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Science and Religion – Again

by Steven Novella, Apr 05 2010

The topic of skepticism and religion comes up on a regular basis within skeptical circles, and I find I have to define my position on a regular basis. Because I host a skeptical podcast and contribute to several skeptical blogs, it cannot be avoided. This week’s episode of the SGU featured Eugenie Scott as a guest rogue, and the question of skepticism and religion came up. And, as predictably as the dawn follows the night, the old debate sparked up again.

Genie takes a position very similar to my own – that science is agnostic toward untestable claims. Science follows methodological naturalism, and anything outside this realm is by necessity outside the realm of science. It’s not a choice so much as a philosophical/logical position. (I will call this the “agnostic” position for simplicity.)

However, I think many people are confused when we discuss this topic, especially since we often refer to “religion,” which can create the false impression that we think science cannot address any claims that fall under “religion” – it may, depending on what those claims are.

Science is a Process

I think the primary confusion stems from this – defining science vs religion as a set of beliefs vs a set of methods or processes. A commenter on the SGU forums represents this confusion well when they write:

“…what the hell kind of skeptic movement would give an approving nod to the theist saying ‘I’m a skeptic–I won’t believe in ghosts without good evidence, …unless they’re holy ghosts.”

His comment focuses entirely on the beliefs themselves, but the agnostic position is about method not beliefs. It is absolutely not about ghosts vs holy ghosts – it is about methodological naturalism (science) vs faith (not necessarily religion). Any belief which is structured in such a way that it is positioned outside the realm of methodological naturalism by definition cannot be examined by the methods of science. In short, this usually means that the beliefs cannot be empirically tested in any conceivable way. One can therefore not have scientific knowledge of such claims, and science can only be agnostic toward them. Any belief in untestable claims is therefore by definition faith.

The content of the beliefs, however, does not matter – it does not matter if they are part of a mainstream religion, a cult belief, a new age belief, or just a quirky personal belief. If someone believes in untestable ghosts, or ESP, or bigfoot, or whatever – they have positioned those claims outside the realm of science. This, of course, is Sagan’s invisible floating heatless dragon – creating a belief that cannot be tested.

It is important, in my opinion, for skeptics to be crystal clear on this point, because often the purveyors of pseudoscience will try to evade falsification or the negative effects of evidence on their claims by positioning the claim outside of science. At that point the skeptic must acknowledge that science can no longer demonstrate that the claim is likely to be false, but rather the claim is no longer scientific and can only be an article of faith. You can believe in the kind of bigfeet that are immune to all scientific investigation, but then you have to also stop claiming to have evidence for this bigfoot, or that you are doing science. Belief in bigfoot has become a tenet of your faith.

Religion is More than Faith

Often in this discussion we may use the term “religion” to refer to faith-based beliefs. I actually try to avoid it, because it is confusing. The fact is – religions routinely make fact-based claims. They intrude upon science on a regular basis, and whenever they step into the arena of science, they are absolutely fair game. No one I know denies this, and any regular reader of this blog, or listener of the SGU, knows that we will address head on any scientific claim, no matter its source.

However, whenever we state that science cannot address “faith” (beliefs that are outside the realm of science), this is commonly misconstrued to mean that it cannot address any claims of “religion,” which is not true and not the “agnostic” position.

Religions are multifarious – they often contain tenets of faith (the ultimate meaning of things), claims about history and the nature of reality, a source of cultural identity, and a code of morality. Freedom of (and from) religion means that people have a right to any tenets of faith they choose, they have a right to their own moral code (within limits, of course), and they also have a right to frame their personal and group identity how they wish.

People do not, however, have a right to their own facts. So when religions make claims about history or the nature of the material world, they are within the purview of science. Religions should not dictate to science, to limit its scope or its conclusions. It is also logically invalid to claim that faith is an appropriate approach to factual claims.

Philosophical Naturalism

There are many proponents of philosophical naturalism within the skeptical movement  – the position that the material world that science can investigate is not only all that we can know but that it is all that there is. I am personally a philosophical naturalist, in that I do not “believe” in anything outside the natural world, but I do not think that science (and by extension skepticism) is dependent upon philosophical naturalism. Science, as I stated, can only be agnostic toward any notions outside the grasp of its methods – such beliefs are unknowable.

It is reasonable from a philosophical point of view to conclude that there is no reason to believe in anything unknowable. All such beliefs are by necessity arbitrary, and most people end up believing whatever is taught to them by their parents and culture. So again, I agree with the position of philosophical naturalism.

But it has to be acknowledged that some people can and do accept and practice methodological naturalism and simultaneously maintain personal articles of faith for questions outside the realm of science. There is nothing inherently inconsistent in this position, and largely I find it difficult to care (as long as that faith does not also intrude upon science nor is used to justify a malignant morality).

Skepticism and Religion

There is a tangential issue, which is often conflated with the philosophical issues I discussed above – what should be the strategic approach of the skeptical movement toward religion and the religious? While this issue often garners the most heated debate, this is mostly a personal choice and not something which can be objectively resolved. It is part of the reason why the skeptical movement is a loose collection of individuals and organizations, and not one cohesive whole.

My personal approach is to focus on science, which includes tackling any religious claims that intrude upon science. Genie Scott took this position as well in our discussion. But there are others who also wish to promote philosophical naturalism or atheism. I have no problem with this – everyone can do as they wish, and as I said the skeptical movement is very much a bottom up spontaneous movement without any top-down control or organization. I do not pretend to have the “one true way” of skepticism, only my way.

I do feel (and this is just a feeling) that the skeptical movement is most effective when we are clear about the boundaries of science and the nature of science vs faith vs religion. I prefer to give people critical thinking skills and a love for science, and not worry about their faith. It is also quite possible (again, this is only my bias, as I do not have any solid evidence to back it up) that you will lead more people away from faith by this approach than by tackling their faith head on.

And again, this is my personal approach but I do not presume to dictate to other skeptics what they should do.

Genie Scott brought up the point that the skeptical movement will only limit its reach if it defines itself as, by necessity, including only non-believers. There are many good skeptics who also choose to be theists, and they should not feel excluded. Of course, as I said there is no card-issuing skeptical organization. This has more to do with the culture of skepticism – how we make people feel, not about any imposed rules.

It should also be pointed out that there are sister movements (atheism, humanism) that do tackle faith and the other aspects of religion. These movements include many people with expertise and interest in these areas. So part of my approach is a matter of specialization. However, whenever I say this some people conclude that I am saying it is all about specialization or strategy. It is not – as I discussed extensively above, it is about clarity of philosophy, logic, and definition, which also happens to be in line with what I think is an effective approach and how much of the skeptical movement is already organized.


This issue is an enduring point of heated discussion among skeptics. It has remained so for the last 15 years that I have been part of the skeptical movement, and those who have been at this longer than I have tell me it goes back as far as they can remember also. I think it is a healthy and very useful discussion for us to have, and I have resigned myself to the fact that I will have to endlessly clarify my own position.

But each time I do I try to get better at focusing on the real issues and illuminating the source of any confusion or disagreements. I hope this latest attempt at the issue has been useful.

The take-home point of this post is to understand that the “agnostic” position is about the difference between science and faith as differing methods, not about the paranormal and religion as different belief systems.

119 Responses to “Science and Religion – Again”

  1. Somite says:

    Excellent post. The largest area of disagreement is how to handle untestable claims as skeptics. My own opinion is that in pragmatic terms, an untestable claim should be identical to a false claim. There is no need to invoke or propose an untestable claim in an argument. Also, it should be part of the skeptical movement to point out when untestable claims are used. Untestable claims are still claims.

    That is why to me skeptical deists may choose to believe in something but should not object when this cognitive dissonance or “skeptical deficiency” is pointed out.

  2. Somite – as a matter of logic, untestable does not equal “false.” Untestable claims are not a valid part of science, and are therefore not valid arguments to use in support of any scientific position.

    I strongly feel it is important (for reasons of logical validity) to say in response to an untestable claim, not that it is wrong, but that it is outside the realm of science.

    This is very pragmatic – anytime a pseudoscientist retreats to an untestable claim, they have just surrendered the field of science. Game over.

    • Robo Sapien says:

      Since we’re talking hard logic here, it might be prudent to view it in computer programming terms. All “claims” are testable within an expression. Valid claims will resolve as True, invalid as False. Untestable claims would simply render a null value. The problem here is that null values still cause an expression to return false.

      Example (with A = 1, B = 2, C = Null):

      (A + B = 3) = True
      (A + C = 3) = False

      • Diffusion says:

        You need to clarify what A and B are. It sounds like A is a true claim and B is a false claim. Therefore A+B=3 is saying a true claim plus a false claim equals a true claim.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        A and B are just variables, pointers to fixed values. We’ll say that A represents a number of apples, B represents a number of oranges, and C represents a number of deities. Because we can confirm the existance of (and thus count) the apples and oranges, then the pointers A and B have true values, because deities cannot be logically tested, then C would equal null. It is important to note that expressions do not require operators (plus, minus, etc) in order to resolve true or false. The expression (A) is true, because A has a value. The expression (C) is false, because C has null value.

        True expressions:
        1. (A)
        2. (A + B = 3)
        3. (B – 1 = 1)

        False expressions:
        1. (C)
        2. (A + B + C = 3)
        3. (C + 1 = 1)

        Now, lets suppose we can disprove deities, then the value of C changes from null to zero, then false expression #1 remains false because a value of zero is also false, but still calculable. False expressions 2 and 3, however, will now return true.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        Sorry, I still didn’t clarify with that. The variables (A,B,C) are not claims, the expression itself is the claim. Those variables are factors being used to determine if the expression/claim is true or false. My point is that as soon as you introduce a null value into the expression, it automatically returns false because null is incalculable.

