Why atheism is the most skeptical position

Some people claim that I don’t know what “skepticism” is really about because I haven’t read the “fundamental” skeptical books. Which was shocking to me, since I thought the concept of skepticism was fairly simple – it’s just the application the scientific method. Of course, other people just claim I haven’t studied the philosophy of science enough to understand how science really works.

Hell, if a grad student in the sciences can’t discuss skepticism because she doesn’t have enough background, I guess those skeptical organizations will be waving goodbye to members who don’t have the proper skeptical credentials. Let’s leave it to the “professional” skeptics.

But while we’re on the topic of appealing to authority, let’s look at how Michael Shermer, co-founder of the Skeptics Society, defines skepticism in his “Skeptic’s Manifesto“:

Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, that involves gathering data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement. But all facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge, and therefore skepticism is a method leading to provisional conclusions.

Huh, that’s exactly how I’ve always defined skepticism! I wonder if Michael Shermer knows he needs to go read some more books and brush up on his philosophy of science?

I previously thought this discussion about skepticism and atheism needed to die already. The horse hadn’t just been beaten to death – it has already decomposed and had its molecules reassembled into the surrounding flora and fauna. But some people continue to miss the point, so people keep talking about it. Yesterday I showed up to my first official meeting of the Seattle Atheists (which was awesome, by the way), and what was the panel discussion on? Yep, skepticism versus atheism.

What was curious about that discussion was how different it was since an atheist group was hosting it, rather than skeptics. The atheists freely admitted that not all atheists are skeptics. Some, at least initially, reach their decisions thanks to emotional or value-based arguments, and don’t skeptically examine religious beliefs until later (if ever).

But to those of us who came to atheism through skeptical analysis of religion, it was literally inconceivable how skeptics couldn’t be atheists. The only explanation the panelists could think of for this current debate was that it was based on public relations, not intellectual merit – that yes, skepticism leads to atheism, but please hush about it so we don’t scare away the religious members. Yet there’s another explanation often given – that you can’t directly test the God hypothesis, therefore please hush about it.

And that’s where I must call bullshit.

To understand why I call bullshit (oh my, crass language! I must not know what I’m talking about!), let’s review Wikipedia’s decent summary on the null hypothesis:

The null hypothesis typically proposes a general or default position, such as that there is no relationship between two measured phenomena,[1] or that a potential treatment has no effect.[2] [...] It is typically paired with a second hypothesis, the alternative hypothesis, which asserts a particular relationship between the phenomena.

[...]Hypothesis testing works by collecting data and measuring how probable the data are, assuming the null hypothesis is true. If the data are very improbable (usually defined as observed less than 5% of the time), then the experimenter concludes that the null hypothesis is false. If the data do not contradict the null hypothesis, then no conclusion is made. In this case, the null hypothesis could be true or false; the data give insufficient evidence to make any conclusion.

I’ve always viewed atheism as the null hypothesis. It is the general, default position that makes no claims. Now, there are many, many alternative hypotheses. Zeus exists. The Flying Spaghetti Monster exists. The particular Judeo-Christian God worshiped by the Second Baptist Church in Richmond, VA exits. Atheists have come to the conclusion that these hypotheses are wrong, not only because they lack evidence (needed to reject the null hypothesis of atheism), but because they’re not even internally consistent claims (contradictions in the Bible, the inability for an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving being to exist, yadda yadda).

“But what about a deist God?” you ask. “What about a definition of God that’s wishy-washy and nebulous? God is love. God is in all of us. You can’t even test those!” Exactly. And since you can’t test them, you can’t gather any evidence for them. And since you can’t gather any evidence for them, you fail to reject the null hypothesis of atheism.

Am I 100% certain that no deity at all exists? No, but you’d be hard pressed to find an atheist who is – even Richard Dawkins wouldn’t claim to be. Technically we’re agnostic to some extent, and that’s a whole other debate that’s wriggling through an earth worm by now. But atheist vs. agnostic semantics aside, the point stands that the scientific method, when applied to belief in God, does not lead to deism or theism.

