Thinking about writing this post is what prompted me to write yesterday's post as well, and its all about getting my thoughts down on this whole silly shit about accommadationism and people trying to exclude atheism from skepticism, and those people trying to define who the real skeptics are and who gets to join in and how they should do it (this last I covered yesterday). So here goes.
Atheism isn't skepticism - say what now?
Via PZ Myers I found out about a ridiculous blog post by Jeff Wagg, who used to work for the JREF. I was going to leave it alone until I read the always excellent Tom Foss writing on a somewhat related note. As usual, Tom said just about everything I would want to on the topic before I had even thought about it and better than I would have done anyway. Git. But that's not going to stop me adding my own not so humble opinions anyway, oh no.
The gist of what Jeff Wagg is saying is that skepticism deals with science so has very little to say on religion except where a testable claim is made and that whilst atheism and skepticism overlap in places they are distinct and should be kept so. On top of this he is claiming that skepticism doesn't lead inevitably to atheism.
Almost all of what he says is absolute bollocks.
I'll put it simply to start with. If skepticism and critical thinking don't lead you to, as JT Eberhard wrote to Jeff Wagg "some brand of atheism/metaphysical naturalism" then you really aren't doing it very well. If I'm being generous I could say you've learned to switch your critical thinking on and off when it suits you. What you are doing is applying bits of skepticism and critical thinking to the things you want to and ignoring it when you want to ignore it in regards to the things you don't want to apply your skepticism or critical thinking to - like the existence of gods. Exactly what kind of skeptic or critical thinker accepts a truth claim on faith alone? Exactly what kind of skeptic or critical thinker believes in the supernatural? Exactly what kind of skeptic believes in the unscientific, untestable or unprovable?
In other words, what kind of skeptic or critical thinker still believes in gods?
Now, you might say "Jimmy, aren't you being a tad hypocritical here? You have a problem with people who say you can't be a real skeptic because of something, and you are saying these people can't be real skeptics because of something." I would reply - "If I was using my own definition of skepticism you'd have a point."
But I'm not.
In fact, I'm using Jeff Wagg's definitions of skepticism. The problem is people defining skepticism how they want to in order to include or exclude what or who they want to, but I'm not doing that. Wagg and people like him are though, and in this case failing miserably. Wagg writes:
I believe that if you equate skepticism with anything other than science, you’ve missed the point.
Followed later by:
Skepticism is about drawing conclusions that are proportioned to the available evidence.
How exactly, given these definitions of skepticism, is religion and the existence or not of gods excluded? How do you exclude the supernatural claims of religion from skepticism but include the supernatural claims of those who believe in ghosts? A supernatural claim is a supernatural claim - it doesn't matter if the ghost in question is Abraham Lincoln or the Holy Spirit, for example. Science has plenty to say about the claims of religion. Are there turtles all the way down? Did giants once roam the earth? Did the Universe begin 6000 years ago? Was the earth covered by a giant flood? Pose a religious question, science will almost certainly have something to say on the matter. That includes the existence of God, since religious claims are inextricably linked with their deities. To claim the existence of something, even gods, is to make a scientific claim.
I'm using the skepticism that Wagg endorsed when he was at the JREF - faith is not enough to validate a claim, you need evidence. Claiming God exists is a claim that needs evidence in the same way that claiming Bigfoot exists needs evidence. Wagg would not accept faith as evidence in favour of Bigfoot, why is God different? Why is questioning one skepticism but not the other? Why can I say "I don't believe in Bigfoot" and be a skeptic according to Wagg, but not "I don't believe in God"?
More importantly though: how can you say you believe in God and claim to be a skeptic? You wouldn't call someone who believed in Bigfoot a skeptic. What, exactly, is the difference that makes one skepticism and the other 'only' atheism?
What definition of skepticism or critical thinking are you using where you can include people who accept supernatural claims on faith alone, with no evidence and in defiance of logic and reason? Really, I would love to know the answer to this.
You don't get to call yourself a skeptic or a critical thinker if you accept even one supernatural claim, or even one claim for which there is no supporting evidence. You wouldn't call someone who rejected all woo except astrology a skeptic, so why make an exception for someone who rejects all woo except the existence of a god?
If you accept even one bit of woo, you're a woo. It's that simple.
Skepticism of the existence of gods leads to atheism if the principles and tools of skepticism and critical thinking are rigorously and completely applied to the question. The only way that skepticism and critical thinking don't lead to atheism, or at least agnosticism, is if you don't ever apply your skepticism or critical thinking to the question of the existence of gods in the first place. And if you only apply those tools and principles where and when you feel like it, you aren't really a skeptic or a critical thinker, you're a part timer.