      • M Kimberlin says:

        Robo Sapian. I think you are conflating ideas here. First of all, “computer programming terms” aren’t always “hard logic”. Also, the logic of a programming language doesn’t necessarily map to philosophical logic. You are referring to a language that happens to treat “null” as equivalent to false. This doesn’t have to be the case. One could just as easily define a language that treats null as true or even, as would be appropriate for the logic of philosophy and argument, as having no effect on the outcome whatsoever. A “null” claim should not effect the result of a logical argument at all. If I make an argument based on 3 provably true points and 2 completely untestable points, the untestable points don’t make the argument false…they just force the argument to rely wholly on the first three provable points. If those points alone are sufficient for making the overall claim, then it is true regardless of the untestable points.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        I use the example of machine logic because, after all it is mechanical. All machines mimick nature, and I don’t know of a machine on earth that operates on philosophical logic. In a hard logic system, a null value can only serve one purpose, and that is to reserve a space where no true or false value exists. I don’t see how that cannot be likened to the logical value of an untestable claim.

        Any expression that is not true, is automatically false. That is the hardest logic you can get. Expressions are evaluated until a null or false value is resolved, regardless of pending factors. The expression (6 * Null * 8 = 48) will not ignore the Null and continue to 8, it exits as soon as Null is encountered and returns false.

        False expression:
        H2O + Planet + Sun + God = Earth

    • Robo Sapien says:

      Just to clarify, a null value is neither true or false. It is just null, void of any value.

    • MadScientist says:

      Some things are untestable because we don’t know enough yet or haven’t got appropriate technology. Barring those reasons, something “untestable” is immediately reduced to mere nonsense. The challenge is can we recognize something that is merely untestable due to a lack of technology, or on the other hand is there any way to determine if something is untestable simply because we don’t know enough?

      As far as religion goes, it is nothing but superstition. All observable facts oppose the numerous claims about the characteristics of the supposed gods. Religion would only like to excuse itself as “untestable” in its desperate bid to exist. Let us keep a list of “truths” which religions claim and let us test them all. Religion as a “way of knowing” is pure bunkum; when two religions disagree on an issue, which one is right? You know they both claim to be right (though both may in fact be wrong), but how does religion determine the truth? By dictum of course, or else by self-delusion (you ask yourself a question, then answer your own question starting with “god told me…”).

      • Robo Sapien says:

        I thought most religions settled it by killing each other. Go figure.

        Humanity needs to build an ark. Not like Noah’s stupid boat with dinosaurs and giraffes on it, but an ark of knowledge, endless volumes of proven fact. It would surpass the bible by a factor of googol in its awesomeness.

        Oh wait, we’ve already started one.. It is flawed and incomplete, but its a start.

      • Max says:

        If I tell you I saw a 20-foot fish in a lake with my own eyes, how would you test that? Would the appropriate technology here be an accurate lie detector?

      • MadScientist says:

        When you have a thick book of claims about your 20-foot fish (including perhaps how it dies then comes back to life again) then we can talk. A single claim may be unfalsifiable but when you make numerous claims with no evidence that just sounds – well, fishy. When you have numerous opposing claims then that is simply ridiculous.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        The appropriate technology would be a fishing rod the size of a telephone pole.

      • Seth Manapio says:

        If I thought you were generally truthful, I would totally believe that you saw a 20-foot fish in the lake with your own eyes. However, that claim in and of itself is not evidence for the existence of the fish.

        The difference between a skeptic and a believer would be that if I, as a skeptic, thought I saw a 20ft fish in the lake with my own eyes, I would doubt my memory of the experience in the absence of any other other evidence supporting it. A believer would value the memory above the falsifying evidence.

        This is why many Christian “skeptics” are not, in my view, skeptics. There are self-described skeptics who claim to have had experiences that they cannot adequately communicate to me or corroborate by other means that convinced them that not only was there a historical Jesus, but that this Jesus was in fact the incarnation of the creator of the universe, who will reward their disembodied consciousness with an eternity of bliss in exchange for fealty on earth.

        These experiences are the equivalent of seeing a 20 foot long fish in a small lake. The existence of such a fish is in serious doubt, in that lake in particular or in any lake at all. We know that people are often mistaken in either what they remember or what they observe. Refusing to believe that you could have been mistaken in seeing the fish is not skepticism.

      • tmac57 says:

        Maybe believers have some sort of special ‘antenna’ with which to receive the ‘god’ or ‘spiritual’ signal. If so, then some part of my receiving system must be faulty. I am not saying this to be facetious, I just truly do not ‘get’ it, and it would take something extraordinary to change that.
        The experiences that I have heard described, that convinced the people of faith that I know, came from more of a cultural tradition, as opposed to a ‘revelation’. Others were socially troubled and ‘lost’ individuals, who needed a place to ‘belong’, and were accepted by some religious group. Some people have profound experiences which modern neurology can now both explain and even simulate. So what is left? I guess I would have to ‘see it’ to believe it.

      • Seth Manapio says:

        But that’s exactly the point. Seeing is not a good reason for believing.

      • tmac57 says:

        Seth- I was not using “see it” in the literal sense.

      • Seth Manapio says:

        Perhaps you meant something more like “I’d have to see the corroborating evidence to believe the claim”? :)

      • SkepticTheist says:

        MadScientist, You can call religion superstition if you like, but your new superstition is philosophical / ontological naturalism, on the equally shaky ground of being untestable, and therefore boils down to mere denialism of that which is unfalsifiable. And so, since you are on equally shaky grounds, and are claiming something outside of your ability to prove, you are a hypocrite.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        Despite the fact that you’re just plain wrong, smearing his credibility won’t make religion any less a superstitious practice.

        From wikipedia:

        Naturalism is any of several philosophical stances wherein all phenomena or hypotheses commonly labeled as supernatural, are either false or not inherently different from natural phenomena or hypotheses.

        Given that naturalism only deals with properties of the natural world, then anything that falls within the domain of naturalism is testable. These facts contradict your assertion that “philosophical/ontological naturalism”, whatever that means, is in any way superstitious.

      • Non-skeptical says:

        Also, I like the part where you tack on “Skeptic” to make yourself seem more credible. Religion is untestable, hence it cannot reject the null hypothesis, thus it is outside the realm of scientific or naturalistic skepticism. It needs not be tested, as it cannot be, and hence has no compellling reason to be believed. Moreover, a Skeptic who is a theist is rejecting a Skeptical view on their own Theistic beliefs. The only truly skeptical way (In my own opinion) to view the existance of a Deity is “We don’t know, and we can’t know by the definition of a Deity by religion.” If we use some other definition, a non supernatural definition of a deity, then we can prove it. But until any proof exists, the only proper route to take is “I don’t know, I believe what can be proven.” As such, you cannot ascribe a belief to a deity that may not exist, over the belief in other deities that may not exist. Which means that you end up with the atheistic viewpoint. If there’s any way you can come to a theistic viewpoint by applying the rejection of the null hypothesis to religion, I’m all ears. But I’m not inclined to listen to tu quoe arguements by a theist who determines that Naturalism is superstition, because as it stands, you are wrong, as naturalism requires no SUPER-natural claims or beliefs.

  3. Shakespeare says:

    Kansas presented a situation where religion overstepped its bounds a few years ago, when its congress mandated a modification of the public schools’ science program to present intelligent design in its classrooms, INSTEAD OF evolution. Given that there is absolutely no scientific basis for intelligent design, science teachers were naturally upset about it, but the law was only repealed when Kansas legislators discovered that their law was being laughed at openly by many other states in the union.

    I’ve always found it astonishing that faith-based ideologies are defensive about their own territory, yet feel little problem with overstepping their own realm and claiming unverifiable ideas as scientific “truths.”

    Great post.

  4. Rick says:

    I respect (and generally agree with) your position of “tackling any religious claims that intrude upon science,” but I think there’s less willingness to bring scientific research back to the religious realm. Most of the science/religion “debates” focus on tired big-picture issues (does/can gods exist, etc.) rather than on specific research.

    I just came across this study, for example:

    …research showing that (not surprisingly) people’s own moral outlook heavily shapes their image of God’s moral outlook. To me, a study like this — or an ongoing series of studies like these — should have a much higher profile in the debate.

    In a sense, science could take small steps on the offense rather than continually defending itself against tired, subjective attacks.

    Big issues that fall under the “untestable claims” banner will never be resolved by debate. But the footprint of religion stretches well beyond its supernatural foundation — and is full of individual claims that are open to scientific scrutiny.

    • Drew says:

      I know that Steve specifically covered that story on his blog, because I remember commenting on it. I can’t find the link though.

    • MadScientist says:

      I would have thought that was pretty old news too. Pope Pius XII’s god was one which loved and worked with Hitler and Mussolini while Ratzinger’s god loves rapists so much that he shields them from the laws of mere humans.

      • Ender says:

        Man you’re an idiot. Make some other unscientific links to this paper why don’t you.

    • Testable claims says:

      The point Novella makes is that you can believe in something unscientific, but it isn’t science, and can’t be proved with science, and can’t be used to intrude upon science. This is the only proper way to do things. Once we try to prove the lack of existence of a deity definitively, we begin to encroach on a field where we try to test the untestable-a pointless exercise which will affect the beliefs of no true believer. Instead, we need to continue to educate, and encourage the belief of only what is provable, and not necessarily attack religion out of hand. For instance: We can attack biblical history, morality, and the like, but we can’t attack the potential for the existance of their God-we can only make it inductively unlikely. We can do this for all faiths, but that doesn’t make the existance of a God impossible, it just makes all possible Gods unlikely, and that should be enough. We don’t need to prove a position-they’re the ones making an assertion to an extroadinary claim, they need the extroadinary proof. The ball is in there court, and when they try to provide proof, we can examine it and see what comes of it.

  5. Brian M says:

    This post is rather bothersome. You are effectively saying that anything that you can’t test is beyond science, and we have no grounds to call it false. We can’t test popoff’s “miracle spring water, now supersized!”, so does that make it real? No, it doesn’t. But can we say its false? Yes, we can. Occams razor is useful, albeit not a definitive negative proof. Effectively, your position is everything is “maybe” until we can prove it true.

