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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?

Comments

  1. says

    It’s a fine example of the kind of compartmentalized thinking that can pervade religious minds. Believers can be outstanding skeptics about all kinds of things, but to act like we should keep our mitts off of gods with magic powers? Crazy.

  2. tsuken says

    Very well put. I’m continually perplexed by the ability of people to put their own pet beliefs into little inviolate cognitive boxes.

  3. Grendel says

    Hear hear! I’m hoping that at TAMOz next week we have the chance to think skeptically about religion as well as other superstitions. Being older and more organized should not make religion immune to skeptical critique.

  4. says

    You’re absolutely right. I don’t get some of these “skeptics” who try to get us to lay off religion just so they can get more people into the movement. They should deal with the fact that when you apply the skeptical method to religion, you have a strong tendency to lose your religion. I’m another who refuses to restrict skepticism to UFOs, psychics, astrology, and stuff like that. And if you remember, real science is based very largely on skepticism: scientism is belief in science combined with the complete lack of skepticism you find among religious people.Yes, this atheist agrees with Eberhard, PZ, and you, and not with the likes of Jeff Wagg. Let their butts hurt, but we can’t compromise on truth.

  5. Robin says

    Jen, you have put into words the very feelings I am having while at Skepticon and experienced at TAM. There is so much important work that needs to be done. Spending copious amounts of time discussing whether or not Skepticon is skeptic enough takes away valuable time and resources from everyone. There is so much BS in our world that needs to be addressed. When do we move on from these discussions of skepticism/atheism and accommodation/confrontation and move on to objectives and solutions? There is room enough in the skeptical spectrum for different organizations to determine their goals and get on with it. If your group wants to tackle anti-vaxxers because kids are dying-go for. You want to shed light on the inefficiencies of homeopathy-have at it. And if another group wants to highlight the inconsistencies in religion, let them. Saying that religion gets a pass at skepticism strengthens the entitlement that is already there.

  6. says

    To be fair, it’s not 3 of 15; it’s at least 7 or 8 of 18 talks that explicitly deal with religion.Skepticon has a very narrow focus, and that’s perfectly fine, IMO.I think that it would be very wise to subtitle Skepticon with the focus of the conference. Something like “Skepticon 3: Religion in Depth” would be useful for clarification. Many conferences do that to clarify and focus the content year to year. Also, I think it is a good idea for skeptics to study the history of the movement and learn about the people, projects and events that lead to the entity that it is today.

  7. katsudon says

    Well – and here I brace myself to get dogpiled – I’ve got my own opinions on diversity within the skeptical community, and they likely align more with Jeff Wagg’s than yours. But on a personal level, I’m frankly *bored* with all the atheist stuff that comes up at skeptical events. I don’t find discussion about religion or lack thereof all that interesting, and that’s one of the main reasons I don’t go to atheist conferences. If the skeptical events continue to get more and more atheist, I’ll likely mentally check out of events – and possibly the movement in general – out of shear boredom.Oh yeah. And I’m an atheist. :P

  8. says

    This is rather disappointing because I like Jeff (never met him but follow him on Twitter and Facebook). I don’t know why he decided to make this an issue. Skepticism means that you are skeptical of all claims, even religious ones. Nothing should be held as sacred just because discussing it might upset some people.

  9. Dale Cope says

    I like the last part “And if you don’t think you should be skeptical about religion, then you’re not being fucking skeptical.” I am going to have to quote you on that one.

  10. Valis says

    “Or superstitious religious beliefs that are held by the majority of the population”Sorry, but that statement is false. Maybe you meant to say; “Or superstitious religious beliefs that are held by the majority of the AMERICAN population”?Just because the vast majority of Americans are ignorant, backwards and superstitious doesn’t mean the rest of the world is as well. In my country, for instance, religious beliefs are laughed at and ridiculed by-and-large. I would appreciate it if you drew a distinction between America and other countries. The fact is America is the ONLY developed country whose population still clings to these ignorant superstitions. Please don’t generalise. Thank you.

  11. Mick Green says

    I think it’s fair to say that in most countries the majority of the population holds to some sort of supernatural religious beliefs, Valis. A wacky belief in gods is far from being a strictly American phenomenon.

  12. says

    “The fact is America is the ONLY developed country whose population still clings to these ignorant superstitions.”Wrong. I say that as a researcher of superstitions worldwide and as a primary researcher of beliefs in my own country, which was funded by the Australian Skeptics and is the basis of my M.Ed. I don’t see you holding evidence to back this up, certainly not ‘pop-culture laughing at’ to equal completely unsupported beliefs by developed countries.As for everything else – if people were better schooled as to what ‘skepticism’ is, they wouldn’t be touting blatantly misinformed statements like Jen McCreight just did about skepticism and religion. Bad move, Blag-Hag, you really needing to get back and actually read the fundamentals on your part. :/It’s particularly worrisome considering this stems from internet influence and a conference which has already been legitimately questioned in regards to labeling (as Jenna aptly pointed out). Changing skepticism to mean ‘whatever you like’ certainly isn’t going to be supported by lazy thinking, by memes and catch-phrases.Atheism, feminism, et al – they aren’t deficient or blind without skepticism, as it’s been put so tritely. They can, however, be deficient of critical thinking. That’s the real issue here.The rest – you can read at my blog at Podblack, pending soon.

  13. valhar2000 says

    The fact is America is the ONLY developed country whose population still clings to these ignorant superstitions.And, right there, you murdered you own argument. Yes, in terms of toxic religiosity, America is at the forefront among developed nations; but what about the undeveloped nations, which contain the majority of the world’s population? Or do poor people not count?I mean, criticizing someone else for being provincial by being even more provincial yourself is not exactly a recipe or success, is it?

  14. loreleion says

    Not that I agree with Valis, but you’ve presented no evidence either. Nice argument from authority, though.

  15. says

    I think that this idea (incorporating religious criticism hurts skepticism) is completely backwards. One of the best ways of exposing the flaws in the structure of religious thinking is to give examples of the same structure applied elsewhere.The wide world of superstition provides numerous examples of fanciful beliefs that are defended in ways similar to religion but which religious people are unlikely to share (though depending on circumstance there will also likely be areas of overlap). If people are really adamant about separating the discussion of religion then they’re more than welcome to hold their own events to reflect their internal compartmentalization. Telling the rest of us that we shouldn’t do it would require a seriously compelling justification. So far all I’m seeing is “some people will be upset.” If we forbid ourselves from upsetting people not only could we not be skeptics, we couldn’t be believers. It’s a criterion with no practical meaning at all. I guess Wagg is going to gate the new CFI Canada Campaign: http://extraordinary-claims.co… Too bad no one asked him before the launch, or we could have changed it to “extraordinary claims (except for the few we’ve deliberately chosen to exempt because if we didn’t then some people might get uncomfortable).” Maybe next year?

  16. says

    Skepticism led me to atheism. I had always had doubts about Christianity but I was trying to make it work. It got a “pass” for a long time despite my skepticism about the usual skeptic targets. Then one day I was sitting in church and had the reaction “they can’t expect us to believe *that* can they?” just as I would respond to homeopathy or dowsing, and I realized I’d just reacted to something about there being a god. Atheism is a form of skepticism, just less popular.

  17. NotThatGreg says

    I’m skeptical that you could have put that any better.Again, people thinking that religion gets a free exemption from any reasonable inquiry or debate.

  18. GeekGoddess says

    Jeff isn’t saying religion is off limits, and knowing him, I know that he doesn’t feel that way. I’ve brought Christian people into the skeptical fold by emphasizing the critical thinking aspects, the educational aspects of informing people about science, alt-medicine, pseudoscience, which can lead them to, ahem, improve their thinking on a lot of issues. Running the Houston Skeptics Society, I’ve received emails from potential members asking ‘is this an atheist group’. In trying to get my camel’s nose under their tent, I always answer no, but that while are many atheists *in* the group, I try to focus on the critical thinking aspects. I’d rather get them in the door first.

  19. DrJen says

    There’s a lot of apparent confusion about what Jeff is saying, and it’s moving quickly to the point of very personal attacks on him and some other folks who are trying to put forth the simple idea that skepticism, as it’s been generally conceived in the past few decades, has been about testable claims. He has repeatedly said that testable religious claims are fully within the realm of skepticism. What he has been clarifying is that skepticism is not synonymous with atheism. In my arena, I end up gravitating toward medical topics that many folks in the skeptical movement are also interested in. By continuing to insist on evidence for various medical claims, many have become strong vaccine proponents. However, being pro-vaccine is not synonymous with being a skeptic. I use the methods/concept of skepticism (I hope) to come to my conclusion, but the conclusion is not the method. I don’t think I can say because I’m a skeptic (and therefore like to proportion my belief to testable claims) there is no god. I think skepticism can address the many religious claims that are testable. I also think I don’t have enough positive evidence to convince myself that there is a god. But, if there were a ‘god’ that wanted to remain unknowable, a mystery, something that allowed for belief only through faith, that would, by definition, not be testable and therefore not amenable to the methods of skepticism.Jeff isn’t saying anything bad about atheists, atheist goals, or saying that we all need to go lay out beds of flowers for folks with apparently irrational beliefs. (You know Jeff is an atheist, right?) He’s saying that atheism and skepticism are not identical. Skeptical methods may help support one’s atheism, but they are not the same thing.(On a side note, I also think it’s disingenuous to say that Skepticon isn’t primarily an atheist conference.)

