Why Atheism Is Important To Advancing Proper Skepticism

In coming posts, I want to talk about skeptics who are angry and fearful over the possible conflation of the skeptic and atheist movements. I suppose it will help to clarify from the start that I do not define myself as a skeptic. I am certainly skeptical of all manner of woo and I appreciate the skeptic movement and its myriad invaluable efforts to expose it.  But my primary interest is in philosophy and my activism interest is in atheism, not skepticism per se.

But I believe that my atheism is an outgrowth of proper skepticism and that teaching people how to be appropriately skeptical should involve debunking religious claims about which they are inappropriately skeptical.  I just do not go so far as to assume that all metaphysical, ethical, or otherwise unscientific matters are subjects for total skepticism.  I am suspicious of scientism—the view that only science leads to truth.  I think there can be truer (sufficiently more rational and evidence-confirmed) philosophical accounts and less true (less sufficiently rational and evidence-confirmed) philosophical accounts about metaphysics, ethics, and other philosophical topics.

So, to use the case of God, I am not an atheist simply because the God hypothesis is non-empirical and unscientific, rather I am an atheist because the theory of a personal God (or gods) is wholly and completely uncompelling to me as a metaphysical explanation.  It helps, of course, that there are some religious and philosophical theses about a personal God (or gods) that are scientifically testable and that the evidence is against them.

And, obviously, were a scientifically testable account of a personal God proposed and validated empirically, or were theoretical physicists to somehow conclude that the thesis of a personal God (or gods) were backed up by complex mathematical equations that I cannot understand, and  that the god-hypothesis was one of the best competing answers to some physics problem—then metaphysics must be revised in the light of new knowledge, of course.

But for as long as, or to the extent that, any personal god hypothesis evades strict scientific refutation and lacks anything like scientific support, I will probably continue to be persuaded against believing in personal gods for the numerous metaphysical and epistemological reasons I presently do.  So, on philosophical grounds, as much as or more than scientific ones, I am an atheist.

But I go beyond simply being a philosophical atheist.  I explicitly take up the mantle of activist atheist and make being an atheist a matter of personal identity.  And I do so for socio-political reasons concerned with both moral and intellectual values.  Bad philosophy is bad enough in its own right, but religions do something much worse than hang on to a bad and unlikely (but still metaphysically possible and potentially defensible) metaphysical hypothesis of personal gods.  Many philosophers (and laypeople) hold positions with which I disagree strongly and would be willing to oppose in philosophical essays or articles, but which I do not oppose as a matter of importance beyond the issue of philosophical truth.

The issue in the case of religions is that they go well beyond believing a most likely false but potentially defensible metaphysical hypothesis.  They make false-on-their-face claims to special insights into the natures and purposes of a personal god (or gods).  Then they set up institutions where the people with authority over people’s beliefs and values gain such immense power not from philosophical and scientific rigor but from their deference to the supposed literal truth of plainly false primitive myths and legends, their claimed consistency with outdated traditions, and their wholly subjective “intuitions” about what the personal god or gods is (or are) telling them.

By doing so, they actively resist and retard rationality-based philosophical and scientific reasoning about beliefs and values among countless of their adherents. As a matter of principle, i.e., as a matter of faith, they deliberately refuse to abandon (or sometimes even to consider abandoning) outdated or obviously primitive and false beliefs.  And, worst of all, they train their adherents in anti-scientific, anti-rational habits of reasoning.

They often explicitly attack the value or rational power of science and philosophy when either threaten their beliefs.  They do this first by lying about the relative explanatory powers of both disciplines and implying that both are capable of less confirmable truth than they actually are.  Then they falsely claim that both science and philosophy make stronger certainty claims than they actually do. And finally they falsely imply that this alleged hubris of “reason” undermines science’s or philosophy’s abilities to ever cast doubt on a proposition held by religious faith (or on a special, central set of such propositions).

They actively inculcate a disproportionately strong belief in (or deference to) Scriptures which are riddled with scientific, historical, and philosophical falsehoods.  This is actively teaching people poor habits of proportioning belief to evidence.  Of course we are born with such bad habits, religions do not invent them. But religions for the most part do not do the work of correcting those habits, but of reinforcing them.  And it is reasonable to infer that that reinforcement has effects which go well beyond the church door and even beyond merely theological matters.

They teach people to overly trust their subjective feelings—making individual believers effectively cold readers conning themselves into thinking they get messages or directions from God (or gods).  They actively encourage an overly weighted assumption that traditional beliefs and values (specifically in the case of religious ones) are superior or must be preserved even in the teeth of good philosophical arguments and evidence.

I could go on and on with the ways that faith-based religions, with their use of faith-based reasoning and their active praise of faith, and active training in faith, are active impediments to the advance of evidence-based, rational thinking.

So it is crucial to oppose faith and the religions that promulgate it, if one wants to undermine the key irrationalistic vice which is promoted as a virtue and which stands in the way of many people adequately embracing the virtues of critical thinking.  Our biology gives us way too many tendencies towards cognitive biases without institutions which both implicitly and even sometimes explicitly reinforce and reward them as matters of maintaining what is sold to people as the most morally important and identity-forming part of their lives—their very religion.

