Is atheism the skeptical position? Labels part 1

Recently, I seem to have been getting into or watching some pretty interesting discussions about a number of fairly related topics, so I’ve decided I might write a small series of related posts. I have been identifying as an atheist, a skeptic, a liberal, a socialist and a feminist. Had the need arisen, I would be happy to identify as an egalitarian of any flavour, or a form of utilitarian.

This has made me think a bit about the labels we apply to ourselves, what they mean, and the extent to which they overlap. Once we know what we are doing with the labels, we can start to think when, how and whether we want to use them at all.

I would split the labels I apply to myself into two broad camps, rationalist and empathetic. There are the labels that stem from my rationalist approach, and which tend to be used together. The key examples of these are skeptic and atheist, which are definitely related positions, but I certainly don’t think are interchangeable. Those that I think of as empathetic are my political leanings and ethical views. Although I believe they have logical construction, they are founded on a value judgement that the experience of the world that people have matters, and matters equally.

Here I’ll talk about the rationalist labels, and how and whether we should differentiate them.

I take skeptic to mean something like willing to apply rigorous doubt to a subject or set of claims. This rigorous doubt leads to wanting either proof, supporting evidence or at least sound reasoning for any empirical claim. The strength of this claim should be based on the strength of the supporting evidence and reasoning alone.

This skeptical approach applies best to pseudo-scientific claims made in fields where evidence and the scientific method meet emotional investment and tradition. Think about the investment people have in healthcare, psychic contact with departed loved ones and paranormal explanations for unexplained experiences. Skepticism is particularly important when looking at political decisions, ensuring that ideology does not trump the facts when making public policy. A skeptic should challenge the prior assumptions in all these fields, and come to a conclusion based on the strength of the evidence available. I have never seen convincing evidence for anything supernatural yet.

The term atheist is much broader in one sense, but incredibly bounded in another. It simply refers to someone who doesn’t believe in a supernatural being, which seems simple enough. However, people come to similar positions from very different starting points, and so it is not clear what really counts as an atheist. You can be probably the rarest kind of atheist, who ‘knows’ there is no god, that it is a theoretical impossibility. You can live as an atheist, in that religion has no role in your life, but be agnostic (in the sense of thinking the existence of god is not the sort of thing we can meaningfully talk about, or ever know) or unthinking about their existence. Or you can be a rationalist atheist.

I am that final kind of atheist, taking what I consider the rational position. I accept that there is a theoretical possibility that there is a god, as do all the New Atheists as far I am aware. I think that the existence or otherwise of a god is something that we can speculate about, and consider the evidence for. With that evidence, we can start to estimate the probability of their existence. As it stands, there is just nothing like enough evidence to believe in a god. A great many of the things initially attributed to a supernatural being now have understood natural explanations, and as we advance our understanding of the world and ouurselves, the knowledge gaps that have traditionally been occupied by gods are vanishing.

Using the sorts of terms and explanations I have, there is a question as to whether and how they cross over. Does my skepticism entail, automatically, that I should be an atheist or vice versa? Or are they both automatic consequences of a deeper commitment to rationalism?

Clearly an atheist need not be generally skeptical. It is quite possible to argue that there is no god while saying that homeopathy works, the aliens abducted you and that the ghost of your neighbours dead cat keeps pooing on your lawn. Skeptics in particular need to be careful not to jump alongside just any form of atheism, just because there is superficial appeal to rejecting a particular dogma. However, the rationalist atheism I ascribe to is very different from this. I would not associate my atheism with that reactive, emotive or even faith based form, as although we have reached the same conclusions, we may well have done so for fundamentally conflicting reasons.

However, the rationalist approach that underpins what I’m calling rational atheism, which again is an atheism in practice but not in principle, appears to be the same one that underpins skepticism. Both start with no prior preference to one position over another, with the position adopted being that with the greatest evidence and logic to support it. These allow for an uncertainty that non-rational positions often do not, so we can be happy that the best that can be said about something is that we don’t know, but will try to find out. Both require that greater claims have greater evidence, as when a body of evidence is built up, there will tend to be greater prior evidence for a single instance to overcome when judging the balance of the evidence available.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that my atheism is a part of my skepticism, and that it is a necessary conclusion of the most rigourous skeptical approach. If you accept the approach of casting rigorous doubt, you should provide a strong argument as to why religious beliefs are a special case not to turn your gaze on them. The logical limitations are the same as in many cases – you can’t prove a negative, what constitutes evidence, fallibility of the observer and so on. In this sense, god is like the ether, the tenth planet or dark matter in that there is nothing that can ultimately disprove their existence, but there is a weight of evidence that can tell us how likely it seems that they do. Don’t worry, I understand that the strength of the evidence for each of the above is different.

So, I argue that a certain form of qualified atheism is inevitable from rigorous skepticism. Both of these should be differentiated from atheism based on non-rational grounds – because somebody agrees on one cause is not a good enough reason to align with them.

The really important questions come from what we do with these labels, when and how we should use them. I think that sort of has to be the subject of another post. I did promise a series at the start, and this is just touching the surface, as we move onto the basis for the other labels we use, and how and when we should use them.

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    • Paul H
    • June 8th, 2011

    Doesn’t rational athiesm mean much the same thing as agnosticism? Can you say “your lack of evidence doesn’t prove a god therefore it is more likely there is no god,” rather than “your lack of evidence doesn’t prove a god therefore it is more likely you can’t prove god exists.” I suppose my point is from your skeptical stance isn’t the more logical conclusion agnosticism than athiesm?
    Oh and I thought this was an excellent post, I was kind of hoping for something shrill to argue with but knew I would be let down. Oh and good luck with SiP Lancaster, next time I’m up I would love to come along.

    • Thanks Paul.

      I don’t think they are the same, at least in the sense that I am using them. The term atheist here is, strictly, agnostic in principle and atheist in practice. I have argued that ‘true’ atheism is so rare as to be a straw man. The lack of a god cannot be proven, as you logically can’t prove non-existence.

      However, the positions that tend to identify as agnostic either argue that it is fundamentally unknowable, or that we don’t have enough evidence either way to start to cast judgement. I think that we can talk about it meaningfully, and that the evidence is such that we can draw pretty firm, if not logically absolute, conclusions.

      Assuming we are talking about something of an interventionist or creationist god, I don’t see why there should be any real difficulty in saying what would be required, evidence wise, to suggest the existence of a god. The most powerful being that bends the laws of physics at will and that thrives on belief (in some incarnations) should leave demonstrable trace.

      As science has progressed the realm of the interventionist god has diminished. We are potentially approaching a point where there aren’t any gaps left that require a supernatural being to explain them, although science is by no means finished. Hypothetically, once we have things explained with no supernatural requirement, is the invocation of god not redundant?

      In fact using that reasoning, I would say that there comes a point of understanding at which the naturalistic arguments are of greater value and can be expected to be more likely to be true than the supernatural. This is ascribing a probability of truth based on past experience and evidence.

      Once we understand that gravity explains the solar system, evolution explains the variation of life and tectonics explains natural disasters, any god that can be invoked to explain other things seems to require more explanation than the thing itself. This merely pushes the explanatory problem back a layer.

      Given that the introduction of a supernatural being raises more difficulties than it solves, I think we should reasonably say that the likelihood is that the alternative, naturalistic, explanations are much more likely to prove true. This leads me to adopt an atheist in practice stance, if that makes sense.

      How about phrasing it something like ‘the evidence as it currently understood is strongly consistent with the no god hypothesis, and strongly inconsistent with the god hypothesis’?

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