  20. quarksparrow says

    PodBlack, if Jen has touted blatantly misinformed statements, please identify them. Apparently I’m too ignorant and misinformed to determine exactly which statements you are referring to.

  21. Julie says

    I also quite like the guy, and having met and conversed with him a few times, know that it’s highly unlikely that he’s being an accomodationist or suggesting that we handhold and ignore religious cognative dissonance in the skeptic community. See DrJen’s comment below for a clarification that I thought was very likely forthcoming.

  22. DES says

    But… wait! Everybody knows that if you dilute medicine, you make it *more potent*! Knowing what modern medicine has achieved, can you imagine what miracles a 10x solution could perform?

  23. Cygore says

    I’d just like to add that skepticism is a method of thinking. Atheism is a lack of belief in God. One can use the method of skepticism to become an atheist, the method itself doesn’t make one an atheist.There have been and are religious people who have contributed to the skeptical movement, and I don’t want to see them driven out over ideological purity. I like having Pamela Gay, and Hal Bidlack in the movement. Martin Gardner also made great contributions to the movement. They have a place in the movement.I’d add that skeptical events shouldn’t shy away from criticizing religious claims. There was a lot of that at TAM, which Jeff organized. The problem for me comes when a speaker just bashes religion.

  24. Julie says

    That having been said, I both agree and disagree with the clarification, as well. While I am also similarly irritated by skeptical events dissolving into an atheistic backpatting, circle jerk; “Hurr, no god! Durr!” I also am one of those people who believe that you cannot truthfully call yourself a skeptic and believe in god, just as you cannot claim to be a skeptic and believe that homeopathy works. However, I do agree with Jeff in that the metaphysical claims of religion that are untestable are a waste of our time as skeptics. The religious will constantly move the goalposts anytime we argue them into a philosophical corner, and the issue will never be resolved to either party’s satisfaction. It seems a pointless, exhausting endeavor to me and I quickly grow bored of those kinds of discussions. Much better, I feel and agree with Jeff, to focus on the claims that are testable – such as the medical prayer study.

  25. Jason Loxton says

    It is not “3 out of 15 talks.” Here is a link to the schedule: http://skepticon.org/schedule….The *majority* of the titled talks deal with religion. Although, some of the untitled probably won’t (Randi, DJ, Nickel), it is reasonable to think that PZ’s and Dan Barker’s will, keeping the ratio intact. (The rest of the titled talks deal with largely ethical/philosophical issues, e.g., sexism, which would traditionally have been more at home in a CFI/Free Inquiry sponsored conference.)I hope you will make and acknowledge a change in your post. You can disagree with Jeff’s take on the issue, but only while being honest about the premise.

  26. Nyota says

    Religion has real power. The Vatican is a country. There are plenty of Islamic nations. They have official relationships and all that. Religious leaders are big shareholders all around Wall Street. Since skeptics always rely on words, and those leaders can’t be talked out of power, the bottom-up approach (reaching common folks) is the way to go.Homeopathy is mainly private business: Companies making money out of the deluded. Bigfoot, horoscopes and UFOs are just goofy. But religion… skepticism doesn’t have a bigger enemy. For one thing, is the most worldwide extended form of magical thinking.Many people would say extremism is worse than religion. The problem is, you can’t fight extremism with words, because extremists are immune to them–that’s why they’re called extremists. Those should be a target for the police and the intelligence services, not for people who try to use words to put some sense in people’s minds. I think skeptics shouldn’t even bother trying to reach extremists folks through reasoned dialogue. Besides, there will always be a few extremists no matter what.

  27. Jason Loxton says

    A note on the premise: the harmonization–or conflation, depending on your perspective–of skepticism and atheism *is* new.I know this personally. Back in 1999, as a first cohort Campus Freethought Alliance activist, I got in a near yelling argument with CSICOP co-founder Ray Hyman at his Skeptic’s Toolbox workshop defending the position you now advance. When I calmed down, I was privileged to a fascinating first person history lesson, one which involved both philosophical and (yes) pragmatic concerns. As we have this discussion now, it is worth considering that history. I can’t pull Ray Hyman out to help (although I wish I could, Annie Hall-style!), but I’ll post a few articles of interest.Here’s the position of CSICOP, laid out in the editorial of the first issue (1976) of the Zetetic (Skeptical Inquirer): “Finally, a word might be said about our exclusive concern with scientific investigation and empirical claims. The Committee takes no position regarding nonempirical or mystical claims. We accept a scientific viewpoint and will not argue for it in these pages. Those concerned with metaphysics and supernatural claims are directed to those journals of philosophy and religion dedicated to such matters.” (You can track down some back issues for more on the empirical vs. philosophical debate, but back in the ’70s the empiricists won.)Here’s a more recent essay from a (relatively) youthful version of SGU’s Steven Novell and David Bloomberg arguing for atheist/skeptic separation (1999): http://www.csicop.org/si/show/…And finally, an illuminating retrospective piece by one of the granddaddies of the Skeptic’s movement, the now sadly gone Barry Beyerstein, (p. 15): http://www.bcskeptics.info/re/…I post these just to point out that, no matter what one’s position on the debate, this is a longstanding one, with strong arguments from very smart people on both sides; those arguments should be considered thoughtfully and with respect. Who knows, we both could be wrong.

  28. Falsum says

    I think there are some pragmatic concerns that apply to this issue, and might excuse pro-religion skepticism a little bit. Even granted that skepticism has a legitimate reason to dispute religious claims, a skeptic who wants to have a positive impact on the world has to consider the likelihood of their message getting through. I think that most of us would agree that religious beliefs are the most tenuous form of irrationality. It’s much easier to get someone to be criical about homeopathy than it is to get them to be skeptical about the beliefs which have provided social structure, spiritual comfort, and moral guidance for as long as they can remember. And I think that a religious person who is skeptical about everything else in their life will be better off than a religious person who also practices homeopathy in place of real medicine. Furthermore, if there is a stream of skeptical thought which is not intrinsically hostile to religion, then it will be easier to introduce the religious to skeptical modes of thought which could, in the long run, result in their realizing that their faith isn’t worth much.I guess I’m saying that ideological purity has no place in any social movement which hopes to have a positive impact on the world.

  29. says

    The view of skepticism that you seem to be outlining is one that solely disbelieves in things that have actually been falsified, and takes no view on things that have not. The seems basically reasonable, since it would clearly be silly to maintain a belief in something that you’ve proven to be untrue, but it is not a sceptical position (in the basic sense of the word). A sceptical position is surely one that disbelieves anything for which there is not good supporting evidence.In any case, limiting oneself to testable claims doesn’t just rule out religion, but also things like Bigfoot and UFOs on an equal basis – you can advance alternative explanations, but you can prove they’re not out there hiding somewhere.

  30. Jason Loxton says

    Well, UFOs and Bigfoot (unless they are the mystical inter-dimensional kind that some people defend, perhaps) can be dealt with inductively, in exactly the same way as tetrapod fossils in the Cambrian. There *are* plenty of empirical claims religion makes. And skeptics should go at them. But, there is a defensible argument (and, with genuine apologies, I am not going to defend it here; smarter and more passionate people than me have and are doing so, and my girlfriend says I have to finish my PhD this year… or its trouble!) that a subset of questions, many central to religion, should not be on the table because they aren’t scientific. (For example, “Human’s have immaterial souls…” What does that even mean?!?!? What possible Million Dollar Challenge test could there be for that.) Again, sorry to duck out, but I was posting these links simply to show that Skepticism, defined as a dealing solely with empirical claims (sometimes: ‘scientific skepticism’), *was* what we meant by the term until recently. There’s a reinvention going on, and heck, I am willing to entertain (although I do not currently accept) that it is for the best. But it is a reinvention, a justifiably controversial expansion of a mandate that was set through serious debate three decades ago. It could be for the best, but it should not be arrogantly assumed so, and it should not be done blithely.

  31. Katherine says

    Not to mention the fact that Jen herself is American, and thus her blog is naturally going to be oriented towards American political/religious issues, just like Ian Cromwell’s blog ( http://crommunist.wordpress.co… ) is often oriented toward Canadian religious/skeptic issues.