I have more to say about issues related to the connections between skepticism and atheism, but wanted to put out this clarifying statement as a point of important background to where I am coming from.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://www.davidrutt.me.uk rutty

    I think you’re right about scientism. If you only use rational thought to consider complex problems then you will miss parts of the bigger picture. Science is an amazing tool but it’s not the only way to get to answers, although I think it’s the best way of confirming answers.

    There’s more than one way to Atheism – I’ve intuitively come to the conclusion that there is no good and rationally backed that up with evidence.

    I’m currently doing a course in systems thinking which attempts to use “holism” to make sense of complexity. My heart sank when I saw that word but it seems not to be connected to the world of woo. The course tries to show that rational thought can be a problem when faced with complex problems and that other tools cab be more useful when trying to make sense of them.

    I was sceptical at first but coming around to appreciating the benefits of thinking that way. However, I still need rationality to confirm any conclusions I come up with.

    So, no, you don’t need to be a Skeptic to be an Atheist (but it helps)

    Thanks for an interesting blog :)

    Dave

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Thanks Dave, but I don’t know what you mean that you have “intuitively” concluded there is no good and I don’t know what “non-rational” methods of intuition yield truth. Either you have good arguments that there is no good or you don’t. I think I have good arguments that there are things which can be truly and objectively called good. And I think that any process of reasoning, not only scientific ones, which can reliably produce confirmable truths is rational.

    • Stevarious

      I’m pretty sure that it was a typo and he meant ‘god’ not ‘good’.

      I don’t know how you would ‘intuit’ it either, though. I suppose you could intuitively reject specific arguments FOR god (ie ‘I don’t know why, but your argument sounds like bullshit and I’m going to reject it even though I can’t describe exactly why). I think we intuitively reject arguments all day every day, without going into an actual logical conception and rejection of an argument – think of your gut reaction to almost every piece of advertising you see on a daily basis. Can you express, rationally, why it might not actually be a great idea to go down to Big Bob’s Auto-Park and buy a used car today? Sure you can, but you don’t need to – you intuitively just reject the argument and you don’t even have to think about it.

      Obviously, for actual important matters like the existence of god, morality, and key lime pie, the second step is required: rationally justifying your stance on the issue with logical argument.

      Mmmmm… Pie…

    • thedudediogenes

      Kind of like how there are valid arguments Christians offer in their theodicies, but most atheists reject them as unsound, and vice versa for anti-theodicies and Christians.

      I know I have a gut reaction against attempts to rationalize evil in the world. My moral sentiments lead me to reject those arguments.

      At the same time, I don’t think this is (totally) irrational, as if the arguments are in fact sound, and there is a god, I call that god malevolent, not benevolent.

    • Stevarious

      Depends on your definition of a ‘valid argument’, doesn’t it? I mean, an argument based on flawed premises can be logically sound, but invalid due to incorrect assumptions at the beginning.

      But I definitely agree with you – if there WAS a god, he could only be described as either malevolent, or at best, heartlessly indifferent.

    • thedudediogenes

      @Stevarious: Just a point about logic – valid means the argument’s conclusion is entailed by the argument’s premises, so validity isn’t open to interpretation, really. Sound means the argument is valid and true, so that’s where interpretation comes in.

    • http://www.davidrutt.me.uk rutty

      Yes, sorry – it was a typo. I meant God.

      My thoughts on this are a /bit/ scrambled but I was trying say what Stevarious did better than I did: you can use both intuition and rational thinking to come to conclusions. Intuition being the collecting of things that you “know” subconsciously.

      Systems thinkers use it a lot when attempting to understand complex problems and it’s very useful for understanding social issues

  • http://www.thearmchairskeptic.com The Armchair Skeptic

    You touch on some good points here. It would help, I think, if you start by defining what you consider to be “proper” skepticism; I didn’t really get a clear understanding of that from this post. Some additional clarification of “atheism” would be helpful as well, as you describe several aspects of it here — opposition to personally held religious faith, opposition to supernaturalism, and opposition to religion as a social/political institution.

    I’m also not entirely comfortable with the generalizations you’re making. Sure, some religions and religious people do some of what you describe here, to varying degrees. Lumping them all into the same pigeonhole, however, is an inadvisable shortcut. I’ve observed that some atheists — particularly ones who have adopted that label for the purposes of self-identity, socio-politcal reasons, and moral and intellectual values — are also capable of promoting and inculcating anti-rationality.

    And that’s the fundamental problem, I think, of conflating atheism with skepticism, which I’ve written about here. Atheism (as a matter of personal belief) is a conclusion that some of us may have reached through critical thinking, but not all atheists have done so; even if they have, that doesn’t necessarily imply that they apply skepticism to all of their conclusions.

    So while I’m open to the possibility that atheism is important to promoting skepticism, I’m certainly skeptical of that claim. I look forward to reading your future posts on the subject.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      All great questions and challenges, Armchair Skeptic. I will hold off on giving proper answers until this new blog is fully operational at the end of this week, but I will address each of your points then (and read your links in the meantime) and hopefully we can dialogue from there.

      Thanks!

  • Nowhere Man

    Hey Daniel, I like your stuff. It sounds like this one guy on Youtube, Proper Skepticism. Is that you?

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      It sounds like this one guy on Youtube, Proper Skepticism. Is that you?

      No, never heard of him.


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