Skepticism vs. Atheism

Yes we are atheists at the JREF, most of us. But as individuals, not as an organization. In this sense, the JREF is no more an atheist organization than the U.S. is a Christian nation merely because the majority of folks in this country are Christian.

That’s James Randi Educational Foundation’s president D.J. Grothe, explaining why the JREF focuses on testable skepticism regarding “pseudoscience, the paranormal, and the supernatural” instead of on religious claims about God.

D.J. adds that “being atheist is not enough.” He has a point. Bill Maher may be an atheist, but he still believes in certain types of woo.

Still, I’ve always felt the God issue was the more important one.

Why go after the limbs of the Monster when you should be going after its head?

If you can convince people they’re wrong about their religious claims, that thinking will eventually extend into psychics, horoscopes, and Deepak Chopra. (At least, I would hope so.)

A lot of skeptics think it’s the other way around, though: Start with baby steps (“John Edward doesn’t really have any magical powers”) and loss of faith will follow (“Neither does God”). You could even call atheism the pinnacle of skepticism.

Is it intellectually honest to call yourself a skeptic if you still believe in a god? I say no.

(Are religious claims really less testable than other pseudoscientific claims? We can put prayer and “miracles” to the test. We have before — they failed.)

What do you think should come first? Skepticism regarding things like ghosts and crop circles… or disbelief in God? Or do those things go hand-in-hand?

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  • Snuggly Buffalo

    I know for me personally it was skepticism about “everything else” that eventually led me to question and reject my religion. Questioning the nonsense of God was a lot easier when I was comfortable questioning the nonsense of other woo-woo.

    I don’t really see God as the head of the Monster, I’d reserve a lack of critical thinking for that spot. God-belief is just the most obvious and pervasive symptom.

  • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com Deen

    Atheism without skepticism is little better than dogmatism. Skepticism without atheism is incomplete.

  • ff42

    Gods and governments, priests and politicians; Why not apply the same religious skepticism to claims about the correct way to govern/control people?

  • http://www.anthroslug.blogspot.com Anthroslug

    I agree with Snuggly Buffalo. It was being exposed to the basic rules of logic, and realizing that UFOs, ghosts, and magic had no evidence behind them that led to me re-evaluating my belief in a god.

    Also, as you note with Bill Maher (and psychologist Bruce Hood points out) lack of belief in a god does not mean that someone will not buy into all manner of other nonsense. Hell, the Soviet state was officially atheistic, and yet it’s most ardent supporters bought into a rather odd religion-like belief in Soviet Comunism, a belief that would have collpased if even lightly scrutinized.

    Again, I think that Snuggly Buffalo is correct – it’s lack of critical thinking that is the head of the monster. A belief in god(s) is simply a symptom. A big symptom, but a symptom nonetheless.

  • Infinite Moneky

    With all due respect, I think your question has a false premise.

    Skepticism is the idea that you can’t buy into a belief unless there is some evidence supporting it. When it comes to Bigfoot, ghosts, and UFO’s, there is a physical phenomenon which can be measured. However, when applying it to a diety, these dieties, while they can have physical effects, they are controlled by an intelligence. As psychology has pointed out, you can study groups, and say that any given individual has a certain chance of doing X, but that by no means is conclusive. If a diety existed, we would have a sample size of one. Human behavior changes alot based on various things. So, while a person may react predicitable once, a second time, perhaps not.

    applying this to a diety, and since we only have a sample size of one, there’s no reason to believe the actions of this diety would be predictable.

    Skepticism and atheism are, IMHO, two different phenomena. While they are often intertwined, they are distict, and someone can be one without being the other.

  • William

    Why either/or? Some will find their way to rationality through atheism. Some through ‘skepticism’. Hopefully both groups will continue to apply it to the rest of their lives and reduce the irrationality. Do we really need a ‘true skeptic’ litmus test?

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Is it intellectually honest to call yourself a skeptic if you still believe in a god? I say no.

    I gather, then, that you don’t consider Martin Gardner a True Scotsman Skeptic(TM)?

