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Further Thoughts on Atheism

by Daniel Loxton, Mar 05 2010

Even before I started writing Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be I knew that it would very briefly mention religion, make a mild assertion that religious questions are out of scope for science, and move on. I knew this was likely to provoke blow-back from some in the atheist community, and I knew mentioning that blow-back in my recent post “The Standard Pablum — Science and Atheism” would generate more. And, I should have realized that I was muddying the water by packaging multiple related issues together in one post: the specific wording of a passage in my book; the question of whether that passage should have been included; and, the wider question of how science and skepticism relate to atheism.

Still, I was surprised by the quantity of the responses to the blog post (208 comments as of this moment, many of them substantial letters), and also by the fierceness of some of those responses. For example, according to one poster, “you not only pandered, you lied. And even if you weren’t lying, you lied.” (Several took up this “lying” theme.) Another, disappointed that my children’s book does not tell a general youth audience to look to “secular humanism for guidance,” declared  that “I’d have to tear out that page if I bought the book.”

These reactions seem too strong, especially given that some of these same critics like the book a lot. (I noticed one outside blog post that devotes almost 1700 words to criticism of my “ridiculous reasoning,” only to conclude that Evolution “is the best children’s book on the science of evolution written.”)

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that there are not points of legitimate disagreement in the mix — there are, many of them stated powerfully. There are also statements of support, vigorous debate, and (for me at least) a good deal of food for thought. I invite anyone to browse the thread, although I’d urge you to skim some of it. (The internet is after all a hyperbole-generating machine.)

But today I’d like to concentrate on a tiny sub-topic. Some folks have referred to a “sense of betrayal” that a “prominent skeptic” would seem to distance himself from fellow atheists.

Let’s talk about that.

It happens I can relate to this reaction. I’ve felt it. Many years ago, when I was an undergraduate student and unknown Skeptic reader, I drafted a similar-sounding letter to a genuinely “prominent” skeptic I had at that time never met: Michael Shermer. I took exception to Michael’s habit of referring to himself as a “non-theist,” feeling that this left atheists like myself and my loved ones — still a tiny, much-maligned minority with few defenders — out in the cold. (I put a lot of work into that letter, but decided not to send it in the end. I recall that it was a pretty shrill. Worse, I realized I was making assumptions about his motivations, assumptions I couldn’t support. Incidentally, those curious about Michael’s nuanced position on atheism may be interested in his article “Why I Am An Atheist,” as well as this post and this Scientific American article.)

Do I Distance Myself from Atheism?

What about me? Do I distance myself from atheism? Well (and I’ll take this in order), “sort of,” and “not remotely,” and “yes.”

Sort of: Honestly, I’m a bit ambivalent about atheist activism. I’m a big fan of Richard Dawkins, and I’m very grateful that dedicated activists fight for church-state separation and the rights of non-believers, because I’m part of that constituency. Still, religion is not my area of primary interest. Furthermore, I’ll admit that after the last few days I feel a bit disconnected from the atheist movement. (I’ve seen several commenters echo this exhaustion.)

Not Remotely: Be that as it may, I am personally an atheist and a secular humanist. I am not remotely coy about this. I say this directly and frequently in public — even though I am a children’s book author, and might well be better off being circumspect. Atheistic, science-informed, rational secular humanism is the perspective through which I live my life, raise my family, and relate to my loved ones and to humanity.

I lack any belief in any deity. More than that, I am persuaded (by philosophical argument, not scientific evidence) to a high degree of confidence that gods and an afterlife do not exist.

However,

Yes, I do try to distinguish between my work as a science writer and skeptical activist on the one hand, and my personal opinions about religion and humanism on the other. There are several discrete reasons for drawing this distinction, and I want to be very clear that I’m serious about all of them. I’ll list three here, from least to most important:

  • Atheism is a practical handicap for science outreach. I’m not naive about this, but I’m not cynical either. I’m a writer. I’m in the business of communicating ideas about science, not throwing up roadblocks and distractions. It’s good communication to keep things as clear, focused, and on-topic as possible.
  • Atheism is divisive for the skeptical community, and it distracts us from our core mandate. I was blunt about this in my 2007 essay “Where Do We Go From Here?”, writing,

    I’m both an atheist and a secular humanist, but it is clear to me that atheism is an albatross for the skeptical movement. It divides us, it distracts us, and it marginalizes us. Frankly, we can’t afford that. We need all the help we can get.

    I’ve continued to emphasize this practical consideration in my work since that time. In What Do I Do Next? I urged skeptics to remember that

    there are many other skeptics who do hold or identify with some religion. Indeed, the modern skeptical movement is built partly on the work of people of faith (including giants like Harry Houdini and Martin Gardner). You don’t, after all, have to be against god to be against fraud.

    In my Skeptical Inquirer article “The Paradoxical Future of Skepticism” I argued that

    skeptics must set aside the conceit that our goal is a cultural revolution or the dawning of a new Enlightenment. … When we focus on that distant, receding, and perhaps illusory goal, we fail to see the practical good we can do, the harm-reduction opportunities right in front of us. The long view subverts our understanding of the scale and hazard of paranormal beliefs, leading to sentiments that the paranormal is “trivial” or “played out.” By contrast, the immediate, local, human view — the view that asks “Will this help someone?” — sees obvious opportunities for every local group and grassroots skeptic to make a meaningful difference.

This practical argument, that skepticism can get more done if we keep our mandate tight and avoid alienating our best friends, seems to me an important one. Even so, it is not my main reason for arguing that atheism and skepticism are different projects.

If I honestly thought atheism was in scope for skepticism, I would say so. Certainly that would save me some criticism from fellow skeptics. But I don’t. In my opinion,

  • Metaphysics and ethics are out of scope for science — and therefore out of scope for skepticism. This is by far the most important reason I set aside my own atheism when I put on my “skeptic” hat. It’s not that I don’t think atheism is rational — I do. That’s why I’m an atheist. But I know that I cannot claim scientific authority for a conclusion that science cannot test, confirm, or disprove. And so, I restrict myself as much as possible, in my role as a skeptic and science writer, to investigable claims. I’ve become a cheerleader for this “testable claims” criterion (and I’ll discuss it further in future posts) but it’s not a new or radical constriction of the scope of skepticism. It’s the traditional position occupied by skeptical organizations for decades.

A lot of the friction I encounter on this point seems to come from people who wish “skepticism” to  refer to a general rationalist outlook. There are books worth of conversation to be had there, but I’ll suggest briefly that we already have other words to mean that, words like “rationalist” or “humanist.” Scientific, investigatory skepticism is something unique and valuable. Merging skepticism with other parallel movements only diminishes that value.

Final Thoughts

In much of the commentary, I see an assumption that I must not really believe that testable paranormal and pseudoscientific claims (“I can read minds”) are different in kind from the untestable claims we often find at the core of religion (“god exists”). I acknowledge that many smart people disagree on this point, but I assure you that this is indeed what I think.

Saying that, I’d like to call out one blogger’s response to my “Standard Pablum” post. The author certainly disagrees with me (we’ve discussed the topic often on Twitter), but I thank him for describing my position fairly:

From what I’ve read of Daniel’s writings before, this seems to be a very consistent position that he has always maintained, not a new one he adopted for the book release. It appears to me that when Daniel says that science has nothing to say about religion, he really means it. I have nothing to say to that. It also appears to me that when he says skepticism is a “different project than atheism” he also means it.

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97 Responses to “Further Thoughts on Atheism”

  1. Andrew Mayne says:

    One of the most frustrating aspects of the skeptic and atheist community is how knee jerk people who profess to love objectivity can be.

    I think part of the issue is that some people don’t differentiate between religion and the *claims* that can be made by a religion. Certainly some religious claims can be tested by science (healing prayer, etc.) while other metaphysical beliefs can not be as readily tested (a prime mover etc.).

    Obviously you know that. I can’t understand how anybody reading your passage would assume you thought otherwise given the entire premise of the book.

    • Seth Manapio says:

      We think that because Daniel believes that “Metaphysics and ethics are out of scope for science — and therefore out of scope for skepticism.” This statement is not a statement of fact, and it does not differentiate between religion and the claims made by religion. The statement you are saying that we should understand Daniel to be making is closer to “There exist statements of metaphysics and ethics which are not testable in principle.” But that is not the statement he actually makes.

    • I was somewhat confused by the blog, but what you’re saying seems reasonable. You can’t test faith. People claim to feel some mysterious presence, and whether it’s god or ghosts, there is no way to disprove a feeling.

      I don’t think this puts religion outside the skeptical realm anymore than belief in ghosts is outside of skepticism. They should both be examined with the same standards.