  32. badrescher says

    Once again, Jen, your uninformed opinion is not evidence.How does belief in dousing harm people? Belief in psychics? Have you missed the big stories of the past year or two? Did they fly right over your head at TAM8? Even so, how many people are harmed by a belief is not a measure of whether it may be investigated scientifically, a fact that someone claiming the title of “scientist” really should know. I am honestly baffled. To discuss the issues surrounding the conflation of atheism and skepticism, one needs to have an understanding of the philosophy of science as well as the goals of the organizations which drive the movements. While I understand that many, many scientists have a less than adequate understanding of the epistemology, most of them *at least* understand that an epistemology is what science *is* and most skeptics understand that skepticism is an epistemology. Have you ever had a discussion with a religious person in which they asked you questions that you couldn’t answer because they didn’t make sense? Their argument was *not even wrong*? Other than the few (or perhaps just one) *fact* that you presented (which has been corrected by commenters), you are *not even wrong*.Which is kind of ironic.

  33. says

    I agree that many atheist groups are part of the skeptical movement, but they aren’t the whole of it. When religion is the primary focus it tends to crowd out other topics and to make it more difficult to promote critical thinking in the general public, which is a major goal of the broader skeptical movement.

  34. says

    Once again, Barabara, you don’t read what I’ve actually written.“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.”The dousing example at TAM is exactly what we should be talking about. My point is there are similar, if not MORE harmful examples that deal with religious belief, and we shouldn’t ignore them just because they’re religious in nature.

  35. says

    In your first sentence, you said skepticism LED you to atheism. Then you say it is a FORM of skepticism.On Facebook, the ever wise Doctor Atlantis said that if I-40 leads to California, does that make I-4o the same AS California?? Even if it leads others to places other than California?

  36. says

    While it might be uncomfortable to some people… really skepticism should be applied to everything… that includes the “sacred cows” of religion. It doesn’t mean that religion is the main focus of skeptisism, but it is one of the largest issues closer to many people than many other claims so it is only natural that people will tend to discuss it.Promoting critical thinking in life IS very important. But showing that critical thinking should be applied, not just when you are doing science, but when you are making decisions, judgements, assessing your own beliefs, that is ALSO important.My point is that I agree with Jen, talking about applying skepticism not just to those things that are “comfortable” to talk about (i.e. things that the majority of the population does not believe or aren’t emotionally attached to) is just not the full picture. Neither is only talking about religion… but to say that religious beliefs are not part of skeptical thinking is just, to steal the phrase from Jeff Wagg “missing the point”.I can understand if he is dissappointed that some topic dear to him isn’t getting the face time he would like… but in that case speak about the topic (or topics) you want represented and think are important don’t just weakly argue that religious/atheistic talks are NOT skeptisism related (which they generally are).

  37. loreleion says

    No, but if you stay on the I-40 long enough, you’re bound to end up in California.*No one’s saying that skepticism equals atheism; we’re saying that if you apply skepticism, atheism follows.*For the sake of this analogy everyone is driving west. :P

  38. Tony says

    Wagg seems to be of the opinion that skepticism is only applicable to things that can be scientifically tested. Hogwash, I say. All extraordinary claims made without evidence should be the target of skepticism. A religious person is every bit as credulous as dowsers, astrologers and antivaxers.

  39. badrescher says

    Again, you didn’t read what I wrote.How the harm a belief causes, whether debatable or not, is entirely irrelevant in determining whether or not it is scientifically testable. Fallacies related to relevance are probably the most common result of sloppy thinking.

  40. says

    And I’m not talking about determining whether something is scientifically testable or not, since that was done in PZ’s post that I linked to and what feels like a million posts before that. That topic has been done to death. My point was when planning something like a conference, it’s extremely relevant how much harm a belief causes. Don’t we want our conferences to talk about things that matter the most? If not, feel free to not invite me to the boring conferences.

  41. Hipopotamo says

    I’ve been thinking:I can be an atheist without being skeptic, but I cannot being skeptic withut being at least agnostic. You see, I can be an atheist by means different that skepticism, and still believe in aliens, or accupunture ( I can be called irrational, but that is fine. Evenmore, speculating about the existance of chi channels is set completely on different grounds than those of speculating about an almighty being).But I cannot be an skeptic and still be theist, since belief in a higher being simply won’t pass any empirical test.Having said so, I understand the uproar in these forums about Jeff’s remarks about SkeptiCon. But on the other hand, looking from the outside, I also believe that his posture rise an interesting question. SkeptiCon is a general conference, meaning its mission is to shed light on as many skeptic topics as possible (that are interesting enough to attract an audience, I’m afraid). Originaly I read his concern as he not wanting Skepticon to grow into Atheist-Con, and myself I would give him the benefit of the doubt here.Personally, 3 out of 15 atheist conferences is not a bad ratio so maybe he blowed the horns to early.I also agree with Jen and the commenters here that discussing religion is important in an skeptic arena, and I can even agree that religion might cause more harm than other crackpot beliefs. And I agree that discussing religion should and must be present at any skeptic arena.Still, if I go to a so-labeled Skeptics conference, I would expect to have my skeptic quota fulfilled, and that includes good old UFO/BigFoot mind-candy. I’ll be disappointed to find overwhelmingly mostly atheist stuff.Please don’t flame me over this, guys. I am kind of in a concilliatory mood today, thus this particular posting.Cheers from the Birthday Hippo

  42. Badger3k says

    From reading the blog post, it seems to be an argument from authority by Dr Something or other, with argument by assertion. I always saw skepticism as a process where you don’t believe without evidence, but apparently that is wrong. If you make any religious (even deist) claims for which you have no evidence to support your position, then how can it be skeptical to still believe in them? How is this different than other paranormal claims which have the same level of evidence?

  43. Badger3k says

    Agreed. And if someone wants to stop at “homeopathy saves lives” and “aliens took the JFK-Bigfoot love child”, they have every right to do so. And we have every right to point at them and laugh as we drive further down the road.

  44. says

    The CLAIMS of religion that are testable are within the bounds of skepticism. A magical statue or faith healing and things of that nature are testable and a rightly the focus of skepticism.Gods are not on their own, because you cannot test for them. Yes, many skeptics come to the conclusion that there are no gods because so many of the claims that religions make are falsifiable, but if you’re being true to skepticism, you absolutely cannot make the claim that there are no gods. Skeptics that are troubled by the equating of skepticism with atheism are so because of the simple fact that gods cannot be absolutely disproved. I can prove that the earth is more than 6000 years old and that evolution occurred, but god might exist somewhere, and I can’t prove that he or she doesn’t. I have no personal god belief, but I can’t prove it. Skepticism got me to this point. It can go no further.

  45. says

    I wouldn’t point and laugh. I would ask them why they believe those things. I would try to identify where that thinking originated and share why I don’t agree. In doing this, maybe they’d travel a few miles further down the road.Just because you have “the right” to do something doesn’t mean that it’s helpful.

  46. says

    Okay, if you want to make a Skepticism conference about religion, then what empirical claims are being discussed? If you’re not discussing claims, then your conference is about atheism, not skepticism. You said that religion is “at least as harmful,” but by what standard? This is something that should be figured out before making a claim. Is it more harmful than not vaccinating? Is it more harmful that CAM? I’m not suggesting that religion shouldn’t be discussed in the bounds of skepticism, but if you’re calling it skepticism you should be using skepticism as a tool. As far as things that “matter the most,” to who do they matter the most? I know several prominent skeptics that could care less about debating the existence of god, just as others think homeopathy and UFOs are silly to discuss. I for one, would be very annoyed if I went to TAM and found the majority of it to be about atheism. That’s why I don’t go to AAI. I also don’t go to conferences about CAM refutation. I like skeptical topics broadly. If you want a narrowly-focused conference, then put it on and call it what it is.

  47. Badger3k says

    And sometimes it’s not whether it is “helpful’ or not that is the issue. There’s a difference between a car broken down on the side of the road and one where the driver has pulled off intentionally and built a house. One invites help, the other mockery.

  48. says

    Yeah, you tell her, Podblack! I know that when I read “the fundamentals,” from the books of modern luminaries like Sagan’s “Demon-Haunted World” and Shermer’s “Why People Believe Weird Things” and Randi’s “Flim-Flam,” to some of the older works like Hume’s “Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,” they all made it clear that skepticism in no way applies to the claims of religion. Oh, wait, they didn’t? I guess I must be reading the wrong fundamentals then. Please, remind us all what a fundamentalist skeptic ought to be aware of, so that we can run down to the local Skeptic Family Bookstore and pick up the Authorized Versions of the proper, orthodox skeptical texts.

  49. says

    I know this personally. And we all know how reliable personal anecdotes are. Those concerned with metaphysics and supernatural claims are directed to those journals of philosophy and religion dedicated to such matters.I’m curious: exactly what makes a claim “metaphysical” or “supernatural”? Further, what exempts such claims from skeptical or scientific inquiry? Because as near as I’ve ever been able to tell, “supernatural/metaphysical” always seems to mean “claims that I don’t think I need evidence to justify” or “claims that I want exempted from rational inquiry.” I’m just looking for a consistent definition of terms here that explains why throwing up the “supernatural/metaphysical” label is like a force field against skeptics. “Oh, sorry folks, Sylvia Browne said her powers were supernatural. Let’s go on home, there’s nothing more we can do here.”