  • JM_Shep

    They came about simultaneously for me, but I know lots of people become atheists and/or skeptics at different times in their lives. I don’t think we (the atheist community and/or the skeptic community) should focus on why others aren’t atheists or skeptics, rather we should focus on progressing the movement and getting more people to think critically, whether thinking critically about religion or thinking critically about woo. I don’t think its a bad idea to nudge an atheist to think about woo or a skeptic to think about religion, but some people aren’t totally ready to give up a certain kind of woo just because they gave up other woo. I think it will be a natural progression that we can help, but not force.

    As far as skeptics not giving up religion, I think many of the skeptics who are still religious are kidding themselves, or I think they’ll eventually shed religion too. Although I did hear a skeptic say once that he is still religious, probably in a Deist sort of way, but he knew that he was using it as a security blanket. He acknowledged it was silly, but it made him happy. I don’t see a problem with that.

    I think its all dangerous (religion, woo, pseudoscience, and the paranormal) but we can’t all focus on the same area at once. That’s why I think that if Hemant wants to focus his energy on atheism, he doesn’t have to worry too much because there are tons of people in the US and worldwide who are willing to work just as hard as he is, but to forward skepticism rather than atheism. It all balances out in the end. (However, more people in either ‘camp’ is a really good thing.)

    Sorry, that turned out way longer than I expected. Not surprising for such a nuanced question.

  • Sarah TX.

    I could make a stronger claim that skepticism without materialism is incomplete, and yet there are many skeptics who are not materialists.

    To me, it has to do with testable vs. untestable claims. The existence of God is an untestable claim, therefore it falls outside the realm of skepticism (personally, the fact that it is untestable is why I’m an atheist, but I can see how opinions differ). Miracles, apparitions, faith healing, and so on, are all testable claims, and are under the purview of skeptical inquiry. In other words, some religious beliefs are fair game – that doesn’t mean that all skeptics must be atheists.

  • http://goodwolve.blogs.com/moxielife Jacqueline

    Interesting. The word skeptic, in my mind, means not sure. It isn’t that you are certain there is no god, that tarot tells the future or that there is a floating Jesus in the spaghetti sauce – it is that you have to prove those things for yourself and don’t accept it blindly.

    Atheism is the idea that you have rejected the concept of god – you are an anti theist. You know that concept does not work in your world view.

    You may, though, believe that honey has magical powers, whirling in circles moves energy, and stepping on cracks will break your mothers back.

    They are not one in the same, the skeptic and the atheist.

  • Brice Gilbert

    @JJ

    And a pacifist who kills people isn’t a true pacifist. Sure someone who claims to be something CAN do the opposite, but it doesn’t make them consistent with the definition of the word.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    A skeptic who is religious may claim that their religion only concerns itself with an untestable afterlife and makes no claims what-so-ever about the world we live in.

    I would argue, though, that a skeptic should also be skeptical about un-testable claims.

    By testable, I mean having empirical evidence or reasoned to the conclusion by supportable steps.

    I can make up all sorts of afterlife scenarios. You would be justified in being skeptical about any of them being true.

    For example, “Only people that hop on one foot ten times with both hands touching their head will go heaven. Everybody else will go to hell.”

    Skeptics should not be credulous.

  • http://www.michaelwharton.co.uk Synonymous

    Scepticism is a woolly term, anyone can be sceptical of anything at all. Most Christians are sceptical of Krishna and not all faith healers are fully convinced that Santa Claus exists. Atheism is again very woolly, like the posters in New Zealand say; “We are all atheists about most gods, some of us just go one god further!” (A paraphrased Dawkins quote!).

    If only the term “Scientologist” wasn’t already taken by a crackpot cult! We should just use the word Scientist or something more positive that a statement of unbelief.

  • Deiloh

    People are dang stubborn about theism. And it doesn’t help that the majority of people have religion. I think it is important to have groups that do not focus on religion (Myth Busters) and ones that make it the primary topic (FFRF).

