Can You Be a Good Skeptic and Believe in God?

Mister Deity says of course you can:

Relax, he says, there are Catholics who use birth control, too.

Here’s the more entertaining question: Are there more skeptics who believe in some higher power, or more atheists who are poor skeptics?

*Hemant walks away slowly*

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://fractalheretic.blogspot.com/ Fractal Heretic

    Whew! For a minute there, I thought he was being serious. Mr. Deity’s sense of humor is so dry, it’s hard to tell when he’s doing parody or not.

    • Gus Snarp

      His deadpan is really brilliant. The definition of skepticism was the clear give away, but I still wasn’t absolutely sure until halfway into his “number 5″.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    I agree with his initial point that being a skeptic is all about a methodology (withholding belief in extraordinary claims until sufficient evidence warrants such belief), rather than being required to dogmatically believe that any specific claim is definitely true or definitely not true.

    Of course, pretty much everything else he said was just fun satire.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Loved it.

    He’s right, people are often inconsistent and not thorough in their skepticism. I know some atheists who have little superstitions, take their horoscopes as something more than silly woo, and they jump to conclusions about issues in current events before seeing any evidence to support or refute those conclusions.

    At the same time, I know theists who eschew superstitions not because they think they’re “satanic,” but as silly, childish nonsense. They’re being good skeptics with that stuff, but not with their god belief. They too are inconsistent and not thorough in their skepticism.

    I think much of it has to do with whatever emotional attachment has somehow accrued to our credulous beliefs. Woo and superstition is sticky. I remember in the years after I realized I was an atheist that I had to work hard to question silly little assumptions and stop personal rituals like giving a letter a “good luck kiss” before I dropped it in the mailbox. That came from a very long time ago each time I dropped, with great anxiety and anticipation, several college applications into the mailbox. The silly habit stuck. There definitely was some anxiety when I first forced myself to not perform the “good luck kiss” ritual, but after a while the anxiety faded away, and I don’t even think about it any more at the mailbox.

    Having my mind clean of all such junk feels much lighter, freer, healthier.

    • Randay

      When I talk about something good happening to me, like I am in good health, I sometimes add “knock on wood”. It is not that I believe it makes a difference, but it is a fun cultural artifact and amuses me. People are used to such expressions and mostly don’t take them seriously. It is like when you include “you know” or “like” in a sentence where they are just space fillers and don’t mean anything.

      Homeopathy is a greater problem. I know both believers and skeptics who seriously think it helps them. Most are believers, but with both no amount of explanation has been able to persuade them of its nonsense.

      • TheBlackCat13

        I do that too. I tend to accompany it with lightly tapping my fist against my head.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Funny how Joe Klein never questions certain credulous assumptions, even when he’s buried in a landslide of evidence to the contrary.

    • Junkie Man to the RESCUE!!!!!!

      Okay dude it’s getting kind of old now.

      • Guest271828

        I respectfully disagree with your opinion. My personal opinion is that it is getting even more funny, but you are free to disagree with me.

        Richard, I look forward to more “Funny how…” posts. :)

      • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

        Joe, is that you?

  • 3lemenope

    Are there more skeptics who believe in some higher power, or more atheists who are poor skeptics?

    More of the latter than the former, by far. And that’s simply a function of the atheist population, generally, being huge compared to the consistent skeptic population, which is minuscule.

    • Gordon Duffy

      Well skepticism should lead to atheism. Because skepticism is a method that should lead to conclusions. Atheism is not a method so while it can lead to skepticism (it did for me) there’s less imperative.

      • C Peterson

        I don’t see how atheism itself can lead to anything. Of course, if an atheist discusses ideas with other atheists or skeptics, that could lead to an improvement in skeptical skills. And not being religious removes an impediment to developing skeptical skills. But atheism doesn’t produce skeptics.

        • Gordon Duffy

          Well atheism lead to skepticism for me when I asked “what else have I been wrong about?”

          • C Peterson

            From what you describe, I’d say it was your loss of belief that led you to ask questions, not atheism. That’s an important distinction. Has your lack of belief in unicorns made you into a skeptic?

    • GubbaBumpkin

      Are there more skeptics who believe in some higher power, or more atheists who are poor skeptics?

      The former included Martin Gardner, probably the most prolific skeptical author of the 20th century, who identified himself as a “philosophical theist.” I believe Steve Allen identified as a Christian, although certainly not one of the more fundamental kind. I am not sure if he maintained that identity throughout his life.
      Of the latter, I once met an atheist who believed in reincarnation. And of course, I have met a number of atheist Libertarians, who have kooky ideas about politics and economics.

