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When Venn diagrams go bad

Or, why skeptics sometimes drive me nuts.

Sometimes, skeptics are the most smug and obnoxious people, blind to their own flaws, and lording it over atheists and humanists with their assumption that they are the natural lords of the entire domain of reason (and admittedly, sometimes atheists take the same tack; there are no innocent parties here). It’s extraordinarily annoying, especially when they start looking down their noses at mere atheists.

Case in point: Kyle Hill at JREF. You see, he attended both NECSS, a skeptical meeting, and the Freethought Festival, an atheist meeting, and was shocked at how stupid the atheists were (although he uses nicer words). Some of them didn’t know who Randi was, or what the JREF was, and one person even professed to believing in psychic energy. We’ve splintered too far, he says, when you can be skeptical about god but aren’t skeptical about psychic powers.

Oh, no! There’s a disjunct! Some atheists are idiots! That’s a point I actually agree with — of course there are. They’re human. That means they’re a diverse group, and yes, there will be a wide range of different ideas floating about. Whenever you select a group for a position on one issue, such as disbelief in god, you’ll be able to find some in that group who have fringe beliefs on UFOs or ESP or an afterlife. It’s to be expected.

But this is also true of the organized skepticism he represents. Whenever you select a group for a position on one issue, such as alternative medicine or Bigfoot, you’ll be able to find some in that group who have fringe beliefs about other subjects. Hill himself notices that there are a lot of global warming deniers in the skeptical community, but this was not sufficient to tut-tut over TAM attendees deplorable lack of understanding of modern skepticism.

But here’s the smugness that annoys: this idea that “modern skepticism”, a very narrow and artificially bounded set of ideas, ought to be the parent of atheism…that skepticism is the superset, while atheism is only a subset.

When I talk about skepticism, I believe that I am talking about something that encompasses many other similar philosophies like atheism, humanism, and freethought. By this I mean that atheism, for example, is a logical extension of skepticism. Anecdotally, most skeptics that I know are in fact atheists. However, the disconnect came when I expected the reverse of this observation to also be true, i.e., that most atheists are skeptics.

Most atheists are skeptics. Hill just pretends from an anecdotal sample that most are not, by blithely overlooking the overlap. I could mention, for example, that a certain obnoxiously loud atheist — me — was a speaker at both NECSS and the Freethought Festival. That I hung out with people at the Freethought Festival who were quite familiar with the JREF, attended TAM, and were skeptical activists, and that at NECSS I ran into a number of people who were horrified at the idea of atheism. But unfortunately, skeptical organizations have a history of of marginalizing atheists as politically undesirable and uncomfortable — it is no surprise that there is a disconnect, because skeptical leaders have promoted that separation. And they also constantly make this bizarre assumption that they are in charge.

Take, for instance, this silly Venn diagram Hill uses to illustrate his point.

In the first part, he bemoans the fact that there are atheists who are not fully encompassed within the domain of skepticism — how unfortunate. In the second part, he illustrates his ideal: all atheists should be within skepticism, as a small part. What a shame that there are atheists who aren’t skeptical about psychic powers!

Do you see the glaring problem with his diagrammatic resolution? It jumps out at me, anyway.

Here, I’ll help you out and add a little color, this nice light blue.

WHAT THE FUCK ABOUT ALL THOSE SO-CALLED “SKEPTICS” WHO AREN’T SKEPTICAL ABOUT GOD? Oh, they’re perfectly OK. “Modern Skepticism” is equipped with loopholes to let them off the hook, perfectly illustrated in Hill’s diagram. But you have to wonder — why is Hill writing columns complaining about psychic believers in the atheist community, and global climate change deniers in the skeptical community, and not noticing 1) both communities have idiots in their midst and don’t get to claim the universal evidential high ground over the other, and 2) skepticism has a real problem with institutionalized acceptance of non-skepticism towards a global problem of far greater magnitude than psychic nonsense, the whole issue of religion?

He’s still attached to this flaw of “modern skepticism” that wants to isolate and diminish those socially contentious atheists. If he weren’t so blind to the issue, he might be able to better see my ideal, illustrated here.

