Jul 21 2010

More tilting at windmills?

There’s a new reader rant over at Skepchick and I have questions:

Where are these people?
Where are the “Atheists who proclaim no one with a religious belief should have anything to with Skepticism“?
Where are the people who think, “That person is a Christian, he can’t think critically.“?

Holy crap? Exaggerate much?

Where are these people? I have yet to run across one. Nearly every skeptic I’ve met has encouraged everyone to get involved with skepticism. That’s the whole point of advocating skepticism. Nearly every skeptical atheists I’ve met has not only acknowledged that Christians can think critically, they simply aren’t convinced that they’ve applied this tool to their religious beliefs…and this would be a trivial thing to rebut, if anyone bothered (or could).

I am one of those who question how one can subscribe to the principles of skepticism and still justify theistic beliefs – but it’s a question and it’s one that has yet to be satisfactorily answered. I’ll keep asking it, no matter who gets irritated, because I feel it’s important and some people seem to be working overtime to protect the subject from critical inquiry.

I’m not saying that theists don’t belong in the skeptic movement or shouldn’t be allowed to call themselves skeptics. That’s absurd. I’m saying that theistic beliefs aren’t immune from skepticism and questioning and I’d love to know how someone could claim that their theism is supported by the proper application of skepticism. I’m saying that there is, or should be, some value to calling oneself a skeptic, something to distinguish the title beyond “selectively skeptical”.

Yet I continue to read about this grand threat that risks unfairly excluding people from skepticism and whenever they manage to expand on this idea it is always about one thing:


And the manner in which they address the subject is so… unskeptical.

Won’t anyone address this issue with something beyond “don’t be a dick” or “STFU” or “you’re just as bad as fundamentalist Christians”? Won’t anyone defend the theistic skeptic viewpoint with something more than assertions and whining and deflection?

Here’s the scenario, it’s really simple:

John identifies as a skeptic, advocates skepticism and is active in the skeptical movement. If John believes something (gods, ghosts or garglstropism) that can’t be supported by a critical examination of the evidence, isn’t it definitional to acknowledge that John has not properly applied skepticism to that issue? Isn’t that the point – distinguishing which beliefs are rationally justified and which aren’t?

This isn’t about kicking John out of a movement or telling him he’s not a “true skeptic” or that he shouldn’t use the “skeptic” label…that’s absurd. It’s about acknowledging that John’s view isn’t properly consistent with skepticism. That’s it. It’s what we’d do for ANY claim…right?

If John continue to hold that belief, that’s his prerogative. We believe what we believe.

If John claims that his belief isn’t within the purview of skepticism, isn’t that a claim he should have to successfully defend before others should accept it?

If John claims that his belief is actually supported by skepticism, isn’t that a claim he should have to successfully defend before others should accept it?

I’m not demanding that John defend anything. John can believe whatever his conscience dictates. John doesn’t have to explain himself to anyone, ever. I’m also not saying John is necessarily being a shitty skeptic on that subject. I have no idea whether or not he’s being a shitty skeptic until he actually defends his belief. (Depending on the subject, I of course may well believe that he’s being a shitty skeptic – but I’m willing to defend that belief.)

What I’m saying is that anyone who accepts Johns assertions before they’ve been successfully defended is being a shitty skeptic on that subject…and that’s what’s going on. Those who uncritically accept John’s claims and those who attempt to shield John’s views from critical thinking are being decidedly non-skeptical.

What I’m saying is that the problem in the skeptic community doesn’t seem to be on the side of those who are skeptical of theistic claims (testable or not), it’s on the side of those who don’t think we should be.


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  1. 1

    It may be that there are some obnoxious youtubers who meet the strawman of atheists that I see propped up. Maybe there are some laypeople commenting on blogs and forums. They are definitely in the minority. The problem is that the people making these claims don't back them up with evidence. Give me a quote and a link or book page of an atheist acting like that, and I'll think they're unreasonable, too. If a skeptic can't back up their claims with anything more than vague, unsupported assertions, then they're not being a very good skeptic on the subject. Until examples can be provided, I don't see how this rift in the skeptic community will get any better.If evidence for something can't be provided, I think asking for justifications is a reasonable thing to do. Does the skeptic believe based on philosophic grounds? Were they indoctrinated as children and never examined their beliefs? Is it something that they just feel? I think that getting answers from skeptics could help the rest of us understand the nature of belief better. It could make us more sympathetic to other believers, and perhaps help the movement identify different strategies to educate the public on other subjects. For now, we have unsatisfying answers (when we actually get them), avoidances, and efforts to curtail discussion on religion and belief in God altogether. As it stands, both sides are becoming increasingly frustrated. I don't think the answer is less talk, but more open, honest talk.In the spirit with which the original article was made (and some of the more obnoxious comments): Atheists are bigoted, arrogant meanies who are just as wrong to think that no God created the universe as theists. SHUT THE FUCK UP! NEXT!