    We can also take the negative of that, and go nothing is true because it may be proven false via some “other worldly” force. Gravity makes sense in naturalistic terms, but what if the spiritual realm is real, and that has an entirely different cause. Therefor, we can’t say gravity is real.

    I’m gonna go grumble about this… :)

    • Chris Kavanagh says:

      Surely you could test Popoff’s claims. He claims that his water has special properties that heal people and do other amazing things. There are very simple tests that could prove this false (double blind with control) but we don’t really need to bother with them given Popoff’s notorious history as a conman. I don’t think Steve’s position in any way entails that people like Popoff get a free pass. In fact, given that Popoff is regularly mentioned on the SGU wouldn’t it be clear that he meets the criteria for Steve to think that his claims can be addressed?

      • Ender says:

        Yes, Brian M seems to have misunderstood the OP, Popoff’s claims fall well under the purview of testable claims and therefore science.

  6. Scott Young says:

    Very nice article. I have a wee bit of trouble with Steve’s “an untestable claim, not that it is wrong, but that it is outside the realm of science.” What is the boundary between claim and currently untestable hypothesis (I’m thinking of certain aspects of string theory)? Certainly, the latter may serve as a foundation to generate counter hypotheses and healthy scientific debate (and maybe eventually tests). Hopefully most, if not all, in a field realize the limitations.

  7. Chris Harrell says:

    I think this is Dr Novella’s way of saying to any theistic skeptics: “Hey we want and need you on our team, but don’t worry, your beliefs are safe from direct attack from us.” And that’s fine, I think that’s one of his jobs as a “respectable” face of the skeptic movement. There are plenty of others of us who are not so tolerant and we shouldn’t be allowed to scare off potential allies.

    Personally, I think that if someone does follow a skeptical outlook and is not afraid to question their own beliefs then most of the time they will end up abandoning their theistic beliefs. But that is an optional outcome, we need bigger numbers of skeptics now, not internecine squabbling.

    Speaking of squabbling, here is my rant. Someone correct me if I’m wrong (and I’m sure someone will): Agnostic = lack of absolute knowledge. Atheist = lack of theistic BELIEF. Therefore one can be an agnostic theist, or an agnostic atheist. But to say one is simply “an agnostic” period, seems rather disingenous. You should be able to tell whether or not you BELIEVE, regardless of what you KNOW.

    • Majority of One says:

      I won’t correct you because I think you’re right. I tell people all the time that I’m an agnostic atheist. Agnostic because I can’t know, just like they can’t know, but I believe there is no god, thus I’m also an atheist. I then tell them they’re agnostic christians or whatever religion they are…

      This does seem to be a bit of a contentious issue, however. I don’t understand why.

    • tmac57 says:

      I see a subtle distinction between ” I DON’T believe in god”, and ” I believe there IS NO god”. Not everyone seems to understand that difference though.

    • Ender says:

      “I think this is Dr Novella’s way of saying to any theistic skeptics: “Hey we want and need you on our team, but don’t worry, your beliefs are safe from direct attack from us.” And that’s fine, I think that’s one of his jobs as a “respectable” face of the skeptic movement. There are plenty of others of us who are not so tolerant and we shouldn’t be allowed to scare off potential allies.”

      No, I think this is Dr Novella’s way of saying to any theistic skeptics: “Hey, logically you are on our team, and those who say otherwise are being bad skeptics.” I think that’s fine and that the plenty others of you who are not so tolerant and don’t understand why you’re being bad skeptics should focus on what he’s saying about science, metaphysical naturalism and the limits of what science can tell us.

      “Someone correct me if I’m wrong (and I’m sure someone will): Agnostic = lack of absolute knowledge. Atheist = lack of theistic BELIEF. Therefore one can be an agnostic theist, or an agnostic atheist. But to say one is simply “an agnostic” period, seems rather disingenous. You should be able to tell whether or not you BELIEVE, regardless of what you KNOW.”

      You’re not wrong, you’re just using the words in one particular way. In my experience people from all over use the words in slightly different ways, by and large they also tend to think that they’re using the ONLY correct and sensible definition, so kudos to you for being prepared to be wrong. Many people use a 3 step split, Atheism (Weak – lack of belief, Strong – positive belief that there is no God), Agnosticism (Weak – belief that you do not know (overlaps w/ Weak atheism, Strong – belief that you cannot know), and Theism (don’t really care)

      That’s only one, there’s plenty of different ways and there’s no one ‘correct’ definition, there’s just more and less useful definitions – and that often depends on the context of the discussion.

  8. Brian – that is a complete misreading of the post. Saying that something is inherently unknowable is NOT the same thing as saying “maybe.” And, whether you like it or not, it is a simple matter of logic that if something is unknowable you cannot know that it is false.

    Why do you feel the need to say something unknowable is false? I think it is a bigger criticism to say it is unknowable. The most cutting critique in science I have heard is to say of something that it is “not even wrong.” Being wrong is useful, being not even wrong is useless because it is outside the bounds of knowledge.

    Also – Occam’s razor has nothing to do with falsification. It is a rule of thumb that helps distinguish among possible alternatives. The unknowable doesn’t even make the list.

    • MadScientist says:

      However, we may have “currently unknowable” as opposed to “fundamentally unknowable”. If a person claims a “fundamentally unknowable” entity as a known fact then they are full of it. So I just don’t buy into this “god is unknowable/works in mysterious ways but god is like this and like that and god told me …” nonsense. We’re back to Max’s hypothetical fish claim – let’s say that he claimed his fish to be the last in existence and no one ever sees this fish he claimed again. A few possibilities are (1) it was all made up, (2) there was something but not a fish, and (3) there was a fish, it was the last of the species, it died, and there were no preserved remains for anyone to discover in the future. Religions like to make a claim akin to (3) and at the same time claim they genuinely know so much about these gods. Isn’t it also peculiar how gods once meddled so much in the affairs of humans and then suddenly stopped making grand appearances? Did the gods die, decide in their infinite wisdom that fiddling with humans is not a good thing (though the infinite wisdom did not keep them away before), or (consistent with observations over thousands of years) did gods simply never exist? As someone else put it: how many generations of humans must die before it is discovered that heaven is but a lie? Christianity: 2000 years and still praying for the apocalypse. Not that other religions are superior in any way.

      • Ender says:

        If a person claims a “fundamentally unknowable” entity as a known fact then they are full of it

        Yes, because they’re claiming it’s a ‘known fact’. That has no bearing on whether or not the ‘”fundamentally unknowable” entity’ exists or not.
        If you claim that the ‘”fundamentally unknowable” entity’ doesn’t exist you are also claiming a ‘known fact’ about it and are equally full of it.

  9. Chris – I specifically said that my position is not just my way of being nice to theists. It is my carefully defended philosophical position.

    Scott – that is an interesting nuance. Figuring out how to test a theory is one of the greatest challenges in science, and it is not always obvious if an idea is testable or not.

    I do think there is a difference between something which we don’t know how to test, or is practically difficult to test – from something which is inherently and forever untestable by its very composition.

    • MadScientist says:

      The inherently and forever untestable bit is fine – but that means that absolutely no valid claims can be made about that thing which is inherently and forever untestable. That is hardly how any religion operates though; while claiming to be untestable they are also never short of claims founded on the untestable – and that’s just plain detestable.

      • tmac57 says:

        I’m sure there is a ‘testicle’ joke in there somewhere, but the thing about religion is, that if you try to pin down any particular claim about it, there are myriad ways for your opponents to slip out of your fingers. Not the least of which being, the perpetual ‘moving of the goalposts’ maneuver. When a person’s belief is constructed around ‘faith’, it is by definition,nearly impervious to reason, in my opinion.

      • MadScientist says:

        The “moving goalpoasts” is really funny because the goalpost mover invariably wants you to be distracted by one trivial gnat-sized issue and ignore the hulking mountain next to you. It is the moving goalposts which ultimately results in the deist’s god – the one which philosophically cannot be disproven; it also happens to not bear even the most remote resemblance to the gods which religious people believe in.

      • Ender says:

        Yeah, those ‘religious people’ and the ‘gods they believe in’ you know they’re all so similar that they can simplistically be generalised about like that. Oh no wait, there’s a lot of variety, and you’re being lazy.

  10. Scott Young says:

    Curious that some aspect of faith may be important psychologically at both ends of the spectrum (claim/hypothesis)…but for different reasons.

  11. CW says:

    Interestingly, I listened to an older episode of SGU right before this Saturday’s episode. In the older episode, an e-mailer had asked the panel “what evidence would make you accept a pseudo-science/supernatural belief (specifically – what evidence would you need to encounter to accept the existence of God)?” The e-mailer’s question came after an interview where a guest had asserted that true believers often can not come up with evidence to make them switch positions – and thus, they are close-minded. Skeptics always maintain an open mind and would be willing to switch positions in light of new evidence.

    In the recent episode, I was confused by Rebecca’s response where she seemed to get defensive toward a person’s definition of atheism. I didn’t feel that she elaborated her point very well, but perhaps that is my fault for not understanding.

    I get the sense from atheists that skepticsm should be agnostic towards all pseudo-science claims (testable), and to reject all supernatural claims (not testable)? I think I prefer just to remain agnostic towards both pseudo-science and supernatural claims.

    • MadScientist says:

      Any number of events which conflict with what we understand of reality can convert the unbelievers (or at least many if not most of them). For example, let’s say that all disease simply ceased to exist starting tomorrow. What non-supernatural agent can cause such a thing? (Well, what non-supernatural agent which wouldn’t destroy all other life on the planet as well.) Knowing some fundamental physical limitations would lead us to conclude that even advanced alien civilizations could not achieve such a feat. It would have to be considered supernatural until proven otherwise and as I said, the proof would involve violating what we currently consider to be natural limitations so that would be some hell of an advance in knowledge.

