ReligionSkepticism

Faith and Fury

I’m a skeptic and an atheist. But it seems that of late, I find myself defending the religious. In particular, skeptics who don’t call themselves atheists or agnostics. Indeed, there are several people within the skeptical community who are deists or theists or even (GASP) Christians.

Yesterday, I re-tweeted a message from Daniel Loxton referencing Hal Bidlack, who is an active skeptic and a good man. Hal is usually the MC for The Amaz!ng Meeting in Las Vegas and a shining example of a skeptical activist and a proponent of science, education and critical thinking.

He is also a deist as he explains in this episode of Skepticality from 2007. You should listen to it, but be warned: you’ll probably cry. It made me cry the first time I heard it at TAM 4 and it made me cry again in the car on the way to work this morning when I listened to it.

To some skeptics, the idea of a non-atheistic skeptic poses a huge problem. Atheism is, they say, the logical end result of skepticism. Why should we give religion a ‘pass’ when we stand against all other forms of pseudoscience and non-critical thinking?

Why indeed.We all know that religion addresses some of the biggest questions that human beings face. What happens when we die? What is my purpose in life? Where am I going and how do I fit into this world?

I’ve always said that Atheism will never become the prevalent belief system in the world simply because we have a terrible marketing message: There is no God and nothing happens when you die.  I personally take this as call to arms, to do all I can with the precious time I have and I find that message to be pretty inspiring. But you know what I mean.  Religion has a much softer, nicer, more appealing message and we need to understand that some people will prefer to believe in that message. I’m a big believer in diplomacy and tact, particularly when dealing with such huge, life altering questions.

On Twitter, when I posted the link to Hal’s talk, @Data_Jack posed this:

Imagine this: A group of sincere psychics show up to TAM each year, and strongly agree w/us that homeo & alt med are woo.

His question was, would it be OK for one of them to MC TAM? This question actually gave me pause. Was I being too ‘accommodating’? Of course I wouldn’t want Sylvia Browne to MC TAM (although I would pay good money to see her try).

But there’s a big difference between a practicing psychic and a deist. Hal freely admits that his beliefs are not rational. He understands that they exist outside his skeptical world view. Hal doesn’t try to put his worldview or belief system forward as being true or real or scientific. He makes no claims that are testable and if he does, he knows that it is free game for his friends in the skeptical community to question them and ask for evidence.

I believe that this is the key difference. A psychic would be making a claim to a power; something that could actually be tested and proven to be right or wrong. Hal and other religious skeptics are simply saying that they have faith and a belief in something else. They don’t claim to be right or demand that we agree with them. They simply want to hold on to a belief that brings them happiness and comfort.

Human beings are not completely rational beings. We strive so hard as skeptics to act on the evidence but as skeptics, we need to understand that reality makes it impossible for any human to always act completely skeptical in everything we do. If every person who called him/herself a skeptic acted completely rationally 100% of the time, there would be no skeptics who smoked or got drunk. No skeptics would eat french fries or be overweight! We know, rationally, logically, that these things are bad for us. The evidence is clear that smoking puts you at a higher risk for cancer and yet, plenty of people who call themselves skeptics go ahead and light up every day.

Does that make them less of a skeptic? A hypocrite? Less intelligent? Would you stop a smoker from MC-ing TAM?

Of course not.  It simply makes them human. Taking comfort or pleasure in a glass of wine or a cigarette is simply that – finding comfort in something we rationally know isn’t ‘good for us’. I don’t see how that is any different from someone who prays because it makes them feel better. Or believes there is a higher power because it helps give them some perspective about where they stand in the universe.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that when we see religion doing harm that we shouldn’t speak out. When the Pope ignores child molestation, when women are oppressed in the name of religion, when religious organizations try to blur the lines between church and state from a legal or educational perspective, the skeptics MUST stand up and call them out. And if a person of faith (skeptic or otherwise) attempts to make a claim that is based on religion, it is absolutely our duty as skeptics to question it.

But a religious person is not automatically an enemy of critical thinking or the scientific method. If someone decides to put aside rationality and believe in a higher power at an emotional level, it is unfair to say that this precludes them from being a skeptic. Unfortunately, what I see is a lot of atheists who say that any spiritual belief is simply bad thinking. Skeptics with faith are therefore often treated with condescension and considered stupid at best, hypocritical at worst. They are the black sheep of the skeptic family, tucked out of sight when company comes over.

This sort of black and white arguing could tear the skeptical movement apart. We have few enough troops in this war and far too many important battles to fight. The next time you worry that someone identifying as a skeptic may actually talking to an invisible person in the sky, perhaps you should put things into perspective. Go visit some of the sites that remind us how bad things really are out there in the world of pseudoscience and then find something more productive to do with your time.

To paraphrase from a book I don’t reference very often: Let he who is without irrationality cast the first stone.

Masala Skeptic

Maria Walters (a.k.a. Masala Skeptic) has spent a lot of time in ‘furrin parts,’ including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Pittsburgh. Although her passport is from India, she’s spent most of her adult life in the United States. She currently lives in Atlanta and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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191 Comments

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’m a skeptic who really WANTS to believe in a god of some sort – for many of the same reasons Hal Bidlack does (I didn’t listen to the podcast, but I read a post of his on Swift). Yet, as a fervent skeptic, it’s tough to disagree with the Party Line on anything (I see a chiropractor for back pain because this is Oklahoma and every M.D. I’ve seen just wants to give me narcotics and muscle relaxers, and that doesn’t help. I’d go to an osteopath if there was one, but there isn’t) because we have a bad habit of picking our friends apart too. We’ve got to remember to fight the WOO, not each other.

  2. Well said, Maria. I’m with you, for the most part. Even if, in my mind, I might want to be judgmental about skeptics who believe, I try not to let it spill out in face to face discussions or even, really, on the internet, anymore.

    I honestly don’t want to make everyone agree with my opinion about gods. My job is not to evangelize for atheism. Hell, I have a hard enough time advocating ANYTHING because I hate being “recruited” and inherently mistrust people who try to “recruit” me to anything.

    That’s why I try to let the evidence speak for itself and try to leave things open for people to make up their own minds. Maybe I hope they become more rational, and maybe I want to judge them if they don’t, but I try not to let it impact how I treat them. Emphasis on *try*

    I don’t know if that makes me an “accomodationist” or something… let it be said that I really don’t disagree with (on the whole) or dislike the so-called “New Atheism” or whatever. I generally think it’s a great movement and is mostly doing good things.

    What I can’t stand is the black-and-white thinking mentioned in the post. I hate it when it comes to just about any topic. I’ve always said that no-one likes being wrong, and no-one changes their mind from being yelled at. If the impression we give is one of petty “I’m right and you’re wrong”-ness, people won’t take us seriously. If we shout down people who disagree rather than explaining WHY we think the way we do, we will push them away.And if we tear ourselves apart quibbling over this sort of thing, people WILL think we’re at least as fringe as the people we’re trying to fight.

    And it’s really not that hard to turn people away. I barely read Pharyngula anymore, and NEVER read the comments, because they feel totally unwelcoming and closed off to dissent. And I’m someone who MOSTLY agrees with PZ! How must it look to people who don’t? Thank goodness Skepchick has never turned that way.

    Anyway, I’ve ranted enough. Once again, nicely done, Maria. I hope people think about what you’ve said and use it as a way of being slightly more accepting, not as yet another place for polarization.

  3. I really appreciated this article.

    (I say this as someone who has railed, mostly to my mother who believes in something/one but she’s not sure who/what, about 3 times in the last week about people pushing god on me as a solution to the ills of the world. Mind I don’t feel bad about railing but I do feel like I should go back and make sure my mom knows I understand where she is coming from and where I am coming from is a place of horrible pain (cause that rarely leads to calm rational discussions imo).)

  4. The evidence is clear that smoking puts you at a higher risk for cancer and yet, plenty of people who call themselves skeptics go ahead and light up every day.

    Does that make them less of a skeptic? A hypocrite? Less intelligent? Would you stop a smoker from MC-ing TAM?

    Well, it depends. If the person in question claims that they are smoking because smoking does not really cause cancer, then I’d say that yes, they are less of a skeptic.

    However, if they know and accept the evidence that smoking leads to a higher risk of cancer, and choose to smoke anyway because the pleasure they get from smoking outweighs the risk in their opinion. (Or alternatively, that the effort needed to break the habit is in excess of what they are willing to put forth for the reward they would get), then I’d say that they are no less of a skeptic and have made their own decision regarding their life.

    Being a skeptic doesn’t mean that you have to automatically choose the ‘best’ option. It’s not about taking the path of least risk or greatest benefit. Skeptics just look for evidence before accepting claims. What they do with the resulting claims is up to them. If the reward one feels they will gain is worth the additional risk, more power to them.

    Despite my opinion that the deism/smoking comparison is flawed, I agree that I see no point in castigating people as ‘not really skeptics’ just because they have a theistic belief that they aren’t basing factual claims on. (Not really skeptics…a bit of the No True Scotsman in that, methinks)

    I may disagree with their belief, and I may not mind a friendly discussion on the matter, but I’m not going to claim that they are therefore inherently irrational on all topics just because they have an admittedly non-rational belief.

    And yes, it’s true that beliefs inform actions, but I’ll save my immediate concern for those beliefs that are more likely to inform actions that I consider dangerous. As you said, we have bigger fish to fry.

  5. Maria, nice post! Skeptic here, former Lutheran pastor. Now call myself a Lutheran Atheist. No longer believe in god, but my first 60 years of existence can’t be erased or simply painted over. I consider a large portion of my ideas on the religion topic as a “language” that I grew up with. I no longer accept the main premise, but my “vocabulary” is still with me. Just listened to the 3/7/10 For Good Reason Podcast featuring Lionel Tiger, author of God’s Brain. I highly recommend listening to that podcast. I think it puts religion as an evolutionary and cultural phenomenon (=how the human brain has evolved to deal with everything that religion has come to mean for different people in different cultures) into a context I find very logical and understandable. It’s a good follow-up for anyone who’s fascinated by Maria’s entry here.

  6. Why should we treat this subject any differently than we do any other paranormal subject? It seems grossly hypocritical to me to walk on egg shells to avoid offending the religious, but blast homeopaths and psychics without a second thought. People are just as sensitive about these beliefs and equally likely to be skeptical about other subjects as the religious.

    Who decides which paranormal beliefs are sufficiently ridiculous or potentially harmful to merit criticism? I’m all for less dehumanization of believers by the skeptical community, but favoring one flavor of delusion over another just because it’s popular is chauvinism.

  7. Thank you for writing this. As a skeptic-with-faith, this is the most welcoming post I’ve seen from a skeptic community. I gave up the religion my parents assigned me because it was internally inconsistent. I took up a different faith system of my own choosing after two years of study, because I’ve had experiences that defy explanation with the current tools and measures available to me, and I needed a category for them. I’m not adverse to recategorizing those experiences if new tools and measures are developed that explain them, but for now, I’m comfortable with my irrational category for undefineable experiences because it makes me happy in the same way that a good story makes me happy.

    Personally, I find “you should believe this for which I have no evidence” and “you shouldn’t believe that because I have no evidence” to be two sides of the same coin. In either case, I’ll say hi in line at the supermarket, but I’m going to pretend I’m not home if I see it walking up the front walk with a fistful of leaflets.

    A word of support to CelticGoddess1326: I’ve also seen a chiropractor for back pain due to partial dislocations, because in my town the options were a chiropractor or an orthopedist with a really bad track record. I picked the one that didn’t claim she could cure my hayfever by putting a couple vertebrae back where they belong. She later was the galvanizing force in getting an accurate diagnosis for my husband after he was hit by a drunk driver. She refused to do any adjusting after looking at the x-ray report, and sent him back for an MRI, twice, because the pain he was describing didn’t make sense with the lack of injury being reported. The second MRI showed the damage – two disc bulges, multiple facet joint fractures, and three dislocated ribs. We’re glad she persisted after the doctors had written it off as “sometimes it just takes months for back pain to resolve.”

  8. I am afraid that most of the arguments in this post strike me as a little weak. Particularly the comparison of irrational belief to various types of perceived vice, such as smoking or eating fatty crap. The idea that certain activities which have the potential to shorten lifespan are inherently irrational to indulge in, mistakenly assumes that personal desire for longevity is universal. But it isn’t, varying levels of aversion toward potentially perilous acts, or conversely levels of desire for self-preserving acts, are subjective.

    Also, the argument from consequence that we should let skeptic/theist’s beliefs slide, “because it helps give them some perspective about where they stand in the universe” is silly. It’s no different than Sam Harris’ example of a person who believes there is a diamond the size of a refrigerator buried in their back yard ‘because it gives their life meaning’.

    “Unfortunately, what I see is a lot of atheists who say that any spiritual belief is simply bad thinking.”

    I do not see how it can be denied that for those with a genuine desire to minimize their delusions about reality, if the beliefs in question exist in the absence of good evidence supporting them, then they should not be permitted to escape the accusation of being a form of bad thinking. That’s just how it works. It doesn’t matter how desperately we may want to believe a thing. What matters is whether it’s true.

    There’s no reason we have to be dicks about any of this of course, but if you are publicly espousing a particular truth claim for not particularly good reasons, you should be made to suffer a little friendly embarrassment for your miscalculation. If your particular beliefs, in addition to being simply irrational, belong to a set which are shown to cause real harm to others, the embarrassment you might be made to suffer mightn’t be so friendly. I guess I’m just not much of an accomodationist.

    Can you be a skeptic and a theist at the same time? Yea, of course. Can you be a GOOD skeptic and a theist at the same time? No.

  9. @delphi_ote: There’s a difference between criticism and attack. There’s a difference between civil discourse and vitriol. And there’s a difference between being respectful and walking on eggshells. :)

    To me, it is entirely about respect… and NOT respect for the beliefs themselves, but for the people who hold them.

    It’s the same, in my book, as when people turned around and castigated Randi for his opinion about AGW. While some people used it as a “teachable moment” to demonstrate where he was misinformed and why proponents of AGW think what they think, others simply attacked Randi, treated him as “insufficiently skeptical,” and spat up bile. It was kind of disturbing.

    My feeling is that people who took the former approach on that issue probably make us look a lot better, as a community, than those whose responses trended towards the latter. And the same applies to this issue.

    Patience and respect are virtues that are often in short supply in this community. And being patient and respectful is not the same as being deferential or walking on eggeshells. It’s not about picking your battles, really, but more about coming up with smarter ways of fighting them :-D

    (NB: Please don’t take this as an argument for Mooney-esque “framing.” I still believe that the facts are the facts and should be presented as such. I simply think that being aware of tone and trying to treat people as people, not as “believers” or lumping them into whatever other out group they may fit with, will always give you the high ground and make you look a lot better to anyone looking on from outside)

  10. *applause*

    It makes me so cranky when one person accuses another of not being a “true skeptic,” whatever that is. I agree that our goals should be education, outreach, and reduction of harm, and alienating your potential allies isn’t going to do any good.

