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.
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.
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.