    If we can have programs and groups, such as Myth Busters, that show critical thinking in action, then those who pay attention are more likely to drift over to the bigger issues. As for those who don’t pay much attention, at least they are better informed on a variety of topics. However, if all skeptical groups are “attacking” religion, the audience doesn’t stay long enough to learn anything.

  • pmsrhino

    But if the problem is like a Necromorph then the limbs are the better target. Sometimes head shots aren’t best. 😀

    And I think they all go hand in hand. I don’t think we can really prioritize irrational behaviors. Pretty much every irrational belief has a negative consequences to it so it’s good to have different organizations focus on different things.

  • http://thishollowearth.wordpress.com/ Vicor

    I think they go hand in hand. At least, I can’t imagine one without the other for me, and atheists that aren’t skeptics and skeptics that aren’t atheists both confuse me.

  • http://www.anthroslug.blogspot.com Anthroslug

    Even those of us who would call oursleves skeptics are not skeptical about all things.

    How many people who are atheists and good critical thinkers about the supernatural and pseudo-science also tend ot buy uncritically into a political ideology (the large number of hard-core Libertarians in the skeptic movement comes to mind, as do those who got caught up in the “Obamamania” of 2008, and I’ve even met self-proclaimed Marxists who were otherwise skeptical people)?

    How many have some personal practice that they are convinced is special, despite all evidence to the contrary (I know many skeptics who are also convinced that Yoga is more than it actually is)?

    For that matter, how many skeptics failt o practice skepticism in their personal relationships – thinking that their partner is faithful despite evidence to the contrary, that their friends view them in a way very different from reality, that their relationship with their parents or siblings is better than it is, etc.?

    The fact of the matter is that nobody is skeptical about all things. Even if we try, the best that we can do is to try to be open to disconfirming evidence, but know that we will sometimes (perhaps frequently) fail. While there are some claims that need to be opposed because they are astoundingly harmful (anti-vaxxers come to mind), even people that hold those beliefs might show decent critical thinking on other matters.

    So, the idea that we can single out one realm of thought and say “a TRUE skeptic can not believe in poposition X” ignores the reality of how humans, including skeptics, think, and is therefore an example of poor critical thinking.

    Skepticism is more about the general trajectory of a person’s thinking, and the tools that they generally apply to propositions. It’s not about having every conclusion line up perfectly with a platonic ideal of a “skeptic”

  • nardo

    Yeah, I’d put “scientific skepticism” above “capital-A” Atheism as a priority for a few reasons:

    – I became a skeptic before becoming an atheist and I suspect others follow that path

    – In most discussions with theist/deist skeptics, there is common ground for discourse and an acknowledgment, on their part, that they don’t have evidence or are using an idiosyncratic definition of god

    – Some extremely talented and highly educated skeptics (particularly in mathematics, for some reason) maintain some beliefs and alienating them is counterproductive. (As long as they don’t try to silence discussion)

  • http://agnosticism2010.blogspot.com/ nomad

    I am skeptical of atheism. Atheism is a conspiracy theory.

  • http://atheos-godless.blogspot.com Barry

    For me, skepticism about everything else came first. Then one day I realised that the only thing I’d never questioned was my belief in God. The rest is history; I’m now an atheist.

  • Garren

    Atheism and materialism are both untestable claims.

    Sure, you can say that nothing testable has contradicted either of them…but the same applies to many forms of Theism and substance dualism.

    I advise fellow Atheists to stick to defensively justifying an Atheistic position. Attempts to rule out the possibility Theism is true are usually (always?) just as fallacious as the Theistic arguments we criticize. …and many Atheists are every bit as blind to these problems as Theists are to the faults of their apologists.

  • Anonymous

    An interesting conversation!

    I tend to choose the label “skeptic” over the label “atheist” even though I don’t believe in gods or magic, etc. To me, a skeptic is someone who simply doesn’t “believe in” anything; he accepts or rejects ideas based on scientific evidence, and that acceptance or rejection is always subject to change. (The Skeptics’ Society defines skepticism this way.) In that way, skepticism is a lens rather than a list of opinions.

    Of course, as with the term “atheism,” there are many definitions out there.