  50. says

    Thank you. I now understand why there are so many disagreements. I always want to know why somebody acts or thinks in the way that they do. Others, even those that claim to be skeptics, do not. This is good to know. If I don’t care about why somebody does something, I don’t think I can get them to care about why I do the things that I do.

  51. says

    “Human’s have immaterial souls…” What does that even mean?!?!? What possible Million Dollar Challenge test could there be for that.Please explain the distinction between “humans have immaterial souls” and “this house has immaterial ghosts,” which makes one open to investigation and the other not. Here’s what I don’t understand: whatever happened to the Null Hypothesis and Occam’s Razor? Because I remember those fundamental skeptical books, and it seems to me that those concepts went all through them. I know the “empiricism only!” camp recognizes they exist, because the work of their heroes like Joe Nickell and Ben Radford are predicated on Occam’s Razor. Otherwise, showing that a moth can make the same image on a gas station surveillance camera as the one that was said to be a ghost, or that a log from a certain distance can look like what was called a sea monster, does nothing to actually demonstrate that there weren’t ghosts or sea monsters in those initial sightings. The whole point of such re-creations is to demonstrate that there are natural explanations for the observed phenomena, and so there is no reason to posit the supernatural. So explain to me: when did the null hypothesis stop being the default position for claims about reality? Shouldn’t that always be the skeptical position for claims that are unsupported by sufficient evidence? What is the difference between “sasquatch exists” and “god exists” that allows us to deal with one and not the other? What about “angels exist”? Is that in some middle ground gray area, or are all the existence claims that belong to any religion relegated to the realm of “untouchable supernatural metaphysical claims”? If that’s the case, then what about 19th-century spiritualism or modern newage? Are those considered religions? If so, how much must we consign to the “metaphysical” bin? Should I cut the chapter about fairies out of my copy of “Flim-Flam” and denounce it as heretically unskeptical overreaching? Are there any existence claims which are not supernatural/metaphysical? Or can we take the more reasonable route, and assume the null hypothesis regarding any claim until evidence causes us to reject it? And if instead the claimant uses ad-hoc arguments and goalpost-shifting to make their claim untestable, such that their claim being true and their claim not being true are indistinguishable, then we can use Occam’s Razor to say that there’s no reason to believe it. We remain open to being convinced otherwise, but tentatively reject the claim. But you know, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the point of Sagan’s garage dragon essay was that, as scientific skeptics, we can say absolutely nothing about whether or not there’s a dragon in that guy’s garage, and that to take any position re: invisible intangible dragon existence would be totally unreasonable. But I don’t think that’s the case (largely because the concluding paragraphs say as much), and if I have to choose between Sagan and Hyman, I’m going to go with the former.

  52. says

    Jennifer – regarding ‘I give up trying to get my point across to you, since you seem more concerned with finding a way to disagree with me’ – maybe if you made your point with less aggression and more reasoning in the first place, you wouldn’t find yourself in this position? Best of luck with your studies. K.

  53. says

    And you are the one who judges what matters the most? Is that what you’re saying?I’d prefer not going to carbon-copy conferences, myself. As to ‘what standard’ and ‘to whom what matters’ – that again opens it up to debate about the audience and the demographic, et al. I was the MC at the Global Atheist Convention and was arguably the only ‘skeptic’ speaker there when I got to talk about my research. I focused more on the intersection of religious beliefs and paranormal beliefs, but I made it clear in the abstract and title what I was on about. Would I have problems if people later debated my relevance in terms of the research presented? No. But it was clear from the outset and I wouldn’t have had problems if people chose not to attend.I notice that Jim Lippard has echoed something that Loxton has with “When religion is the primary focus it tends to crowd out other topics and to make it more difficult to promote critical thinking in the general public, which is a major goal of the broader skeptical movement.” There’s people who have worked for some time to encourage more education panels at skeptical conferences and thankfully that has started to happen more and more.

  54. says

    Then maybe you should read the whole thing, not just the start? Particularly the definition of what it means to be skeptical and what pertains to ‘evidence’.The comments are well worth checking as well. Thanks for your interest, it’s much appreciated. If you want to read more of my research, I can make that available too. :)

  55. says

    “Still, if I go to a so-labeled Skeptics conference, I would expect to have my skeptic quota fulfilled, and that includes good old UFO/BigFoot mind-candy. I’ll be disappointed to find overwhelmingly mostly atheist stuff. “Good point. And raises the issue regarding ‘wouldn’t it lead to people to assume that they’re the same thing’? Lots of views and opinions on that, et al, et al, et al… Happy birthday, by the way.

  56. says

    Skeptics that investigate ghosts do not disprove the existence of ghosts. They find the source of the disturbance that occurs. For example, if there is an odd noise, they find the raccoon in the attic or a branch blowing in the breeze. Just as you cannot prove god exists or doesn’t, you cannot prove a ghost. You can only define when phenomena are caused by something else. Maybe check out “Scientific Paranormal Investigation” by Ben Radford?

  57. says

    But, as has been mentioned several times, 3 of 15 is not accurate. It’s at least 8 of 18, and probably more as many of the slots are untitled on the schedule.And your point is very good, as Podblack wrote. If I go to a Skeptics conference, I want a variety of topics and viewpoints from the spectrum. (and happy birthday!)

  58. says

    Bullshit. Let’s say I hear some tapping at the window. I attribute it to a ghost. Ben Radford, Joe Nickell, and the whole skeptical investigator crew comes in. They find a tree outside my window that taps against it when the conditions are right. What they categorically have not done is “define when phenomena are caused by something else.” They have shown that the tapping I heard might have been from a tree. But they can’t show that the tapping I heard on that night in the past was from that tree. So such an investigation is completely useless. Worthless, every one of them. They have no power to suggest that any phenomenon is not supernaturally caused, except in the rare case that someone attributes a supernatural cause to some event while it’s being investigated. Like, if Radford and Nickell were outside my window smacking the branch against it on that original night. Why even consider that part of skepticism? It has nothing to do with science or doubt or, really, anything at all. Certainly not the paranormal claim. Since it’s in the past, it’s not testable. Where do Nickell and Radford get off calling themselves skeptics anyway? All they’re doing is investigating whether or not houses are drafty and logs can float. Oh, unless we consider Occam’s Razor. That might be a useful tool in such a situation. We have one possible explanation for the tapping I heard, that it was a branch known to tap against the window under certain conditions, and another explanation, that it was a ghost. One requires us to accept only what’s known to exist; the other requires us to accept a hypothesis which posits an unknown entity made of unknown substance which interacts with matter in an unknown way and for unknown reasons, which cannot be replicated and has not been directly observed or measured. Occam’s Razor would tell us that given these two explanations, which equally explain the observations, that we have no reason to accept the explanation which posits the unknown entities. The only way that Skeptical Investigators “define when phenomena are caused by something else” is if you understand Occam’s Razor to be a tool in the skeptical toolbox. Otherwise, they’re just doing a very odd form of surveying. And that was, of course, my point in the post to which you’re responding. You’re right, in that such investigations do not “disprove” ghosts. You seem to think that’s a problem. I’ll take your reading recommendation (Radford’s book is already on my Amazon Wish List), please take mine: read anything ever written on the burden of proof. It is not incumbent upon the skeptic to “disprove” any claim. It is up to the claimant to provide evidence. Belief is not warranted until sufficient evidence is provided. That is skepticism 101.

  59. says

    8 of 18 is probably not accurate either. Take Victor Stenger, for instance: his breakout book, “God: The Failed Hypothesis,” is built on the premise of taking various popular claims about God and using them to develop a falsifiable hypothesis. Following which, each chapter is “if this hypothesis were true, we could expect to see X, Y, and Z. Do we see those things?” From the preface: “To be sure, the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God is not well defined…I will focus on those attributes of the God that the bulk of believers in each of these varied groups worship.” I fail to see how this kind of talk–if indeed this is the kind of talk that Stenger gave–would fall prey to the “skepticism is impotent against the metaphysical” criticism. Intercessory prayer studies, for instance, demonstrate that there is no god who hears all prayers and answers them in the affirmative. Such studies are within the skeptical purview, from the accounts of all involved, and do provide some statement on what kinds of gods may or may not exist. Similarly, David Fitzgerald’s speech is apparently on the historicity of Jesus. Are skeptics allowed to weigh in on such historical matters? Can we say anything about whether or not Robin Hood or King Arthur existed? Why would those questions be immune from skepticism? I don’t know what the substance of Richard Carrier’s talk is, but I do know that he’s made a career out of similar investigations into the history of Christianity and the historicity of its key figure. One of the panels is on this very conversation, regarding tactics when promoting skepticism. I’d feel more inclined to regard the accommodationists’ complaints as genuine if I heard more such complaints when Phil Plait and Hal Bidlack gave their speeches at the last couple of TAMs on this topic. And then there’s the panel on whether or not skepticism leads to atheism. I think that’s the crux of the whole matter, the intersection between the two topics. How is that not relevant to a skeptical conference? Why is it that we would have that panel, and not “does skepticism lead to disbelief in UFOs”?

