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Try Not to Lump Us Atheists in with the Skeptics

by Daniel Loxton, Apr 09 2013

As some readers know, I try pretty hard to keep my personal atheism and humanism out of my work in skepticism. Generally I don’t discuss those topics from skeptical platforms like Skepticblog, unless it is to discuss the historical and conceptual boundaries between parallel rationalist movements. Scientific skepticism just isn’t the appropriate platform for me to promote or evangelize for my personal non-scientific theological beliefs. When I do talk about atheism, it is usually in the context of arguing, as I do at length in my recent two-chapter piece “Why Is There a Skeptical Movement?” (PDF) that conflation between atheism and skepticism misrepresents the ongoing religious diversity of the skeptical community and misdirects or erodes the important work that the skeptical movement was organized to pursue.

But today I want to take off my skeptic’s hat again for a moment, and write here instead in my personal capacity as an atheist. I hope you’ll forgive the digression.

I’ve been an “out” atheist for more than 20 years. British Columbia’s a pretty secular place, but you know the drill: living openly as a religious nonbeliever causes some friction almost anywhere. Conflicts with family. That intense woman yelling at you on the bus. That time the wedding dress saleslady made that nasty little scoffing noise at my wife, and cast a small, cold shadow over the most beautiful day of our lives. Atheism may not be a civil rights issue in much of the western world, but atheists know all too well that we face bigoted attitudes both from individuals and from the wider culture.

Some of you know that despite that bigotry—or rather, because of it—I feel little personal affiliation with movement atheism, which does not always extend the tolerance and kindness and dignity toward my religious loved ones that I seek for myself and my nonreligious loved ones. For that reason, it’s been a long time since I felt much in the way of atheist pride. I work in skepticism and identify with humanism, but I merely am an atheist whether I like it or not.

Recently, though, my disconnection from atheism has begun to heal, at least a little, with the rise of voices like Chris Stedman who seem to me to speak more closely to my values. As I think more on the common experience and common challenges of people who live without religion, and find myself drawn again to the defense of the human dignity and complexity and value of atheists, I can’t help but think:

Please, people, try not to lump us atheists in with the skeptics. It’s not a good fit, and it undermines atheists.

Euphemisms

Don’t get me wrong—skeptics are just fine, so far as they go. I know some skeptics myself. They’re an eccentric lot, but their hearts are generally in the right place.

As an atheist, though, I have to say this very clearly: skeptics are not the same as atheists. Using the term “skeptic” to say “atheist” is not a matter of employing a synonym, but of concealing one’s atheism behind a euphemism. At worst, this euphemistic language may sometimes be a cynical strategic or political dodge; at best, it is a missed opportunity to forthrightly say, “I’m an atheist, and that’s OK.” As SkeptiCamp founder Reed Esau has put it, “Couching one’s atheism in words other than ‘atheism’ does not exhibit confidence for one’s brand. It’s akin to calling a Gay Pride event a ‘Happy’ event. Sure there are many happy people present, but that isn’t really the point, is it?”1

I’m not willing to be in the closet in that way, and I don’t have to be. My circumstances allow me to be open about my beliefs. I embrace Richard Dawkins’ call to “renounce all euphemisms and grasp the nettle of the word atheism,” though not because I have any great fondness for the label. Honestly, I wince a little when I hear the word “atheist”—not because it is taboo, but because I am so uncomfortable with the anti-theism, exceptionalist rhetoric, and sometimes even overt religious bigotry to be found within the atheist movement. Yet there’s no getting around the sheer fact of the thing: I am an atheist. I’m even a fairly “hard” or “strong” atheist: I don’t just withhold assent to religious claims, but actively believe that gods and souls and miracles and afterlives do not exist. I can’t demonstrate empirically that my beliefs are correct (as a skeptic, I refuse to pretend I can) and I don’t care if you share them or not—but I believe what I believe, and I’m not hiding.

The Religious Diversity of Skeptics

The “skeptic” euphemism in particular is an especially problematic one for atheists to adopt. To begin with, an awful lot of active movement skeptics believe in god—something like a fifth to a third, depending on the measure. For example, in a 1995 survey of Skeptics Society members, 35 percent answered the question, “Do you think there is a God (a purposeful higher intelligence that created the universe)?” with responses of “Very likely” or “Possibly.” In a more precise 1998 followup survey of Skeptics Society members conducted by Michael Shermer and Frank Sulloway, 18 percent of the 1,700 respondents said “Definitely yes” or “Very likely yes” there is a god.2 Recent surveys of attendees of the James Randi Educational Foundation’s The Amazing Meeting conference similarly find that almost a third of TAM-goers identify as something other than atheist or agnostic. Skepticism’s religious diversity is longstanding and will certainly continue, because the largest skeptical organizations, media, and events are organized around scientific skepticism. As Shermer explained about the mission of my own organization, for example, “membership or involvement in any capacity with the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine is not exclusionary. We could not care less what anyone’s religious beliefs are. In fact, at least two of our more prominent supporters—the comedian and songwriter Steve Allen and the mathematician and essayist Martin Gardner—are believers in God. Other members of our board may believe in God as well. I do not know. I have never asked.”3

The True Face of Atheism

But there is a more important point to be made here, a point I rarely hear expressed: many atheists do not share the beliefs, views, or attitudes that skeptics promote. Sure, some of us do. It happens for example that I personally wear a “skeptical activist” hat when I’m not wearing my atheist or humanist hats. It’s my personal belief that paranormal and fringe science claims can and should be investigated using the tools of science and critical scholarship; that very few of those claims amount to very much because paranormal phenomena are either very rare or nonexistent; and that science is useful and good and worth promoting.

