What is the Role of Skepticism in the Atheist Community?

16

I'm back to sharing my thoughts about the six big questions over which atheists have disagreed, and it is time to tackle the fifth question. This one asks about the role of skepticism in the atheist community, and it is an admittedly strange question for at least a few reasons. First, some assumed that I had Atheism+ in mind when I added this one and suggested that it should be combined with the previous question about how tolerant we should be of diverse opinions in our community. But I was not thinking of Atheism+ here; I was thinking of something fairly different that I will explain below. While I do agree that an argument could be made for combining this with the previous question, I am not sure the overlap is as great as I initially thought. Second, this seems like an odd question because it is commonly assumed that most atheists arrive at atheism through skepticism and would therefore be strong proponents of skepticism. I am now convinced that this common assumption is likely false and that there are many atheists who came to atheism through means other than skepticism, some of whom also have little understanding of or appreciation for skepticism. Third, this question may prove to be even more divisive than the previous one, which might lead some to avoid asking it. But I am convinced it is worth asking, and so it is to the question which I will now turn:

What is the role of skepticism in atheism? Is it sufficiently important that we should seek to be skeptical of our own ideas, or is it enough just to be skeptical of others' ideas? Some atheists believe that certain ideas (e.g., components of their preferred ideology) are beyond questioning; other atheists perceive this as hypocritical and argue that we ought to question all ideas to evaluate their merit.

For many atheists, including this one, skepticism is how we arrived at atheism. My skepticism was what brought me to atheism and not the other way around. I have met many atheists with a similar experience, but this is far from a universal experience among atheists. For some of us, skepticism was key; for others, it was irrelevant. If we are going to make any sense of this question, we need to acknowledge our diversity here at the outset. The role skepticism played in bringing people to atheism is widely variable across atheists.

I did not have Atheism+ in mind when I added this question to the list; I had another group of people in mind. The people I had in mind were the many atheists who believe in ghosts, "Bigfoot" creatures, alien abductions, ESP, and/or other phenomena we might describe as paranormal. I have been surprised again and again at just how many atheists I have encountered who report believing in such things. But far more telling is that many of them seek to defend these things in some of the same ways religious believers attempt to defend the entities in which they believe. I am less surprised now, and that is mostly because I have learned that skepticism does not play much of a role for some atheists in what they believe.

Written By: Jack Vance
continue to source article at atheistrev.com

16 COMMENTS

  1. Most of the Big Six are non issues to most atheists as most atheists don’t care who other groups of atheists hang out with or how they think, as long as they don’t try to force their opinion on others. The problem here is that some people want there to be one “true” atheist community when there has never been any such thing, and never will be any such thing.

    There is no conflict in being an atheist and having widely diverging opinions an many topics.

    I personally reject this narrow minded and inflexible mindset – it smells like dogma to me.

    On to skepticism:

    People who believe irrational things, like religion or big foot should all be treated exactly the same. We should gently point them in the right direction if their belief is harmless, and we should be more direct if they are trying to foist the belief on others the belief is harmful, or worse, have laws written to support their fairy tales.

    • In reply to #2 by canadian_right:

      Most of the Big Six are non issues to most atheists as most atheists don’t care who other groups of atheists hang out with or how they think, as long as they don’t try to force their opinion on others. The problem here is that some people want there to be one “true” atheist community when there has…

      What do you base that statement on (that most atheists don’t care who other groups of atheists hang out with)? I’m not saying it’s not true, I’m just asking how you know? I think the fact that Atheism+ is a fairly popular movement seems to suggest that many atheists in fact regard their atheism as a positive identity. Or in other words, an identity that consists of certain values instead of just lack of belief in gods. My experience is that especially former fundamentalist Christians who turn atheist tend to have a quite different take on atheism than atheists who have no religious background. It seems to me they often bring some of the irrational behavior and fundamentalism with them despite leaving their religious heritage behind. To these people the importance of a strong positive atheistic identity might seem more important. Personally I have always felt that the term atheism is a purely intellectual one with no emotional connotations. I would never call myself an atheist except when explicitly discussing the existence of gods. But, many atheists out there seem to have a need to construct a strong positive identity.