  2. 2
    Arnold Jamtart

    Ugh. I had a similar reaction when I read that "rant", and on the heels of a bit of back and forth on Twitter with Phil Plait about the value of telling people to "be nice" — he claimed that lots of sceptics are experiencing these raging assholes. Granted, I live in a place where this isn't much in the way of sceptical groups, so most of my exposure is online, and maybe my ability to pick and choose who I follow and listen to has afforded me a biased view of the sceptical movement, but, for what it's worth, my take is this: – You're taking a group of people who have long felt stifled and unable to speak out, many of whom are naturally irreverent and critical and feeling frustrated, and now you're telling them how they should and shouldn't express themselves. Naturally, that's going to piss people off. – You're describing behaviour so extreme, it doesn't describe people who have just gotten a little carried away in their passion; you're now talking about bona fide assholes who revel in the behaviour. Telling them not to be assholes isn't going to have much effect. Or at least not the effect you desire. – The fact that you've got lots of people out there nodding their heads and agreeing with you doesn't mean you're saying something important — you're just preaching to the choir. These people are the people who are already playing nice (or think that they are) — many of whom also seem to have itchy wagging fingers.Ultimately, all this noise seems to be a pantomime put on for the benefit of scepticism's critics to say, "See? we're not so bad! Let's be friends!" And honestly, the majority of those folks aren't going to be assuaged by this — they're offended by our mere existence.

  3. 3
    Matt D.

    My honest opinion…Theistic skeptics are aware, on some level, that their position is without merit and they become uncomfortable when challenged on this because they are unable to defend it. This discomfort amplifies their perception of the nature of the challenge and they're left with the impression that the challenge was excessively rude and personal, even if it wasn't.It's the same sort of reactionary, victim-playing that we see from religious people (skeptical or not) who cannot rationally defend their beliefs. They'll portray the proper application of church-state separation as if it's anti-Christian bigotry…and people buy into it.It's a defense mechanism that preys on our general discomfort with conflict and it's so effective that it's polluting the minds of people who are, apart from this issue, good skeptics.

  4. 4

    One thing that I have issue with in this context is when the theistic skeptic then tries to become a "voice of the skeptic" to the general public at large, and then acts like their silly beliefs are a part of that without defending them. The general public will just lap it up and feel they now have more of a defense of their irrationality. Are they really going to listen if another skeptic comes out at says sheepishly "Well, yes, this person is a skeptic, but, there's this one area in which they're not being fully skeptical and we'd appreciate it if they'd defend that position before making any public statements that it is a part of their skepticism, although they're welcome to speak for us on other matters"?

  5. 5

    This is a really good read, something I'm personally dealing with lately. I've been having discussions with someone who's dead set on thinking Reasons to Believe somehow proves a workable scientific creation model. The only one thing I would point out tho is this:You said:"John doesn't have to explain himself to anyone, ever. I'm also not saying John is necessarily being a shitty skeptic on that subject."I would disagree, and say that if John is going public with his beliefs and trying to convert others, he must explain himself.See I have no issue if people want to believe whatever crap they can for "personal reasons" as long as they keep it to themselves and don't attempt to convert other people. But when you go around judging others and telling them that they need to believe these things too, you better start providing something concrete, otherwise I WILL just write you off as a crazy.On a side note:Matt D. said:"Theistic skeptics are aware, on some level, that their position is without merit and they become uncomfortable when challenged on this because they are unable to defend it. This discomfort amplifies their perception of the nature of the challenge and they're left with the impression that the challenge was excessively rude and personal, even if it wasn't."YES! This is right on! I have a knack for reading people, and when I get into conversations with theists, this happens 9 times out of 10. Hell, it's what I did all of the time when I was a Christian. Deep down we knew it was all ridiculous, but the institution is set up so that you can put on the guise of "oh yeah this stuff is totally realistic and believable."

  6. 6

    I agree with pretty much everything Matt has written there; these theistic skeptics probably do realise that their theism cannot be supported by the proper application of skepticism. But why call them out on it? What's Matt trying it achieve?