But I know that my fellow atheists have a very broad range of positions on those topics. (On every topic, in fact, except one.) Nor are the atheists who hold paranormal or pseudoscientific beliefs some sort of dismissible fringe within the atheist community. The opposite is true: we can be confident that a majority of people without theistic beliefs are paranormal believers, just as is true for the hefty majority of the population at large. As Bader et al wrote regarding the findings of the Baylor Religion Survey,

Outside the halls of the academy a broader stereotype is often applied to paranormal believers—people who believe in or have experienced the paranormal are “different.” People who do not believe in the paranormal are perceived to be normal; those who believe in paranormal topics are considered weird, unconventional, strange, or deviant.

There is a big problem with this simplistic assessment—believing in something paranormal has become the norm in our society. When asked if they believe in the reality of nine different paranormal subjects including telekinesis, fortune-telling, astrology, communication with the dead, haunted houses, ghosts, Atlantis, UFOs and monsters, over two-thirds of Americans (68%) believe in at least one. In a strictly numerical sense, people who do not believe in anything paranormal are now the “odd men out” in American society. Less than a third of Americans (32%) are dismissive of all nine subjects.4

Some have speculated (or perhaps hoped) that such paranormal beliefs could be less prevalent among religious non-believers, but there’s very little support for that. The Baylor survey, for example, found that that respondents claiming no religion were resolutely in the middle of the pack: nones were roughly as likely (67 percent) to affirm at least one paranormal belief as other groups—slightly less likely than the Catholic or Mainline Protestant groups (both 71 percent), and slightly more likely than the Evangelical (64 percent) and Jewish (62 percent) groups.5 Similarly, in a 2003 Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion study, Tom W. Rice found little sign of a consistent or strong statistical relationship between paranormal and theistic beliefs. He noted,

It is also interesting that more than half of the respondents who do not believe in the traditional religious items do believe in many of the classic paranormal items. … This suggests that millions of Americans are doubters when it comes to traditional Christian paranormal dogma, but have no problem believing in classic paranormal phenomena.6 [Emphasis added]

Learning that someone is an atheist tells you next to nothing about their paranormal beliefs…except that they probably have some. It just isn’t the case that atheists view the world through a lens of thoroughgoing naturalism. By and large, we don’t.

Look, I understand the temptation to position atheists qua atheists as especially science-minded or naturalistic or rational. Atheists have been kicked around some, historically. We face a good deal of bigotry today. And, we see a lot of people believing a lot of things that we cannot—things that many of us personally consider preposterous. We’ve been told that we’re blind, damaged, wicked, foolish. “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none that does good.”7 We rightly reject such ugly bigotry—and in rejecting it, we face the dark, all-too-human temptation to reflect it back again. Maybe they’re the “foolish” ones! Maybe atheists are more “rational,” more “scientific,” perhaps even smarter than religious people.

We’ve all heard atheists succumb to that temptation. Perhaps you’ve done it yourself, as I have, in younger days. But we shouldn’t.

To promote the belief that atheists are different than other people does nothing but undermine our humanity. It denies the human complexity of religious nonbelievers. In doing so, it sells out atheists.

This is true—harder to see, but still true—even when the difference we claim sounds positive.

I often meet resistance when I say that atheists should not accept or promote the stereotype that atheists are very clever and fierce, as the New Atheism and the atheist blogosphere seems strongly inclined to do. I’m always surprised by this resistance, because exceptional fierceness and superior cleverness are not the reality of atheists overall. It isn’t even our narrative: the caricature of the acerbic, ultra-rational atheist is a bigoted stereotype that intolerant religious people use against atheists.

And I reject it. Atheists are not “different.” We are not Other. We are just regular people who happen to hold a minority viewpoint on some theological questions. What of it? Minority religious viewpoints are a dime a dozen. Atheism neither makes us less nor more than anyone else, and atheists are ill-served by anyone who tries to say it does. We are not stereotypes, but people—people with every bit of the diversity and complexity of any other large group of human beings.

We atheists pay taxes, and dodge them. We are polite and rude, young and old, kind and cruel. We are doctors and dancers, forklift drivers and cooks and politicians. We vaccinate, and we fear to. We fall in love with science, or are indifferent, or reject it as narrow, reductionist myopia. We atheists see ghosts, and read tea leaves, and recover memories of alien abductions. We write bad plays, transcendent novels, grocery lists. We suck at math, commit crimes, overlook the obvious, find ourselves unable to reason our way out of a paper bag. Just like everybody else.

We atheists are as wicked, as wooly-headed, as foolish and magical as anyone else—and as noble, and as compassionate, and as brilliant.

Why? Because atheists are just like everybody else.

