Saturday, November 20, 2010

What to think vs. how to think

While listening to a recent Token Skeptic podcast of a Dragon*Con panel on Skepticism and Education moderated by D.J. Grothe of the James Randi Educational Foundation, I was struck by his repeated references to Skepticism as a worldview (which I put in uppercase to distinguish it from skepticism as a set of methods of inquiry, an attitude or approach).  I wrote the following email to the podcast:
I am sufficiently irritated by D.J. Grothe's repeated reference to skepticism as a "worldview" that I will probably be motivated to write a blog post about it.
There is a growing ambiguity caused by overloading of the term "skepticism" on different things--attitudes, methods and processes, accumulated bodies of knowledge, a movement.  To date, there hasn't really been a capital-S Skepticism as a worldview since the Pyrrhonean philosophical variety.  A worldview is an all-encompassing view of the world which addresses how one should believe, how one should act, what kinds of things exist, and so forth.  It includes presuppositions not only about factual matters, but about values. 
The skepticisms worth promoting are attitudes, methods and processes, and accumulated bodies of knowledge that are consistent with a wide variety of world views.  The methods are contextual, applied against a background of social institutions and relationships that are based on trust.  There is room in the broader skeptical movement for pluralism, a diversity of approaches that set the skepticisms in different contexts for different purposes--educational, political, philosophical, religious.  An unrestricted skepticism is corrosive and undermines all knowledge, for there is no good epistemological response to philosophical skepticism that doesn't make some assumptions.
Trying to turn skepticism into a capital-S Skeptical worldview strikes me as misguided.
To my mind, what's most important and useful about skepticism is that it drives the adoption of the best available tools for answering questions, providing more guidance on how to think than on what to think, and on how to recognize trustworthy sources and people to rely upon.  There's not a completely sharp line between these--knowledge about methods and their accuracy is dependent upon factual knowledge, of course.

I think the recent exchanges about the Missouri Skepticon conference really being an atheist conference may partly have this issue behind them, though I think there are further issues there as well about the traditional scope of "scientific skepticism" being restricted to "testable claims" and the notion of methodological naturalism that I don't entirely agree with.  Skepticism is about critical thinking, inquiry, investigation, and using the best methods available to find reliable answers to questions (and promoting broader use of those tools), while atheism is about holding a particular position on a particular issue, that no gods exist.  The broader skeptical movement produces greater social benefits by promoting more critical thinking in the general public than does the narrower group of skeptical atheists who primarily argue against religion and especially the smaller subset who are so obsessed that they are immediately dismissed by the broader public as monomaniacal cranks.  The organized skeptical groups with decades of history have mainly taken pains to avoid being represented by or identified with the latter, and as a result have been represented by skeptics of a variety of religious views in events of lasting consequence. Think, for example, of the audience for Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" and his subsequent works, or of the outcome of the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial.

In my opinion, the distinction between skepticism and atheism is an important one, and I think Skepticon does blur and confuse that distinction by using the "skeptic" name and having a single focus on religion. This doesn't mean that most of the atheists participating in that conference don't qualify as skeptics, or even that atheist groups promoting rationality on religious subjects don't count as part of the broader skeptical movement.  It just means that there is a genuine distinction to be drawn.

(BTW, I don't think atheism is a worldview, either--it's a single feature of a worldview, and one that is less important to my mind than skepticism.)

Previous posts on related subjects:
"A few comments on the nature and scope of skepticism"
"Skepticism, belief revision, and science"
"Massimo Pigliucci on the scope of skeptical inquiry"

Also related, a 1999 letter to the editor of Skeptical Inquirer from the leaders of many local skeptical groups (Daniel Barnett, North Texas Skeptics, Dallas, TX; David Bloomberg, Rational Examination Association of Lincoln Land, Springfield, IL; Tim Holmes, Taiwan Skeptics, Tanzu, Taiwan; Peter Huston, Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York, Schenectady, NY; Paul Jaffe, National Capitol Area Skeptics, Washington, D.C.; Eric Krieg, Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking, Philadelphia, PA; Scott Lilienfeld, Georgia Skeptics, Atlanta, GA; Jim Lippard, Phoenix Skeptics and Tucson Skeptical Society, Tucson, AZ; Rebecca Long, Georgia Skeptics, Atlanta, GA; Lori Marino, Georgia Skeptics, Atlanta, GA; Rick Moen, Bay Area Skeptics, Menlo Park, CA; Steven Novella, New England Skeptical Society, New Haven, CT; Bela Scheiber, Rocky Mountain Skeptics, Denver, CO; and Michael Sofka, Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York, Troy, NY).

UPDATE (December 1, 2010): D.J. Grothe states in the most recent (Nov. 26) Point of Inquiry podcast (Karen Stollznow interviews James Randi and D.J. Grothe), at about 36:50, that he has been misunderstood in his references to skepticism as a "worldview."  This suggests to me that he has in mind a narrower meaning, as Barbara Drescher has interpreted him in the comments below.  My apologies to D.J. for misconstruing his meaning.

49 comments:

rushmc said...

You make some good points, but ultimately I am unconvinced, I think. It seems to me perfectly reasonable to use "skeptic" in a manner analogous to how we would use "cynic," "idealist," or "epicure" in the modern sense, as general categories expressing one's dominant tendencies in approaching and assessing the world without requiring absolute fidelity to some ancient philosophy or formulation. Being open to questioning everything does not, it seems to me, imply rejection of everything.

