ReligionSkepticism

Thoughts on the Confluence of Skepticism and Atheism

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’ program that night 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 a presentation about evolution might have surprised anyone expecting a militant atheist to take the stage.

But over 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 that 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 someone new to the game — 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 my brief review of Dawkins’ lecture sparked a telling, related comment from regular Skepchick reader, halincoh, who is himself a rationalist, but not an atheist.

The odd thing is, to many people, the issue isn’t confusing at all. The answers seem clear, which would belie the need to ressurect the subject periodically to slog through it again.

Yet it does come up, for whatever reason, and perhaps slogging through it periodically is exactly what we should do, if for nothing else than to be thorough.

So, 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 answer is rife with caveats, and so where it may be easy, it’s not simple.

The answer to the question “Does skepticism lead to atheism?” is “No. Not necessarily”.

Now, this line of reasoning can quickly get muddy. But if we specify a definition for “skepticism” up front, it may help to keep things clear. We defined skepticism here on these pages as essentially a method of inquiry or thought, based on gathering and evaluating evidence, used to draw conclusions about 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, it’s clear that having it in 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 craftsman 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 examine any religious beliefs.

There are no rules or requirements for how the tool, the method of skepticism, must be applied. The vast majority of people on this planet apply skepticism (to some degree) all the time, and don’t even know it. Say a man 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 attached 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 of examining something and evaluating what we see. Yes, some may be better at it than others. Some may do it more often than others. But we can all do it.

Where we are unique, however, is in what we apply skepticism to. 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’re focusing on 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. 

So what can we point to as the big hitters to which the average person might apply skepticism?

Well, people tend to worry about things they see as potentially dangerous to them or potentially detrimental to their well-being. So they may be more apt to apply whatever level of skepticism they can to those things. They don’t want to be a sucker, so they might be wary of anyone asking them for money. They don’t won’t to go broke, so they may consider deeply any large investment. They don’t want their kids to get hurt, so they might look far and wide to find a decent neighborhood in which to raise a family. They want to remain in good health, so they might be discerning when looking for a quality physician. They might train a critical eye on a variety of different things from which bad things can result or where they perceive a potential 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’s more likely that 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 either declare that the examination supports their beliefs, or simply refuse to accept the conclusion 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 of 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 about 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 to some degree (even if it’s to a small degree), and therefore can adopt the label “Skeptic” should they so choose. But if they don’t give a hang if psychics pretend to be real, if they could care less if some yokel thinks a UFO is an alien spacecraft, or if they don’t care that there is no evidence for their deities, they could 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 it can be no less complicated.

The answer to the question “Are all atheists skeptics?” is “No. Not necessarily”.

Now, before 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 that “Yes, all atheists are skeptics” — at least to some degree.

But this question is specific to the label “Skeptic”. It does not ask whether atheists apply skepticism, but 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 we don’t 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 of 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 philosophical 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 without being a skeptic.

But why all the fuss?

Well, in addition to the ongoing 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 who 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. To them, 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 I would not dismiss either of them as trivial.

I would, however, simply 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 now I will turn the floor over to you all. Let us know what you think.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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69 Comments

  1. “Does Skepticism Lead to Atheism?”

    Well, it did for me. It was, in fact, the scientific evidence for evolution that, when compared against the flimsy arguments for Creation, ultimately won me over from fundamentalist Christianity to agnosticism and ultimately to atheism — and it was skepticism that ultimately got that ball rolling.

    I know it’s not like that for everyone, though, most notably in my mind being Dr. Pamela Gay, who maintains her Christian faith while being a public voice for skepticism in the community.

  2. As I’ve often said before, we can’t allow skepticism to become some kind of atheists-only club. If we want to further the goals of scientific skepticism, we need believers in the fold as contributing members of the skeptical community, and to encourage critical thinking within their faith communities as well. We need all our ores in the water. Whether skepticism leads them to give up their faith, or to strengthen it, is for them to discover.

    I have several Christian friends, and I’ve seen increasing amounts of skeptical topics coming up lately. I may have lead them to one or two of them, but for the most part, they found them themselves.

    One friend of mine is a PhD in Psychology, and also a very serious Christian, with very serious skeptical opinions about alternative medicine. She’s scientifically minded, and she’s been out of town for the last couple of years, so she most likely didn’t get it from me.

    Another friend of mine has clashed with me a few times on one topic or another, most notably climate science. But he’s recently breached some skeptical topics as well. And we recently had a bit of a discussion that I feel allowed us to better understand where each other stands. He’s sort-of an agnostic Catholic, with more of an appreciation for religion and spirituality, than an actual belief, but he keeps an ear to the ground in scientific topics. Though he could vet his sources better, but that’s another issue.

    And I’ve had some discussions with his wife about the anti-vax movement. I was able to find resources that spelled out more details than she remembered off-the-cuff, but she knew the basics.

    And even my wife, a lapsed pagan, has shown signs of some of my skeptical tendencies rubbing off on her. She’s still into alt-med, and homeopathy in particular, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.

    For the most part, they didn’t get it from me. I may have posted a link once or twice, or mentioned something out-of-hand, and they may have followed those links a little further, but they did it on their own. And though many of them haven’t given up faith, and many of them probably never will, they’ve shown valuable critical thinking skills. I may be the only atheist in the whole group, and I may be the only one who can even name all of the four horsemen. But I know for a fact that most of my believer friends are no intellectual slouches.

    You know what that tells me?

    There’s hope.

    We’re having an influence.

    We’re turning the tides.

    I’m not interested in getting people to give up their faith; that’s not my thing. But the more Christians who pray in hospital waiting rooms, rather than futilely over their child’s deathbed, the better off we all are.

  3. For me, the questions amount to, which came first, your left side or right side.

    I was always nerd, and that deteriorated my faith. Then, as I believed less and less, I learned more and more. So, they kinda fed on each other, like the two snakes eating each other.

  4. As I’m sure others will agree, we all know people who don’t fit “the mold” as it were. I’m an astronomer; I am and I work with scientists which means applying a healthy dose of skepticism to everything that we do. And yet, I have several colleagues who are sincere in their belief about a god (one of those individuals, when I gently inquired about this seeming contradiction simply answered “science isn’t the answer to everything”). The astronomer who’s office is right next to mine actively pursues “alt med” remedies for some medical difficulties she has and is a big fan of homeopathy and acupuncture. And these are all scientists whose job it is to practice skepticism daily.

    And then I always think of my brother. He’s intelligent, very well read, and a talented writer. I think any one of us would call him a skeptic: he has little tolerance for sloppy thinking and frequently bemoans the lack of critical thought. He rolls his eyes at psychics and alt med practitioners, 9/11 truthers and holocaust deniers. He has no patience for the “democratization of truth”. And yet, he is a born-again evangelical Christian. He was VP of his school’s chapter of Campus Crusade, he attended seminary where he considered entering the ministry and left with a Master’s in Theology. He works for a Christian drug rehab center and his Bible is never more than an arm’s length away. He studies it daily. He’s read it cover to cover and then back again (and has done the same with many other Holy Books). He once asked me what my biggest reason for being an atheist was and I said “because there’s no for evidence for a god.” He paused briefly and answered “That’s funny. I would argue that an honest appraisal of the evidence can *only* lead to Jesus.”

