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You Don’t Have to Be A Skeptic To Be an Atheist

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I have heard the argument that almost all skeptics eventually become atheists. While a No God Surly-Ramicsmajority of critical thinkers do seem to end up along the path of the godless, after this weekend I can now say without a doubt that the equation clearly need not work the other way.

I just returned from the Atheist Alliance International Convention (AAIC) in Burbank California. I had a vendor table and sold my atheist, skeptical and science inspired Surly-Ramics and luckily got a chance to hear some fantastic speakers. I particularly enjoyed the physics and planetary science talks by Lawrence Krauss and Carolyn Porco and I got to go all fangirl over PZ Myers and Eugenie Scott (I heart them both).

Surprisingly, I spent a large majority of my time passing out Skepchick stickers and explaining what a skeptic is. It seems the majority of atheists aren’t much familiar with skepticism or the skeptical movement at all. I gotta say I was a bit surprised, but this in a way may explain the choice of Bill Maher as an RDA award recipient at this years event. I briefly discussed this award in an earlier post.

I had always assumed that atheists arrived at their views by way of a critical thought path. sci methodUtilization of logic and reason had concluded that this type of magical thinking was absurd and that science and more specifically, the scientific method could be and should be used to explain the world around us and used to make decisions to the best of our ability. What I realized at this event is that a large portion of atheists have become so in a reactionary sense. They have realized for a multitude of different, sometimes logical, sometimes emotional reasons that religion is not for them, and that is where they have stopped along the critical thought path. Bill Maher seems to fit that exact mold. He realizes that religion is illogical and irrational and anti-science and he concludes this is a bad habit that the world needs to break free of, but then he simply refuses to apply rational thought to any of his alternative medicine or conspiracy claims. He has (sorta) followed the path of logic and reason to atheism (kinda) but that is where he set up his lawn chair and put on his dark sunglasses and refused to look further.

I saw a lot of similar mind sets with the crowd at AAIC. There were a lot of wonderful, kind folks who had come to celebrate the loss of their religion for a multitude of worthy Surly-Ramics Thinkreasons. They had also come to be part of a lovely social circle of other kind, like-minded people. The majority it seemed, were pleased to have Richard Dawkins present the RDA Award to Bill Maher. They justified this simply because he is one of the few voices raised in defense of the atheist movement, a movement that has many more critics than it does champions and these champions deserve celebration. The skeptics in the room were from a different, rationalist perspective and were disappointed in the award choice as we all know that scientific thought and especially scientific awards should be held to a higher standard. We were a polite minority.

This past weekend was a learning experience for me. I realized that there are many road blocks on the path to rational thinking and there are many people with a somewhat subdued desire to learn. I am hopeful that we as skeptics can find ways to encourage those who have thought just a little, to be critical a little bit more.

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51 Comments

  1. At least atheists would seem to be a group of people who are more likely to open their minds to skepticism and critical thinking. Perhaps the “reactionaries” would be interested in learning how skepticism supports their viewpoint, once the initial excitement and relief of turning to atheism has worn off.

  2. I’ve always disliked the phrase losing or lose religion, I didn’t lose it, I discarded it because it did not fit with in the logical or scientific paradigm that made up my world view and felt invented, made up, and ultimately absurd. That, and the lack of evidence for a god, decent arguments utilizing sound logic, and a whole host of similar religions that contradicted the one I was raised with, kind of led to my view that it was unnecessary. That said, I was always bothered by the fact that not every atheist came to their views through a logical though process. It does to a degree, at least to my mind, explain why there are those who will fall back to religion, they may know the arguments for why religion is absurd, but they still have an emotional attachment to it and they only left because of some feeling of not getting exactly what they wanted out of it at the time. Of course that is only speculation. anyway, great post, good to see you had a great time at the AAIC.

  3. @killyosaur42: It’s interesting from my perspective as well. I was raised with no religion at all, so unlike most people I have no emotional reaction to it at all. I was given free choice to pick a religion if I wanted and like you I didn’t see the value or necessity.

  4. This is something I’ve been noticing lately, too. I go to an atheist meetup and it’s mostly gray-haired white guys and a few, erm, socially inexperienced younger folks.

    The skeptic meetups are usually thirty-something professionals who keep up with skeptical topics. There’s less honkys there, too. (I’m white so, blah blah). These are the fun meetings.

    I’ve been surprised by my fellow atheists who don’t know who James Randi or Phil Plait are. In my mind atheism and skepticism are completely intertwined, but I think that’s a more recent phenomenon.

    There have always been Freethinkers and Deists who defied the religious culture they were brought up with, but I think this sort of new skepticism goes hand in hand with the new atheism.