As for the skepticism/atheism issue, I think a person could be an atheist without being a skeptic, but I think it would be pretty silly. A "faith-based" atheism isn't of much interest or use. Can a person, conversely, be a skeptic without being an atheist? Clearly, but not, I would argue, a very good one.

rushmc said...

>>My point was simply that you cannot question everything *simultaneously*, for that gives you no basis on which to assess.

True enough. But isn't that more of a caricature of a skeptic than a genuine representation of skeptics as they exist in the world? Kind of like saying an atheist can't hold any moral values because he doesn't have any derived from religious texts? Who really tries to be skeptical about everything all the time all at once? You seem to be arguing that skeptics are defined by their habitual use of skeptical tools, and I agree with that, but isn't there a threshold of habitual use where it eventually becomes useful and accurate to say that someone has a skeptical worldview?

>>Conversely, there are many excellent non-atheist skeptics.

But are there? Really? Or is it just the case that some non-atheists use skeptical tools sometimes, in limited contexts? I wouldn't throw out their contributions, but I don't feel obliged to hold onto the bathwater, either, and understanding the context--and the limits--of their skeptical thought can be important.

Jim Lippard said...

I don't disagree with anything in your first paragraph. Being open to questioning everything doesn't imply rejection of everything, I agree. My point was simply that you cannot question everything *simultaneously*, for that gives you no basis on which to assess.

There are plenty of non-skeptical atheists, unfortunately. Conversely, there are many excellent non-atheist skeptics. Many of the best have been agnostics (e.g., Carl Sagan) or theists of some variety (e.g., Martin Gardner). Some excellent skeptical work has been done by evangelical Christians (such as the Cornerstone magazine exposures of Mike Warnke and Lauren Stratford), even though they didn't self-identify as skeptics.

It would be a mistake to refuse to countenance someone as a full-fledged member of the broader skeptical movement solely because they believe a God exists. That's an unmerited rejection of a huge amount of brain processing power that can be successfully brought to bear in improving our own understanding how the world works and how we ourselves work in developing that understanding

Jim Lippard said...

Whoops, you replied as I was deleting and preparing to modify my comment--so I've just reposted it as it was.

I was going to modify the very statement that you replied to, for I was in error to say "simply that"--there was more to what I said than that. To expound further, some things are more testable than others, some things are subject to live debate and others are well established beyond reasonable doubt, and these things change over time. Some things aren't empirically testable at all, either due to human limitations, where we're situated spatially or temporally, or because we need them as assumptions in order to engage meaningfully with others in the first place (e.g., the rejection of solipsism in favor of the existence of an external world, successful word-to-world reference relations) or to engage in empirical investigation at all (e.g., a notion of cause).

You write, regarding whether there are good non-atheist skeptics: "But are there? Really? Or is it just the case that some non-atheists use skeptical tools sometimes, in limited contexts? I wouldn't throw out their contributions, but I don't feel obliged to hold onto the bathwater, either, and understanding the context--and the limits--of their skeptical thought can be important."

I say yes, absolutely. First of all, agnostic skeptics are often better skeptics than atheist skeptics. And second, I think we're *all* in the "using skeptical tools sometimes, in limited contexts" boat! I've yet to meet a skeptic I agreed with about everything, and I interpret that to mean that both every skeptic I've met is likely wrong about something, and so am I. Fallibilism is an important feature of skepticism.

rushmc said...

Well, I agree of course that one doesn't have to be right to be a skeptic. As I think we've agreed, skepticism is a technique (and a skeptic is one who utilizes the technique). If all of our conclusions had to be proven correct before we could be considered skeptics, then at best, we could only ever be provisional skeptics!

But at the same time I think that if someone wants to be considered a skeptic and yet chooses to utilize non-skeptical tools in arriving at some of their conclusions (perhaps in conjunction with skeptical tools), then it is important to distinguish when they are being skeptical and when they are not.

rushmc said...

>>agnostic skeptics are often better skeptics than atheist skeptics

I guess I would need to see some examples of this. I don't see how "I don't know and don't believe I can know" is a better skeptical response than "I will not believe something for which I see no evidence."

Jim Lippard said...

Although there is a sense of the term "agnostic" which implies knowledge is not possible (as opposed to not actual), that's not how I was using it. I was using it to denote nonbelief as opposed to disbelief.

I may have been making an erroneous comparison (using the availability heuristic) in that most of the people I know who are explicitly agnostic tend to be professional philosophers, historians, and scientists, while many of the atheists of my acquaintance are not professional academics. I also had in mind people like Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Albert Einstein, all agnostics of particular influence to science and skepticism in popular culture.

Jim Lippard said...

BTW, I don't think anyone can question the skeptical credibility of Martin Gardner. Though he was explicit in noting that his belief in God was not an exercise in skepticism.

rushmc said...

Perhaps Gardner is a good case illustrating the difference between someone with a skeptical worldview (habitual and inclusive use of skeptical tools) and someone who uses skeptical tools inconsistently. (Wasn't he more of a mathematician by nature anyway? I'd argue that all mathematicians have a metaphysical bent! lol) Is he really a skeptic if he sets aside large and important areas where he refuses a priori to be skeptical?

I'm skeptical!