  2. Thanks for this and your previous post – I’m often surprised at that subset of atheists who can analyze most claims and theories calmly but seem to react to a general religious belief with hostility. If there are testable parts to a religious claim and you want to evaluate them, go for it. If not, disagree on the same grounds that they are based on – philosophical and ethic ones. A few extreme cases even go so far that it’s eerily similar to some creationist arguments against evolution – “Darwin was evil, therefore evolution is a lie!” : “Religious claim X is provably false, therefore all people with any form of religious beliefs are morons!” It can really ruin an otherwise rational converstion.

    • Seth Manapio says:

      This is a wildly inaccurate caricature of what most of the commenters objecting to Daniel’s position are actually saying. These people you are talking about have not been consistently observed in this conversation.

      • It wasn’t meant to be a caricature and wasn’t in reference to this specific conversation so much as the larger issue of those at the far end of the bell curve who are the most troublesome in this kind of situation.

      • Seth Manapio says:

        I know it wasn’t meant to be a caricature. That doesn’t stop it from being one. Not only of anyone commenting here, but I suspect even of most people everywhere else. As far as I can tell, the people you describe are either a vanishingly tiny subset of skeptics whom I’ve never encountered, or you are accepting the way that religious debaters (I’m thinking Dinesh D’Sousa) describe their opponents. In either case, the real larger issue is this misrepresentation of the position that I and others take, not the position itself.

  3. badrescher says:

    I disagree. I think that saying that metaphysics is out of the scope of science is far too general a statement. That would take at least a whole blog post to discuss in detail, but I wanted to emphasize it because it seems to be the only thing you’ve said here I can find to take issue with.

    Great post. I don’t know that it will do much to settle this, but you’ve clarified your stance and your motivations nicely. I hope that others can find a way to discuss the issue as calmly and rationally as you have.

  4. CharlesP says:

    I read that skepfeeds post and found it interesting. It seems your fundamental disagreement (on this anyway) comes down to your position that religion is making untestable claims ergo we’ve got little to say on the general subject (even if there are things to be said on specific physical manifestation related beliefs). His position is that while they’re making untestable claims the burden of proof falls to them ergo we can say something on the subject (in much the way can make a preliminary judgement on a cryptozoological claim with no evidence).

    I think the two different sort of claims are hitting different problems. While some cryptozoological claim can be made without proof we can demand proof for that sort of claim because we have the tools to verify it. If religion is making a claim about an invisible pink unicorn we are fully justified in disbelieving it, but what we’re lacking is any testing framework to verify or disprove it.

    I think the need for quality scientific, and scientific thinking, education currently means that as a rule skepticism doesn’t need to fight the theist fight right now. I think we can say something to the effect that because we don’t have testing frameworks for some of these claims that they are currently out of scope, but that doesn’t mean they never will be in scope. We can test Near Death Experience claims to some degree now. Eventually we may be able to test more religious/spiritual claims, but that is something that could be tackled in Skepticism 4.0.

    Likewise I agree with (what I take to be) your point that we don’t have to have Skeptic encompass all of the various common “themes” many of our skeptical colleagues share in much the way that every skeptic doesn’t have to claim Libertarianism like Mr Shermer & Penn, some are Liberals, and though I don’t see many of them posting on the skeptic sites I assume there are “conservative” Skeptics as well.

    We are, as a species, so prone to wanting to categorize ourselves in such a way as to know who “our people” are… sometimes it’s good to remember you can share 8 of 10 opinions with somebody and that doesn’t have to make them “us” or “them” and neither of us are necessarily “wrong” (though that’s not to say that neither of us CAN be wrong, but we’re just not necessarily so).

  5. Max says:

    Grab a Jefferson Bible and start preaching.

  6. Seth Manapio says:

    According to wikipedia, “A central branch of metaphysics is ontology, the investigation into what types of things there are in the world and what relations these things bear to one another. The metaphysician also attempts to clarify the notions by which people understand the world, including existence, objecthood, property, space, time, causality, and possibility.”

    What, precisely, is out of the mix for science there?

    Likewise, ethics includes:

    “meta-ethics, about the theoretical meaning and reference of moral propositions and how their truth-values (if any) may be determined;
    normative ethics, about the practical means of determining a moral course of action;
    applied ethics, about how moral outcomes can be achieved in specific situations;
    moral psychology, about how moral capacity or moral agency develops and what its nature is; and
    descriptive ethics, about what moral values people actually abide by.”

    (again from wikipedia).

    Most, if not all of these things, are in scope for science.

    Skepticism includes several schools, including the school I identify with most strongly, Academic Skepticism, founded in ancient greece. The thinker Carneades commented extensively on theological and scientific concepts.

    Carneades also assailed Stoic theology and physics.[6] In answer to the doctrine of final cause, of design in nature, he pointed to those things which cause destruction and danger to man, to the evil committed by men endowed with reason, to the miserable condition of humanity, and to the misfortunes that assail the good man.[6] There is, he concluded, no evidence for the doctrine of a divine superintending providence.[6] Even if there were orderly connexion of parts in the universe, this may have resulted quite naturally.[6] No proof can be advanced to show that this world is anything but the product of natural forces.[6]

    (again, from wikipedia)

    What we have here is an old argument, and one in which those of us in the “Skepticism implies atheism” camp have some solid backing.

    As the person writing about the sense of betrayal, I’d like to explain that point a little further. The problem wasn’t that you were distancing yourself. It’s that you used the same words that the christian right uses, and that these words are not true.

    Science has a great deal to say about religion, ethics, metaphysics and even morality. Questions about what kind of mammals we are, the nature and origin of altruism, all of these directly address moral and ethical issues. Our understanding of brains and behavior directly addresses issues of justice, punishment, and politics.

    The skepticism that you advocate is not the skepticism that I advocate. Skepticism, for me, is a philosophical position in which science based thinking informs our lives, not where science based thinking is kept in a box, separated for arbitrary or practical reasons from politics or morality.

    And I think, really, that it is fine for you to operate in whatever context you want to, and speak about those topics which you find appropriate. However, skepticism is larger than us both, and I contend that my definition is at least as valid as yours.

  7. ruidh says:

    I’m sorry you are getting such a hard time for a very valid epistemological position. Religion has limits. Science has limits. Logic has limits. There exist true statements which can not be proved. The position that only things which can be proved are true is demonstrably false.

    • Seth Manapio says:

      “The position that only things which can be proved are true is demonstrably false.”

      Then I suppose it’s a good thing that absolutely no one involved has advocated that position.

    • Max says:

      “There exist true statements which can not be proved.”

      Too bad we can’t identify them.

      • Jim Lippard says:

        Sure we can. Take a system of first-order predicate logic that is sufficiently powerful to include the theorems of arithmetic, you can then construct a Goedel sentence for that formal system that is a true statement that cannot be proved.

      • Max says:

        Give me an example of one such sentence.

      • Seth Manapio says:

        I recommend reading Gödel’s 1931 paper for examples. Jim is 100% correct, it’s just that the point he’s making is 100% irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

      • Seth Manapio says:

        Sorry, Jim. Just realized that you didn’t make the original point!

      • MadScientist says:

        In mathematical systems we have the axioms – they are fundamental concepts which are defined and assumed to be true. In principle you should be able to build up any such system (not necessarily mathematical) and as long as it is self-consistent and consistent with any physical realities they claim to represent, then those assumptions are reasonable. Sometimes the assumptions are not quite correct – they are decent approximations which are applicable in some circumstances, but in other definable conditions they are not as valuable although not abjectly wrong. Looking at physics for example and the early equations for the emission of energy by an object at a given temperature, the Rayleigh-Jeans equation appeared to describe the phenomenon. However, when attempting to apply the equation at shorter wavelengths, the predictions were incorrect. Later work by Planck, Wien, Stefan, and Boltzmann would result in a much better model of the phenomenon. Now the fundamental difference between science and religion is that science seeks better explanations which can be demonstrated while religion seeks excuses to promulgate the same old lies, whether that is about the existence of a biblical deity or occult powers and supernatural phenomena.

  8. Jim Lippard says:

    I agree with this post up to the last bulleted item before the conclusion about topics that are supposedly “out of scope for science.”

    I agree with badrescher, Seth Manapio, and ruidh. ruidh: Yes, religion, science, and logic have limits, but they overlap in scope, contra Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA. And science can be used to address questions about how people come to have and believe religious claims even where it cannot answer the truth or falsity of the content of those claims. (And the answers to those questions can then be relevant to the plausibility of the content of those claims.)

    Seth: I agree with everything you said, though there is also “scientific skepticism” of narrower scope, and there are questions which, at least at present, are philosophical rather than scientific, and there are metaphysical questions for which there are no empirically determinable answers. Science does have some metaphysical presuppositions (e.g., contra solipsism, some kind of regularity to nature, etc.).

    badrescher: Agreed.