  • http://everydayatheist.wordpress.com Everyday Atheist

    If you can convince people they’re wrong about their religious claims, that thinking will eventually extend into psychics, horoscopes, and Deepak Chopra. (At least, I would hope so.)

    That hope would be misplaced, for a lot of the reasons Anthroslug gave. In some ways, giving up god belief is much easier than adopting an overall attitude of skepticism. Religion makes so many absurd claims that, if one isn’t too emotionally and culturally indoctrinated, it’s not that terribly hard to see through the mythology. But so many varieties of woo are cloaked in pseudoscientific babble, or are pushed by well-meaning individuals with real humanistic goals, that it’s difficult to sort it all out unless you applied tough criteria to everything. My wife gave up a lifetime of Catholicism with relatively little pain, but it’s tough for me to convince her that her favorite physical therapist can’t “move energy” around in her body. And my wife’s a very smart cookie.

  • rob

    For myself, I was a skeptic long before I became an atheist. It took the years of skepticism about other things to build the “skeptical muscles” of critical thinking to take on years-ingrained belief systems and supporting rationalizations that came from being raised in a religious household. So, skepticism about the paranormal was the thin end of the wedge that eventually pried away all sorts of uncritical beliefs, including religion.

    (Should we call this the Wedge Strategy?)

    Rob

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

    A lot is made out of the idea that skepticism without atheism is incomplete. But much less is made out of the more obvious fact that atheism doesn’t need skepticism to be complete. If Bill Maher doesn’t believe in germ theory, that doesn’t make him any less of an atheist.

    Atheists who oppose skeptical values are not my allies. I may sympathize for their fight for social liberties, but they aren’t getting much more respect than that. I have far more respect for the skeptical theist than the non-skeptical atheist.

    But if your goal is to fight for both skepticism and atheism, doesn’t it make a whole lot more sense to argue for skepticism first and let atheism follow? We were just talking about how easy it is to imagine a non-skeptical atheist, and how hard it is to imagine a skeptical theist.

    I really don’t understand why we would conclude that fighting religion would hurt Deepak Chopra (especially when Chopra’s fans are mostly people disillusioned with organized religion, or weren’t you aware?).

  • http://brisbanegraphicartsmuseum.com/smallstories/ Dan Ryan

    I would think atheism has to come first, at least in my case. You can’t be a godly person and claim to be skeptical about things like astrology and crop circles since these things could conceivably be explained by the existence of god.

  • trixr4kids

    Skepticism should come first, no question. People need to learn to think critically, and to apply those skills to paranormal claims.

    And as far as I’m concerned, the problematic aspects of god-belief are precisely those making supernatural claims. (If you want to be a deist or an existentialist Christian with belief in some abstract apophatic god, have at it.) Besides, a true skeptic doesn’t prescribe (or proscribe) a given belief. S/he just wants to see people using their heads.

  • fracman

    No, it is not NECESSARILY intellectually dishonest. You could be a Deist (God created the universe and designed the laws of nature but has had no direct intervention since the Big Bang) and be a skeptic very easily.

    Perhaps you meant to ask if it is dishonest to believe in one of the accepted religions (ones that call for direct intervention by their diety) and still be a skeptic. You probably have a point there. It’s called cognitive dissonance and is the reason so many skeptics are also atheists.

  • trixr4kids

    Brice, Martin Gardner was the frakkin’ original skeptic. If he wasn’t a skeptic, nobody is.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Brice Gilbert:

    And a pacifist who kills people isn’t a true pacifist.

    If you think that being a senior CSICOP fellow and prominent debunker of pseudoscientific and paranormal claims isn’t sufficient to make one a skeptic, then you might as well think that being a adult male born and living in Scotland isn’t enough to make one a Scotsman.

  • Aj

    Of course scepticism leads to atheism, that is we do not know that a god exists, and a god isn’t a simple or competent explanation. A god is an answer, even if it isn’t a very good one, and it’s certainly not justified by evidence or reasoned argument. It’s absolutely counter to scepticism in the absence of evidence to pick a creator as an explanation in favour of others due to irrational arguments. Yet that’s just the beginning because theists don’t just assume a creator as the deists do, they assume a hell of a lot more about their god, again in the absence of evidence and good argument.

