfortable. Phil Plait made an excellent speech about being nice to people and Hal and Pamela made their theism comments.

    At first it left a bad taste in my mouth too. The 'hands off theism' policy.

    I had a girlfriend who was a Christian and was open to talking about it but refused, for instance, to read The God Delusion because she found it insulting.

    "Fortunately, not everyone took the accomodationism seriously."

    Keep in mind that those speakers at the end were invited to speak, including Richard Dawkins. At the beginning of the convention they have the 'lets be nice to theists speakers' and at the end they have the 'religion is evil' speakers.

    So, looking at Dr. Gay's speech as one small part of TAM8 it is not so bad. They also mentioned repeatedly that it is good to have different approaches within the skeptical community. If there is a theist who is accepted it will make other theists feel more comfortable. Then you release the Dawkins.

    I think if the girlfriend that I mentioned earlier were there she would have felt comfortable and also have been exposed to some good arguments.

    The JREF does not decide who is a skeptic, if someone wants to be involved they are welcomed. For such an organization I think the 'big tent' strategy is worthwhile. Just look at what Hal was able to do in removing the dowsing rods from the military.

    That said, I would love to see Matt D. have some time at TAM9. I think that view is also necessary.

  31. Politics aside, I also feel skeptics who try to discourage debate on theism are trying to protect the beliefs that they know (subconsciously or not) can't stand up to honest scrutiny.

    It's their last ditch effort to maintain cognitive dissonance- a slightly more matured version of sticking their fingers in their ears and yelling "la la la I can't hear you."

    They only think they can get away with cordoning it off because of the general social acceptance that it's impolite to challenge someone's religious beliefs.

  32. I wrote up my thoughts on my blog. Matt and I hold the same beliefs about god, but I do think that skeptics can still believe in god. It was a bit too long winded to leave in a comment.

  33. vadim wrote:
    "First, whether deliberately or not, you seem to slant Pamela's views towards theism."

    I'm not slanting anything...here are some of her statements from NPR's "This I Believe":

    "I am a Christian. I don’t believe in the literal truth of the entire Bible, especially the early chapters of the Old Testament, but I believe in the theological framework that it outlines. All men are sinners. All men can be saved. I personally believe in the salvation of Jesus Christ, but I also believe there are those who are saved without ever knowing Jesus Christ in their heart because they see in the Universe certain self-evident moral truths which we as humans must struggle to live by."

    "The book of Genesis is an excellent picture that leaves out the math and still can be loosely fit on the story of science."

    "How do you explain Miracles?
    I can’t. I don’t try. I only need to explain with logic things that can be reproduced, measured, and observed. Everything else I leave to the part of my brain that believes sometimes one monkey typing on one type writer can create Hamlet in one glorious initial set of magically improbable key strokes."

    Basically asserting that miracles are possible, yet beyond explantion.

    I'm not slanting her views. She's not a deist or a simple theist, she's a Christian. Granted, she's picking and choosing and more liberal and skeptical than the average Christian...but when you accept the concept of salvation through Jesus Christ, even with other paths, you're no longer talking about the possibility of an abstract pantheistic deity.

    Vadim also wrote:
    "seem to say both that the only way to be a skeptic is to apply it fully and that skeptics are allowed to not apply it sometimes."

    What post did you read??

    That's not what I said. I said it's understandable that some skeptics, being human, might on occasion fail to properly apply skepticism - but that a good skeptic should always strive to do so and correct such failings when pointed out. I said that we shouldn't kick people out of the club for not being perfect, but that we shouldn't encourage people to ignore it, either.

  34. This comment has been removed by the author.

  35. Vadim:

    "...ordering a pitcher at the Hole in the Wall you have faith that it's Shiner."

    No, I bloody well don't. Wow. First you can't seem to Google "Pamela Gay religion", then you misunderstand one of the major points of the post...and now you're dragging out a tired old canard about everyone using faith - with yet another bad example.

    You should really go watch the lecture on belief. You seem to have some conceptual errors. If you bring me a glass of something that looks like Shiner, I don't simply believe that it's Shiner...and I certainly don't take it on faith.

    Beleif is the result of being convinced, to varying degrees, for good or bad reasons. What I believe, when you set that glass down depends on a number of things. Did I ask for a Shiner? Do I trust you? Do you have a track record of getting drink orders wrong? Does it appear to be Shiner? Does this place serve Shiner?...and many, many, many other bits of information.

    My brain almost effortlessly does an evaluation of all of these bits of information and determines some confidence factor for the claim "this is a Shiner". At that point, I may well believe it's a Shiner, but I'm not certain and I may not even be close to certainty.

    I'll then taste it and my brain will do another assessment - which it STILL might get wrong. I'll believe or not believe, but it'll be based on evidence. It may be based on bad evidence and I may get it wrong, but I'm not relying on faith.

    Faith is the excuse people give for believing something without good evidence. Faith is the replacement for evidence, it IS the evidence. When people start confusing it with "trust" or "confidence" or "reason"...they've bought into the same sort of nonsense that theistic skeptics peddle when they propose that their beliefs are beyond the critical eye of skepticism.

