Addressing Skepticism About Atheism's Value To Skepticism

Addressing Skepticism About Atheism's Value To Skepticism August 31, 2011

In reply to my post last week about why atheism is important to advancing proper skepticism, Armchair Skeptic writes:

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.

Proper skepticism is the willingness (a) to suspend belief until sufficient evidence for a reasonable knowledge claim is available and (b) to leave open the possibility you are wrong and to actively investigate the likelihood of better possible alternative explanations to the extent that possible doubt still remains about your belief and knowledge claims.

Proper skepticism is a skill of judgment and a volitional virtue.

One must be good at weighing the relative merits of proposed evidence and at understanding what sorts of evidence is appropriate for each kind of question. Scientific evidence is not necessary for properly believing (or for properly being skeptical of) most everyday instances of human testimony, but it does become important when assessing certain kinds of testimony like eye-witness testimony.  Scientific evidence is only partially relevant to certain philosophical problems which, depending on the particulars, may require conceptual and logical analysis and an understanding of history and, even, moral norms and values, to properly be understood.  And, of course, in situations where we clearly need the scientific method, everyday human testimony (in the form of anecdotal evidence) is poor evidence, value judgments risk being counter-productively prejudicial, etc.

On the volitional side, one must have a temperament which is habitually willing to do the following challenging tasks whenever necessary for properly assessing the relevant kind of evidence at hand: suspend judgments and values, admit ignorance, challenge pleasant or popular beliefs, reexamine existing beliefs and knowledge claims, correct for cognitive biases, accept uncertainty, employ rigorous scientific and/or philosophical methods of investigation, etc.

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.

Atheism is simply the lack of belief in gods and lack of worship of gods.  Some atheists are atheists because they only lack belief in gods (but do not affirm that they know, or even belief, that gods do not exist). They take an epistemological position that unless there is a positive reason for a belief, one should default to non-belief (but not an actual disbelief).  I call these atheists “agnostic atheists”.  I am another kind of atheist, a “gnostic atheist”.  I think I can know there is no Yahweh or Jesus or Allah just as well as we all think we can know that there is no Zeus or Spider-Man.

Atheists are typically (though not conceptually) opposed to faith in principle.  Now, there is nothing about atheism that logically entails that any given atheist is against faith in principle.  One could happen to lack belief in gods or disbelieve in gods and yet also believe that it is okay (or, even, good) to willfully believe on insufficient evidence and so be a pro-faith atheist without personally believing in gods.  This can happen where an atheist has faith in other things besides gods or where an atheist lacks faith but approves of it in others, possibly including religious believers.   Similarly atheism is conceptually compatible with other forms of supernaturalism (as I have met atheists who seem to believe in ghosts for example).  And there are some atheists who (cynically?) believe it is important socially and politically to maintain faith-based social/political institutions, even if their own personal epistemological standards do not in involve faith.

Finally, you can have atheists (like I) who oppose faith on principle and oppose primarily faith-based religion and faith-based social/political institutions, but who nonetheless thinks that religion (or something like it) might conceivably be salvaged in non-faith-based, non-authoritarian forms compatible with atheism and the rationalistic open-endedness of rigorous science and philosophy.

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.

I did speak in strokes that were too broad in my first post and I think you raise good objections that give me a chance to clarify.  What I accused the religious of was actively cultivating natural human cognitive biases rather than combating them since they aid the preservation of faith.  Now, it is true that religious believers are also often taught many other genuine critical thinking skills.

For example, private Catholic schools are some of the only places in America where kids are explicitly taught philosophy prior to college.  And whereas a given public or private secular university may require very little philosophy, I have taught now at three Catholic universities and each of them require no less than three philosophy courses for every student.  They are manifestly not afraid of philosophical investigation—at least to a certain point.  And the long rich traditions of textual study in the Jewish, Islamic, and Catholic traditions belie any broad statement that there is no reasoning or questioning or investigative skill encouraged by religions.

And modern liberal versions of these (and non-monotheistic) religions obviously eschew a number of regressive or anti-rational ways of thinking that dogmatists and fundamentalists are so infamously guilty of.  And a religion like Buddhism, of course, is from a philosophical point of view atheistic and the Buddha actively encourages independent thought.