  7. 7

    I think this Douglas Adams quote just about sums up the whole situation"(religion) has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. That's an idea we're so familiar with, whether we subscribe to it or not, that it's kind of odd to think what it actually means, because really what it means is 'Here is an idea or a notion that you're not allowed to say anything bad about; you're just not. Why not? — because you're not!'"

  8. 8
    second opinion

    Sorry Matt, I don't really know what to make form your post. You (the loud atheists) are perceived as dicks. That should not be surprising since if you criticizes someones beliefs this criticism is likely to be taken personally. This is especially true for religious beliefs (and maybe even justified). And it does not help a thing if you start with “Well I'm only criticizing the belief and the lack of reasons to belief not you personally”. Now you go a step further and say “I'm not saying you are not a true skeptic, I'm just saying you don't apply your skepticism correctly”. How else is this going to be taken by a “theistic skeptic” than as a criticism of his skeptical skills? You already admitted that you don't expect any good reason to be a theistic skeptic. No amount of rhetoric will change that you are basically saying that religion and skepticism are incompatible. Secondly I think there is a catch 22 for skeptics organizations when inviting or accepting theistic skeptics. I think it is to some extent reasonable for such organizations to except theistic skeptics for strategic reasons and refrain from criticizing religion. But obviously when you demand to justify such doings these organizations can't admit that they are only doing it for strategic reasons. Thus they either have to admit to not being true skeptics or be silent. That a skeptic is dishonest if he thinks one should criticize religion but doesn't do it is clear.

  9. 9

    An all-or-nothing approach is fine as a long-term goal for skeptics, but it's probably not the stance we should always take.True believers share something with "true skeptics," in that their personal confidence in their preferred way of thinking is very strong. Now, it has to be said that there's a LOT of tangible evidence that justifies a skeptic's confidence, but the confidence itself is a psychological state that is not dissimilar to the confidence of a religious believer. The believer mentally accepts some particular ism as strongly as the cynic accepts deductive logic, and usually in a very implicit way. Now, the content of the two beliefs are irreconcilable, but the strength of each (especially of a religion that has been hammered into someone since childhood) can't just be ignored. If the person attempting compatibilism still assigns significant prima facie relevance to the religious perspective — that a dogma, however convoluted, can be true in spite of its logical inconsistency — then they're going to be stuck where Mr. Anders is until their skepticism grows strong enough to displace the dogma. It would be freaking wonderful if everyone put logic at the apex of their mental totem pole, but it's not happening today or tomorrow. "Separate-but-equal" treatment for religion and reason isn't a long-term solution for any person or for society, but it's a damn sight better than outright dismissal of rational arguments when they conflict with the least common denominator of the local popular dogmas. These "theistic skeptics" are absolutely conflicted, but at least they're (avowedly) open to rational persuasion on non-theistic, real-world topics. If they can't find rational support for a given dogma-backed stance, a few things can happen. Optimally, they'll feel the conflict within themselves, which may lead to some rethinking on their part. They'll be standing on an irrational belief, which puts their personal identification as a "skeptic" in question. And, they'll be forced to use bad arguments, which decreases the attractiveness of their dogma both to themselves and to onlookers. Again, I'm not suggesting that we mollycoddle these people. However, we should make use of what we've got. Let the seed of skepticism germinate, let them have their invisible teapot for the time being, and engage them on real-world issues while insisting on real-world justifications for everything tangible they advocate. They'll get experience in using rational thought, and that's a great catalyst for getting themselves to refine their skepticism. Even if they personally keep believing in Thor to their grave, they may well get to a state where they're making their practical decisions rationally and not recruiting on behalf of their dogma. Crudely put, once they're walking and talking like good skeptical ducks, they're no longer of much use to the goose cause, even if their long, slender necks continue to cause chuckles around the watering hole.