    I think the reasons for the skeptical movement to avoid addressing certain religious claims are mostly pragmatic, rather than because science cannot, in principle, address them. The sorts of moves that a liberal theist can make to withdraw religious claims from the realm of empirical testability are also available for other claims that are considered in scope for scientific skepticism.

    • Reed E says:

      Are you saying the decision is pragmatic because we (scientific skeptics) wish to soften our stance to appeal to the science-minded theist, or is it pragmatic because there is no investigatory traction to be held on these issues, at least at this point in time?

      • Jim Lippard says:

        The former, definitely, the latter–sort of. It’s not that there’s no investigatory traction, it’s that it’s that the weeds are deep and it’s not as likely to be productive and fruitful, particularly with regard to a goal of educating the general public.

    • Seth Manapio says:

      “Science does have some metaphysical presuppositions (e.g., contra solipsism, some kind of regularity to nature, etc.).”

      I actually don’t agree with this. I don’t think that the metaphysical presupposition that there is some kind of regularity to nature is at all necessary to science. This is a common point of view, but I think it is related to confusing our model of reality to reality itself.

      Dinesh D’Souza uses this idea in his lectures, arguing that the regularity of nature is evidence for the existence of God. Otherwise, he says, there is no reason that an electron in one part of the universe would be the same as in some other part. But if you remove the presupposition of regularity, an electron becomes nothing more than an observation of behavior in the universe, that is, when a part of the universe behaves in some way, we call that an electron.

      But electrons don’t need to ‘exist’ in order for our observation to exist, nor does order in nature. All that is necessary is for our models to contain electrons and order. Our models are more or less useful based on their predictive power.

      The fact that we have strong predictive models implies that there is some order to nature. So in fact, rather than science depending on a presupposed regularity of the universe, science is itself evidence that there is some regularity to the universe.

      • Jim Lippard says:

        There still seem to be background assumptions that are not themselves justified from the observed evidence, such as that there is an actual external world as opposed to solipsism.

        Your penultimate paragraph points out that we can still have instrumentally useful scientific models even if the entities in them don’t exist, which I agree with–but without an assumption of regularity, how can you infer that past predictive success implies future predictive success? Isn’t an inference to the best explanation implicitly including a background assumption about regularity?

      • Seth Manapio says:

        There still seem to be background assumptions that are not themselves justified from the observed evidence, such as that there is an actual external world as opposed to solipsism.

        ——-

        Not at all. I can justifiably conclude, based on sense data and internal experience, the existence of at least two entities, myself and the thing that generates the sense data.

        Regularity is not an assumption, it is a hypothesis based on observation which will be discarded it if fails to hold.

  9. qbsmd says:

    I don’t understand the distinction you’re making.

    The claim that no human has ever seen an alien spaceship isn’t testable. Any given UFO sighting can be explained, and good reasons why such a claim is improbable can be expressed. As a skeptic, I assume you’d be comfortable saying as a skeptic that there is no good evidence of aliens visiting earth.

    The claim that no one has ever seen a ghost isn’t testable. Any alleged haunting can be explained and good reasons why the survival of a mind past death is improbable can be expressed. I assume you’d be comfortable saying as a skeptic that there is no good evidence that ghosts exist.

    The claim that no one anywhere has psychic powers (reading minds, seeing the future or dead people, or psychokinetic abilities) isn’t testable. Any particular psychic can be debunked and good reasons why such abilities are improbable can be expressed. I assume you’d be comfortable saying as a skeptic that there is no good evidence for psychic abilities.

    The claim that some form of god exists isn’t testable. The claims of any particular religion can be refuted (the efficacy of prayer, scientific or historical passages in holy books, alleged miracles, alleged proofs of god, etc.) and good reasons why any theistic religions are improbable can be expressed. Yet you are not comfortable saying as a skeptic that a god is improbable.

    I understand your first two points, which are basically political. I really don’t understand the third. I understand why people can see it as special pleading.

  10. Jim says:

    I guess I feel obligated to respond since you linked to my post in the beginning of this response. The first thing that needs to be addressed is your quote of “ridiculous reasoning” from my post. That was in reference to a particular argument you made:

    It has long struck me as strange that atheists and religious fundamentalists share an assumption that atheism and acceptance of evolution are the same thing. This assumption is, at least in demographic terms, incorrect. Discussions about public attitudes toward evolution typically neglect a remarkable fact:

    In North America, most of the people who accept evolution are religious.

    Well, that is ridiculous reasoning. To quote myself, “the mere fact that a majority of people hold two positions does not mean those positions are coherent with one another.” You didn’t respond to that, and I don’t see how you could your position. It’s just a terrible argument. I wish you hadn’t made it, but there it is. Chris Mooney has the habit of making a similar argument, and he’s been picked on so often about it that he guest-authored a Jesus and Mo comic where he made fun of the argument himself (http://www.jesusandmo.net/2010/01/22/deny/).

    That said, it’s clear that I didn’t label everything you said as “ridiculous,” which is the impression you give from your reference of my post. At the same time, you make the point that I spent some 1700 words addressing this issue, which should suggest that I think this is something worth considering, not something that is simply “ridiculous reasoning.”

    Next, you write,

    I know that I cannot claim scientific authority for a conclusion that science cannot test, confirm, or disprove. And so, I restrict myself as much as possible, in my role as a skeptic and science writer, to investigable claims.

    Great. If you bothered to read my post, you’d know that I say the same thing. Only, as it turns out, lots of religious claims are, in fact, testable. In that light, your assertion from the book that “science as a whole has nothing to say about religion” is simply wrong. Worse, your claim that “Your family, friends and community leaders are the best people to ask about religious questions” is just weird, and this is for obvious reasons, as I explained in my post. If these are claims beyond the scope of evidence and the reason available to science, it is entirely unclear on why friends and family are “the best people to ask” when it comes to those kinds of issues. Why would you think they have anything of merit to say at all? How did you determine that they were the best ones to ask those questions? If you are not, as you explicitly claim, pandering, then what reason do you have to think that everyone’s friends and family, meaning everyone in the world, since everyone is someone’s friend or family, are the best people to ask? You don’t answer that question at all, and it’s integral to the issue you’ve raised.

    And that’s the big problem here. You raised this issue in your book. It didn’t need to be there. It makes little sense to put it there. As I said in the closing of my post, “This stuff isn’t that hard. You should keep religion out of science. That isn’t just true for creationists; it’s true for everyone.” That’s what you’ve missed. You say you want science out of religion, but you injected religion into science. That’s the problem.

    All that said, one paragraph doesn’t ruin an entire book, and I wouldn’t have said anything about it if you hadn’t attempted to defend it as you did. Your suggestion that those who are frustrated with this single out-of-place paragraph are somehow contradicting themselves by recommending your book is plain odd.

    • Jim adds some additional comments over at his blog, here. I can’t say we’re liable to agree on these points, but I certainly appreciate the thoughtful feedback — and that title totally cracks me up.

  11. Alessa says:

    Your contribution to science and literature is much appreciated, and I don’t think you need to defend yourself more than you already have. I value such books and am grateful to all skeptics: from the “militant” to the softer voices of reason.

    All the best on your future endeavors.

  12. qbsmd says:

    Jim,
    “Chris Mooney has the habit of making a similar argument, and he’s been picked on so often about it that he guest-authored a Jesus and Mo comic where he made fun of the argument himself”

    CM didn’t make fun of himself. The J&M authors regularly refer to their sources of inspiration as “guest scriptwriters”, linking to whatever posts they’re parodying.
    I had never noticed it before, but that statement seemed so out of character for him that I had to look into it. I was prepared to have a whole new respect for him.

    • Jim says:

      It looks like you’re right. My mistake. I too thought it was pretty cool that was willing to poke fun at himself. Oh well. I should have known better.

  13. Skepacabra says:

    Skeptics need to stop acting so surprised by the inevitable backlash when addressing this sensitive issue. It’s like whenever a skeptic acts surprised that mentioning Adam Smith has caused half the room to suddenly look at them like they’ve got three heads.

    Outside of the practicality that Dawkins described in the “For Good Reason” episode, I do not see the appeal of NOMA-like position or how it can be seriously regarded by skeptics as anything other than special pleading. As I’ve pointed out in the comments of the last post, all true believers eventually move the goalpost to an unfalsifiable position. And yet nobody debates whether or not we should be challenging homeopathy, psychics, anti-vaxxers, ghosts, etc, which in their current form, are no more falsifiable than religious positions because of decades or centuries of goalpost moving. The one actually smart thing Dinesh D’Souza ever said was calling the agnostic label “pretend neutrality.” Now of course I disagree about it being “pretend” because I think most of us really are agnostic, but I do think the label is thrown around more as a tactic than anything else.