I agree that every atheist ought to be a skeptic. But also, every skeptic ought to be an atheist. How can you seriously get all smug and high-minded about rejecting mind-reading because there is no evidence for it, a proliferation of frauds endorsing it, and no reasonable scientific mechanism explaining it, while at the same time sneering at atheists who reject this god notion because there is even less evidence for it, a world-wide history of even greater charlatanry (really, mind-readers are pikers next to priests), and a total rejection of the validity of scientific demands for substantiation from its proponents?

I’ll take organized skepticism far more seriously when they spend less effort at boundary setting and recognize their responsibility to address absurd beliefs of all kinds, not just the easy ones that aren’t embraced by a majority of benighted humanity.

Comments

  1. eigenperson says

    So he managed to find one atheist who believed in psychic energy?

    That seems pretty good, actually. I don’t know what proportion of Americans believe in psychic energy, but I’m pretty sure it’s disturbingly high.

  2. Randomfactor says

    You skipped over the top diagram, but…god is both an atheist and a skeptic?

    Is this guy drawing Venn diagrams for the rMoney campaign too?

  3. ChasCPeterson says

    That first one doesn’t even make any sense.
    It means that only God is a part of both atheism and skepticism.

    Or maybe that only God is both the Perfect Skeptic and the Perfet Atheist. But wait…if God is an atheist then…then…

  4. Beatrice says

    God is a skeptical atheist. In fact, he seems to be the only skeptical atheist to exist (for certain values of “exist”).

  5. Brownian says

    “Sorry ma’am, but you’ve been identified as a non-skeptical atheist. I’ll let you off with a warning this time, but if I see you again and you haven’t joined a church, I’ll have to write you a ticket.”

  6. ChasCPeterson says

    That first one is still bothering me. Even if the sets were labeled ‘stuff that atheists don’t think is true’ and ‘stuff that skeptics don’t think is true’ then the label ‘God’ would have to go on the part of the skepticism set exclusive of atheism.

  7. ChasCPeterson says

    “god”…should be replaced with “skeptical atheists”

    That would work OK for US money and the Pledge of Allegiance as well.

  8. Sastra says

    The Venn diagram at the top would have made more sense if, instead of “God,” Hill had put something like “scientific humanism” or even “skeptical atheism.” And colored it true blue.

    One of the problems with identifying the group of “atheists who believe in ‘woo’” is that most of the stuff which falls under the label ‘woo’ is what Bruce Hood rather confusingly terms the “secular supernatural” and what I would rather call “non-traditional versions of God.” If you follow the ideas down, concepts like ghosts, healing energy, psychic powers, vitalism and other forms of matter-independent mind/mind power all describe a universe which is organized from the top-down, with values and consciousness central to reality, morality and magic connecting all things, and dualism and/or idealism beating out the theory of naturalism. That’s a stripped-down version of “God,” a non-personal force which nevertheless acts or is very much like a mind.

    In which case, these “atheists” are not really atheists. They hate religion so much they think they’re atheists. They hate organized religion but would feel welcome in “spirituality” — which is just another name for disorganized religion.

    Skeptics who dismiss psychic powers and yet believe in God contradict themselves. They DO believe in ESP, pk, ghosts, channeling, prophesy, faith healing, and the entire system. They just want to reserve it all for God and then special plead it into a faith-based inconsistency.

    Take those things away from all the concepts of god — both traditional and non-traditional — and it disappears.

  9. ixchel, the jaguar goddess of midwifery and war ॐ says

    If anybody remembers the other threads about the “NOMA” in “skepticism”, they can be added to Pharyngula Wiki.

  10. says

    I subscribed to “Skeptical Inquirer” for a few years.

    Sometimes, skeptics are the most smug and obnoxious people, blind to their own flaws, and lording it over atheists and humanists with their assumption that they are the natural lords of the entire domain of reason (and admittedly, sometimes atheists take the same tack; there are no innocent parties here). It’s extraordinarily annoying, especially when they start looking down their noses at mere atheists.

    Yes, that was exactly my reaction to reading SI, and was why I allowed the subscription to lapse.