References:

  1. Esau, Reed. “Taking Pride in One’s Brand.” IndieSkeptics, October 14, 2010. http://indieskeptics.com/2010/10/14/taking-pride-in-ones-brand/ (accessed April 9, 2013)
  2. Shermer, Michael. How We Believe. (New York: W.H. Freeman/Owl, 2003.) pp. 74–76
  3. Ibid. pp. xiii–xiv
  4. Bader, Christopher D., F. Carson Mencken, and Joseph O. Baker, Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2011), p.129
  5. Ibid. p.93, Fig. 4.2
  6. Rice, Tom W. “Believe It Or Not: Religious and Other Paranormal Beliefs in the United States.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 42:1 (2003) p. 104
  7. The Bible. Psalm 14:1. Revised Standard Version
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51 Responses to “Try Not to Lump Us Atheists in with the Skeptics”

  1. Dana says:

    Interesting post Daniel, and I am still digesting it.

    For me my atheism largely is the residue of the thought processes that would be found in the skeptical movement, but I am well aware there are many paths that one can take to an atheistic worldview.

    The only qualm I have with some of the recent scientific skepticism is that I really think all claims are worthy of the same scrutiny and evaluation by scientific methods – including religion. I see it as a claim(s) the same as any other, to be methodically and logically dissected.

    I do however see the value in keeping skepticism more inclusive with regard to religion and culture than some others may.

  2. Uncle Stabby says:

    Prepare for incoming, untrue Scotsmen!

  3. thesauros says:

    I have been reading and posting on blogs written by atheists for maybe five years, give or take. This is the most balanced, informative, and logical post I have read in all that time. Think about that. You’re One in a thousand!

    Thank you, thank you, a thousand times thank you.

    “Using the term “skeptic” to say “atheist” is not a matter of employing a synonym,”

    Just reading that line is like a breath of fresh air, or a drink of ice cold water. I had no idea that atheists could be that honest. I too am a sceptic. Perhaps the most sceptical person I know, while at the same time being a strong conservative Christian. Although I have to say that when I’m with a group of conservative Christians, I feel like I’m the most liberal person there and when I’m with liberals I feel like the most conservative person in the room.

    At any rate, thank you so much for a very honest, and much needed post.

    Good luck on your journey.

  4. Somite says:

    You can not change the definition of words because you can find examples of individuals doing it wrong. Atheism is skepticism applied to religion regardless of how it makes you feel. If you are a non-atheist skeptic or otherwise, you are just compartmentalizing incorrectly different areas of knowledge in your head.

    • Mike McRae says:

      People can be atheist for a range of reasons. Social reasons (their social group condemn theistic beliefs), naivity (a young child will technically be atheist given they don’t hold theistic beliefs), or even poor logic (concluding there is no god based on a logical fallacy).

      Applying a skeptical process of thinking to conclude an atheist position isn’t exclusive. Or, to put it another way, atheism is a conclusion, skepticism is a process. Unless, of course, you change the definition of those words to suit an preformed belief.

    • Daniel says:

      My response: “Whatever”

    • RCAF says:

      I’m both an atheist and a skeptic, but they aren’t the same. Russia, and China where atheist for years, but still believed in a lot of paranormal BS. I also know a lot of skeptics who are religious.

  5. Stephen Rees says:

    In reply to Somite – no-one was trying to “change the definition of words” until you did.

    An atheist is someone who does not believe in God. That does not equate with someone who embraces skepticism – since that leaves open the possibility that there might be a God.

    My own position is that God only exists if you believe He does. Indeed, without belief, God is nothing. He requires faith. Now that means we cannot have an argument about the existence of God, since it is not a matter which is subject to the application of reason. or evidence. Rationality does not come into it, since theists have faith.

    What strikes me as odd is the number of theists that I have encountered who cannot understand that to be a theist no belief is required. They think that my atheism is a belief like theirs, and it cannot be. I do not need faith to hold to the opinion that the there is no God. I respect that other people believe otherwise. But what I do has nothing to do with belief. Indeed it is the absence of belief which sets apart the atheist.

    I am – I admit – quite astonished at the results of the survey that showed that people who said they were atheists accepted the existence of the paranormal. But then I have not had the experiences that those who claim to have witnessed paranormal activities say they have. In that respect I must remain skeptical. But about God I have no skepticism at all. There is no supreme being.

    Most theists have no problem at all in not believing in Thor, or Jupiter, or Vishnu. So just add one more, and you too can be an atheist.

  6. Jill says:

    Atheism, and non-belief in other paranormal phenomena, is the natural outcome of skeptical thinking. Yes, people disbelieve in the paranormal for other reasons, but all that means is that the term “atheist” and “skeptic” are not the same, which you’ve pointed out. But the outcome of skepticism as a process is atheism, so good skeptics should be atheist, even though the reverse is not necessarily true (so what?). To me, it’s really simple.

    Matt Dilahunty did a talk recently at AACON about this. It’s worth a listen.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0EDoEzOymkk

    Of course, you’re right that it doesn’t mean we should value atheists more than believers, or that they are more moral or more good, or that we should disrespect believers. People are good or moral for all kinds of reasons, and we should value those that are good and decry those that are immoral, regardless of their beliefs in the paranormal, including god.

  7. Clare says:

    “Atheists are not “different.” We are not Other. We are just regular people who happen to hold a minority viewpoint on some theological questions.”

    I could not agree more.