    Sceptical organisations already ignore religion for political and pragmatic reasons. This theist wants even more concessions, a special exception, as religion feels it is entitled to in every realm. What if someone was brought up to believe in untestable claims about ghosts but they’re sceptical about everything else including religion? A claim should be treated different due to its popularity. Non-sceptics have something to add to sceptical discourse in specific areas, as alchemists and numerologists had something to add to science. Scepticism should be open to input from non-sceptics, although I think it’s good to have mostly sceptics running sceptic organisations.

  • Bob

    I think we have two groups, skepticism and atheism, that overlap, but are not synonymous. All atheists are skeptics, but all skeptics are not atheist.

    And there should be no requirement for it to be otherwise.

    Even in a world where everything is subjected to rational thought, when it is our first and natural impulse when confronted with a mystery … we need not stand up and denounce it to assert our rational ability. I know full well that a stage magician is using distraction and subterfuge to pull off an illusion, but that doesn’t stop me from being amazed.

    It’s when the magician claims that his powers stem from extranormal/paranormal sources that my hackles go up.

    And, personally, I will often make eye contact with and smile at strangers, which usually elicits a smile in return. I’m not doing it for any other reason than to be nice; I have no quantifiable proof that my day is better, or their day is better, that I’m stocking up karma for some future moment, or that God told me to do so. It’s an irrational act that, if one stops to question ‘why did that man smile at me?’ strips it of meaning.

  • OhSo

    I’m of the mind that “graceful degradation” is the way to go. Going after the head one ignores the vitality of the rest of a persons belief structure. If one can show that their castle rests on a foundation of sand and not the bedrock they assert you can overcome their automatic defenses and allow them to see the emptiness of their delusional beliefs. Excellent question I must say…peace be with :)

  • Silent Service

    I think it’s a case of each person has to take their own path. I became an atheist long before I became truly a skeptic. That was because I hadn’t been heavily indoctrinated into Christianity.

    I had a girlfriend back in my early college days that was and is still a very skeptical person. She’s a minister now and in no way and atheist. She’s never even considered trying to overcome her indoctrination and probably never will.

    Everybody follows their own path.

  • http://kpharri.wordpress.com/ Keith

    “Is it intellectually honest to call yourself a skeptic if you still believe in a god?”

    If you’ve honestly come to the conclusion that there is evidence for your god, then yes.

    This does not, of course, mean that you have applied your intellect well, it just means that you have applied it honestly.

  • http://secularshawshank.wordpress.com Andy

    Still, I’ve always felt the God issue was the more important one.

    It is—if only because so many people are “skeptics when it comes to everything else.”

    We can pretend that the God-question is just one item of woo in an endless bargain-bin of nonsense, but it’s not. It’s the Great White Whale.

  • wintremute

    My skepticism led me to be an atheist, not the other way around. I think the JREF is correct in their stance on the subject.

  • p.s.

    I think we have two groups, skepticism and atheism, that overlap, but are not synonymous. All atheists are skeptics, but all skeptics are not atheist.

    I don’t agree with the part I bolded. You can be have a skeptical mindset when it comes to god and nothing else (bill maher, for example) or you can be an atheist for reasons that have nothing to do with skepticism. Like some sects of Buddhism, a “I don’t believe in god because I prefer the idea of no god” mindset, or- in my opinion- any “strong” atheists (and I mean the very few people who “know” 100% that god does not exist). Once you have claimed to know the (currently) unknowable, you loose your skeptics badge :p

  • Reginald Selkirk

    then you might as well think that being a adult male born and living in Scotland isn’t enough to make one a Scotsman.

    A Scotsman, ay, bot not a true Scotsman.

  • NewEnglandBob

    Wow, this question brought out the ignorant and the crazies. There is so much misinformation and nutty theories above.

    People, go look up the terms skeptic and atheist. So many of you gave nonsense definitions.

    conspiracy theory – now that is nuts….LOL

    Atheist – one who does not believe there is any evidence of any gods.