  11. Hi Maria,

    Interesting blog post, although I think you have created a bit of a strawman for your argument. Spiritual belief is bad thinking from a skeptical point of view, but, certainly, that doesn’t preclude the use of skepticism in other areas. If the skeptical believers can keep their cognitive dissonance under control, I have no problem with them, but is it really hard to understand why the non-accommodationists would be leery of someone with religious beliefs?
    It would be funny if disagreements tear apart the skeptical movement, but I doubt that they will.
    I thought your final remarks were a bit condescending, but I was amused by that.

  12. Of course you will find that there is no one way exclusive to all others regardless of rationality, proof,science,or any other “proof” of said belief or beliefs.
    We are ever changing and growing as a species,thus what may be or appear to be exact, proved,or not, can change from day to day.-even minute to minute.
    Magnus said
    if the beliefs in question exist in the absence of good evidence supporting them, then they should not be permitted to escape the accusation of being a form of bad thinking. That’s just how it works”
    I have to ask Magnus-what is good evidence and who sets the standard?
    Is good evidence on this blog the same as good evidence on a blog in say a culture living deep in the forest of South America?
    O.K. they dont have computers,or English Language or judgment because their language does not have a word for it; however , do they-could they have good evidence?
    what is the exact number of yays or nays at any moment in any culture, or group of people that makes a belief “good evidence? Is it a 60% ?
    Example,
    I say I truly Love my husband, my daughter,my grandchildren etc
    Now, I am kidnapped and held with a gun to my head
    The task
    I must PROVE my love for said people
    or
    I will be shot dead
    My captors are not from my country or my culture,as a matter of fact I have never heard of the tiny island they are from
    SO as I spout out statement like
    I would throw myself in front of a moving train for any of them-o.k. maybe not my husband-he is older then me…=)
    and other such commonly heard statements of Love in our culture
    My captors insist this in not proof
    So I ask you if you Love and say I Love you to anyone or anything
    How do you prove it?
    to turn the question around when anyone or anything expresses love to You
    how would you Prove that love given to you to another? or a skeptic?
    would every self proclaimed skeptic asses the love in exactly the same way?
    what if out of 10 self proclaimed skeptics 5 agree on the standards for proving love and five do not?
    TO go one step further
    how many have known a person you “believed to be loving,intelligent and rational”
    shock your shors off and deliberately hurt another person,abuse another, person,or kill another?
    Can I be spiritual by definition and not religious?
    Can I be religious by definition and not at all spiritual?
    EXPATRIA says
    To me, it is entirely about respect… and NOT respect for the beliefs themselves, but for the people who hold them.
    now he is getting to the heart of the matter
    treating all sentient beings with kindness,irregardless of their beliefs ,science, proofs, logic,semantics or lack there of.
    Perhaps ,Masala this is what you are defending
    “the people themselves.”
    In defending skeptics with self proclaimed beliefs be it Christianity,Hinduism,Judaism ,
    do your actions in and of themselves in anyway,change you own self proclaimed truth of being an atheist and skeptic?
    If 20 of us agree on an answer and 21 do not agree who is rational, who is correct? AND
    are we all rational and correct-(or not)in exactly the same way?
    I don’t have spell check on here ,so if you are a grammar nut, have fun with this.

  13. My own take on atheism is that I feel there’s a lack of sufficient evidence to justify a belief in god. However, I also don’t see definitive evidence that there is no god, so whatever. The question is pretty much up for grabs, and I don’t personally care where people fall on it as long as they’re not making any testable claims based on their belief (or non-belief) in a deity.

    I’m an atheist and I’m pretty sick of atheists being giant condescending dicks to people who aren’t non-believers – ones that have otherwise been doing yeoman’s work within the movement. I get enough of that kind of attitude off of Christians already.

  14. Let he who is without fantasy cast the first stone.

    No one among us is rational. We recognize rationality. We strive and struggle for it. And in that, I believe, we are better off than those who do not.

    But rational is far from all we are. Robert Ardrey said:

    Not in innocence…was mankind born. The home of our fathers was that African highland reaching north from the Cape to the Lakes of the Nile. Here we came about – slowly, ever so slowly – on a sky-swept savannah glowing with menace.

    I see no harm in an atheist who acknowledges his heritage, when he explicitly recognizes that it is heritage and nothing real.

  15. Thank you.

    Like Klaust, I cannot let go of my former very religious background. I still like to think in that “language.” I just downloaded the suggested “For Good Reason” podcast, I had skipped it because I tend to ignore the religiously themed podcasts/blog posts.

    I have been a bit irritated with the more strident “skeptics must be atheists” types recently. Sometimes because I feel like Hal Bidlack (and I did listen to that podcast) and Martin Gardiner.

    Mostly though I see a value in a religious community. My very dear mother-in-law has lost both her husband and a child in the last fifteen months. The community that is her church has surrounded her with support. The words spoken by family, friends and pastors have comforted her.

    Here is the other surprising part: one death was from suicide. There has been no chastising and blame put on the person or the family, but a surprising recognition of the reality of physical pain this person lived with daily and the resulting mental illness (living with chronic pain for a couple of decades can literally drive a person crazy, by the way, we learned that the county psyche ward provides very good psychiatric services… too bad they stop after the patient checks out!).

    I wish there was a secular equivalent to the community that is supporting my mother-in-law. While I really enjoy time with the Skeptically Drinking bunch in my city, I don’t think they are who I would turn to for support after a crisis.

  16. I so agree with NDDave
    I would also like to say that I don’t think @Data_Jack has anything against Hal, personaly. Nor do I. @Data_Jack and I are drinkers, and we gave up smoking about a year ago. That was a decision I made for myself. When I gave up religion, it wasn’t for my health, obviously. But it was a decision I struggled with and finally came to grips with.
    I started slowly. I knew it wasn’t logical, but I wanted to believe. I said Our Fathers for my family members who I thought might be in Pergatory (I spells it like I want…it’s not real) I ask ST. Frances to take every piece of road kill up and take care of them. (now I just say EWWWWWW)
    I know to disprove something is almost impossible, but *sigh* what my parents told me about god and heaven, *sigh*, I just can’t go there until I see it. If I get there, and they don’t want me, I don’t think I want them.

  17. @delphi_ote: I couldn’t agree more. There is a you tube clip of Dawkins debunking homeopathy here the doctor involved pretty much states that he knows that there is no science behind homeopathy but he still believes that it works. I have nothing against this guy personally either but I would not call him a true skeptic even if he was ruthlessly skeptical in every other area. We can’t give religion a free pass just because it is religion. I’m still happy to have a deist MC TAM but I wouldn’t care if the MC believed in UFOs or psychics as long as they didn’t say anything pushing their beliefs or expect others not to trash their beliefs.

  18. Thanks for all the feedback y’all. Sorry I’m just getting back to responding but, you know, sleep!

    @NDDave: I think we just said the same thing. If a smoker denies that smoking is bad for them and makes that claim then yes, of course we should disagree and question them and ask for evidence and question their skepticism. Similarly, if a religious person makes a claim that is testable or tries to push religion on to us, we should question it. My point is that if either of them say “I know this is not rational but I choose to do it anyway,” it doesn’t make them less of a skeptic and that’s the situation that Hal, and many others, are in.

    @delphi_ote: We shouldn’t treat religious claims differently. I’m just saying that if someone believes in a higher power (and acknowledges that they have no evidence for this and make no claims about it), there is no reason to fight that. It’s a fine line but I think it’s an important one. And, at the end of the day, as @Expatria said, it’s about respect and civilized discussion, which I think can be hard to find in the conversation about atheism because emotions run so high.

    @magnus h:

    The idea that certain activities which have the potential to shorten lifespan are inherently irrational to indulge in, mistakenly assumes that personal desire for longevity is universal.

    And I would say that the idea that the personal desire to be completely rational about every component of your life, emotionally and spiritually, is a bad assumption. Some people CHOOSE not to apply rationality to that one component of their life. Spiritual belief may be bad thinking but, in my experience, skeptics with faith choose that option knowingly and believe that skepticism shouldn’t be applied to what is inherently an emotional decision for them. Also, if you are saying that ALL smokers who are skeptics just don’t mind that they will have shorter lives, I don’t think that’s true. I think there are plenty of smokers who know it is an irrational indulgence and do it anyway.

    Can you be a GOOD skeptic and a theist at the same time? No.

    And that’s where I disagree. I think you can be a good skeptic if you are a theist and certainly if you are deist, as long as you acknowledge that you are not applying your skepticism to that one part of your life. And most skeptics of faith that I know are, like the rest of us, trying to figure it out. I spent many years being a theist, a deist and everything in between. Everyone has their own path when it comes to spirituality and belief and indeed, when it comes to skepticism in general.

    @malcolmW: Perhaps this is a problem that doesn’t exist. But I think in my own personal experience with friends who are skeptics with faith and in the comments here, there are plenty of situations where skeptics of faith do feel marginalized or condescended to. Hal said as much in the podcast and I think it’s more common that you’d think.

    @CaveGal: I *really* hope I didn’t come off as saying that Data_Jack had something personal against Hal. That’s not at all what I meant. I simply posted his comment because I wanted to bring up what I thought was a very valid question.

    I think you’re right: skepticism is a path and we’re all stumbling along it in different ways. I think we need to appreciate and understand that and not ridicule, mock or deny someone being a skeptic because they haven’t come to the same conclusions as you have.

  19. If Martin Gardner (a deist, I believe) doesn’t meet the definition of a skeptic, then I confess I don’t know what the hell a skeptic is.

    If any of you try to call Gardner out on it, please let me know beforehand. I’ll bring popcorn.

  20. It’s a matter of competence. Part of being a skeptic is being successful at divesting yourself from magical thinking. If you haven’t then you have some ways to go.

    I don’t think this should be accomodated. In terms of skepticism desire for believe should be a deficiency,not a particularity.

  21. Figured I’d go at this on a full night’s sleep.

    Like @Teaspoon, I am a deist/theist, although I actually opted “in” to faith in my mid 30’s, as opposed to the more common path of moving out of a heavy religious background into deism. I currently choose to participate in a local Presbyterian church because that style or worship works reasonably well for me, while still keeping me challenged on a theological basis. God knows, I disagree with a large number of the standard tenets of the Presbyterian faith! But still, I find it works for me. I have found enormous personal satisfaction from singing in the choir, and participating in other social groupings at church. As an introvert by nature, finding a group of people with whom I can truly share my life, both good and bad, has been one of the best things that has ever happened to me. My friends in the church are well aware of where I am with my faith, and not only do they still choose to support me, they have opted to put me in a position of some power within the church because they recognize the value that I can bring. I am quite sure I have influenced many of them into being willing to explore their own faith doubts more openly.

    As much as I appreciate the fact that Masala and others of you support the presence of people like me in the skeptical movement, I still feel like Masala’s post was occasionally too condescending. Not all of us skeptics who have some kind of faith do so simply because it makes us feel good and relieves our existential angst. If anything my faith causes me more existential angst than it relieves! Plain and simple, the reason I believe in God is because I interpret God to be a better explanation for certain occurrences in my life than “non-God”. For me personally, these experiences fall somewhere on the spectrum of “evidence”, although I freely acknowledge that there are other good explanations for those same occurrences which don’t result in the God conclusion. Nor are those same experiences likely to be interpreted the same way by others. I may still decide, at some future date, that God really isn’t the best explanation for what I have experienced. I am open to that possibility. But for the time being, I choose to operate under the yes-God assumption, and to see where that conclusion leads me. I struggle with faith every day, but that’s OK with me. I like the challenge! I wouldn’t have gotten my PhD if I didn’t like thinking about difficult problems.

    This site has always done a really good job of trying to be open to people of varying degrees of skepticism. There are the occasional comments that treat anyone who isn’t a 100% pure skeptic as being plagued with delusional beliefs, but those are fairly rare. Like @Expatria, I no longer read PZ’s site because of the angry, ranting, conformism that is so prevalent in the comments, although I frequently agree with much of what PZ himself writes. That site is definitely suitable only for the “true followers” of PZ’s way. I am really grateful this site has not developed that way.

    Thanks for allowing me to participate in your discussions, even if you do harbor suspicions about me being delusional! :)

  22. [email protected]Masala Skeptic: Emotions run high in all of these discussions. Nobody is begging the skeptical community to be nicer about belief in UFOs. I’ve heard some terrible insulting and unwelcoming language from skeptics on that subject.

    I still haven’t heard any justification for this particular kind of woo being granted special protection. The fact that some are willing to admit that they believe without evidence doesn’t make them more intellectually honest than other believers. In the end, this is all logical fallacy and irrational belief territory.

    You can discuss all kinds of woo without being rude. You can agree to disagree about any subject. We should treat anyone who disagrees with us like a human being. Religion isn’t special. It’s just popular.

  23. Nice post. I’m diggin’ it, Chica.

    I think I’ve said this on this blog before, but skepticism is what I do, more than a skeptic is what I am.

    I know it’s an awkward phrase, and the idea behind it may just be a trick of semantics, but I think it’s an important thing to recognize. Skepticism is a method. It’s a tool. And like any tool it can be used for a lot of jobs, or for none at all.

    I use the tool of skepticism for the jobs that are important to me; for those things that might hurt me, or for those things that I just have an interest in knowing about. Things that make me feel good, whether rational or not, often never see that tool.

  24. To all those people claiming there shouldn’t be a double standard when it comes to criticizing religious beliefs as opposed to pseudoscientific or paranormal ones: you’re absolutely right.

    If you’re a non-asshole, you don’t attack people for believing that water has magic-retention powers or that aliens live among us or that God set the universe into motion or that Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA) isn’t a homosexual. These may be silly beliefs, but who cares?

    Non-assholes attack people for hurting others by acting on silly beliefs. Fair game: homeopaths selling magic water to sick people, quacks convincing the mentally vulnerable they were abducted by aliens, and religious politicians who block civil rights because God told them homosexuals like Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA) are gross.

    It’s a simple line.

    That said, Maria is an accomodationist and probably voted for Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA).

  25. Since my introduction to skepticism, I have struggled with it. In fact, in the beginning, Elyse and I had a couple of rather heated arguments.

    Elyse has pushed me and pushed me to think critically. One of my primary struggles has been to completely give up the notion of a deity.

    Elyse has pointed out a few prominent skeptics who still believe. This really helped me.

    I now consider myself a skeptic, and I am agnostic.

    I think this is a question of respect. Whether you are an Atheist, Christian, Agnostic, etc., the key is a two way street of respect.

    Seriously, what does belief in a deity have to do with homeopathy? Because I hold on to a belief, I cannot fight against people allowing disease to exist and spread?

    Did you ever think some people just cannot let go?

    Maybe it is similar to the way we cannot let go of stormtroopers, intergalactic battles, worlds of warcraft, or a mutant in tights swinging on a web through the streets of New York.

    In the end, there is more than enough common ground in which we can focus our efforts.

    Now, let’s go get Jenny McCarthy!!

  26. @AmateurScientist: I did *not* vote for Phil Gingrey!

    I can’t vote in this country.

    @SpiralArchitect: Oh sure, you’re all happy and nice but say that someone should watch Star Wars in numerical order and the story changes with you. I’M ON TO YOU ANDERS!