    Using faith as a colloquialism for "trust" is dishonest and confusing. Trust is earned, faith is granted.

  36. I believe the best answer is something Tracie said on a previous episode. If you can't define what you are believing in, how can you possibly believe in it? I have discussions a lot with, Christians especially, after they find out that I am an atheist, who have a god that is not testable because they can't define what it is they believe in. They have a feeling regarding what they believe in but have no idea how to quantify it. This is one of the things that makes it so annoying having these types of discussions.

  37. Kevin: To say that someone can be a skeptic without applying skepticism to some subset of claims doesn't make sense to me.

    This is what it comes down to for me. I posed the same kind of question way back when Masalaskeptic posted that "Faith and Fury" article on Skepchick: I'm willing to accept that people like Hal Bidlack and Pamela Gay are skeptics, but how many "beliefs that I realize aren't supported by reason or evidence" does one get to hold before we can call them bad skeptics or not skeptical? If I say that Bigfoot or homeopathy or psi is beyond the reach of skepticism, and thus believe in one or all of those things, am I still a skeptic?

  38. There should be no special dispensation for any claim if one is going to apply skeptical inquiry evenly.

    There are no sacred cows, and asking for a special exemption for religion or any claim simply makes one a less-effective skeptic.

    This is far worse if the biased party also attempts to make others less effective skeptics so as to avoid uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. In the interest of intellectual honesty, people who avoid applying skepticism to certain claims shouldn't expect others to follow suit.

    I wrote about this in my blog on May 2nd, 2010 regarding an episode of Skepticality (podcast) about Hal Bidlack and his complaints about atheists and their 'tone'. Bidlack compared atheists to zealots in a way (noting that they handed out pamphlets), and his comments inspired my thorough response about those who call themselves skeptics, yet avoid applying skepticism evenly.

    Here's the post, if anyone cares to read it: http://atheistangle.blogspot.com/2010/05/hal-bidlack-can-deist-be-skeptic.html

    Thanks guys, I love the show and the blog.


  39. Just how much of theism is untestable? There may be some conscious force that directs the universe but is undetectable. That is untestable. The first nanoseconds of the Big Bang event cannot be measured and are therefore untestable. Nothing can be said about either that is speculation. Skepticism has no basis for saying anything about the nature of the unmeasurable. Once you get beyond the extreme limits of knowledge an start defining the nature of God in any way, you instantly move into the area of testability and skepticism becomes entirely appropriate. Religion and its claims are well within the provence of critical intellectual evaluation. No claim once made has any right not to be questioned.

  40. Matt wrote:
    "Using faith as a colloquialism for "trust" is dishonest and confusing. Trust is earned, faith is granted."

    To be fair, "trust" is one of the definitions of the word "faith," just not the definition that's used when talking about the religious kind of faith. I have faith in my wife - that's the "trust" that's based on good reasons to believe something.

    The religious definition of faith is the one that's something like "belief without evidence," and it's the equivocation fallacy to mix the two together.

  41. >This is false logic. Being a skeptic does not preclude a belief in a God. Being a skeptic simply means I have to admit that there are things I know are scientifically true and based on evidence (such as the age of the universe), and there are things that in the absence of sufficient data I may choose to believe in or not believe in (such as God)."<

    Sorry but I just don't seem to have the mental strength to ram this particular square into the desired circle: Exactly how is the option to "choose to believe in or not believe in... a god" based on nothing at all still a skeptical position (with respect to the existence of a god)?

    Being a skeptic (towards the notion of a god) necessarily _does_ preclude belief in that god by definition. Once you've accepted a notion held in the mind _as true based on nothing at all_ it's trivially true that you've abandoned skepticism (and entered the complementary world of belief).

    The idea that this condition _is_ actually skepticism (or is compatible with it somehow) is just simply not a coherent position. 2 + 2 just ain't 5 no matter what.

    How is anyone making such a claim taken seriously at all? I just don't understand that....


  42. Well on one hand, I agree completely with you guys on this; but on the other, I came to wind up regarding "skeptical theists" pretty much the same way as I do people who just call themselves Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Scientologists, or just plain old Deists.

    Fact of the matter is, you know from the very label of their beliefs (in this case "skeptical theists") EXACTLY what to expect: namely that they will apply their so called belief in skepticism in other directions and yet hypocritically completely disregard it when it comes to religious belief and retreat to the same old tired "I just rely on faith" defense.

    It's why I've long stopped arguing over the existence or not of God, and it's why I feel that it's far easier to just target the morality side of things, because this is the battleground where religious followers' defenses are FAR weaker. And even in the case of these arguments about existence, I have my own personal theory which is inspired by Pascal's Wager and is kinda a rebuttal to it. If anyone is interested I'd be delighted to run it by you and see what you think.

  43. Fascinating post. It reminds me of the time when I was in high school, writing for an RE class that although I did not have evidence of the existence of God, I still believed in him. Then I thought about it again and saw that it didn't make any bit of sense.