    I don’t know if I had a point to all that. Just throwing some thoughts into the conversation. As you were.

  5. @CosmicThespian:

    He paused briefly and answered “That’s funny. I would argue that an honest appraisal of the evidence can *only* lead to Jesus.”

    I mentioned in the post that even with an appraisal of the evidence, some people will still find that it supports their belief. This a good example.

  6. I think of myself as a Skeptic first and an Atheist second. To me Skepticism is an approach to interpreting and understanding the world, where as my Atheism is just the current state I am in until there is evidence in support of deities.

    I disagree with Sam, in that I think Atheism is the skeptical position. For example, if someone claims they have a ghost in their house, the skeptical position is that there isn’t a ghost in the house (until there is some evidence for it).

    If I’m honest (and why not be?), Skeptical Theists are a lot easier to relate to than non-Skeptical Atheists. I mean, if the Skeptical Theist examined their beliefs and came to a rational position in support of Theism, then I can relate to that. I’d disagree, but we’d be able to argue about it using science and reason, which makes for fun times. Arguing with Atheists who think homosexuality is “unnatural” because “they don’t make babies” is extremely painful and facepalm inducing.

  7. Does skepticism lead to atheism? It did for me.

    Are all atheists skeptics? Of course not, despite some well known non skeptical atheists thinking otherwise.

    But why all the fuss? People fuss when they are made uncomfortable, and when your sacred cow is poked in the eye with a sharp stick it’s decidedly uncomfortable.

  8. One doesn’t have to be an atheist to be a skeptic (and furthermore, if you have such thin skin that you allow others to define you out of a movement you are supposedly passionate about then you probably didn’t give that much of a shit anyways), but folks like halincoh who feign victimhood and pretend people like Dawkins are the atheist equivilent of religious fanatics are not people I would consider skeptical. Again, that doesn’t infringe on their right to call themselves skeptics, but it makes me think they’re a bit thick or willfully deluded.

  9. @Sam Ogden:

    “I mentioned in the post that even with an appraisal of the evidence, some people will still find that it supports their belief.”

    Then where does that leave us exactly?

    Is it possible to look at the evidence and honestly state that it supports young earth creationism?

    We might as well give up if people can draw whatever conclusions they want from the evidence and be given a free pass.

    What exactly do you expect people to do?

    Do we stop criticizing homeopathy because we might ostracize them from the skeptical movement?

    Why should god belief be given special privilege?

  10. @CosmicThespian: Sounds like your brother and I made some similar choices in life for a while. My degree was in religion and philosophy and I almost went on to get my MDiv or a PhD in theology. When I finally started thinking skeptically about my religious views one thing I realized in all the talk about ‘evidence leading to Jesus’ was that it seemed like the same kind of anecdotal self and confirming gruel that CAM quackery uses to “prove” the effectiveness of their useless treatments. In the end it was clear to me there are no answered prayers, and the children of Christians get cancer at the same rate as non believers and they have the same recovery rates regardless of how much prayer there is. When I realized there was a complete lack of evidence supporting the internal claims of my religion, my decision to no longer believe had been made. So for me the claim of the supernatural must have evidence of the supernatural to warrant belief, and when I decided to require evidence that was credible and not anecdotal, faith was no longer an option. I suppose that’s where the ruse of hope comes into play with the tantalizing promise of better things to come in the next life. And the bible makes a lot of promises, and any intelligent reasonable Christian has to make constant rationalizations, or engage in bazaar intellectual gymnastics, to excuse their gods’ behavior or lack of intervention.

  11. @spurge:

    Well, I’m not saying they are right to draw such a conclusion. I’m just pointing out that some do.

    The post is just an examination of the overlap of skepticism and atheism. It’s not about strategies to engage those who don’t think like you do.

    If you are an activist, you should continue to do what you’re doing. Knowing that skepticism doesn’t necessarily lead to atheism and that not all atheists are skeptics shouldn’t change anything in that arena.

  12. @Sam Ogden:

    I certainly agree that not all Atheists are skeptics and that you do not have to be an Atheist to consider yourself a skeptic.

    I don’t want to see theists leave the movement but I don’t like the faction in the skeptical movement that wants Atheists to shut up.

  13. Too many people on the various sides of this issue can’t seem to see past their own preconceptions. Your not a real Jew, Christian Muslim if you don’t do/believe…. Sadly I hear that more from the so called Skeptical Atheists than I do from the religious types. Usually in some sort of rant – U believe in GOD! THAT IS SO STUPID CLEARLY THE EARTH IS NOT 6K YEARS OLD… Oh you believe the Earth is billions of years old and in evolution..well then you don’t really believe in god. Oh you say you do, you must believe in invisible pink unicorns as well…

    Maybe it isn’t fair to say I hear it more from the so called Skeptical Atheists (I might have to test that some day), it could be that it just bothers me more. If some sort of fundamentalist tells me I’m going to hell because because I don’t believe in the divinity of Christ, or that I am a bad Jew because I’m stopping off for some General Tso’s Shrimp on the way home from work- I could careless. They’re not claiming to look at the world rationally. But when people criticize me for not thinking critically, because my experiences and study has brought me to a different conclusion then them, Tell me I’m not really a skeptic or Jewish, all the while clinging to their own ridged preconceptions… It wreaks of hypocrisy and arrogance.

  14. @Advocatus Diaboli:
    I think of myself as a Skeptic first and an Atheist second. To me Skepticism is an approach to interpreting and understanding the world, where as my Atheism is just the current state I am in until there is evidence in support of deities.

    This. My atheism is an effect of my skepticism.

  15. @James Fox: Thanks for sharing that insight from your life. You were able to turn a rational eye to religious claims and found them to be wanting. But one thing that I think we all (myself very much included) forget in these discussions is the emotional impact. Sam touched on it nicely in his post:

    Religion provides a good measure of comfort to a great many people. They like the community. They enjoy the social aspects and the fellowship.

    For my brother, his discovery of Jesus marked an enormous turn around in his life. Prior to that he was drifting, perpetually angry, drinking, and – I just learned this a few weeks ago – very near to committing suicide. He’d pretty much given up. Then he became ensnared in Campus Crusade’s grasp, “gave his life over to Jesus” as they say, and he rediscovered purpose. It’s a story we’ve all heard from countless religions. I suppose in one respect I’m glad that he found that otherwise I don’t know how close I came to losing my brother. And maybe he did need that sense of “something greater” to get him through a dark time in his life. I can’t necessarily fault him for that. But despite the many intervening years (or maybe because of them) he strongly associates Christianity with, basically, saving his life.

    What do we as skeptics do with something like that? Or should we? This is where I run into a wall sometimes. I guess this is a variant on the old “you can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into”.

    Which I suppose is my very long way of agreeing with the position that you absolutely can be a skeptic and a theist. You can be a skeptic and a believer in *anything*, really, if you’ve put up emotional barriers around whatever it is that has become immune to rational inquiry. In that respect, I kind of get why my astronomer colleague goes in for the herbal-homeo-puncture-reflex whatever “treatments”. All her experiences with *actual* doctors in handling her condition have been profoundly negative. In her alt-med world she’s found something that doesn’t appear to be causing her further harm and may even provide a measure of relief (even if it is only a placebo).