    I like Massimo Pigliucci take on this issue on the Gotham Skeptic blog:
    http://www.nycskeptics.org/blog/one-more-on-the-relationship-between-atheism-and-skepticism/

  14. MadScientist says:

    “… and, the wider question of how science and skepticism relate to atheism”

    I call a red herring. You may have correlations, and some may say that science or skepticism drove them to being godless, but I don’t see how it can make any sense to talk about a relationship there. Some scientists are religious, many skeptics are religious – so what? That is trivial and uninteresting. What people like myself don’t understand is why people bother to mention religion at all when they present science (well, except in the cases where people want to show how religion’s got things all wrong). With the NCSE for example, a long running argument is about dropping phrases like “science and religion are compatible” and not mentioning religion at all. If someone asks, the NCSE should simply say that religious beliefs are a personal choice and that the NCSE will not comment on religious matters nor seek to influence religious beliefs.

    • Seth Manapio says:

      I disagree with the premise but agree with the conclusion. When we’re discussing science, unless a specific religious claim directly conflicts with a specific scientific claim, there’s no reason to discuss religion as a topic at all.

      • Skepacabra says:

        I agree that the NCSE should avoid mentioning religion at all. And though I admit to having not read the book, I think Daniel shouldn’t have addressed it at all. That’s far more preferable than going out of his way to push this old canard that science and religion are not in conflict and can coexist peacefully without compartmentalization.

        Are there religions that don’t conflict with science? Maybe a few. But let’s face it. The main religions in the world are undeniably founded on beliefs that directly disagree with science. Hell, the Bible is more scientifically inaccurate than every Michael Bay movie ever made before you even get to Genesis 1:2.

      • …though I admit to having not read the book, I think Daniel shouldn’t have addressed it at all.

        One of my arguments is that the section is in context within the structure of the book.

      • Seth Manapio says:

        There have been two basic criticisms of this section. The first is that if you actually believe that gods and religion are out of scope for science, there was no reason to put them in the book. The second concerns the content of the section, and is not related to the structure or context of the book.

        This section contains statements that are false and contradicted by the content of the book itself. These facts about the section are strong evidence in favor of the argument that you should have left it out, whether it was in context or not.

      • NightHiker says:

        I think an interesting analogy in regard to even mentioning religion while having the overall objective (explicit or not) of undermining its hold on people is comparing this with campaigns against smoking that show cigarettes. It doesn’t matter what the ads actually say – as soon as people who are addicted look at the cigarette they’ll feel the urge to smoke. Its hold on people goes beyond reasoning, and it’s not much unlike religion’s hold on people – one could say they are addicted to the comfort it brings to them.

        So, in the same way that if you want people to stop smoking it will be much more efficient to first take care of what makes them need it in the first place(something to substitute for the nicotine addiction), if you want people to let go of religion you should simply try to teach them how to reason, without bringing religion up all the time and actually reinforcing it’s synaptic pathways.

        And that’s also why I think the ever increasingly common ads about atheism are not only a waste of already small resources, but counter-productive. What the people paying for them expect? Do they think people will look at them and think “Hey, that ad is cool, look, there’s a DNA spiral behind the word “Atheism” – I guess I’ll become an atheist after I come back from the anti-vaxx protest”?

  15. George Blovingsock says:

    I find this reaction very disappointing, because apparently you didn’t try to understand and take to heart the comments you read. And then you go off into a subtopic that is probably minor compared to the real issue. Please read that comment thread again, this time slowly, and make an effort to understand what people are saying.

    • Skepacabra says:

      Yeah, I thought it was a bit of a straw man for him to pick out the most irrational comments without also addressing the more rational ones.

  16. Peter Brown says:

    I hope this is not over simplifying things but it seems to me that while it would be quite easy to construct a set of religious beliefs that legitimately have nothing to do with science, that’s not what the vast majority of religious believers have done. Thus, Mr. Loxton’s wording is only true in a small number of cases; so small as to be virtually irrelevant.

  17. John Draeger says:

    Daniel,

    When you insert a link to my comment in your post, and misrepresent part of what I wrote, I feel obliged to respond. For those who didn’t read my comment to Daniel’s previous post, click on Daniel’s “Another” link, and please read my further clarification for those who replied.

    I wasn’t suggesting that you tell your audience of mostly children to look to secular humanism for guidance; I was saying that it would be better than telling them to look to religious dogma. I think it would be better not to make a statement about religion OR secular humanism. That’s why is suggested you leave the section out if there’s a 2nd edition printed. I apologize for stating that I’d have to tear out that page – perhaps that was going a bit far – we shouldn’t be ripping pages out of science books like the creationists do with Darwin’s work.

    You mention the modern skeptical movement is built on the work of Harry Houdini. True, but he’s long dead so he can’t inform the MODERN skeptical movement on how to proceed now. And nobody is saying that deists or Christians can’t be part of the skeptical community, but it must be recognized that their view goes against the consensus. To suggest or act as if their view is as valid as that of the consensus is to be an accomodationist in my opinion. BTW, I’m an agnostic atheist just like Shermer, but most people don’t even know what that means so it’s more practical to support atheism as the conclusion supported by science.

    How do you not see the religious claims as fraud? Religious leaders are frequently in the news making outrageous and very harmful statements (Pat Robertson), and many go to jail for their actions (although not nearly enough of them). To claim that Jesus rose from the dead and still lives is fraud. Millions – even billions – put money in collection plates to support this fanciful story. What? You say the churches are not profit-making machines? Ever been to a mega-church or looked at cathedral lately? There’s fraud on a colossal scale. To teach people to fear things that don’t exist, and to believe in an everlasting reward that doesn’t exist, and devote their lives to these teachings above all else (even scientific evidence) – that’s a pretty harmful cultural meme I’d say. To leave out criticism for religious claims and concentrate on small fry is to skirt the main skeptical issue of our times. To stop trying to make “big picture” changes is apathetic is seems to me.

    The claim that there are gods that can/are doing miraculous things is a testable hypothesis like any other claim. It can and is being studied scientifically. Sure, there are some dictionary definitions that place all paranormal and supernatural claims outside the boundary of science, but I think those are clearly wrong. Even if thousands of people claim to see a vision of the Virgin Mary, that’s a testable claim would you not agree? Turns out science has a good explanation for that (mass delusion) just like all the other claims of religions. The evidence points to a clear answer, and that’s what should be supported no matter how many people don’t like it.

    SCIENTIFIC SKEPTICISM MUST INCLUDE RATIONALISM and good philosophical argumentation (as in critical thinking); it’s more than just science, otherwise why not just call it the scientific movement?

    “I acknowledge that many smart people disagree on this point, but I assure you that this is indeed what I think.”

    Daniel, it is my contention that what you indeed think is indeed wrong. No doubt I’m wrong about some things too, and I want people to tell me I’m wrong and make their case with scientific evidence and good philosophical arguments. I change my mind all the time; this is the hallmark of a good skeptic in my opinion. In general, the consensus view is the right one. In this case the consensus view is that you are wrong – religious claims are no different than claims of ghosts. We can use scientific methods and critical thinking to test both.

    • The claim that there are gods that can/are doing miraculous things is a testable hypothesis like any other claim.

      These are two distinct claims. Gods that can act but don’t are clearly outside our ability to test.

      • Seth Manapio says:

        Gods that can act but don’t are not distinguishable from gods that simply can’t act, at least from a skeptical perspective. But the main point, this quibble aside, is that if a believer makes a claim about a god that does act, ever, this is an empirical claim and in range for skepticism.

      • John Draeger says:

        Yes, technically you are right, but nobody believes in such a god. Anyway, the burden of proof lies with the believer in that case. Even the deistic god had to at least start our universe, or the 1st universe of many–at least one supernatural act. Cosmologists are testing that hypothesis, at least using computer models and mathematics.

        As philosopher Daniel Dennett has said repeatedly, religious claims should not get special treatment by the skeptical community or by broader society. I think we can respect people without respecting their nonsensical beliefs.

  18. Brian M says:

    I saw James Randi on a (I think) larry king live, where he was talking to Sylvia brown or one of her publicists. They made an issue out of his “not being godly”, saying, he cannot critique her. We need to realize that arguments like that one are pretty powerful to the general populous. We cannot adequately defend against that using sound bites that are digestible to the news watching audience. So on that point, I agree, it is just too much of a practical hurdle that we should try to avoid.

    On the other hand, I whole heartedly disagree that science says nothing about religion, or god’s existence. It does say something, and it says a lot. Science doesn’t say god exists, so science does say god doesn’t exist. Its like saying there is a loch ness monster. You can argue all day that its ephemeral, and can change form, etc etc, but we still see no evidence of ol’ nessie. Science says nessie does not exist in the same way it says god does not exist. If there is no plausible reason for something to exist, science directly claims that said thing does not exist. This wishy washy, “doesn’t say anything about that” is Bull.

