Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Atheism is the Beginning of Skepticism

It wasn't that long ago that we experienced the fallout of PZ Myers' utter failure to communicate, which turned into a battle of semantics between people who most likely agree with each other more than they realize (which is why Rule #9 on Dead-Logic's Rules of Engagement is: "Find common ground"). Now John Loftus appears to be throwing a little more mud in the water by claiming that atheism is skepticism - although John has since changed the phrase to "atheism is full-blown skepticism." John explains in the comments section:

[Edited: For people reading this after 7:30 AM EST Feb.22nd, I edited the original post that said "Atheism IS Skepticism" to the present one. That might explain some of the debate that follows. I think this best expresses what I wrote in a hurry last night.]

Here's John's entire blog entry:

Atheism is a Full Blown Skepticism!
By John W. Loftus at 2/21/2011

Believers ask me if I am skeptical of what I believe about religion because the brain distorts the information we receive. Let me be clear here. Atheism is born of skepticism and is a full blown skepticism. Precisely because I know how our brains distort information I am skeptical of that which I want to be true, and more importantly, I demand evidence for what I believe. Have you ever seen TV programs like CSI and/or Law & Order? Something like that. They need evidence to arrest someone just like I need evidence to believe. So how can I be skeptical of my conclusion that some belief doesn't have any evidence for it, if there isn't any evidence for it, or if the evidence is weak? Skeptics are known as non-believers for that very reason.

I'm not sure how the addition of the phrase "full-blown" adds much clarity. If I'm understanding John correctly, he's saying that he's an atheist for the same reason he's a skeptic: because he demands evidence for what he believes. If so, great, but the point must be made that atheism is not skepticism.

Skepticism takes you where the evidence leads. IF there were evidence for god like there is evidence for gravity or evolution, or that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States, then rational people wouldn't be atheists.

Distinguishing atheism from skepticism is important. Just because someone calls herself an atheist does not automatically mean she's a skeptic. Someone who simply exchanges one bias for another has neglected her intellectual responsibilities, even if her beliefs (or lack of beliefs) resemble those of genuine skeptics. Surly Amy over at Skepchick writes:

It is very common that many people arrive to atheism not through rational or critical thought but instead via an emotional response. Perhaps a traumatic event or other emotionally charged situation or even a simple rejection of authority led your cousin to atheism but he either doesn’t know how or why he should apply critical thinking to atheism or other aspects of his life... You can simply reject religion and you’re a card carrying atheist but skepticism, well that takes work. [source]

If we equate atheism with skepticism, or attempt to add more to the definition of atheism, we risk missing the more important point of upholding critical thinking as a virtue. And critical thinking - of which skepticism is a necessary condition - should be applied to every aspect of one's life.

Atheism is not skepticism, but it is the beginning of skepticism where god and religion are concerned. Antony Flew wrote about The presumption of atheism; that is, the suspension of judgment on god's existence until one has reason to believe. As John Loftus said, "I demand evidence for what I believe. Have you ever seen TV programs like CSI and/or Law & Order? Something like that. They need evidence to arrest someone just like I need evidence to believe." I have referred to this suspension of judgment as the presumption of objectivity (and it's worth noting also that it's Rule #1 of the Rules of Engagement).

Skepticism begins with atheism - a "lack of belief in god(s)" - because any other position assumes something that has not yet been established. See, this is why I argue so vehemently about the definition of atheism. This is why PZ Myers screwed up so badly. Skepticism begins with the suspension of judgment. "Give me sufficient reason to accept your claim, and I will." Skepticism begins with the desire for truth without assuming we've already figured it out. The beginning of skepticism is like having an empty glass that you will choose to fill with only the best wine.

And maybe John Loftus agrees with me on this. Until I find out for certain, I will suspend judgment and look for common ground in order to avoid another battle over semantics.


[UPDATE - 2/26/2011: see the follow-up article, Atheism is the End of Skepticism]

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