    The skeptics need to also be skeptical of their own version of skepticism.

    But also, every skeptic ought to be an atheist.

    I’m not so sure about that, but they at least ought to be agnostic.

  11. says

    Yeah, the labels “atheism” and “skepticism” embrace people who aren’t really “true” atheists or skeptics…but demanding purity is fraught with problems. Embrace and educate is a good idea.

    It’s only a problem if you avoid the “educate” part. Organized skepticism currently actively avoids addressing the conflict in their ranks of people who have foolish ideas, preferring to make excuses for them. I don’t think organized atheism has that problem — we’re pretty good about trying to get people to think scientifically, even while recognizing that there are many different reasons that people become atheists.

    It’s why I’d rather fly under the banner of atheism than skepticism, while accepting the principles of both. Skepticism currently is an ideological morass compromised by its own refusal to accept a universal skepticism.

  12. dianne says

    I’m, well, skeptical about the whole concept of a person being a “skeptic”. It implies that there are people out there living the vulcan ideal of logic and believing only in what the evidence shows them. There is no such person. Everyone has blind spots and times when superstition can sneak in. Witness the number of very bright, scientifically trained, skeptical people who have fallen for things like vitamin C curing cancer when they are feeling vulnerable or simply want it to be so very badly. Also skepticism can shade very easily into denialism, i.e. ignoring data you don’t like. Seeing only what you want to see is a human characteristic and pretending that there are “skeptics” out there who can avoid that altogether is probably not serving the cause of skepticism and advancement of knowledge.

  13. Randomfactor says

    “god”…should be replaced with “skeptical atheists”

    Goskeptical atheistsd.

  14. says

    Isn’t the problem that while atheist has a very clear definition, “skeptic” doesn’t. Is a birther a skeptic, a truther, a JFK assassination conspiracy theorist, a climate change denier, an anti-Fed libertarian, etc.? Being a skeptic about Obama or the Fed doesn’t necessarily lead to atheism. One umbrella is so broad it can include anything and the other is fairly specific.

    Looking at some of the writings of “founding father” Deists, wasn’t their deism just a convenient of avoiding the label atheist in a time where that would probably destroy their careers, but they had to say something in contrast. So has skepticism become the same kind of label, a justification for believing anything that goes against the majority view.

    And “freethinking” is even broader and more vague. Can someone who believes The Matrix is real and describes the world we live in live under that label? Or any idea that simply defies conventional wisdom or dogma?

    So perhaps these labels include too much “spin” (free thinker sounds a lot better)?

  15. Sastra says

    Jamy Ian Swiss gave an impassioned and well-received speech at TAM 2012 wherein he argued for including religious people in the skeptical movement.

    However, he also beat the drum hard about there being ‘no sacred cows’ and no topics off-limits to skepticism — including religion.

    My impression then was that he thought theists ought to be welcomed on the same terms as global warming deniers and homeopaths: “Come in, my dear. Now, let’s leave Bigfoot and fortune tellers for a while and bring up something that ought to really engage the both of us — your own special cognitive error of choice.”

    In which case, I agree with him.

    He also argued at length that the so-called “minor” issues of the paranormal and pseudoscience needed to be addressed directly by someone and the skeptics are apparently the only ones doing that systematically. I also agree with that.

    I suppose an interesting discussion could be had on which comes first: do people believe in God because they believe first in paranormal woo b.s. — or do they believe in paranormal woo b.s. because first they believe in God? The answer is probably “a bit of both” — with sloppy thinking both innate and taught, and the dividing line between the supernatural and the paranormal only a matter of cultural habit and personal whim.

  16. anathema says

    I’m, well, skeptical about the whole concept of a person being a “skeptic”. It implies that there are people out there living the vulcan ideal of logic and believing only in what the evidence shows them. There is no such person. Everyone has blind spots and times when superstition can sneak in. Witness the number of very bright, scientifically trained, skeptical people who have fallen for things like vitamin C curing cancer when they are feeling vulnerable or simply want it to be so very badly. Also skepticism can shade very easily into denialism, i.e. ignoring data you don’t like. Seeing only what you want to see is a human characteristic and pretending that there are “skeptics” out there who can avoid that altogether is probably not serving the cause of skepticism and advancement of knowledge.