  12. Jim R. says:

    Excellent post and my feelings exactly. Thanks for such a cogent explanation. I’m totally in with you and the Bill Nye, Carl Sagan, Genie Scott, Neil Tyson wing. We might be called “accommodationists,” but I would argue that they have the bigger impact on spreading the message of the importance of science and skepticism than anyone else. I remember that woman at Dragon*Con standing up to talk to Jeff Wagg (who was, ironically, wearing a priest get-up) and saying that she was a Christian who was afraid but curious about the skeptic track and was pleasantly surprised that she had so many of the same concerns being voiced. Jeff was adamant that she belong there just as much as anyone. It was a great meeting.


    • MadScientist says:

      Please supply some evidence for this claim that “they (accommodationists) have the bigger impact on spreading the message of the importance of science and skepticism than anyone else.” What one thinks is the truth and what the truth really is are quite distinct. For example, a number of years ago for the hell of it I interviewed people about why they drove above the speed limit in a certain area. The majority believed they get to where they want to go significantly faster (though people could only guess at an imaginary time saved). And yet the traffic lights in that area are designed to slow you down to control the flow of traffic in the city as a whole. Driving for about 1 hour at 25% above the speed limit doesn’t get anything close to the unimpeded 20% reduction in transit time; you’re lucky if you get as much as a 5% reduction. If an unmarked police car is tailing someone who is driving badly they do not go speeding and attract attention – they do what they can to appear just like any other driver knowing full well that they don’t have to put in much of an effort to keep the other vehicle in sight (unless they have a bit of bad luck, which happens). Short story: don’t make such assertions without carefully collected facts.

      • goodtimes says:

        My experience (sorry, not a well-funded, peer-reviewed study of thousands. Doubt you have any evidence to back up your side other than experience, either.) has supported Jim R’s belief…back when I was confrontational and purist, I think I had little effect other than to harden religionists’ stances and make them dismiss me. Now that I’m what some would call an “accomodationist”, I’ve managed to plant skeptical seeds (often starting with pseudo-medicine or New Age woo) and seen people become more and more skeptical…a couple of people even became agnostic/athiest.

        I think that given the way human minds work, a more tolerant stance is the best way to approach most people. Normal people do not “switch off” beliefs instantly…the process is gradual. I find it quite telling that an argument further up the thread tries to use a programming metaphor…so many here seem to believe that most people are just machines that will “reboot” into skepticism after hearing the right logical argument, and should be cast into the outer darkness and mocked if they do not instantly abandon a lifetime of beliefs. Skepticism is not a service pack, it’s a learning curve.

        It took me a long, long time to ditch my belief in the supernatural, and during a lot of that time I was working to keep evolution in the science classrooms in TX, helping to expose charlatans and crap-based medicine, and lobbying for science to my elected officials…all while going to church. A church whose doctrines I was gradually believing less and less in…finally I left. But it took awhile and without the Sagans and Nyes and Novells, it would either not have happened or happened even more slowly. My own background, weaknesses and fantasy-prone-ness made it much harder for me to ditch faith, but the “accomodationists” made it easy for me to begin a journey into skepticism. Given my exoperience with people, I think we “less than perfectly rational” are in the majority. Skeptics should accept that and strategize accordingly.

  13. I agree with everything Steve says in this post — and like him, I consider Genie a leading light on this question.

    Another expression of this same sentiment that I’d strongly recommend is the “Great Atheist Debate Over the Limits of Science” episode of Massimo Pigliucci’s podcast Rationally Speaking. Steve’s one our clearest thinkers, but if anyone nails this question even more precisely, it’s Pigliucci.

  14. Jim says:

    I think it must just be that all of the “accommodationists” know people who espouse religious positions wildly different from the mainstream. I don’t know any theists that claim to believe in a god that has no effect on the world. I am always bothered by people who suggest that there are some set of religious claims that are, by definition, untestable. Sure, but who is worried about those claims? Where are all these deists and last-thursdayists who don’t have beliefs that make any discernible difference in the world? Further, why is everyone so dead set on holding up this incredible minority as representative of theists in general? What deists are giving Eugenie Scott trouble that she feels the need reassure them that science can’t touch their religious beliefs? Those people just don’t seem to need such reassurance as their notion of a god is not threatened by science.
    The only people that need such reassuring are those who do, in fact, have beliefs that directly contradict things for which we have overwhelming scientific evidence. I don’t know who this accommodationist dance is supposed to appease, but it looks as though all it can do is either address people beyond the concern of most “new atheists,” like last-thursdayists, or patronize mainstream believers by telling them that they don’t really believe what they do, for example that evolution isn’t really a problem for their literal belief in the Genesis account of creation.
    If these ideas are indeed important, we should address them, politics be damned.

    • Ender says:

      “Further, why is everyone so dead set on holding up this incredible minority as representative of theists in general?”

      Who is doing this exactly? If you’ve got a cite from the OP – go for it. All I’ve ever seen are people saying “You can’t say that science proves all religious claims wrong, it doesn’t prove the untestable ones wrong” – and that’s just a fact.

      “I don’t know who this accommodationist dance is supposed to appease”

      That’s exactly it, you’re looking for someone to appease, you’re concentrating on the theists, “which theists is this for?”, “what’s the theist-related motivation here?”, when the actual motivation is scientific and philosophical coherence and accuracy.
      It’s not about theists. It wouldn’t matter if every last theist in the world died tomorrow – unfalsifiable claims will still not be disproven by science, and anyone who claims they are will still be wrong.

  15. Robo Sapien says:

    As far as skepticism accomodating religion, I agree with Dr. Novella that people are entitled to believe whatever they want to believe about the unknown, but science will always trump faith. However, I am of the opinion that as skeptics, we have an obligation to ourselves (and only ourselves) to face up to the real and tangible facts of life and death, and to find some kind of meaning in our lives without resorting to belief in deities for comfort.

    I have faith that faith will almost (keyword: almost) completely dissolve over time, as human understanding of the nature compounds in a positive feedback loop. Faith is simply a “fill in the blank” for elements of nature that we do not understand, but the problem is an issue of attachment. The stronger our faith in something, the harder it is to let it go. Plus, the fact that something untestable cannot be disproven leaves a margin of hope. As long as that hope exists, the article of faith will hold true.

    The fact is, faith is part of human existance and always will be. Since all matter is constantly in motion, then it is impossible to know everything (that would require a complete and static set of data on every particle in the whole of existance). As long as there is the unknown, then faith will be there to fill in the blanks within the realm of human knowledge.

    Every human being has or had faith in something at least once in their life. Most folks (mainly losers like me) have memories of a teenage crush, where despite all the mountains of evidence pointing to near-zero probability of winning the subject’s heart, we still had faith that said person would come around. Because the notion that this person will never date you cannot be stated with 100% certainty, here we have the aforementioned margin of hope. So we make asses of ourselves.

    • Seth Manapio says:

      “However, I am of the opinion that as skeptics, we have an obligation to ourselves (and only ourselves) to face up to the real and tangible facts of life and death, and to find some kind of meaning in our lives without resorting to belief in deities for comfort.”

      I believe that this is not merely an obligation to ourselves, it is a necessity to skepticism in general. If skepticism has no secular message of comfort and hope, it is doomed to stay on the fringes, ignoring almost everything that the majority of people find meaningful.

      There is an idea that a godless universe can only have a message of despair. That there is no meaning to life if there is no life after death. There is an idea that skepticism has no moral foundation and no moral position. If skepticism can’t address this idea with a positive message and a moral foundation, we can only define skepticism as a movement that is against things. And if we aren’t against religion in general, or we avoid big religious topics and big political topics for fear of controversy, we aren’t even against anything that people think is important.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        Then perhaps the strategy should be to convince people that these things ARE important and let the facts speak for themselves, rather than convince them that the untestable is not worth believing in.

        Part of our doom lies in the branding of “skepticism” — Although we might be enlightened as to the true nature of the word, to most people it is equal to cynicism and immediately gets shrugged off. Hell, calling it the “Nitpicking Naysayer Movement” would carry just as much weight politically.

        Better yet, call it the “Bowel Movement” and we just might get some peoples’ attention.

      • Seth Manapio says:

        We will never convince people that cold readers and homeopathy are important. This is mostly because, compared to practically any subject that some skeptics want to place “off limits”, like politics, they aren’t important.

        I totally disagree with you on the branding. Skeptic is a good word with a proud tradition. It isn’t the PR black hole people think it is.

      • Bob says:

        A problem I’ve seen time and time again is the conflation between skepticism, atheism, and humanism. One is a method of testing claims, one is a disbelief in a specific and popular untestable claim, and one is an ethical framework. My impression is that most people who claim to be one of the above tend to be all three, but that is not always the case (IIRC Michael Shermer tends to the former two but not the latter and Paul Kurtz relentlessly promotes the first and third and slags on the middle.)

        It is not the role of skepticism or atheism or even secularism to replace the metaphorical baby tossed out with the bathwater of religious dogma. I promote skepticism as a means of evaluating the likely truthfulness of claims, I promote secularism as a means of protecting freedom of conscience for all, I promote atheism to level the playing field in a culture that unfairly privileges the religious, and I promote humanism as a moral compass superior to those espoused by religions.

        I agree with Steve’s core points, that treating untestable claims as a matter of faith beyond effective skeptical analysis is reasonable, as is applying the full battery of skeptical inquiry against testable claims regardless of their religious significance.

      • Seth Manapio says:

        I’m not sure why you think that skepticism is a method of testing claims or where this supposed conflation is occurring. Skepticism is a philosophy, and has been for perhaps 2300 years.

        The role of a philosophy is to provide a framework for understanding the universe and our place in that universe. If skepticism is artificially restricted from exploring areas of deep meaning to primate brains, it doesn’t provide much of a framework.