    So, in summary, we shouldn’t be pushing these other questions, simply because the more important questions to there here and now need to be heard, and limiting the backlash is a good thing. But you have made it abundantly clear that you don’t believe that, which is why you are getting such a large backlash against you. We agree on the solution, but we disagree on the problem.

    • Seth Manapio says:

      “Science doesn’t say god exists, so science does say god doesn’t exist.”

      Or, more subtly, science says that god has not been observed to exist and that there is no necessity that god exist.

  19. NightHiker says:

    Daniel:”In much of the commentary, I see an assumption that I must not really believe that testable paranormal and pseudoscientific claims (“I can read minds”) are different in kind from the untestable claims we often find at the core of religion (“god exists”). I acknowledge that many smart people disagree on this point, but I assure you that this is indeed what I think.”

    I have no doubts this is an honest mistake. It’s a mistake because you’re comparing a specific claim regarding telepathy with a general claim regarding the existence of God. You can test the claim “I can read minds” as much as you can test the claim “The God of the old Testament exists”. Two specific claims. Now, in the same way you can’t test the claim “God exists”, you can’t test the claim “I can read minds, but only when no one is trying to test it”. One might think such claim to be different from “god exists”, but it’s not – and it becomes clear when you understand that the only instances where god might exist is when we are not really able to test it.

    If you frame claims from any supernatural belief system in the same way, there’s no difference. Again, you only find it different in regard to religion and other supernatural claims because you introduced artificial differences on your special pleading regarding religion.

  20. Allison says:

    Honestly, aren’t all trying to fight dogma and intolerance?

    There are certain things in this world that we can scientifically prove – like the age of the Earth. There are other things that we can not prove – like the existence (or non-existence) of a god/gods. Barring the unlikely event that god actually shows up, we aren’t going to be able to prove/disprove his/her existence/non-existence in the foreseeable future.

    If those of us who don’t have traditional Judeo-Christian views of God can’t accept the fact that others don’t believe what we do and that’s okay, we are no better than the Creationists.

    • Seth Manapio says:

      You miss the point and caricature the position. The discussion is not about accepting other people’s beliefs, it’s about being whether skepticism has anything to say at all about religion, and whether or not we need to pretend that there is no conflict between any science and any religion when discussing science.

      • Allison says:

        I’m not saying that there is no conflict between any science and any religion. I’m saying that there is no conflict between any science and all religion.

        I wasn’t replying to the train of discussion after the original post; I just don’t see a conflict in being scientist, skeptic, or atheist and the statement “religious questions are out of scope for science” made in the children’s evolution book. If Daniel Loxton’s intent was simply that science can’t prove or disprove religious beliefs, I don’t understand what some found so threatening about that statement. It seems that many of the readers excoriating Daniel for that statement would have preferred he had taken the stance that science disproves belief in religion, which seems to me to be a position of intolerance.

      • Seth Manapio says:

        “I’m saying that there is no conflict between any science and all religion.”

        In which case we agree. You’re completely wrong about what people have said they would have preferred Daniel do. The truth, what people have actually said, is that they would have preferred he not mention religion at all rather than claim that science, as a whole, has nothing to say at all about any religion (a statement you claim to disagree with).

  21. RickK says:

    As long as religion stays out of the natural world, then it is untestable by science. So as long as religion has no impact on anything (like Karen Armstrong’s version of God), it can happily co-exist with science. As soon as God(s) start doing stuff, though, religion enters the territory of science and is subject to the laws of the land.

  22. Daniel says:

    Of course there is a difference between testable but false existence claims and untestable existence claims. The latter are not /false/, but they are meaningless. We just have no authority to establish existence claims which are *in principle* untestable. The word “God” fails to refer, because the alleged entity is *defined* to be outside the physical realm. Everything that is physical is testable *in principle*. Therefore it is just dishonest to claim that there is something beyond the physical. Our whole language, even our thinking is bound to the physical realm. The non-physical is just the denied physical. We can deny all sort of things, but in some cases it just doesn’t make sense. Of course, not everything is physical. Numbers are not. But they do not exist in the first place. Existence, Being, Thing — all these words make perfect sense if we refer to physical. But every other usage is necessary metaphorical or meaningless.

  23. Trimegistus says:

    The dogmatic, intolerant atheists in these comments are dooming skepticism. For a great many people, religion is of primary importance. By throwing down the gauntlet and claiming that one MUST be an atheist in order to be a skeptic, you risk the vast majority saying “all right, then” and abandoning skepticism.

    One almost gets the feeling that’s what a lot of these ultra-purists want. They can have their little inside group and look down their noses at all the un-enlightened boobs outside.

    • Seth Manapio says:

      Good thing that the vast majority of the people commenting could not possibly, under any definition of dogmatic or intolerant, be considered either. Except you, of course.

  24. NightHiker says:

    I don’t care about atheism as a label. Atheism is only a worthy position if achieved from the skeptical perspective. Bill Maher, to cite just one example, is an atheist and is a conspiracy theory nut. I certainly don’t feel I am in the same group he is just because we both have no beliefs in gods, and will probably side with most religious people before I ever side with him.

    And what is the deal with all this name calling and distortion going on those on the NOMA side? It seems they’re so intent on defending the religious’ right to sport their particular brands of cognitive dissonance they’re even adopting the latter’s strategies… I’m still waiting to see ONE logically consistent, non-contradictory, sound and relevant argument defending the alledged “non-overlaping” magisteria ideal in both these threads, and this unfortunately includes Daniel.

    I’d love to see someone actually answer to many of the arguments sported here by several people without misrepresenting our positions or simply digressing into irrelevant issues. Any takers?

  25. Tressa says:

    Skepticism is a process (journey) not an outcome (destination) and can no more be synonymous with Atheism (outcome, destination) than it can be with Evolution (outcome, destination) but it can be synonymous with critical thinking/reason (processes/journeys).

  26. mikekoz68 says:

    I disagree that this topic is divisive to skeptics, since skeptics arrive at their conclusions through the evidence, “believers” are not skeptics and therefore not divisive to the community anymore than “dowsers” or “ghost whisperers” etc.

  27. James Walker says:

    I am not going to try to address the specific points raised here. My response is more general.

    I’m new to the skeptical community. I’ve been turned off by religious dogma because I feel that pretty much every group that you can call an “ism” are pretty much set in their mindsets and no amount of debate can change their minds. Well, from what I have seen of many of the more intense responses to this issue you’ve raised in “The Standard Pablum — Science and Atheism”, these responses aren’t any different from those from other ‘isms’. Feelings out outrage, betrayal that their sacred beliefs (yes, and I mean scared) have been somehow questioned or betrayed.

    I’ve become involved in the skeptical community because I hope that it can help to free people from the clutches of “isms” and dogmatic beliefs. A way of thinking that values diversity, free thought and open debate, and personal liberty. Instead I find the exact same type of people and mode of thought that made me abandon organized religion.

    Hardcore or radical atheism, in my view, is no different than any other dogmatic religious belief system. Maybe we should start calling these people fundamental atheists?

    • NightHiker says:

      “Maybe we should start calling these people fundamental atheists?”

      You mean, as opposed to atheists who lack fundamental understanding of the issues being discussed, but want to pitch in anyway just to complain about how intolerant OTHER people are?

    • Seth Manapio says:

      “Feelings out outrage, betrayal that their sacred beliefs (yes, and I mean scared) have been somehow questioned or betrayed.”

      Let me see if I understand your position here. You seem to be saying that it is only possible for someone who is a dogmatist to feel betrayed or experience outrage, whereas real skeptics are robots, devoid of human feeling and unmoved by the actions of others? Is it your contention that it is impossible to experience outrage unless you have a sense of the sacred?

      And what are these “sacred beliefs” of which you speak? Where is the outrage? Who has expressed it, and how does it relate to their “sacred beliefs”? It seems to me that you don’t have a terribly clear understanding of the content of what has actually been written, but perhaps I am wrong. What you are saying is a common canard, but it is extremely rare, if not unheard of, for someone to be able to defend it. So I’m quite interested in your defense of this position.

    • John Greg says:

      James Walker said:

      Well, from what I have seen of many of the more intense responses to this issue you’ve raised in “The Standard Pablum — Science and Atheism”, these responses aren’t any different from those from other ‘isms’.

      Actually, the responses, benign, angry, and intense, to Daniel’s posts are quite different than what I assume you refer to when you refer to the other isms, in that they, the responses that is, include rational, generally well argued examples and instances backing up their content.

      James Walker also said:

      Feelings out outrage, betrayal that their sacred beliefs (yes, and I mean scared) have been somehow questioned or betrayed [sic].