    I agree with you that absolutely no one is going to be a perfect skeptic. Everyone has their blind spots. Everyone sometimes believes in things which they don’t have good evidence for. Everyone occasionally accepts irrational claims. Everyone does illogical things. Everyone makes fallacious arguments.

    Human beings are not naturally rational creatures. Even the most skeptical among us are going to screw up and be incredibly unskeptical about certain things.

    In my opinion, though, this doesn’t make the idea of being a skeptic entirely invalid though. I’d argue that a skeptic is someone who tries to employ skeptical principles when trying to discern whether or not a claim is likely to be true. A skeptic is someone who tries to base their conclusions on evidence. A skeptic is someone who tries to make logical arguments. A skeptic is someone who recognizes just how irrational that human mind is, and tries to counteract that by being aware of the cognitive errors we are all so susceptible to in order to avoid them. Just because someone fails to do this doesn’t mean that they aren’t a skeptic, it just means that they aren’t applying their skepticism very well towards a particular subject at a particular time.

    For me, recognizing that I am sometimes going to be inadequately skeptical is an important part of being a skeptic. If I can’t recognize my potential for failure, I’ll never be able to correct my mistakes.

    Also, the whole “skeptics = Vulcans” thing is really starting to annoy me, especially when it’s skeptics themselves who hold this up as an ideal. I’m so sick of seeing emotion and logic being portrayed as opposites. They are not. Someone can be unemotional and still be illogical. And people can make perfectly logical arguments while still being emotional. There isn’t any contradiction between the two.

  17. Sastra says

    dianne #18 wrote:

    I’m, well, skeptical about the whole concept of a person being a “skeptic”. It implies that there are people out there living the vulcan ideal of logic and believing only in what the evidence shows them.

    No, it doesn’t imply that. How could it? Goals involve emotions. The “Mr. Spock” caricature is usually dragged in as a straw man by critics; it’s not an ideal.

    It’s only meant to designate someone who thinks they ought to try to avoid cognitive errors and motivated bias as much as possible — and has committed themselves to being checked by a community which is itself checked by the scientific method. When mistakes are made (and they WILL be made), they are more likely to be caught.

  18. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    Those diagrams make my head hurt. No wait, that’s the hangover.

    And here we have atheists claiming physical effects from SPIRITual experiences. >.>

  19. anathema says

    And “freethinking” is even broader and more vague. Can someone who believes The Matrix is real and describes the world we live in live under that label? Or any idea that simply defies conventional wisdom or dogma?

    Not basing beliefs on conventional wisdom or dogma is only part of being a freethinker. A freethinker is someone who thinks that opinions and beliefs should be formed on the basis of reason rather than tradition and authority. I suppose someone who believes that The Matrix is real could call themselves a freethinker, but given that there isn’t any evidence to back up that belief, they’d certainly be a rather poor one.

  20. Menyambal --- Sambal's sockpuppet says

    When does one become “A Skeptic”? Is there a test, a dividing line or a ritual?

    A person who is skeptical about a great many things may not have gotten around to examining religion yet, and may not be an atheist.

    A person who is gullible as all get-out may have been convinced that there is no god by some invalid argument—my dog died, therefore there is no god—and be an atheist. (I could throw this laptop and hit a teenager with serial soulmates, piercings, tattoos and torn jeans, and, currently, no belief in any god, and looking for something to believe in.)

    Yeah, that top diagram makes no sense.

  21. says

    I’d argue that a skeptic is someone who tries to employ skeptical principles when trying to discern whether or not a claim is likely to be true. A skeptic is someone who tries to base their conclusions on evidence. A skeptic is someone who tries to make logical arguments. A skeptic is someone who recognizes just how irrational that human mind is, and tries to counteract that by being aware of the cognitive errors we are all so susceptible to in order to avoid them.

    that’s not what a skeptic is, that’s what an ideal skeptic would look like. Unfortunately, most too many people who label themselves “skeptics” already believe themselves to be this ideal regardless of accuracy. It makes them as hard to argue with as strongly believing Christians, since they’re convinced that they’re the ones who already figured out Teh Troof.

    also, apparently knowing about cognitive errors has no beneficial effect on whether you’ll continue to commit them or not (sez an article and a study I skimmed over recently but don’t have a link for :-p ).