    @Sam Ogden: Sorry, I have to say it: YOU’RE a skeptical tool!

    :) To the rest of you, I’ll respond to anything that others haven’t later when I’m not at work :)

  27. I disagree with the definition of atheism as saying definitively there is no god and nothing happens when you die. I call myself atheist and say there is no convincing evidence of gods and we don’t know all that happens when you die.

  28. I don’t agree with everything you wrote, Maria, but it does a better job of representing my view on deist and theist skeptics than anything I could write, so I won’t try to add to it. I’d rather comment on this bit:

    I’ve always said that Atheism will never become the prevalent belief system in the world simply because we have a terrible marketing message: There is no God and nothing happens when you die.

    I think this is true, and I think the solution is to create Atheistic belief systems with positive marketing messages, and let the “There is no God and nothing happens when you die” hide in the background.
    I call my attempt at this the Church of Eternal Life.
    As far as we know this is the only place in the universe with life, and it’s very nearly certain that it’s the only place with “our kind” of life. The unintelligent life on this planet is doomed to perish with it. We could possibly save at least some of it from that fate if we chose to make the effort.
    There’s more to it than that, but the message is a positive one, with atheism as an implicit premise, which you can find if you read our material.

  29. Some of the smartest, most interesting, compassionate people I have known have been religious. I don’t see much value in the practice, and would argue vigorously with any assertions made on a religious basis, but to have faith because it ‘feels right’ is perfectly in line with what we know about our brains. Religious thought seems to be an evolutionary shortcut*, much like behavioral instincts that “cost” less from an evolutionary standpoint than the development of a mechanism for learning those behaviors . Depression is irrational too, and might be more analogous to religion for the aforementioned reasons (generated by our brain whether we like it or not). I would not call someone un-skeptical because they had bouts of irrational depression just as I can’t fault someone for having a God generator in their head.

    Some skeptics don’t have a god generator.
    Some skeptics overcome their god generator.
    Some skeptics acknowledge their god generator and put it in a box where it can’t do too much harm and might do them a little good.

    My problem with places like pharyngula is that they aren’t happy unless everyone falls into the first two groups when all of those have the same basic outcome. Yes the latter may not acheive the destruction of all religions, but neither will anything else as long as our brains are what they are.

    *though to what, I’m not certain… I would hypothesize that it allowed early man to benefit from rational thought (a seemingly unique trait to humans) without being immediately baffled and destroyed by all the inexplicable weirdness in the world. It took milenia of research to reach the understanding that we have, so a shortcut was needed. It also might be a consequence of another function like creativity and imagination. As humans we create our world, hence the most imaginative creators survive, and thus they tend to imagine a larger, better creator.

  30. I use to be religious. I decided I needed some evidence for me to continue with my beliefs. I started looking for evidence and did not find any. I then looked at the world and my experience in the world to see if I could reconcile what I believed and the reality I was confronted with every day, and no reconciliation was possible. Also I found religion to be completely ordinary and having no special merit in dealing with any social or human problem, except as just another human organization in that groups can get more done than an individual. In the end it seemed to me that a rational world view precluded religious beliefs. If you are comfortable with the disconnect of being a skeptic and holding irrational beliefs then fair enough. I however do not feel that is a reasonable accommodation given the lack of evidence and the observed reality we live in. And I would never say someone was not a skeptic just because of their religious beliefs.

    And as phhht said above we’re all irrational beings and this is where life’s adventure has led me.

  31. @James Fox: Please explain how all of that doesn’t apply to depression or anxiety.

    Yes, it is awesome that your brain works the way it does. Remember that rationality is only part of our brain function. Sometimes it can overcome other parts, sometimes it can’t. To fault others (and I know your post was pretty accomodating, I just take issue with saying that others are “comfortable with the disconnect”) for not being able to do what you have done, or assume they haven’t tried is a tiny bit arrogant.

    Example: I have what I would classify as mild depression and mild anxiety. I can usually overcome them through pretty straightforward, non-prescription means. For me to criticize others with more extreme versions of those conditions for not using the methods I do, or assume that they would even work would be disrespectful to those people.

  32. As usual, @AmateurScientist nailed it.

    If you can disagree and discuss issues with people WITHOUT being an asshole, then you’re alright. But if you can’t stand side by side with a deist or other mostly-skeptical believer without shunning them, then you’re displaying exactly the sort of intolerance that our critics often accuse us of.

    There’s NOTHING that cheeses me off more than proving our critics right :-P

    Our top priority should be to attack ideas that actively harm other people, and to go after people who knowingly perpetrate scams or who, through intention or ignorance, promote harmful ideas. We should do this by using critical thinking, rational argument, and (of course) humor to spread good information and demonstrate both where these harmful ideas are flawed, and why our ideas are “better.”

    Resolving the inner contradictions of other skeptics is a pretty low priority target, as far as I’m concerned, and insulting or shunning those people is downright counterproductive. Civil argument and discussion, on the other hand, is fair game.

  33. Thanks for this.

    Part of the downfall of my faith was the disgusting exclusivity. It pains me greatly that I’ve not been able to leave it behind by leaving the church.

    I’m really shocked at the religiosity among atheists.

  34. I don’t understand this discussion at all.

    Seriously, why should someone who holds dear a belief that they acknowledge is evidence free about the very nature of reality want to be called a skeptic? And why should I refer to them as a skeptic if I don’t think that skepticism is compatible with holding a belief that you know is evidence free?

    Why is it disrespectful to have a definition of skepticism that precludes the intentional maintenance of an evidence free proposition?

    As for “let he who is without fantasy cast the first stone”… fine.

    I’m casting it. As far as I know, I am utterly without delusion or fantasy about the nature of reality. I accept that what I see is at best an imperfect model of what is there, and that my knowledge is utterly limited by my physical being. I will gladly divest myself of any belief if I can be shown reasonable evidence that this belief is false or unsupported.

    And you know what, Nicole? I’m pretty sure you feel exactly the same way.

    Being without fantasy does not mean that you can’t enjoy fiction or chocolate or love or Dr. Who or Star Wars. It just means that you don’t make things up about the actual universe without any evidence to back you up.

    If that’s what skeptic means to me–not making things up about the universe without evidence to back me up–then why is it intolerant to withhold that label from people who do make things up about the universe without any evidence to back them up?

  35. @SteveT: Plain and simple, the reason I believe in God is because I interpret God to be a better explanation for certain occurrences in my life than “non-God”.

    ——–

    In which case, as skeptics, we should be able to discuss those experiences, your evidence, and possible alternate explanations without it being an “attack” or some kind of assault on your being, the same way we could discuss computer models of the world climate or any other topic.

  36. I frankly don’t have much problem with skeptics who are deists or theists and recognize that the belief is irrational. It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t challenge them on those beliefs, or ask them why they hold them, or argue with them about it–civilly, of course. If there’s anything any skeptic should understand, it’s that an argument doesn’t necessarily require one to be a dick.

    That being said, I also don’t think it’s unwarranted to consider such people “not good skeptics.” If your definition of a “good skeptic” is “someone who tries to exercise skepticism in every part of their lives,” or something similar, then it really doesn’t matter that a person has compartmentalized an irrational belief completely and isolated it and recognized it as irrational. That’s still something that they exempt from their skeptical thinking, and I think that’s a bad first step to take.

    But I’m not going to go around calling Martin Gardner and Hal Bidlack “bad skeptics.” They’re not, I just don’t understand how they can justify their beliefs or hold them and be consistent. And if I ran into one of them, I might ask that question.

    I have to wonder, though: how many irrational-but-I-recognize-that-it’s-irrational beliefs can a person hold before they’re no longer capable of being a good skeptic? Can I be a good skeptic if I believe (but know it’s an irrational belief) that water has memory, and that has a therapeutic effect? Can I be a good skeptic if I believe (but know it’s irrational) that water has memory and that subluxations are the cause of most disease? Can I be a good skeptic if I believe (but know it’s irrational) that water has memory and subluxations cause disease and the medical industry is a giant conspiratorial plot by the Illuminati and the Reptoids and Big Pharma to keep everyone sick and suppress the real medicines of nature? At what point does “I believe this irrational thing and know it’s irrational” become “I believe irrational things”?

    This sort of black and white arguing could tear the skeptical movement apart.

    I think the thing that’s more likely to tear the skeptical movement apart is the sudden influx of people who think there’s one right approach to skepticism that everyone should follow. MasalaSkeptic isn’t necessarily in that camp, but there seem to be an awful lot of people (and I won’t name names) who think that they have the movement all figured out. I’ve seen some interesting claims about what we’re all doing wrong, what we all should be doing, how we should go about the skeptical process, what skepticism can and cannot say, and so forth. What I keep failing to see is data to support these claims, or reasons to think that there is one right way to treat irrational beliefs or the people who hold them.

    I think the skeptical movement can hold people who are overly polite and people who engage in ridicule, people who show deference to faith and people who attack it as mercilessly as other woo, people who think it’s okay to be irrational sometimes and people who don’t. I’m just not sure if it’s big enough to hold people who think their one way is right and everyone else is wrong.

  37. @mikerattlesnake: I’m not sure what you’re getting at but I tried to make it clear that my decision process was my own, and clearly my perception colors how I regard others and the conclusions they have come to. With regard to mental health issues I have some fairly strong opinions about how religious institutions and many religious people are not only unsympathetic toward those with mental health issues they can be outright rejecting, emotionally abusive or guilt inducing. Certainly that is not the case with every religious group or person, but that a person is reasonable and caring is, in my opinion, what we generally are as humans and not a byproduct of religion.

  38. @phlebas: If Martin Gardner (a deist, I believe) doesn’t meet the definition of a skeptic, then I confess I don’t know what the hell a skeptic is.

    ———–

    A skeptic is someone who embraces doubt as a core philosophical principle that they apply to all claims about the nature of reality. Classically, we can divide skeptics into a variety of camps. Scientific Skepticism, for example, holds that one should question all claims lacking empirical evidence. By that definition, Martin Gardner would likely not be a skeptic if he is also a deist, because he is probably failing to question a claim that lacks empirical evidence (I qualify this because he may have empirical evidence that I am unaware of).

    Academic Skepticism holds that absolute truth is most likely unknowable. Therefore, we can only achieve an approximation of truth and hold beliefs with only conditional certainty. This is closest to my own viewpoint. By that definition, Gardner might be a skeptic if by “Deism” he means that there is some possibility that there is a God. But by that definition, Richard Dawkins is a Deist as well.

  39. @Tom Foss:

    I’m just not sure if it’s big enough to hold people who think their one way is right and everyone else is wrong.

    Agreed, on both fronts. You’re right to say that we can and, inevitably, will have a wide range of views and methods represented within the “movement.” *

    My only concern is how we look when the shouty and intolerant-seeming ones come to represent, in the public’s mind, skeptics as a whole. This happens in other movements too (feminism comes to mind) and I know it tends to drive off people who PROBABLY agree. That’s why I advocate for a more civil approach. But certainly, there’s no reason for unanimity.

    * I also have to say that I hate the word movement, in part because I’m a five year old and can’t help but imagine the word “bowel” in front of it whenever I read it.

  40. “Of course not. It simply makes them human. Taking comfort or pleasure in a glass of wine or a cigarette is simply that – finding comfort in something we rationally know isn’t ‘good for us’.”

    This essay apparently should be required reading for all skeptics. Skepticism is not equivalent to aesthete rationalism.

  41. @Expatria

    My only concern is how we look when the shouty and intolerant-seeming ones come to represent, in the public’s mind, skeptics as a whole.

    I don’t think there’s any avoiding this. Whether talking about skepticism or atheism, I don’t really think it matters how nice and polite you are (except that “nice and polite” often tends to equate to “ignorable”). Take a look at how often Richard Dawkins is characterized as “shrill” or “vitriolic” or “angry”–it doesn’t matter that in his writings and speeches and public appearances he’s almost always very calm, level-headed, and soft-spoken (while also pulling no punches in a very British way), he earns that characterization regardless. You only have to look at the sort of outrage that’s leveled against people like Randi or Dennett or Eugenie Scott or (recently) Steve Novella to see that regardless of actual anger or rudeness, skeptics and atheists will be called angry and rude by large swaths of the general public.

    At the bottom line, I think people have grown to see it as “rude” when their beliefs are questioned, challenged, or debunked–regardless of the belief or the tone of the challenge. This attitude is what we need to fight and correct if we want to make progress, and we can’t do that by refusing to challenge beliefs.

  42. @Tom Foss:

    Yeah, you’re right; to an extent, it IS inevitable.

    But despite its inevitability, we don’t need to sink to the level of our counterparts or justify the low opinions of our critics :)

    I say, be firm about facts, curious about ideas, and flexible about people! Individuals almost always respond more favorably when you treat them as individuals.

  43. (Why oh why oh why am I getting involved in this thread? Somebody stop me!)

    The core difference between deism and belief in homeopathy is that while they both lack empirical evidence, only one is actually testable. So there are really three categories of “beliefs”

    #1. Testable and proven – we all like these! “Yay vaccines!”

    #2. Testable and either not proven or disproven – we all don’t like these – “Boo homeopathy!”

    #3. Untestable – here is where the trouble lies – “Dear God, hope you got the letter and…”

    To some, an untestable claim belongs up in #2 with the not-proven things. I can see that point – there is no proven evidence of this, so why believe in it?

    To others, an untestable claim is outside the realm of skepticism and science. If it can’t be tested, there can therefore be no evidence either way, so science has nothing to say about it. String Theory is in that position right now. It’s completely untestable given current science, yet many scientists believe it offers a revolutionary understanding of the universe. Me, I’m stringnostic, but that’s another story (actually, I’m stringnorant!).

    Let me put it another way. I *believe* that my Dad hated chicken, but enjoyed turkey. However, he passed away 14 years ago, so this is a completely untestable claim. All I can do is gather anecdotes from my Mom and my brother, maybe an uncle or two, but that’s not evidence. So as a skeptic, do I believe that he hated chicken, that he liked chicken, or that he was ambivalent about it? Science has nothing to say about it, there is no evidence, and yet… I believe… Wholeheartedly… That he hated chicken.

  44. @sethmanapio:

    Oh, I know the dictionary definition of it. But since I have to live in the real world and be surrounded by real humans, I don’t find it practically useful.

    With the possible exception of you ( :) ) I doubt anyone is The Pure One when it comes to skepticism. There are, no doubt, things in my own brain that I was told, accepted, and never thought to question. I will probably not think to question any of them, until I get to a point where they either affect my decisions or I start inflicting them on someone else.

    I don’t think anyone gives two shits what anyone else thinks makes a Skeptic. The point is that people like Hal Bidlack and Martin Gardener and other notable “skeptics” I know of are actively promoting critical thinking and a love of science. Moreso than either of us are. Why should we alienate people like that? Their unfounded ideas about what kicked off the Big Bang are different from our unproved ones?

    That’s a pretty high standard to live up to. Applying that across the board would probably make the skeptical movement pretty small, exclusive, and unwelcoming.

    No one is saying you can’t talk to Hal about his deism, if he is willing to talk to you about it. All anyone is saying is that JUST MAYBE there is room under the tent for people who promote the scientific method, even if their mental pathways are different from your own.

