Skepticism and Faith

Saturday, April 4, 2009

I’m fairly new to the skeptical movement. While I’ve long been a fan of critical thinking and the scientific method, it’s only been in the last year or two that I’ve been actively seeking out the skeptical community through online forums, SkeptiCamp, and podcasts. I’m enjoying being a member of this community, and the longer I hang around, the more I learn, and the more I sharpen my critical thinking skills.

However, there’s one thing that bothers me about our community, and that’s the inherent assumption that someone who self-identifies as a skeptic is automatically assumed to also be an atheist. This first came to my attention during last year’s Colorado SkeptiCamp 2, where many of the speakers made the assumption that the audience was predominantly atheist.

Subsequent research revealed a perception of the skeptical movement where atheism always equaled skepticism, and vice versa. This bothers me.

I think making this association, and allowing it to go unchallenged in mainstream media, hurts the skeptical movement. While there are clearly a large number of skeptics who also consider themselves atheists, the designations are not necessarily mutually inclusive. By insinuating they are, the skeptical movement essentially excludes the majority of humanity from even joining the conversation.

I know many people who would be considered critical thinkers by any reasonable standard and would be a fine addition to the ranks of the skeptics. But to a greater or lesser degree, they’re people of faith, and feel their personal beliefs preclude them from engaging with us. This assumption that being a person of faith and being a skeptic are mutually exclusive roles keeps them from adding their voice to the discussion, and we’re the poorer for it. Since they believe their faith will be mocked and ridiculed, they choose not to address areas of mutual concern, such as Intelligent Design in public schools, alternative medicine, the anti-vaccination movement and many more.

I’m not talking about inviting Young Earth Creationists or the Westboro Baptist Church to the table to discuss separation of church and state, but including liberal, progressive people of faith to join us in discussing areas of mutual interest. To do so is to everyone’s benefit. Promoting critical thought, science-based medicine, and the protection of the innocent from the purveyors of woo is an agenda where atheists, agnostics and people of faith can all agree on the common good.

Let’s not inadvertently exclude potential allies by being unnecessarily exclusive.

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This has been cross-posted at Nothing Sacred, the blog of the Mile-High Skeptics.

11 comments:

Shawn Powers said...

I'm squarely in the camp you are referring to. The thing is, I am a skeptic. I'm even skeptical of the very faith I claim as my own. I could logically talk myself out of faith if I tried hard enough, but there is something there that I don't wish to dismiss simply because I can't rationally or logically explain it.

You've never shunned me for that, and for that respect I'm immeasurably thankful. :)

vince said...

Skepticism and faith do not have to be mutually exclusive. I actually came to my faith through years of research and the application of logic. I do understand that there are those who have lost their faith in the same manner, but I am capable of defending my faith with evidence and logic, while admitting that there is evidence to the contrary.

I'm a "question authority" kind of person. I admit, you can't possibly know everything about everything, but when presented with a claim, I do as much research as possible before I accept or reject the claim.

I can respect someone who is an atheist or agnostic who has made a serious attempt to do some research and actually read the Bible. I have no respect for those who claim to be Christians yet whose actions show that they've never bothered to do either of those things.

I have no problem having a dialog with people who disagree with me or have different beliefs than I do. It's sad that there is such a large portion of the population who equates dialog with either personal attacks.

I strongly believe that you don't make decisions by ignoring facts, just because you don't like the facts.

Eric said...

Janiece, I think that's a problem inherent to the "skeptical movement" and I don't think it's likely to change. It's also a reason that I'm a sideline fan and sympathizer, but am unlikely to ever formally join it (despite being a skeptic and an open atheist).

Historically, it's a movement of atheists and hard agnostics first and a movement of critical thinkers second. I sort of hate to write that for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it highlights a common flaw in a number of people I admire. Plus, it's the kind of thing that, when you say it in public, non-critical-thinkers of various stripes will jump on as an "aha!" as if it's a huge discovery or concession (what those folks would be missing, of course, is that erring on the side of "denial" is the safe, prudent and cautious bet).

The other thing is that the skeptics' movement has never really been about outreach, either. Atheists and agnostics are besieged in this society--masses of religious people assume we're just lying about what we believe, many think that disbelief or religious skepticism is the result of hurt or anger ("What prayer that God didn't answer made you reject Him?" is a popular enough question), we are told this is a "Christian nation", that we can't hold public office, that even if we can we won't, that science is wrong, history is wrong, culture is something else.... An organizing force for the "skeptics' movement" was the inherent human need for atheists and agnostics to crowd together on an umbrella and beat their chests and announce their existence and pride; if the "skeptics" alienated the religious mainstream in the process, well, fuck 'em, they didn't like us anyway and at least we have a group photo of ourselves this time.

The fact is that critical thinking--as opposed to skepticism--doesn't need a "movement" and never did: it needs advocates (like it always had), and critical thinking continues to have advocates on the better college campuses, the staffs of better newspapers, writing blogs, and all through many walks of life. (That's not to say there aren't weak minds among academe or the press--weak minds may even be the rule in those places, but academics and writers are proponents by definition and come prepackaged with a pulpit.)

I have a feeling you may not be happy with the movement, Janiece. It has long carried its own obstinacies, been blinkered by its cultural baggage and history. If I had to join a particular club, of course they're the folks I'd ally with. But their project has never really been about education as much as its been about offering a cultural harbor to a marginalized subset of the populace.

Eric said...

(Um... "under an umbrella," not "on an umbrella," though I like the mental image.)

mom in northern said...

Amen and no pun intended…

John the Scientist said...

I'll have some thoughts on this in a blog post sometime in the future. My internet moniker is symbolic of my own internal conflicts.

But I think the title of your regional blog is symptomatic of the issue. Nothing's sacred? Really? Not human life, or human decency? Nothing?

My response to that is decidedly Un-Christian.

Janiece Murphy said...

John, "Nothing Sacred," as in, "No Sacred Cows." As in, nothing is beyond analytical thinking, or examination from a different point of view - including your own assumptions about who skeptics are (and aren't).

Skepticism should be a set of tools for critical thinking, not a club to beat up theists.

John the Scientist said...

But given the public pronouncements of high profiel skeptics like Richard Dawkins, don't you think it's a little open to interpretation?

My suspicion is that at least some of the group likes the double entendre, which is exactly what you were talking about.

Maybe you guys need some good marketers, too. :D

Janiece Murphy said...

John, the lack of marketing acumen in both the skeptical and atheist movements is simply stunning.

Darren said...

I'm glad to see more people talking about this. As a skeptic and an atheist myself, I'm always annoyed at fellow skeptical atheists who assume that skepticism should naturally lead to atheism.

Developing critical thinking skills taught me to look at the question of faith for what it is: an unfalsifiable proposition. It can't be proved -- but it can't really be disproved either.

I happen to take the position that I won't believe something exists without evidence; but I respect those that choose to believe citing no compelling evidence to the contrary.

Agreeing to disagree is a skill that many, many skeptics need to learn.

Janiece Murphy said...

Welcome, Darren.

That's pretty much how I look at it, too.

I find it extremely presumptuous when an atheist tries to tell a person of faith that they're stupid for believing, because the atheist has no evidence to back up their position.

Of course, evangelizing pisses me off for the same reason, so there you go.