  8. Explicit Atheist says:

    Of course, atheists are not necessarily ontological naturalists, or empiricists, particularly those atheists that adopt a “no beliefs” orientation. nevertheless, I think the majority of atheists probably are, except maybe in some Asian countries where religions can be simultaneously supernaturalistic and atheistic. The Nones include atheists, but most Nones are not atheists and statistics about Nones are likely to not accurately reflect the views of the atheist subset. We would need a survey of atheists to settle this question. Maybe you are right and I am wrong about this. Many atheists are “no belief” atheists, and I can see how they arguably would be less inclined to be philosophical naturalists and empiricist than explicit atheists like us.

    • The Nones include atheists, but most Nones are not atheists and statistics about Nones are likely to not accurately reflect the views of the atheist subset.

      Yes, this is correct (and frequently overlooked in triumphal discussions of atheism and the rise of the Nones). In this case, however, there is reason to think that the prevalence of paranormal belief in the Nones, theists, and atheists are not too dissimilar. The Rice study I cite above, for example (Rice, Tom W. “Believe It Or Not: Religious and Other Paranormal Beliefs in the United States.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 42:1 (2003) 95–106) pooled those people who affirmed “There is a God” with those who said “There is a spirit or life force,” and compared this pool against those who directly said “I don’t believe there is any kind of spirit, God, or life force.” He also tried comparing composite groups of those who on average affirm belief in religious claims (Heaven, God answers prayers, possession by the Devil) and those who on average affirm paranormal beliefs. There was little correlation in either case—and insofar as religiosity made a difference, atheism tended to (very slightly) increase paranormal belief, rather than decrease it. Rice concluded,

      [A] major conclusion of this research is that the correlations between religious and classic paranormal beliefs offer little support for either of the two rival hypotheses in this area. One hypothesis holds that the relationships should be positive because both types of paranormal belief suppose realities that lie outside everyday life and the other holds that the relationships should be negative because established Christian religions do not endorse classic paranormal beliefs. The data, however, show very few significant correlations between the religious and classic paranormal questions.

      To be clear, the literature is somewhat mixed on this issue. Bottom line, though: paranormal believers make up a majority of pretty much any group, including the least religious.

  9. note says:

    I agree with most of your main points (otoh, my problems with “skepticism,” both the name and the “movement” are a different and time-consuming to discuss issue heh).

    There was little correlation in either case—and insofar as religiosity made a difference, atheism tended to (very slightly) increase paranormal belief, rather than decrease it.

    I’d be interested to know which of the “paranormal beliefs” atheists were more likely to affirm. Are the “classic paranormal items” similar to the list the other source gives, i.e. “telekinesis, fortune-telling, astrology, communication with the dead, haunted houses, ghosts, Atlantis, UFOs and monsters”?

    I’m wondering because it seems that it’d be a bit hard to reconcile some of those with “I don’t believe there is any kind of spirit, God, or life force.” UFOs of the ET kind, sure, but was it possible for something entirely contradictory in that context like communication with the dead or ghosts? Boggles the mind!

    Maybe atheists are more “rational,” more “scientific,” perhaps even smarter than religious people.

    Some studies have found that (in a particular population, cross-population studies are more problematic) atheists have slightly higher IQs than theists on average. That would mean they are “smarter” on average for certain measures of “intelligence”. Should one accept that like she does with the stats that show atheists can hold a variety of “equally odd” positions as frequently as theists?

  10. BillG says:

    “Because atheists are like everybody else.” I agree, adding that I doubt there are true believers, nor true atheists.

    It could be correct that there are “no atheists in foxholes”, and conversely correct that there are no true believers either. In moments of hope, fear, trauma or perhaps the daily grind of struggle for many of the world, certainty in any belief is absurd.

  11. Daniel says:

    I enjoyed reading the post. However, I think it could have been summed up by saying not all of us atheists are smug about being atheists, which, unfortunately is the stereotype that gets reinforced by experience. (In the popular vernacular, it could be said, not all of us atheists are dicks).

    The debate over whether skeptics have to be atheists, sounds very much like the squabbles between Stalinists and Troskyites, Catholics and heretics during the Reformation, or Shiites and Sunnis these days. Fortunately, and as a credit to skeptics and atheists, the dogmatic disputes turn out to be more petty than anything, rather than resulting in immeasurable cruelty.

    • oldebabe says:

      Good to hear someone say it, i.e. `squabbles’ and `petty’. One can just go round and round, looking at every nuance as many others do, with name calling and word definitions.

      It boils down (for me,anyway) to one not caring what others say or think whatever their penchant or life-style, as long as one is left to decide for oneself.

  12. Michael Brady says:

    Well and truly said.

    Atheism ≠ skepticism ≠ humanism ≠ feminism ≠ egalitarian-communitarianism

  13. Mike G says:

    In my mind, I don’t think someone who’s never even considered the notion of a deity can be called an atheist (ie. ingnorance/niavete athesism). Based on the premise that one has considered and rejected the notion of a supernatural God, I have a tough time reconciling those who both claim to be an atheist, yet believe in the paranormal. Atheists in this category can’t have rejected a belief in a deity based on a disbelief in the supernatural.

  14. Wscott says:

    Excellent article; thank you Daniel! Too many of the recurring arguments that plague the atheist & skeptical movements stem from assuming “If you believe X you must also believe Y.”