  • flyb

    Nice lemons.

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      Yeah I noticed those lemons and limes at the very beginning and end of the video. It seems to be a deliberate placement, so I was wondering if there’s a meaning there that I’m missing.

      I’ll have to ask my psychic accupuncturist/food whisperer about it at my next appointment.

      • Edmond

        I’m pretty sure it’s a reference to the Master Cleanse, a lemon juice/liquid diet/fast that makes the woo rounds. There’s a Wiki page. Beyonce did it. My partner does it maybe once a year, I can’t cure him of the woo. Doesn’t seem to hurt him.

    • GubbaBumpkin

      Did you notice the C.S. Lewis Narnia book? Lewis used his fiction to introduce children to sophisticated theological concepts, like talking animals.

  • C Peterson

    Here’s the more entertaining question: Are there more skeptics who believe in some higher power, or more atheists who are poor skeptics?

    There are no skeptics who believe in a higher power (if that means some sort of god). Sure, there are theists who maintain a degree of skepticism in some areas, but theism requires too large a break from rationalism to allow the theist to be reasonably called a “skeptic”.

    There is nothing about atheism at all that requires skepticism. Any such suggestion violates causality. Skepticism inevitably leads to atheism; the opposite isn’t true at all.

    • GubbaBumpkin

      There are no skeptics who believe in a higher power (if that means some
      sort of god). Sure, there are theists who maintain a degree of
      skepticism in some areas, but theism requires too large a break from
      rationalism to allow the theist to be reasonably called a “skeptic”.

      We disagree on that. I was willing to call Martin Gardner a skeptic, even though he called himself a “philosophical theist.”

      • C Peterson

        Regardless of what he called himself, he was basically a deist. That’s not quite as crazy as being a theist, but still… in my book it’s enough to disqualify somebody from being considered a skeptic. Too much compartmentalization is required, and the deistic belief isn’t something casual, but pretty fundamental to the world view.

        • GubbaBumpkin

          Regardless of what he called himself, he was basically a deist

          I trust that Gardner took the effort to get the terminology correct. He discussed his views in his book The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, ISBN-13: 978-0312206826

          • C Peterson

            The problem with pseudointellectual theobabble is that you can’t really get a lot of terms correct, because they lack much tangible meaning. The only way to distinguish “philosophical theist” from “deist” is with more theobabble.

            In any case, by identifying as either a deist or theist, Gardner demonstrates he wasn’t firing on all cylinders, so I consider with reservation any religious terminology he chooses.

        • Pseudonym

          Regardless of what you think he did or didn’t believe, he considered himself a theist.

          FWIW, I’m glad that you came out and said that you think that Martin Gardner shouldn’t be considered a skeptic. Pretty much every movement skeptic would disagree with you, of course, especially given that he was one of the key founders of the movement. Nonetheless, I’m glad that someone admitted that they felt this way.

          Personally, I don’t think that rewriting history is a good way out of the cognitive dissonance. But, hey, skepticism is a movement without dogma, so who am I to judge?

    • Daniel Schealler

      My 2c: The quotes at the end of your second paragraph should have been around the word “a”, not the word “skeptic”.

      No-one is “a” skeptic, in the sense that they are completely skeptical and perfectly rational all the time. We’re all vulnerable to biases.

      Rather, people can be more or less skeptical at a given point in time or while considering given propositions.

      Based on the lack of currently available evidence for theism, acceptance of theism is an insufficiently sceptical position. However, that doesn’t mean that a person who accepts theism can’t be adequately sceptical regarding other areas.

      Theism doesn’t make a person “not a sceptic” because there’s no such thing as “a” sceptic in the first place.

      It just means that they are insufficiently sceptical about one particular idea about the universe. An idea that I feel strongly about, true. But that’s not a reason to go kicking them out of the clubhouse.

  • TheBlackCat13

    Great example of Betteridge’s law of headlines:

    Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word “no”.

  • DougI

    Skeptics work from their own paradigms. I’ve come across quite a few who use the label “Skeptic” as a shield against criticism as if calling oneself a skeptic magically reinforces their opinion against all facts that would challenge their biases.

    It wasn’t that long ago that self-professed skeptics we touting the evidence of climate change a hoax and anyone who promoted the facts of climate change as a bunch of pseudo-scientific alarmists (sure there were some alarmists, like that nutter who said snow in England would be extinct as of a few years ago but I mean they’d use it in a general sense).

    So take the title of skeptic with a grain of salt. Actions will mean more than any title someone gives themselves.