      Sacred? What’s sacred? No one on either side of this argument here at Skepticblog has argued for any kind of sacred untouchability or sublime and perfect flawlessness in their argument. They have for the most part simply pointed out with clarity and conviction why and where they feel Daniel has erred — and for that matter, where he has got it right.

      At any rate, that’s how I see it.

  28. Luke says:

    After a few episodes of rather long and sometimes contentious “debates” with fellow atheist over particular points (especially the claims that “science can falsify the supernatural” & “science can study the supernatural” & “supernatural phenomena are within the realm of science”) I simply have recused myself from participating on certain forums. The end for me finally came when a poster, one Steve Zara, declared my argument amounted to racism and furthered his point by saying it threatened secularism in general. I have come to strongly think a kind of “atheistic apologia” has emerged over the past few years.

  29. tiredofthefighting says:

    Dead on….I’m finding that identification with the militant atheists is hurting the skeptical movement, and making me awfully annoyed to be around them.

    Neuroscience tells us that most humans are hard-wired to believe in the supernatural. That fact alone should be enough to make us understand that a cold rational demand (yes, it’s a demand in semantic terms) to drop these beliefs is doomed to fail. People will simply not be argued out of what they were never argued into in the first place. The dropping of supernatural beliefs is not going to happen because of a superior logical argument. That only hardens the irrational positions that most of us monkeys hold. But an introduction to science and a slow accumulation of facts in tension with belief is quite effective…over a long time.

    My grandfather was a Baptist preacher…my father was (although the term had not been invented), basically a “guided evolution” kind of guy…he taught me to understand and respect the science, likely not realizing that it would eventually crowd out the religious beliefs he nominally believed in. I’m a non-Theist, and active in keeping Creationism out of our schools. It didn’t happen because someone lectured and ranted on atheism; it happened because someone taught me about science.

    If we focus on “fighting religion”, we are slamming our head against the way people think; if we teach science we undermine those beliefs much more effectively.

    • Seth Manapio says:

      “If we focus on “fighting religion”, we are slamming our head against the way people think; if we teach science we undermine those beliefs much more effectively.”

      Statements like that just give ammunition to the religious right. It’s that position that allows guys like Glenn Beck to say things similar to “They say they want to teach science, but they really want to teach atheism.” Because that’s what your saying: your target is the church but you want to take a different route.

      So now we’re just arguing tactics.

      The question actually isn’t whether we should focus on religion, it’s whether skepticism and science can address questions of a religious or political nature. Daniel would have us stay completely out of politics, ethics, justice and religion. Those of us on the other side would not. That doesn’t make us ‘militant’ any more than it makes him ‘militant’.

      • tiredofthefighting says:

        Sigh. No, Daniel didn’t say you had to stay out of politics, ethics, etc…he chose not to do it in HIS book. You are reading way to much into it.

        Directly targeting religion is ignoring human nature and therefore pointless. Teaching science leads to people who understand science, whether or not they are atheists. As a side effect, some of them will question religion…but the more important thing is that they understand science. I’m not saying the goal is to make everyone an atheist, but if that is your goal, that will happen more often with a basic science education than a direct “refutation” of religion. Most people are not logically functioning robots who can coolly weigh the facts and switch off the religion chips.

        As to whether science can address religion, that is totally out of the scope of a kids book meant for general readership in a mostly religious society. To keep harping on it and accusing Daniel of attempting to “force” you to ignore the question is to use a Beckian tactic, and it divides us.

        I’m done here. I have to agree with one of the other posters that my fellow atheists are often unpleasant to be around.

      • Seth Manapio says:

        “Daniel didn’t say you had to stay out of politics, ethics, etc…he chose not to do it in HIS book. You are reading way to much into it.”

        Daniel Loxton Said: ‘Metaphysics and ethics are out of scope for science — and therefore out of scope for skepticism.’

        So in fact, he did say that.

        “As to whether science can address religion, that is totally out of the scope of a kids book meant for general readership in a mostly religious society. ”

        No kidding. That’s why Daniel shouldn’t have claimed that “science as a whole has nothing to say about religion” in his book, directly putting him at odds with what you claim to believe.

    • Justin says:

      “Neuroscience tells us that most humans are hard-wired to believe in the supernatural. That fact alone should be enough to make us understand that a cold rational demand (yes, it’s a demand in semantic terms) to drop these beliefs is doomed to fail.”

      In that case, we ought to give up the skeptic thing altogether. Humans are prone to all kinds of errors in perception, reasoning, and memory. People don’t tend to get argued-in to anything stupid, be it alt-med, Sarah Palin or Jesus. If people are indeed hard-wired for supernatural belief (and I doubt there is a wide consensus on that point), it puts us in a better position to dismiss it, just as we’re able to dismiss pareidolia, the disproportionate influence of anecdotes over data, and the fundamental attribution error.

      • annoyedtoo says:

        I think that what they meant was that people may change their own minds if given enough information, but they do it on their own, not because someone says “OK, I’ve logically shown you why the religion you’ve believed your whole life is false”, now reject it. I’m waiting…ok, you’re an irrational loser.” It takes time and lots of patience…and is the only way to do it. You guys want to just demand everyone change overnight and some of us think that’s unrealistic.

        I guess it comes down to a choice of being doctrinally pure (Getting in their faces and calling them fools) or effective (slowly showing people why their beliefs might not be so solid and teaching them how science works…correcting a lifetime of lazy thinking one bit at at a time). I was delivered from religion the second way, and saw loads of people simply shut out the people who tried the first way.

        So don’t give up, but realize it’s usually a long process. It’s possible to point out gently that there is no evidence for homeopathy or ghosts, rather than just laughing and saying “That’s bullshit, what’s wrong with you?”. The latter is more fun and lets you feel superior, but the first actually has a chance at working.

      • Seth Manapio says:

        I guess it comes down to a choice of being doctrinally pure (Getting in their faces and calling them fools)…

        ———-

        Good grief, annoyed. No one here has advocated getting in people’s faces and calling them fools. All we’ve said is that religion, ethics, and politics are in scope for skepticism. The choice you are presenting there is just a story you are making up.

        The choice is between acknowledging that skeptical inquiry can in fact be brought to bear on political, ethical, and religious issues or denying that fact. “Doctrinal purity” has nothing to do with it, there’s no doctrine to ascribe to.

        The only person presenting a doctrine is in fact Daniel Loxton, who wants us to accept his opinion that ethics and metaphysics are our of scope for science and skepticism. My problem with that opinion is that it is in fact at odds with the definitions of ethics and metaphysics and with the actual questions being addressed by scientists.

      • Justin says:

        I think you’re setting up a false dichotomy. I don’t think being an honest and consistent skeptic requires being disrespectful of others, or expecting to win them over immediately.

        I think it’s more disrespectful to give the message, “Well, I’m too rational to believe in God, but it’s okay if you aren’t. I just don’t want you to hurt yourself with your stupidity.”

        Honestly, I wouldn’t advocate for directly attacking religious beliefs in most cases. I just don’t see any reason to give them a special status. It sends the message that it’s okay to exclude beliefs from scrutiny as long as those beliefs are central to your personal identity or worldview. It de-fangs the skeptic and reduces him/her from a disciplined and careful thinker to an annoying know-it-all.

  30. uriah'sheap says:

    This debate depresses me. We have here a fantastic book that teaches kids about evolution (the only good one I’ve ever seen), and all the skeptic community can do is tear it down and cast the author into the outer darkness because of the one paragraph that might actually get it into our schools. Nice going, you cold rational morons. Way to encourage science…damn it for not being an Atheist Primer.

    If I were Dan, I’d probably not bother to write any other books. After all, if they don’t start with the sentence “If you believe in God, you’re a f***ing moron”, they are insufficiently hardcore to pass muster.

    Although I don;t believe in God, I really despise being around otehr atheists…they’re just so fundamentalist in their non-beliefs.

    • John Greg says:

      uriah’sheap said:

      … all the skeptic community can do is tear it down and cast the author into the outer darkness because of the one paragraph that might actually get it into our schools.

      That is a complete misrepresentation of the argument. Most of the folks here who are uncomfortable with Daniel’s so-called pandering paragraph are also praising the book overall. No one is damning the entire book at all.

      The rest of your post is equally fallacious. Get your facts straight before posting inaccurate nonsense.

    • Seth Manapio says:

      “After all, if they don’t start with the sentence “If you believe in God, you’re a f***ing moron”, they are insufficiently hardcore to pass muster.”

      This is total bs, uriah. No one has suggested anything of the kind. What has been suggested is that the absolutist position presented by Daniel Loxton, that science and skepticism have nothing to say about any religion, is simply not a statement of fact, and that the book would have been better off with no mention of religion at all.