  22. anat says

    Looking at some of the writings of “founding father” Deists, wasn’t their deism just a convenient of avoiding the label atheist in a time where that would probably destroy their careers, but they had to say something in contrast.

    Or perhaps because they had yet to come with an answer to the appearance of design in living beings? They found it easier to doubt a personal god that is a source of morality than a creator god that is the source of order in nature.

  23. ixchel, the jaguar goddess of midwifery and war ॐ says

    also, apparently knowing about cognitive errors has no beneficial effect on whether you’ll continue to commit them or not

    That’s probably true. The benefit may be when lots of people in the same discussion are educated to notice when other people are making cognitive errors; then at least there can be “peer review”.

  24. says

    The benefit may be when lots of people in the same discussion are educated to notice when other people are making cognitive errors; then at least there can be “peer review”.

    probably. but even that only works when the people are willing to accept that they’ve had one of those brainfarts. anecdotal evidence suggests many “skeptics” and “freethinkers” are fine with acknowledging in the abstract that they’re prone to cognitive errors, but still balk at accepting it in specific instances…

  25. anthrosciguy says

    Re the global warming denialism in JREF skepticism, always remember that before he walked it back, one of the major pieces of evidence for James Randi’s denialism was the Oregon Petition. That’s not just denialism, that’s super stupid not a whit of research denialism. And that was from one of their very smart and usually admirable guys.

    After that sorry episode, a little humility from anyone at JREF is in order on questions like this.

  26. says

    I’d have to ask for ‘context’ regarding his claims that so many atheists believe in crap. I’m sure some do, because atheist and idiot are not mutually exclusive terms, but I’m not sure it’s as much as he claimed.

    I’m an atheist. I’m a skeptic. I don’t believe any so-called paranormal or supernatural claims are real. But depending on which conversation you overhear me having, you might come to the conclusion that I do believe in a lot of these wingnut theories.

    Why?

    Because sometimes I have the ‘wouldn’t it cool if’ conversation. I’ve also done things like earned spending money by doing tarot card readings at the renfair, and since I occasionally write stories in the sci/fi and fantasy genres, I’m fairly well read on things like the ‘magical’ property of crystals and the kabbalah and stuff like that.

    So, on occasion, listening to me speak, it would be easy to come to the conclusion that I actually believe this crap. The reality though, is I just find it mildly entertaining.

  27. julietdefarge says

    I can’t be too judgmental towards these atheists who don’t recognize that all forms of woo are essentially the same as religion. They’ve been raised in a culture that submerses them in New Age pseudoscience, from the History channel, to dubious nutritional products, to botanical shampoos that are supposed to give “life” to your keratin filaments.

  28. says

    I’d have to ask for ‘context’ regarding his claims that so many atheists believe in crap.

    how ’bout a significant chunk of Western Europe as “context”? Most European atheists didn’t reason themselves into their atheism. Many European atheists believe in all sorts of woo, especially medical woo.

  29. says

    Kyle Hill is right about one thing. I’m an active atheist and I have no idea who Kyle Hill is. We are like two discreet circles on a piece of paper with no overlap.

    Since he’s upset about our collective lack of skepticism, I’ll see that, and raise him this: “Judging from these Venn diagrams, I am not convinced that this Kyle Hill actually exists.

    He seems like a convenient sock puppet created to make a point on the Interwebs. I’m going to need more tangible evidence before I believe there is an actual human Kyle Hill person. I’ve seen better stuff created by Venn diagram generator bots.

  30. vaiyt says

    Some of them didn’t know who Randi was,

    Oh noes! Somebody doesn’t know who my Lord and Savior is! They must be total idiots!

  31. Sili (I have no penis and I must jizz) says

    . Some of them didn’t know who Randi was, or what the JREF was,

    Great. So now we’re supposed to be a church?

    Incidentally, how many of them knew who Robert Ingersoll was? Or Epicurus? Or baron d’Holbach?