    Eugenie Scott talks about this in an interview segment with Sam that will be posted later this week, but she says that when the skeptical movement started in the 60’s it was all old white guys and only later did they realize they should let the girls into the club.

    She said one of the great things about modern skepticism is how it brings in all the young folks, and I think she hit the nail on the head. I think the skeptical presence on the internet is one of the most powerful driving forces for the growth of atheism in America, especially among the younger crowd.

    And (in my mind) it’s all the more powerful for being a rational atheism, rather than a simple backlash against oppressive religion.

  5. Critical thinking (aka. Skepticism) is not our natural way of thinking. It is a learned behavior and requires work and practice–in other words, it’s hard! I view critical thinking the same way I view muscle tone: you have to work and put up with some pain to get there, and once you get there, you need to keep working because “if you don’t use it, you lose it!”

  6. @Amy: Yeah, I was raised as a secular humanist jew. I always had a critically thinking and embracing community around me. I never had to experience ‘discarding’ faith. Though both my parents are alternative medicine believers (and my father may or may not believe in god as a lutheran), they are happy to allow me to be as I am. My mother actually told me that “no professional homeopath would make their medicine like that” when I told her what homeopathy actually consisted of. She never bothered to check and told me that it’s okay to be wrong.
    So I never came to atheism through skepticism, it was vice versa for me.

  7. I became agnostic as a teenager, then eventually wound my way around to atheism some… erm, 20ish years later. In between I still believed in a whole bunch of other woo while I tried to find a replacement for gawd. Then I stumbled upon astronomy, then more science, then Sagan, then Dawkins. It was a progression…

  8. My experiences at this event mirrored Amy’s.

    As a skeptic attending my first atheist conference, I arrived with low expectations, fearing that the event would consist largely of bashing religion and paying lip-service to the value of science. Or worse yet, I’d have to endure 9/11 truthers and hyper-political axe-grinders as experienced at some local secular groups.

    Happily the disappointments were few. There did appear to be genuine appreciation for science even among those for whom we skeptics have not (yet) made any intellectual inroads.

  9. @Amy: excellent post, I’ve met a few atheists who buy into all manner of uncritical beliefs. From anti-vaxxers, to alternative health products, to 911 truthers. I’ve even known some to fall for The Secret and Deepak Chopra’s quantum quackery.

  10. I think it would be interesting to ask: Were you a skeptic first or an atheist first? And: Did one lead to the other? In my case I was an official atheist at the age of 8, but didn’t really understand what it really meant until much later. I just new the crap they were teaching in Sunday school didn’t make any sense to me and probably never would. I didn’t really have the tools to be a skeptic until college.

    My bugbear is I keep thinking that skepticism leads naturally to environmentalism, but this is also so not true. Live and learn.

  11. I am not an atheist. I am more agnostic than anything else. But to be most exact, organized religion plays no role in how I behave on this planet. I therefore call myself an apathetic. l believe spiritualism, however defined , should best be practiced in private, not collectively, because organized religion is basically a construct wherein a small group controls a large group. If that spiritualism helps that individual through life, then so be it, as long as that person’s beliefs don’t intrude on mine, my community, or place their children at risk. As we all know organized religion’s impact is often more dominating and damaging than any political construct.

    Interestingly I have raised my children in a home filled with critical thinking, but never within the context of atheism. We even have celebrated a few Jewish traditions when they were children, using them as teaching points, relating them to current events or analyzing them scientifically. One of my favorite Passover moments occured when my eldest, about 13 at the time, gave plausible scientific explanations for each and every one of the ten plagues. Was he right? Dunno. But the process was brilliantly analytical.

    Atheism without critical thinking is just another form of fanaticism – ala Bill Maher. Atheism does not necessarily lead to critical thinking; it’s often simply one’s personal agenda. But critical thinking always forces one to question their faith, question organized religion, and these questions lead to choices. And though atheism is often the result, it need not be the only result. Why? Because , as I said previously, the concept of spiritualism, however defined, should be as unique as every individual.

    For me … I define spiritualism as wanting to follow the Golden Rule. This is religion stripped of ALL dogma, of all need for a micromanaging God. But is it really spiritualism? Dunno. Don’t care. It simply works for me.

    In closing I’ll say, God Bless critical thinking. :)

  12. This surprises me a little, but not a whole lot. I would bee keen to know how what per cent of the non-sceptical majority were raised in irreligious families.