        You completely mistake me if you think I’m talking about replacing anything that tossed out with anything. I’m talking about addressing real questions that people have about things that matter to them, and having a message that is more substantive than “Psychics are bullshit.”

      • tmac57 says:

        Would you advocate that skeptics should be anti-religious (against religion)?

      • Seth Manapio says:

        I would advocate that skeptics be pro-skepticism, rather than anti-anything. But being pro-skepticism means, to me, not being shy about the implications of skeptical inquiry including that we live in an apparently godless universe.

        Looking at the world skeptically can be spiritual–for some definition of spiritual. As an example, perhaps a trivial one, I live in a large city. But walking through the city, if I take note of the trees, squirrels, moss, grass, weeds, bees, ants, and other ‘natural’ features of the landscape, I realize that it is only from the human point of view that the city is artificial. To every other living thing, it’s just another kind of environment to adapt to. To me, this implies an environmentalism devoid of the self-loathing of the environmental movement. We’ve inherited the idea from religion that we are a creature apart, fundamentally distinct from ‘nature’. But of course this is an illusion, and skeptical contemplation is one way to pierce that veil.

        In a universe with an interventionist God of some kind, regardless of the provability or testability of that God, there is some hope of appeal to a higher power to control or mitigate our excesses. There is the hope of some other world to live in after death, a world that is perhaps more robust and forgiving to a species like ours. This is a dangerous illusion, at least, it is a dangerous illusion if you care about life.

        I am perhaps not explaining this well. I’m just thinking that skepticism has to address issues like meaning and mission, and has to address them honestly. We are a particular kind of primate, a kind that cares about purpose. Skeptically, that reality can’t be ignored.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        I find that agreeable, but to say we “care about purpose” when other primates don’t is still making a philosophical distinction that sets us apart, one that deists are quick to jump on.

      • Seth Manapio says:

        I didn’t say anything at all about other primates not caring about purpose. You did. I don’t know if they do or not, I only know that we do and they may or may not.

      • Seth Manapio says:

        I mean, I see that there is an implication in my statement that there do exist primates that do not care about purpose. I suspect, although I don’t know, that this is true. But there is no implication that humans are the only members of the purposeful primates.

        More to the point, who cares what deists jump on? Everything is set apart in some way or another. Some caterpillars can breathe on land and under water. They are set apart. The Great White Shark is the only surviving Carchadon, setting it apart. Viewed from a given perspective, any species or even individual is set apart from some others

        The fact that we are ‘set apart’ in some way–sophistication of compound tool use, complexity of language–is a fact. The mistake is not in acknowledging facts about us as a species, it is in using those facts to support assertions that they simply do not support.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally with you in this view, I was just pointing out the distinction itself as being philosophical rather than technical. Bipedalism and use of tools are definitely technical distinctions that set us apart from other primates, whereas awareness of purpose seems more like a philosophical one. You’re right that deists can jump on a bed of rusty spikes for all we care, but the discussion has been of “skeptical deists” being a contradiction in terms.

      • Seth Manapio says:

        That’s a good point.

  16. Max says:

    Steve, what do religious skeptics say about mind-matter dualism?

    By the way, I know you want to concentrate on science, but skeptics must also tackle illogical religious arguments like Pascal’s wager and inconsistent religious teachings that contradict each other.

  17. Daniel says:

    Basically, it comes down to not being a jerk to religious people. If they want to get all in your face that the world is 6,000 years old and teach it as science in a public school, then they’re fair game. On the other hand, if they believe in something like intelligent design (or the flying spaghetti monster), but admit it’s only a personal belief and there isn’t yet any actual evidence of it, they’re being intellectually honest, so who cares. It’s not even worth a cocktail party debate.

  18. Max says:


    Regarding the boundaries of untestable claims, I’m thinking of Electronic Voice Phenomena. A JREF Million Dollar Challenge applicant had trouble explaining how to objectively determine that the recorded sounds are intelligible speech. It may sound like speech to him, but not to others. The subjective nature of EVP brings to mind the subjective nature of religious experiences and of out-of-body experiences.

  19. MadScientist says:

    I can understand confronting ridiculous notions such as the existence of a deity, but setting a task of convincing others that there is no deity sounds like a high-level exercise in futility. Simply teaching people to think sounds more productive; let them abandon superstition when they will. Confront superstition by all means, but don’t believe it can be eradicated.

  20. Sikay says:

    As has already been mentioned by several debaters of this topic, definitions are vital in getting anywhere. Therefore I always like to make it clear what I mean by the word “atheist” before I use it. By atheist, I follow the simplest definition of it, “one who believes that there is no deity” ( In my opinion, having a belief one day does not make it impossible to have the opposite belief the other day. For example, an 18th century skeptic would probably be skeptical about the existence of atoms or DNA if told about them in the year 1754. This would be because of the lack of evidence for the two. The technology of his/her days was certainly not capable of providing convincing evidence. Therefore, the skeptical position of the days would be to doubt the existence of atoms, but not write it of as an inpossibility.

    In the same way, my opinion is that with the evidence we have today, one should be skeptical of the claim of a god which can affect the material world (any god not possible of interacting with the material world will never be found using scientific methods, therefore I mean to adress the claim of “materially interacting gods”). And, in the same way that the 18th century skeptic would not have believed in the existence of atoms (although he/she would certainly have found the thought curious and would have wanted to investigate it further), I say that I do not believe in the existence of materially interacting god/gods. That, by the definition presented earlier, makes me an atheist.

    For me, a vital part of being a skeptic is to always be ready to reconsider one’s previous beliefs when presented with new evidence. In that way, the skeptic does not have to be a psychic (to be able to know what science will say about a subject in n-thousands years) but still have a model of the world as we know it. It is important that skepticism does not become a doctrine with a firm set of beliefs, but a way of weighing the importance and validity of evidence of all sorts. For me, the important thing is not what a person’s position is on a question, it’s how they got there. This is what skepticism is and should continue to be.

    Using the tools of skepticism and the evidence I’ve seen, my current stance is that I do not believe in the existence of a god which interacts with the material world. If I saw evidence of the existence of a god, I would question it, evaluate it and perhaps change what I believe.

    I am not an atheist out of pure will (I’d love having an afterlife and thinking that everything has a meaning), but reason and evidence have led me into another direction. Knowing that my belief is not a matter of ideology makes me more confident in being able to use reason and evidence to come to a stand-point. The question of the existence of a god deserves the same scrutiny as the existence of ghosts or aliens.

    (Sorry for writing a far to long “confession” on the “whats and whys” of my personal position, but I hope I’ve sown a few seeds of thought in some minds, I can certainly say that reading the post by Steven and all the comments sowed a few seeds in my mind. Any comments are more than welcome, it may just as well make me reconsider some part of my stance ;) )

  21. I think logic is also fair game – in fact, my position amounts to using logic to force believers into admitting their beliefs are not “knowledge” but faith, and what faith really means. This takes all the “teeth” out of faith-based beliefs, and puts them in perspective.

    While I do know deists (like Martin Gardner), even if there were none, it does not matter to my position. It is not a premise of mine that there are naked deists. Rather, I am pointing out what faith is, and what science and logic are. It is important for both sides to be clear on this, and that actually accomplishes most of our work for us. The more you teach people how to think critically, the more their faith becomes less relevant (because they won’t be abusing it, confusing it for science, etc.). It also keeps pseudoscientists from retreating to non-falsifiable claims, because then they are admitting their beliefs are faith and not science.

    It’s really a win-win all around.

    • Robo Sapien says:

      When I grow up, I want to be just like you, Steven Novella. You are a critical thinking ninja. It will probably never happen, I’m nowhere near as smart, so I’ll just have to settle for being terribly handsome.

      It seems to me that your approach would be enough to sway any reasonable person who just hasn’t thought things through, but some people are just so dense that you have to make them feel foolish before they stop acting that way. Don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, but a slap in the face by reality is often needed.

      • Max says:

        If you want to talk strategy, consider what James Cameron said about his propaganda piece Avatar. He said that people’s beliefs are rooted in emotion rather than reason, so Avatar appeals to emotion rather than reason to change them. It’s basically an argument for using propaganda.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        I still haven’t seen Avatar, I plan to as soon as I come out from under my rock. But I can definately see the logic in that. Propaganda is historically the most effective means of controlling a population. It is indeed a double edged sword, but has always done more harm than good. Some would fancy themselves above using propaganda tactics, but two things remain true: it IS effective and assholes will always use it, regardless of what the moral people do. So I say fight fire with fire.

      • MadScientist says:

        You sure you’re not confusing Cameron with M. Nisbett? Hehehe. Although I. Kristol seems to be given much of the credit, that is an old thing – lying to achieve an ideological objective. Hitler did it, but of course people would say he had an evil end in sight – what a pity Hitler had a different notion of evil. But it’s fine if, say, Nisbett does it because he’s one of the “good guys” (or at least he’ll tell you that he’s a good guy, but no doubt so would Hitler – I think people who see things that way inherently subscribe to “moral relativism” – if you do it, it’s evil, if I do it it’s good).

      • Robo Sapien says:

        I wonder what authority could possibly dictate the best message to brainwash the public with. That is the kind of stuff you see in post-apocalyptic movies.