For me, this issue isn't about whom to include or not to include in a particular community, but about using terminology consistently and most usefully. Taking into account what you said earlier about no one being a 100% skeptic, I think we must conclude that the term is not an either/or proposition but always occurs on a scale. Where we differ is where we would draw the line--are you a skeptic if you are skeptical 10% of the time? 50%? 80%? Of course, it is difficult to easily gauge a percentage for a given individual, so my suggestion is that one must look at whether someone is occasionally skeptical, often skeptical, or nearly-always-in-so-far-as-inconsistent-humans-can-be skeptical. The latter, I would call a skeptical worldview, wherein the individual habitually attempts to be initially skeptical (and I mean "skeptical," not doubting) toward any new data to which he is exposed. The setting aside of excluded-by-fiat magisteria would be exactly what I would say would exclude someone from being a true skeptic (although they may utilize skeptical techniques much of the time).

Podblack said...

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Jim Lippard said...

Gardner wrote Scientific American's "Mathematical Games" column, but was never a mathematician--he had a bachelor's degree in philosophy and did one year of graduate study in philosophy, all at the University of Chicago. He never took a college math course.

badrescher said...

Although I understand your points, my definition of "worldview" is a little less broad than yours and I did not think that D.J. was saying that skepticism was a worldview.

To me, a "worldview" is simply a statement which I think applies universally, not a statement which provides some detailed framework for living my life (although it may provide a foundation on which that framework can be built).

What I took D.J. to mean by "worldview" was the position that skepticism and science are the best methods for acquiring and evaluating knowledge.

That certainly is a statement of values, but it is not a statement that skepticism itself is a worldview or that skepticism should dictate all of the aspects of life you described.

Because it is a value system, though,I had to put some serious thought into my answer to his question about whether what I teach is my worldview (and, if so, how do I justify what I do). Indeed, I understood that promoting that value system is what I do when I teach.

I wouldn't change my answer and I feel not guilt for it.

But, again, the worldview is simply that science and skepticism are the best means for acquiring and evaluating knowledge (and, perhaps, that we would all be better off if more of us adopted that view).

John S. Wilkins said...

I'm coming here via Larry Moran's Sandwalk blog.

I am of the view that nobody is skeptical over their entire belief set, only ever part of it. Life would be a series of testing beliefs without respite otherwise. So a theist can be a skeptic about scientific matters fully, without needing to be skeptical about their religious beliefs.

Given this, there is a distinction between being a skeptic and being an atheist, and I therefore agree with you.

Xzanron said...

We're back to failures of definition. A problem every single debate of this kind I've read suffers from.

If you call someone a Christian, that's pretty damn meaningless, since there are so many variants of Christianity. Even more meaningless if you call someone religious. We talking deities here, or just one deity, or thetans or what?

The same if true of atheism and agnostics. I haven't personally come across a single "atheist" that simply denies gods as a faith position. Every one I know denies gods because they've seen no evidence, just as I deny homeopathy as medicine because I've seen no evidence for it.

That makes all atheists I know (maybe the vast majority of them) technically agnostics, or "non-believers". Which in my mind simply makes atheism a degree of agnosticism, much like Jehovah's witnesses are a degree of Christianity, or cargo-cults a degree of religion. Even Richard Dawkins, that poster boy of atheists, admits he's technically an agnostic ( 9.5 on a scale from 1 to 10, or whatever it is).

I feel that anyone who applies skeptical tools, critical thinking et.al. to religion will invariable have to be an agnostic, as religion raises all those little red flags that skeptics look for when evaluating something. Conflicting accounts and conclusions, appeals to authority instead of evidence etc. Surely agnostic is simply a synonym for skeptic; when limited just to religion?

Would a comment along the lines of "this meeting is turning into an agnostics meeting" have produced anywhere near the same reaction as that same comment about atheism?

If you define atheism as an irrational faith position that simply denies gods a priori then you're right, it has nothing to do with skepticism and should indeed be challenged by skeptics. If though you define atheism as lack of belief due to lack of evidence, then it seems that it's synonymous with skepticism and very much has a place at skepticon.

HopsToad said...

If skepticism is an approach to understanding one's world then I agree that skepticism is not a worldview in the same sense that evangelical Christianity is a worldview. In this sense, a worldview is not merely an approach to understanding but also a collection of knowledge that guides that approach and a specific set of rules by which to live one's life.

I would argue, however, that one can arrive at one's collection of knowledge at least in part via skeptical inquiry. While I acknowledging the impracticality mentioned by John S. Wilkins above, one also can recognize that one can be wrong about some or all of that body of knowledge. Most if not all theists claim that at least some of the knowledge that makes up their worldview is infallible and cannot be questioned, all of it in extreme cases. Most atheists I know acknowledge the possibility that their collection of knowledge may be incorrect and are willing to question it. Because of this, I think that one must be more suspicious of any skeptical arguments made by theists than those made by atheists and agnostics.

I also agree with Xzanron about the use of definitions here. Most atheists I know use the term literally to mean "without god belief". Most agnostics I know, including myself earlier in my life self-identified as such to avoid discrimination, the inevitable entreaties to change and promises to be prayed-for that come from the theists when identifying oneself as an atheist. by narrowing the definition of atheist to a class of individuals that positively assert the non-existence of gods, one deliberately increases the proportion of irrational members of the class.

Eamon Knight said...