    • TheBlackCat13

      “It wasn’t that long ago that self-professed skeptics we touting the
      evidence of climate change a hoax and anyone who promoted the facts of
      climate change as a bunch of pseudo-scientific alarmists”

      They are still doing that now. But they aren’t “good skeptics”, or real skeptics at all, they are denialists.

    • GubbaBumpkin

      So take the title of skeptic with a grain of salt.

      The best is when someone says they are “skeptical of the skeptics.” That’s when you know you’re dealing with a real loony tune.

  • dallasbri

    The need to feel safe is a natural one. Belief in a
    conscious power that we can approach with requests to protect us, sooth our
    fears, and litigate for justice on our behalf seems to be a universal need
    (whether innate or programmed by our up bringing, our associations and our way
    of life). So, even when we have no belief in the God of many religions,
    it is still difficult not to surrender to our wish for security and justice by
    maintaining hope that there is something in the universe that will provide us
    with these.

    I have never been able to accept the notions of a God as
    presented in the religion I was raised in. Nor do I see any reason to believe
    in spirituality or any sort of mysticism, which seem to me as void of logic and
    reason as that religion. Yet, when reality presses in I find myself
    wishing I could pray to something that could be influenced to answer my prayer
    – and sometimes I make a quick prayer even while knowing nothing is out there.

    I’m OK with myself having such lapses in my convictions –
    although I see it as a weakness on my part — because I’m human, like everyone
    else, and not pure logic and reason. I can only strive for reason and
    logic in myself. I don’t need to guaranty it of myself, to myself or anyone.

    • brmckay

      dallasbri – “I have never been able to accept the notions of a God as
      presented in the religion I was raised in. ”

      I am always frustrated when people leap to Atheism at this point. It would be so much more sane to just improve your conceptualization of God.

      First start would be to catch yourself when you use terms like “a God”.

      The most rational conception of God has to be in terms of the Entirety.

      Saying “a God” means you are leaving room for something else.

      This meditation can ripen over a lifetime. It is a skill that is perfected with practice.

      The seamlessness of our involvement is that “something in the universe” that you instinctually seek.

  • GregFromCos

    I can certainly see the allure of a truly puritanical view when it comes to skepticism. But I can’t help but think humanity is better with people further towards the side of pure skepticism, than not being skeptical at all. I can’t see the value of this all or nothing position, and thankfully JREF seems to agree.

    Once someone is mostly skeptical, it’s much easier to have that religious discussion, than it is before they’re even embraced any part of skepticism. I’ve often thought we freethinkers are better at acknowledging nuances, but when I see an almost dogmatic insistence of purity when it comes to skepticism and sometimes evolution. I have to wonder how many truly have the big picture in mind when they take these positions.

    Yes, you can be a sceptic and not apply it to religion. The better question is are you applying scepticism to your religious paradigm, like you do to other parts of your life?

    • Pseudonym

      You know what else you can do? You can be skeptical about your own religion and still choose to identify with that religion. It’s not something you often see outside of academia, but it’s common enough that they even have conferences.

  • maddogdelta

    Well, I do believe that AGN* are much more powerful than anything on earth, and that many Caesars of Rome were legally made into gods. So I guess I can be a skeptic and believe in higher powers and gods at the same time…

    *Active Galactic Nucleii…

    // I’m here all week. Try the veal and tip your waitress…

  • Michael Harrison

    There was a post on Panda’s Thumb a while back relevant to this discussion: http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2010/01/an-ill-wind-in.html

    Personally, I think someone can be a skeptic and hold a silly belief, as long as it is acknowledged that the belief is silly, and that the basis for holding it is nonrational. After all, rationality is a late addition to the human brain’s wiring, and a good skeptic should acknowledge our shortcomings.

  • Gus Snarp

    Really well put. I personally think that any individual skeptic can have a sacred cow (or two or three), but that skepticism itself cannot, and any individual’s sacred cow should be up to skeptical analysis and criticism. On the other hand, maybe skeptical criticism of religion should be focused on actual claims. The question of whether god exists is so nebulous in the various ways people describe god as to be meaningless. But when someone says an omniscient, omnipotent being with a benevolent interest in human kind exists and affects the world around us – that’s a claim we can evaluate and reject. As are most of the beliefs of most organized religions, and as such they’re up for the skeptical treatment. Do crackers turn literally to flesh in the mouths of believers? No. Did a virgin give birth to the son of god who was crucified and resurrected? No. Did god create the world and mankind in its present form around 6,000 years ago? No. Is it turtles all the way down? No. Does a great hulking blonde with a hammer make the thunder and lightning? No.


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