  60. says

    o/t I have decided I am butthurt by the term “butthurt”. Not because it either makes light of anal rape or treats (consensual) anal intercourse as something to be feared and avoided, though you could certainly make a case for either, if you didn’t mind being ridiculed for histrionic oversensitivity.No, rather because, like taunting the fear demon, it’s just…tacky.

  61. Svlad Cjelli says

    A god with properties has properties. A god without properties is operationally (i.e. actually) identical to nothingness. That aside, you skip the evidence/proof distinction. No, you can’t in fact prove that the Earth didn’t appear last Thursday, but nor is that proof necessary in order for the idea to be justly considered useless.

  62. Svlad Cjelli says

    I have found that “Whoa, dude” works well as a substitute for “supernatural” in most cases.

  63. Svlad Cjelli says

    ??? Straight to intercourse? Not even the slightest association to falling on your ass? Mind, meet gutter. :P Besides, if it hurts much, it’s not being done right.

  64. says

    Thank you for noting the studies on the ineffective nature of prayer so I won’t have to. Sounds to me like Jeff Wagg is angling for a Templeton grant.Enjoy.

  65. Tony says

    Who gives a flying fuck if it’s testable or not? The burden of proof is always on the claimant and ANYTHING believed without evidence is not skeptical regardless of empirical testability. Wagg, and you, are harping on an asinine semantic point about as useful as the proper definitions of atheist and agnostic.

  66. Jason Loxton says

    Tom, I was talking about a bit of history, part of which I personally lived. Unless you’re calling me a liar, I am not sure I get your point. (And if you do think I am a liar, well, I helpfully provided evidence in the links below!) Re: “metaphysical” and “supernatural”…Honestly, as it applies to skepticism, this is tricky stuff, and also stuff which is largely out of my area of expertise (I gave up philosophy midway through my undergrad and switched to paleontology). The simplistic answer is that skepticism, as traditionally defined (and remember my point wasn’t to defend this definition, even though I do strongly lean towards it, but to remind people that it *was* the reigning definition until recently) is an empirical pursuit, and like science in general, is bound by methodology to only consider naturalistic phenomena.The problem (in addition to the philosophical squabbling over methodological naturalism, e.g., http://plato.stanford.edu/entr… is that so many topics that skeptics deal with either sit right at the edge of this demarcation, or jump back and forth depending on the idiosyncratic definitions of each proponent, e.g., are ghosts detectable energy beings or magical entities that only directly interact with our minds (and so cannot be recorded, etc.)? Sylvia Browne makes perfectly testable claims about her ability to produce specific information. That’s fair game. It’s testable. And there’s a Challenge clocking ticking at this moment (http://www.randi.org/sylvia/). However, she also makes claims about how that information gets there.Assuming that she was able to provide consistent information (which she can’t), I am not sure how we’d distinguish between the hypotheses that God was directly putting it in her head, that her mind was grabbing it through some sort of time travelling telepathy, or that souls were sending it to her in real time from their memories. It’s not clear to me that that could be dealt with scientifically. (It doesn’t matter, because we can test her claims about her supposed ability, if not its source.)One last comment: your point that “rational inquiry” can deal with these things is spot on. And also goes right to the heart of the debate, i.e., is skepticism a rationalist project (combining the independent disciplines of science and philosophy), like Kurtz always envisioned, or is it a scientific project, like the CSICOP fellows promoted. There’s no magical answer. That question must be answered by group self-definition.P.s. My girlfriend is out of the house, which is why I can reply. Internet, please don’t tell her I am commenting on a discussion board instead of working. :)

  67. says

    Tom, I was talking about a bit of history, part of which I personally lived. Unless you’re calling me a liar, I am not sure I get your point.You’re taking your subjective, personal experience from ten years ago to try to make a categorical statement about the age of a particular argument. You say “the harmonization–or conflation, depending on your perspective–of skepticism and atheism *is* new,” and yet, the terms are closely-enough linked that “a person who doubts the truth of a religion, esp. Christianity, or of important elements of it” is listed as one of the definitions for “skeptic” in most dictionaries (to be honest, I would have liked to have seen the OED entry on the word, tracing examples of its usage through history, but I’m no longer on a college campus and thus have no access). At the very least, however, the term “religious skeptic” is not a new one, and skepticism in its recognizable form has been dealing with religions since Hume. This may be a ‘new debate’ for the modern skeptical movement, or perhaps a ‘new debate’ for the wing of the modern skeptical movement represented by CSICOP, but the idea that one might be skeptical of religions is very much not new. Honestly, as it applies to skepticism, this is tricky stuff, and also stuff which is largely out of my area of expertise (I gave up philosophy midway through my undergrad and switched to paleontology). Why, then, do you use terms that you cannot define in a meaningful way? The simplistic answer is that skepticism, as traditionally defined (and remember my point wasn’t to defend this definition, even though I do strongly lean towards it, but to remind people that it *was* the reigning definition until recently) is an empirical pursuit, and like science in general, is bound by methodology to only consider naturalistic phenomena.And until I hear a specific definition for “supernatural”–particularly one that isn’t merely special pleading–I don’t see why it even merits consideration. It’s set off as this category of potentially-extant things which are by definition immune from scientific investigation, but what reason do we have to even posit such a category? Certainly not induction; every phenomenon ever attributed to supernatural causes for which a cause has been found, has turned out to be naturally caused. If induction is a viable tool in the skeptical toolbox, then it would certainly seem to be a knock against the supernatural. This point, by the way, goes back at least as far as Thomas Jefferson. Not exactly a new concept. As I see it (and please correct me if I make any false dichotomies), either the supernatural interacts with the natural world in detectable ways, or it does not. If the former, then we should be able to examine at least the effects it has in the natural world, and so the matter of its existence and effects is open to science and skepticism (and if it can be thus examined, then I do not see what the label “supernatural” means for it). If it does not interact in detectable ways, then there is no reason to suppose that it exists. It belongs in the category of “things for which there is not sufficient evidence to justify belief,” in the sub-category of “things for which there can be no evidence.” We are justified in rejecting it, on the bases of the null hypothesis, Occam’s Razor, and the unfulfilled burden of proof, until such time as evidence can be produced. Granted, “the supernatural does not exist” and “we have no reason to believe that the supernatural exists” are two separate points; the former is a positive claim which requires justification; the latter is a rejection of a positive claim. If those opposed to the mixing of atheism and skepticism are objecting to the positive claim, then they are objecting only to a fairly small subset of actual atheists. Most atheists with any knowledge of the matter, particularly the prominent ones who actually get cited, will not take the strong atheist position (no gods exist) without noting that it is a separate claim which warrants its own justification. But the vast majority of atheists, particularly the prominent ones, are weak atheists or agnostic atheists, who simply lack belief in gods but are open to evidence to the contrary. They may phrase this lack of belief casually by saying ‘gods don’t exist,’ but when pressed, would recognize the distinction. And I don’t see anyone here skewering skeptics for saying things like “Bigfoot isn’t real” or “UFOs aren’t alien spacecraft” or “there’s no such thing as ghosts” instead of “we have no reason to believe Bigfoot exists/UFOs are alien/ghosts are real.” And also goes right to the heart of the debate, i.e., is skepticism a rationalist project (combining the independent disciplines of science and philosophy), like Kurtz always envisioned, or is it a scientific project, like the CSICOP fellows promoted.I don’t know, my anecdotal experience is that science is a subset of skepticism–basically, applied skepticism–and not the other way around. Regardless, I don’t think there’s any need to invoke philosophy any more than the hypothetico-deductive model of science already does. What there is a need for is clarity of definition. When we define things clearly and specifically–especially when we define them falsifiably, we can certainly use basic science and empirical evidence to say things about the supernatural. Based on prayer studies, we can say (with at least as much certainty as we say that there is no Loch Ness Monster) that there is no god who grants all prayers in the affirmative. Based on the scientific discoveries of the last hundred and fifty years, we can say with some certainty that the god who created all things spontaneously six thousand years ago in the order described in Genesis does not exist. Based on the discoveries of Eratosthenes and others in the pre-Christian era, and the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo more recently, we can say that the god who set a flat, domed Earth upon pillars and set the stars and planets in motions around it does not exist. Believers may add ad hoc rationalizations to escape these conclusions, and that’s fine. But in doing so, they are defining new gods, and every gap that science fills with a natural explanation narrows the field of possible gods.