    The reason I wonder this is because neither of my parents are religious, and none of my brothers nor I were raised to be religious. Whilst my parents are not very credulous either, the more rigourous, organised scepticism is something that I had to discover myself, whereas atheism has always been the status quo in my family. It is certainly possible if I had not encountered organised scepticism when I was younger I might now have been an atheist but not a sceptic. I am inclined to wonder if, as irreligious families become more common and more mainstream, this situation will become more common in the future.

    To explicitly answer what @davew: asked: I was certainly an atheist before I was a sceptic, (although now I usually think of myself as a sceptic first and an atheist second) and I don’t think that the one necessarily lead to the other.

  13. Maher hasn’t a fucking clue about science and the necessity of being willing to change your mind when confronted with facts and credible evidence. Maher rejects science and evidence which casts aspersions on his non religious views in my opinion.

    I fully rejected religion when I tried to apply a rational and skeptical view to all of my belief systems. I’m not an atheist because I hate Christianity and I have no big emotional investment in degrading and mocking religion and the religious despite the often evident foolishness of the religious experience. I don’t find mocking or ridiculing terribly rational and even Maher’s atheism seems only marginal rational given his motivation appears to be what he doesn’t like as opposed to what he believes.

  14. @davew: My bugbear is I keep thinking that skepticism leads naturally to environmentalism, but this is also so not true. Live and learn.

    ———————

    Perhaps you need to rethink your particular brand of environmentalism. It is entirely possible that people around you share your perception of the basic problems, but not your prescribed solutions.

  15. @halincoh: I disagree – when you are getting down with Atheism/Skepticism, you NEVER want to use birth control. We would much prefer thousands of our little intellectual bastards running around out there.

    “Do you have any modes of thinking?”
    “Only one that I KNOW about…”

  16. That you don’t have to be a skeptic to be an atheist is pretty much obvious. What we need to watch out for is the notion that you have to be an atheist to be a skeptic.

    Skepticism, logic, rationality, critical thinking; these are not atheist qualities. They are human qualities that atheists tend to value and promote. And I think the skeptical “movement” would do well to avoid setting itself up as some kind of “atheists only club”. It’s not, obviously, but there are times when it can give that impression.

    If the movement is to gain any mainstream traction, it needs to expand beyond atheism, and encourage skepticism among religious and spiritual communities as well. Not to the point of becoming an enemy of faith, but to hold faith up to a skeptical light. Instead, we tend to be fairly hostile and uninviting to those lines of thought, whether they deserve it or not. Or we seem to be, anyway.

  17. I definitely agree with the sentiment about Atheists and Skeptics, there is a lot of overlap but it seems to be one sided. I was a non-skeptical atheist for years, however when I started to look into atheism more, such as it’s arguments and the counter-arguments, I felt like the skepticism came naturally.

    I’m very active in the Boston Atheists and most of the friends I’ve made in the group are skeptical. It seems to me there’s a lot of overlap between the Boston Atheists and Skeptics in the Pub. However, maybe that experience is unique.

    I know that Matt Dilahunty of the Atheist Experience thinks there might be a divide between atheists and skeptics because skeptics are more unwilling to criticize religion itself and he was told it’s not a topic to really broach at TAM. Of course I’m repeating his sentiment, half remembered, so I could be incorrect in my interpretation.

  18. Like Amy, I was raised without religion and given freedom to choose my own path. I believe that I initially rejected religion not for rational reasons, but emotional ones (e.g. what kind of god would let something like the Holocaust happen). I considered myself an atheist by the time I graduated high school. However, even though I excelled in science in high school, majored in biochemistry in college, and made it my career, I didn’t consider myself a skeptic until relatively recently. It’s not that I was actively clinging to supernatural beliefs, it’s more that I didn’t know exactly what the skeptic movement was. Once I saw the overlaps between atheism and skepticism, particularly in areas such as science education and separation of Church and State, I became a proud member of both communities.

  19. @Elyse: As usual, I wish I could COTW ya, but with you being a Skepchick high priestess, I cannot. That’s probably a good thing, ’cause if you could win, you would just wind up having to do the Wed. AI every week as part of your job :)

    For me, it was I-don’t-care-ism in my mid-teens, which turned to mild agnosticism in my late-teens/early 20s (college effect?). Then I heard Sagan say, “Instead of believing that something that was always there made the Universe, why not skip a step and say the Universe (in one form or another) was always there?” After that, I accepted that I could be an atheist.

    Later still, although I knew of the scientific method, it never occurred to me that one could, and should, apply it to all experiences in life. However, I still tried to categorize things into “things that make sense” and “things that don’t”. It wasn’t until Phil Plait’s blog introduced me to the SGU that I realized I was (and should be) a skeptic.