    Skeptic – 1. One who instinctively or habitually doubts, questions, or disagrees with assertions or generally accepted conclusions.
    2. One inclined to skepticism in religious matters.

    So yes, they are related.

  • Skepdude

    I’ve had many back-and-forths with others on this issue. Here’s a sample of my position, as a skeptic, on the issue of skepticism and atheism. http://tinyurl.com/yau4kus

    I’ve written other entries on the issue too, and most links to my othere entries can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/yayanqm

  • Hitch

    Skeptisicm is the stronger starting point, but to not be skeptical about the biggest elephant in the room, but questioning nuance about everything else is like not complaining about an engine-breakdown of a car, while bickering over the color of the interior design.

    I know very few serious skeptics who are not non-believers. That’s not a true scotsman, it really is a rather unavoidable conclusion of taking skepticism seriously.

    Naturalistic skepticism is easier. One can disprove testable claims. So I can see why Randi focuses on that part. There one can easily show outcomes that are very compelling.

    Refuting that Dark Vader never walk the earth is harder.

  • http://seangill-insidemyhead.blogspot.com/ SeanG

    I think skepticism and atheism go hand in hand, but I think people’s religious beliefs are too deeply ingrained to start there. Other woo can be like this, but religion is more likely to be indoctrinated from childhood. Can one be a skeptic and not be an atheist? I would like to think not. But I think believers also draw a line between god/religion, and everything else.

    Teach people to think critically, understand the process of science. Start with real, testable arguments. If you can get through to someone that mega-dosing on vitamin C is useless, you can get them to start thinking critically and questioning everything.

    Since god is essentially untestable, that might not be a good place to start because all you have are verbal arguments. No actual evidence. And you can’t prove a negative. Vitamin C mega-dosing might someone’s personal woo, but their religion might be their social framework and their source of comfort when grandma died.

  • Snuggly Buffalo

    I think it’s a case of each person has to take their own path. I became an atheist long before I became truly a skeptic. That was because I hadn’t been heavily indoctrinated into Christianity.

    That’s an interesting point. I think it’s easier to start with skepticism about beliefs a person is not invested in, and then hopefully they will use the critical thinking skills they learned there and apply them to areas of their life that it’s harder to be skeptical about. For most people, I think that means “skepticism” will come before atheism. But there are those who have no investment in religion for whom skepticism about God is easier than skepticism about other areas. I doubt there’s a one-size-fits-all solution here.

  • ralfnausk

    I consider myself an atheist and a skeptic and I personally can not understand, how one can believe in a god without evidence for its existence. But I came to be skeptic (or rather: realizing that i am one) through my interest for atheism. In Fact, i learned through the Richard Dawkins website that there is a group of people that is regarded as Skeptics. But i realize that altough most of the Skeptics i have met are atheists, there is a significant number of Skeptics that are still religous. On the other hand while I met a whole lot of wonderful Skeptics on the AAI International Conference, not all atheists are Skeptics. I think both go well together, but both are equally important. From a practical point of view – at least in Germany where i come from – Skeptizism may be more practical – debunking Astrology or Woo-Treatments, that endanger peoples wellbeing – than promoting the idea that there is no god (most probably), which has little impact on peoples everydaylife in a mostly secular society. You can be Secular and religious, too, altough Humanism may fit better. So why ask the question what is more important? Both topics need to be adressed.

  • http://www.anthroslug.blogspot.com Anthroslug

    There is alot to the notion that you aren’t going to get someone to start thinking critically by going immediately after their general worldview, in fact it’s likely to make them back into a corner. This is obvious with religion – attack Jesus or Mohammed, even if you do so with solid and rational arguments, and you cause the person with whom you are speaking to turn off and not listen to you.

    But, on the flip side, I know one person, for example, who is an atheist for the very simple reason that there is no evidence for the existence of a god. However, she has a worldview based in the assumption that “nature is good, artificial things are evil, and corporations control all ‘establishment’ science” and as a result is astoundingly credulous when someone pitches pseudo-scientific health claims, despite the fact that they are usually just as vacous as the arguments for god that she rightfully disdains.