But despite all of this, the considerable extent to which these religions inculcate faith and wed people’s personal identities to their faithful adherence to their traditional beliefs—no matter how obviously ridiculous, stifling, stagnant, or regressive some of those beliefs are them are—they remain institutions that skeptics should oppose on principle.

This is not to say that skeptics have to reject the literary value of these traditions or dismiss all their value judgments including the ones that admit of rational defense apart from religious dogmatism.  But rather it is to say that skeptics need to oppose explicitly the extent to which systematic inculcation of intellectual vices undermines even the religions’ best efforts to simultaneously teach some intellectual virtues.

The vices of faith and superstitiousness and authoritarianism that religions regularly and deliberately inculcate and reinforce create mental walls which can devastatingly undermine, or corrupt the use of, all those otherwise good critical thinking skills someone might learn through her more rigorous religious studies. One learns how to spin a logical argument, but is also trained to accept a number of patently illogical premises as matters of dogma (e.g. The Trinity) and to reject conclusions that contradict ancient Scriptures, and to unjustly assume that even if the Bible (or Koran, etc.) is merely mythical in some ways that it still must still be right in its “Real Meaning”, etc., etc.  I could go on.   For a fuller treatment of the ways that faith poisons otherwise redeemable aspects of religion, read this post.

Now even though conceptually atheism is compatible with superstition, faith, and faith-based social and political institutions, etc., as a contemporary Western movement it is explicitly opposed and hostile to these things.  It is specifically cast as a version of rationalism and it specifically targets the abuses of faith and the anti-rational training in faith-based thinking.

And since religion is the primary institution that, by contrast, explicitly teaches people that it is morally good, and even necessary, to sometimes believe contrary to evidence as part of maintaining their loyalty and identity, atheistic challenges to the belief in god which undergirds this religious influence are key.

This functional benefit of atheism is there and important for skeptics to promote even if identity-atheists (those who make being an atheist an important part of their self-understanding and self-presentation) are on some or many occasions fail to live up to the standards of critical thinking that theoretically they are committed to.  (And it is worth noting that skeptics can of course challenge identity-atheists who they think reason poorly to live up to their own professed standards of critical thinking.  One cannot do this as well with people of faith who are committed in principle to abandoning scrutiny whenever it would lead to rejection of something too central to their faith.)

So while a skeptic or an atheist (like I) might want to demand that identity-atheists (like me) hold ourselves more strictly in practice to the critical thinking ideals we espouse in theory, in the meantime atheism (even the kind that is not rationalistic or hostile to religion) is still an important tool in undermining faith because of faith’s tight association with religion and religion’s presently tight association with God in the West.   And faith is precisely the vice that skeptics should be primarily concerned with rooting out.

I think Armchair Skeptic makes another important point, in the article he linked to, which is worth addressing before closing.  He writes that skepticism should be associated with a certain process and methods rather than with any one conclusion.  And I agree, in principle, skepticism itself cannot be committed to atheism or to any other position to the point of rejecting all future evidence—that would not be properly skeptical.  But skeptics should explicitly support atheism now because properly skeptical standards merit it and because atheism would undermine the institutional support for faith.  Skeptics certainly should not make special allowances for people’s faith-beliefs that they wouldn’t make for their other irrational beliefs.  And, it’s worth stressing that even an identity-atheist should be open to abandoning her atheism should evidence change.  Atheists should be properly skeptical just as skeptics should be properly atheistic.  We should all be properly everything.

And skepticism should oppose faith on principle as the very antithesis of skeptical thinking.  Now, on non-epistemic, pragmatic socio-political or psychological grounds skeptics may be skeptical about anti-faith atheists’ position that attacking faith is better than using it for some other good.  But if they are interested in debunking badly formed beliefs in ghosts or UFOs, etc., they should theoretically be against the cognitive errors, including faith, that help people make these mistakes.  If all they want to do is figure out what to have people believe so they can be happiest—even if it turned out that this involved likely false beliefs (though I am not convinced it does), then maybe they are not primarily concerned with skepticism after all.

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