    I think some atheists are the way they are through social (or family) rebellion, and some through apathy. These folks may embrace some woo because, to them at least, it presents an opposite to organized religion. To us, herbs, crystals, alien UFOs, and Jesus all live in the same box. To them, alt med, magic, and secret visitors _confirm_ their former religion was wrong, so it was ok to bail.

  20. That’s a definite disjoint for me, as well. I was raised religious but was always encouraged to be a critical thinker, so skepticism came first for me and then atheism followed.

    And even though I’ve encountered lots of atheists with wootastic beliefs by now, it still startles me every time. At least atheist nonskeptics are more willing to discuss their woo without throwing up the, “Respect my beliefs!” shield.

  21. @TheCzech: “The way I see it, atheism is a destination while skepticism is a journey.”

    I agree with Davew, this was beautifully said, and deserves a COTW. Atheism is a conclusion, not a belief system. You can come to the conclusion via rational thinking, emotional reasons, or apathy, but once you do, its done.

  22. @Amy – I can totally relate to this. I’ve been working much longer in the atheistic community than the skeptic one. I love both communities though, and want to continue working in both in hopes of promoting more skepticism within the atheistic communities.

  23. @Peregrine: Thank you for your comment. I agree. Atheism is not the logical conclusion of a skeptical journey. I would argue that the fairest and most rigorous skeptical journey would result in a very strong belief in god. Not an old white dude floating in the clouds, but the universal principles by which we live our lives (e.g. act towards others as you’d like everyone to act towards everyone else). Many skeptical people reject spirituality and god out of hand having only heard the poorest arguments for it, other peoples’. But god isn’t “out there” – he is in us. He changes reality just like when symbols are accessed in the temporal lobe or color is sent top down from V8 to V4. Denying god would be like denying that we see symbols or faces or saying that people don’t see color. We do, just not in a classical sense. It’s top down perception. God is the top down perception that helps us strive to be better human beings (as is opposed to being primarily motivated by dopamine). Do you need to call this perception “god” in order to have it? No. But when non-crazy religious people talk about god, that is what they are frequently talking about. Everything else is just marketing, which is something skepticism and atheism could get a lot better at.

  24. @Eilonnwy: I don’t think there is necessarily an intentional divide between skeptics and atheists, but I do agree with Matt that is a topic that is often not touched upon at skeptical conferences or on skeptical blogs for that matter. There are so many skeptical topics we can discuss and concepts worthy of explanation that religion often gets dropped as a topic. It seems that whenever we bring up religion the conversations tends to break away from using evidence and the scientific method to examine claims to, “Nuh uh, there is too a God and you can’t use your science to disprove it.” Also, I think people like Matt and other atheist writers/ bloggers etc. are much more qualified to handle those topics and they already do a wonderful job of it. There is also the issue that we don’t want to alienate people who have faith of some sort. We want to encourage people to think critically and then they can take those critical thinking skills and apply them to their religion and come to their own conclusions. Ultimately, that is the only way for people to learn and change.

    I myself would love to hear Matt do a talk about skepticism and religious belief.

  25. A very insightful posting, Amy. The last AAI convention I attended was in 2007. While I found that many of the talks (by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Daniel Dennett, among others) approached religious belief and non-belief skeptically, other speakers and a number of my fellow attendees seemed not to. Atheism seemed just like another faith to some in attendance. It puzzled me a bit at the time, but events since–in particular this award to Maher and now your posting–seem to point to this disconnect as a fact, at least in a few cases. Nonetheless, I think the divide between some proponents of each mind-set isn’t so wide that we skeptics shouldn’t work to bridge it.

  26. Yet another recent post leaving me feeling warm and fuzzy about feeling like I have “people.” Aahh.. (Yes, to stoke the “it’s just like religion” fire some people propose.)

    Seriously, though, I have been witness to this overlap of atheist/agnostic but not skeptical, or skeptical but religious/spiritual, and with people close to me.

    A good friend of mine identifies as agnostic, and is one of the only people I have that I can vent to about philosophical and religious matters – but I often hear her parroting something about alternative medicine or cosmetic products… it’s so frustrating and alienating… I had a school mate last semester whom I got close to, a fellow biology major, who was intensely skeptical of most woo and alt med, but allowed for her Christian beliefs and possibly ghosts… again, alienating.

    I know it’s been mentioned; Likewise, it is hard for me to empathize with being intelligent and skeptical, but not throwing religious ideas out with trash as well. I just remind myself that they may be on the path, or not, but I can’t push it along.

  27. @DataJack: Exactly. Once you don’t believe in God, you can’t become any more atheist.

    Skepticism is a wide spectrum. You can be skeptical about some things but not others. In fact, I would argue that no one can ever be totally skeptical. Like any other form of perfection, it is unachievable.

