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
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