Atheism is merely the name for the result we get when we fully apply skepticism and critical thinking to the claim "Gods exist".
Atheism, skepticism and critical thinking are inextricably linked. Atheism is the result of applying skepticism to the most popular bit of woo in the world - religion.
Wagg and a silly strawman
Not only does Wagg make the baffling argument that atheism isn't part of skepticism and indeed is something completely separate since skepticism has nothing much to say about the existence of gods unless it is a testable claim, he throws in a silly strawmen that seems to lie at the root of this while he is at it.
The e-mail is an admission that the organizers of Skepticon believe that Skepticism = Atheism
Wrong. What JT Eberhard said was:
it is the opinion of most of our organizers that skepticism leads directly to some brand of atheism/metaphysical naturalism
The organisers of Skepticon believe skepticism leads to atheism. Not that skepticism is atheism, or skepticism = atheism. This mistake I think lies at the route of the problem Wagg seems to have, and probably prompted his silly post.
Nailing my colours to the mast
Otherwise known as "Fuck accommodationism, I don't want you in my gang anyway."
Wagg, and a great many other people in the recent past, are complaining about assertive atheism driving people away from the skeptical and critical thinking movements as well as the many movements to prevent things like the teaching of creationism in classrooms, the politicisation of science and the desecularisation of the country here in the USA.
Wagg, for instance, writes:
I see a lot of good people leaving the skeptical community because they’re uncomfortable with the tone and disappointed with, frankly, the lack of skepticism presented by many people.
I’m convinced that a litmus test over who’s a skeptic and who isn’t based on religious belief is harmful to both movements.
To this I say:
Good. Fuck 'em. Lightweights scared off by naughty words. I call into question your use of the term 'good' in this context. And anyway, no such litmus test exists. The only 'test' that exists for this gang is that you consistently and rigorously apply skepticism and critical thinking.
If these people don't apply their skepticism to the question of the existence of gods it is not the assertive or vocal atheists (the so called New Atheists - a term I despise) who are displaying a lack of skepticism. I don't want these half arsed skeptics clogging up the skeptical movement with their "Oh, skepticism and critical thinking applies here and here, but not there or there." They are the people holding the skeptical movement back and damaging it.
You don't destroy ignorance by allowing some versions of it to go on existing. And that is what this is all about, isn't it? We're here to destroy ignorance, they want their favourite bits of it to remain.
Or are we really going to say that we are happy to include any kind of half arsed 'skeptic' in the movement just for the sake of not upsetting someones sensibilities? Just where do we draw the line for what we can count as a skeptic? As long as they don't believe in astrology and homeopathy should Holocaust Deniers be called skeptics? Where exactly is this list of things you can or can't believe in for you to qualify for the skeptics club and who made it and with what authority and how was it determined?
Or, is the only real litmus test that you rigorously and comprehensively subject ALL your beliefs and those of others, as you encounter or develop them, to the tools and principles of skepticism and critical thinking?
And yes, that would mean religious belief. That would mean that if you believe in gods, you aren't really a skeptic. What you are is someone who applies skepticism and critical thinking when it suits them. When it isn't something they are personally invested in. When it is easy. You can't call me a professional footballer if I only played five a side once a week for two years.
I am tired of people telling me I'm not a real skeptic when they pick and choose what skepticism applies to or doesn't. They are the problem, not those of us who insist that the tools can be applied to any claim. All I am saying is that if you want to be a skeptic then you have to do it all the time and include your own beliefs in there.
So I am glad that these wishy washy lightweights are leaving the skeptical gang - I don't want someone calling themselves a skeptic when they accept that "God did it" might one day be the answer to a question. I don't want someone who might one day attempt to explain an as yet unexplained occurrence with "It was a miracle." I don't want someone who believes a guy rose from the dead and ascended into the sky arguing alongside me that ghosts don't exist. I don't want someone who believes in Heaven telling me that such and such a psychic can't really speak to people in the afterlife.
I don't want my skepticism to be associated with such confused hypocrisy.
I don't think any woo should be able to call themselves a skeptic. I don't think anyone who believes in the supernatural should be able to call themselves a skeptic. I don't think anyone who accepts something on faith should be able to call themselves a skeptic. I'm glad that the people who get so upset by tone they leave are gone, they don't have the stomach for the struggle ahead and clearly weren't that committed - they're just words.
As JT Eberhard says in his reply to Jeff Wagg, it is horseshit to say that skepticism applies to some truth claims but not others. The people who claim that skepticism doesn't apply to their cherished belief are the problem.
And they shouldn't get to call themselves skeptics.