  68. says

    Like Dr. Myer’s reply to Jeff, I think that you’ve missed his point. At the very least you’ve ignored the fact that Jeff and those with similar sentiments *never* say that religion is off-limts.Since Missouri is “the show me state” (an ppropriately skeptical motto), I’d invite you to “show me the evidence” that Jeff says that. But to do that I think you’d have to ignore all his comments where he points out he never says that and places where he mentions religious claims that are testable and thus amenable to skeptical inquiry.Perhaps one might disagree as to exactly which claims are or are not testable, but that is a different debateAlso, may I suggest that calling Jeff’s opinions “butt-hurt” isn’t the best way to respond? It merely come off as an ad hominem attack. There are better ways to tell somebody that you disagree with them.You and Dr. Myers have made strawman to debate against, not what Jeff’s point really is.

  69. Jason Loxton says

    I thought I was clear, but if not, here it is explicitly: in all instances above, by ‘skepticism’ I mean the dominant operational definition of anti-pseudoscience academics and activists, and their affiliated periodicals, etc., in the latter half of the Twentieth and early Twenty-First Century. Better?(Obviously, skepticism as a philosophical concept has a long and complex history; see, for example, Hecht’s Doubt: http://www.amazon.com/Doubt-Do

  70. Jason Loxton says

    I expect you’re just going to going to call me a pussy or something to that effect (that seems to be how things work on the Internet), but whether intentional or not, your comments read as laced with snarky “gotchas”, which makes me really not want to have a conversation with you. This is sort of sad, as the bulk of what you write is interesting and thoughtful.

  71. Jason Loxton says

    Upon rereading, my last comment seems unnecessarily passive aggressive, making me potentially a hypocrite. Man, the Internet is too stressful for me. Best to go back to brewing my Lagunitas IPA clone. Which is less stressful, and deliciously rewarding. : )

  72. says

    Cory is technically correct that Jeff did not say that religion is off-limits. However, Jeff did specifically say that applying skepticism to religion was “not skepticism,” and thus, not appropriate fodder for a skeptical gathering.I disagree.I recently read Massimo Pigliucci’s “Nonsense on stilts: how to tell science from bunk.” In it, he discusses the difference between empirical sciences like physics, where you can construct an experiment to test your hypothesis, and the historical sciences, like paleontology and archeology.(I’m not a scientist, so I’m certain to garble this, but I think the general idea may shine through my mangling of it…)In the historical sciences, you’re dealing with probability and plausibility. You take what we know about the world, and extrapolate backwards. You gather multiple lines of evidence and see where they converge. You assume uniformity in nature, because otherwise you can say nothing useful about anything.This is science, but it uses a different toolset to arrive at it’s conclusions than, say, particle physics.Moreover, it is a scientific approach that lets us say meaningful things about the basic claims of religion, even if we can’t test our hypotheses the same way we might test a possible explanation for bleeding statues.So I’m quite happy to limit skepticism to questions that can be addressed scientifically. I’m just not willing to put artificial limits on which scientific methods and modalities we’re allowed to use.

  73. says

    Ah, so that’s the only reason he COULD be doing this? Right. Because everything about this is about those evil religious people. Does that sound a fair summation of your comment in return?

  74. says

    ‘…Applying skepticism to religion was “not skepticism,” and thus, not appropriate fodder for a skeptical gathering.’I think you have to accept, however, some aspects of religion are not testable. But it appears you don’t? You then say that there’s ‘meaningful things’… which are?As for ‘Moreover, it is a scientific approach…” how do you define science again, exactly? If it’s out of the bounds of empirical… what then? Are you honestly advocating that if it’s untestable, then ‘science’ will still mean ‘it’s okay to say the meaningful statement that …’ what exactly? That you’re ‘not fucking skeptical enough’?Therefore, to label a convention with the name SkeptiCon (and that is something that is being debated, yes?) seems erroneous. What I find particularly odd is how even the author of the blog post that started this keeps shifting goals about what they mean – even though Prof Barbara Drescher, Jenna, etc. have outlined what mistakes are made, they are not accepted by Jen. That is evident from the comments here to her and are completely unacknowledged by her – feel free to check them out.In addition – Amanda Marcotte wrote that ‘The claim was being floated that 3 out of 15 speeches were on atheism, but honestly, ever single one I was able to catch was about atheism on some level.’http://pandagon.net/index.php/…Ah well. Guess ‘That’s All Folks’.

  75. says

    I haven’t “acknowledged” some of your comments because I have a life and don’t spend all of it replying to pointless internet arguments. I’m even less motivated to do so because when I have responded to you or Barbara in the past, I effectively have arguments from authority flung in my face (“Have you read THIS particular book? No? Well I have, therefore you don’t know what you’re talking about.”)I may make an additional post later, after I’m done with this little thing called getting my PhD. I know, flamewars should be my first priority.

  76. Gus Snarp says

    I think it’s all likely to be a bit boring, not that I’ve gone to any of these things. In fact, I expect that debunking psychics, or homeopathy, or anti-vaccine nonsense would be more boring than religion. After all, these are entirely closed issues, the arguments haven’t changed in years. How many times can you say “Avogadro’s number” before you don’t need to hear about it any more?

  77. Sal Bro says

    Way to blogwhore, Podblack. Why not post your arguments here? If people find them to be insightful, they can check out your blog for more in-depth discussion or for your take on other issues.

  78. Jason Loxton says

    Tom, below is something really interesting that I just stumbled across today. I have not had the chance to digest it yet, but it is a new paper in Foundations of Science that argues against intrinsic methodological naturalism. There is a lot in here that directly deals with questions that you raise, and on initial skim, it supports (what I think is) your case. Obviously, as the authors note, this area is contentious (which is what I meant before about these things being difficult to define: even philosophers who specialize in this stuff have no universally agreed definition, and because of lack of effort).Anyway, here it is:How not to attack Intelligent Design Creationism: Philosophical misconceptions about Methodological Naturalismhttp://sites.google.com/site/m

  79. Svlad Cjelli says

    I don’t see the problem. Is it really socially unacceptable to say “you’re not being skeptical”?

  80. Svlad Cjelli says

    “I think you have to accept, however, some aspects of religion are not testable.”∃ =/= ∀

  81. Gus Snarp says

    It seems to me that we’re not all using the same terms here. We keep going back and forth between “skepticism”, “science/scientific method”, and “empirical”. These things are not, in fact, synonymous. My history and philosophy of science classes are far enough behind me that I’m not going to attempt a discourse on the difference between scientific method and empiricism, but I’ll have a go for why “skepticism” is something else entirely. Skepticism comes before the scientific method. Perhaps even before empiricism, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish. To me skepticism starts out as not believing what you hear or read at face value. It means that you have to evaluate a claim by some basis before you simply accept it. There are a lot of ways to evaluate a claim, and the strict scientific method is only one of them. It is an important tool, but I don’t think that a strict scientific experiment has to have been performed (or be capable of being performed) on something before we can begin to evaluate it. Skepticism, as others have pointed out, begins with religion by looking at the claims and evaluating them. What evidence is there for this claim? Who has witnessed it? How many generations has the eye-witness report passed through before it got to us?Historians are not scientists, strictly speaking, but they evaluate claims skeptically every day. That’s why first hand accounts are more valuable to a historian than second or third (or more) hand accounts.So the question is, does skepticism require the application of the scientific method? In what way? Must we only be skeptical regarding things that can be directly experimented upon? I, for one, think not.

  82. says

    Actually, the skeptic who did get a Templeton grant is Michael Shermer, whose Skeptic magazine does periodically include skeptical articles about religion and the existence of God. And he got it for assembling prominent figures to write statements and a few debates on the subject of whether science has disproven God.

  83. says

    That’s okay, I’m mostly responding to the smug, self-assured condescending “I know better” tone that your posts, and the posts of the other critics in this thread, seem to be laden with. You’ll notice, however, that I didn’t cite your tone (or Podblack’s tone, which has seemed much the same) as a reason not to engage with you. Heck, I haven’t even called out your appeals to tradition, or the shifting of goalposts by which “tradition” becomes “the last thirty years or so.” Until now, of course, when you decided to make tone an issue. But then, I’m not one to care much about tone at all. Because I like to avoid the style over substance fallacy, and actually engage with the claims and arguments people make, rather than pretending that the way they make those arguments has any relevance whatsoever. I don’t know why you and Podblack (and others) seem to think that condescension–or at least posts that read shockingly like condescension–is somehow a better option than cursing and snark, but I don’t see it as a reason to put words in your mouth or cease conversation.Nor do I see it as a reason to avoid answering any of the questions you’ve posed. Except you haven’t really posed any questions; you’ve just completely avoided mine. The “what does ‘supernatural’ actually mean?” and “if it has an observable effect, we can study it” points were some of the first I encountered when I started in the online skeptical community. I have yet to see any decent responses to them, from skeptics or believers.