    “…nine different paranormal subjects including telekinesis, fortune-telling, astrology, communication with the dead, haunted houses, ghosts, Atlantis, UFOs and monsters…”
    Hmm, one of these things is not like the others. Belief in UFOs may very well be unsupported by evidence, even completely irrational, but it doesn’t require belief in anything supernatural. I’m not defending belief in UFOs – I think it’s pseudoscientific at best, downright delusional at worst. But *from the standpoint of the believers* it doesn’t require a belief in god(s), magic or any kind of spirit world. I suppose you could make the same argument about belief in bigfoot/Nessie/etc. (Again: stupid beliefs IMO, but not necessarily supernatural ones.) Those beliefs may well be irrational, but they’re not inherently inconsistent with an atheistic worldview.

    Mike McRae @3 above said: “atheism is a conclusion, skepticism is a process.” Exactly! You could substitute “rationalism” or even “science” for skepticism; it’s the method, not the result. This is a crucial distinction in my mind, because it allows for the inescapable fact that rational people looking skeptically at the same evidence are not always going to come to the same conclusion. If we both agree that skepticism is a good way to evaluate evidence, then we can have a rational conversation about why I conclude X even tho you conclude Y; we can debate the merits of specific pieces of evidence and point out where we think each other is mistaken. Instead what we all too often get is “I’m a skeptic and I believe X; therefore anyone who doesn’t believe X is stupid/ irrational/ unscientific.” Which doesn’t leave a lot of room for dialogue.

  15. trivialknot says:

    I think there’s a critical distinction between atheists in general, and atheists who participate in the atheist movement. These two things are often conflated by critics and supporters alike. For example, movement atheists sometimes feel the need to argue that supernaturalists don’t really count as atheists, and other people hesitate to identify as atheists because they think this requires agreeing with the atheist movement.

    The point about the majority of nontheists believing in paranormal may be true. It may even be true of atheists, I don’t know. It is difficult to argue that it is true of the atheist movement, given that the most vocal atheists seek to specifically exclude anti-skeptical views.

    On the other hand, while most movement atheists support skeptical values, I’m still not sure that this counts as skepticism. Is skepticism merely a reasoned disbelief in supernatural and paranormal? I think you also need to believe that paranormal/supernatural beliefs are harmful and are worth countering (and not just the religious ones). You have to advocate testing and public education. In short, you have to care about it.

    It’s sort of like, you can call yourself a feminist if you think there should be more gender equality. But if you don’t actively advocate the issue, or even know anything about it, does it really count?

    So I think many movement atheists are not really skeptics, but not necessarily in a bad way. Not everyone needs to care about all the issues, and some atheists just care about different ones than skeptics do.

  16. Rick says:

    Atheists, Agnostics, and Theists are all in bed together and are irrational. They all believe in the possibility of a creator god.

  17. rich says:

    “..And, we [athiests] see a lot of people believing a lot of things that we cannot—things that many of us personally consider preposterous…”

    I agree. But don’t many of “us” athiests find belief in God so proposterous precisley because it is totally unjustified? It’s perhaps the most extraordinary claim out there, and there is no evidence for it. The only rational position, then, on the question of God is to be skeptical.

    I can love and respect my theist friends and family, but that does not necessitate (nor should it) that I tolerate their preposterous beliefs, any more than they should tolerate any beliefs I might hold that are unjustified and cannot withstand scrutiny.

    • I can love and respect my theist friends and family, but that does not necessitate (nor should it) that I tolerate their preposterous beliefs, any more than they should tolerate any beliefs I might hold that are unjustified and cannot withstand scrutiny.

      A lot of smart folks find the beliefs of atheists preposterous and unjustified, but I nonetheless expect the wider culture and the individuals I engage with to tolerate my beliefs as an atheist. If they can find a way to accept that I am a reasonably rational person despite holding beliefs they do not share, so much the better.

  18. kittynh says:

    About 50% of the alien abductees my sister in law and I work with identify themselves as atheists. They don’t think the aliens are Gods, so much as far more advanced rational beings that have figured out how to do stuff we’ll eventually figure out (which in some cases includes living a long time). It’s a wonky version of science as religion, all the religion promises, via space science. They truly are atheists, and take a lot of bother for being proclaimed atheists, though some insist not as much as their Mormon (hey atheists haven’t had a fun musical made about their lack of belief) or Jewish friends put up with. (mind you this is in an area where there are few Jewish families and those that are here feel an isolation, such as people not wanting their children to date Jewish children). So atheists can be as interesting or quirky as any other person, it’s just one aspect. The odd thing is they get far more grief about being atheists they say than the whole abduction thing. I’m told that in the UK ( by my fb friend atheists) that there is such a higher number of atheists than in the US that atheism is a ho – hum issue. I hope this is true. I imagine soon enough with atheism rising in numbers quickly, my atheist abductees can get made fun of for alien sex not just a disbelief in Gods.

  19. Cameron says:

    Daniel. Who do you prefer to hang around with; atheists or skeptics? Just wondering.

    • Skeptics, because I have more in common with them—a portfolio of common interests and common values, as opposed to a single point of common belief. I’m also, as I mention in the post, disturbed by strong anti-theist attitudes or the fetishization of combativeness. Those attitudes are not by any necessity part of what it means to be an atheist; but in the online atheist activism culture that has grown up out of the New Atheism, these are common. My disconnection from movement atheism has been pretty deep for that reason.