  45. Thanks for the great post Maria.
    Too often the skeptical community seems to pigeonhole those who hold any position other than complete atheism as victims of poor reasoning. As one who believes in a non-supernatural sense of the Divine, I cringe when I see skeptics further the false dichotomy of atheists vs. religionists as though a Unitarian Universalist and a Branch Davidian are roughly equivalent.

  46. The base issue with this, as I see it, is differentiating between belief and practice.

    I don’t take issue with a logical rational person that chooses to believe they will join their families in heaven after they die if they are other wise promoting goodness in the world and not claiming an unprovable truth.

    A skeptical atheist douchbag will also get no favors from me. I don’t care if we are similar or not, it matters how we are similar.

    The same goes for the pope and his posse of holy childrapists. They can claim all the “goodness” in the world for all I care, if Doctors without borders were guilty of the same crimes I’d denounce them too.

    Monsters are monsters no matter how gilded their dresses are.

    It’s what you do.

  47. I have felt the same way, and I’m so glad that you put my feelings into words. I’ve never been able to explain it this well. It is different than psychics and homeopathy. I consider myself to be agnostic but religion-tolerant. Sometimes that generalizations about religion are not skeptical or rational and it is frustrating to hear. Not every single religion person is gullible and willing to fall for all kinds of crap. Even though atheists probably have it right, it seems like even some skeptics just have a personal grudge against religion and religious people that goes far beyond being rational.

  48. @Expatria

    Individuals almost always respond more favorably when you treat them as individuals.

    I agree wholeheartedly. Which is why I disagree with the notion that there is one right way to treat anyone with irrational beliefs, skeptic or otherwise. The lesson is not to treat certain beliefs or people with kid gloves or to set some things aside from criticism, but to pick your battles and tailor each “battle” to the situation at hand.

    Incidentally, for everyone, I believe Martin Gardner is a fideist, and he’s given the definition as “the view that belief in God rests on an emotional turning of the will, and cannot be supported by logic or science.”

  49. @Tom Foss:

    Incidentally, for everyone, I believe Martin Gardner is a fideist, and he’s given the definition as “the view that belief in God rests on an emotional turning of the will, and cannot be supported by logic or science.”

    Either way, if he can’t prove it, then he’s a shitty skeptic and we need to run his kind off before they ruin our rep!

  50. @Masala Skeptic: “But a religious person is not automatically an enemy of critical thinking or the scientific method. If someone decides to put aside rationality and believe in a higher power at an emotional level, it is unfair to say that this precludes them from being a skeptic.”

    ——

    Perhaps I do miss your point. Equally, you may be missing mine. It seems to me that what you are saying is that a ‘skeptic’ is a person who is involved with or sympathetic to the goals of organized skepticism. I disagree. I think that a skeptic is a person who holds a certain philosophical position. I do not think that this implies exclusion. There is no reason that people who are sympathetic to the goals of organized skepticism should not be involved in organized skepticism, regardless of their actual philosophical position. Nor do I think that skeptics have a monopoly on science or critical thinking: these methods of understanding are available to everyone.

  51. @phlebas: Why should we alienate people like that? Their unfounded ideas about what kicked off the Big Bang are different from our unproved ones?

    ——–

    This is where we have a fundamental disagreement. For some reason, you seem to think that if I don’t consider someone a skeptic, I’m alienating them. This seems weirdly exclusionary to me.

    Also, I don’t have any unfounded ideas at all about what kicked off the big bang, and I suspect you don’t either. I’m pretty sure that if I asked you, you would say “I have no idea.”

    Well, so would I.

  52. @phlebas

    Either way, if he can’t prove it, then he’s a shitty skeptic and we need to run his kind off before they ruin our rep!

    You know what’s going to tear the movement apart? Straw men. Faith doesn’t even figure into it; “good skeptics” don’t need to use logical fallacies to make their arguments.

    And I’m proposing that as a tautology, not a No True Scotsman. Just so you know.

  53. @Rob T.: All I can do is gather anecdotes from my Mom and my brother, maybe an uncle or two, but that’s not evidence.

    ——–

    Sigh.

    Actually, this is evidence. Not particularly reliable evidence, perhaps, but it is evidence. And if all of the available evidence suggests that your Dad hated chicken, than he probably did. This is a skeptical position, skeptically defensible. It has absolutely nothing in common with any claim of the existence of god that I’m aware of.

  54. @sethmanapio:

    I didn’t mean to imply that you are shunning people or being deliberately rude to those who don’t meet your criteria for being a skeptic. But the people who ARE are sort of the people Maria was talking about.

    You can think your black little thoughts all you want :)

  55. @phlebas: Either way, if he can’t prove it, then he’s a shitty skeptic and we need to run his kind off before they ruin our rep!

    ———–

    Phlebas, one cannot be a fideist and a skeptic anymore than one can be a romantic and a utilitarian. They are different philosophical positions. They make different claims about the nature of reality and our ability to understand it.

    Why do you think that we should run people off if they aren’t skeptics? If someone believes they have psychic powers, does that mean that we should ‘run them off’ if they simultaneously agree that science standards should be based in science? Are we ‘running them off’ if we state that belief in pyschic powers is incompatible (probably) with skepticism as a philosophy?

    I know you, Phlebas, and I think that you are exactly as much of a skeptic as I am. I do not think that you knowingly hold ideas as true without having evidence to support those ideas. While both of us may have blind spots, neither of us would knowingly maintain those blind spots once our attention was called to them.

  56. @Rob T.

    To others, an untestable claim is outside the realm of skepticism and science. If it can’t be tested, there can therefore be no evidence either way, so science has nothing to say about it.

    I disagree, though I keep seeing this claim pop up in recent conversations. If there is some objective claim (ruling out subjective things, like opinions and preferences), and there can be no evidence either for or against it, then science does indeed have something to say about it, and that something is the Null Hypothesis. Non-testable claims are not outside the realm of science and/or skepticism, they are rejected. Sure, the universe may have been created last Tuesday (or 6000 years ago) to look like it was 14 billion years old, but since the claim is not testable, we accept the Null Hypothesis with respect to that claim: that the universe is indeed as old as it appears to be.

    There seems to be a growing number of skeptics who either reject or are ignorant of basic principles like the Null Hypothesis and Occam’s Razor as tools of the scientific enterprise, and so they want to put non-testable claims in some untouchable, outside category like “metaphysics” or “paranormal.” I call shenanigans: science can weigh in on any objective claim; on the vast majority of such claims, science’s contribution is outright rejection.

  57. @phlebas: I didn’t mean to imply that you are shunning people or being deliberately rude to those who don’t meet your criteria for being a skeptic. But the people who ARE are sort of the people Maria was talking about.

    ——

    But in that case, aren’t we really talking about working with those who aren’t skeptics to further the goals of organized skepticism?

    Take Pamela Gay, for example. I don’t think she’s a skeptic (I really, really don’t. Sorry). Do we need her in the skeptics movement? Yes.

    But we also need her to embrace her identity as a Christian and work in that community. Her philosophical home is there, and some of her most valuable outreach–from our perspective–is in the church. We need her in our movement as well… not as a skeptic, but as a reminder that we can share common goals with people who are not skeptics.

  58. @Tom Foss: The trouble with bringing up the Null Hypothesis is that the experimenter is the one who determines what that actually is. So you and I would have a Null Hypothesis of a Big Bang completely void of any deity, whereas a believer would have a Null Hypothesis that involves a deity.

    That gets into the burden of proof discussion, and now I’ve got a headache.

  59. @James Fox: Yeah, i think the only thing that rubbed me wrong about your post was that you seemed to indicate that others weren’t choosing to take the route you took.

    Like: “I used to get a bit depressed, but then I started taking a walk outside every day and it made me feel almost entirely better. I won’t try to push this method on people who are comfortable staying depressed, but I don’t understand why they would be.”

    For the rest of you, should I take your non-response as a de facto rejection of the “religion is a variably occuring function of the brain that can be regulated to a degree with rational thought” hypothesis ? If so what fundamental mistake am I making? Are people who occasionally succumb to and/or act irrationally because of their depression or anxiety unfit to be called skeptics?

  60. @Masala Skeptic: *gasp* You did not just use Ewoks to represent the whole of Star Wars. I can’t even dignify that with an argument.

    For the record, I totally agree with your post and I think it’s awesome. However, when Star Wars is in contention, I’m sorry, I’m going to have to start drawing some lines.

  61. As to who cares… here’s my position (and I may be talking about this and other issues at the Atlanta Skeptics in the Pub on April 17th if someone wants to take a swing at me)

    One problem with skeptical outreach is that it gets confusing. What exactly are we talking about? What’s a ‘skeptic’. What do we mean by ‘skepticism’?

    Skepticism needs a positive message. To have a positive message, you need to have an identity. Skepticism is wanting to know what’s true, it’s about open-minded inquiry. And that inquiry can take you to some wonderful places, even spiritual places (for some definition of spiritual).

    If we close ourselves off from this definition, and we insist that you have to include deists and theists and Christians as ‘skeptics’, than skepticism can only be defined by it’s common enemies. So oddly, by trying to become more inclusive, we become less positive and more about what we hate than about what we love.

  62. @Rob T.: Well, your Dad existed, for one thing. Your mom has evidence that your Dad existed… you. If your mom has equivalent evidence that God exists, I think you might have a point there.

    And yes, to everyone. I do actually know the difference between its and it’s. My fingers get confused.

  63. Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained is a pretty convincing deconstruction of the popular reasons people give for what religion provides, tackling claims from both believers and nonbelievers. I bring this up because of certain members feeling condescension in Masala’s post, which isn’t unfair of them. Plus Boyer isn’t an asshole. >.>

  64. To be clear: I don’t think we should exclude anyone from being a True Skeptic(tm) if they want to hang out with us. But if they hang out with us, they should accept that all areas, including their sacred cows, are open to discussion and criticism. Ducking the disagreement because it’s unpleasant is shying away from a core value we all supposedly share. Anyone asking for special consideration for a certain belief is shirking their intellectual responsibility to defend that belief.

    We just all have to be grown up enough to have an adult discussion.

  65. @mikerattlesnake: For the rest of you, should I take your non-response as a de facto rejection of the “religion is a variably occuring function of the brain that can be regulated to a degree with rational thought” hypothesis ?

    ——–

    No. You should not. You should take it (from me, at least) as being unwilling to engage on this front at this time because you are making a core mistake similar enough to the smoking/god belief metaphor and the skeptic/rationalist fallacy that I think that it’s already been covered.

  66. 1. I’m never watching Star Wars

    2. There are people in this world, who self-identify as skeptics, who get their science information and scientific definitions from Stan Lee… and think that a man who spins fucking webs from his arms when he’s bored is somehow something other than a goddamn mutant.

    3. I believe that there’s alien life out there. Don’t most of us? Big deal. Is that really any better than thinking some sort of god exists? There’s just as much evidence.

  67. @sethmanapio:

    Phlebas, one cannot be a fideist and a skeptic anymore than one can be a romantic and a utilitarian.

    We’re just gonna have to disagree on this, and I’ll meet you behind Manuel’s after your talk on April 17 :)

    And Spock is much better than Ewoks.

  68. @Elyse: Actually, these are very different positions, alien life and god. We have evidence that life exists, and reasonable hypotheses that life is a natural process. We have evidence that there is a lot of nature.

    Nothing equivalent can be said about God.

  69. @phlebas: “We’re just gonna have to disagree on this”

    ——–

    If “skeptic” is a philsophical position, than we actually can’t agree to disagree. It would be like agreeing to disagree that one can be a libertarian and a totalitarian.

    If what you mean by “skeptic” is “activist in a movement that I define as skepticism”, then we disagree on the definition of skeptic… and I hope to convince you that my definition is the more powerful, inclusive, positive, and useful one when I have the chance.

  70. @sethmanapio

    “Well, your Dad existed, for one thing. Your mom has evidence that your Dad existed… you. If your mom has equivalent evidence that God exists, I think you might have a point there.”

    A christian would tell you that existence itself is proof of a creator. If you admit that you can’t prove there is not a god, then you open that possibility that there is a god. These deists, who are skeptics in all other respects, are taking their chances in the unfalsifiable possibility of a god, however slim those chances seem to be to atheists like myself.

    The idea that there is a flying spaghetti monster is a specific claim to battle the specific unfalsifiable claims of religions, but is the idea of an abstract creator so generalized that using such a defense becomes meaningless?

    I can see how a deist can still be a rationalist, if you follow this hypothetical chicken eating father backwards in time to an unknown point of origin. You can’t test that point of origin, so the root of the seed of this hypothetical origin could very well be a hypothetical god.

    Someone could equally say that the hypothetical origin was an alien race or panspermia or inter-dimensional mating. Since we can’t know and have no way of knowing, we can’t say that the decision to believe defies critical thinking.

    Now, that changes if specific claims enter the picture, like those of christianity. Then, I would be inclined to agree with the idea that a christian can’t be considered a skeptic.

  71. @Ticktock: A christian would tell you that existence itself is proof of a creator.

    ——-

    Yes, but unlike Rob being evidence that he had a father, that’s a claim that has no basis in other facts.

    And you’re still equating skepticism to rationalism. These are not the same.

    And the position “There could possibly be a god” is not the same position as “There was a god.”

    The fact is, the default skeptical position for something you don’t have an answer to is “I don’t know”. If you employ some other answer as anything more than a hypothetical, you aren’t a skeptic as I (and 2300 years of western philosophers) define the term. I’m totally open to the possibility that there might be a god, I’m just not aware of any evidence that there actually is a god.

    At some point, someone is going to accuse me of being pedantic here, I’m sure, but Jesus H. Read the other comments. Look at the tiny cracks that the other commenters are trying to open in my position. Look at the bending over backwards that people want to do to accomodate individuals that they like while excluding those they don’t.

    Either skeptic just means “friend of mine” or we can be friends with non-skeptics.

  72. Call me misinformed, but I thought always thought that skepticism solely deals with things that can be measured by science. We can take on aliens, homeopathy, and young earth creationism because there’s evidence against it. Now, if you want to say that there’s a man behind the curtain made of the fabric of space, and he has a master plan, and caused the big bang and manipulated the universe to make the Earth form, then cause evolution to make humans, and possibly beyond, what evidence is there against that?

    Now, if you reject the “Man Behind the Curtain” Hypothesis, how can you accept the Bubble Theory of the Multiverse? There’s just as much evidence, and its just as impossible to detect.

    Therefore, if you criticize a scientist for believing in a god, you then have to criticize scientists like Michio Kaku, and other scientists in support of the theory of the Multiverse.

  73. But the bubble universe is theoretical physics. I doubt that these scientists are claiming them to be actual fact.

    They are saying that if there were a bubble universe, what would mathematics and physics expect of such a reality. For instance, one of the expectations would be that the space in between the bubbles would have to grow at the same rate as the bubbles themselves, thus denying the bubbles to interact.

    A hypothesis is not a fact. It’s an idea that has yet to be tested. I think Seth is right that the best option is to claim agnosticism to bubble universes and gods, but I’m more forgiving of people who are convinced by those ideas, I suppose.