@Wilkins: I am of the view that nobody is skeptical over their entire belief set, only ever part of it. Life would be a series of testing beliefs without respite otherwise. So a theist can be a skeptic about scientific matters fully, without needing to be skeptical about their religious beliefs.

Obviously we never get around to testing everything to the Nth degree, and some things for personal reasons we may even consciously or unconsciously wall off from inquiry (eg: Does my god exist? Is my partner faithful to me?). Meanwhile, we might still be applying the skeptical method quite vigorously to alt-med, UFOs and the like.

But I think PZ's point is that you can't demand of the wider skeptical community that they leave those "walled off" areas alone -- your special affection for Jesus doesn't get a pass any more than your special affection for homeopathy, biodynamic farming, or zero-point energy extractors. (Though by social convention, one's family issues are considered private).

Note though that separate from the question of what is open to challenge, is the question of the "tone" of the challenge. Challengers can be polite or rude, and that will affect the social health of the community. No movement is only about the ideas; it is also a social group, and subject to the usual power-seeking and in-group/out-group dynamics.

rushmc said...

>>I am of the view that nobody is skeptical over their entire belief set, only ever part of it. Life would be a series of testing beliefs without respite otherwise.

Humans aren't perfect in their efforts and endeavors--I get it. But isn't there an important distinction to be made between those who TRY to approach the world from a skeptical viewpoing consistently (even if they are not always successful) and those who cherrypick when they will use a skeptical approach and when they will not based upon some other criteria?

Jim Lippard said...

Xzanron wrote: "We're back to failures of definition. A problem every single debate of this kind I've read suffers from."

See my discussion of definitions of atheism and agnosticism.

Xzanron continues: "If you call someone a Christian, that's pretty damn meaningless, since there are so many variants of Christianity. Even more meaningless if you call someone religious. We talking deities here, or just one deity, or thetans or what?"

It's vague, but it's certainly not meaningless.

Jim Lippard said...

Xzanron continues: "The same if true of atheism and agnostics. I haven't personally come across a single "atheist" that simply denies gods as a faith position. Every one I know denies gods because they've seen no evidence, just as I deny homeopathy as medicine because I've seen no evidence for it.

That makes all atheists I know (maybe the vast majority of them) technically agnostics, or "non-believers". Which in my mind simply makes atheism a degree of agnosticism, much like Jehovah's witnesses are a degree of Christianity, or cargo-cults a degree of religion. Even Richard Dawkins, that poster boy of atheists, admits he's technically an agnostic ( 9.5 on a scale from 1 to 10, or whatever it is)."

This doesn't follow. Atheism doesn't mean that you disbelieve in gods as a "faith position" (i.e., without evidence). You seem to be asserting that atheism entails absolute certainty, which I think is absurd. In my opinion, the most sensible distinction between atheism and agnosticism is between disbelief and nonbelief. You're an atheist if you believe that the proposition that gods don't exist is sufficiently more likely than not to be worthy of assent, and that's it. No requirement that you *know* it or that you are *certain* about it. Agnosticism, by contrast, is where you think the probabilities are such that it's not worthy of assent.

Xzanron continues: "I feel that anyone who applies skeptical tools, critical thinking et.al. to religion will invariable have to be an agnostic, as religion raises all those little red flags that skeptics look for when evaluating something. Conflicting accounts and conclusions, appeals to authority instead of evidence etc. Surely agnostic is simply a synonym for skeptic; when limited just to religion?"

I can't agree with the "invariably." There are lots of arguments available for theism and atheism, and it's possible to evaluate them and come to a conclusion that's atheism, agnosticism, or theism. If somebody was convinced by William Alston's arguments in _Perceiving God_ that certain of his experiences were perceptions of the divine, he could be both a skeptic and a theist on rational grounds.

Xzanron continues: "Would a comment along the lines of "this meeting is turning into an agnostics meeting" have produced anywhere near the same reaction as that same comment about atheism?"

I'm not sure which comment you are referring to.

Xzanron concludes: "If you define atheism as an irrational faith position that simply denies gods a priori then you're right, it has nothing to do with skepticism and should indeed be challenged by skeptics. If though you define atheism as lack of belief due to lack of evidence, then it seems that it's synonymous with skepticism and very much has a place at skepticon."

I don't define atheism that way--it's simply a denial of the existence of gods, which may be held for good reasons or bad. I don't claim that it has nothing to do with skepticism, only that it is not identical with skepticism. Skepticon's focus seems to be almost entirely on religion, and not on broader issues of skepticism and critical thinking. The name suggests a broader focus, but the content suggests a narrower focus. And that strikes me as at least potentially quite misleading.

The Podblack Cat blog has some examples of it be misleading in fact.

Alric said...

I just don't think how it can be argued that atheism is not skepticism applied to religion. Or better yet that atheism is a subset of skepticism.

Is there another result other than atheism if one is skeptical of religion?

rushmc said...

Um...something ugly happened above...multiple posts/parts of posts makes the thread hard to follow.

>>There are lots of arguments available for theism

But are there any that are not archaic and/or which have not been superceded by increases in knowledge? I don't know of any.

Alric said...

The result of applying skepticism to religion can not be agnosticism. There is no evidence of any gods or that gods have ever interfered with the world.

In any line of inquiry religion would have to be considered imaginary or fantastical but never given a credible probability of being real.

Jim Lippard said...

rushmc: Non-archaic arguments for theism--yes, see the Alston book I mentioned, for example. Alvin Plantinga's modal logic version of the ontological argument is also non-archaic, though I don't think it works.

