Rob Knop has a blog post called “The Difference Between Religion and Woo“. It’s yet another in a long line of passive-aggressive posts, comments and lectures that attempt to disparage skeptical critics of religion by simply claiming that they don’t understand the subject enough to make their criticisms valid.
Bollocks. If anything, it is Knop and his ilk who demonstrate that they don’t understand skepticism.
He begins with a question that, evidently, he feels is a stumper:
“What makes Robert Frost so much more important to human culture than the stories I wrote when I was 7? “
The answer is: nothing beyond personal preference. Neither his story nor a Frost poem have any intrinsic value. Their value, like all value, is the result of a mind attributing worth to an item. The fact that we, as similar creatures have many shared values and appreciate similar things is sufficient to explain why, on the whole, more people are more likely to value a Frost poem than his story. What makes a Frost poem more important to human culture? Humans.
There is no puzzle here and it’s not analogous to the subject of comparing religion to woo. This question is a bit of well-poisoning designed to imply that there are subjects that we cannot easily assess, quantify, measure or explain because they are matters of personal opinion.
Ironically, he expands on this theme by flatly asserting that skeptics offer trite, unfair analogies when discussing religion and claims that:
“If you cannot see the difference between Russell’s teapot and the great world religions, then you’re no more qualified to talk about religion than the fellow who thinks that cultural bias is the only reason any of us believe in the Big Bang is qualified to talk about cosmology.“
Unfortunately, it is Knop who demonstrates that he’s unqualified to talk about the skeptical analysis of religion as the point of Russell’s teapot is to demonstrate that untestable claims are, by their very nature, devoid of supporting evidence and acceptance of those claims cannot be rationally justified.
Religious claims fall into two categories: testable and untestable. Knop clearly identifies that testable religious claims (like creationism) can be assessed skeptically and rejected, but he doesn’t seem to note that there are two categories to rejection. The first is demonstration that a claim is false and the second is a demonstration that the claim has not been sufficiently supported by evidence to justify belief.
Untestable claims, by default, fall into that second category.
While it can be difficult to consistently apply skepticism, it’s fairly simple to describe skepticism:
Skepticism is the ideology that belief is proportioned to the evidence and skeptics strive to only accept those things as true which have been sufficiently supported by evidence.
Which means that untestable claims, by default, should not be accepted.
“Even those who agree that ridiculing people for their beliefs is not only counter-productive, but just bad behavior, often don’t seem to think there’s any difference between the brand of religion practiced by Pamela Gay (or by myself, for that matter) and Creationism“
Actually, I don’t really think that’s true. I can clearly see a difference between different religious claims and I’ve written about it many times (including here). Some claims are testable, and some aren’t.
The problem is that skeptical theists like Pamela Gay (I named a category after her and clearly Knop fits that category) want to claim that their beliefs address untestable claims and that skepticism simply doesn’t apply to those beliefs.
That’s not only nonsense, it’s the entire point behind Russell’s teapot and it’s not surprising that a theistic skeptic like Knop would miss this.
What skepticism has to say about untestable religious claims is very simple:
You cannot possibly meet the burden of proof and, therefore, acceptance of your claim is irrational and unjustified.
“Yes, there is absolutely no scientific reason to believe in a God or in anything spiritual beyond the real world that we can see and measure with science. But that does not mean that those who do believe in some of those things can’t be every bit as much a skeptic who wants people to understand solid scientific reasoning as a card-carrying atheist.“
Actually, it means EXACTLY that. It means that, of the two of us, I’m the one who is willing to be skeptical about ALL claims, including your untestable claims and by asserting that skepticism doesn’t apply to those claims, you are demonstrating that you are NOT “every bit as much a skeptic”.
It doesn’t mean you’re not a skeptic, or even a good skeptic, on other subjects. It doesn’t mean you’re an idiot and it doesn’t mean that you should be excommunicated from some non-existent skeptical cabal.
What it means is that you are not consistent in applying skepticism and that you’re rationalizing the reason why. In Knop’s case, he’s taken the popular route of trying to make those who disagree with him appear to be rigid thinkers, unable to see the subtleties of the human experience. It’s not only not true, it’s exactly backward: understanding the subtleties of human experience is what allows skeptics to identify the mistakes they make.
We all make mistakes. We are all unskeptical about something. We are all idiots on some subject or another… the best skeptics are those who strive to eliminate these mistakes, instead of making excuses for them. The best skeptics are those who strive to make their beliefs as consistent as possible with the truth, to the extent that evidence can support it. The best skeptics are those who, having had a gross rationalization exposed, seek to prevent it from happening in the future, instead of trying to shield it from critical examination.
If someone believes that an untestable, deistic god exists, that’s their prerogative and they need not ever defend it…but they don’t get to pretend that they’re being skeptical about this belief or that skepticism shouldn’t apply. And when they do attempt to defend it, they should do so honestly and not by trying to claim that those who challenge their beliefs managed to misunderstand skepticism.
They should do so by presenting evidence to support their beliefs and not by trying to claim that their beliefs should be immune from skeptical inquiry.
If his only point were to claim that religious beliefs are nothing more than personal opinions, he’s already lost because religious beliefs make claims about truth not opinion. The idea that whether or not a god exists is merely a matter of opinion is as laughable and absurd as the idea that whether or not the Big Bang happened is merely a matter of opinion.
Your opinions have no bearing on truth. You’re entitled to them, but if you pretend that no one can evaluate your opinions about reality with respect to reality you’re engaged in a sort of self-delusion that beggars credulity.