  84. J. J. Ramsey says

    Pardon me for being skeptical when your write, “However, Jeff did specifically say that applying skepticism to religion was ‘not skepticism.'”If Jeff really did that, I’m sure you can show us the quote where he did so. Near as I can tell, what Jeff said was that jaw-jawing about atheism and religion is “not skepticism.”

  85. says

    J.J. Ramsey asked for the quote from Jeff that I paraphrased in my comment. Here’s the meat of it:

    I want to be very clear on this following point. My hat is off to JT and the other organizers for putting on what will be the largest event of its type ever. With 1800 people, it’s larger than any skeptics conference I’ve been to, including TAM and CFI’s World Congress. To have such numbers in only three years is a truly remarkable accomplishment. They have a stellar line up of speakers, and I’m sure much good work will be done towards fostering the atheist community. The politically-active religious right in this country need to be opposed, and Skepticon3 looks to do that in spades.But it’s not skepticism.The pro-atheist cause is an entirely different endeavor with a community that overlaps strongly with the skeptical community. Skepticism is about drawing conclusions that are proportioned to the available evidence. That’s it. And I think keeping the two things separate if vitally important.

    My summary may not have captured all the nuances, but I think I expressed the gist of it.Podblack challenged my understanding of the scientific method. Although it wasn’t part of my comments here, she also takes me to task for using a dictionary definition of skepticism in my comments on her blog and at Ashley F. Miller’s blog.Since she asked, and since her blog keeps choking on my replies (and I hate to have all that work go unposted), I’ll re-post it below. If you want the full context, follow the link to her blog above.

  86. says

    J.J. Ramsey asked for the quote from Jeff that I paraphrased in my comment. Here’s the meat of it:

    I want to be very clear on this following point. My hat is off to JT and the other organizers for putting on what will be the largest event of its type ever. With 1800 people, it’s larger than any skeptics conference I’ve been to, including TAM and CFI’s World Congress. To have such numbers in only three years is a truly remarkable accomplishment. They have a stellar line up of speakers, and I’m sure much good work will be done towards fostering the atheist community. The politically-active religious right in this country need to be opposed, and Skepticon3 looks to do that in spades.But it’s not skepticism.The pro-atheist cause is an entirely different endeavor with a community that overlaps strongly with the skeptical community. Skepticism is about drawing conclusions that are proportioned to the available evidence. That’s it. And I think keeping the two things separate if vitally important.

    My summary may not have captured all the nuances, but I think I expressed the gist of it.Podblack challenged my understanding of the scientific method. Although it wasn’t part of my comments here, she also takes me to task for using a dictionary definition of skepticism in my comments on her blog and at Ashley F. Miller’s blog.Since she asked, and since her blog keeps choking on my replies (and I hate to have all that work go unposted), I’ll re-post it below. If you want the full context, follow the link to her blog above.

  87. says

    J.J. Ramsey asked for the quote from Jeff that I paraphrased in my comment. Here’s the meat of it:

    I want to be very clear on this following point. My hat is off to JT and the other organizers for putting on what will be the largest event of its type ever. With 1800 people, it’s larger than any skeptics conference I’ve been to, including TAM and CFI’s World Congress. To have such numbers in only three years is a truly remarkable accomplishment. They have a stellar line up of speakers, and I’m sure much good work will be done towards fostering the atheist community. The politically-active religious right in this country need to be opposed, and Skepticon3 looks to do that in spades.But it’s not skepticism.The pro-atheist cause is an entirely different endeavor with a community that overlaps strongly with the skeptical community. Skepticism is about drawing conclusions that are proportioned to the available evidence. That’s it. And I think keeping the two things separate if vitally important.

    My summary may not have captured all the nuances, but I think I expressed the gist of it.Podblack challenged my understanding of the scientific method. Although it wasn’t part of my comments here, she also takes me to task for using a dictionary definition of skepticism in my comments on her blog and at Ashley F. Miller’s blog.Since she asked, and since her blog keeps choking on my replies (and I hate to have all that work go unposted), I’ll re-post it below. If you want the full context to which it was responding, follow the link to her blog above.Cross-posted comment from Podblack’s blog. (“Barbara” refers to Barbara Drescher.)Before saying anything else, I’d like to offer an apology for what Kylie rightly terms a “patronizing” tone in my previous comment, particularly when I accused you of being “unclear on the meaning of ‘skepticism.'” That was pointlessly provocative and insulting; I regret it, and I should not have said it.With that out of the way, I stand by the content of my comment: Jen understands that there is a spectrum of belief within the skeptical community, she isn’t arguing that we should exclude non-atheists, and religion should not be exempted from skeptical analysis.Both Barbara and Kylie have taken me to task for including the Merriam-Webster definition of skepticism as part of my comment’s argument. Barbara’s (more polite) version of the critique was:

    The dictionary definition of “skeptic” is not relevant. The term is used by the movement in a specific context.

    I am reasonably familiar with how skepticism is defined by skeptical groups and organizations. Following her suggestion, I’ve just read Barbara’s post, “Scientific Skepticism: A Tutorial,” and I found nothing surprising or unfamiliar in it. It argues that skepticism is “a search for truth, not a search for values.” I whole-heartedly agree with all its points.I also don’t see how it is at odds with the dictionary definition of skepticism. Meanings 2a and 2b from that definition are central to the scientific method, and they fit nicely with the descriptions of skepticism that Barbara quotes from skeptical sites.As for meaning 3 in the definition (skepticism of religion), Barbara’s post specifically says that in it she is not addressing the “scope of skepticism and the line between atheism and skepticism.” At first glance it would seem that, apart from supplying examples of how the principles of skepticism have been formulated by various groups, the post isn’t directly relevant to this discussion.Except that those examples talk about more than just testing claims. They also mention weighing evidence, “prior plausibility” (a topic that I’ve heard Steven Novella mention more than once on the SGU podcast), and “applying critical thinking, reason, and reality to a given matter.” As skeptics, we can look at the claims made by religions about the nature of reality. Given what we know about physical laws, archeology, paleontology, and human psychology (that is, prior plausibility), we can certainly ask how likely it is that those claims are true.Meaning 3 is the reason I quoted the dictionary. I was illustrating the fact that criticizing religious beliefs is an activity that fits within the common understanding of skepticism, and Barbara’s post, if anything, adds weight to my argument. In fact, she makes a point of quoting a line from the Radio Freethinker definition which explicitly says as much:

    In fact, there is a clear and very scientific statement that values are irrelevant: “A skeptic is someone who applies vigorous and systematic research to any claim, regardless of its political, religious, or social implications.”

    Skepticism encompasses skepticism about religion. As Barbara also said in her post, “You may redefine the word if you like, but then you are just making stuff up.”As I was composing this response, I glanced around for other evidence that would support the religion-is-fair-game position, and I realized it was sitting in my inbox, courtesy of Michael Shermer and the Skeptics Society. The November 3rd issue of the eSkeptic newsletter has an article by Milton Rothman titled “Realism and Religion: A Physicist Examines the Basis for Belief.” In it, Rothman describes at length what the scientific method tells us about the plausibility of paranormal claims. Towards the end, he connects that line of reasoning with religion:

    Thus, the realistic weltanschauung has no point of intersection with the religious viewpoint. More than that: there is no objective evidence that demonstrates the reality of gods, heaven, hell, or supernatural forces. On the contrary, there is copious evidence leading to the conclusion that these entities are invented by humans for a variety of psychological reasons. They are simple ways to understand the nature of the universe.Looked at from this point of view, religion is simply another example of belief in the paranormal.

    I believe that the Skeptics Society would qualify as an established and responsible member of the skeptical community, and they seem to have no problem with applying skepticism to religious beliefs. In fact, they’ve been conflating skepticism and atheism for at least 16 years; the eSkeptic article is a reprint of an article which first appeared in Skeptic magazine vol. 2, no. 2 (1993).One last point…Even if established skeptical organizations and their leadership had all decided that they would leave religious claims alone (which they clearly have not), it does not follow that all skeptics must observe the same limits.Skepticism is not a church, nation, or corporation. There is no hierarchy that can set and enforce rules. While you couldn’t properly call yourself a skeptic if you don’t adhere to the methodolgy that is so nicely summarized in Barbara’s post, nobody gets to set limits on where or how that methodolgy is employed.Skeptical leaders are a self-selected meritocracy. They choose to lead, but they are able to do so only to the extent that they can convince people that their ideas are correct. The skeptical community is the ultimate arbiter of what constitutes a valid subject for skeptical inquiry.It seems likely to me that both the “tone wars” and this current kerfuffle are symptoms of an ongoing change in that community. Atheism and s
    kepticism are both attracting a lot of new converts. The two groups are feeding each other members and ideas. As a result, atheists seem to be getting more skeptical, and skeptics are less willing to give religion a pass. They remain separate groups, but the overlap between them is growing larger.I think this is a good thing for both groups. I also think that prominent skeptics who choose to fight the trend are likely to find themselves increasingly marginalized and ignored by the community they aspire to lead.