There seems to be a new Blogger limit on comment size which forced me to break up a response.

Jim Lippard said...

Alric wrote: "I just don't think how it can be argued that atheism is not skepticism applied to religion. Or better yet that atheism is a subset of skepticism.

Is there another result other than atheism if one is skeptical of religion?"

If you define skepticism by conclusion rather than process, then you're right, atheism is skepticism about religion--or, more accurately, skepticism about a central religious claim that one or more gods exist.

There are atheistic religions, though--some forms of Buddhism and Taoism include no divine beings.

But if skepticism means process, applying skepticism to a topic doesn't automatically entail rejection of that topic. Someone who is skeptical about the current institutional practices of medicine need not come to the conclusion that there is nothing in medicine that works or is valuable. Similarly, applying skepticism to religion doesn't entail wholesale rejection of all aspects of religion.

Jim Lippard said...

badrescher: You may well be correct that D.J. only meant "worldview" in the sense of an attitude or approach as opposed to comprehensive Weltanschauung.

I don't remember specifically what your answer was, but I don't recall finding anything objectionable about it. I found it interesting that several panelists did not want to take the label "skeptic," but preferred "educator."

rushmc said...

Re: Alston. I don't think any discussion of the interpretation of experience in a religious mode is likely to have much persuasive force. There are other, far more rational, far more likely explanations for perceptual anomalies. A book like this holds no appeal for me whatsoever, any more than any other that seeks to interpret phenomena to justify preconcieved beliefs.

It wasn't the breaking up of the response I was commenting on, but the repetition. But, no matter.

It is at least arguable that the foundations of Buddhism are more a philosophy than a religion, before the prayer and other crud accreted around the core. But I'll grant the feasibility of religion-without-god, and they would entail a separate discussion. I maintain, however, that the falsehood of god in monotheistic religions DOES in fact negate other (social, etc.) aspects of the religions. The term "atheism" may not cover this further rejection of religious claims; "anti-religion" may be more accurate but is certainly more provocative and negative-sounding.

Jim Lippard said...

I've eliminated the duplicates--it seems many of the alleged failures to post actually succeeded.

I recommend at least reading the first few chapters of Alston's book which are about the justification of belief based on perception in general. I think that his account of religious experience fails, but more on empirical rather than philosophical grounds--the lack of agreement between believers (let alone between believers and nonbelievers) and the lack of an observed faculty of divine perception.

Xzanron said...

Jim Lippard says:

"I don't define atheism that way--it's simply a denial of the existence of gods, which may be held for good reasons or bad."

This is my biggest bone of contention with what you've said. Your definition explicitly grants authority to the theist view when no such authority exists.

I don't see atheism that way, and neither in my view should anyone who considers themselves to be a skeptic. Atheism is the default position before you are taught about gods. In those countries where religion has receded to the point of irrelevance kids are all simply atheists by default (just as I was/am); because religion has never entered their lives. They don't go around actively denying or denouncing gods, the same way they don't go around actively denying invisible unicorns or gnomes or elves or pixies or everything else supernatural they've not been convinced by adults is real.

Are you saying those non-believers, non-theists who have never been touched by religion should be called something else? What would you call them? They're not agnostics, since that implies they accept there's at least some merit to the religious position; which cannot be the case if religion has never figured in their lives.

The only reason we even have the word atheist is because the religious have been in dominant power for so long that they coined it for anyone that wouldn't toe their line i.e. it's a synonym for traitor/deserter/misfit/outcast; which is exactly how atheists are treated in many religion-dominated countries, up to and including the death penalty.

Your definition of atheist gives the high ground to the religious by defining it as dissenting from their position, i.e. you accept their position has merit/value; when other than appeals to numbers their position has no intrinsic worth. You allow the religious to dictate the terms of the debate.

Of course, if that is your intent, then I can understand why you picked that as your working definition.

rushmc said...

I agree with your last post, Xzanron. The word "denial" rubs me the wrong way. I have no problem denying that gods exist, but to qualify for atheism I shouldn't have to.

Linguistically, the "a" in "atheism" means "not," and a non-theist does not necessarily imply someone who actively denies any particular formulation of diety--merely one who doesn't believe it. A subtle difference, maybe, but by Lippard's definition, I wouldn't be an atheist of the Zumbarotlo religion until someone told me about it and I could actively deny their god, whereas I would argue that I was from birth, since I never believed it, whether I knew about it or not.

Mike D said...

Certainly there is a distinction between skepticism and atheism, but theistic skeptics are clearly guilty of a sort of compartmentalization of their skepticism, insisting that we should be skeptical about homeopathy, irridology, astrology and whatever else, but that when it comes to deities with magic powers that perform miracles, influence people and may just cast you into hell if you don't love them... well golly, we should just "have faith" and it's off limits for skeptics!

This really boils down to believers, as usual, being way too sensitive. Ideas are not sacred, and until believers are willing to apply the exact same degree of skeptical scrutiny to their supernatural beliefs that they apply to everything else (particularly considering the prominence with which supernatural beliefs factor into a typical believer's choices and outlooks), they are woefully inconsistent skeptics.

So to all the people whining that Skepticon was too atheistic because... GASP... 3 of the 15 talks were explicitly atheistic... I say, good riddance. A failure to be more skeptical about the ridiculous supernatural claims of religion is a big problem in our culture and abroad, and we need to start talking about it. If it offends some people because they think their ideas are sacred... tough.