    • Jim says:

      Who disagrees with this? If there is some tension in the community over this issue, and you’ve staked out one side of this, what is the other side? Are there skeptics out there saying that we shouldn’t point out what faith is? Who does not think we should use “logic to force believers into admitting their beliefs are not ‘knowledge’ but faith, and what faith really means”?
      I don’t think this is the tension at all. I think this is exactly what people who want to push on the theists are doing as well. The issue something else entirely, and it revolves around whether or not religion should be seen as something that skeptics address. The answer to many of us is “Duh,” and it is difficult to wrap our heads around what is meant by the other side. What I typically hear is something like what you say in this post, that religious beliefs are unfalsifiable and, therefore, beyond the reach of science. I always find that odd for two reasons. First, if science is seen in such a narrow light, then skepticism is more than scientific reason. It also involves logic, as you point out in this comment. Coherence matters. Therefore, it is perfectly within the bounds of skepticism to be concerned about wildly incoherent beliefs and their impact, even if those beliefs are not strictly scientific.
      But the bigger issue is that almost all theists believe in a god that interacts with the world, and such interaction is within the realm of science. This is why the point about deists is relevant. While you might know a deist, who in the skeptical, or even atheist, community is hammering him? What strident new atheist is out there talking about how deism poisons everything? That’s rhetorical, of course, as the answer is obvious. I don’t see anyone concerned about your deist friend. That’s not the concern. That makes all of this a kind of red herring.
      I can’t help but think that a great deal of the tension in our community over this issue revolves around the inability of one side or the other to address the real issue at hand. There seems to be little disagreement at all, and this is because different issues are being addressed by the different sides. Yet when I attempt to highlight this, and I have done so repeatedly, my concerns are repeatedly mischaracterized and recast into something else.
      I think the accommodationists should stop talking about those theists who believe in a god that makes no difference to anything, a god who does not interact in the world, a god for whom belief in it makes no change to any scientific theory, a god who does not stick his finger in and muddle with the world. No “new atheist” is worried about those theists (though they might be a curiosity). Those incredibly rare individuals are not the point. They should not be held up by the accommodationists as the representatives of religious belief. No one cares about the non-existent last-Thursdayists.

  22. Vince says:

    A side note:
    Though the blog post doesn’t use the term supernatural I noticed a couple of the comments did. I just wanted to suggest people read some recent blog entries by Richard Carrier on the meaning of that word. It is often used to mean “untestable” but Carrier argues it shouldn’t be. He argues it is important for Metaphysical (Philosophical) Naturalists to be able to define what they mean by natural and “untestable”/”testable” doesn’t work. Under that definition if God were discovered tomorrow by, scientific means, we would have to label it now as natural.

    He argues instead that something supernatural is anything that has “any mental property or power that is not reducible to a nonmental mechanism. If, however, all of their powers and properties can be reduced to nonmental mechanisms, then they are not supernatural beings after all, but natural ones.”

    He also discusses the difference between supernatural and paranormal which he defines as something outside of currently known science. Here are the relevant links.

    • Robo Sapien says:

      I’m afraid that definition is off base. That would make all life supernatural. Let’s take a look at what it really means:

      First the prefix:
      super- – over and above : higher in quantity, quality, or degree than – more than

      Now the adjective:
      natural – a: being in accordance with or determined by nature – b: having or constituting a classification based on features existing in nature

      That doesn’t quite explain it, lets look at the noun:
      Nature – the inherent character or basic constitution of a person or thing

      In this context, the supernatural cannot exist. An entity cannot possess properties or characteristics greater than that which define its existance.

      Hope that helps.

      • Vince says:

        No, I think you’ve misunderstood. The naturalist claims all the properties of life including their brains/minds are reducible to non-mental (i.e. physical) entities. Therefore they are natural. By this definition, if you are claiming that they are not reducible, and can demonstrate it, then the naturalist would indeed be forced to admit that life is not merely natural.

        The definitions that your provided are not helpful in the least. First of all the noun definition you provided is not even talking about the same thing as the adjective. The “nature of something” is not what naturalism is talking about. I’m guessing you copy pasted the wrong definition there.

        The other 2 definitions and your summary are actually a perfect example of what Carrier was talking about. If the answer ends up being nothing can ever be supernatural then what does it even mean to be a naturalist?

        Anyway, my intention was not to debate it here, just to offer it to anyone that wants to read it. Carrier is pretty good about responding to people on his blog. If , after reading the blogs, you still have issues with what he is saying let him know.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        Boy, you sure posted on the wrong blog if you weren’t looking for a debate. The problem I see with Carrier’s idea is that he is assuming the non-physical, or “mental” entities exist. As discussed above, a non-physical entity is untestable and thus outside the domain of science.

      • Vince says:

        Robo, no offense, but you clearly have not read any of the links. Why should I debate you about something you haven’t even bothered to read. I’m not going to reproduce 3 long blog posts plus some supporting materials here.

        Right in the 3rd paragraph he gives examples of what you are talking about. He also extensively discusses the issues of empiricism. How can we know if something is merely mental or not, and can we always know.

        “The underlying mechanics of quantum phenomena might be physically beyond all observation and therefore untestable, but no one would then conclude that quantum mechanics is supernatural. Just because I can’t look inside a box does not make its contents supernatural.

        Conversely, if I suddenly acquired the Force of the Jedi and could predict the future, control minds, move objects and defy the laws of physics, all merely by an act of will, ordinary people everywhere would call this a supernatural power, yet it would be entirely testable. Scientists could record and measure the nature and extent of my powers and confirm them well within the requirements of peer review.”

        I know it is a lot of material but your responses so far are nonsensical if you actually read what he wrote. Like I said once you actually read what he wrote , and only then, feel free to tell him how wrong he is. I personally found it convincing and look forward to your discussion with him about it. I would suggest responding to the 3rd link I gave since that is the most recent of them.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        I tried, really I did. But his posts are so damn long and wordy, my eyes started to twitch. He offers a lot of analysis about how we perceive useless nonsense, and that’s about it. I don’t see how making a bloated distinction between paranormal and supernatural helps at all in a world where none of that crap has ever been proven in thousands of years of civilization. This isn’t the dark ages when we understood squat about nature and everything we didn’t was a supernatural phenomenon.

        That is what I don’t like about philosophy. It served its purpose back when humans knew dick about the workings of the universe, but now we have a foothold into a much larger world of REAL explanations, and in this tangible world that is all that counts.

      • Vince says:

        Fair enough. I really didn’t want to derail this thread here but I’ll try to summarize. His primary purpose is to give clear, meaningful definitions of terms.

        Naturalism is a metaphysical claim because it is in opposition to supernaturalism which is a metaphysical claim. I.e. it makes claims about what exists (not what is known or how to know it).

        Both sides need some kind of definition of what is being claimed. What properties do these things that supposedly exist have. The question of how we go about finding out if they exist is a separate question. We have to know what it is we are looking for in order to say we found it or not.

        Definitions that just make supernatural a synonym for untestable are not helpful for 2 reasons. 1st they don’t allow us to actually do any kind of test to see if the claim is true. This, I think, is what you have been saying. It is true enough in some sense but it isn’t really helpful. By your definition everything we can test becomes natural which makes naturalism pretty meaningless. There is nothing we could ever find that would make us say “oh, we were wrong”. In short it makes naturalism just as bad as the supernaturalism of your definition. 2nd, and worse, it doesn’t actually accord with how people really use the term.

        The paragraph about the Jedi Force is a good example. There is a testable thing that everyone would agree was supernatural. Now we could do some testing and maybe it would turn out to be natural after all, but how would we know? What characteristics does it need to have such that most people would agree that it is natural or supernatural?

        He is arguing that it is the non-reducible mental aspect. I.e. that you pulled it off by an act of sheer will. Now you might object that maybe we just couldn’t figure out it was really natural. But that is a separate question. Again, what exactly is it we are trying to find out to determine the answer? What could we find to make us say “natural”? What could we find to make us say “supernatural”? The answer , he says, is that we would say it is natural if it reduces to being caused by non-mental entities and processes.

        Now you might argue that we can never know for sure whether something is nonmental but now you are arguing epistemology, but at least you know now what it is you are trying to find out! You might claim naturalism isn’t true at the level of certainty and that is fine. If your way of gaining knowledge requires absolute certainty then you can probably never gain knowledge about anything.
        But again that is a different question. The first step is to define things in such a way that we can at least hope to answer them. The definition I think you were defending doesn’t supply that.

      • MadScientist says:

        “If the answer ends up being nothing can ever be supernatural then what does it even mean to be a naturalist?”

        That’s easy – a naturalist would be non-superstitious. There is this thing called “nonsense” which people are capable of inventing; nonsense, similar to abstractions, can only exist in the imagination. Unlike abstractions, nonsense only serves two useful purposes which I can think of: encouraging people to think (and reject the nonsense) or to entertain. Gods are the supreme nonsense – and religions discourage their victims from actually thinking about their god(s) because realizing the nonsense is not good for the church coffers.

      • Ender says:

        “religions discourage their victims from actually thinking about their god(s)”

        Cite please. And you’re generalising again. Bigot :p

    • MadScientist says:

      It sounds to me like an attempt to evade an issue by senseless redefinitions. If god were discovered tomorrow he would still be supernatural because he would continue to be able to demonstrate that he can violate what we know of the natural world. At this point in time we really do know enough of the world to be able to investigate a claim unlike, say, Aristotle who did not have a sufficient understanding of the natural world to prevent him from being conned by a (ahem) time traveler.

      • Vince says:

        So it seems that you agree then that “untestable” is not the definition. And the definition you do use is circular. Supernatural is a violation of natural. And natural is…. ? What we know to be natural??? Even if we found out the powers of this god had a physical mechanism we would still call it supernatural? Why?

        So I guess you might say is that your definition is that natural means “everything that doesn’t violate what humans know in April, 2010.” Of course if we extrapolate that back in time then we would have to conclude that naturalism has been disproved a thousand times over. Many things have been discovered that would have appeared to someone in the past as a violation of what they knew of the natural world. Sucks to be a naturalist I guess. Also, we know call all of those things natural, so I guess that more or less shoots your definition unless we pick out April , 2010 knowledge as some kind of special point in time. So I would say your definition seems more senseless by a couple orders of magnitude at a least.

        I’m having a hard time believing people are objecting to defining terms clearly. And defining them in such a way as they match what people actually mean when they say them. Much better to have a circular definition I guess.

