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How To Logic

I don’t go into a lot of detail about my work on the show, because it doesn’t necessarily interest everyone. But I do occasionally mention that I’m a software engineer, and work it into my discussions here and there. I had to take a break from the show for a year or so while I finished my Master’s Degree at UT in 2008. I have a second blog for writing thoughts about my profession; it’s called Castles of Air.

Occasionally people ask a question like the following: “I like your show. I’m a young skeptical atheist and I’m trying to decide what to do with my life. What should I study in school?” Some common answers are: Go into science. You will learn how to study the world in a naturalistic way and be better equipped to answer questions without resorting to supernatural answers. Or: Try politics. You can work to reinforce separation of church and state, and use your influence to advance causes you care about. Or: How about religious studies? You can get a real handle on how major world religions developed, and promote skepticism from the inside.

Those are all good answers, but I’d like to take a minute to speak in praise of the career track I picked.

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Grumpy old man moment: There is satire, and there is really dumb satire

It’s funny because it’s like Superman, but his logo looks weird! DON’T YOU GET THE JOKE?

This isn’t about atheism, but it is about skepticism in general, and some of the annoyances of the internet.

I loves me some fake news. Been reading The Onion for well over a decade now. The Daily Show is my favorite thing on TV, and most weeks I never miss an episode. But even with all that in mind, I really want to say that there are just way too many websites devoted to publishing “satirical news”, and most of them are not that funny.

The thing that bugs me the most about these sites is that, much like those terrible Seltzer and Friedberg movies, they don’t really do satire. Those movies just imitate better, more successful movies, and expect you to laugh. These sites post stories that could be true, but aren’t.

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Why are so many theology schools asking their students to pass out questionnaires?

Just now I rejected three identical comments to three different blog posts from the same person. The text read as follows:

Hello and to all atheists concerned:

I am currently pursuing a masters in theology and this week’s class project requires that I interview 3 middle/high school candidates concerning a particular set of questions (If you are in your twenties that’s okay even if the requirement is middle school or high school age-this class is about youth ministry). Candidates must be “unsaved” (Their words-not mine) but preferably they once attended church and had some idea as to the concept of “God” and what that means.

This is not a troll, a trick, or some sneaky method to get unsuspecting atheist youths in my spider’s web of church deceit. I just have several questions that need to be answered by 3 candidates that match the aforementioned profile. NO CONVERSION ATTEMPTS! I just need these questions answered that are enumerated below:
a. How do you describe your religious background and church involvement if any (past and present)?
b. To you, what is God like? Describe God or at least the concept of God if you believe this entity to be a myth.
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Review: “Freethought Resource Guide”

“A Directory of Information, Literature, Art, Organizations, & Internet Sites Related to Secular Humanism, Skepticism, Atheism & Agnosticism”

—by Mark Vandebrake
Website: http://freethoughtguide.comAvailable now on Amazon.com

 

Mark Vandebrake has clearly put in a lot of hours and energy sorting through countless resources for the freethought community in this recently released book. Despite the fact that he calls this compilation “not an exhaustive collection,” it represents more than enough to cover the areas of freethought that are most commonly discussed, and some areas I had not actually even considered.

The general structure of the volume consists of sections that begin with introductory essays, in which the author expresses his perspectives, interweaving passages from the writings of famous and historic freethinkers, relevant to the subject matter. These introductory essays are then followed by a breakdown of resources that cover the topics under consideration, often broken down further into subcategories. These resources take the form of annotated bibliographies, and occasionally simple lists. Vandebrake has inserted personal notes and recommendations in areas where he felt further information or clarification might be useful to the reader. [Read more...]

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.