      • In reply to #3 by Nunbeliever:

        It seems to me they often bring some of the irrational behavior and fundamentalism with them despite leaving their religious heritage behind.

        I couldn’t agree more. I experienced this firsthand with my own brothers and sisters. One of them has rejected religion a long time ago but replaced it with belief in conspiracy theories. The other, while of the opinion that “religion is bullshit”, is fond of saying that our deceased father is “up there looking down upon us”. One of my sisters who also rejects religion (but is kind of a deist) believes in rubbish like astrology and dowsing.

        My personal hypothesis is that religious belief indoctrinated at a very young age affects the brain in a way that is very similar to drug addiction. And one very well know behavioral traits of recovering addicts is that they tend to substitute. I think this is also why many believers react to someone saying they don’t believe in God with the question “You have to believe in something”. To them, the idea of “not believing in anything” feels the same as “not getting their fix”. You gotta have “something”.

        Many ex-believers either retain some of their previous religious beliefs (usually the ones they like or find convenient) or simply substitute religion with pseudo-science and new-age gobbledeegook. And the worst part is that trying to get these people to become aware of this process nearly always ends up as a frustrating exercise in futility. They simply refuse to listen because logic and reason don’t exert much appeal when it involves “not getting your woo-woo fix”. Also, they would have to admit they might have been wrong all those years (courtesy of the sunk cost fallacy).

        Shedding religious beliefs indoctrinated at a very young age is a long multi-layered process. Even I STILL retain vestigial intuitions and mentalities from my own religious education (which I must must make a conscious effort to eradicate through critical thinking applied to my own emotional reactions) even though I’m aware of it. Just imagine what it’s like to people who aren’t aware.

    1. Capitalism is immoral
    2. Women in the west are oppressed and programmed from birth onwards by an all pervasive patriarchy
    3. Gender is socially constructed
    4. Human nature is the result of a culturally modifiable blank slate
    5. In the west, white supremacist heterosexual men are the “privileged” class and are to blame for all social injustice
    6. In the west, we live in a rape culture

    I could add more. But questioning any of this as a skeptic will lead to being labelled a bigot particularly from those who are typically left of center and whom unconditionally accept these as axioms. Contrary to what many may believe here, I find that the greatest oppression to atheists is other atheists and not religion. All an atheist has to do is say the following to discredit a fellow atheist:

    “I was informed by an anonymous source that a prominent atheist named (fill in the blank), had sexually harassed an individual at a meeting 2 years ago. There are others who have made the accusations that (fill in the blank) had tried to get them drunk at the after parties.”

    And if you dare question this accusation, you will be labelled as a misogynist. Atheist movements these days are fractured groups with conflicting agendas and ideologies and those who are left of center, will make it their mission to descredit any who disagree.

  2. Hello everybody from Italy.
    (Sorry for my improvised English).
    I’m an antitheist Atheist.
    Viva skepticism! But, above all, Viva terseness ! (For this purpose Herb Silverman is my idol).
    I fully agree with the author of this article and I think that the article is very effective in promoting skepticism. In fact, when I see a cat 20cm in length with a tail 3m in length, it makes me wonder so much, particularly when in the same web-page that is the source of the article
    http://www.atheistrev.com/2014/01/big-question-5-what-is-role-of.html
    we can find a “commercial” link that lead us in this black pit:
    http://www.everystudent.com/features/faith.html?
    Open the eyes, babies! Darkness is the horror! The horror!
    Best regards.
    Fiorenzo.