  74. @PrimevilKneivel: your position seems oddly parallel to the “same but equal” argument for civil unions instead of gay marriage.

    ———–

    Actually, the exclusionary bigot in that equation is the one who thinks that holding a specific philosophical position puts you in some kind of privileged state.

    And my ‘bizarre sense’ is that the word has a meaning beyond “person who should feel comfortable at a particular party”. I’m not trying to own the word, I’m applying a meaning that has existed for a couple of thousand years.

    If you don’t think that words are symbols that stand for other things, than I don’t understand why it would matter whether we call someone a skeptic or a fucktard.

    Clearly, it does matter. This is because words are symbols that stand for other things. So when we use a word, we mean something. I have something that I mean when I use the word Skeptic, and that meaning is consistent with the use of the word in western thought.

  75. @primevil

    They are either one of us or they’re not. Are you suggesting that there should be some new label for mostly skeptics, like being labeled bi-sexual?

    Maybe we should call such people woo-curious.

    This idea of fluidity in labeling happens in christianity. Just because someone goes to church, doesn’t mean that they are christian. What if this person read the bible and decided that Jesus was really a miraculous man, but that he was the son of Odin and not Yahweh? Would this person still be a christian?

  76. @sethmanapio: Nope, it’s not really close to either of those. Smoking is a choice (depression and anxiety are not) and despite how much you like bringing up the Spock argument, it doesn’t apply here.

    Shall I frame your argument for you so you can dismiss it by saying “strawman!” or would you like to give me an answer?

    To simplify my position without analogy: Religious/magical thought is a function of the brain. For some people it is more active than others. Some people can use rational thought to relegate it to a harmless niche in their existence when it is impossible to remove entirely and you would deny that those people can be called skeptics. I think this is silly.

    The only reasonable argument from your side would be evidence that belief is an entirely learned behavior.

    I admit that any evolutionary hypothesizing on my part is entirely devoid of research into that specific area, but given the ubiquity of religion in all cultures (and the fact that those who reject it often do so because of the tennets of organized religions, not because they banished religious thoughts from their minds) I am doubtful that it is entirely learned.

  77. I was going to say that I thought believers (religous, wooish, whatever) can not be good skeptics.
    Had it all typed out waiting to proofread when I had to step away from my desk.
    I won’t be making that claim now because of what just happened. I walked by someone’s desk and she had the local news/talk radio station on and I was reminded of an irrational-despite-all-evidence belief that I have and it softened my position.

    As long as the irrational belief does nothing to get in the way of using skepticism on a daily basis than that person can still be considered a good skeptic without justifying their beliefs. However, the minute that belief starts to interfere with thier overall skepticism then it must be defended or the person can not be rathionally called a good skeptic any more.

    Oh, and the belief I was reminded about?
    I am a Cubs fan and despite all evidence to the contrary truly believe that I will live to see them win a World Series.

    Maybe.

    Someday.

  78. @infinitemonkey: Therefore, if you criticize a scientist for believing in a god, you then have to criticize scientists like Michio Kaku, and other scientists in support of the theory of the Multiverse.

    ——–

    I don’t, actually. He doesn’t claim that this is a fact, merely that it is the hypothesis that he feels is most likely given the facts.

  79. @mikerattlesnake: Shall I frame your argument for you so you can dismiss it by saying “strawman!” or would you like to give me an answer?

    ——

    In case you are wondering, I actually think that the logical fallacy you are engaging in there is called “poisoning the well.” You are setting the audience to disbelieve whatever rebuttal I might bring up (since you don’t actually respond to my argument, but just dismiss it) by implying that I will use an unreasonable and unjustified claim that your reframing is a strawman.

    That’s a bullshit move, MR, and I’m not going to respond to it.

  80. @mrmisconception: I was reminded of an irrational-despite-all-evidence belief that I have and it softened my position.

    ——–

    So, rather than entertain the possibility that you weren’t a skeptic, or reexamine your position, you decided to redefine the word skeptic? Am I getting that right?

  81. @mikerattlesnake

    Should we then allow that anyone with a delusion gets an automatic pass from skeptics? Should we give people with delusional parisitosis a pass when they insist that they have mysterious morgellons disease? What about people who wake up in a dream state temporarily paralyzed? Should we give them the benefit of the doubt when they insist that they were abducted by aliens? I say not.

  82. @Ticktock: well, I purposefully avoided things like schizophrenia and parisitosis because they directly fuck with your actual perception of current reality. Depression and anxiety are more analogous because they affect your world view by proxy and can be regulated (to an extent) through behavioral intervention.

  83. “I am a Cubs fan and despite all evidence to the contrary truly believe that I will live to see them win a World Series. ”

    I have some homeopathic medicine I’d like to sell you. Clearly, you’re a true believer.

  84. Well, at some point perhaps sethmanapio and the handful of remaining people who fit his rigid and, frankly, outmoded definition of “skeptic” can… hang out and pat each other on the back, I guess? :-P

    And those who recognize that the definition he embraces has changed (as language always does, at least regarding usage) and broadened to include the modern skeptical “movement” in all its facets can get on with the business of trying to make a difference. ;)

    I mean, are we going to have to start distinguishing between “big-S” Skeptics and “little-s” skeptics? Because, honestly, those distinctions just further discord. And maybe “pedantic” isn’t the right word for that aspect of the debate… maybe the more neutral “academic” is the one we’re looking for?

    Whatever it is, my feeling is that in this case, when the “traditional” definition of the word is clearly failing to match the present situation, it might be time to amend that definition to include the popular usage. Just because a definition has existed for thousands of years doesn’t mean it’s still a fit definition. Its age is simply its age, not a testament to its applicability :)

    Anyway, my main point is still valid, regardless of which side you want to take in this debate about who is or isn’t a skeptic. To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut: There’s only one rule that I know of, skeptics—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.

  85. “The ‘name every logical fallacy you can’ gambit is particularly obnoxious, btw.”

    People respect it when you call out the logical fallacy without using the actual label. Once you say “poisoning the well” it offers them an opportunity to attack your manners and tactics rather than your actual arguments.

    Mike is pressuring you into his unrelated diversion (non-sequitur). You’re correct to walk away. He’s shown that he will resort to unsubstantiated insults (ad hominems) when confronted with ideas that challenge him.

    See how I used coded language? It comes off better. Not in this case because I revealed my intentions, but you know what I’m saying.

  86. @Expatria: And those who recognize that the definition he embraces has changed (as language always does, at least regarding usage) and broadened to include the modern skeptical “movement” in all its facets can get on with the business of trying to make a difference

    ———

    Fine. Tell me what your definition is. Do you have one?

  87. oh c’mon! I posed a well thought out (if not correct, and I given that I came up with it while reading this article and the comments I will gladly accept that it is not) explanation of why I thought religious thought and skepticism were not incompatible (despite being wholely without the stuff myself), seth gives some bullshit reasons for not addressing it, I get a bit pissy at seth, and that makes ME the unreasonable one?

    I frequent enough skeptical forums to know a cornered skeptic when I see one. Clearly you guys both have the ability to refute my argument, you just don’t feel like it.

    “He’s shown that he will resort to unsubstantiated insults (ad hominems) when confronted with ideas that challenge him.”

    You have yet to challenge me! That’s why I’m pissed! I’m sick of this bullshit deflection.

  88. @sethmanapio: Actually I disagree, the different but equal argument is about not giving privilege to one group but still maintaining a differentiation. I think that applies to your argument by your own definition. I also have to wonder exactly how many people in the “thousands of years” the term has been in use would pass your personal test.

    @Ticktock: No I’m suggesting if a person simply chooses to believe something in a part of life that has no evidence either way, and recognizes that as a choice and not some kind of truth, and is honest about that, it doesn’t negate the fact that they are skeptics.

  89. @sethmanapio
    So, rather than entertain the possibility that you weren’t a skeptic, or reexamine your position, you decided to redefine the word skeptic? Am I getting that right?

    Well yes, I guess in your all or nothing definition I am not a skeptic, BECAUSE OF A FANDOM. Really? Is that how narrow your worldview is?
    Well shit, I guess we all should give up right now because no one will never live up that defintion of skepticism.
    Geesh.

    Got to go now, I’m passing out flyer for the LDS later and I mustn’t me late.

  90. @expatria

    Who are you to say that the historical definition of skepticism is rigid and outmoded? You are making a claim that the term has broadened and is no longer applicable.

    I think it’s important to define terms before debating, but I don’t think that you can redefine terms without there being a conversation about it. Shouldn’t you be required to prove your point? I’m not saying that I even disagree with the way you’ve redefined the term, but that doesn’t mean that you are objectively correct.

  91. @PrimevilKneivel: I also have to wonder exactly how many people in the “thousands of years” the term has been in use would pass your personal test.

    ———-

    The vast majority of the people I know who identify themselves as skeptics, actually, including the author of this post.

    And it isn’t a ‘test’ and it isn’t ‘personal’.

  92. @mrmisconception: Well yes, I guess in your all or nothing definition I am not a skeptic, BECAUSE OF A FANDOM.

    ——–

    But the Cubs clearly can win the World Series. They are a team in the MLB. They play games. They are in a weak division. They could get hot. The Cardinals pitching could fail them. It’s fucking baseball, man, anything can happen. The Rays made it to the WS. The Red Sox came back from an 0-3 deficit to the Yankees in the ALCS and won it all!

    And there’s 162 games left to play this year, with the Cubs tied for first place in the division.

    I think that you’re selling yourself short here. There’s nothing magical in thinking that the Cubs can win it all.

  93. I don’t think you understand that I am being completely sincere when I say that I WANT you to divest me of any misconceptions in my initial post. You seem like a generally pretty smart guy (if sometimes a little to self-assured of your own infalible intelligence) and I welcome the chance to be set straight by somebody who knows more than I do. As it is, you’ve only showed me that you like to debate points that are easy for you to refute, and you’ll dance every step in the “I can’t be wrong” handbook to avoid those that are not.

    I would like to not be left with this impression. In fact, I would rather be left with the impression that I’m a big old dufus who made a glaring error in his thought process, instead I am left unsatisfied by any of your rebuttals.

  94. @sethmanapio:

    I don’t think I would call skepticism a philosophical position, although I could be convinced otherwise, depending on definitions.

    What I am disagreeing with is your position (at least as I perceive it) that being a skeptic requires you to constantly subject every aspect of your life to rigorous, continual scrutiny. While that is no doubt the definition of full-on skepticism, I don’t believe it’s a useful definition in anything other than philosophical discussions. I think it falls all to pieces when applied to fallible, inconsistent, emotional humans.

    Nor is it something that I find appealing. If that’s what it takes to call myself a skeptic, then I need a new name.

  95. @sethmanapio:

    Oh, I dunno. I’m not sure that rigid definitions are particularly applicable to social phenomena like the current skeptical thingamajig. On paper and in theory, things CAN be black and white. In formal debates, definitions are concrete. But in every day life, it seems to me we’re trading in greys.

    But if I were to try to define what makes a skeptic a skeptic, I guess it’d have to contain the following:

    – Identification with a program of applying critical thinking and reason to testable claims (perhaps you’d call that rationalism?)

    – Holding to the principal that, regarding testable claims, naturalistic explanations are preferable and more likely

    – Something about skepticism being more of a process than an endpoint or a list of results/beliefs

    – I’d favor open mindedness to other positions rather than a priori rejection. In fact, curiosity and willingness to change one’s mind in the light of evidence would be central parts of my definition. Something about adopting a mindset where everything is treated as being provisional (to a reasonable extent; I’m not invoking postmodernism).

    As I said, I simply think that, at this point, “skepticism” has evolved beyond whatever a philosophy textbook definition might define it to be, and if you really want to separate that formal term from the looser, modern usage within the skeptical “movement,” then that’s totally fair game. But for me, I think that’s just taking the term away from the reality on the ground.

    People can debate how that definition clashes with the way self-identified skeptics define it all they want, but I think at some point you’ve got to look at the way the term is being used. That doesn’t mean EVERYONE who adopts the term is justified in using it, but that it’s more about a person’s general attitude, approach to claims, and world view than whether or not they think there’s a god, ya know?

  96. @mikerattlesnake: Pretend I only wrote my first post then and pretend you didn’t right the dismissal of it that was completely off-base and inaccurate.

    ——-

    Fine.

    Skepticism is–in my view–a philosophical position. That’s how I’m defining the word. It’s easily accessible to anyone and everyone, and it has nothing to do with purity, accuracy, rationalism, or any of the other things that people keep throwing at me.

    Skepticism is the application of doubt to your beliefs.

    Let us assume that people are hard-wired to believe in supernatural forces. It does not follow, logically, that they are therefore hard-wired to be incapable of applying doubt to that belief.

    To the contrary, the evidence suggests that many people are perfectly capable of applying doubt to their beliefs, and frequently do. As an example, I was, at one time, a devout Christian.

    This process may be easier for some than for others. But to suggest–without evidence–that philosophical skepticism is only accessible to some special portion of the population who are genetically gifted with the ability to think clearly about such matters seems to me to be exclusionary and bigoted thinking.

    Since I have no evidence that people exist who are genetically incapable of surviving without magical thinking and a plethora of evidence that people exist who can survive without magical thinking, I prefer to go with the weight of the evidence. The weight of the evidence is that philosophical skepticism is a way of thought that is accessible to all and practiced by many.

  97. @mikerattlesnake

    I think it’s important to try to identify the evolutionary origins of this “god generator”. I’ve heard it said that our brains were designed to see agency in things we did not understand, but why then, did we continue to have faith after these unexplained phenomena were gradually explained by science?

    My view is that we evolved a modern faith in religion because non-believers were systematically eradicated unless they went into hiding.

    Your argument seems to be that belief is not a choice, but natural brain programming that we inherited. The very idea that Dan Barker, a former evangelical minister, could de-convert to atheism tells me that permanence of belief can’t be systematically proven, even in the most extreme examples of hard wiring. It might be hard for people to deny their impulses to believe, but it’s not impossible.

    Perhaps we can be a bit more forgiving of faith claims because of our evolutionary history, but we also evolved to enjoy the taste of sugar – that’s no excuse to eat twinkies all day.

  98. @phlebas:

    Nor is it something that I find appealing. If that’s what it takes to call myself a skeptic, then I need a new name.

    I’m with ya! I mean, taking such a strict and granular approach would probably bar every one of us from using the word, if we’re honest about it. I don’t think skepticism is about the disciplined application of doubt at ALL TIMES and on ALL FRONTS, but more about adopting a world view encompassing doubt and questioning as primary ways of understanding.

    Every one here is currently holding SOME sort of “incorrect” belief, I’d wager. And yes, perhaps most of us would abandon that belief if someone showed us why it was incorrect. But I wouldn’t deny someone the use of the word “skeptic” if the weight of evidence required to foster their abandonment of a belief (particularly one that’s ultimately untestable) is higher than it would be for me.

  99. @Expatria: In which case, your definition of skeptic is extremely close to mine, but less inclusive. That is, your definition requires identification with a movement or a program, and mine does not.