Jim Lippard said...

"This is my biggest bone of contention with what you've said. Your definition explicitly grants authority to the theist view when no such authority exists.

I don't see atheism that way, and neither in my view should anyone who considers themselves to be a skeptic. Atheism is the default position before you are taught about gods. In those countries where religion has receded to the point of irrelevance kids are all simply atheists by default (just as I was/am); because religion has never entered their lives. They don't go around actively denying or denouncing gods, the same way they don't go around actively denying invisible unicorns or gnomes or elves or pixies or everything else supernatural they've not been convinced by adults is real.

Are you saying those non-believers, non-theists who have never been touched by religion should be called something else? What would you call them? They're not agnostics, since that implies they accept there's at least some merit to the religious position; which cannot be the case if religion has never figured in their lives."

You're calling atheism what I call agnosticism (the terms weak atheism, negative atheism, or implicit atheism are also used). The burden of proof is on the claimant, whether the claim is positive or negative, and the default position is nonbelief rather than disbelief.

I don't see that agnosticism implies having given the position consideration, but you're welcome to define it that way. Don't get too hung up on the specific terminology, so long as we're using the same terms in the same way.

"The only reason we even have the word atheist is because the religious have been in dominant power for so long that they coined it for anyone that wouldn't toe their line i.e. it's a synonym for traitor/deserter/misfit/outcast; which is exactly how atheists are treated in many religion-dominated countries, up to and including the death penalty.

Your definition of atheist gives the high ground to the religious by defining it as dissenting from their position, i.e. you accept their position has merit/value; when other than appeals to numbers their position has no intrinsic worth. You allow the religious to dictate the terms of the debate.

Of course, if that is your intent, then I can understand why you picked that as your working definition."

I think what you say here is almost exactly right--that is in fact how the term was historically defined and how most speakers understand the term. It's not "giving religious believers the high ground," it's just using the term as most people understand it. Well, and I also have to say that I think religious notions including the idea of a God in the abstract is not entirely valueless and without merit--I'm not sure how one could reach that conclusion without being a "strong atheist" in Dawkins' terms (which is different from how I've used it elsewhere in this comment--he uses it to mean the far right of his scale of disbelief, absolute certainty).

See my post on atheism vs. agnosticism definitions for why I think there is merit to the definition of atheism as disbelief rather than mere nonbelief. I was persuaded for many years to use atheism to mean both positive and negative atheism, which was prevalent on Usenet alt.atheism in the 1990s (using the terms strong atheism and weak atheism). But I recently have come to the conclusion that it's misleading for three reasons: (1) most atheists really are positive/strong/explicit atheists, not negative/weak/implicit atheists, (2) the implicit version isn't really a position and isn't consistent with the idea of forming groups and engaging in atheist activism, and (3) there are still about twice as many self-identified agnostics as atheists in the U.S.

rushmc said...

Well said, Mike D! Seems to sum up the whole thing for me.

rushmc said...

>>I also have to say that I think religious notions including the idea of a God in the abstract is not entirely valueless and without merit--I'm not sure how one could reach that conclusion without being a "strong atheist" in Dawkins' terms

I certainly don't see that the one follows from the other at all. What sort of "notions" are you thinking of here? Social behaviors? Because they could all be deduced WITHOUT reference to god or religious obligation.

Your three-point list at the end of your post tells me that you are a very different kind of atheist than I am (to be fair, I already knew this!). I dispute the accuracy of #1 outright and think it may be the result of sampling error. #2 is irrelevant to me, as I couldn't give a fig for "forming groups" or "atheism activism," and I think your focus in this area may be the cause of the above sampling error. Most atheists never participate in any sort of anti-god group in their entire lives. It is enough for them to go about their own lives, quietly not-believing (and maybe even disbelieving). #3 I would say has a lot to do with the way questionnaires are worded and with the strong stigma of self-identifying as an atheist than it does with actual representation.

Jim Lippard said...

Mike D wrote: "Certainly there is a distinction between skepticism and atheism, but theistic skeptics are clearly guilty of a sort of compartmentalization of their skepticism, insisting that we should be skeptical about homeopathy, irridology, astrology and whatever else, but that when it comes to deities with magic powers that perform miracles, influence people and may just cast you into hell if you don't love them... well golly, we should just "have faith" and it's off limits for skeptics!"

What's your evidence for this claim? What theistic skeptic has said that critical thinking is off limits for religion? I think, on the contrary, that many theistic skeptics would say that they have subjected their religious beliefs to skepticism and consider a cosmology with a God in it to be the best explanation of the data they have. You and I disagree with that, but there are people who know the arguments well and disagree with us, including about 7% of the members of the National Academies of Science. (This is a point Neil deGrasse Tyson made at TAM6.)

Mike D also wrote: "So to all the people whining that Skepticon was too atheistic because... GASP... 3 of the 15 talks were explicitly atheistic... I say, good riddance."

Jeff Wagg made the argument that way, but I think he was mistaken. From the schedule I saw, every talk listed with a title but one was about religion--I counted eight, not three. My complaint about Skepticon and atheism is that if a conference is primarily about atheism, it should be called an atheist conference. It's clear from this conference's history and Eberhard's motivations and intent that it has been primarily about atheism, not broader skepticism. It's fair to call an atheism conference part of the broader skeptical movement, but there's more to skepticism than skepticism of religion.

rushmc said...

