Why Atheism Is Important To Advancing Proper Skepticism

Why Atheism Is Important To Advancing Proper Skepticism August 23, 2011

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.

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