    Wow. I really rambled a bit there. Sorry about that. Cheers!

  16. Labling gets complicated, but if someone calling themself a skeptic said that they believed in alien abductions or homeopathy or telepethay, would we not question that they are actually a skeptic? Should we not also question it if they say they believe in magic invisible gods?

    But it’s the issues that are important, not lables.

  17. Theism asserts that the proposition “God exists” is true.

    Atheism asserts that the proposition “God exists” is false.

    Skepticism expresses doubt that the proposition “god exists” is true or false.

    Agnosticism asserts that the truth value of the proposition “god exists” is uncertain.

    Another way to put it is that if P = {god exists} then Theism is the set of people who claim that P and Atheism must be the set of people who claim that ¬P.

    The mistake that is made today is in thinking that atheism equals a “lack of belief” because that would mean that rocks and galaxies are atheists. This is absurd.

  18. I don’t think the two need to related. You can be a dumbass atheist just as easily as you can be a rational theist. I’ve certainly met more than my fair share of both over the years.

    For me personally, I was an atheist first, and THEN I was a late-bloomer skeptic. It wasn’t until a few rounds of hard-core internet evolution/theist debating, that I actually learned to properly argue and apply skeptical thinking to the matters at hand. Prior to this, I suspect I was a bit of a dumbass, arrogant atheist.

  19. CosmicThespian
    “For my brother, his discovery of Jesus marked an enormous turn around in his life. Prior to that he was drifting, perpetually angry, drinking, and – I just learned this a few weeks ago – very near to committing suicide. He’d pretty much given up.”

    This is because religion provides people with a higher order goal for their life. Left to ourselves most people will pursue their own selfish ends which is destructive. Greed and selfishness really are not good. Not for you and not for the larger culture.

    By analogy look at our recent economic collapse. It was directly caused by the unfettered greed of market players pursuing their own rational self interest. It was promised by some economists that there exists a “magic hand” and that the free market would be self correcting. The magic hand never materialized and as a result the entire global economy nearly collapsed.

    The same is true for civilization in general. Individuals pursuing their own self interest cannot build a society and civilizations collapse when enough members of that culture no longer share in the values and practices that constitute that society. Sort of like how money only exists as long as everyone believes it is money. As soon as no one believes in the banks they collapse.

    There may be secular institutions which can constitute society but I’m unsure about how strong or efficient they are.

    Civilization really is like Tinker Belle so please clap louder. ;)

  20. spurge said
    “Got any evidence that religion stops people from acting selfishly?”

    It isn’t a binary thing. It only has to function better than unrestricted individual greed. We would all like to avoid a Lord of the Flies scenario where individuals left on their own devolve into a tribal state. Western Civilization is a good thing. I would think that you of all people would want to maintain it.

    Religion is one factor in building a civilization. It remains to be seen if it can be kept up in the absence of all belief. Yugoslavia was once a rich vibrant muticultural state. It fell apart because it’s members failed to maintain the collective will to keep it together.

    I’d hate to see that happen in the US. I think we should be finding common cause with each other and not tearing ourselves apart. Silly me.

  21. @CosmicThespian: My becoming a Christian was a very emotional event and had an enormously significant impact on my life from age 16 till I was 45. Losing my religion has been very difficult for my wife and has negatively impacted some close friendships that had endured thirty years. But for me the cost of what I’d lose was never part of my thought process for some reason. It was a point where I knew I could no longer hold onto my beliefs and undeciding was not an option. Mind you I did keep my new heathen status it to myself for over a year. And I really do understand that wall, and I have no strong compulsion to dissuade anyone else from their beliefs, but I’ll talk about my process if someone asks.

  22. The thing that I think gets forgotten in all of this is that skepticism can not answer to supernatural claims. Anything that does not make a testable claim is outside the purview of skepticism. Where this become tricky, and where semantic arguments can be made, is when the supernatural claim asserts itself into the natural realm.

    For example. A personal belief in some sort of, for lack of a better term, higher power is untestable on its own. However, when you start to define this higher power it inevitably leads to this entity entering the physical. The only way around it is to say, as Martin Gardner did, that it is a personal belief with no rationality and the subject is moot. If no claims are made, nothing can be proved.

    If, on the other hand, you begin to explain why you believe, what (or who) that higher power is, or how it affects the wheres and what-fores of the world you are making claims that can be examined and perhaps tested.

    I would say the same for any claim. You believe in ghosts but don’t think there is any real evidence that has been put forward? OK, as long as you’re not claiming anything testable, what’s the point of arguing?

    That’s why semantics about whether someone is, or aught to be, an atheist or an agnostic bore me. If I personally don’t buy any or the various beliefs about god, why is that not good enough for some people? As long as I don’t make assertions , like god/gods DON’T exist, the why does it matter if I say I’m an atheist?

    It’s a personal atheism, it didn’t come to me in a dream, OK?

    Oh and, happy 70th. You are sorely missed. ((°J°))

  23. @mrmisconception: “As long as I don’t make assertions , like god/gods DON’T exist, the why does it matter if I say I’m an atheist?”

    I have a minor problem with the idea that saying that gods *don’t* exist is a *positive* assertion. Saying that a particular god, or several gods, exist seems to me to be a positive assertion, requiring evidence. My atheism is, I think, grounded in the fact that different historical cultures have generated different “god” beliefs. Despite what ecumanicuralists (sp??) would like us to believe, the values expressed by different religious institutions can be not only radically different, but also non-commensurate. This (to me) is positive evidence that religiosity is probably partially innate to humans (as animals) and is, in final form, a human expression. … In other words, better than mine, god did not create man, man created god.

    The position that there is *not* a supernatural entity with the qualities (x, y, z) that can affect the observable universe is (to me) the default argument… if for no other reason than we have not detected it yet.

    People who get wound up about “atheists deny GOD (without specifying *which* god),” probably don’t spend too much time thinking about agnostic/atheist differences. In the same vein, people (like me) that edge toward the, “agnostics are non-skeptical atheists,” end could maybe listen to some good counter-arguments.

    Finn

  24. @noen:

    Wow!
    quote, “This is because religion provides people with a higher order goal for their life.”

    The largest of which religions, Christianity, has the goal of having a sweet situation after death. There are some moral pronouncements on what one should do while alive (and, for those that think the Old Testament is some kind of gospel, a *lot* of immoral stuff as well… ok, some New Testament ideas are also morally questionable…)

    The former quote and the following sentence, ” Left to ourselves most people will pursue their own selfish ends which is destructive.” are assertions that could really use some kind of supporting evidence.

    I believe that there are significant differences between, “religion” and , “culture”, but this is not my area of expertise, so I won’t supply formal arguments about that. However, noen, your posts don’t appear to differentiate between culture, religion, morals, etc. On one hand you imply that religion is required for “western” civilization, then you extoll the virtues of the multiculturalism of Yugoslavia (seemingly not appreciating the artificiality of the origin of the country), and ignoring that religion (as well as ethnic differences) was a major factor in the break-up. Maybe if we all accepted the *same* religion, everything would be ok??

  25. @Finn McR:
    Actually, i agree with you.