      That isn’t calling anyone anything, it isn’t disrespectful of anything, it doesn’t involve calling anyone a moron, and it certainly isn’t casting anyone into the outer darkness. It seems to me that the person who actually does these things is you. You’re the one building the strawman, you’re the one who makes the unwarranted and baseless assumption that science books won’t get into libraries without mentioning religion, you’re the one talking about despising the company of people who don’t agree with you and calling them morons.

  31. NightHiker says:

    NH:”I’d love to see someone actually answer to many of the arguments sported here by several people without misrepresenting our positions or simply digressing into irrelevant issues. Any takers?”

    I guess not.

  32. Cthandhs says:

    Thanks Daniel, great post.

    I don’t get it, there are plenty of maybe true, totally non-testable statements out there (i.e. “alien life exists that cannot/will not communicate with humans” or “dark matter provides the force that causes an ever expanding universe”). Why do we get hung up on the existence/non-existence of an originator entity? As long as don’t say that the entity is doing something testable, like sleeping in a crypt under the sea, or snacking on dudes, what does it matter to skepticism in general?

    • Seth Manapio says:

      But they do say that. Constantly. And then they base policy on it. On top of which, there is no reason in the world why skepticism shouldn’t discuss religious issues or supernatural issues of any kind.

  33. Nicole G says:

    Thanks again, Daniel, for another well-written and much needed post on this subject. This issue goes beyond just the few paragraphs in your book to the skeptical movement in general. I care less about the philosophical nuances of the existence or non-existence of a creator, and more about the real harm done by fundamentalists pushing religiously-based legislation or anti-vaccination activists pushing their brand of pseudoscience. I’m glad that you, too, think it’s okay to be an atheist that just doesn’t care much to argue or think about religion. I’d rather not bog down good skeptical outreach with a question that can’t be well-tested.

    • Seth Manapio says:

      Actually, he doesn’t say that at all, Nicole. You’ve co-opted what he did say into what you want him to have said. What he actually said, in this post and others, is that skeptics don’t have any business talking about religious or political topics. Forbidding areas of discourse and presuming to proscribe the ‘correct’ realms of skeptical inquiry are a long, long way from simply thinking that ‘it’s okay to be an atheist who doesn’t care much to argue or think about religion.’

      I would agree with the latter statement. I think it’s okay for Daniel to talk or not talk about religion precisely as he chooses. Where he and I disagree is that I don’t think it’s okay for him to use factually incorrect statements about the scope of religion and science to justify that personal decision and attempt to apply it as a principle that constrains skeptical conversation.

      • Nicole G says:

        Uh, read the section on “Sort of.” He DOES say that, and that struck a chord with me. Problem with that?

      • Nicole G says:

        Also, where he does point out that it’s doing skeptical outreach a disservice to constantly link it with atheism, I agree with that as well. So no, I’m co-opting anything just because I don’t agree with you.

      • Seth Manapio says:

        It’s not that you don’t agree with me, it’s that you don’t agree with Daniel. If you read what he says in more detail, he’s been very clear here an in other places: it isn’t constantly linking skepticism to atheism that he disagrees with, it’s ever linking the two. And I do, actually, have a problem with that.

  34. Martin H says:

    Maybe this is all over my head. But I just don’t understand how supernatural claims can have skepticism applied to them, but a supernatural god cannot. I just don’t see the difference.

    Furthermore when people say prove this or prove that, in my ignorance I can only think of one subject where I can prove or disprove anything and that is Mathematics. Skepticism doesn’t have to prove or disprove anything but it can always speak to the probability of the existence of things. Can it not?

    The way I look at it, you can no more disprove ghosts than you can disprove god. But you can certainly speak to the probability of their existence. I find this line of reasoning utterly compelling. Can someone point me to somewhere that would make me less compelled by this reasoning?

  35. Richard says:

    I am grateful for people like you, Chris Mooney, and Michael Shermer because you are a counterbalance to the loud voices of the new atheists. Thanks.

  36. Nicole G says:

    Seth, I’ve run out of replies in our column there. Also, I noticed that what I wrote last night didn’t make sense with a missing “not” but you got what I was saying anyway!

    But is it so bad to keep them separate? Like mentioned in the post, you put on your “skeptic hat” or “atheist hat” when doing outreach? I think it’s useful to do that with pure science outreach, and it may be so for skepticism as well. I think Loxton’s book is more of the former anyway (but I haven’t read it yet… sorry, no kids!), however, if it’s harming the outreach that you want to do with skepticism to lump atheism into it, it may service both movements to keep them separate. After all, you don’t want to keep hearing, “well I agree with you on the vaccine issue, but I don’t really want to get involved with skepticism because you guys talk about how there’s probably no god, and I’m uncomfortable with that.”

    Whereas we can point to many great skeptical investigations into pseudoscience to back up our outreach, we can’t do so with the existence or non-existence of gods. Although cosmology and biology have put limits on what god can or has done, that’s not going to convince a believer who can leave a little room for miracles and deities and whose moral code is attached to these beliefs. As an atheist, I disagree with such exceptions, but as a skeptic, I can’t test it further, so I’d best leave it alone. I know some have said that there are a few who believe in aliens and Bigfoot with the same religious fervor, but I’d say a skeptic isn’t going to convince them either, and can only do his or her best to test what evidence is available.

    I understand that no one wants to be told what they can and can’t say. All I am saying is that each person has to look at the goal of their outreach or activism and see if it’s going to be helpful or harmful (or indifferent) to their message to include religion. I think I agree with Daniel that keeping them separate is the best thing, although my first reaction was just glee at the reminder that I’m not the only skeptic who doesn’t want to get into religion all that much.

    • Seth Manapio says:

      I think the main problem here is the definition of “separate”. I don’t feel the need, as a skeptic, to inject religion into every conversation. If we’re talking about politics, for example, I think that it’s entirely possible to take a skeptical viewpoint on policy without bringing religion up at all. And most science discussions or outreach is certainly the same, there isn’t really much reason to bring up the idea of whether there is or is not a god when discussing the evidence for evolution.

      But that’s a separate issue from the ones that Daniel brings up here. The discussion started because he brought religion up. And some of us felt that, in making the statement he made about science and religion, that “Science, as a whole, has nothing to say about religion”, he misrepresented both science and religion. I appreciate that he had a subtler point he wanted to make, but since the people reading the book only get what he actually said, I, and others, feel that he should just not have mentioned it at all.

      The second issue that he brings up is that science has nothing to say about ethics or metaphysics. And again, I think that this is a misrepresentation of science, ethics, and metaphysics. He’s just factually wrong when he says this. We can, and must, have a skeptical approach to ethics, to human behavior, to justice, to politics, and to the place of humanity in the universe. That doesn’t mean that the existence or non-existence of God has to be in every conversation, or even in a significant number of conversations. But it does mean that we can’t ignore issues that are important and significant because we’re afraid of offending those who disagree with us.

      As for keeping things separate… for me, skepticism is not about a movement or about what is expedient, it’s the principle upon which I construct my worldview. I’m not a part of an atheist movement and I have no interest in being a part of any atheist movement, because atheism is not a principle. But as a skeptic, I don’t see how I can keep separated from issues like whether God should be in the Pledge of Allegiance. Those who want to keep it in are saying things that simply are not true in order to support their case, and if I don’t stand with truth as a skeptic, where the hell do I stand?

  37. MarMar says:

    I have only two days off in the week in which I look at my computer (other than at work), Thursdays and Sundays. On Th I try to read the Skeptic blog, but I couldn’t this week, so I am late in the conversation. That being said, I was anxious to read what everybody thought after a week’s contemplation on the subject and loved the fact that Daniel gave an even more extended explanation of his position.

    All points presented are valid I think, and I was really confused at the fact that I couldn’t make up my mind! Now, I feel I am more at peace because of Daniel’s explanation and Seth Manapio’s brilliant (if not always nice) counterarguments.

    I have to agree with Seth and disagree with Daniel in the essence of the argument which is that science has nothing to say about religion. For me that is not true and for that, that comment should not have been included.

    Separately, there is the issue of addressing religion in a science book for kids. Well, I think that is right for this country, as the polemic about evolution does not stand here on its own merits, but only in contrast with the religious view of the creationist myth. In that sense, Daniel’s intention of leaving religion to those close to the child makes sense. However, I am now convinced that it is not true that science has no business in religion. I wish Daniel had not said that in that way and had found an accurate assertion to positon that religion is a PERSONAL issue and we don’t mean to rock your boat here, just teach you science.

    Hopefully, the viled statement will get the book in schools and in libraries where it belongs,while we grown ups will continue to debate the finer points of its insertion in the book at all and its accuracy.

    Finally, I did get the book this week and we started reading it with my reluctant son. Even though I said I was going to read only the first page, we got to the fifth before he requested to read some comics. I will consider that VICTORY! Cudos to Daniel for writing the book in the first place and thank you from the bottom of my (bleeding mother) heart.