      • MadScientist says:

        Oh, jesus christ on a stick, do learn to read would you? Your claim that the definition of supernatural is circular is ridiculous. Supernatural isn’t “what’s not natural”, it’s what is in violation of “natural laws” as we understand them; do learn to distinguish between “natural” and “natural laws”. I would say in opposition to natural laws (though why should it be apriori impossible to establish what the supernatural laws are). Scientists always poke at the latest models to look for inconsistencies to investigate – such inconsistencies are not violations of natural law but expose ever diminishing flaws in the current models. A supernatural phenomenon will not expose a small flaw, it would violate established observations to such a degree that we must admit that our natural laws are not applicable sometimes due to divine intervention. This would include phenomena such as the instantaneous healings described in the christian bible, raising people from the dead using just a word or a touch, and rubbing spit on a blind man’s eyes to restore his sight. These are all acts in blatant violation of what we understand of the world – they are supernatural and observable. The hitch is that they have never been observed because the claims are all lies and hence the problem of “untestable” arises, because quite frankly, how do you test something which never existed?

        Historically, anything not understood was considered supernatural – for example, the bubonic plague. Obviously god sent the plague. Those days are long gone; we genuinely understand far more about how nature works than previous generations had. We see no reason to ascribe phenomenon which are not well understood to supernatural agents; we investigate first – the funny thing is there is absolutely no valid investigation which has resulted in the conclusion that a phenomenon must be of supernatural origin. Even really weird stuff has so far fit in well with what we understand of the world, and the observation of quantum phenomena has been one of the most surprising of observations because they did not fit in with the limited mechanical view of the world at the time.

        So, I’m still waiting for an observable violation of natural law which would tell us we’re wrong and there is something out there, even if not quite what is described by numerous superstitious texts over the centuries.

  23. Richard says:

    I enjoyed your article very much, and I agree with you that untestable claims are beyond the reach of science and are therefore unknowable, though this doesn’t mean that I believe in such claims. I would also like to thank you for making it clear that skepticism is not about the paranormal vs. religion or the new age vs. Christianity, but that all untestable beliefs are outside the perview of science, whether about God, universal energy, or ghosts. I believe that we, as skeptics, should welcome those who are interested in critical thinking, whether they are Catholic, atheist, Mormon, or followers of Meher Baba. While I am not a religious believer myself, and while I sometimes express unbelief or even antagonism toward religion, I am not against religion. I have no desire to evangelize or show people the error of their ways, and I am not hostile to any beliefs unless they are doing serious harm to society.

  24. souper genyus says:

    Good post. I just think that more agnostics who are also philosophical naturalists (and atheists by extension) would make the point you addressed in your post:

    It is reasonable from a philosophical point of view to conclude that there is no reason to believe in anything unknowable. All such beliefs are by necessity arbitrary, and most people end up believing whatever is taught to them by their parents and culture.

    Our agnosticism is not the agnosticism of a fence sitter, but the agnosticism of Bertrand Russell, as explained in his essay “Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic?”

    I cannot prove that either the Christian God or the Homeric gods do not exist, but I do not think that their existence is an alternative that is sufficiently probable to be worth serious consideration.

    It’s a very important point to make, in my opinion.

  25. Vince says:

    I think this article does an excellent job of framing the issue. It does so by avoiding one word that is often used in the debate, compatible. That seems to be the word that people react to negatively most of the time. It implies that either scientific findings somehow bolster or leave room for religion, or that they are ways of thinking that can coexist rather than needing to be compartmentalized. From what I can tell from the article, if asked “are science and faith compatible” your answer would be, “No. They are different ways of thinking.” Is that correct?

    The problem I have with people that answer “yes” to that question is that the scientific method includes describing models of the phenomena being studied. The principle of parsimony is pretty important in that step of the process. It takes a mighty strange definition of compatible to claim that religion is compatible with that principle.

    • MadScientist says:

      Leaving out “compatible” doesn’t seem to have spared the article from criticism; how is that successful ‘framing’?

  26. Chuck says:

    What an excellent and timely post. I gave almost the same presentation to my Honors Biology class last Friday as part of an introduction to our Evolution unit.

    “I prefer to give people critical thinking skills and a love for science, and not worry about their faith.”

    I definitely agree. I think it’s best to intrigue people with rationalism. If they are inclined to wrestle with their religious beliefs, they’ll come back for a talk when they’re ready. Attacking belief usually causes defensiveness and entrenchment rather than rational consideration.

  27. danekart says:

    I think that a skeptic is somebody who doesn’t believe untestable claims.

    • Somite says:

      So say we all!

      I’m afraid that in any forum a theist would have everyone’s sympathy and would appear to have won a debate if a skeptic would just retreat by saying “this is beyond my scope to address”. The proper response to untestable claims and beliefs is to say they don’t add anything to a conversation and they are not useful arguments. It is precisely the kind of magical thinking that skeptics should be working hard to eradicate.

      This is just a reframing of NOMA. I guess it is encouraging this god-hiding gap is shrinking from full NOMA to acknowledged irrational belief.

    • Max says:

      If your trustworthy best friend swears he heard a loud thump, you won’t believe him?

      • Seth Manapio says:

        I would believe that it was very probable that my trustworthy best friend heard a loud thump. This is not a testable claim per se, but the existence of my trustworthy best friend is a testable claim, and the existence of loud thumps is a testable claim, as is the phenomena of auditory hallucinations. So there are very few reasons to doubt such a claim.

      • Max says:

        Right, so some untestable claims are quite plausible, and skeptics can and do believe them all the time.

      • Seth Manapio says:

        My working definition of skepticism is closer to “A skeptic does not believe things in the absence of evidence.”

        “I think there are probably alien intelligences in the galaxy” is supported by indirect evidence. “We’ve been visited by reptilian aliens from Gamma Draconis” is not supported by any evidence.

      • danekart says:

        It matters not whether he did or didn’t hear a thump. So the question is moot.

        On the other hand, if the thump represented somebody locked in a room and trying to get out it would be very important to know whether the thump happened or did not happen; in any case it has become a testable claim because we can investigate possible causes for the thump.

        If my trustworthy best friend swears he has an invisible, _magical_ friend, I won’t believe him.

        Getting back to basics again, I think the job of a skeptic is to help the world get rid of magical thinking. Jehovah and ghosts are basically the same idea; the difference is that one belief system is firmly entrenched in our society and the other is trivialised and largely not taken seriously. How much of a laughing stock would Sweden be (to pick a country at random), if their opening of Parliament included chants designed to dispel poltergeists and keep ghosts out of the Chamber? Yet we see priests in church every Sunday (and other days, too) praying to and talking about the magical sky-daddy. Should we sagely nod our heads and say “I’m not going there because that’s NOMA, out of the reach of science”? Or should we call a spade a spade, and say “that’s magical thinking; we’re against that – and you should be too, for these reasons”.

  28. Somite says:

    I know my friend has ears and loud thumps are commonplace. Neither is true of supernatural claims.

  29. Skepacabra says:

    The problem I have with this position is that just about every issue skeptics address is unfalsifiable. Maybe our primitive science just can’t detect the water memory of homeopathy and anyone testing the efficacy of homeopathy is sending out negative vibrations that screw up the tests. Maybe vaccines really do cause autism but all the data to the contrary has just been faked by an omnipotent evil conspiratorial force that will stop at nothing to poison us with toxins in the vaccines. Sooner or later, every form of pseudoscience, denialism, and paranormal claims moves its goalpost outside the bounds of falsifiability. And yet we never seem to have this conversation when it comes to homeopathy or ghosts or vaccines. But some skeptics seem to feel they need to apply special pleading to religion because it’s religion.

    Few people seriously argue the “hard atheist” position that we know with certainty that no gods exist. The principle argument is that there’s no evidence to believe that one exists and the burden of proof lies with those claiming otherwise. And it’s because the burden of proof is on the believer, once they introduce an unfalsifiable position, they fail to meet the burden of proof and thus automatically lose the debate, whether we’re talking about homeopathy or religion.

    But for all intents and purposes one can reasonably conclude that gods almost certainly don’t exist. It seems that some don’t want to put their nickel down on a position and risk the minute possibility that they could be wrong. But I have no problem being wrong. I’ve been wrong before and I’ll be wrong again. And if one day new evidence is presented that proves a god does exist, I’ll gladly admit that I’m wrong. But until then, I have not been sufficiently persuaded that I am wrong. Take the Bible. The very first line of the book is objectively and scientifically wrong by many orders of magnitude. And it only gets worse from there. It’s scary to me that in another universe we might all be having this same insane discussion over whether science can conclusively dismiss The Cat In The Hat.

    At a certain point it’s unreasonable to keep a case open. If Judge Ito was an agnostic, the OJ case would still be running because maybe one day new evidence would drop from the sky. No, make a bloody decision, at least provisionally, and move on.

    • Max says:

      “Sooner or later, every form of pseudoscience, denialism, and paranormal claims moves its goalpost outside the bounds of falsifiability.”

      I was thinking the same thing, but Steve addressed this above when he said that pseudoscientists who retreat to non-falsifiable claims are admitting their beliefs are faith and not science.

      If a homeopath admits that water memory can’t be detected and the efficacy of homeopathy can’t be tested, then what’s left for skeptics to argue? At that point, homeopathy is no longer a pseudoscience pretending to be science, but a faith.

      • Skepacabra says:

        Yes, Steve does at least address the point but I don’t find his answer particularly satisfying.

        I don’t feel that once the true believer makes it a faith argument that the skeptic just has to take it on the chin and has to concede that they can’t disprove it. There are certain ideas that are simply too idiotic to even entertain in intellectual discourse and that line in the sand is falsifiability.