  32. Millicent says

    Medical woo is a huge problem. I had to find a new physical therapist, because the one I was seeing (who had legit degrees in his scientific field) got into an argument with me about homeopathy. His defense of it as a legitimate field of medicine made my jaw drop.

    I have friends who are ostensibly atheists, yet swear by their chiropractor or energy healer or other bullshit NOT REAL pseudo-doctors. In my experience, it’s even harder to get people to give up their beliefs in supernatural woo than it is to get them to give up religion.

  33. anathema says

    that’s not what a skeptic is, that’s what an ideal skeptic would look like. Unfortunately, most too many people who label themselves “skeptics” already believe themselves to be this ideal regardless of accuracy. It makes them as hard to argue with as strongly believing Christians, since they’re convinced that they’re the ones who already figured out Teh Troof.

    Yeah, that’s a good point — my comment would have been more accurate if I’d used the term “ideal skeptic” instead. I’ve seen far too many people who’ve become so convinced that because they consider themselves to be skeptics, every opinion they hold must be rational. Good Lord, it’s annoying.

    also, apparently knowing about cognitive errors has no beneficial effect on whether you’ll continue to commit them or not (sez an article and a study I skimmed over recently but don’t have a link for :-p ).

    anecdotal evidence suggests many “skeptics” and “freethinkers” are fine with acknowledging in the abstract that they’re prone to cognitive errors, but still balk at accepting it in specific instances…

    And again, you make good points. I suppose I’d like to say that I’ve caught myself making cognitive errors and called myself out on it occasionally. But really, I don’t know if I do it any more than the average person who doesn’t consider themselves a skeptic does. That, and I’m also sure that I’ve made plenty of cognitive errors that I’ve completely failed to catch. (Sometimes, I’ll be lucky enough to have someone else catch them and call me out on them. But I’m willing to bet that most of them don’t get caught.)

    Thanks for raising these points, Jadehawk.

  34. w00dview says

    One of the most disappointing things to me this past year is when it comes to certain topics such as climate change and feminism, many skeptics sound indistinguishable from your typical wingnut. Accusations of a global conspiracy by capitalism hating Marxist climate scientists or that it is men that are the true victims of oppression in society. Do these people ever listen to themselves?

    The frustrating thing is if they heard the same quality of evidence and argument in support of crap like creationism and homeopathy they would rightfully tear it apart, but when it comes to the above topics then they start coming out with the most incredulous crap and think it is them that are basing their arguments on fact! A lot of skeptics seem to forget to apply skepticism to their most cherished beliefs and it is their refusal to do so that leads one to the conclusion that many in the skeptic community call themselves skeptics just to feel smugly superior to the rest of society and pat themselves on the back for thinking UFOs are silly. Yes, UFOs are silly but so is thinking Rebecca Watson wants to castrate all men or Al Gore is a Machiavellian genius bent on world domination. Grow the hell up.

  35. says

    I am old enough to have grown up when Randi was on Johnny Carson. I don’t remember him at all. I became a fan of James Randi by hanging out with atheists.

  36. says

    What he’s saying kind of sounds like “There are two types of people: ones that think like me, and the rest who’s thinking is flawed”.

  37. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    There really are two camps, but they have not been properly identified.

    Also, skepticism is, like, the ground floor of a useful epistemology. It is first base. Whatever you call the most modestly good play in other sports. It’s great, but it isn’t the end of the goddamned path of intellectual development.

    I had never heard of James Randi until recently. He seems like the “Bill Nye the Science Guy” of thought. He did great work, but his focus was on remediation. I guess there are some people who won’t consider natural explanations until you demonstrate that stage magicians are doing tricks, and these people need a James Randi in their lives. The rest of us, not so much.

  38. nobody says

    When I see a religious person who is skeptical about things like bigfoot, UFOs, alternative medicine, etc., I always assume they’re “skeptical” of them because they don’t jive with their religion. It isn’t true skepticism; it’s simply heresy to them, which is sort of the opposite of skepticism.