  38. Marvin says:

    Daniel, my impression on reading your defense of the book’s statement about religion is not that you are dishonest, but that you’ve probably made a (very popular) category error about what religion is. When you say, “Metaphysics and ethics are out of scope for science — and therefore out of scope for skepticism,” and when you lump religion in with “metaphysics and ethics,” I think you make an error about what ethics and religion are about.

    First, the presumption that ethics are a metaphysical or transcendental concern is not a given. If, as Sam Harris argues (and as some-but-not-all Buddhist types and Epicurean types other freethinking types have argued for centuries), ethics are about the happiness and well-being of people, then clearly there’s a role for science in the understanding of ethics and values (both how they came to exist in human culture, and how to shape them to maximize the health and happiness of individuals and societies). The idea that ethics is a field beyond empirical, scientific study is a philosophical prejudice, not a given fact. It’s a prejudice most people come by honestly because the language of transcendental values is everywhere, but nevertheless it is not a given.

    Second, religion as most people practice it is not about metaphysics. Religion generally becomes metaphysical only when philosophers and theologians treat it in the abstract. For everybody else it is about the truth of empirical and historical claims: the “fact” of the resurrection of Jesus, for instance. The “facts” of miracles performed by various prophets in evidence of their claims to know about god what they claim to know. The “fact” that prayer heals disease. “Facts” which, if expressed in a non-religious context, we would be happy to say that science can either disprove or show to be almost infinitely unlikely.

    Now it’s true that science cannot disprove the idea that there might be a god, or an afterlife. But a specific religion will claim that its god and its afterlife have specific qualities, and that we can know this because specific people have been empowered with specific revelations, and that specific miracles and powers granted to those people prove the revelations to be true. What science can do is assess the likelihood of a given miracle; what science can do is show us how and when the ideas of a given religion emerged into the world, and relate them to the culture from which they came; what science can do is show the competing claims of different religions side-by-side along with the nature of the evidence offered for each claim.

    So the sciences of microbiology, chemistry, physics, archaeology, and anthropology can cast doubt on, for example, the resurrection of Christ and the historical accuracy of the Bible — and thus the accuracy of the Christian religion — in the same way that evolutionary theory can cast doubt on the 6-day creation written in Genesis. Of course the 6-day creation claim, just like a specific god-claim, can be made “metaphysical” by redefining a day as some elastic but very large period of time. In the same way, philosophers redefine for the sake of argument a specific god as an abstract creator of unknown origin and intent, thus making it metaphysical. But that’s not the religion most people actually practice.

    (Put another way: if science had nothing to say about religion, then there would be no niche for the philosophers and theologians who spend their lives trying to make religion more rational and humane by making it more abstract and less contingent on the prejudices of the ancient men who originally brought their faith into the world.)

    It seems to me, then, that the claim that science has nothing to say about religion, and nothing to offer people in a “spiritual” sense, is false, but only because I appear to share a different set of starting philosophical assumptions about what qualifies as a metaphysical or ethical belief. To me, most ethical and religious claims do NOT qualify as metaphysical, transcendental, or immune to empirical and logical investigation. The claims of the religion I grew up in — a very liberal, pro-evolution, Episcopalian Christianity — are certainly not metaphysical or abstract, in my opinion.

    Therefore if I wanted to include an inclusive, nonthreatening statement about religion in a book on evolution, I would simply say that the vast majority of religious people have little or no difficulty recognizing the truth of evolutionary theory. This, after all, is an empirical fact, not a (highly debatable) philosophical assumption.

    I suppose this might seem like a desperately pedantic quibble, compared to the urgency of getting good science education into the hands of modern children and parents. But the idea that skeptics and nonbelievers have nothing to offer in the realms of ethics and the “spirit” (the realms of emotional health and aesthetic joy reserved by many to religion) is used to batter and belittle atheists every day, and I think it is neither militant nor shrill to object to the appearance of that particular meme in a book about science.

    • Marvin says:

      I screwed up. I should have said, “The vast majority of people who accept evolution are also religious.” Not that most religious people accept evolution.

  39. Tony Virkamaki says:

    I’m skeptical of your claim that atheism is rational.

    In essence, you are claiming the non-existence of something without defining what it is that you claim doesn’t exist.
    In other words, if I say purple, seven-legged camels with three humps do not exist in Central Park in New York, I’ve defined my terms and you can agree or disagree.

    Claiming that absence of some unspecified belief in some unspecified form of unspecified deity is atheism is in itself somewhat specious. Granted, in there somewhere, there may be some absence of belief in one kind of a deity or another, but I doubt that you’ve analyzed any of the characteristics of belief in a deity.

    I say that because, you speak of science as though it were a deity.
    Some of the characteristics of belief in a deity are…
    It requires belief per se, as opposed to certain knowledge,
    It can do what you can’t by yourself,
    It isn’t generally tangible, except in the case of idols,
    It is generally bigger than you, in one respect or another.

    You believe in Science. You don’t know for certain that it is of value; however you are convinced that it is of value.
    Your situation is the same as that of a person who has unknowingly received counterfeit currency, convinced of the value but lacking certain knowledge. As a matter of fact, you could even test the value of the currency among like-minded people, and based on your observations, reach an even greater conviction that the counterfeit is real.

    You may claim the scientific method is rational, but you have not applied the scientific method to the scientific method, i.e. you have not generated a repeatable, testable hypothesis followed by experimentation.
    The reason? You can only think of one possibility as an alternative to the scientific method and that is merely what you consider the opposite of it.
    However, there may be other alternatives, currently unknown.
    Interestingly, if the scientific method were faulty, testing the scientific method by using the scientific method would produce faulty results. That leaves you guessing, and hoping that the scientific method really is valid.

    You cannot change the minds of everyone on earth by yourself, so you believe and hope that Science and scientists working together will do it. That’s what religionists do, too.

    Science isn’t tangible.
    Some of the items under test and some experimental results may be tangible. Conclusions aren’t tangible, and they require belief since they could be wrong and often are.

    Science is greater than you or any scientist.

    In addition, the corollary to atheism is that you know all things and have searched everywhere while seeking proof of something and have still failed to find it.
    I am very skeptical that any atheist, or all atheists put together, know all things.

    Agnostics may claim rationality, but atheists for sure cannot.

    On the other hand, you may be a materialist and be claiming atheism on that basis.
    You’d still have a problem in that rationality itself is not material, so your foundational belief would be faulty.

    Ultimately, the real failure of atheism is the underlying claim to know what is not known, to know how much is not known as well as to know the relative importance of what is not known, and all while it is yet unknown.

    Skepticism allows for not knowing, is not materialist (although many claim to being skeptics on the basis of being materialists) and, in some respects, considers that some future knowledge may be of greater importance than present knowledge.

    Thus, an agnostic skeptic allows for the possibility that there may be a deity, pending proof or evidence, and that the potential future proof may outweigh current knowledge.
    The religious skeptic allows for the possibility that Science may be correct in spite of the constant change in scientific theories and disagreement between scientists and that there may be some future evidence of, say, evolution that proves it beyond a shadow of any doubt.

    In the meantime, claims of rationality without any actual rational thinking are a waste of everyone’s time.

  40. billy says:

    No one has ever seen a ghost ,do their cloths die aswell what a crock ,my wife dragged me to every haunted nook and cranny of England for 25 years and I hav’nt seen shit ,I’ve stayed up all night and not 1 piece of remote evidence have I seen ,…oh ,pathetic orbs of dust in a camera lens or overtierdness and a ridiculous corner of the eye shit that people want to cling on to …what about all these cave men ghosts and the millions who have died before us ,get a grip ,you are all looking for something to clutch onto …..there is nothing..

  41. billy says:

    Haha ..big long words ,stop trying to sound over intelligent to impress ,you are talking like a lawyer who is trying to wriggle out of something ,we are all laughing at your pathetic attempt to explaine your nonsensical ramblings ,..are you you using T9 to help with your spellings…..laymans terms if you even want to attempt understanding (if you can ) …its not mastermind or any thing ….I don’t understand people who use big words to try to impress people …put your pipe and slippers away and try to speak to real people ….you are just been stereotyped as a stuck up Dick…

  42. billy says:

    Right ,you talking about god vs science ….science is facts that have been searched and proven ,not a 100 % but we have 100s of years facts …not even .00000 % fact of god…..but hang in there m8 get ready for the blackness….can you remember what happend before you were born……I didn’t think so….I bet when you were little you believed comics were real ….no ? …but you believe all that shit in the bible ,It’s to shut you up so you don’t moan about th end of your life …..don’t worry ,it will be like turning a light off ,dark then nothing ,the electric impulses fade when you die…

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