Last Tuesday evening, I and several members of the Houston Skeptic Society attended a lecture by popular evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist, Richard Dawkins. Professor Dawkins’Â programÂ that nightÂ was not specifically atheist in nature. In fact, it was largely an examination of the evidence for evolution, which, some might argue, is a departure for Dawkins. In recent years he has become better known by the general public for being an atheist than for being a scientist, so aÂ presentation about evolution might have surprised anyone expecting a militant atheist to take the stage.
But overÂ cocktails prior to the lecture, the conversation among the group I was with turned to the demographics of the audience. Someone raised the point that there were significantly more atheists in the crowd than skeptics; an observation thatÂ triggered a question from a group member who is fairly new to skepticism.
“Well, skeptics are all atheists,” she said, “Aren’t atheists skeptics?”
Now, this young lady didn’t realize the liberties she had taken with the pronouncement — it’s not unusual for anyone to confuse the interplay of philosophies, let alone someoneÂ new to the game —Â nor did she realize she had tapped into a topic that cycles through rational thinking circles at seemingly regular intervals. I have been active in the promotion of critical thought and science for a number of years, and have personally seen it come up dozens of times. Skepchick contributor, Amy, wrote about it around this time last year. Just the other day, Jen posted a link in the Quickies to a blog post about it. And myÂ brief review of Dawkins’ lecture sparked a telling,Â relatedÂ comment from regularÂ Skepchick reader,Â halincoh, who is himself a rationalist, but not an atheist.
The odd thing is, to many people,Â the issue isn’t confusing at all. TheÂ answers seem clear,Â which would belie the need to ressurectÂ the subjectÂ periodically to slog through it again.
Yet it does come up, for whatever reason, and perhaps slogging through it periodically isÂ exactly what we should do, if for nothing else thanÂ to beÂ thorough.
So,Â let’s look at the major questions at play, and then use the Comments section for further discussion of each.
Does skepticism lead to atheism?
The answer to this question seems easy, and it is. But the answerÂ is rife with caveats, and so where it may be easy, it’s not simple.
The answer to the questionÂ “Does skepticism lead to atheism?” isÂ “No. Not necessarily”.
Now, this line of reasoningÂ can quickly get muddy.Â But ifÂ we specify a definition for “skepticism” up front, it may help to keep things clear. We defined skepticism here on these pagesÂ asÂ essentially a method of inquiry or thought, based on gathering and evaluating evidence, used toÂ draw conclusions aboutÂ claims, phenomena, etc. Skepticism is a tool that helps us discover what is most probably true about a thing.
And if we are to use that definition, if skepticism is such a tool,Â it’s clearÂ that having it inÂ our toolbox doesn’t necessarily lead to atheism any more than having a hammer leads to a house. It may be necessary to have a hammer to build a house, but the house isn’t a direct result of having the hammer. The enterprising craftsmanÂ might use the hammer for a million different things, but never use it to build a house. And likewise, the critical thinker may use skepticism for a million different things, but never use it to examineÂ any religious beliefs.
ThereÂ are no rules or requirements for how the tool, the method of skepticism,Â must beÂ applied. The vast majority of people on this planet apply skepticism (to some degree) all the time, and don’t even know it.Â Say aÂ manÂ visits a used car lot and the salesperson points to a hooptie, and claims it’s in fabulous working condition. Say the prospective buyer sees that the steering wheel is nothing but a rusty pair of vise grips, the muffler has been attachedÂ with chewing gum, and the test drive consists of the lot mechanic towing the hooptie around behind his pick-up truck. Say the prospective buyer considers all these things to determine if the salesperson’s claim is true, and then buys the car anyway. The buyer has applied skepticism. He hasn’t done it very well, but he has in fact done skepticism.
The point is, we are all capable ofÂ examining something and evaluating what we see. Yes, some may be better at it than others. Some may do it more often than others.Â But we can all do it.
Where we are unique, however, is in what we apply skepticism to.Â Now, most of you reading this no doubt apply healthy doses of skepticism to everything. But as much as we full-time skeptics want to think we are the rule, we are not. We are the exception. Most people don’t even realize there is a method of thought for determining the efficacy of claims, let alone that they sometimes use it, and that it has a name. Besides, we’reÂ focusing onÂ the method here and whether it leads to atheism, not the people and the various clubs and communities devoted to it. And in general, people apply the method only to those things that are important to them.Â
So what can we point to asÂ theÂ big hittersÂ to which the average personÂ might apply skepticism?
Well, people tend to worry about things they see asÂ potentially dangerous to them orÂ potentially detrimental to their well-being. So they may be more apt toÂ apply whatever level of skepticism they can toÂ those things. They don’t want to be a sucker, so theyÂ might be wary of anyone asking them for money. They don’t won’t toÂ go broke, so they may consider deeply any large investment. They don’t want their kids to get hurt, so theyÂ might look far and wide to find a decent neighborhood in which toÂ raise a family. They want to remain in good health, so theyÂ might be discerning when looking for aÂ quality physician. They might train a critical eye on a variety of different thingsÂ from whichÂ bad things can result or where they perceiveÂ a potentialÂ threat.
