This is an atheist website primarily. There is of course, plenty of common ground with science lovers and skeptics, since many people came to atheism after taking science courses in school, though by all means that is not the only or even most prevalent way to arrive to atheism! Critical thinking and the use of reason, and realizing that it is best to believe that for which there is evidence, has led many out of theism as well. And since critical thinking, reason and the scientific method are hallmarks of skepticism, we do discuss here subjects which have historically belonged in the realm of "skepticism" such as Bigfoot or UFOs or magnetic bracelets, etc. But besides those traditional subjects for skepticism, I honestly never could tell what distinguishes skepticism from the practice of scientific thinking. The Skeptic movement clearly states that they are separate from atheism. While they claim that the world is natural and one should shun supernatural explanations in favor of looking for natural ones, they claim that "Is here a god" is outside the realm of skepticism because it is a supernatural claim. I think this is contradictory.
Sharon Hill, a geologist and skeptic who has the blog Doubtful News and participates actively in meetings and podcasts, has written a Media Guide to Skepticism, as a draft, and is asking for comments:
This is the first draft of a document intended to serve the entire Skeptical network/community. We are soliciting comments on this document to be incorporated into the second draft. Please send your comments and suggestions to comment(at)doubtfulnews.com with “media guide” in the subject line. Comments will be open until March 1st. In March, a final draft will be published.
She lists the following tenets:
A Skeptic subscribes to a number of tenets.
She also writes about what skepticism is NOT, aiming to clear misconceptions:
This is what she wrote about skepticism not being atheism. Bottom line, god is out of bounds. It seems to me like the usual exceptionalism allowed to religion. Here it is:
Many are [atheists], but not all. Skeptics are a diverse group so lack of religious beliefs should not be assumed. Skepticism can be applied only to testable claims, not to untestable ones such as “There is a God who controls everything”. Since we can’t test for a God who is supernatural, the question of “Is there a God?” is outside the realm of science. However, more specific questions can be asked such as “How did the earth form?” Humans must accept many things on “faith” – that the people we care about will be there for us, that we won’t die tomorrow so should plan for the future, that the other driver will follow the rules of the road – so applying skepticism to everything in life is not always the best policy. There may be other factors to consider.
To me, this is contradictory to the claim that the world is natural! What do you guys think?
I submitted a comment to the email that Sharon Hill provided. It's a bit long. Sorry. But I'd like your opinions. I have to admit I'm bothered by the Skeptic movement's efforts to avoid questioning religion.
Hi Sharon: my only comment is that as it is written, I do not see any difference between "science" and "skepticism", in fact if you replace the word "skepticism" in your document by the word "science" or "use of the scientific method" or "practice of science", the document reads just as nicely. The only difference I see is that the practice of skepticism often involved magicians because they were some of the first people to make people aware that we cannot trust our senses fully, something that nowadays neuroscientists and psychologists do all the time.
The first example you use is regarding the efficacy of a pill, a drug. This is something that clinical trials or other type of experimentation in biomedical science do. Whether a pill works or not is determined by science, not skepticism. Skepticism can call attention to the fact that there is or there is not evidence for the claims that a pill does X, but ultimately whether the claim is true or not, is determined by using the scientific method. Science also uses critica thinking and reasoning as part of the scientific method (induction, deduction, the null hypothesis, extraordinary claims needs extraordinary evidence, etc.).
You also say that Skeptics believe that the world is natural, not supernatural. This is also exactly the same thing that scientists adhere to. That the world is natural and knowable, and that natural explanations must be searched for, before jumping to the conclusion that something is supernatural.
So what distinguishes skepticism from science or the practice of science?
Also, I'm not sure why Skeptics must clearly state that people who believe in God can be Skeptics, and that skepticism does not equal atheism. If a Skeptic does not believe in the supernatural, then believing in a supernatural god, one outside of the laws of nature, should be a "disqualifier." It's the same for science. It's always odd to find religious, even devout scientists, though for sure they exist. It's odd because scientists look for natural explanations and not readily accept supernatural explanations. As a scientist I cannot imagine believing in god, the effect of prayer, miracles, etc., because it contradicts my commitment to looking for natural explanations, using critical thinking and reason, and not accepting any claims for which there is no evidence. In fact, many people arrive to atheism after they take science courses. However, nobody in their right mind would exclude religious people from being or practicing science, and I agree with that. Humans are well, human. We are all full of cognitive biases and contradictions, and many people have cultural or emotional attachments that they don't want to lose by disavowing religion. Many religious scientists whom I know understand this and if questioned abut their religiosity, shrug their shoulders, say they like the tenets of their religion, or want to believe in an afterlife, or they feel better if they think that "there is something really powerful out there looking down on us." I respect them as person, though I do not respect their beliefs because their beliefs are unexamined, not critically examined, or purposely excluded from scrutiny. And they can of course, be very competent scientists because they are able to compartmentalize their unfounded beliefs from the practice of science.