      But your question is a bit tough to answer, at the same time, because of the demographic overlap: while the majority of atheists are not skeptics, the majority of scientific skeptics are atheists. When I say I appreciate the company of skeptics, I mean that I appreciate the company of non-beleivers (and also believers) with whom I share common values and with whom I can pursue common tasks.

      It’s not a main topic of my post, but I identify strongly as a secular humanist and with the values of secular humanism. I always feel among my own when I spend time with other humanists. Those are overwhelmingly nonbelievers.

  20. Vagrarian says:

    Atheist, theist, skeptic, whatever…your stand on these matters is often unconnected to who someone is as a person. One of the best, most supportive and loving persons I know is a rabbi, who counsels me when I’m down but never tries to preach to me. I have a good pal who’s a Lutheran minister and theologian who likes to split a few pitchers with me when he’s in town; he enjoys my company because he feels he’s not required to talk shop. (And he’s a big believer in evolution and critical thinking.) And a young religious friend expresses his fondness for me, largely because, as he puts it, when he talks to me I don’t make him feel like an idiot. I respect his beliefs, although sometimes I will point out holes in his thinking, and I think/hope that helps him grow as a person.

  21. John K. says:

    The label “atheist” is really very narrow. It only describes one position on a single issue, more or less. I personally used the tools of skepticism on questions of religion and had to come to an atheist position. Clearly definitions allow one to be only a skeptic, only an atheist, both, or neither.

    As far as activism goes, I think that atheism from a position of skepticism is what most groups are looking to promote. I expect that there are many people who are skeptical in many areas of their lives but have not turned the microscopes on a particular issue, unaware that they hold a particular belief for bad reasons. I think just about everybody fails to skeptically evaluate one claim or another at some point in their lives.

    Most homeopaths like to label themselves skeptics, and perhaps they are in several other areas, yet I do not see many skeptic organizations pandering to them for the sake of harmony. The same could be said for moon landing deniers. Religion has a very privileged position in society at large, and I don’t think that people would be wringing their hands quite so nervously while talking about being skeptical of it if it was not such a majority belief.

    • I’m hardly nervous about expressing doubt about religious claims, personally or professionally. I’m pretty clear about my own personal position, above: “I don’t just withhold assent to religious claims, but actively believe that gods and souls and miracles and afterlives do not exist.”

      Professionally, I have to say that the idea that scientific skeptics “pander” to religion is something of an urban legend among atheists. It’s not religious claims that are outside of science, but claims of any sort—paranormal, theological, ethical, metaphysical, or otherwise— which cannot be investigated through any conceivable empirical means. Religions typically make some testable claims and also some untestable ones, and skeptics have zero qualms about going after any testable religious claims that are available to sink our teeth into. Likewise, paranormal claims may be testable, in which case skeptics investigate, or untestable, in which case, we can’t.

      If you’re interested in the topic, I addressed it at length recently in my two chapter piece “Why Is There a Skeptical Movement?” You can read the PDF here for free. The whole thing speaks to the issue of skepticism’s scope and founding principles, but I might mention in particular the section titled “‘Testable Claims’ is Not a ‘Religious Exemption’” (pages 36–41).

      • John K. says:

        You can make an “un-testable claims” dodge about big foot too, if so disposed. If you simply let someone define big foot as something that can detect and avoid/thwart all attempts to find traces of it. It is an argument that only seems to be brought up as legitimate when talking about religious claims. The testable claims gambit is exactly the type of pandering I am talking about. Practically every conspiracy theory there is contorts itself to become un-testable, yet they get no quarter in skepticism at large. Only religion does. Applying skeptical methods demands the dismissal without evidence of anything that can be asserted without evidence. Religion should be included.

        I really don’t disagree with much of the article, but I can’t escape the feeling that the atheist/theist type of questions are being avoided more because they create bad PR than because the are truly outside the realm of skepticism.

      • John K. says:

        I have read the PDF you linked to, and quite a bit of it makes a lot of sense. I am not so obtuse as to say that no religious claims are ever tackled by skeptical movements. Skeptics have taken an appropriately hard line on things like creationism, faith healing, and intelligent design very frequently.

        I really have trouble believing that skeptics have nothing to say about the untestable aspects of things like homeopathy, for example. Having shown various aspects of homeopathy to have no merit, it only makes sense to summarily dismiss the rest of it until positive efficacy can be demonstrated. I have to wonder why there is such hesitation with religion in general after so many religious claims have been shown to be bogus, like interventional prayer, or the others already mentioned. Do skeptics commonly maintain that ghosts are still a possibility because there could be some that are undetectable to us? I hope not.

        Religious thinking relies primarily on authority, revelation, anecdote, blind faith, and arguments from ignorance. All those things are mutually exclusive to good skepticism. Obviously people compartmentalize various beliefs and we cannot reasonably expect everyone to be wholly skeptical about everything they believe in all the time. I would still maintain that religion as a general topic seems to have a privileged position in a lot of skeptical groups, despite have practically all the same types of failings as the commonly rejected claims.