But very few people see their own religious affiliation as dangerous, and very few find religious ideas to be a detriment to their well-being. In fact, it’sÂ more likelyÂ thatÂ the opposite is true. Religion provides a good measure of comfort to a great many people. They like the community. They enjoy the social aspects and the fellowship. And often, they are enamored of the pageantry. In their eyes, there is no potential threat. The lifestyle is not a detriment to their well-being. So they likely don’t think much about it at all, let alone examine critically the minutia of its mythology.
Of course, there’s another possibility. It’s possible for someone to apply skepticism fully to his or her religion, and eitherÂ declare that the examination supports their beliefs, orÂ simply refuse to acceptÂ the conclusionÂ that should be drawn from the examination.
The end zone to all this is, there are religious people that apply skepticism to some things in their lives, but not their religion, and since they never apply it to religion, they remain among the faithful. Or perhaps they do apply it to their religion, and simply draw a conclusion favorable to belief. Either way, it’s clear that skepticism does not necessarily lead to atheism.
Of course, if we tighten up the definition ofÂ skepticism to reflect the connotation informed by many of the advocates of the label “Skeptic”, if we are talking about the majority of people reading skeptical blogs and forums, and listening to skeptical podcasts, and attending skeptical conferences, if we are talking aboutÂ strict views, we may have to revise the answer to the question, “Does skepticism lead to atheism?” to “Probably”.
Most people can and do use skepticism toÂ some degree (even if it’s to a small degree), and therefore can adopt the label “Skeptic” should they so choose.Â But if theyÂ don’t give a hang if psychics pretend to be real, if theyÂ could care less if some yokel thinks a UFO is an alien spacecraft, or if theyÂ don’t care that there is no evidence forÂ their deities, theyÂ couldÂ be challenged about the “Skeptic” label by those who do.
As we established earlier, there are no rules or requirements to how one should apply skepticism. But there seems to be an unwritten expectation by members of the club, the community, that to hold the title of “Skeptic”, one must apply skepticism well to all avenues of thought. And of course that includes religion.
And if one applies skepticism to religion, and is sufficiently skilled to evaluate the evidence, he or she would most likely arrive at atheism.
Actually, since there is no evidence for any deities, since there is nothing to evaluate and no way to know one way or the other, the good critical thinker would arrive at agnosticism. But we needn’t bandy terms further. The point is made.
But what of the other side of the coin?
Are all atheists skeptics?
This question is as easy to answer as the first, but itÂ can beÂ no less complicated.
The answer to the questionÂ “Are allÂ atheists skeptics?” isÂ “No. Not necessarily”.
Now, beforeÂ we go further, we must examine one concept, if only briefly. As we mentioned before, skepticism is a tool. It’s a method of thinking and questioning. And everyone does it on occasion with some measure of skill. So if that’s true, we would have to say thatÂ “Yes, all atheists are skeptics” —Â at least to some degree.
But thisÂ question is specific toÂ the label “Skeptic”. It does not askÂ whether atheists apply skepticism, butÂ whether all atheists identify as or can be labeled as skeptics. Which brings us back to the “No. Not necessarily” answer.
As always, it may help if weÂ don’tÂ get stingy with our definitions. Atheism is simply an absence of theism. It’s an absence of belief in a deity.
Atheism says nothing of the manner in which that absence was achieved, or even if it was achieved. The absence of belief could have been the state of the individual all along. (Skepchicks, Jen, Amy, Chelsea, and Jill have never held a belief in any deities.) Some atheists give up religion because they disagree with certain elements of the religious doctrine, or because something bad happened to them within the religion. Rebecca mentioned some such examples recently in a post about the TV show, Glee. Now, that’s a TV show, and the characters are fictional, but the characters are representative ofÂ real people.
The point is, where those are all valid reasons to give up religion, they are driven by a need or a desire to escape. None of them require any philosophicalÂ contemplation and reformulation. They don’t require an examination of the claims of the religion. They don’t require an evaluation of any evidence. They don’t require skepticism.
Further to the point, there are any number of avowed atheists that still hold firmly to all manner of outrageous beliefs. Whether it be acupuncture, homeopathy, alien visitations, or 9/11 conspiracies, it’s obvious they have not applied any skepticism to the things that are important to them. Or if they have, they haven’t done it very well. Whatever the case, atheists like this are probably going to be swiftly challenged should they attempt to adopt the label “Skeptic”.
So it’s clear that skepticism doesn’t necessarily lead to atheism, and it’s just as clear that one can be an atheist withoutÂ being aÂ skeptic.
But why all the fuss?
Well, in addition to the ongoingÂ confusion by newbies as we mentioned above, there have been some fairly good rationalist believers who have stepped away from promoting critical thinking because they felt somewhat ostracized by a perceived pervasive hard-line atheist attitude among the skeptic community. And for each of those that has quit, there are more that feel the same way, but whoÂ just sit quietly without rocking the boat.
On the other hand, there are some very good atheist rationalist who insist those who do not arrive at agnosticism are not good critical thinkers, or that they are dishonest.Â To them,Â allowing that type of thinking to persist taints an endeavor (rationality) that should be pure and exercised fully or not at all.
Neither of those points affects me personally, but IÂ would not dismiss either of them as trivial.
I would, however, simplyÂ remind folks that being too lax is not a good thing, but neither is walking in lockstep. And success for any group is always easier if there is cooperation.
And I think I’ve said enough for one post, so for nowÂ I will turn the floor over to you all. Let us know what you think.