Non-Prophets 9.9!

Well, here it is at last, gang. Probably the last of the guerilla episodes, as the regular series is set to resume, I do believe, this coming weekend!

Gia Grillo, Chris Conner and I reteam, and end up spending a lot of this episode wagging our fingers at some of our fellow heathens, expressing our dismay at the way some people in the atheist camp got caught up in the wave of Muslim-bashing that arose around the Park51 controversy. While none of us likes Islam, naturally, most of the rhetoric was simple hate speech from the Fox News wingnut camp that grossly generalized all Muslims, even those who are peaceful and loyal U.S. citizens, under the “terrorist” banner. That some atheists actually fell into that trap of emotion-clouded unreason is something we hate to see.

Then we smack around Phil Plait a bit for his “Don’t Be a Dick” speech, and talk about accommodationism vs. confrontationalism.

Not to be a whiner, but holy hell balls this one was tough to edit. But I think the mix is superior to 9.6, even though our different mics and the fact we were basically recording a three-way Skype call means it still isn’t audiophile material by any means. (I apologize for my harsh S’s.) I hope you all enjoy it, and I’m off for a nap. If you’d rather wait for the iTunes feed, Matt tells me he’ll do the necessary admin stuff to get it up on the feed either tonight or tomorrow, so you won’t have to wait days and days like last time. And if you want art for your iPod, download the above graphic and stick it in yourself. With 9.6 Russell told me I inadvertently changed the art for the whole feed by embedding it in the episode beforehand. Durp.

Consider the comments to be an open thread on the episode.

Clearly this is a discussion that is long overdue

Before a dozen people send me a link to this article: A Rational Approach to Irrationality let me just say that I’ve read it, it’s more accommodationist dribble and as I agree with Jerry Coyne on the subject, I’ll just send you over to read his response.

The only thing I’ll add is this:

Pretending that religious delusions are harmless makes you part of the problem.
Promoting your kinder, gentler skepticism by way of decidedly unskeptical methods (unsupported assertions, emotional appeals and encouragements to be less critical with one’s critical thinking) betrays the principles that make skepticism something people should aspire toward.

For the accommodationists, I’ll put it bluntly, as the more diplomatic responses seem to go unanswered: You’re still skeptics. You can still call yourself a skeptics (anyone can). You can still be part of the group and attend events and talk about skepticism…. but you’re a very poor skeptic in this area. You’ve demonstrated a preference for style over substance and shown that you’re willing to water down your skepticism for marketing purposes.

That’s your prerogative – but if you continually try to pretend that you hold the skeptical high ground while encouraging others to water down their skepticism or disparaging those who most consistently apply skepticism, you’ve become part of the problem and the unapologetic defenders of reason, inquiry and skepticism will continue to call you out on this.

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.