    You say you edge toward “agnostics are non-skeptical atheists” and I would put myself closer to that position too, but there are those to whom agnosticism speaks to proof and atheism speaks to belief and would therefore state that “atheists are non-skeptical agnostics” since the proof of the non existence of god/gods can not be made. As someone who vacillated frequently between the two when I was growing up I can appreciate the hunger for clarity but feel, if no assertions are made, it ends up being a bloody fight for no ground.

    My point was, if the belief exists without assertions than what is the point of arguing? When these assertions are absent, I contend, the arguments over labels is just semantics at best and pedantry and worst.

  26. @noen:
    Left to ourselves most people will pursue their own selfish ends which is destructive.

    Actually, this argument has been swatted down numerous times.
    I would recommend The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. Despite the name it asserts that things like cooperation were necessary to man’s evolution and would have come about regardless of the invention of religion.
    At least, that’s how I remember it. Haven’t read it in some time.

  27. I was reborn! And then I grew up again.

    From my teenage years on up until I was in my early 30s I had an up and down relationship with religion.

    Now all I can say “Meh!”

    Truly, I don’t really care. I had a long and detailed explanation, but I deleted it… because it really does not matter.

    I find the loud and proud atheists at the local Skeptics in the Pub very annoying. But I tolerate my relatives and their rituals (except the incense at funeral masses, I need to write in my will that no smokey stinky stuff will be burned during my memorial).

    I have explained to my children that religion gives people a community of support and comfort, and it should never be mocked. Especially for their grandmother who lost both a husband and a child in less than fifteen months.

    (now I have to tell my very religious sister who left a birthday song on my phone today that my birthday is actually on Monday… grumble, grumble, grumble).

  28. Applying the term “atheism” is pretty easy as long as you keep it simple and hold to the “don’t believe in any gods” definition without going into the whys and wherefores. (Arriving at a conclusion of atheism, by the way, in no way contradicts being an agnostic: the former is a statement of conviction, the second is a statement about the possibility of certain knowledge. “I don’t believe in god because there’s no evidence for a god, but I understand my belief cannot be proven with certainty,” is both atheism and agnosticism, and it’s a pretty standard stance for atheists to take.)

    Applying the term “skepticism” is more difficult because the word is used by skeptics in several different ways.

    When skeptics want to define skepticism in terms of its claims-testing procedures, then it’s obvious that a person can be a skeptic in some areas but not in others. The promotion of skepticism becomes all but indistinguishable from the promotion of science and critical thinking, and we just assume that skeptics will disagree among themselves about important topics.

    However, skeptics often want to use the word to point to the broader skeptical movement, such that a “good” skeptic can be identified as a person who not only uses critical thinking in general, but who is on board with the broader agenda of combating fraud, pseudoscience, and a variety of superstitions.

    In this second context the word “skepticism” has a normative quality, such that we can say (for example) that not all atheists are good skeptics, because a person who’s skeptical about religion might fall for 9/11 conspiracy theories or homeopathy.

    And here’s where I get bothered. If an atheist can be a bad skeptic for failing to agree with organized skepticism about, say, homeopathy, then how can a religious person possibly be a good skeptic if that person actually believes , say, that a man rose from the dead and went around doing faith healing? (Faith healing in 30 AD was, presumably, no less fraudulent than it is today. And basic science does a very good job at explaining why resurrection is extremely implausible.)

    So there’s a double-standard at work within the skeptical community: sometimes skepticism means the application of scientific principles and critical thinking; but sometimes it means being on board with the political aims of organized skepticism, and if those aims include giving superstitious religious beliefs a free pass for the sake of big-tent skepticism, then atheists who speak out get to enjoy being called dicks.

    What has happened recently in the skeptical movement, I think, is that it has experienced a growth spurt, where the younger new members have, one, been trained in argument by the Internet, where manners are less in evidence than in face-to-face interaction, and two, are probably disproportionately gnu atheists compared to the older skeptical crowd. And because so many of them are new, they’re not party to the old gentleman’s and gentlewoman’s agreements that kept the spiritual beliefs of Hal Bidlack and Martin Gardener and Pamela Gay (for example) off the table for discussion.

    If you’re a gnu atheist who thinks the danger fundamentalist religion poses toward society is more pressing than the dangers of dowsing, Bigfoot, and moon-landing hoaxes, then you might well think the priorities and premises of organized skepticism are badly skewed when some leaders argue that religious beliefs should be treated with kid gloves or that religious claims are outside the realm of critical thinking/skepticism because you can’t run a resurrection experiment.

    However, if you view the skeptical movement through the lens of science education, then it makes perfect sense to take the big-tent approach. Far too many scientists, teachers of science, and allies of science are also religious for us to go around deliberately alienating them needlessly.

    But if that’s what organized skepticism really is — science boosterism — then it really needs to drop the pose it’s traditionally held, that all topics are welcome. If, on the other hand, organized skepticism is about the wide-ranging exploration of critical thinking no matter where it goes, then theists and atheists both need to grow a thick skin and concede their beliefs are fair game.

    Note that this is not an endorsement of rudeness or cruelty. Nor is it an argument against the idea that we need to constantly work to refine and improve our persuasive tools within skepticism. But at the heart of all the fallout from “Don’t Be A Dick” is an elephant in the room: from the way the term “skeptic” is used in the movement, it’s entirely possible for any given “good” skeptic to be a “bad” skeptic by the standards of many other “good” skeptics.

  29. Cards on the table first: I’m one of those mean-spirited atheist dicks that prefers vinegar to honey, eats babies, and drinks the blood of puppies. Grraarrrggh! Urrrrrgghhh! Braaaaainss! And so forth! If anyone wants to take issue over that – please do. It’s fun. ^_^

    Right. That’s out of the way.

    Awesome post, Sam. Loved it.

    I think I fall into the isn’t it obvious? camp.

    I do hold that if skepticism is applied to the subject of religion, the correct conclusion is atheism. Then again – I would.

    However, it doesn’t follow from this that everyone calling themselves a skeptic should be expected to apply their skepticism to every aspect of their life. If someone wants to mark their religious beliefs as out-of-bounds to their own skepticism, that’s fine.

    In my experience skeptically-literate believers are rarely the ones that try and suppress free speech (blasphemy laws) or impose their sense of religious morality on other people, or any of the other obnoxious things that believers use that get me all loud and obnoxious about religion.

    So I really don’t care if someone who is openly skeptical about all the other hot-topics turns around and declares that, actually, they do believe in the sky bully (or however they choose to spin it). It’s fine. I’ll start complaining when that skeptic denies their kids medical treatment in favor of prayer. I’m not exactly holding my breath – I don’t see it happening.

    At the same time, it doesn’t necessarily follow that everyone who is an atheist got there via skepticism. There are many paths to atheism – and skepticism isn’t the only one. For all that I consider atheism to be the correct stance towards the metaphysical claims of religion, the path by which someone gets there matters. If someone gets to atheism for the wrong reasons, that matters.

    So yeah. To my mind, this should all be obvious. I really don’t understand what the fuss is all about.

    Right. So. Anyone want to take issue with Gnu Atheists? I’m game! Take your best shot! C’mon!

    ^_^

  30. mrmisconception
    “I would recommend The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.”

    I read it when it came out 35 years ago. Before you were even born I’d guess. Haven’t you heard? No one really takes memes or sociobiology seriously any more. And yes, atruism really does exist, contrary to Dawkins’ claim.