        Unfalsifiable claims about reality have no place in intellectual discourse and are cause an immediate disqualification from the realm of science. The believer hasn’t met their burden of proof so they’re done. Case dismissed. We can proceed to mock them. What you don’t do is keep a case open indefinitely just in case new evidence one day comes to light. It’s about practicality. If a claim can’t be demonstrated or doesn’t say anything useful about our reality, why am I paying lip service to it? It’s utterly useless. It’s garbage. And I have no problem being honest enough to tell the believer this, especially since it’s proven far more persuasive than being coy and overly agreeable. And at least they’ll know that I respect them enough to be honest with them instead of treating them like fragile children. And sure there are skeptics who believe in some god or another. There are skeptics who believe in ghosts too. They’re simply wrong.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        I’m with you there. We need to consider probability of causation when examining such issues. A claim is only untestable until we find a way to test it, so we cannot ever fully dismiss anything, which is a fact that many believers will exploit to avoid getting shut down.

        For example, a claim of the earth being studied from a distance by aliens has a much higher probability of being true than a claim of God being a tangible entity. Because the alien claim also carries with it a higher probability that we will eventually have the means to test it, we leave the door open for new evidence.

        Science is progressive. We learn about Principle A, then we learn about Principle B, and that combined knowledge leads us to learn about Principle C. In less than a century, this progressive quality has brought us closer to the truth about God and ghosts than the sum of all speculation and superstition in history combined.

      • Ender says:

        “I don’t feel that once the true believer makes it a faith argument that the skeptic just has to take it on the chin and has to concede that they can’t disprove it. There are certain ideas that are simply too idiotic to even entertain in intellectual discourse and that line in the sand is falsifiability.

        So everything that is unfalsifiable is false…? Because that’s what a line in the sand would imply. If everything unfalsifiable is false then the fact I ate a Club sandwich for lunch today is false . How does this square with the fact that I did actually have a Club sandwich?
        Or is it that the line in the sand is falsifiability… on issues where you think it appropriate?

        Either unfalsifiable = unknown, and I both cannot prove I had a Club sandwich and did have a Club sandwich…
        or unfalsifiable = false and I both cannot prove therefore didn’t have a Club sandwich and also did have a Club sandwich…
        or unfalsifiable = false, but not in this kind of situation, in which case unfalsifiable isn’t a line in the sand, it’s a rough guide to some situations that are false.

  30. Andrew says:

    Great post, Steven. Got me thinking. And it tweaked a pet peeve of mine: the use of the term “the natural world.” Which is what science is said to be exclusively concerned with. Ah, what kind of bogus dichotomy does that term imply?! The “natural” in that term is unnecessary. The natural world is the only world we know, and by all reasonable accounts, can know. All else is speculation/imagination. By using the term “natural world” we give indirect credibility to the speculation that there is another world. Which there is absolutely no evidence for. Nor any means/mechanism of plausibility to moderate our doubt.

    Should a skeptic support such a vacuous notion? Personally, I believe in remaining consistent in one’s critical thinking and skepticism. In fact, that is why I went with “360 Degree Skeptic” as a name for my blog. I show no politically-correct favoritism for religious notions and claims. A ghost is a ghost, whether that ghost is deemed paranormal or supernatural.

    Why as skeptics should we ever refrain from asking, “where’s the evidence, where’s the plausibility” and expressing doubt when one or both are lacking?

    • Robo Sapien says:

      I don’t think it is political correctness, so much as taking the higher ground when arguing against baloney. It is the critical thinker’s way of holding your ground, as anything else would discredit you the same as your opponent.

      In short, “I respected your crappy argument, and you’re still wrong. Now take a walk.”

  31. Somite says:

    I’d like to remind all skeptics that this is the data so far regarding “testable supernatural claims” If this is the future of skepticism it is pretty boring indeed.

    I am more interested in meaningful skepticism that attacks the mind-rot of magical thinking in society. A true problem with implications for our future as a species.

  32. Pareidolius says:

    I’ve been coming off magical-thinking now for the last ten years, totally (heh) free of it since ’06. I’ve immersed myself in the study of critical-thinking and skepticism and I often ask myself “what would have changed my mind back then?” The answer continues to be “nothing.”

    In those woo-addled days, I very much stayed in an echo chamber of new-agery and pseudoscience. Sometimes I would see headlines about this scientific discovery or that new drug. My bound and gagged inner science geek would try to get me to read them, but I’d always end up avoiding them like the plague.

    I hated Richard Dawkins and his “reductionist” selfish genes. Surely I was more than selfish genes! That’s so . . . mean. But I also hated Carl Sagan (I know, it’s like hating puppies)! However I never actually read any of their books! Why? Because I knew, deep down, that they were right. I was afraid of having my special magical-unicorn-crop-circle-alt-med-live-forever-tea-party-ruined.

    So I look at the battle between Teh Quisling Accommodationists and Teh Evilz Nu Atheists with near perfect ambivalence. I feel both ways sometimes, hell, all the time. Combative and take-no-prisoners one moment, “can’t we all just get along” the next. I find the further I venture into critical thinking and rationalism the more ambivalent I become, and the more comfortable I am with that ambivalence, the better my critical-thinking seem to be. But that’s just my personal experience.

    When I first woke up from my delusions and fears, I dove headlong into the writings of Dawkins and Hitchens and Myers. Strong medicine indeed. But I find that as I keep reading and listening I grow more moderate in temperament. I still love me some Pharyngula flame wars, and I think the Templeton Foundation is comprised of rogues, but I live in the real world. A world that is filled with constant battles between right and left. Muslim and Christian. India and Pakistan. That-fucking-dog-across-the-street-who-never-stops-barking and me. It’s kind of exhausting being at war all the time (FWIW, a cookie works better than yelling in silencing the dog across the street every time).

    Having worked on producing the SkeptiCal Conference with Dr. Scott recently, I’ve watched her people skills closely. She’s a master at steering a fractious conversation. She gets results and is quite impressive to see in action. Which brings me back to the question at hand “accommodate or attack?” In my experience, I assiduously avoided both Dawkins and Sagan in my new age days. It didn’t matter whether they were warm and fuzzy or combative and strident, they were threatening my worldview so I didn’t listen.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that neither way is the “right way”, but hey, can’t we all just get along?

  33. Barry Kuban says:

    While I almost agree with you, I have to say that I take a bit of a different tack. When you say that “science is agnostic towards untestable claims” I totally agree, but I would go a step further and say that science, or more generally reason, is agnostic towards everything. In other words, we are not, and cannot be, at least in our present condition, absolutely certain of anything. Even science is based on untestable postulates; for instance, all of our predictions about the future of the universe depend on the untestable assumption that the laws of physics will not change tomorrow. Does this make science less valuable? Of course not! Why not? Because it is a reasonable thing to postulate based on the fact that there is not one bit of evidence to make us believe that the laws of physics have ever changed in the past, and no good reason for us to believe that they will in the future.
    I think it is a wrong to concede that “science can no longer demonstrate that the claim is likely to be false, but rather the claim is no longer scientific and can only be an article of faith.” While it is certainly true that science can never “prove” an untestable claim, it is well within the purview science to make estimates of the likelihood of any claim; it is what we all do every day. I do not say that I know that no supernatural god exists, I say that based on the evidence, or lack of it, the likelihood that that claim is true is infinitesimally small. While I cannot perform a test that absolutely proves or disproves the claim, I CAN perform lots of tests, and they are performed for us all day every day, that make the likelihood of that claim tiny and therefore much less meaningful than other untestable claims like the aforementioned postulate.
    The basis for dicussion of any kind is reason, and reason gives us the power to make judgments of the likelihood of untestable claims based on scientific evidence. When you say that scientifically untestable claims are unknowable, you are implying that they must be given some sort of automatic pass into a reasonable conversation, and that is just not so.

  34. Pekka S says:

    Please excuse me if this question has already been raised but I couldn’t find it in the previous comments.

    Steven, you write: “But it has to be acknowledged that some people can and do accept and practice methodological naturalism and simultaneously maintain personal articles of faith for questions outside the realm of science. There is nothing inherently inconsistent in this position, and largely I find it difficult to care (as long as that faith does not also intrude upon science nor is used to justify a malignant morality).”

    Don’t you find any inconsistency in methodological naturalism and faith as methods? Aren’t these methods far from compatible?

    Doesn’t this mean that a person who belives in some claims based on methodological naturalism and some based on faith is being inconsistent and unskeptical? Isn’t belief in untestable or unfalsifiable claims in it self an unskeptical approach?

    Isn’t this the whole point of why PZ Myers and others claim that science and religion are epistemologically incompatible?

  35. listener says:

    Thank you for a thoughtful piece.
    I landed up in a argument of this nature at Myers’ site: And while I may have been pulled along to error and excess in the heated debate (nick: listener), I was particularly intrigued by the claim of one poster that, to the skeptic, claiming something isn’t examinable by science is ridiculous (The relevant post from the poster:
    Of course, the discussion there continues.

  36. ejdalise says:

    While I accept science can’t tackle religion (is there such an entity as one loosely described as god), my beef is with skeptics who under that banner avoid tackling religion. To wit, people do science; it is not an entity on itself.

    In very broad terms one can discount god(s) and associated religions strictly on the lack of evidence (eg. bring me some proof, or keep it to yourself), as we do with many, many things on a daily basis.

    Narrowing the focus, one can tackle religion based on the many abuses perpetrated under its name. Note, that is not disproving it, but rather calling it to task based on common human decency, and avoiding giving it a pass based on “respect” for the tenets of its faith.

    And that’s the point; religions need to be challenged, and hiding behind the limits of the scientific method, or responding only when directly challenged, is a disservice to many people who don’t know enough to, or cannot, raise their voices to question it.

    As for my atheist stance of “there is no god”, I consider it valid in large part because of documented human history, and in no small part because of what science has told us about the development and nature of the human brain.

    But ultimately it comes down to how one chooses to live one’s life. If one lives a life where god and religions play no role, they are essentially living as atheists. Conversely, if there is an iota of their behavior driven by even the merest suspicion of divine forces, they are by definition theists.

    Science may be agnostic, but people think and act, and consequently they cannot live as the equivalent of a null mathematical value.