  28. @Kaylia_Marie: Ummm, I hope that made sense to someone besides myself.

    Ahem, as for the question. No, the two things aren’t automatically connected. I know several people who applaud critical thinking /skepticism etc but who wouldn’t label themselves as atheists. In fact I would put myself in that category.

  29. @slxpluvs: I would argue that the fairest and most rigorous skeptical journey would result in a very strong belief in god.

    ——————-

    You don’t need “god” for any of that. There are some other working hyptheses that may be more testable than “god does it”.

    We’re good to other people because tit-for-tat is a good strategy. We empathize because we evolved to, because tit-for-tat was a good strategy. We perceive a top down universe but we may be largely controlled bottom up, you’re making an unwarranted assumption there.

    You’re doing exactly what the crazies do, by the way. You’re taking something you don’t understand fully (Why we strive to achieve states other than pure pleasure) and labeling it “god”. Well, that doesn’t work for biology, and I’m not buying it when you apply it to psychology either.

    Skeptical journeys don’t lead to any inevitable conclusions, by the way. If you already knew where you were going, you wouldn’t be a skeptic.

  30. @slxpluvs:
    Atheism is not the logical conclusion of a skeptical journey. I would argue that the fairest and most rigorous skeptical journey would result in a very strong belief in god.
    […]
    Many skeptical people reject spirituality and god out of hand having only heard the poorest arguments for it, other peoples’. But god isn’t “out there” – he is in us.

    I think many atheists reject spirituality out of hand. I think most skeptics end up becoming atheists because they decided to apply their skepticism to religion/spirituality as well, and took it to its logical conclusion.

    And while in the strictest sense, you can never know for sure god doesn’t exist, and you would therefore become a fence-sitting agnostic, a simple application of Occham’s razor would suggest that the default assumption that if we can’t prove it doesn’t exist, it does is more wrong than the default assumption that something doesn’t exist until we have a good reason (or perhaps even evidence) to believe it does.

    If you’re too skeptical to make a descision either way, you’ll still have to follow the evidence all the way to the end and realise that the god of the gaps has such small gaps left to hide in that he loses all meaning and becomes inconsequential to our universe. Perhaps he did set it in motion, but he’s gone missing ever since, so we might as well strike him from the equation because he doesn’t matter and it doesn’t seem like he ever will.

    This is also the reason many in the skeptic community don’t spend too much time fighting religion. There’s too many skeptics who haven’t finished that part of their skeptical journey yet, and who’d be offended by the god-bashing. At the same time, we know that god, even if he does exist, is unimportant. The skeptics who are religious don’t believe in the kind of god who’s dangerous to society, progress and our continued existence, quite unlike the god of the fundamentalists …

  31. @Amy: I agree with what you’re saying, though I think Mat’s concern had a lot to do with being asked not to broach religion at TAM, which I think Skeptics shouldn’t be afraid of doing in fear of alienating those who believe. If you’re all about applying skepticism to life, religion has to be a part of it.

    I myself am more of an atheist writer (I write for examiner.com as the Boston Atheism Examiner) so I definitely feel more comfortable writing about that topic than skepticism, especially since yeah, it’s very broad and I totally understand that other topics may trump religion. I just think skeptics need to be careful and not insist religion is off the table. It allows religion to continue that special status in society that insulates itself from criticism.

    And yes, I agree, those who become atheists are better off doing so through reason and personal inquiry rather than insults and flames.

    @Kaylia_Marie: Thanks. The Prydain Chronicles is my favorite fantasy children’s series. :D

  32. I’ve been listening to a LOT of podcasts recently so I may have my source confused, but I’m pretty sure it was a For Good Reason episode on belief where it was suggested that people naturally want extraordinary causes for extraordinary occurences. We have a natural tendency to lean toward the fantastic because it makes the events around us that much more important. I thought that was a relatively accurate description of how many people I’ve known think about the world around them.

    Throw in the natural tendency for children to absorb concepts from their parents quickly and without applying reason to the concepts (asking why is just a stimulus used to make the parent feed the child more data) and we have a breeding ground for bad ideas.

    It’s a wonder any of us make it out of childhood with critical reasoning skills.

    So even though skepticism seems to need to be trained into people, are there some of us that just have a natural resistance to uncritical thinking? Are these the seeds that rescue the potential “lost souls” (I mean that in the most figurative of senses) who teeter on the edge of dogmatic oblivion?

    (PS. I was a huge fan of the Prydain Chronicles too. I cried when the stallion threw himself from the cliff. Yeah, too much empathy. :P )

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