  39. tomr says

    Spot on, PZ. I was one of those theist skeptics most of my life. Finally, I had to get rid of the cognitive dissonance and become consistent with my skepticism. Now, I am like a reformed smoker and am embarrassed when I find either an atheist or a skeptic NOT consistent.

    Someone like Neal DeGrasse Tyson is a great spokesperson for science. However, he will not call himself an atheist. He calls himself “agnostic”. Welllll, hello. everyone who is not insane or deluded should do so. This adds nothing to the conversation. He uses it as a weasel word. Atheists need to come out of the closet. What you are saying about the skeptical community is essentially that they do not want the political heat of challenging religion. I agree.

  40. Jerry says

    In comment 20, dailydouq said:

    Isn’t the problem that while atheist has a very clear definition, “skeptic” doesn’t. Is a birther a skeptic, a truther, a JFK assassination conspiracy theorist, a climate change denier, an anti-Fed libertarian, etc.? Being a skeptic about Obama or the Fed doesn’t necessarily lead to atheism. One umbrella is so broad it can include anything and the other is fairly specific.

    I agree, this is a definition problem. Birthers, climate change deniers, and other conspiracy theorists like to flatter themselves by calling themselves skeptics without being corrected by real skeptics, or more likely, ignore the correction. After all, they ignore all of the facts in order to keep a tight hold on their pet belief. Cognitive dissonance, blind spot, manure replacing brains, hole in the head, call it what you will, they all think they’re just being skeptical and/or open-minded. (“Yes, it’s both a floor wax and a dessert topping.”) I’ve been accused of being “closed-minded” when I would not accept a personal anecdote as evidence for crystal-healing woo magic garbage. I was at a party at a mutual friends’ house- I felt I had to be polite- so I just ended the conversation instead of calling her a credulous idiot. I’ve been accused of being insufficiently skeptical when I accepted a Hawaiian birth certificate as proof that the President was born in the USA. One of my brothers and I don’t talk politics any more.

    At the least, a skeptic has to tread the not so fine line of rejecting as baseless any hypotheses without evidence to back them up, and accept evidence that supports or rejects a hypothesis or idea. That whole reality thing makes sense to me. That’s why I agree, the groups you mentioned fail as skeptics.

  41. says

    It doesn’t seem that problematic given that some of the claims about God are beyond the scope of reality, or at least reality as we can apply scientific inquiry to handle such questions. People can approach specific questions about reality itself without needing to subscribe to an ultimate reality that excludes gods from existing. Whether or not there’s a philosophical coherence to this view, there’s nothing inconsistent about those who take a sceptical methodological approach without embracing a naturalist ontology.

  42. DLC says

    Well, in general, skepticism can lead to Atheism, but it doesn’t always work out that way — there are many skeptical theists who believe in a deity but not in ghosts, UFOs or psychics. This sort of belief structure leads to a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. I think many of these deist skeptics also somewhere deep down realize that their god doesn’t really exist, and this bothers them. Neither Atheism nor skepticism magically confer wisdom or intelligence. (although I’ve met many scientists who use wisdom as a dump stat.[/dnd joke] )

  43. says

    I think the more interesting phenomenon is how to deal with a sceptic who believes in something that’s contrary to current scientific thought. I think that’s one difference between the “woo” that Sastra highlighted and God – global warming and homoeopathy are scientific issues, and sceptics who are arguing for those are arguing against the core value of scepticism. At that point, it’s pertinent to ask what the scientific evidence is, and whether or not they’re engaging in the same kinds of thought that would exclude other pseudosciences. But the same cannot be said for those claims that are beyond scientific measurement. Libertarians, no matter how irritating their valuation of how to run society, can only really run into trouble when they begin to make empirical claims. Beyond that, our distaste for a particular philosophical or value-based political commitment isn’t at odds with the goals of methodological scepticism.

  44. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    It doesn’t seem that problematic given that some of the claims about God are beyond the scope of reality, or at least reality as we can apply scientific inquiry to handle such questions.

    Then what good are they? And how are they different from a god that doesn’t exist?

  45. says

    Then what good are they?