  88. J. J. Ramsey says

    “J.J. Ramsey asked for the quote from Jeff that I paraphrased in my comment. Here’s the meat of it”I thought that’s what you had in mind, and given that, I stand by my earlier comment.”Skepticism encompasses skepticism about religion.”Considering that Jeff had pointed out that skepticism can deal with testable religious claims, he’d hardly disagree.

  89. says

    OK – where did Jeff “specifically say that applying skepticism to religion was ‘not skepticism”‘? Because I must have missed while reading Jeff’s comment where he says “There are religious claims that are very testable, and those are open to all manner of examination and conclusions.”So if you could please point out where Jeff specifically said what you claim he said, I would appreciate it.

  90. says

    And just how in the blazes, from that quote you made of Jeff, did you get “applying skepticism to religion was ‘not skepticism'”?Atheism is simply lack of belief in gods, it’s got nothing to do with data, empiricism or any kind of method. One can be atheist simply because one thinks that gods are silly without any basis in evidentiary support.One might very well arrive at atheism through the application of skepticism in one’s life and a large number of skeptics have done so.But to conflate atheism and skepticism, as Jeff points out, is wrong.What I want to know is why do the more passionately vocal atheists seem to be almost to a one attacking a straw man of Jeff saying “religion is off limits” and ignoring it whenever anybody points out to them that Jeff never said that and how he has said that the testable claims of religion are open to skeptical inquiry?

  91. David says

    Yes its a circle jerk , I mean why do we bother with religion anymore? Hardly anyone believes in it or follows irrational doctrines to oppress women or Gays anymore. Its not like people are killed because they choose not to believe. We should be concentrating on the big issues where people are getting hurt, how many thousands nay millions died last year in the great fundamentalist bigfoot war.

  92. David says

    Bashing religion, what exactly does that entail? And how many talks at these conventions actually do nothing but “bash” religion? Seems to me most of them are making points and addressing specific claims, claims made by the religious, usually for the sole purpose of exercising power over other people. I would be willing to bet you can’t show me any prominent gnu atheist who makes fun of believers simply for believing.

  93. David says

    Are there really talks given at these conferences that just talk about atheism without discussing the specific harm specific religious claims make? Why is it whenever this discussion comes up there are always certain “skeptics” who come along and pretend that Dawkins, Hitchens, PZ, or any other prominent gnu atheists are giving long talks about deism or some other harmless untestable claim. They don’t, because no one cares about such things and lets be honest all of the major religions make countless testable claims, and they use those claims to hurt and oppress people. Perhaps I just missed the talks where they rail against deists and all the harm they do? Got any links to those talks or blog posts even so i can check em out.

  94. Svlad Cjelli says

    I’m guessing this bit:”The politically-active religious right in this country need to be opposed, and Skepticon3 looks to do that in spades.But it’s not skepticism.”I agree with the atheism/skepticism distinction you present, and that Wagg didn’t claim religion to be off-limits. However, I’m certainly under the impression that Wagg wants religion criticized a lesser amount. That is to say, religion is rationed, rather than off-limits.

  95. says

    What I want to know is why do the more passionately vocal atheists seem to be almost to a one attacking a straw man of Jeff saying “religion is off limits” and ignoring it whenever anybody points out to them that Jeff never said that and how he has said that the testable claims of religion are open to skeptical inquiry?

    I’ll start by saying that I agree with J.J. and Cory on a number of points:Jeff does state very clearly that testable religious claims are fair game. He’s equally definite about his opinion that the non-testable claims of religion are topics that skepticism should not address. It’s this second assertion that I’ve been arguing against, but I didn’t draw a clear distinction between the two, and I’m sorry for that bit of sloppiness. I think that Jeff and I are on the same page with respect to bleeding statues.I agree that conflating atheism and skepticism is wrong. Atheism is one possible result that can come from understanding and applying skepticism. Skepticism does not necessarily lead to either agnosticism or atheism.Going back to Jeff’s original article, I’d also agree that there should not be any sort of litmus test based on religious belief that would determine who can be considered a skeptic. Almost everyone will have some pet belief that’s unsupported by evidence or even directly contrary to it; religion is just one of many such beliefs. The litmus test should be whether you understand the value of the scientific method and want to apply it to some subject. Some people will apply it everywhere, while others will reserve its use for selected topics. They’re all skeptical to one degree or another, but there is a continuum, with non-skeptics at one end, and hyper-skeptics at the other. Atheists might fall anywhere on that scale since, as Cory pointed out, you can be an atheist for entirely non-rational reasons. I’d be surprised, though, if the proportion of atheists didn’t increase as you approach the hyper-skeptic end of the scale.I have no argument with either of you, or with Jeff, on any of those points. (Assuming I’ve correctly understood your positions.)

    I believe that if you equate skepticism with anything other than science, you’ve missed the point. As for Christianity, skepticism has nothing to say except about testable claims associated therein. Bleeding statues? Yes, skepticism comes into play. Jesus rose and is in heaven? Seems unlikely, but there’s not a lot more to say.

    This is where Jeff and I start to diverge. I disagree that science and skepticism have nothing useful to say about the non-testable claims of religion. (From here on, assume that when I refer to religion, I mean the non-testable aspects of it that Jeff thinks are inappropriate targets for skepticism.)All organized religions are based on stories about god and the world—stories which their followers believe are, to one degree or another, true.Science is the best approach we’ve come up with for understanding how the world actually works. We’ve learned a lot about archeology, paleontology, astronomy, geology, biology, and human psychology.All those converging lines of evidence point strongly to the conclusion that religious teachings are just myths. That’s the scientific method as practiced in archeology, geology, astronomy, or any other field where it’s impossible or impractical to construct an experiment. (I encourage anyone who actually works in such a field to correct me if that assertion is totally off-base!)So science can tell us a lot about the non-testable aspects of religion.The next point of difference I see in our views is whether we, as skeptics, should be willing to talk about what science has to say about the basis of religion. You seem to say no; I say yes.First, as the article from the 1993 issue of Skeptic magazine shows, this is not an entirely new phenomenon in skepticism, though it may be growing more common.If, as the article suggests, religion is simply another example of belief in the paranormal, why shouldn’t it be examined? Popularity is no reason to give it special privileges.And then there’s the question of harm.

    The skepticism movement is an organized effort to apply scientific skepticism to claims, thereby reducing the harm that belief in those claims causes. We apply skepticism to determine what is true. We use that information to reduce the dissemination of untruths.

    I’m pretty sure that Barbara Drescher did not aim that passage at religion, and she will no doubt dislike my use of it in this context. Nevertheless, I think it applies just as well to religion as it does to psychics, believers in alien abduction, or quack cancer treatments.Drescher also says:

    In my opinion, if you do not understand the fundamental concept that personal values and opinions may be informed by scientific inquiry, but cannot be considered in the methods that are science and skepticism, then you are not a skeptic.

    I completely agree with that, but I would add that the proper function for our values and morals is to guide us to subjects that are worth our time and effort. I pay more attention to anti-vax issues than to bigfoot, as interesting as that story is, because I’m concerned about the harm that vaccine denialism causes.Certain religious beliefs cause massive amounts of death, torture, mutilation, and mental anguish. Skepticism about those beliefs can reduce the harm.None of this is to say that that skepticism should focus primarily on religion. I just think that there should not be a religious litmus test for permissible skeptical topics.My final point is this: Jeff said that “to conflate atheism with skepticism dilutes atheism and destroys skepticism.” That may well be, but I don’t see it happening.Jeff may have better information than I do on this topic, but I got the impression from his post that he was basing his observations on some personal anecdotes, not any actual figures. (If anyone has some hard numbers, please share them.)My own impression is that both the skeptical and the atheist movements are steadily increasing, and that it’s the synergy of the two that is really driving that trend.I don’t know who’s right, but I’m not willing to accept Jeff’s assessment without more evidence that skepticism has actually been harmed.

  96. Nick B. says

    Testability is an absolutely absurd criterion for what is “within the bounds of skepticism”. I am astonished that you think of yourself as a skeptic and yet reason here the way you do. Have you ever heard of such a thing as critical reason?You say that equating atheism with skepticism is problematic because “gods cannot be absolutely disproved”. And to that I say: you are a fucking idiot. Can ghosts be absolutely disproved? Can astrological phenomena? I guess they’re off-limits for skepticism.You right that gods cannot be tested for. In a narrow sense that is true. But in a broader sense it is absolutely false. Can relevant facts about the world be brought to bear in the consideration of the claims about gods existing? Of course. I’ll end by saying that you are a fool if you don’t think that biblical scholarship, religious anthropology, psychology, neuroscience, and the physical sciences have together effectively shown that “gods” are merely neurobiological phenomena of one species of primate on this planet. Look into those disciplines a little if common sense fails you in this matter.

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