I guess this is an elaborate way of saying that the burden of proof lies on those making the claims. That seems to be fine when skeptics are dealing with psychics and Bigfoot, but not with God. If you want to avoid it for PR reasons, fine – I disagree with you, but you can run your organization however you like. But if you claim to avoid religious beliefs for skeptical reasons, then, I reiterate, you’re not being fucking skeptical.

Lies, lies I tell you!

First I’m told Seattle is a godless paradise, and I receive religious spam at my apartment the first day. Then I’m told it basically never snows, and now this?!


Very clever ploy to get me to move here, Seattlites.

Though everyone has told me when it does snow, people here flip out. After a couple of minutes standing at my bus stop, I can confirm this. This Midwesterner will continue to laugh at drivers spinning out in a half inch of snow.

…As long as the bus actually ends up coming, and gets me to school in one piece.

Hooray, a boy! Meh, a girl

That seems to be the opinion of this expecting grandfather. He’s a lawyer asking a (female) judge for a provisional recess in case his grandson turns out to be a boy.

Should the child be a girl, not much will happen in the way of public celebration. Some may even be disappointed, but will do their best to conceal this by saying, “as long as it’s a healthy baby.” My wife will run to Philly immediately, but I will probably be able to wait until the next weekend. There will be happiness, though muted, and this application will be mooted as well.

However, should the baby be a boy, then hoo hah! Hordes of friends and family will arrive from around the globe and descend on Philadelphia for the joyous celebration.

Joyous celebration about chopping off some skin from a baby’s penis. Thank you, religion.

I think he’s trying to be funny, but he just comes of as a sexist asshole. Seriously, imagine being this guy’s granddaughter and Googling Grandpa’s name years later. Nothing says “I love you” like “Well, I gueeessss it’s okay you’re a girl, though I really wish you were a boy.”

I love the judge’s response:

Mr. Epstein will be permitted to attend the bris, in the joyous event that a son is born. But the Court would like to balance the scales. If a daughter is born, there will be a public celebration in Court, with readings from poetry celebrating girls and women.

Sad it takes an order from a judge to celebrate the birth of a baby girl.

(Via Butterflies and Wheels)

My brain scares me sometimes

Last night I had a dream that I was discussing Harry Potter fanfiction on a bus with my friend Julie. Little did I know, Dan Radcliffe was also on that bus, so he came over and sat near us. He started flirting with me and lamented the fact that women only want to date him because he plays Harry Potter, not for his real personality. Before I’m able to say that I like his real personality, he has to leave because he’s playing Mulan in the live action version of Mulan. So he dresses up in Mulan-drag, but then aliens come and abduct everyone there but me. Then different benevolent aliens come and tell me that I’m the only one who can save them, but to do so I have to be transformed into a monkey. So I’m transformed into monkey-Jen, and transported to the alien ship by a collapsable R2D2. But I never actually rescue anyone because I waste too much time pondering why I can still speak English if I have a monkey body.

Lesson: Never eat suspect Chinese food right before going to bed. What the hell, subconscious.

Bonus Internet Poitns for whoever can come up with the best interpretation of my dream.

Pope okays condom usage?!

I thought this was going to be a link to the Onion, but it’s real:

After decades of fierce opposition to the use of all contraception, the pontiff will end the Catholic Church’s absolute ban on the use of condoms. He will say that it is acceptable to use a prophylactic when the sole intention is to “reduce the risk of infection” from Aids.

While he will restate the Catholic Church’s staunch objections to contraception because it believes it interferes with the creation of life, he will argue that using a condom to preserve life and avoid death can be a responsible act – even outside marriage.

Asked whether “the Catholic Church is not fundamentally against the use of condoms,” he replies: “It of course does not see it as a real and moral solution.

“In certain cases, where the intention is to reduce the risk of infection, it can nevertheless be a first step on the way to another, more humane sexuality.”

He will stress that abstinence is the best policy in fighting the disease, but accept that in some circumstances it is better for a condom to be used if it protects human life.

Okay, so he still has a antiquated and judgemental view of human sexuality… hell, he is the Pope after all. But this is a huge step in the right direction. The Catholic Church is finally saying that the well-being of humans that are currently alive is more important that the potential human you’re stopping with a bit of rubber.