      • I really have trouble believing that skeptics have nothing to say about the untestable aspects of things like homeopathy…

        But we do: we say that these are untestable faith claims that are outside of the realm of science—which is to say, not even wrong. That’s not a privileged pinnacle, but a limbo of permanent irrelevance—effectively, the trash heap. It’s what it looks like to “summarily dismiss” something in scientific terms.

      • John K. says:

        You illustrate my point perfectly.

        Why are the untestable parts of religion “not even wrong” the same way the untestable parts of homeopathy are? Why have you made no post demanding your non-belief of homeopathy not be lumped in with skepticism? Why is there no effort to separate the claims of homeopathy from the discipline as a whole the way there is with religion?

        You are using a deliberately broad definition of atheism while maintaining a narrow one for skepticism. Global warming deniers are skeptical too, if we want to play definition games. How many skeptics can we then say are unscientific if we include all the moon landing, vaccination, global warming, ect. deniers?

        I still think atheism fits hand and glove with skepticism, in the commonly used terms. Your call to keep them apart still seems to be special pleading.

      • Your call to keep them apart still seems to be special pleading.

        If you say so. I don’t have much to add regarding the reasons why conflation between atheism and skepticism is undesirable and inappropriate from the perspective of scientific skeptics, having dealt with it in depth in the big PDF.

        Let me reiterate that my argument in this post is different: conflation between atheism and skepticism is undesirable and inappropriate from the perspective of atheist pride. If atheists wish to build the constituency of atheists, whether to pursue political goals or to combat bigotry against atheists, we should not disenfranchise or marginalize large segments of the atheist community—the majority of atheists, I believe on the basis of data such as that cited above—who are either paranormal believers or otherwise uncomfortable with the values of scientific skeptics. We also ought not to hide behind euphemisms, wherever our circumstances allow us to be open about our beliefs (or lack of beliefs, for those occupying “weak” or “soft” atheist positions).

      • Daniel says:

        Perhaps a good dividing line is whether a particular claim purports to be philisophical or scientific/objectively true.

        Skeptical inquiry has a lot to say about claims that the bible is correct that the world is 7,000 years old and that everything was created in seven days, that the pyramids “must have” been built under the direction of ancient aliens, that homeopathy is an effective treatment for a particular ailment, or that ghosts inhabited 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, Long Island.

        On the other hand, I think skepticism doesn’t really answer claims that God created the Big Bang (or perhaps the multiverse) and the laws of physics, that there is some kind of afterlife, or even that Jesus rose from the dead. These are all claims that believers admit to be based on faith of some sort. (Note that I wouldn’t have a problem with “intelligent design” if its proponents didn’t attempt to put it in the science curriculum).

      • JJFOX says:

        Note that I wouldn’t have a problem with “intelligent design”

        Sorry- you MUST learn more of evolution, the fundamentals at least. Ridiculous statement. Look up the 23 medically accepted faults in the human body then reconsider the mess the ‘Designer’ made…

      • Daniel says:

        JJFOX: It’s really irritating that you cut off exactly what I said, and moreso that you fail to see the point. I never said I believe in intelligent design, and I understand the concepts of evolution just fine for a layman. The point I was making is that I don’t think it’s really a big deal if people believe in some kind of intelligent force that guides evolution, so long as those people accept that it isn’t a scientific theory.

        Of course, it just proves my point that atheists are often small minded and petty.

  22. Ed Graham says:

    I became an atheist at about 12 when I read the Bible. My skepticism developed soon after when I realized that there was no paranormal. Not one documented case. I am happier knowing that I don’t have to worry about ghosts and zombies.

    But, even though I can’t do anything about it, I don’t like the word atheist. I don’t want to be defined by not believing in something. Maybe believers should be called arationalists.

  23. brainmatters says:

    I disagree with almost all of this and find it about as hokey as a New Age potluck. I think it’s a false premise to to go on about “skeptic” and “atheist” as if they have some carved-in-stone definitions to begin with. I don’t see the point of this post in any way. You seem to have some kind of angst over hurting the feelings of religious people. I am not rude to them, but I think they are ridiculous and have little respect for them unless they are very old and lack education–anyone else should know better. The whole tone of this piece is so apologetic and I fail to see why. I guess I’m just a cold and heartless atheist and skeptic.

    • You seem to have some kind of angst over hurting the feelings of religious people.

      That’s not quite how I’d put it. I expect and require that atheists not be the target of religious bigotry. As a result, consistency requires that I also oppose bigotry against the religious. That harmonizes well with my values as a secular humanist: kindness is more important than metaphysics.

    • Daniel says:

      @brainmatters:

      You have little respect for anyone that’s religious? I hope you’re not as unpleasant in your daily affairs.

      My good friend’s father was a respected surgeon who was also a practicing Roman Catholic, so I guess you could describe him as “religious”. He had about 2000 people of all races, colors and creeds attend his wake. He was one of the most decent, good hearted, generous and intelligent people you would ever meet.

      I don’t know anything about you, but I can guarantee you that this “ridiculous” man for whom you have “little respect” was ten times the person you are or will ever be.

      You are a very, very small person who is trying to compensate for something.

      • Let’s try not to let the arguments become personal, please. It’s not that kind of blog.

        That said, I join you in affirming that religious people are just as likely as the nonreligious to be powerful intellects, or wise and generous people of character.