  10. 10

    There are so many people I otherwise respect greatly who hold theism above reproach for reasons I don't understand or agree with. Steven Novella claims that atheists tend to be negative and more trouble making or whiny (I don't think I'm paraphrasing out of context here). He also claims that the subject just doesn't interest him. That is odd in itself. How can the single biggest human belief not be interesting to a skeptical mindset. A huge percentage of every human ever to live believes in something for which there is no evidence. Degrasse Tyson has said similar things about atheists recently. It's a very common way of thinking that theism is somehow beyond skepticism. I almost get Freudian and wonder if they simply don't want their mother to hear them say something bad about god. It seems like a very simple answer. I wish I could test it. It may be as claimed they are simply not at all interested in the subject of god(s). What I don't see any evidence for is that atheists are any more harsh or negative than skeptics as a whole. The only true difference is the subject matter. As long as they continue to pretend the former is the issue, I wait for evidence. Until we can determine what this is really about, I don't see it can be discussed effectively.I see the real problem is they don't want religion looked at skeptically. It's not the issue that atheists are somehow more mean or angry than other skeptics. Yet almost every person who espouses this inclusivity tries to poison the well with this tripe. They rarely talk about the content of what is being debated. I have heard both Tyson and Novella do this recently. I love both those guys and am in awe of much they do. But true to the super secret skeptic handbook, I don't take anyone's opinion as gospel and I question their reasoning on this one.

  11. 11

    I agree with Matt on this issue probably completely. I'll add my own voice to this choir:http://shaunphilly.wordpress.com/2010/07/22/a-challenge-for-skeptics/It seems to me that the issue within the skeptical movement is the same as the larger conversation. Atheists are dicks when they act like they care about religion, belief, etc. Theists skeptics are not being consistent, nor are skeptics who defend theist skeptics.

  12. 12

    "Sorry Matt, I don't really know what to make form your post. You (the loud atheists) are perceived as dicks. That should not be surprising since if you criticizes someones beliefs this criticism is likely to be taken personally. "Yes which is why we should teach the controversy!

  13. 13

    I'm cross posting this from Skepchick on the latest rant against atheism because they really are starting to annoy me with this.“The Atheists who are anti-believer are the other extreme in the spectrum. They are no different than Christians who call Atheists evil.”Thanks for the implied “my way is right, everyone else is too off center in one way or another”Basic question. Is Faith a good reason for believing something. Is faith, believing for the sake of belief irregardless of evidence, skeptical.It also is interesting that no one is concerned about atheists who might be annoyed away from skepticism by the constant bombard of “You’re just as bad as them, dumbass” I’m seeing from the so-called middle.It's really making it seem to me that atheism isn't welcome in skepticism, or shouldn't be spoken out loud or used in the name of holy skepticism. This is really making me 'skeptical' of the movement.

  14. 14

    It's amazing how much the meme of "religion as sacred" has permeated our culture. It's to the point where supposedly rational, free thinking skeptics (many of whom are atheistic), people who have NO ISSUSE being polemic when it comes to psychics, astrology, homeopathy, etc, suddenly clam up when it comes to the supernatural claims of religion. Suddenly, we're being overly polemic and assholish. Sorry, but you're the problem here. If someone is going to compartmentalize their beliefs to the point where they are a skeptic in every facet of the word save for their religous belief, then I am going to call into question the veracity of their "I'm a skeptic" claim. This is nothing but a case of doublestandards, strawmen and semantics, and it's starting to spread like some insidicous little meme.

  15. 15

    Oh, to add (sorry) it's basically special pleading. It's like those so called skeptics who are also into astrology. You talk about bigfoot and they're all "yeah, yeah!" but you turn your attention to astrology and suddenly you're being mean/overly polemic.

  16. 16
    Darren Cubitt

    These whiny dicks are really staring to piss me off.We have TAM-Oz coming up, but I won't be going. One of the major factors in my decision (along with the price of tickets) was the increasing amount of whining in the skeptic community about atheists.It wasn't until my "skeptic awakening" that I realised I was an atheist – before that I was a wishy-washy agnostic – but atheism has since become my pet area of skepticism. I love discussing theological issues, which is a pain since it is hard to find an arena where you can have these discussions without being accused of being a militant atheist, etc. So, just sit down in the corner and shut up.Of all the places where I thought a rational discussion of these issues would have been welcome, TAM once seemed like it, and I was eagerly awaiting the day when TAM arrived in Australia.Now, it seems, I would have been forced to be a good little atheist once again, and sit down in the corner and shut up, for fear of upsetting the precious ones who do not wish, or otherwise fail, to apply their critical thinking and reasoning skills to their own theological beliefs.I happened to raise the same question you did, Matt, on the JREF forum shortly before seeing your post: Who is doing this? Give an example.Ironically, the very first response interpreted my question as an attack on religion, and demanded that I devise a test protocol to prove a god doesn't exist. Tellingly, no one ever actually answered the damned question, despite repeated prodding.As Eric Cartman would say: Screw those guys. I'm going home.

  17. 17
    Jim Boomba

    Ever notice how denial of UFOS, ghosts astrology etc fits perfectly with Christian belief.

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