That whole Atheist/Skeptic thing

So this is hitting the rounds again since DJ Grothe posted a Swift Blog about Atheism and the JREF. I’ve been involved in some of the debate and conversation online about this issue and I thought I should blog about it.

First let me say that I’m doing this as a personal post. Granite State Skeptics’ official stance is that while specific religious claims that are testable are up for scrutiny, the idea of “god” is generally avoided. That doesn’t mean you can’t discuss it at our meetings, just that as a group we don’t take an official stance.

Because of that you may be able to figure out where I’m going with this post. I think there’s a number of issues with this debate that are missed, or misunderstood and that nobody fully grasps everything involved, including myself. But lets look at a few things.

First is what we are talking about exactly, so lets look at some terms and try to define them.

Skepticism is not a belief system, it’s a process of using critical thinking to come to a conclusion.

Atheism is the rejection in a belief in god. I know a lot of people add on that thing about evidence and how they’d change their mind.. More on this later.

Agnosticism is the idea that the existence of god is unknown or can not be known.

I think Agnostics get a bad wrap in the skeptical community, that they are wishy-washy. I find their stance to be more skeptical than that of an atheist, and I say that as an atheist… Well, because of all the battles going on now I don’t even like to use that term anymore to describe myself. I heard Jeff Wagg use the term “Scientific Naturalist” once and I really like it and try to use that to explain my beliefs (or lack there of).

Atheist also seem to have a problem with identity due to the spectrum. Most that I’ve met at TAM and other skeptical events explain themselves as being able to change their mind, that they’ve come to this conclusion based on evidence (or lack of evidence). But then you have popular skeptics like Penn Jillette who will come out and say that they don’t -believe- in a god, that’s something quiet different.

Then there’s the religious, and I think this is where things get REALLY muddy. An individual’s beliefs can be a huge range. From the Catholic who goes to church every Sunday to the guy who thinks that there was “something” they call god that set things in motion and caused the big bang. To pigeon hole everybody that believes in god into one area is just crazy in my opinion.

Then there’s the idea that skepticism = atheism. This is just an insane argument and I don’t see how anybody can actually claim this with a straight face. There are many skeptics that believe in some kind of god and there are may atheists that are into a lot of crazy woo-related ideas. Is Kitty Mervine of BadAlien and our Director of Investigations a “bad” skeptic because she’s a Deist? Is Bill Maher a “bad” atheist because it’s sucked into anti-vax nuttyness? I don’t think so in both cases.

Then I saw some tweets going around about if somebody can be an Astrologer and skeptic. I say why not, only because that also is a wide ranging question. I’ve talked to many people that believe in astrology, including a couple that would do readings and have studied astrology that didn’t know about thinks like wobble and how our signs don’t match up anymore. How can somebody that doesn’t have all the information make an informed decision? How many people have you met that think Homeopathy is something herbal and had no idea that it was just water. If they think it’s herbal, of course they’re going to think it could have an effect, because a lot of herbal medicine does. This doesn’t make them bad skeptics, it makes them uninformed.

In closing I just want to say that we shouldn’t close out anybody to the community or set conditions on it. We all have our “sacred cows” and I know I’ve learned things and changed my minds a lot over the past few years being an active skeptic. To set conditions on being a skeptic is silly, it turns us into something we shouldn’t be. There is disagreement, debate, discussion in the community and that’s what makes it good. What makes it great is we do it with respect and tolerance for each other and we help each other learn. We don’t call people stupid or say they’re delusional, we give them the tools and information they need to reach their own conclusion based on the facts at hand, and because we’re all individuals with different life experience they may come to a different conclusion. In doing so they may even change our minds by seeing things from another point of view.

So please comment, I want this to be a discussion.

13 thoughts on “That whole Atheist/Skeptic thing

  1. JeffWagg

    I’m not sure why the two terms are being conflated. I mean, sure, a lot of us go to Skeptic events and Atheist events, but there has always been a clear difference to me. I really hope we can work more on the inclusion side of things.

  2. Chris Merchant

    While I agree with your overall point, I have to disagree with you regarding the whole astrology thing.

    Belief in God and belief in astrology are wholly different things. A skeptic can believe in God because God can exist beyond scientific testability. While individual religious claims can be tested and dismissed, the general concept of a God can’t.

    Astrology, on the other hand, deals entirely in testable phenomena – its interpretation of which is easily debunked.

    One can’t call themselves a good skeptic while claiming “belief” in something so readily disprovable. A true skeptic will *seek out* relevant information *before* simply accepting it.

    That said, we should all subscribe to Phil Plait’s “don’t be a dick” philosophy, and realize that most people have to be a “poor” skeptic before the learn enough to be a good one. Myself included.

    My golden calf: local and, to a lesser extent, organic food. But mostly for social (as opposed to health) reasons.

    1. Travis Roy Post author

      Oh, I agree with the Astrology thing, I was using that as an example of being inclusive. Just because somebody may believe in something you shouldn’t shut them out, but rather inform them and teach them.

  3. MaryB

    I definitely agree that the two should be separate, although there is nothing wrong with talking about religion at a skeptical event since many of us have common stances. I consider myself an atheist and I have no problem with people who have more deistic beliefs, because religion is personal (same with politics).

    Also, I define my own atheism as not believing in any sort of god as stated in religious texts, although I am open to the idea of a big “something” being out there (and this includes “brane theory” or some iteration of Q perhaps). So maybe people would consider that more agnostic but I am definitely denying the existence of any sort of religiously-postulated god.

    I mostly just try to “live and let live” when it comes to this stuff though because it is so personal and it’s good to have differing opinions rather than an echo chamber.

    1. Travis Roy Post author

      Oh, I have no problem with Atheistic talks and stuff at a skeptical conference, there is clearly overlap.. The example I’ve been using lately is Skepticon3.. It’s clearly an atheist conference, not a skeptical one.

  4. m1k303

    I think it’s important to realize that nobody can reasonably be expected to criticically examine every claim and come to the most reasonable conclusion on every one of them. We are all ignorant about something, ‘true skeptic’ or not.

  5. John Ranta

    Two things:

    1. You use a lot of terms with which I, being new to this group, are unfamiliar. “anti-vax”, “woo” and “wobble” seem to have insider meanings that escape me. Can someone explain?

    2. In being inclusive we can only go so far as to provide someone a hearing. But we should reject their claims if they don’t hold up to scrutiny, we can’t accept them just to be inclusive. The burden of validation is on the person(s) making the claim. Anyone who claims belief in a god or astrology, and asks you to accept that belief, is responsible for supplying proof. If they can’t support their claim, then the best you can say in reply is “that’s nice, dear, but I have no idea why you would believe such a thing”. You can’t say (which is often what astrologers and deists etc. want to hear) “your beliefs are as valid as mine”.

    Perhaps I am restating what everyone here already accepts, but the post that started this thread seems a bit “wobbly” (I’m probably not using that word with its proper Skeptic connotation…) jr

    1. Travis Roy Post author

      1. Anti-Vax is just that, somebody that is against vaccinations. Woo is a term for the crazy stuff people believe. Somebody that believes in astrology can be explained as somebody who believes in woo. Wobble I’ve never even heard.

      2. The problem is that people in the community are saying you can’t be a full member, or a “true skeptic” unless you’re an atheist. This includes people that are not making claims are pushing their belief, but just hold a personal belief. They are not “making a claim” they’re just holding a personal belief.

  6. John Ranta

    Travis, you used the word “wobble” in this context: “including a couple that would do readings and have studied astrology that didn’t know about thinks like wobble and how our signs don’t match up anymore”

    Thanks, JR

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