  3. I believe skepticism is important for atheists for at least two reasons. (1) The history and present state of mankind involves a lot of theistic ideas, and these ideas are mostly propagated by religions which have an agenda other than simple truths, so we have to be on our guard. (2) I don’t know this for a fact, but it does appear that humans and maybe mammals and perhaps most animals in general are biologically wired (through natural selection) such that many of us assume using our material brains that some god is responsible for the things which we see as mysteries. Therefore we must combat our biological assumptions and try to find what is true.

    That said, I don’t think that skepticism is necessary for an arrival at atheism. Though it may have been how I arrived at atheism initially, I don’t think it is how I justify the reasonableness of atheism. I justify atheism by looking back at the start of the universe if there was one, then the formation of simpler elements in stars, then the formation of our planet, then the evolution of different life forms through material processes, period. Nowhere in there is a god needed (so I guess I am just using Occam’s Razor), and trying to squeeze a god in there is to me just like inserting any other random idea that is unfounded. It still may be true that a god exists, but given what we “know” (with some fairly high degree of certainty) about the history of the universe and life and the way the processes involved work, it is actually more reasonable to not believe in a god. So, I am using positive premises which are not fully known to be true but are most reasonable, which is much different from skepticism. Note that I do not consider myself to be agnostic, even though I allow for some small percent chance that a god exists, because I think “agnostic” has too strong a connotation that I am unsure, whereas I am sure with a high enough degree of certainly to call myself an atheist.

    • In reply to #10 by movement:

      (2) I don’t know this for a fact, but it does appear that humans and maybe mammals and perhaps most animals in general are biologically wired (through natural selection) such that many of us assume using our material brains that some god is responsible for the things which we see as mysteries. Therefore we must combat our biological assumptions and try to find what is true.

      It doesn’t appear that way to me. I see absolutely zero evidence for anything we could call a God concept in animals. Can you give one example? And I don’t even agree that humans are “biologically wired (through natural selection)” to believe in God. It’s easy to think that looking at the major cultures and religions that now dominate modern civilization but if you look at primitive tribes, while all or virtually all of them have some form of religion many of them are quite different from the concept of an all powerful God or Gods.

      Read Pascal Boyer’s book Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. There are all kinds of examples of tribes that believe in supernatural beings that are very different from any modern concept of God. My favorite is the tribe that thinks access to the divine realm is mediated through witches and that witches (unlike most humans) have a special physical organ in their body that lets them communicate with the spirit world. Also, that organ can take on a life of it’s own and leave the witch to cause trouble. When a hut collapses for no discernible reason or other things like that it’s thought to be a witch gall bladder on the lose.

      • In reply to #11 by Red Dog:

        I see absolutely zero evidence for anything we could call a God concept in animals. Can you give one example?

        Neanderthals would be one example, albeit not a great example, of a non-human animal which could have believed in gods, based on the their burial rituals and their art, but I agree with you that in other mammals even there isn’t much evidence to back up my point. It’s just a hunch that I really don’t pretend is definitely true.

        But just for fun, I was reading White Fang, and in it the wolves see men as gods. It seems plausible that dogs see their human masters as somewhat godlike. Of course these godlike masters actually do exist unlike other gods, but it reminded me of some Amazonian tribes which see the jaguars as gods, which then presumably lead some to construct a jaguar god which is different from individual jaguars and at that point no longer exists as a regular jaguar. Maybe some dogs think that way about people. Also, it is really silly guesswork again, but pterodactyls had very few predators and just flew around and perhaps thought philosophically, according to the book Raptor Red (by a paleontologist and probably my favorite book), so maybe some of them toyed with the idea of gods or at least magic and wizardry/witchcraft, which as you say are ideas that have arisen in humans all over the place. The other obvious places to look would be bonobos and the behavior they exhibit when one of their own dies. From what I recall there is something close to a religious rite there.

        And to make this all relevant to the topic of skepticism, you should be very skeptical of everything I just said.

  4. Skepticism should play a healthy role in everyone’s life, across the theistic spectrum. Lack of skepticism is not just due to faith, but also from arrogance and, primarily I think, from laziness.

Leave a Reply