    I can sum my definition of philosophical skepticism up with this: Applying doubt to ones own beliefs, according to a consistent standard of evidence.

    However, there is also organized skepticism, which is an activist movement. And we could define a skeptic as someone who is involved in that movement as well.

    When someone states that they are “Not and atheist, but a skeptic” they are creating a context of examining skepticism in the philosophical sense, not the activist sense. To use the social definition in that case muddies the waters.

    I think that this is a problem, so I tend to use the word skeptic when I speak of philosophical skepticism, and skeptical activist when I speak of organized skepticism. And frankly, I don’t think that it’s healthy for organized skepticism to require skeptical activists to be ‘skeptics’, or to imply that skeptical activism equates to philosophical agreement with skepticism.

  100. @mikerattlesnake: It seems to me that an appeal to some vague biological/genetic explanation for the propensity of humans to hold religious beliefs discounts the clear evidence that being taught about religion seems to be the exclusive impetus for holding such a belief.

  101. @phlebas: What I am disagreeing with is your position (at least as I perceive it) that being a skeptic requires you to constantly subject every aspect of your life to rigorous, continual scrutiny.

    ——-

    You have not perceived correctly. I did not say that.

  102. @PrimevilKneivel: I wonder how far back your definition would hold up in any practical sense.

    ————-

    I’m not sure what your question actually is. Are you asking me how popular skepticism has been as a philosophy since ancient Greece? Because I don’t know.

    And “personal” is not even vaguely up for debate, dude. I didn’t invent the word and I’m not making up the definition.

  103. @sethmanapio:

    Well, then we don’t entirely disagree. I guess I just see the two approaches you describe as entries under the larger definition of skepticism, and not as mutually exclusive.

    I also did not mean to imply that being involved is a requirement under the vague definition I wrote in that comment, but merely one facet of the definition. Again, I think precision is difficult when dealing with such imprecise things as people :)

    And while I respect the distinction that you make between philsophical and activist skeptics, I think this distinction in terminology is probably a lost cause when it comes to practical usage… much like expecting everyone to use “momentarily” to mean the traditional “for a moment” instead of “in a moment,” as common usage shows… eventually it ceases to be worth arguing the distinction and the word comes to encompass both :)

    And, one last thing before I shut up and leave the computer for the evening:

    AGAIN, the most important part of the debate here, to me, is not how to define the word “skeptic.”

    It’s about how to treat people, skeptical or otherwise, with whom we disagree. I believe that giving people respect, up to and even exceeding the amount they give us, is the best approach here. Especially when dealing with people who are not spreading misinformation or actively harming other people… there’s no reason to snipe our allies, the opposition will do enough of that for us :)

  104. @phlebas: Then in the spirit of rational inquiry, might I suggest you consider the possibility your communication skills are lacking this afternoon?

    ——-

    My communication skills are always lacking.

    Skepticism is definitely a philosophical position. That’s just history, it’s really not up for debate. Skepticism as a philosophical position has been around since ancient Greece. It’s also, currently, a social movement. Again, that’s just history… we could debate it, but then we’d have to start debating heliocentrism or something like that.

    You created the idea of ‘constant’ and ‘rigorous’ scrutiny of every part of your life, I suppose, from my statement about applying doubt to your beliefs.

    But I’m not proscribing behavior. I’m just talking about willingness to be persuaded by evidence, unwillingness to be certain in its absence, and the humility to be persuaded either by presentation of evidence or the demonstration of its absence.

  105. @sethmanapio: How one identifies them selves is often quite different from the specific established ideas behind any number of philosophical, religious or political schools of thought. How the public uses a term and how it is understood in the common vernacular rarely hold up to a more scholarly analysis and comparison. Accepting the inevitable sloppiness of public discourse and the nature of human self identification seem necessary in this instance.

  106. @sethmanapio: But how many of those skeptics from ancient Greece and onwards questioned their thoughts but still chose to believe when there was no proof?

    like you said, a skeptic is one who applies doubt to what they believe. It’s a process not a result. You analyze the data and then come to your conclusions.

    What makes it personal is when some realize the data doesn’t tell them anything (or that there is no data), and then they decide to believe what they like until proven otherwise if it’s harmless.

    They have still used the process, they just use the results differently than you or I.

  107. @PrimevilKneivel: Actually I disagree, the different but equal argument is about not giving privilege to one group but still maintaining a differentiation.

    ————-

    Actually, historically, separate but equal is about maintenance of privilege through granting just enough concessions to the unprivileged group to get them to shut up.

    If you insist on using this metaphor for skepticism, I am suggesting that we don’t have to pretend that gay couples are actually straight couples or put them in some other institution like civil union, we can just accept them for who they are and stop denying them the right to get married.

    What I am actually saying, metaphor aside, is that the skeptical movement is not and should not be a special club that is only accessible to people who identify themselves as skeptics. A Christian who is sympathetic to many causes in skepticism should be able to participate as a Christian, without feeling uncomfortable.

  108. @PrimevilKneivel: What makes it personal is when some realize the data doesn’t tell them anything (or that there is no data), and then they decide to believe what they like until proven otherwise if it’s harmless.

    ——–

    Then they aren’t applying the process, because the end result of the process when there isn’t any evidence is “I don’t know.”

  109. @James Fox: Accepting the inevitable sloppiness of public discourse and the nature of human self identification seem necessary in this instance.

    ——-

    I both agree and disagree. I think that if someone says that they are “not an atheist, but a skeptic”, they are sort of setting themselves up for questions about the nature of philosophical skepticism… in which case, they should have a good definition. If they are using that phrase to explain how they maintain a Christian identity, they are not skeptics in the philosophical sense… and that’s the sense in which they themselves used the word.

    So I’m not talking about common parlance, as we would use the phrase when talking about skeptics in the pub or whatnot, but about instances where clear definitions are being implied.

  110. @sethmanapio: @James Fox: @Ticktock:
    Hey, those were all really good rebuttals that demonstrated that this is a different line of thinking than the smoking argument! I like this way better than the “whose logical phallus is bigger” contest! Now, all smugness aside…

    I would argue that two characteristics of belief allow all of your arguments to be true while not negating mine:

    1) Belief is controlled both by strong environmental factors as well as inherited factors. Therefore, someone who might not naturally be predisposed to religious conclusions can be indoctrinated in such a way as to cause them to adhere to religious thought for a good portion of their life, like a gay person living as if they were straight. This person could quickly deconvert when they ask the right questions.

    2) Susceptibility to belief is a spectrum. It’s not all or none. A sample size of one is not enough to convince me.

    Also remember the following: We’re talking about self-identified skeptics who maintain a belief in a god. This does not require belief in a specific religion (so out with the pesky religion arguments) and may be as simple as being their dominant hypothesis about the impetus for the big bang or a short-code for the unknowable things in the universe (whatever that means). It also does not preclude them from applying doubt. In many cases they have, and have accepted the answers that science has. There are questions, though, that science does not (or can not, or should not) answer.

    For us, we can say “we don’t know” to these questions confidently and without any issue. Some people may have a brain that doesn’t allow them to do that, and they attribute those things to a god, just as my girlfriend sometimes can’t sleep without moving a sock off the floor because of her OCD. For me, the comparison to OCD, depression, and anxiety works. They all cause skeptical and rational people I know to do irrational things. Sure, they know when they are being irrational, but it doesn’t stop the behavior.

    I don’t know that this is the way that it works, but I’d like to give the benefit of the doubt to reasonable, intelligent people who self-identify as skeptics and this is one line of logic that gives me a reasonable enough explanation to satisfy me. I don’t know what the brain of a religious person is like and you do, so maybe you have a better perspective, but I think you all are generalizing a bit too much based on a few experiences.

  111. as an addendum, I would say that the other way of putting my position is that I think you are overconfident in the ability of doubt to remove belief. I think that it is possible in many cases (I think a lot of people who don’t identify as skeptics could deconvert if doubt was applied), but for some it is deeply ingrained (skeptics who apply doubt but for whom belief does not go away).

  112. @mikerattlesnake: Some people may have a brain that doesn’t allow them to do that, and they attribute those things to a god…

    —————-

    This is an interesting hypothesis. However, it depends on a lot of things that we don’t know about the mind, about belief, and about the way that people of faith think or are capable of thinking. What we do know is that applied skepticism in the form of Cognitive Therapy is helpful for people struggling with depression, anxiety, and OCD. It helps them to recognize that some of their feelings aren’t real. So if the mechanism is similar, it seems reasonable to conclude that people with faith should be able to recognize that their feelings of faith are not real, even though they may still have them.

    But this is not typically what we see with many skeptical activists of faith. I just don’t see any evidence of a common mechanism.

    I think part of the issue is also that you are still, despite your protestations to the contrary, equating skepticism with “acting rationally all the time”.

  113. Since this discussion is just as fascinating as these discussions always are (by which I mean far less exciting than my current campaign to live tweet obtaining 501c3 status), I suggest we write up some skeptical bylaws that are binding to anyone and everyone who wants to use the word “skeptic” to describe himself or another person.

    Define skeptic.
    What specific beliefs make one a member of skepticism?
    What specific beliefs absolutely preclude one from being a member of skepticism?
    What does membership in skepticism grant?
    What does a lack of membership bar non-skeptics from doing?
    How do we enforce these rules?
    How often should we vote to amend the laws of skepticism?
    How do we elect the skeptical board of directors who run skepticism?
    Can members vote or only the board?

    So if I put a lucky penny in my shoe on my wedding day, does that mean that I’m not allowed to drink skeptically? Can I attend TAM? Can I only attend certain parts of TAM? Am I allowed to attend the lectures but not meet up at the bar at the end of each conference day? Do I have to pay extra to attend events? Must all my comments on skeptical blogs be held in moderation to be approved by a board of skeptics?

    Once you have bylaws that the board agrees upon, have them reviewed by an attorney, signed by the Secretary and post them here.

  114. @Elyse: So if I put a lucky penny in my shoe on my wedding day, does that mean that I’m not allowed to drink skeptically?

    ———

    Oh, for the love of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

    Read this comment.

    I mean, yes, I appreciate that you’re making a joke. It’s just that the joke you are making is so far removed from the discussion…

    Fuck it.

  115. *NOTE: This may have already been mentioned by someone else – I got tired after about 70 or so comments, but thought this needed to be said.*

    A word about evidence: As skeptics, I think we need to be really careful about where we draw the line as to what is and what is NOT evidence. We’ve all heard the old saw that the plural of anecdotes is not data, and I’m totally behind that when it comes to SCIENTIFIC evidence (medicine and whatnot – homeopathy fails when subjected to rigorous double-blind tests, got it, and vaccines are safe by the same rigors, still with you there).

    But there is a lot more to life than physical evidence, I think. Our senses can deceive us (as in when I see “sparkles” in my peripheral vision during a migraine – if I blindly trusted my senses, I’d think there was glitter hovering in the air), so we have to use common sense to guide us.

    But some things don’t respond well to common sense – they just don’t MAKE sense based on what we know at this time. I don’t think that makes them invalid, just unexplainable.

    Furthermore, some evidence just isn’t translatable to other people – something that has a lot of meaning to me won’t mean anything to the next person I tell because they weren’t inside my consiousness when it happened. I don’t think we need to hurry up and invalidate that just because it’s not translatable any more than a color-blind person should write off other people’s experiences of color just because he or she can’t share them.

    I’m not sure this makes a lot of sense, but that’s kind of the point I’m trying to make.

  116. @Elyse: You might also read this comment, where I say, in part

    the skeptical movement is not and should not be a special club that is only accessible to people who identify themselves as skeptics. A Christian who is sympathetic to many causes in skepticism should be able to participate as a Christian, without feeling uncomfortable.

  117. There should be a logical fallacy called “Dismissal By Sarcasm”.

    Surely, not everyone who calls themselves a skeptic is actually a skeptic. Where do we draw the line? I think that’s a discussion worth having.

  118. @CelticGoddess1326: I don’t think we need to hurry up and invalidate that just because it’s not translatable any more than a color-blind person should write off other people’s experiences of color just because he or she can’t share them.

    ——–

    I agree with absolutely everything you said in this comment. I think that it is important not to be quick to dismiss other people’s experiences, and that it is also important not to place too much trust in our own internal experiences.

    However, I’m not sure how this applies to skepticism and a belief in the supernatural.

  119. @sethmanapio:

    While I appreciate your input, it’s a bit irrelevant at this point. One person cannot be in charge of making these rules. That’s why we’re electing a board. I suggest you run for a position on that board, as you seem to have some very concrete ideas of what the bylaws should state.

    If you do not get elected to the board, if I were you, I’d definitely still submit my suggestions for the skeptical bylaws. And perhaps if you run again, you could amend them when they’re up for renewal.

  120. @Elyse: I suggest you run for a position on that board, as you seem to have some very concrete ideas of what the bylaws should state.

    ——

    Sigh.

    I suggested you read my posts because the impression you’re giving about what I’m saying bears absolutely no resemblance to what I’m actually saying.

    And this is why I no longer believe that debate serves any useful purpose, either in the skeptical movement or out of it.

    Will someone please ban me from commenting on this site? I lack the self-discipline to stop, but I really can’t afford this.

  121. re: pre-derail
    “This is an interesting hypothesis.”

    And one that, while not directly supported by evidence, is not easily falsifiable and is based on a pretty reasonable premise. That’s enough for me to give the benefit of the doubt to people who are otherwise intelligent, rational, and skeptical. If you really want to err on the other side of that hypothesis, that’s up to you, but I don’t think it does any good to skepticism to define it as such.

  122. @mikerattlesnake: And one that, while not directly supported by evidence, is not easily falsifiable and is based on a pretty reasonable premise.

    ——–

    A premise that I addressed, Mike. If you’re going to complain that I don’t address your points, you should probably address mine.

  123. I don’t really have anything against your points and I acknowledge that, for the most part you’re right. I would only contest the degree to which it is clear whether religious thought is caused by a common mechanism. I don’t know that you can draw a conclusion one way or the other given the complexity of the contributing factors. While the idea of a god may be completely untenable to me as a skeptic, the idea of god as an inescapable concept for some is not. Thus, I can accept skeptics who accept god.

  124. @mikerattlesnake: Thus, I can accept skeptics who accept god.

    ———–

    And I can accept people who believe in God without deciding that they are mentally ill.

    Part of coping with depression is realizing that the feelings you are having are a delusion. So if we follow your metaphor to its conclusion, skeptics with God belief should be encouraged to realize that the feelings that they have are a delusion. Far from ‘accepting’ skeptics who accept god, we should–if god belief is a mental illness–do our best to help such skeptics to realize that they don’t have to accept their feelings as reality.

  125. @mikerattlesnake: For a skeptic I would say that that is pretty much equivalent to the above.

    ———–

    I think the point of disagreement, then, boils down to this: If a skeptic said that his religious feelings were irrational, and did not translate to beliefs about what is true, that would be equivalent.

    But saying that you hold to be true beliefs that you know to be unfounded and evidence free is not equivalent.

    And while this post involves a specific skeptic, I don’t think that it was restricted to only this skeptic and to no general case.

  126. @Sam Ogden:

    Isn’t that called conservationism?

