John Shook has a post up over at CFI about scientific skepticism versus rationalist skepticism with regard to religious claims. He notes that calls for scientific skepticism are not universal among skeptics, and he gives a fascinating bit of history on who originated the call for scientific skepticism to be applied to religion. Read the whole thing.
The first comment, however, raises a misconception that I’d like to address:
Whenever I hear someone talk about what other people should/should not accept/believe as if they know the absolute truth, I wonder how they differ from all of the other people who think that they, too, know the absolute truth.
Here’s the thing: That’s not what we do. It’s a common misconception based, I think, in the fact that we tend to get more attention when we’re talking about politics than when we’re talking about belief and epistemology (and the fact that you can now find atheist skeptics talking among themselves), but it isn’t true. There is no knowledge of absolute truth required to talk about what people should or shouldn’t accept as the skeptical position on religion.
To demonstrate, let me go through what I talk about with students when I guest at a local community college’s comparative religion class. First, I note that I am an atheist activist but that I’m there to talk about religious skepticism. I tell them that I’ve never been religious but that I didn’t start identifying as an atheist until it became necessary to counter the influence of religion on public life.
Then we talk about skepticism itself. I start with the Greek skeptics. I note that their thinking on the subject is fundamental to how we understand skepticism here today, it is decidedly not the only tradition of skepticism that exists. I talk about the weaknesses of other sources of knowledge, particularly the problem of relying on authority. After all, if more than one authority speaks to you, and each authority says something different, how do you know which authority to believe?
After this, I point out the practical problems of classic, strong skepticism. It is impossible to truly suspend judgment about much of our interactions with the physical world. For example, we trust in the persistence of gravity. We believe that the food that nurtured us yesterday will continue to do so today and that poison is still poisonous. Additionally, it’s the rare person (if any) who has the luxury to examine the evidence for and against everything they believe. We are all imperfect skeptics at best.
However, as a species, we’ve developed tools (e.g., science, logic) that allow us to get a better grasp on the reality of the world–as long as we’re willing to assume naturalism and a certain amount of consistent causality as a base. Making those assumptions and using those tools has produced real results, to the point that most of us rely on those tools whether we accept that we do or not. Just as we act as though gravity is a fixed truth, we act as though science and logic are reliable ways to discover the world.
We recognize that these tools aren’t perfect. Science is a human endeavor, subject to human biases. Logic can be used on nonsense just as well as it can on a factual basis. Still, both are leaps beyond guessing, relying on arbitrary authority, or failing to act on the basis that we just don’t know.
It’s only at this point that I start talking about religion. I talk about inconsistency, both between and within religions. I talk about apologetics and their failure to answer some basic objections to various bits of theology. I talk about the biases that lead us to impute agency where there is none. I talk about miracles and the work of skeptics who have tested miracles only to find fraud or natural explanations or a poor understanding of statistics. I talk about the failure of prayer when tested, as well as the success and the general differences in the quality of the studies that produce different kinds of results.
At each of these points, I tell the students that the failure of religion in one regard does not mean that they have to disbelieve. The fact that we have biases toward seeing agency doesn’t necessarily mean that we can’t ever find real evidence of agency. The repeated failure of miracles or prayer when tested doesn’t mean that the next “miracle” to come down the pike is necessarily real or that prayer won’t produce a result next time.
However, what I do tell them is that if they choose to believe in the face of the many failures of religion, they are treating religion in a way they don’t treat other topics. I point out that they’re carving out an unskeptical niche for this one belief. In other words, I tell them the same thing we tell religious skeptics. No absolute truth required, just the patterns of all our investigations and a dedication to accepting the best answer we have right now.
What’s unskeptical about that?