>>there are people who know the arguments well and disagree with us, including about 7% of the members of the National Academies of Science

Not to nitpick (okay, maybe a nitpick), but I think it would clearly be false to assume that membership in that organization coincides perfectly with "knowing the arguments well." In fact, offhand, one might estimate there to be about a, oh, 7% difference...

>>It's clear from this conference's history and Eberhard's motivations and intent that it has been primarily about atheism, not broader skepticism.

Does the conference content represent the breakdown of participants' interests, or is the atheism topic excessively imposed in a top-down manner? This is a legitimate question, as I'm not familiar with the conference. But if one were to set up a skeptics conference and say "come present your skeptical topics" and X% turned out to be on religion-related issues, it seems to me difficult (and inappropriate) to ascribe blame (or false advertising) anywhere.

Okay, I'm shutting up now. Thanks for the enlightening exchange.

Jim Lippard said...

rushmc: My conclusion in that regard may be due to sampling error. There seems to be some contradictory data, my statement was based on a Pew Center religious affiliation study that showed the U.S. population to self-identify as 2.4% agnostic and 1.6% as atheist. I believe that's the same study that oddly found that 21% of self-identified atheists answered "yes" to the question of whether they believe in God or a higher power.

I just now came across a 2009 Pew Center study that shows larger numbers for atheists than agnostics of those who say they don't believe in God or a higher power (24% vs. 15%), though many more identify as nothing at all or as members of an organized religion (oddly enough).

I suspect it may be better to rely on the answer to the "do you believe in God or a higher power" question first, and then look at the percentages, in which case the third of my three points is mistaken.

I agree with what the "a" in atheism means, but etymology doesn't determine usage or meaning.

Jim Lippard said...

rushmc: Skepticon came about because of one guy, J.T. Eberhard, though I'm not sure if he's now built any kind of formal organization to support it. I think it's safe to say that he's the major influence on its content and direction.

Jim Lippard said...

I wrote: "I also have to say that I think religious notions including the idea of a God in the abstract is not entirely valueless and without merit--I'm not sure how one could reach that conclusion without being a "strong atheist" in Dawkins' terms."

To which rushmc replied: "I certainly don't see that the one follows from the other at all. What sort of "notions" are you thinking of here? Social behaviors? Because they could all be deduced WITHOUT reference to god or religious obligation."

I think you're correct to challenge the last part of what I said--one can make absolute statements without absolute certainty for the same reason one can be an atheist without absolute certainty. So I retract that proposed implication.

And yes, I did also have in mind the social aspects of religion, which can exist independently of a belief in God, as both humanism and other existing religious practices demonstrate.

I think it's pretty clear that there is value to parts of religion independent of belief in a deity. I would also say there's also value in the concept of a deity independent of its existence, though that has declined significantly over time, as LaPlace noted at a time when it had more value than it does today.

Xzanron said...

The "common" use of the word atheist fits my definition, not yours; i.e. lack of belief.

Ed Milliband (Leader of 2nd largest party in the UK) is an atheist (Telegraph)

Nick Clegg (Leader of the 3rd largest party in the UK, and currently Deputy Prime Minister in the coalition government) is also an atheist. (The Times)

They both call themselves atheists, and given their prominent positions it's clear by their actions and attitudes they fit my definition, not yours. In point of fact, they fail of match any of your 3 points, that you say "atheists" follow.

Perhaps this is another case of "divided by a common language", or maybe there are other reasons.

Xzanron said...

For some reason the Telegraph link isn't working, so here it is again: http://bit.ly/aX9uRO

Jim Lippard said...

Saying "I don't believe in God" or answering no to "Do you believe in God?" is potentially ambiguous between disbelief and nonbelief, but more likely reflects disbelief--a considered rejection, not an unconsidered mere lack of belief of the sort held by children who have never been presented with the concept.

Jim Lippard said...

Here's why I think atheism is more sensible defined in terms of the proposition that gods don't exist--on this definition, an argument for atheism is an argument to the conclusion that gods don't exist.

On the "lack of belief" definition, there is no such thing as an argument for atheism, because atheism in that definition isn't a position or proposition.

To put it another way--the primary reason why anyone would want to try to persuade someone to stop having a belief in God would be if they though that such a belief was false, i.e., that gods don't exist. Belief that "God exists" is false is equivalent to belief that "God does not exist" is true. Does the lack of belief definition of atheism purport that the former is false but that the latter's negation is not true?

rushmc said...

>>I think it's pretty clear that there is value to parts of religion independent of belief in a deity. I would also say there's also value in the concept of a deity independent of its existence, though that has declined

It's not at all clear to me, but I understand that there are some arguments to that effect, so say I grant you that for the moment.

It remains the case that unless the so-called positive values of religion clearly and dominantly outweigh the tremendous negative value of religion in society and in the lives of individuals (and I don't think this case can be made persuasively), then it is a net negative in the world that should be countered and diminished and replaced with non-religious mechanisms to address any previously-religious successes (e.g., charity, fellowship gatherings, intervention in the well-being of the sick and the elderly, etc.).

A secular solution is always preferable to one tainted by irrationality, superstition, and the help that comes with religious strings attached.

rushmc said...

>>On the "lack of belief" definition, there is no such thing as an argument for atheism, because atheism in that definition isn't a position or proposition.