    If you could get her to look at why she rejects god(s), you might be able to get her to slowly work towards her opposition to scientifically-based medicine and reconsider her position. However, if you start with her absurd beliefs regarding health care, which she has based her worldview and politics around, you will simply alienate her and she won’t listen to you.

    She’s an atheist, for skeptical reasons, but she is remarkably unskeptical in other arenas.

  • Chris Jones

    Like Nardo, I was a skeptic for some time before eventually becoming an atheist. I was actually skeptical of many doctrinal positions within my own religion, more or less buying into some subset on faith while rejecting the more patently absurd parts. The process of doing that eventually broadened what I considered patently absurd until there wasn’t anything left of my religion.

    It is possible for a religious person to pretty much agree with the rest of us Skeptics on everything including the age of the universe, the non-occurrence of miracles in day to day life, evolution, homeopathy, dowsing, bigfoot, etc., and yet consciously hold an ultimate “god” belief of some form in such a way that it doesn’t undermine the other things in the mind of the religious skeptic.

    I would most definitely hate to alienate this person, who may eventually even become skeptical of that last bit of religion to which he or she is clinging, and even if not, they’re not the sort who is working to promote their religious views and is more probably combating those who are promoting their religious views.

    My favorite example is that of astronomer Pamela Gay, who if you’ve heard her speak, you KNOW that she’s dedicated to the Skeptical movement and you’d never even know that she’s religious in any sense until she mentions it. She is very clear in acknowledging that her religious views are completely unprovable and unsupported by any evidence, but on the other hand, without having heard her expand upon exactly what those religious beliefs are, I’d guess she’s also safely within that range of beliefs that also can never be disproven. Is it rational to hold a belief such as that? Probably not. But am I going to ostracize her for it? Absolutely not. She is crystal clear on where her beliefs enter the realm of speculation, unlike those who “KNOW” that a god is real and is micromanaging the universe. I’d probably peg her as an agnostic Christian, even if she doesn’t subscribe to the label. I’ve met some who do outwardly use that label, and they sounded much like her.

  • phoenix logos

    Dishonesty is dishonesty, religion is just a slightly more organised delusion like John Edwards or Deepak, some people can NEVER be brought to logic, there will always be an element of society who live dishonestly and will never ever grow up and mature…………

  • GSW

    While I haven’t yet heard of any wars/homicides/rioting because of claims crop circles were made by green ETs and other claims that they were made by blue ETs, I still refuse to discard my belief in UFOs. Maybe, I will concede, not in this part of the spiral arm.

    But somewhere out there, maybe nearer the centre, there are definitely intelligent creatures – with their version of Frisbee.

    UFOs are real!

  • Happy Misanthrope

    Skepticism should come first, no question. People need to learn to think critically, and to apply those skills to paranormal claims.

    I also think that a lack of critical thinking is the real head of the monster. I don’t care if someone is a theist as long as he or she is a reflective theist.

    There’s a real danger in defining yourself by a position. Evidence can change, and when it does a critical thinker should sometimes change his position. There’s a danger of creating the perception, and maybe even the reality, of accepting atheism for atheism’s sake. You should accept atheism only because it is most consistent with the evidence. If that ever changes, one should be willing to abandon atheism without much fuss. Otherwise you run the risk on emulating fundamentalist dogmatism.

    So I can imagine no longer being an atheist, but not abandoning general skepticism or critical thought.

    Organizationally speaking, I tend to find more in common with skeptic groups than atheist groups. And that’s not because skeptics deal with woo and atheists deal with religion, but because most atheist groups sadly don’t even deal with religion. They are more like social clubs.

    I’m more interested in what’s true or false, not inane chatter over a beer with someone who also doesn’t believe in God but otherwise has absolutely nothing else in common with me.

    Decades ago the televangelist Peter Popoff was exposed by James Randi for fraudulently claiming communication with God to diagnose and then heal his audience’s medical ailments. Randi discovered that his wife was using information cards the audience filled out and then serendipitously communicating people’s stated ailments to Popoff through a hidden earpiece. Popoff claimed the information came from God.