    My goal wasn’t to say that they were any good, just to highlight that some claims were beyond the bounds of empirical inquiry. As for how good they are, it’s a question for theologians and philosophers. I think they’re all crap, as I’m not really sure how it is one could come to such knowledge, but it’s not my beliefs so the question of what good they are doesn’t keep me awake at night.

    And how are they different from a god that doesn’t exist?

    Depends on the claim. Some claims, God does something, it’s just that the something is beyond the scope of scientific inquiry. There’s theological claims about existence itself, and no scientific scepticism is going to be able to touch a claim like that. The claims may be nonsense*, but they do try to do at least some explanatory work – it’s just that these are questions that don’t really affect on the application of scientific scepticism. There are also claims that religious language contains no informational content, in which case they’re not saying anything that’s indistinguishable from there being no God at all. In the book The God Debates, John Shook distinguishes between the two different kinds of theology as theology beyond the world and theology into the myst.

    And none of this is meant to support any particular view, only to say that the claims about God don’t necessarily overlap with claims about the world that are amenable to methodological scepticism.

    *And the burden is on the theologian to show that they’re not nonsense.

  46. John Morales says

    Kel:

    And none of this is meant to support any particular view, only to say that the claims about God don’t necessarily overlap with claims about the world that are amenable to methodological scepticism.

    They do if they’re claims about reality, if not they’re pointless claims.

  47. says

    They do if they’re claims about reality, if not they’re pointless claims.

    That may be the case*, John, but that’s making an extra step that is not necessary in order to be consistent with the underlying value of methodological scepticism.

    *you won’t find any disagreements from me

  48. kristianmosti says

    Not sure I agree that all skeptics ought to be atheists.

    Sure, theism should not be exempt from skeptic scrutiny, yet the value any skeptic organisation has from including theists cannot be overstated.

    When Lawrence Krauss tells the clergy that the Big Bang theory does not suppose a divine creator, that does very little to convince a theist, when Georges Lemaître (catholic priest and the first person to propose the theory of cosmic expansion) did the same thing almost a century ago, it hit right home.

    The same thing when it comes to how much persuasion Myers holds versus how persuasive father Coyne is – both may present equally sound arguments opposing creationism, yet in the minds of the religous, Coyne holds more authority and should therefore be lent more weight.

    Theistic skeptics ought to be welcomed, not because they have religious superstitions, but because they have the power to change their communities from within.

  49. Roberto Aguirre Maturana says

    It seems to me that your ‘Atheists and Skeptics’ category seems to match exactly the “dictionary atheists” that you so much despised on a previous entry, PZ. Anyway, I agree with the idea that if a skeptic is not an atheist, it´s not my kind of skeptic.

  50. says

    But also, every skeptic ought to be an atheist.

    I’m not so sure about that, but they at least ought to be agnostic.

    Atheist: a person who doesn’t believe in a god or gods
    Agnostic: a person who doesn’t know whether a god or gods exist

    Agnosticism is not the mid point on the axis between atheist and theist, it’s a whole separate axis. Theism/atheism address whether you accept the claim. Gnostic/agnostic address your knowledge on the subject. So when you talk about a person who is an agnostic but not an atheist, you’re talking about a person who admits they don’t know for sure if God exists, but they believe he does.

    That said, I don’t have a huge problem with people who are agnostic atheists and prefer to label themselves as agnostics because they don’t want to deal with the shit you get when you openly call yourself an atheist (though it does kind end up meaning that atheists end up being a smaller even more marginalized group than they should be). But people choosing not to call themselves atheists because they conflate atheism with strong atheism are mistaken.

  51. says

    It seems to me that your ‘Atheists and Skeptics’ category seems to match exactly the “dictionary atheists” that you so much despised on a previous entry, PZ.

    That’s because you didn’t read the previous entry that closely.

  52. jimmauch says

    Some skeptics can justify their acceptance of god because of the existance of a non-overlapping magisteria. On the one hand you have a level of understanding built on empirical reasoning, evidence and valid intellectual inquiry. On the other hand you can not discount the level of a understanding built on a moral and spiritual purpose. To paraphrase Mark Twain, This is the quest to achieve a higher level of belief in the understanding of that which isn’t so.