And what I'm saying is, even if that's the case, what of it? It is not incumbent upon a person who lacks belief in something to proselytize that lack of belief to others. Therefore, a denial of god may be a better strategic position than a simple lack of belief in god, but that is a difference that isn't relevant to a lot of people. Therefore, when you say that your definition is better, I think you have to qualify it by saying that it is better for atheists who want to actively truckerconvert religious believers to atheism.

Jim Lippard said...

rushmc: I agree with your 6:24 p.m. comment.

On your last, perhaps your position is closer to "apatheism"?

If you think that part of what's wrong with religion is that it claims that gods exist, and that's probably false, then you're logically committed to the proposition that it's probably true that gods don't exist, and you're an atheist in my sense, not just in a "lack of belief" sense. Either that, or you're committed to the falsity of bivalence, or you fail to draw the logical inference and it never occurs to you to draw it.

rushmc said...

Me personally? Like the guy in your atheist/agnostic definition thread that you linked to, I am a very strong atheist (though not an absolutist) in the "belief" sense and an agnostic in the "nature of knowledge" sense.

People in general? I don't see that apatheism and atheism are mutually exclusive. And, in any case, why would you leap to the assumption that someone doesn't care whether god(s) exist(s) or not just because they don't feel the pressing need to persuade others to think the way they do? I can imagine being quite certain that there is no god and all religions have everything all wrong, and yet being quite content to keep that understanding to myself (this is NOT me, but I can easily see it, and have known people for whom this was pretty much true).

>>If you think that part of what's wrong with religion is that it claims that gods exist, and that's probably false

I think it goes a lot deeper than this. There are an infinite number of "gods" that one can imagine (and another infinity of gods that one cannot) that bear no relation to any of the gods described by religions on earth. What's wrong with religion is more than that they miss the fact that there is no god--it's that they create models of god(s) that are patently false even if there WERE gods out there.

Xzanron said...

Mark Lippard Said:
>>
Here's why I think atheism is more sensible defined in terms of the proposition that gods don't exist--on this definition, an argument for atheism is an argument to the conclusion that gods don't exist.

On the "lack of belief" definition, there is no such thing as an argument for atheism, because atheism in that definition isn't a position or proposition.
<<

You can't impose a definition, you have to accept the definition that society at large is using. Okay, you don't have to, but it just means you'll never be talking from the same basis as anyone else. Just ask the French, with their attempts to control their language, how futile it is to try and impose word meaning and usage rules on a population.

You're correct in that lack of belief is difficult to call a position, but then most of the people that consider themselves atheist don't argue a position, it's who they are. You're trying to impose a position where none exists, it's like saying not being racist is a position, or not being sexist is a position. Most people nowadays are that already. I'd go so far as to call that position the natural position (just look at kids in kindergarten, they play happily with anyone regardless of race/gender/colour).

Where atheism differs is that unlike asexist, and aracist, there is actually a word for not having a belief. It's almost impossible to define someone by something they are not because in reality it says nothing at all about them. Hence I suspect why you feel the need to try and impose some form of meaning to atheism that actually defines something where there is nothing to define. It's rather hard to argue with something that's nebulous. Atheism, just like asexist and aracist, is a passive state, not an active one. That's what the "a" prefix indicates: absence.

It's one of the hardest things about the "atheist movement", if you can even call it that, because it's almost impossible to define it's members because the only thing they have in common is something they don't have. It's like trying to define people whose only commonality is that they don't have a third leg.

I think you'll have to come up with a word that isn't already widely used to describe the "lack of belief" variant if you want people to understand what it is you're trying to address.

I believe the word for your meaning might well be anti-theist. That is in opposition to, as opposed to a-theist meaning absence of.

Jim Lippard said...

rushmc, Xzanron: What you say makes sense about people who really are quietist nonbelievers (who may not--probably don't, based on the Pew figures--even refer to or consider themselves as atheists), but I don't think it makes sense about those who self-identify as members of atheist groups.

"Anti-theist" could refer to an activist atheist (or someone who's actively against theists), but that's narrower than the definition I'm giving, which is simply anyone who has come to the conclusion that gods don't exist. I consider myself an atheist but have largely given up antitheism unless pressed for an explanation of why I'm an atheist.

I take your point, rushmc, that there are many possible gods other than the ones considered--and so I think it's quite possible to consider oneself both atheist (with respect to considered and rejected gods) and agnostic (with respect to unconsidered gods). And I agree that apatheism and atheism aren't mutually exclusive.

FreeZoneThetan said...

Your comment actually reminds me of how much Groupthink there is in 'sceptic' circles, they are 98% left-liberals who not only disagree with religion (Christianity, Scientology, what have you) but positively despise it to the point of attributing every tangetial ill of the human race to these ideas; and due to their Statist bias they can't see that most of what's attributed to religion is actually politics with a religious rationalization on top.

I prefer the term 'rationalism' to 'scepticism', since scepticism as a principle can quite naturally be taken to irrational extremes. The flipside of Ockham's Razor is, after all, that it is irrational not to believe in something which best fits the evidence and requires the least assumptions. The dedicated 'sceptic' often descends into absurd solipsist gibberish.

Of course, in the tradition of philosophy the word 'rationalist' has certain connotations I would not agree with, but so does 'anarchist'. Screw 'em, I'm taking these words back :P