    Of course cooperation is necessary for humans to survive and we can’t really exist in a state of nature. What I am getting at is a couple of things. One is that culture IS religion, has been for 15,000 years. It’s only recently that we have a new innovation of trying to separate the background set of beliefs and practices that determine the kinds of selves we can be from religion resulting in the modern multicultural state. It remains to be seen it this arrangement will last. I think it’s rather fragile.

    The second is that social stability is created and maintained through the collective intentionality of everyone in the culture. Basically we all agree that certain modes of being are important and traditionally we reinforce those social behaviors through religion. It really doesn’t matter much if along the way we happen to believe in things for which there isn’t much evidence. We can’t survive on our own so we don’t have to get things perfect. We just have to be able to survive to the next generation.

    That’s what I think the function of religion is. To enable social cohesion and to bring everyone together to collectively build civilization. Atheism, hard atheism, you know who I mean, Objectivists, Libertarians, the hard atheist Right, would destroy all that by their total emphasis on absolute individuality.

    Simply put, if you take any culture and convince it’s members that they should all act in their rational self interest only you will have effectively killed that culture.

  31. Finn McR
    “On one hand you imply that religion is required for “western” civilization, then you extoll the virtues of the multiculturalism of Yugoslavia”

    I like living in our modern multicultural state, I really do. It just worries me that it may be very fragile. I don’t have to like authoritarian states to recognize that in spite of my dislike for them they seem to be highly stable. When societies undergo stress they collapse into authoritarianism.

    I don’t think that religion is required for civilization. In spite of the fact that I am secular myself I can still think that religion is a powerful force for social cohesion. The only secular institution that I think could challenge religion in the general culture would be the military.

    Non-believers at %6 of the pop. haven’t got a f*cking prayer.

  32. @nouen

    “I read it when it came out 35 years ago. Before you were even born I’d guess. Haven’t you heard? No one really takes memes or sociobiology seriously any more.”

    Firstly, you’re telling someone who (presumably) takes memes and/or sociobiology seriously that no-one takes either of these subjects seriously.

    Think about that.

    Personally, I take memes seriously. I can’t see any problems with them. A lot of the objections I’ve come across to the concept of memes actually have more to do with what the objector thinks memes are about, when actually they’re not.

    I don’t have a stance on sociobiology, as I’m not sure what that means.

    ” And yes, atruism really does exist, contrary to Dawkins’ claim.”

    Where did Dawkins make this claim? Specifically? Because I’m pretty sure that this won’t actually be a fair reflection of whatever it is he actually wrote.

    Remember: Just because altruism can (allegedly) be explained in terms of genes, that doesn’t mean that altruism doesn’t exist. To the contrary.

    “One is that culture IS religion, has been for 15,000 years.”

    So I take it that the shared beliefs, texts, traditions, and ways of life espoused by an international community of atheists doesn’t qualify as a culture then?

    So – atheists are without culture?

    Do you want to consider A. C. Grayling for five seconds and say that again?

    O_o

    “That’s what I think the function of religion is. To enable social cohesion and to bring everyone together to collectively build civilization. Atheism, hard atheism, you know who I mean, Objectivists, Libertarians, the hard atheist Right, would destroy all that by their total emphasis on absolute individuality.”

    Actually, I don’t know what you mean.

    I thought atheism – hard or otherwise – just meant lack of a belief in Gods.

    Most atheists I know about are secularists.

    Outside of secularism, there really isn’t a central atheist party-line when it comes to politics.

    Methinks you’re long overdue a reality check on your view of atheists.

  33. Daniel Schealler
    “Personally, I take memes seriously. I can’t see any problems with them. … I don’t have a stance on sociobiology, as I’m not sure what that means.”

    Is this your best shot? I bow to your impressive debating skillz and vastly superior intellect.

    “Where did Dawkins make this claim?”

    The premise of the Selfish Gene is that altruism does not exist. What we call altruism is really an illusion produced by the activity of selfish genes.

    “So – atheists are without culture?”

    Atheists tell me that since they are to religion as non-stamp collectors are to philatelists, that atheism as such does not exist. Since atheism does not exist as any kind of social movement, force or organization and lacks any creed, dogma or core beliefs it certainly cannot have a culture.

    “Do you want to consider A. C. Grayling for five seconds and say that again?”

    Name dropping is not argument.

    “Methinks you’re long overdue a reality check on your view of atheists.”

    Methinks I’ll be waiting for that to be delivered a long time.

  34. Since I’ve gotten serious about skepticism, I’ve attempted to get better acquainted with the various logical fallacies and to strive to notice them when they crop up.

    This thread is an absolute treasure trove. Straw men left and right, arguments from final consequence, ad hominems, whatever you call it when you change the definition of a word in the middle of an argument. Yikes!

    Go back to what Sam said. Skepticism is a tool, not a conclusion.

    I could go on for dozens of paragraphs, but it’s very late and I’m way to tired…

    But I think if every one went back and critically examined, not the statements of others, but their own statements, each of us might more clearly distinguish conclusions from opinions or guesses, and might more clearly discuss what other people are saying and not what they *think* other people are saying.

    (cue Kumbaya in 1.. 2… 3..)

  35. @Daniel Schealler:
    You know, I think Phil Plait is going to regret the whole “don’t be a Dick” thing for some time.
    I believe that the phrase originated with a bumper sticker (let me know if anyone knows of an ealier example) that said “SEE DICK DRINK, SEE DICK DRIVE, SEE DICK DIE, DON’T BE A DICK”
    More recently it has been used as a mantra by Wil Weaton to describe the way he feels celebrities should treat their fans.
    But, when applied to skepticism it seems to mean don’t be unnecessarily dickish. If you need to be told not to act that way then being told not to act that way won’t make you not act that way. I was not at TAM but from what I glean from discussions of the speech it was not meant to silence all dissent but to remind people that they need not spout off about a topic without cause.
    I don’t see respecting others as a double standard. If someone holds a belief that is less than totally skeptical but isn’t trying to spread that belief, what is the sense of picking a fight?
    We allow people who believe any number of less than skeptical things to be call skeptics all the time. The one that springs to mind is climate change skeptics, there are plenty in the skeptical movement. It seems to be closely tied to libertarianism. (which I happen to believe to be an unskeptical position)
    I actually think that believing that the climate isn’t changing, or that man didn’t help cause it, is much more harmful belief than a belief in a personal god, but if the topic isn’t broached it is left alone. Why can’t quiet god belief fall into that category?
    That being said, if the topic is brought up, it’s theist-bottom-munching time.

  36. @Buzz Parsec

    Bah! Why let an intermittent bought of good-feeling spoil a perfectly good internet spat? :P

    @neon

    “Is this your best shot? I bow to your impressive debating skillz and vastly superior intellect.”

    You claimed no-one takes memes seriously.

    I pointed out that I do.

    Since you didn’t give any reasons why no-one takes memes seriously, there wasn’t much more of an argument to address now, was there?

    If you put forward an argument as to why memes shouldn’t be taken seriously, I’ll address it. I might even change my mind because of it!