The theological logic is certainly screwy, like usual – it’s only okay because living gives you the potential to stop sinning later, not because living is more important than wasted sperm. But for right now, I don’t care. This will have a profound effect in AIDS ridden countries in Africa and potentially save many, many lives. Not to mention this basically greenlights all Catholic couples to use condoms. I can see the logic now – “Well, we’re primarily using them to stop AIDS, damn that no-baby side effect!”

Though the cynic in me thinks this is just a PR move to get people distracted from the whole child-molesting scandal. Sorry Pope, haven’t quite forgotten about that.

Two more cents on skepticism and atheism

Honestly, I’m getting sick of the whole skepticism vs. atheism debate. But I’m an opinionated blogger, so I have to give my thoughts on the latest issue between the two movements.

Skepticon 3 is currently underway in Missouri. While I’m very jealous that I’m not there, Jeff Wagg is very butt-hurt because it looks too much like an “atheist conference.” What makes it so godless? The fact that 3 out of 15 talks explicitly discuss religion.

I know. Such godlessness.

Wagg continues the typical whining that such “emphasis” on atheism will only hurt the skeptical movement, even though skeptical events continue to grow. JT Eberhard, organizer of Skepticon and all-around badass, artfully replies to Wagg’s critiques of the conference:

“What I do think is that Jeff is not playing fair (see earlier bit about speakers giving non-religion talks that would take any equitable onlooker a whole ten seconds to look up) by not presenting the full picture of our event either intentionally or from a lack of sufficiently digging into it to see what we’re about. Either way, bad form. I also think he’s relying too much on his personal anecdote and not on the evidence around him (see the rising numbers of both Skepticon and TAM). I don’t have an issue with Jeff because he’s being pedantic or critical. I have an issue because he’s wrong.”

And PZ replies to the nonsensical idea that religion is somehow off-limits to skepticism:

Skepticon does have a strong anti-religion emphasis. So? This is a subject open to criticism, and it’s perfectly fair to apply skepticism to religion as much as we would to dowsing or Bigfoot. If someone had organized a skeptics’ conference with an emphasis on, for instance, quack medicine, I doubt that anyone would have squawked that “it’s harming the cause!”, “it’ll make skeptics who believe in homeopathy uncomfortable”, or “it’s diluting medicine and destroying skepticism”.”

But I’m going to take it one step further. Religion shouldn’t just be included in skepticism. Religion is one of, if not the most important issue people should be skeptical about.

Seriously, what affects people the most? Believing in dowsing? Giggling at a horoscope? Perpetuating ghost stories? Searching for Big Foot? Or superstitious religious beliefs that are held by the majority of the population, and not only irrationally alter your behavior in almost all aspects of your life and affect the lives of those around you, but result in the suffering and death of millions of people?

Sticking to talking about psychics and UFOs because we want to artificially inflate our numbers is ridiculous.

Look, there are certainly religious beliefs that are benign enough and don’t end in the Crusades. And there are certainly instances of beliefs in psychics, astrology, and ghosts that do harm people. But to suggest that religious belief isn’t at least as harmful as important topics like homeopathy, chiropracty, or alternative medicine is frankly delusional.

I got interested in the skeptical movement because I liked having a term that implied I didn’t limit my skepticism to religion. You don’t get to ban that type of skepticism because you’re worried about the PR problem. And if you don’t think you should be skeptical about religion, then you’re not being fucking skeptical.

Now, can we stop with the hand holding and move on?

Racial diversity in the atheist community IS our problem

The Guardian has an interesting article up by Alom Shaha on “The accidental exclusion of non-white atheists.” I’m not sure if this was intentional, but it’s a timely follow up for the recent kerfuffle about the apparent lack of women in the atheist movement. One of his main points is that the atheist movement needs to actively try to fix its diversity problem. I think he’s spot on, and the same applies to women:

While black and Asian people may not be actively excluded from atheist and sceptic gatherings, the lack of black and Asian people as speakers or audience members might be one reason why many black or Asian people feel such events are not “for them”. So, even if there’s no deliberate exclusion, there is accidental exclusion. Perhaps some people are genuinely unaware of this, but perhaps others are just hoping the problem does not really exist.

