There is hope! Steven Novella has replied to my reply to his original disagreement (making this a reply to a reply to a reply to a blog article…I take it back, maybe there is no hope.) But no, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and I don’t have to be as long-winded as last time. Let’s jump right to his new conclusion:
I think it would be helpful to critically examine our own narratives about what the rationalist, skeptical, and atheists movements are, what different groups believe, and what motivates them. I see many straw men that persist despite the evidence and despite numerous attempts at correction.
Exactly! That’s what I’ve been saying! Now in my last post, I provided lots of evidence that my characterization of a skeptical movement rife with bias and stereotypes against atheists and other non-traditional (for skeptics) causes was valid; now I just have to ask Novella one more time to critically examine his own narrative, and because he’s a good guy dedicated to the evidence, he’ll recognize the problem. And what do you know, his argument is based on kicking the stuffing out of a straw man atheist.
We seem to disagree on the underlying philosophy. I have essentially taken the position that scientific skepticism (like science) requires methodological naturalism, while atheism is a belief in philosophical naturalism.These are compatible but distinct positions. Methodological naturalism is more narrow. It is my understanding that this is the consensus of opinion among philosophers (feel free to correct me if you think I’m wrong).
Is atheism a belief in philosophical naturalism? I suppose for some, it is, just as some skeptics base their position on a desire to feel superior to stupid people. But it is an incorrect description of most atheists, and especially of most prominent atheists.
I have to assume that Novella has not read The God Delusion — no worries if he hasn’t, it’s not holy writ that everyone is required to appreciate — or he wouldn’t be making this claim. Dawkins is about as close to being the atheist authority as we can get, and his views reflect, and in many cases have inspired, what is really the mainstream atheist position. And really, his position is simply not an a priori commitment to the nonexistence of gods, but is a product of entirely scientific examination of the evidence. He even comes right out and plainly says that his disbelief is not absolute, but that he could change his mind if adequate evidence were presented. It is a position arrived at entirely by the process of skeptical scientific inquiry.
And this has always been the case in modern times. Robert Ingersoll, in the 19th century, was frequently praising the advantages of science and demanding that religion substantiate their claims with evidence. Atheism has a long tradition of historical, not just scientific, inquiry, and those people, like Richard Carrier and Hector Avalos, are rejecting god-belief because they have looked at the historical and archaeological evidence, have analysed the logic of religious documents for contradictions and fallacies, and encourage the use of science to resolve difficult questions…applied skepticism, in other words.
I’ll also recommend Victor Stenger’s God & the Atom — this has been the attitude since ancient times, too. He traces Greek atheism right back to the earliest efforts to understand the nature of the universe, the foundations of modern physics.
Atheists do the same thing to religion that Novella does to quack medicine. We look at the evidence, or the absence thereof in the work of proponents, we look at the historical roots of truth claims, we examine arguments for fallacies or inconsistencies, we promote science as a better tool for understanding what’s going on in the universe. That’s what we find galling, actually: that there can be absolutely nothing different in the process of critical inquiry, but because our target is religion rather than quackery or UFOs or the Loch Ness monster, the gatekeepers of the skeptical movement will declare it Not True Skepticism — sometimes as something lesser, deserving of scorn, sometimes as just something different.
Novella tries to treat it as some different category.
For the purpose of convenience, and wanting to avoid getting bogged down in semantics, I am going to define (for this post) three terms: scientific skepticism deals with empirical claims and the promotion of science, atheism focuses on opposing religion and faith, and rationalism seeks to apply reason and skepticism to all areas. This does not capture all the complexity of our movement, but I will use it, again, for convenience.
Stop right there! That’s exactly what I mean! Atheism deals with empirical claims and the promotion of science. It’s what we do. Look at Richard Dawkins and Dan Dennett and Lawrence Krauss and Sam Harris and even me, although I’m not trying to rank myself in their same category: we talk and write about how religious claims fail to meet even the most minimal standards of evidence, how they fail to support their grandiose promises, how they cause harm and suffering to people. Seriously, you could take my last sentence and replace “religious claims” with “alt-med claims”, and you should be able to see that we’re doing exactly the same thing with different targets.
Try another substitution to see what I mean: “scientific skepticism deals with empirical claims and the promotion of science, alt-med opponents focus on opposing quackery and pseudoscience, and rationalism seeks to apply reason and skepticism to all areas.” That sounds as if I’m trying to imply that, because of their choice of focus, people like Novella are doing something different from dealing with empirical claims and the promotion of science.
So I reject his partitioning of scientific skepticism. I think it is completely invalid. If, as he argues in his first post, skepticism is a high-minded collection of principles of rational thought, that it is a process for arriving at a provisional truth with a solid foundation and evidence, then it is an error to split it into those kinds of categories. Do I also need to point out that his categories are 1) a process of evidence based thinking, 2) one specific area to which that thinking can be applied, and 3) a claim of universality of that process? These are not even distinctions on the same dimension, and they are not mutually exclusive. Someone can easily fit into all three categories with no contradiction or conflict. Although, for someone to fit into #1 and #3 while rejecting #2 would require some serious internal contradictions: why do you think skepticism is so important while refusing to apply it to religion?
But now Novella needs to resolve something. Further down in the comments, he says this:
I have spoken to many activist skeptics on this issue – almost all of them are atheists. They think atheism is a legitimate part of critical thinking and the broader rationalist agenda. They think that skeptical inquiry should be applied to everything, including religion and faith. I am trying to correct the false impression by activist atheists that we think otherwise. They seem to vacillate between saying that we think atheism is not skepticism, or that we know that it is but are too cowardly to confront it. Neither is correct.
What is correct is that there is a philosophically different approach between empirical claims and faith-based claims and it is necessary to acknowledge this.
As I documented last time, there is a widespread assumption in the skeptical community that atheism is The Other; you cannot listen to Jamie Ian Swiss’s obvious anger in his 2012 TAM talk without realizing that there is a strong strain of bias against including religious claims on the skeptical agenda. I know most skeptics are atheists, but there is this extraordinarily peculiar attitude that disbelief in god is something they somehow arrived at by a completely different path than their disbelief in acupuncture.
I really don’t get it.
Novella’s post doesn’t help, either, it just reinforces my body of evidence that establishment skeptics have a lot invested in fence-building. What philosophical difference? I can say over and over again that most atheists have arrived at their disbelief by the process of scientific skepticism, and it just doesn’t sink in: we will just get the magical handwave that there are “philosophically different approaches”.
And then there’s this distinction between empirical claims and faith-based claims, which I simply don’t see. “Faith” is not a magic get-out-of-jail-free word; I don’t think Novella would be stopped cold in his tracks if a homeopath invoked faith and god as a mechanism behind succussed water. Faith-based claims are empirical claims! When someone claims a vast cosmic intelligence named Jesus created the universe, I’m going to ask for their evidence for that claim; it is an empirical claim not just about how the universe works, but about how they arrive at their conclusions and what the chain of evidence that led them to that assertion is.
If they openly admit that their beliefs are not based on empirical knowledge, that does not mean we retreat; it means we present the evidence for how the universe actually works and was created. Faith does not insulate a claim from skepticism as Novella argues; there is still a body of evidence that may contradict their claims, and it does as no service to simply throw up our hands and declare their arguments out of bounds for skepticism.
I suspect this argument will march on. But I hope Novella can get beyond the argument from fiat and stereotype to actually comprehend how atheists think. It shouldn’t be hard — my point is that they are thinking exactly as he does, with the very same philosophical guide.