    But if all you do is assert that no-one takes it seriously, without support or argument, well – it’s enough to point out that I do. And I’m not the only one. Sue Blackmoore, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins have all given serious consideration to the subject of memes at one point or another. I can site the books in question, if you like.

    So it’s incorrect to state that no-one takes them seriously. Q.E.D.

    “The premise of the Selfish Gene is that altruism does not exist. What we call altruism is really an illusion produced by the activity of selfish genes.”

    What?

    The premise of the Selfish Genes is that evolution can be explained at the level of the gene, where each gene can be metaphorically understood to ‘selfishly’ seek out its own replication.

    Richard actually attempts to explain human altruism specifically in the book. I have a paperback copy of the 30th anniversary edition. In my copy on page 88 he explains that “The key point of this chapter [Chapter 6: Genesmanship] is that a gene might be able to assist replicas of itself that are sitting in other bodies. If so, this would appear as individual altruism but it would be brought about by gene selfishness.”

    He also spends many pages discussing kin selection (88-107) and the misunderstandings thereof (299-92).

    So no. Dawkins doesn’t deny the existence of individual altruism – he explains it as arising from competition at the level of the gene.

    I assure you that the quotes and references, and the explanations I’ve attached to them are, when taken in context, consistent with the text.

    If you have something – anything – that you can directly site where Dawkins denies the existence of individual altruism, or show that I’m taking this information and references out of context, then by all means – site it.

    You have to do more than site the title, noen.

    Show me your evidence.

    “Atheists tell me that since they are to religion as non-stamp collectors are to philatelists, that atheism as such does not exist. Since atheism does not exist as any kind of social movement, force or organization and lacks any creed, dogma or core beliefs it certainly cannot have a culture.”

    Atheism does not exist as any kind of social movement, eh?

    The Out Campaign would love to hear about that. I’m sure they’d appreciate a good belly-laugh.

    Let’s recap.

    You say no-one takes memes seriously. I point to evidence of an example of people who do in myself. Your response? Mockery and ad-hominem. I’ve provided further evidence that people beyond myself – published and widely-read authors – take memes seriously. How will you react, I wonder?

    You say that Dawkins denies the existence of altruism. I challenged you to site some evidence for that claim. You came back with the title of one of his books, and an assertion as to the premise of the book. I’ve challenged that assertion with contradicting quotes and references. How will you react, I wonder?

    You claimed that religious IS culture. I pointed out that atheists exist, and there is a common set of lifestyles, literature and philosophical outlook. You came back and asserted that atheism is not a social movement, so it cannot have a culture. I gave a link to an atheistic social movement. Again – how will you react, I wonder?

    Show me your evidence, noen.

  37. @mrmisconception

    “Why can’t quiet god belief fall into that category?”

    Err… Didn’t I say that already? Some token excerpts from my “I’m a dick, but-” comment:

    “If someone wants to mark their religious beliefs as out-of-bounds to their own skepticism, that’s fine.”

    “I really don’t care if someone who is openly skeptical about all the other hot-topics turns around and declares that, actually, they do believe in the sky bully (or however they choose to spin it). It’s fine. I’ll start complaining when that skeptic denies their kids medical treatment in favor of prayer. I’m not exactly holding my breath – I don’t see it happening.”

    Anyway, on the subject of respect – I did actually take Plait’s whole don’t-be-a-dick thing seriously. I’m not always a dick – but I can be sometimes. So I tried to dial that down.

    What I found out? I’m really, really bad at false respect. Like – really bad. At best I come over as condescending and smug. At worst my attempts just give my opponent additional ammunition and a false sense of validation.

    For me, trying not to be a dick actually comes over worse than being a dick. At least being a dick – when I feel it’s deserved – is honest. It’s also occasionally funny and tends to get a better response from the audience of the person I’m arguing with. And I can always fall back on the fact that at the very least, I’m taking my opponent seriously, as an equal that doesn’t need to be condescended too or manhandled with the kiddie gloves.

    I don’t always deploy dickishness. When feelings of niceness, tolerance and respectfulness are genuine, I go with them. But when they’re not? When I genuinely feel that being a dick is called for? I go with that too.

    Being a dick works for me. I’ll stand by it until it doesn’t.

  38. @Daniel Schealler:
    I apologize, I started out addressing you and drifted to addressing the thread altogether. I actually agreed with what you said almost completely, so mea culpa.
    As I reread it I realized that the original point that I was going to make didn’t even end up in the post.
    I was going to say that atheism stemming from skepticism is not necessarily a no-brainer for all, but if the believer does not spew forth with that opinion there was no need for an attack.
    Not even a criticism really, just an observation. It’s very late here, not an excuse just a reason.
    At least you didn’t insinuate that you know more than me because you are older. :P

  39. @mrmisconception

    Ha! Good subtle jab on the insinuation of age thing.

    For the record? That would be a little rich coming from me. I’m 25 – a baby. I prefer to chalk my shtick down to the insolence of youth – that get’s the oldies all kinds of riled up.

    ^_^

  40. Great article, well done. I have one point of contention, however, and it’s this:

    If we have learnt anything it’s that if a claim is untestable you cannot possibly produce sufficient evidence to justify believing it. It is therefore not believable. Consequently, anything that requires faith in lieu of evidence should automatically be rejected. Conversely, all testable religious claims that have been made, have also been entirely falsified.

    There are no sacred cows, nothing is beyond critical analysis. The suggestion, made by some, that religion has no testable claims & thus nothing to evaluate is utter nonsense. I was an atheist before I became a ‘sceptic’, albeit using the ‘tool’ of scepticism, as you describe, to get to my atheism. Although atheism is a position I have always had to some extent, now I just understand why I am an atheist – theism has failed to meet the burden of proof.

    What I mean to say is that atheism introduced me to the sceptic community and the very idea that this is a way of thinking. Consequently, I, like others before me, now consider myself a sceptic first and an atheist second. Nevertheless, my principal area of concern is religion with a focus on secular humanism. But I am always striving to combat ‘faith’ in general, in particular breaking that pesky taboo that faith, especially religious belief, is sacrosanct, beyond criticism and public discourse and should therefore be respected.

    That, friends, is what Penn & Teller call BULLSHIT!

    xXx

  41. Daniel Schealler
    “If you put forward an argument as to why memes shouldn’t be taken seriously, I’ll address it. “

    I don’t have to, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. YOU need to prove they exist, I don’t. Where is your evidence for memes? What are they made of? I can look down a microscope and see DNA, why can’t I see memes? Where in our DNA does it code for memes? If memes exist in our DNA then they MUST be coded for, where is it?

    Memes are pseudoscience.

    “So no. Dawkins doesn’t deny the existence of individual altruism – he explains it as arising from competition at the level of the gene.”

    Do you even know what the word altruism means? If altruism can be reduced to or explained by selfish competition at the level of the genes then it isn’t altruism is it?

    Fucking altruism, how does it work?

    “You claimed that religious IS culture. I pointed out that atheists exist, and there is a common set of lifestyles, literature and philosophical outlook. “

    Actually I don’t really care. Atheism is a social movement within the larger culture but is not itself a culture. At best it would be described as a subculture but most atheists I’ve encountered would strongly reject any suggestion that atheists share a “common set of lifestyles, literature and philosophical outlook. ”

    “Really, really wish I could go back and change ‘site’ for ‘cite’.”