    More recently Leon Jaroff from Time magazine, I think it was, discovered the medium John Edwards fishing for information from his audience before taping his show. Little wonder he had specific hits every now and then, hits that didn’t come from the dead.

    Skeptics have been responsible for these sorts of exposes, not people from atheist groups. The skeptics seem to be the ones out there actually addressing falsehoods that someone needs to refute. I don’t really see atheist groups doing that sort of public service when claims about God are made. To the exclusion of everything else atheist groups seem more interested in ‘clubbing’ and filing lawsuits whenever some public official makes passing reference to God. And that’s a real pity in my opinion because there’s so much more important stuff to deal with than that.

  • muggle

    I too think you’re comparing apples and oranges. Skeptics and Atheists are two entirely different things. Sure one often leads to the other but, as has already been pointed out, not always. And asking which came first when a person is both is like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg. Depends on the person and their life experiences.

    I lived in a haunted house for five years and saw several ghosts but I’m making no assertions because I have no means of proving such an extraordinary claim to those who weren’t there to see them with me. I doubt I’d believe in them if I hadn’t seen them so I surely don’t expect anyone who hasn’t to. That would be damned unreasonable of me. Just making a point.

  • Brice Gilbert

    @JJ
    And if James Randi started believing in Leprechauns I would argue he was not applying skepticism correctly. Just because they are among the most prominent or awesome skeptics doesn’t make them right about everything. They can call themselves skeptics because the organization in which they are under doesn’t require a non-belief in some creator, but how is it any different than Leprechauns?

  • http://www.wagg.com Jeff Wagg

    If you say

    “There is no god”

    you are making a claim that you can’t defend. It is a point of dogma.

    If you say

    “I haven’t seen enough evidence to believe in god”

    you are making a defensible claim. You’ve left open the possibility that new evidence could change your position.

    The latter point is the skeptical point, and while one could call both of those speakers atheists, there is a crucial difference between the two statements. And it seems to me that’s what this growing schism between skeptics and atheists is about.

    One other point… I don’t think the analogy that “god is the head of the monster” is apt. Belief in god isn’t dangerous or not… it’s neutral. It’s the associated beliefs that can cause harm. There’s a world of difference between Martin Gardner and Jim Jones, and yet they both “believed in God.”

  • http://www.wagg.com Jeff Wagg

    Brice Gilbert

    If James Randi showed you the leprechaun he caught, would you believe him then? I don’t think Randi will ever catch one, but it he does, you can be damn sure he’ll start believing they exist. At that point, there would be sufficient evidence for him to believe in the existence of leprechauns. To deny that would be an article of faith.

  • OhioJoe

    With all due respect, to think one typically leads to the other is a fundamental misunderstanding of psychology. Neither leads to the other. Each individual may get to one by the other, others may not. There are a mountain of other factors involved with each individual why they can or cannot practice skepticism and be an atheist.

    As for the fact of the matter, though, you cannot say you practice skepticism 100% of the time (like many of us do) if you believe in God or any kind of woo. But you can still say you are a skeptic, no one can stop you.

  • http://toomanytribbles.blogspot.com/ toomanytribbles

    i’m going to coin a phrase: selective skepticism.

    like it?

  • cherie

    I’d love to use the term skeptic to include atheist, esp. since “atheist” presupposes a religion-centric context. However, I have known some people who are solidly skeptical expect where it comes to religion.
    So I refer to myself as a methodological skeptic: I put all my candidate beliefs through various skeptical tests of soundness before graduating them to full-fledged beliefs–as opposed to a cafeteria skeptic who lets emotion pick and choose what to be skeptical about.

  • http://awesomethunderbolt.com Mikey R

    I was watching the Disney film Hercules yesturday,

    Your metaphor of going for the head reminded me of the multiple head scene,

    You cut off one head, three grow back,

    So, to conclude, you should bury the monster under a big pile of rocks.

    I can’t decide, in this metaphor, what the big pile of rocks is… probably Science?