    That wouldn’t be an inappropriate lable, but conservationism usually has a short term view of preserving current species and habitats. The Church of Life Eternal (COLE) also focuses on the very distant future, and on everything necessary to get there. Like a society not wholly focused on entertainment and consumption. Or the issues raised in “The diamond age: or a young lady’s illustrated primer” of how to raise your children to be industrious when you’re capable of giving them everything they want for nothing.

  127. I’m not going to argue any points, but I’d like to share my story.

    I am now an atheist and a skeptic. However, for many years…up to only about a couple of years ago…I was a christian.

    I had faith that God existed and that Jesus was his son. I questioned the bible, I questioned “human interpretations” of God’s will. Pretty much, I questioned all claims based on religion.

    I don’t think a christian could get more skeptical than I was…but yet, when I labled myself, I always said that I was “as skeptical as a christian can be”…never just calling myself a “skeptic”. I recognized that accepting something on faith made me less skeptical.

    I didn’t care though. It was never really my aim to become a “true skeptic”. It just eventually happened because that was the logical end result to years of questioning things.

    Once I gave up my faith, I felt as though I had been transformed from someone who merely followed the skeptical movement to someone who was actually part of it. I joined the JREF and went to my first TAM and have been pretty happy since.

    I think that the reason I eventually gave up my religious beliefs was because of years of exposure to rational thinking. For me, it was more of a little drip eventually creating a river of free thought rather than an instant destruction of faith.

    I think the question here really shouldn’t be a question of labels. I think that if I were less worried about labels, I may have called myself a skeptic years ago. However, I don’t think it would have hastened my loss of faith.

    Really, I think most religous people who want to be part of the skeptical movement should be treated like they are on a journey that hasn’t reached its end yet. The journey has as much value as the end result. Let’s give them some directions along the way, but try to pick them up and toss them to the finish line. In other words, I think it’s important to “respectfully” question their beliefs.

    I do think the skeptical community is full of too many assholes who want to treat religious people as complete morons. That needs to stop.

  128. I’m very late to this discussion, and new to the board, but feel compelled to add some thoughts.

    First, not all religious faith is “irrational,” at least as I understand that term. It may be less rational to believe that Jesus lived, died, and lived again as described in the gospels than to believe the gospels are a load of crap, BUT there is at least some “evidence” (albeit meager and hearsay) supporting those accounts. The quantum or quality of evidence may be insufficient for a self-described skeptic, but it is NOT non-existent. Where there is at least some evidence for a belief or an action, it cannot be call “irrational.” Less rational, perhaps, or “barely” rational, but not “irrational.” (On this basis, I do not believe that marriage is “irrational,” because there is evidence that marriage can, for some, be a good choice.) Using terms loosely in criticizing others tends, in my view, to diminish the quality of the criticism.

    Second, I don’t know of any religion that claims to be uber-rational. Faith, which Dawkins has described as belief “in the teeth of” (against) evidence, is never (in my experience) a wholly rational act — but that is at the essence of religion. Actually, such “faith” in the face of overwhelming conflicting prior evidence — e.g., belief that my twenty-year drug addict son can come clean, even though, on rational terms, he is a complete loser worth none of my time or commitment — can motivate and sustain what I hope “skeptics” would deem humanistically desirable actions, without any religious overtone.

    Finally, a critic who makes absolute pronouncements that another’s belief or action is “irrational” better either (a) be damn sure that ALL of her or his own actions or beliefs are entirely free of irrationality, or (b) plainly admit and recognize that she or he, too, is a mixture of rational and irrational actions, behaviors, and thoughts. Otherwise, she or he comes across like, and probably is, a self-important ass who — shared philosophies or not — is personally repugnant, and not worthy of my attention. Such patronizing attitudes of superiority are EXACTLY what makes folks like Dawkins (soft-spoken though he may be) and Hitchens (not so soft-spoken) seem “vitriolic” to those not yet convinced of their positions.

  129. Doesn’t it matter some that the specific religion were talking about is deism — probably the least dogmatic of any religion every invented?

    I’m not sure that it’s even fair to say that deism and skepticism contradict one another. As far as I can tell, the god of deism doesn’t have a plan for your life, doesn’t lay down codes of rules, isn’t really strictly conscious in any sense of the word. It’s more a case of “it is good for people to experience feelings of awe, reverence, and worship, and the natural universe is a fitting object to direct these feelings towards.” At least that’s my understanding of the religion.

  130. We do not really mean, we do not really mean, that what we are about to say is true.
    — traditional beginning, Ashanti folktales

    But why shouldn’t we listen? Shall we reject what we have to learn from our past? Or shall we embrace it, study it, understand it?

    We strive for rationality. Will we ignore the superstition, religion, hatred – and worldview – that each of us grew up with? Or will we face it down with rationality, when we can muster it?

    A visitor to Neils Bohr’s country cottage teased him about a
    horseshoe hanging on the wall. “Can it be that you, of all
    people, believe it will bring you good luck?” “Of course
    not,” replied Bohr, “but I understand it brings you luck
    whether you believe or not.”

  131. Religion is something you are given by others who a religious or believe in something that you encounter and believe in for one or two of several reasons:

    1) You are born into it and believe because it is what your community and family believe.

    2) It shortcuts something like death, fear, loneliness, depression, or purpose… Basically you are at rock bottom and anybody that says the will end the pain in exchange for belief will be readily accepted. Note that this is why conversions happen.

    3) Because it is cool. Psychic stuff is very very cool. I want to move stuff with my mind. Just believe!

    Hate of someone religious or having a ‘belief’ not based on facts or skepticism is not stupid. They are simply in a state of belief. Suspension of belief is not created by argument. Do you see any argument above? How can you believe argument would cause a change?

    Physical proof is usually impossible. How do you counter the existence of gods and ghosts. Can’t disprove something that can’t be proved.

    People are not stupid for their beliefs. It is I believe a part of the mechanism of survival. You don’t have time for skepticism when a lion jumps out of the bush.

    We all hate to be wrong too. To be wrong is to display a weakness that you somehow were to brain dead to believe in nonsense. The brain rebels and fights back. Again, argument fails.

    The only thing that really works is self discovery. Well there is another, you treat skepticism indoctrination like a cult would.

    Self discovery usually only occurs when your world fails to make sense. There is only one slight problem. Our brains fight that too. We find an excuse to believe in nonsense, despite what we have discovered.

    The most powerful way to remove a belief? Laughter. When you laugh at yourself, you have probably created a new view of the world.

    But… No reason to call them friends if they preach hate, intolerance or dangerous beliefs. They will change themselves, you probably can’t.

    I try in my own way to make the world a better place through humor. Laugh at belief, please.

  132. For one crazed moment, I thought I would weigh in on this discussion, and then I read 173 post and realized I might as well piss into the ocean and think I’d turn the whole thing yellow.

    So, instead, I’ll just say this. Thanks Masala. As one of those Skeptics who also happens who hold religious belief, I appreciate your post here. Because your right, a lot of people like me do feel like we are treated as second class citizens within Skepticism because of our beliefs and it doesn’t encourage us to stick around.

  133. I made a huge mistake and actually had a life between Friday and today and so I deeply apologize for not being able to keep up with ALL the comments. And I’m not even going to attempt to respond to everything but a few points:

    1. I have a deep and abiding hatred for the philosophical discussions on what a skeptic is and what an atheist is and why God does or does not exist. That’s just ME. I really try not to get into them because, honestly, they bore me. So when I talk about skepticism, I am really talking about what I consider the movement, the activism, the social organization that is skepticism. That’s what interests me; it always has. My point is that believers who are in the skeptical movement CAN and DO contribute to skepticism, even if they are not skeptical about their beliefs.

    2. To the skeptics/atheists who thought I was being condescending, I’m sorry, that was not my intent.

    3. To the believers who thought I was being condescending, I’m sorry, that was not my intent. :)

    4. To all the people who say that religion shouldn’t be treated any differently from any other pseudoscience, I agree when it comes to CLAIMS. Any claims are subject to the same scrutiny.

    5. Maybe I missed it but I haven’t seen anyone explain to me how the behavior of believing is different from the behavior of smoking. Both non-rational activities that go outside the realm of skepticism and in many cases are done knowingly. That was my point – there is no perfectly rational being. We may strive towards it and everyone is on a different place along that path. Doesn’t mean they can’t be contributing skeptics in this movement.

    6. I think to summarize, my point was don’t be a dick. :)

  134. @Masala Skeptic: 4. To all the people who say that religion shouldn’t be treated any differently from any other pseudoscience, I agree when it comes to CLAIMS. Any claims are subject to the same scrutiny.

    The existence of an all powerful being is a claim. Anything short of defending that claim with logic and evidence is some form of logical fallacy.

    5. Maybe I missed it but I haven’t seen anyone explain to me how the behavior of believing is different from the behavior of smoking.

    Sure. It’s exactly like smoking… and joining Nicotine Anonymous and Smoke Free America, calling yourself nicotine free, and complaining about people who use chewing tobacco.

  135. @delphi_ote: “The existence of an all powerful being is a claim. Anything short of defending that claim with logic and evidence is some form of logical fallacy.”

    I’d be willing to wager that Masala Skeptic intended to say ‘Testable Claims’. On this note I think that most, if not all, of us would agree with this idea. However, if I claim that there is an invisible pink dragon in my garage that only interacts with this world by communicating with me and that he is undetectable in all other ways – this claim is not testable. It could be true or false, and the evidence would say the same thing for everyone except me.

    You are welcome to insist that there is some logical test that can be applied in this situation that will provide the ‘truth’ in all such cases if you wish but I must disagree. I will agree with the position that logic does provide for you to conclude a ‘most likely case’ which presumes that my perception of the invisible pink dragon is due to delusion. However, you can never know that your conclusion is correct with certainty and there is no logical test that can be applied to demonstrate to me that I should disbelieve my own senses, (especially if I still see and speak with the dragon even once you have had me medicated). In this, any claim you make to have a better grasp of the ‘truth’ than me would just boil down to arrogance and hubris on your part.

    What I find fascinating, however, is a different question. To me, the dogmatic instance by you and others that there is some way to logically disprove such cases fascinates me. It always makes me wonder why do you care so much that you, and others, so passionately seem to need for there to be some way to disprove God?

  136. @Masala Skeptic: Thanks Masala. I was pretty sure that was what you meant, but I am always a bit uncomfortable presuming to speak for another person, so I appreciate your confirmation on that point.

    As for Hal, *shakes head* I don’t have any disagreement with him in that area. I would be interested in hearing how delphi_ote thinks he, (Hal), has failed the test of logic though.

  137. Maybe it’s my brain engaging in confirmation bias, but it seems to me that many of those skeptics who are most adamant that theists cannot be skeptics are people who once were theists themselves and had a bad experience with religion. I’m sure everybody has read at least one of those stories that include lies, racism, greed and other negative actions by religious folk as the reasons that drove them from religion to atheism.

    I’m one of those nasty skeptics with religion and my experience with it is almost the polar opposite of those stories. My entire life has been filled with positive examples of what a Christian should try be. I am a Mennonite, and to us proselytizing is distasteful – when we do charitable things because of our faith we just do the good deed without push our faith down the others’ throats.* It’s been suggested to me that what I have experienced is really Mennonite culture rather than Christian good deeds, and that might very well be true because there are a many areligious Mennonites who continue with the social and economic justice concerns even after divesting themselves of faith

    However, that misses the point. Those skeptics that have had the bad experiences with religion in their life seem to me to be caught in a black and white mentality. Because they had bad experiences with religion they think nobody could ever have had positive experiences or that faith-motivated charity could ever be anything but demeaning, repressive and making the receiver feel bad.

    I’ve spent the last 20 years – ever since I got on-line – engaged in the Creation vs. Evolution debate on the pro-evolution side, and that has been my (slow) introduction to the Skeptical community. More often than not, I find myself taking fellow Christians to task for unsupported assertions like literal historicity of the Bible or plain unChristian activities like lying via quote-mines. I consider myself to be just as much of a skeptic as people like P.Z. Myers (whose blog I enjoy reading) or Richard Dawkins (whose writings bore me to sleep) even though I am not an atheist. And I am still a Christian because of the good examples and the community love & support I have received through the difficult times in my life.

    I love discussing things with out-spoken atheists because their arguments force me to reevaluate my beliefs and work out more clearly why I believe what I believe. I dislike the attitudes of militant atheist because of their lack of respect for the people on the other side. There are better ways to criticize others’ opinions than by being insulting, derogatory or inflammatory. They do a disservice, I feel, to the atheist community by giving atheists a bad reputation and also to the skeptical community by association.

    I am an introvert and in a few weeks I will be participating for the first time in Real Life(tm) in skeptics gathering by attending NECSS in a few weeks. Here’s to hoping that if I find out that the people I meet happen to be atheists that they are the nice kind rather than the mean kind and that I will want to go to other gatherings. :-)

    -=-=-=-=-
    *I’m not trying to say that Mennonites are perfect, just trying to point hour how we do things differently from the stereotypical religious charity stuff.

  138. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    I am a skeptic and a practicing Episcopal. I struggle with my faith in the same way that I struggle with many of the scientific mysteries of the universe. I study, consider, study some more, and consider some more. My faith isn’t nailed down any more than any other belief that I hold is. I will readily admit that there is absolutely nothing that we can test today that will prove that God exists, and I would never suggest to anyone that they should believe as I do. Yet I do believe. I believe because of my own experience. I believe because of my studies of early Christian writings, authors, and comparing them to other historical documents. And that’s just it – they are my beliefs, and I approach them in the most rational way that I can.

    It makes me profoundly sad when I feel excluded from the skeptic community because I believe that something exists that cannot currently be studied or measured.

    It is also great for people to get a reminder that not all Deists or Christians are crazy woo-mongers. Just the loudest ones are. I hope that if anyone ever cared to sit down and ask me about why I believe what I do, that they would see that I approach my faith with skepticism and rationality, even if I believe something different than they do.

    Thanks again. This post made my night.

  139. My thoughts:

    1. Philosophical skepticism means subjecting every belief to open-minded scrutiny/doubt, and withholding belief on anything that you do not have reason to believe one way or the other (see Carl Sagan’s “Dragon in my Garage” essay for an argument against believing things without evidence). Thus, believing in God even when you do not claim to have any reason to do so is incompatible with philosophical skepticism. Using “faith” as a justification for believing anything is incompatible with philosophical skepticism.

    2. This does not mean that you have to be perfectly rational to practice philosophical skepticism. I acknowledge that it is likely that I commit errors in reasoning and rationalize some of my false beliefs. However, I do not hold any beliefs that I *know* are irrational. The moment I recognize a belief I hold as irrational, I will drop it. It is indeed impossible for a human to be perfectly rational about everything, but it is not terribly hard to give up a belief when you realize it is irrational. Thus, it is not terribly hard for people to succeed in being this type of skeptic, as some people have been saying in response to sethmanapio’s definition of skeptic.