    You can but it’s a secret. You have to be smarter than wordpress.

  42. @everyone

    I’m really, really, really struggling to stop picking at this… I’ve gone to comment four times only to think better of it.

    I can’t help myself on number 5. Mea culpa.

    Last run, I promise.

    @noen

    If we take memes seriously, then genes are themselves a kind of meme. Core to the essence of what makes up memetics (or whatever we want to call it) is the idea that memes are separate from their storage mediums. So we don’t have to look for memes in DNA – they could be stored in a particular arrangement of neurons in a brain, on a page of text, on a magnetic disk, in a particular style of dress, in a technique of folding the top square of paper on a toilet roll – and so forth.

    I don’t mean to play the role of white knight on behalf of memes. There are many problems with the topic, and it’s justifiable in my view that someone may choose to dismiss the topic for a vareity of reasons.

    That said – the reason you’ve given isn’t even a valid criticism of memes. It’s a criticism of a position no-one is actually espousing. Based in everything you’ve said on the topic, your argument is indistinguishable from that of a person who knows virtually nothing about the subject.

    Also – I’ll notice we’ve strayed away from your original claim: That no-one takes memes seriously.

    Right. On to altruism.

    What is the common usage for altruism?

    While I normally detest dictionary-lawyers, sometimes a quick search can very useful.

    altruism
    n.
    1) Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness.
    2) Zoology. Instinctive behavior that is detrimental to the individual but favors the survival or spread of that individual’s genes, as by benefiting its relatives.

    Interesting.

    I take it as a trivially true assumption that some individuals demonstrate unselfish concern for the welfare of others – that is to say, the concern of the individual is genuinely unselfish.

    This pattern behavior can be explained as being imprinted on our phenotype by our genotype. Justification for this can be supplied by showing how the altruistic behavior of individuals can benefit the ‘selfish’ goals of their genes.

    That the altruistic behavior of individuals can be explained at a genetic level does not mean that the behavior ceases to exist.

    Fucking *blankets*, how do they work?

    Finally, onto the ‘culture IS religion’ claim.

    I challenged this. If religion IS culture, what then can we say about the members of a society that have no religion? Are they also without culture?

    I pointed to atheists and tried to indicate that they do, in fact, have a culture. It would follow from this that whatever else we might want to say about the relationship between culture and religion, they are not synonyms.

    You said that “atheism does not exist as any kind of social movement, force or organization and lacks any creed, dogma or core beliefs it certainly cannot have a culture.”

    Some of this is true. But not all of it. I provided a link to the Out Campaign – a social movement/organization/force that is specifically geared towards getting closeted atheists to come out publicly as atheists.

    Now, suddenly, you don’t really care. Also, an atheist movement is now taking place within the larger culture. Okay.

    So if culture IS religion, and non-religion takes place within religion, then… Wait. No. That makes no sense.

    Or if atheism can at best be considered a subculture, then atheism can be considered a sub-religion? Therefore, atheism is a religion? Hmm. If atheism is a religion, then not playing football is a sport. So methinks not.

    So… Yeah. This is getting a little incoherent now.

    Finally, you wrote: Most atheists I’ve encountered would strongly reject any suggestion that atheists share a “common set of lifestyles, literature and philosophical outlook. ”

    Depends on the atheist of course – but I like to think that most of us would be a bit more nuanced than this.

    It’s true that atheism does not necessarily entail anything much. It’s simply the absence of belief. So if all a person does is state that they are an atheist, then this in and of itself doesn’t tell you very much about that person at all.

    That said: There is a significant literature, both contemporary and modern, that exists around the subject of atheism, with which many atheists are familiar – hence, common literary tradition. This isn’t the same as a creed or a dogma – just a tradition in literature of discussing and arguing about atheism. Modern examples include the God Delusion, Breaking the Spell, Infidel, Nomad, and God is not Great. Historic examples include writers and poets such as Mark Twain, Thomas Paine, Anatole France, Omar Khayyám, Anatole France, Lucretius, Bertrand Russel, and so on and so forth – Hitchens provides a useful tip-of-the-iceberg summary in the form of the Portable Atheist, available in fine bookstores everywhere.

    So – there’s that for shared literature.

    Additionally, it’s also true that the majority of outspoken atheists someone comes across will be either scientifically educated or at least scientifically literate, sharing the common epistemology of science. So there we have a shared philosophical outlook – the philosophy of science.

    Similar arguments could be made for the philosophical outlook (if it can be called that) of secularism.

    As for lifestyles – well, perhaps including lifestyles in my list was ill-considered. That said – for the most part, we do know that whatever else an atheist might be doing on their Sunday morning, it won’t include church, mosque, synagogue, or temple services.

    So while atheism itself entails none of these things, when it comes to discussion relating to the contemporary, allegedly ‘new’ atheism, it’s disingenuous not to recognize the common themes that cut across many of its advocates.

    *sigh of contentment*

    Right. Now I’ve got that out of my system. That’s it from me, I think.

    My days of taking noen seriously have come to a middle.

    Noen, you can have the last word.

    But all the same, are you familiar with the Dunning-Kruegar effect? If not, you should be. Whatever else you say, think, or conclude from our argument – at the very least, please, please, please click that link. Watch the video.

    Consider the implications. Carefully.

    ‘Kay. I’m done.

  43. @John Greg

    Tah muchly. ^_^

    @James Fox

    I’ve been reading over some of the earlier comments in the thread that I missed – and this jumped out at me.

    “Losing my religion has been very difficult for my wife and has negatively impacted some close friendships that had endured thirty years… I really do understand that wall, and I have no strong compulsion to dissuade anyone else from their beliefs, but I’ll talk about my process if someone asks.”

    I don’t mean to pry or anything, but a LOT of people find themselves in the same situation you were in. One of the places they go to try and find advice and information is the internet.

    I’m fortunate in a sense that the transition from weak Catholicism to atheism cost me virtually nothing at all. I had very low switching costs. But as a result of that, I find it hard to give advice or guidance to recent atheists that need it. And they are out there.

    If you haven’t done so yet, I’d like to encourage you to write about your experiences. Maybe here, maybe on a blog – wherever. There are people out there who could benefit from hearing about your experiences who would probably ask you directly if they knew to do so. Unfortunately Google’s feedback isn’t as good as to handle “Ask this guy ->” responses. Yet.

    If you write about it online somewhere, someone who is searching for that information could potentially get a lot of value out of it. Then again, maybe they wouldn’t find it anyway – but I see no harm in it.

    There are people out there who are interested and searching. Don’t wait to be asked.

    Okay. Done prying now.

  44. @noen: Can you please stop spewing un-evidenced bullshit to prop up your silly superstition? This is a skeptical forum and we’d like to keep it as free of your nonsense as possible.

    For instance: “… look at our recent economic collapse. It was directly caused by the unfettered greed of market players pursuing their own rational self interest. It was promised by some economists that there exists a “magic hand” and that the free market would be self correcting. The magic hand never materialized and as a result the entire global economy nearly collapsed.”