    About the idea of choosing to believe, I do think it is possible, at least to a degree, to believe in spite of evidence to the contrary, or lack of evidence to support the belief. One just needs to do double thinking and refuse to acknowledge reality.

    Question (rhetorical?): how can an agnostic theist be sincerely agnostic?

  44. I don't believe this thread.


  45. Yeah, I'm with Matt.

    Pamela Gay is playing a rather obvious game here and deserves to be called on it.

    Skeptic groups aren't chockablock with nonbelievers because their members have to sign some kind of Atheist Loyalty Oath before joining.

    It's because when you scrutinize claims about Yahweh as you would those about Bigfoot... you get the same result.

  46. This from CJ's JREF blog:

    >I can't imagine a skeptical atheist not having the same moments of "But... what if?"

    Explains loads. As an atheist who is a skeptic in regard to god claims, I no more think "what if?" in this instance than I think "what if" crystal power really heals. There is nothing to consider where there is no evidence to examine. So, "what if" what, exactly? What if crystals could really heal? I have no demonstrated mechanism, no demonstrated efficacy...what do I have to consider? And until there IS something to consider, why would I waste one brain cell over the question?

  47. Should add, it's CJ quoting Pamela, not a self-reflexive comment.

  48. Maybe skeptic in this context means something like "someone who debunks rampantly pseudo-scientific bullshit" rather than "someone who applies skepticism to all beliefs"?

  49. @Tracie

    Yeah, a skeptic things "Does it?"
    "What if" is the real of imaginative fiction writers. If you're interested in "What if?" read Allen Moore not James Randi.

  50. FF,

    Honestly, though "rampantly pseudo-scientific bullshit" doesn't come much more rampant than in the world's religions.

  51. "We skeptics are often involved in examining extraordinary claims, and this has given us the reputation of "believing in nothing," while in reality, we believe only in the things that we've carefully considered for ourselves by rational examination. We use techniques of critical thinking, and encourage others to do so as well. No subjects, ideas, or philosophies are unsuitable for the consideration and investigation of the true skeptic, and we look at religion in the same way we look at any system of belief, requiring evidence upon which to establish those claims, as well."
    -James Randi, Skeptic Magazine Vol 15 #2, 2009. pg 8.

    Sounds like Pamela Gay needs to read the magazine to which organization she is a member.

  52. @Tracie-It is utterly off topic, but I cannot help thinking about it: "what if" is the reason why I found the romantic interest in The Saint movie with Val Kilmer utterly unbelievable as a scientist. She gets questioned about a cold fusion process she found out, and answers with "what if it could be possible". Yeah right!

    Oh, and I got you a new fan for your web comic:

  53. I have met several very intelligent people who are religious. after questioning one I found that he lives in boxes. he requires evidence and reason for boxes a-d, but box e is reserved for religion. In that box he is able to suspend reason and believes something becuse he wants to, not because there is reason behind it.
    I have since met other people who seemingly know there is no reason to believe in God, but do so because they want to.

  54. One more thing:
    This notion of the claim for the Christian God is non-testable is not entirely right. I have seen other comments on it, but wish to take it a step further.
    The Bible is the text book for Christians. In fact, it makes up the majority of the evidence they have for their God. Well, the Bible makes claims in it that are testable. Such as, God created the world in 6 days, rested on day 7. This is either true or it is not. The bible claims that Adam was made whole, a rib was taken out, and Eve was made. This is either true or it is not. These are testable claims. Was the earth made in 6 days? Did all humans come from a wholly made human? Entire sciences have shown that these are false claims.

  55. I disagree that people 'choose' to believe in a god (or disbelieve in it, for that matter).

    People make the choice to be honest with the direction evidence takes them, whether that's applied to inculcated 'god' claims or a misspelled word.

    Even with something so mundane as a spelling-correction, there are those who feel an inordinate anger for the messenger, even if the correction is demonstrably valid.

    I've seen people receive a spelling correction, acknowledge it, and then refuse to fix the word. Some will even make ridiculous arguments defending an unknowingly-misspelled word with ruses about 'style' or the 'irrelevance' of spelling on the web as opposed to a resume, as if the person who can't spell common words is purposely employing varying standards for the sake of convenience.

    Just like the god-arguments, these are all dishonest, and can be safely ignored as such.

    In my view, this attitude is a conscious choice for the ignorant and familiar over uncomfortable self-reflection and change in light of evidence.

    Facts should be illuminating and inspiring, but it seems people behave as if they are a personal insult. Look what happened to Galileo when he discovered that the Earth wasn't the center of the Universe...the Catholic church forced him to recant and put him under house-arrest. He was outnumbered, but he was correct.

    We shouldn't expect those who are heavily-invested in religion to behave any differently, but by no means should we cater to anti-intellectualism or special-pleading.

    Emotional reactions to evidence are just noise, like the last gasps of protest from the crack addict who finally relents and accepts treatment.

    An honest skeptic does not make exceptions.

  56. Absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence, but it does mean absence of a justified belief.


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