  24. RCAF says:

    I you want to see a clash of skeptics and atheists, you just have to look at the theory of parallel universes. I’m skeptical that they exists, but some “bright” people calculate them at 10^10^16, or more.
    Of course the human brain can’t even begin to comprehend that number so WTF?

  25. laursaurus says:

    I personally embrace the critical-thinking process and would enthusiastically participate in a movement that promoted scientific skepticism for everyone. The Skeptoid Podcast has been instrumental in introducing the utility and surprisingly interesting answers we uncover using the method. I love Daniel’s writings, as well. Too bad he his posts are few and far between. Unfortunately, the movement is seething with hateful, outright bigotry towards theists. Every blog post I’ve read pointing out that atheism and skepticism are 2 very different things, there will always be several comments accusing the writer of giving religion a free pass. If skepticism doesn’t eliminate your belief that the Big Bang requires a Big Banger, you’re a delusional idiot and deserved to be mocked. Theists who attend a convention are basically asking for abuse and harassment. Even the JREF who claims to be strictly about skepticism, features a blogger who writes scathing hit pieces attacking theists. Then DJ Grothe incredulously asks why would anyone perceive the JREF as an atheist organization?
    I’ve gotten the message loud and clear. Your not one of us unless you’re an atheist. Even when an atheist rightly points out that they are 2 different things, he is accused of giving religion a pass. Skepticism fails to be skepticism when it embraces any additional ideology. First they embraced atheism, then Leftist politics, now radically feminism has driven a deep wedge in this community of extremists.
    I support Skeptoid. But all the other phoney skeptical organizations can go pound sand. At least that’s the message they’ve sent to me.

    • I love Daniel’s writings, as well. Too bad he his posts are few and far between.

      Blogging is a bit of a sideline for me—a place to put material that is either too “inside baseball,” too topical, or too personal to present to a wider audience in print. My main output is for print: my work for Skeptic magazine (especially Junior Skeptic) and my books, such as my hefty upcoming skeptical tome Abominable Science, co-authored with Skepticblog’s Don Prothero.

      Unfortunately, the movement is seething with hateful, outright bigotry towards theists. Every blog post I’ve read pointing out that atheism and skepticism are 2 very different things, there will always be several comments accusing the writer of giving religion a free pass. If skepticism doesn’t eliminate your belief that the Big Bang requires a Big Banger, you’re a delusional idiot and deserved to be mocked. Theists who attend a convention are basically asking for abuse and harassment.

      There is much truth to this complaint. I won’t try to justify the (quite recent) attitude that skepticism is an atheist-only club, which I have criticized myself, but I will ask you to consider that bigotry is not the only contributor to that attitude. A larger culprit, I am convinced, is simple demographics: only a minority of atheists are skeptics, but the majority of movement skeptics are religious non-believers of one sort or another. It’s the nature of majorities to forget that they are not the only people in the room—and the privilege of assuming everyone is like us can lead to some boorish behavior, all without meaning to do any harm whatsoever. Atheists should be sympathetic to this issue, for the problem of religious privilege is the very one we face as a minority when navigating the wider culture—but, y’know. People are people.

      As with atheists engaging with the wider culture, the only road to improvement for theists in the skeptical subculture is to assert your presence and insist that it be acknowledged as a diversity issue within the skeptical community. In that, you have many allies, including me.

  26. DinoCrisis says:

    I was recently in a debate with a spiritualist and I told him to read a book by Joseph McCabe (McCabe wrote an excellent book in debunking mediumship) the spiritualist then told me that McCabe was an atheist and becuase of this he would not look at the book!

    I was in a debate with a “psi” believer and was discussing the fraud of the medium Leonora Piper with him, I told him about the books of Martin Gardner which document the tricks of Piper and he said to be he isn’t going to read Gardner becuase Gardner was a Christian!

    You can;t win with these types of people. Religious beliefs or lack of belief have nothing to do with skepticism on these subjects and are unrelated, the only reason they are brought up is for ad hominem attacks.

  27. Paulo says:

    Thanks for this. I often find myself in discussions with religious people and they ask me why I don’t believe and I usually shrug and say, “I just don’t. Why do you believe?” and they usually say they just do. Though I could argue it was rational, the truth is that I arrived at my conviction the same way I think most religious people do. In other words I didn’t reason it out I just at some point felt that there was no god. This happened long before I accepted a more skeptical approach to other things.

    In a way, when I decided there was no god, I kind of hoped that aliens, witches or ghosts might turn out to be available to do for me all the things that praying to god would not. Eventually I abandoned those as well, but I could easily see someone going with the feelings and finding some rationale and meaning in non-god paranormal experiences.

  28. William says:

    Skepticism is professional (or, in your case, semi-professional) doubting. And atheism is exactly as irrational a belief (see, belief that there is no god is… well, you figure it out…

    The only truly rational position, by definition, would be agnosticism. You scoff at those who profess belief in a god, why shouldn’t *I* scoff at your disbelief? After all, they CAN’T REALLY KNOW if there’s a god, right (because you, being wiser, know there is not!)

    You cannot know there is no god. You don’t have all the evidence! (God himself, should he exist, would be prima-facie evidence of his own existence!)

    I cannot know there is. I cannot know there is not.

    Yours,
    Waiting for Godot