    How many of these people identify as christian? How many believe in the “invisible hand of the market” for the same reason that they believe in “the invisible man in the sky”, namely blind faith? Do you really think wall street was populated entirely by randian atheist libertarians? That crowd seems to be a minority even in those self-identifying as libertarian these days. The rest of your points are equally weak, but your faith blinds you to the flaws. I don’t really have enough interest in your B.S. to deconstruct each of your arguments, but reading your posts made me facepalm at an astounding rate.

  45. The thing about religion and skepticism is that there are two very different kinds of religious skeptics. There are those that understand that believing in god is not a skeptical position and they either admit that outright or claim that their belief falls outside of the scope of their skepticism, and then there are those that are so afraid of being fallible that they go through outrageous mental gymnastics to attempt to justify their belief and/or demonize atheists. The former group are just like any good skeptic, aware of their faults and critical of their own misconceptions (some of us would prefer that they follow through with their critique and change their beliefs, but most of us understand that we all behave irrationally sometimes) never asking for a limit on what skeptics can discuss, while the latter is destined to say some profoundly stupid things as they try to prove that their belief (or even worse in the case of faitheists, the belief of others) is skeptical while mischaracterizing atheists and trying to silence discussion of things that make them uncomfortable and challenge their faith. This second group is obnoxious, repetitive, and dishonest and really has no place in skeptical discussion.

  46. I haven’t been able to post a comment the last few days, but I have read the entire thread.

    Thanks for all the great comments, everyone, though I don’t think we heard from too many religious skeptics this go round. Still, good discussion.

  47. @James Fox:

    Well said, as always.

    And your comment ties in well with at least one section of the opening post. I talked briefly about the dynamic whereby believers, who are in a comfort zone with their religion, never see a need to ask questions. They are never moved to examine exactly what it is they are investing so much in.

    For whatever reason, you realized you were making a huge investment in religion, and because of that, even though it might have provided you a measure of comfort, you were compelled to look deeper into it.

    It would be interesting to look at the psychology of the individuals in all of these scenarios. Why are some comfortable? Why are some compelled to examine? What other factors are involved?

  48. @Sam Ogden: It could be that I always thought that a person’s beliefs mattered; at least mine did to me. Also over the years my profession has forced me to abandon many preconceived notions and I’ve always tried my best to form opinions from available facts. In the end I wonder if for me it was a willingness to change my mind because it really looked like I’d been wrong. Some people are more invested in comfort and stability and would never see a reason to challenge themselves or really question their beliefs. Also I’d only been attending church every couple of month for some time and there wasn’t any strong connection to or investment in a church community. It could be that the lack of investment was timely and pivotal for me. People will often throw good money after bad when they continue to invest in a failing company, repeatedly bet on a slow horse or go all in pre-flop with a pair of Jacks. It’s not about the logic of the decision; it’s about our frequently warped perception of reality when we become convinced of the correctness of a point of view or decision simply because it’s ours. For many people a religious belief is like any other possession or even a child. It really doesn’t pay to tell people they have an ugly car or an obnoxious child even when those are the obvious facts; they’ll either come to that realization on their own or persist in their comforting and ego preserving views regardless of evidence to the contrary.

  49. The most recent podcast for Point of Inquiry didn’t address this directly, but it did discuss the differences in the atheist community itself.

    Below is an introductory statement regarding the podcast from their site.

    ” Recently at the 30th anniversary conference of the Council for Secular Humanism in Los Angeles, leading science blogger PZ Myers and Point of Inquiry host Chris Mooney appeared together on a panel to discuss the questions, “How should secular humanists respond to science and religion? If we champion science, must we oppose faith? How best to approach flashpoints like evolution education?”

    It’s a subject about which they are known to… er, differ.

    The moderator was Jennifer Michael Hecht, the author of Doubt: A History. The next day, the three reprised their public debate for a special episode of Point of Inquiry, with Hecht sitting in as a guest host in Mooney’s stead.

    This is the unedited cut of their three way conversation”

    As a non atheist – I keep redefining myself so presently I am a cultural Jew in identity, agnostic in belief, could easily buy the concept that there is no God and if pushed into religiosity with a gun against my head I guess I could address myself as a deist on the other extreme – I found the differences interesting and gave me insite regarding the perspective of the “new atheists.”

    But even after listening to this podcast, I am surprised that they continue to take this hard line approach to behavioral change when the evidence involving cognitive dissonance suggests that this is the wrong approach.

    It reminds me of a New Yorker honking his horn in traffic. It’s not gonna get him anywhere, but it feels good to hear yourself honk and it feels good to suggest that others are causing the problem; but it ain’t gonna help the situation one bit.

  50. @halincoh:

    I watched a portion of the panel streaming live. The discussion was about accommodation vs. confrontation. To me, this is such a silly question. It creates the false implication that there are adversarial sides in critical thinking.

    PZ Meyers had a boner for confrontation, because he’s ridiculous. But Genie Scott was on the panel and looked disgusted that she had agreed to be a part of it.

  51. @Daniel Schealler: Meant to comment on this at the time, but Sam’s latest post reminded me.

    You say “At worst my attempts just give my opponent additional ammunition and a false sense of validation.” Here’s your problem. You are treating the person you are arguing with as an opponent. Instead treat them as someone you are trying to educate. Or, more precisely, that you are trying to learn from each other. I know you don’t go into this expecting to end up agreeing with the other person at the end, and probably don’t expect them to end up agreeing with you, but you almost certainly *don’t* understand why they think the way they do, nor exactly what they think, nor do they understand you.

    If you must still treat them as an opponent, then from a purely selfish perspective, gaining this understanding can help you in future confrontations. (Know your enemy.)

    Being a dick cuts this process off at the root, and no progress can be made. It might make you feel better, but how is this different from someone who believes in a sky daddy for exactly the same reason?

  52. @Sam Ogden:
    It’s an ironic conclusion that I reach each and every time I think the issue through to it’s conclusion. If the skeptical movement is ultimately about making important life decisions based on critical thinking and the scientific method, then how can Myers and Dawkins and other confrontational “new atheists defend their perspective if that point of view ignores the evidence that cognitive dissonance theory and research supporting it provides?

    For if the scientific method is a method of inquiry that must be based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning, which is constantly self correcting , integrating new knowledge with previous knowledge over time. And it is. Then, by definition, science is never rigid; science is always evolving.

    Extremism is rigid and certainly not fluid like science itself. Extremism in any form has as it’s central core a rigid set of beliefs that would rather break then bend to alternative points of view because there is an agenda driving those beliefs. Extreme political ideologies often embrace violence.

    From Wikipedia, Laird Wilcox identifies 21 alleged traits of a “political extremist”, ranging from behaviour like “a tendency to Character assassination” over hateful behaviour like “name calling and labeling” to general character traits like “a tendency to view opponents and critics as essentially evil”, “a tendency to substitute intimidation for argument” or “groupthink.”

    Unfortunately, I see the arguments of the new atheists in Wilcox’s concepts noted above.

    I think when it comes to atheism and skepticism, it not that the two are incompatible ( they are , as witnessed by the many atheists is the movement, very compatible ), but those who are extremists resort to the tactics of extremists everywhere, be they political or religious. No, new atheists do not use violence per se, but the confrontational approach is essentially a verbal form of violence, one that belittles and character assassinates the other, driven by a specific and rigid set of opposing beliefs.

    That’s not science.
    That’s not skepticism.

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