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.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.