We’re not saying we need to go knocking on doors of religious minorities and target them for atheist evangelizing. We’re saying we want minorities who are already atheists to feel comfortable within our movement. One way to promote inclusivity is to invite minority speakers to conferences or local events, or to encourage current minority members to consider more active leadership positions.

Shaha repeatedly states that he does not think the atheist movement is inherently racist or purposefully excluding minorities. I thought he was being overly polite until I started reading the comments at The Guardian. They’re almost unanimously oblivious, stating there’s no such thing as an atheist movement or community. Look, just because you’re an atheist who doesn’t feel the need to be outspoken or talk to like-minded people doesn’t mean we don’t exist. Is this a British thing, since atheism is so much more common and accepted there?

But my main beef is with the comments that deal with race, which have no excuse. For example:

“This article is a disgrace. Why is it that anything that happens to be white must become more diverse to become a “community”? What a crock of poo. Very expensive deficit causing poo, I might add. You fools would be better off worrying about the genocide of Iraq’s Christians, and the general bad feeling towards minorities in the mulsim world, than worrying about atheists being too white.”

“If people really are so simple-minded as to prefer the company of people of their own colour, then that’s their problem, and neither atheists (nor Christans nor Hindus nor Muslims nor Jews nor anyone else) are under any obligation to go out of their way to accommodate them.”

“oh god … AGAIN! what is wrong with these awful “white men”?? Why are we so bad? just out of pure contrarianism, i am going to campaign for the atheist movement to be a ‘white males only’ movement. i want it to have clubs, and bars and so on, where we are allowed to keep females and other races out. just so so bored of “minority” bleating on the subject of “white men” – gone far too far.”

“What, practically, do you think white atheists should do to encourage black and asian involvement? It’s hardly their fault that asian people (for example) feel a cultural pressure not to get involved, and it is not their fault that asian people feel more comfortable with their own kind (as you suggest). You seem to be blaming whate atheists for a problems which are not of their making. The onus is on minorities, not the audience to which your article is addressed.”

Those are facepalm worthy to say the least. But maybe that sort of stupidity and insensitivity is only from people who think the atheist movement doesn’t exist?

Then I read this comment at the Richard Dawkins Foundation website, presumably from someone within the community:

“We (like there is a ‘we’ in the atheist community) should have second best speakers at events, choose them solely on the colour of their skin, otherwise we might appear racist.

We should have second best speakers at events, choose them solely on the colour of their gender, otherwise we might appear sexist.”

Whoooooooosh.

The assumption that minority speakers are inherently second best? Now that is racist and sexist.

This is identical to atheism’s so called “women problem.” It’s not that we lack worthy non-white atheists: It’s that we have plenty of wonderful non-white atheists who we forget about. If you think people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Maryam Namazie, Hemant Mehta, Ariane Sherine, Salman Rushdie, and Debbie Goddard are “second rate,” you are part of the problem.

Where it really needs to be improved is at conferences. Events like TAM seem to be improving its representation of women, and it’s not just tokenism – I thought all of the female speakers were brilliant. But you know who some of the most disappointing speakers were? People who keep getting re-invited because of their fame, but just re-hashed old talks, gave crappy Q&A sessions, or bored everyone to tears. When all of those people happen to be old white men, it certainly doesn’t look good. Even if it’s the unintentional effect of attempting to sell tickets, it makes it seem like someone is choosing second-rate old white male speakers over first-rate minority speakers.

I’m sure it’s not deliberate, but if we don’t fix our diversity problem now, we’re going to have oodles of problems down the road (check out Greta Christina’s talks about the parallels between our movement and the GLBT movement, and you’ll know why). We need to start being more inclusive if we want the atheist movement to be successful. This is already starting to happen, with groups like the African Americans for Humanism and L.A. Black Skeptics becoming more and more active.

But denying we have the problem and that it’s our job to fix it? Not helping, people.

How to cure a feminist

Oh noes! First we have to worry about catching The Gay…now this!
According to this highly scientific graphic, I’m already around Stage 2 of the recovery process. I mean, I’m not a vegan, and I shave my armpits. I wonder who’s been working so hard at purging that vile Manus haterii from my body!

(Via STFU, Conservatives)