    3. Even if people do not apply philosophical skepticism to every area of their life (such as religion/god), they still can and should be welcomed by the skeptic community and encouraged to participate in events such as TAM, so long as they are advancing the skeptic cause and not advocating those beliefs as if they’re resulting from skepticism. The specifics of this are, of course, up for debate, but the point remains that you don’t have to be a perfect skeptic to be part of the skeptical activist community/movement.

    4. Re: smoking/belief.
    Smoking despite knowing that it’s harmful is not analogous to believing in God despite knowing that it’s irrational. The act of smoking a cigarette is not a belief, it’s an action. Skepticism deals with how you arrive at a belief about something, but says nothing about what you should do with that information once you have it. As long as you look at the evidence about the dangers of smoking and use that to come to a conclusion (the obvious conclusion is that it’s very dangerous), you are being skeptical. What you do with that information is a function of your values and how you feel. If the desire to stop smoking outweighs the pain and suffering that comes with it, then you will stop. If the withdrawal is unbearable, many people will not stop smoking, despite knowing it’s bad for them. If people just really love the feeling they get from smoking, they might not stop, despite knowing that it’s bad for their health in the long run. This behavior isn’t irrational or anti-skepticism, it’s just a function of the person’s values. In contrast, believing something that you know you have no reason to believe is in direct conflict with philosophical skepticism, as previously mentioned.

    [email protected]Bytor:
    Please put away the “atheists hate religion because they had a bad experience with it” canard forever. There are multiple problems with it:
    a) It’s used to dismiss or at least weaken the atheist’s point without actually addressing what they’re saying. If they are wrong about something (in this case, that religion is incompatible with skepticism), point out why they’re wrong, don’t belittle their point with an irrelevant speculation about their motivations.
    b) It generalizes – of course some people who are now atheists have had bad experiences with religion. But there’s no reason at all to suppose that this constitutes the majority of atheists, and it should not be used to color anyone’s perception of atheists in general (as you are doing).
    c) Even if they had a bad experience with religion, that doesn’t mean that experience is having a large effect on their views on the issue at hand.
    d) It’s presumptuous – it implies that those atheists who have previously made this argument in the conversation are probably influenced by a negative experience with religion, when there is no reason at all to suppose that is the case.
    e) It emphasizes one particular scenario while ignoring counter examples. Literally your only supporting argument was “I’m sure everyone has read one of those stories that include [a bad experience with religion].” Well I am an atheist who had a wonderful experience with religion throughout my childhood and adolescence. Maybe now you should start every comment about religion with “everybody’s heard stories of those atheists who had a great experience with religion.” Or perhaps you should omit such irrelevant red herrings and the ridiculous psychoanalysis of someone you’ve never met, and instead address the actual arguments put forward.

  140. @Smitty:

    Smoking despite knowing that it’s harmful is not analogous to believing in God despite knowing that it’s irrational. The act of smoking a cigarette is not a belief, it’s an action. Skepticism deals with how you arrive at a belief about something, but says nothing about what you should do with that information once you have it.

    So.. it’s OK to ACT irrationally (as long as you know you’re acting irrationally) but it’s not OK to believe something that you know is irrational?

    So, if someone prays in spite of knowing that it probably won’t do any good, that’s OK and we can still call them skeptics?

    I guess I see belief as an action, more than just a cognitive process. I think people can and do choose to believe and that’s where faith comes in.

    Regardless, this is quickly getting into the philosophical arena which is not my strong suit, nor is it what I’m interested in discussing. My main point here is that we cannot allow this “I’m a skeptic and you’re not” attitude undermine what I believe to be a cause and a movement toward critical thinking. I’m talking about the skeptical community, much more than the philosophical discussion of what an ‘ideal skeptic’ is. And I am simply saying that expecting people to be the ideal skeptic is unreasonable because a) people are not perfect and b) everyone has a slightly different definition of what ideal is. Sure we can agree on the big topics (anti-vax is bad, science is good) but there are a million shades of grey in the details.

  141. @Masala Skeptic:

    “So.. it’s OK to ACT irrationally (as long as you know you’re acting irrationally) but it’s not OK to believe something that you know is irrational?

    So, if someone prays in spite of knowing that it probably won’t do any good, that’s OK and we can still call them skeptics?”

    In short, yes, I think so. It doesn’t make any sense to pray to something you don’t believe in, so I don’t really see that happening much, but in theory it’s possible, and I would say that’s compatible with skepticism if you really don’t believe you’re communicating with anything. Some people might be comforted just by going through the motions (actually, I once read someone saying they did this).

    Also, it might be irrational to smoke from a point of view removed from most emotions and feelings (i.e. “I value life. Smoking shortens life. Therefore I shouldn’t smoke.), however, human beings don’t work that way. If you add in the variables such as the pain of withdrawal or the pleasure of smoking, it might very well be rational for a given person to continue smoking, as the benefit from stopping smoking would be outweighed by the loss. At any rate, I think skepticism is only about how you figure out what is true, and has nothing to do with how you act. You don’t have to meticulously perform cost benefit analyses to decide what to do in order to be skeptical, because deciding what to do has nothing to do with skepticism. Skepticism is just about figuring out what’s true.

    I don’t really understand how it’s possible to choose to believe something. Can you choose to believe that there’s an invisible dragon in your garage? *Really, truly* believe it? I challenge you to try to do so. If not, how is God different? I don’t really want to argue about it further… but it just doesn’t seem possible to me.

    I totally agree with your last paragraph. I actually made a point not to even use the word “skeptic,” instead focusing on “skepticism.” I see skepticism as an ideal; I affirm that ideal and try to live up to it, but I probably fail sometimes, perhaps often. I don’t expect any more from others. Thus, if I see someone doing something that, in my judgement, isn’t compatible with the skeptical philosophy, I would say they’re not being skeptical in this instance, but that doesn’t mean I’d declare them “not a skeptic.” I prefer to just avoid the label “skeptic” altogether, and focus on skeptical thinking, applauding skeptical thinking and pointing out the flaws with non-skeptical thinking.

    I feel similarly about the term “freethinker.” I think it’s a great term that embodies a lot of great ideals, but it’s silly to go around calling yourself a “freethinker,” as if you’re always the perfect example of those ideals. “Freethinker” is not even close to being synonymous with “atheist,” despite the occasional tendency to use them interchangeably.

  142. Umm… Ok, so way too many posts to read through, so I’ll just put up my thoughts on the matter.

    Great post! I agree that it’s important to differentiate between people who believe something and people who make testable claims. That is – to me – the difference between a rational believer and a religious person.

  143. @Smitty: “I don’t really understand how it’s possible to choose to believe something. Can you choose to believe that there’s an invisible dragon in your garage? *Really, truly* believe it? I challenge you to try to do so. If not, how is God different? I don’t really want to argue about it further… but it just doesn’t seem possible to me.”

    There is an unstated major premise here. The major premise, (in the case of the way you are referencing this, not in the way presented by Sagan, but I’ll get to this), is that the invisible dragon does not exist and that NO ONE has any direct evidence of the dragon. Therefore, you are presuming that any reports provided to you about the invisible dragon come to you from someone in one of the following classes:

    1) Believes in the dragon because he/she was taught about it by someone else
    2) Does not believe in the dragon but is pretending to for some reason
    3) Believes in the dragon due to poor understanding of other, explainable, factors and that the ‘dragon’ is just the result of sloppy, mystical thinking
    4) Believes in the dragon because the person is delusional and needs medical intervention

    You, and most others who bring this up, therefore basically have an argument that boils down to, “There is no dragon because there is no dragon”. This is poor skepticism and unsound critical thinking as it ignores the possibility of the additional case of:

    5) Believes in the dragon because the dragon is real and deals with that person

    Now, this is where it gets interesting because IF case five(5) were correct; you, as someone with whom the dragon has no dealings, would observe pretty much exactly the same things as you would if the person actually fell into either case three(3) or four(4). Therefore for you, Occam ’s razor should dictate that you do attribute the persons actions to being due to either case three (3) or four (4) as depends upon the circumstance. If the person ‘dealing’ with the dragon wants you to accept that they really fall into case five(5), the onus is upon him/her to prove this to you satisfactorily. This, then, is where the religious question becomes so difficult because if you add the condition that, “the ‘dragon’ does whatever it wants and has its own agenda independent from the person it has revealed itself to”, then ultimately the only recourse for ‘proof’ is to hope that the dragon decides to make itself known to you.

    Now, my point in all of this is that it is completely reasonable to assume that there is no dragon and to act as if that were true, (and yes, I am happy to write that sentence with ‘God’ in the place of dragon), and to my memory that is pretty much where Sagan left it.

    Without some sort of proof, it would be silly to accept that the dragon is real. However, it is also unreasonable to discount the possibility that someone else could have experienced convincing evidence that the dragon was real and yet not be able to reproduce it.

    Should claims about things the dragon can do be tested? Absolutely. Can you assume that someone claiming to have an invisible dragon in their garage actually doesn’t? Sure. However, when you cross the line to saying that they CAN NOT have an invisible dragon in their garage, then you aren’t being skeptical you’re just being an ass.

  144. @Masala skeptic
    you set a Brave and uplifting example to every person here, by apologizing individually to those who were offended
    Our species as a whole could take note of such kindness and consideration and humbleness
    Now …[email protected]

    Your words to me

    “: spell check is the least of your worries. How about a cohesive thesis instead of a bunch of rhetorical questions, quotation marks when appropriate, and some digital pepto bismol?”

    My My… I hardly find your comment cohesive or useful
    Like your anxiety and depression not being a choice, as compared to smoking which you says is a choice
    I would point out first and foremost that addiction, according to the most current medical science and research is proving to be as much of a hijacking of a humans brain,as is depression and anxiety;thus, you are ,in fact, wrong in your statement.
    Secondly, the tenor of your comment to me
    is indeed
    a solid example
    of the kind of polarizing,non inclusive behavior,
    that this discussion at large
    appears to want to avoid,and discourage.
    I must admit,having come back to over 125 new comments since my very first comment here, I did not read every single comment here
    Thus,
    I may be incorrect in my conclusion.
    I am encouraged by those who promote inclusiveness ,respect, and tolerance.
    Finally @mike dinosaur, you have my full permission to both spell check and grammar check this post and my previous one .
    My questions were not written to be rhetorical,but rather -real questions!
    I offer you back the very virtual Pepto Bismol you requested of me , in hopes that you have a much Healthier use of the English language, in your future postings.
    ps -although it was an assumption on your part ,you were quite correct,without having any evidence, that, in this vast universe of said problems, Spell Check, is by far, among the least of them.

  145. @smitty: Did you not notice the opening sentence of my ramble? I pretty much started off with with a huge fricking admission of confirmation bias and the strong if implicit admission of possible error. Not only that, but the whole “it seems to me” should have been like big flashing lights that I was giving opinion and a not “this is the way it is” diatribe.

    I’m not the best writer, so perhaps I didn’t express myself clearly, but I thought I was very obviously talking about the subset of atheist skeptics who feel that religion can do no right – the ones who are essentially the mirror image of Fundamentalists in their ad hominem attacks against atheists, not that I was talking about the majority of athesists.

    When talking about that subset, it’s not a canard, it’s showing their biases for what they are when they refuse to accept examples of people who do good works with positive effects out of religious faith, when insult and derision is the whole of their argument.

    It’s like when you mention that a scientist’s research was funded by Big Oil when they publish paper to support lack of global warming. Getting those biases out in the open is important, and I admitted to mine in my first sentence.

    As for supposed psychoanalysis, I apologize for not making it clear that I meant only those who have talked in whatever fora about their own deconversion experience/journey. Those who explicitly describe themselves as having had a bad experience with religion. From my personal experience, there seems to be a correlation between how bad they describe their bad experience as having been and how adamant they are about how a religious person cannot ever be a skeptic, though as I said in my first post, that may just be confirmation bias.

    As for generalization, as long as you also complain about those who generalize against the religious, too.

  146. @MoltenHotMagma:

    Interesting comment. I agree with the gist of what you said, but I’m curious what made you think I said that there *cannot* be a dragon in the garage. I don’t think I implied that anywhere. My only point in bringing up the dragon in the garage analogy was to respond to the claim of *choosing* to believe in something, or using faith as a justification. It seems to me that if someone had direct evidence, they wouldn’t say they just flat out make a choice to believe, or that they believe based on faith – they would say the evidence convinced them to believe. In this case, the dragon in the garage analogy wouldn’t apply to them. But it does apply to the claims of simply choosing to believe, or believing on faith. So, I don’t think I had any unstated premise or crossed any line. If I had been trying to make the argument you thought I was making, then you would be right, but I wasn’t trying to do that, and I don’t think anything I actually said indicated that I was.

    There are other arguments that have nothing to do with the dragon in the garage analogy that do argue that God does not exist, of course, so it *might* still possible to cross that line you were speaking of, but I wasn’t attempting it. Also, if someone told me they had direct evidence of the dragon that wasn’t available to me, I would probably point out some of the dangers of believing things based on personal experience or feelings (the mind can easily be fooled). This doesn’t mean it’s theoretically impossible to have valid personal evidence, though, and even if their personal evidence was obviously flawed, it wouldn’t mean that God doesn’t exist.

    @Bytor:
    Ok, I acknowledge that I overreacted and that I was arguing against a certain, fallacious “atheists hate religion” argument that you weren’t really using. I also apologize for the harshness of my response, which probably resulted more from the lateness and accompanying fatigue than any intended ire.

    The problem is when people dismiss atheist’s arguments, because, supposedly, they’re just mad at/rebelling against religion/God. You weren’t doing this, but your statement of stories that include, “lies, racism, greed and other negative actions by religious folk as the reasons that drove them from religion to atheism,” was similar enough to set me on edge. I still think that sentence is a little off – some atheists do cite that as a reason for questioning their faith in the first place, but I don’t think many would say that’s the main reason they don’t believe in God at all. I also still think that pointing out that these people dislike religion is often used as a way to avoid their real arguments, while only arguing against their negative portrayal of religion and acting as if that refutes all their other arguments on the subject. And that should be avoided.

    Generalizations against the religious drive me crazy as well.

  147. @Smitty: “Interesting comment. I agree with the gist of what you said, but I’m curious what made you think I said that there *cannot* be a dragon in the garage. …”

    Fair enough. I apologize for misunderstanding your position then. Certainly from the clarification you put forth here I don’t think there is anything you are saying that I disagree with.

  148. Thank you so much for this post. I have long considered myself a skeptic, deeply curious about science and nature and critical of all forms of superstition and downright dismissive of psuedoscience and quackery. But I was dismayed to realize that so many consider “skeptic” to be code for “atheist.” I am a Catholic, though I could very generously describe my feelings of faith as “very confused.” Still, I’m deeply interested in questions of morality, history, philosophy, literature, reason, logic, theology, justice, ethics, and humanity, all of which are incumbent in discussions of faith and religion. I cannot abandon religion without abandoning a fruitful and rewarding part of my mind.

    I sometimes feel unwelcome in both the community of the faithful for my skepticism and in the community of skeptics for my refusal to consider faith and religion as merely a matter of meaningless hocus-pocus, or empty ritual. From both communities I beg patience, tolerance, and open mindedness as I try to make sense of the world and of myself and of my fellow human beings.

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