But scientists never feel the need to specify that science requires somebody to be an atheist. They require somebody to use critical thinking, reason, and the scientific method in the practice of their field of science. A very good molecular biologist could very well be a climate change "denialist" in theory, why not? She can still sequence DNA or assemble a genome or determine which pathways are altered in a cell after exposure to a drug, and at the same time not understand anything about climate change, and for whatever reasons, prefer to deny that the climate is changing, in part because to human action. Would I kick this person out from the American Molecular Biologists Association? No, of course. The same way that Francis Collins, who directed the Human Genome Project efforts over a decade ago, can be publicly devout and still head the NIH. I'm not comfortable with this (and this would require a long explanation) but if he is competently directing the NIH research efforts and funding efforts, I'll have to live with my discomfort.
I guess this turned out to be a more lengthy comment than I thought. What I'm trying to say is, why does the Skeptic movement have to put down in writing that "Skepticism is not atheism"? As you say, we cannot test the claim of a supernatural god, because "is there a god?" is not a question for the natural world, YET skeptics, like scientists, say the world is natural, NOT supernatural. So why is it OK to doubt miracles or the power of prayer or ghosts or somebody communicating with us from the afterlife, but it's not OK to skeptically investigate whether there is a god? Is it OK to investigate whether there is a god such as Ganesh, rather than Jesus, Allah, or Baruch Hashem, each one of them separately, with the claims each of their religions make of them? I would think the existence of any of these gods can be investigated using critical thinking and reason, and what science tells us about how the world works. What perhaps we cannot investigate is the existence of a deistic god, a vague, general cosmic creator who kick started this universe and then left. I'm not even sure of that. But I leave this question to the philosophers.
In summary, I appreciate what you and others in the skeptic community do to promote critical thinking and science education, and help consumers be protected from swindlers using pseudoscientific babble, but I still don't understand why skepticism needs to be defined as something separate from the practice of science and critical thinking (which should be a required practice in science, too!). Until I came to the United States in my early 20s, I had never heard of the skeptical movement as separate from scientific inquiry. Perhaps I'm missing some historical reason for the existence of the movement. I also do not understand why it must be specified in writing that skepticism does not equal atheism. I understand that you don't want to exclude Bigfoot doubters or unbelievers in homeopathy from the movement just because they are attached to their religious beliefs or want to believe in an afterlife. But it seems to me that it is unnecessary. I never belonged to, or heard of any scientific organization that specifically put down in writing that religious people were NOT excluded. It seems to me that the purposeful distinction from atheism and the insistence in putting in writing that "is there a god" is not a question for skepticism, is unnecessary and even contradicts the tenet that the world is natural and there is no supernatural.
PS: I belong to the Skeptics Society because I enjoy reading your magazine. I also belong to several secular and atheist organizations because I live in the US and I constantly worry about the muddling of church-state separation issues, and the meddling of religion in the public sphere, particularly in policies regarding human rights.
I agree with you here prof. I think we either have a natural or supernatural world and if the skeptics movement believe the world to be natural and understandable, then the only conclusion they can come to is that of atheism. Unless a person in the skeptic community fears the loss of job, family or something they value, they must just come to the rational conclusion of atheism.
They need not put down in writing what skepticism is and is not. It's superfluous to say the least.
Humans must accept many things on “faith” – that the people we care about will be there for us, that we won’t die tomorrow so should plan for the future, that the other driver will follow the rules of the road – so applying skepticism to everything in life is not always the best policy. There may be other factors to consider.
I don't think humans have to take this on faith[as defined by theists, I don't know another definition though]. I know my mother will care for me since she has done so in the past. I have no reason to think she is going to act differently.
Applying skepticism to everything in life to me seems to be the best policy. Life is more interesting that way. We get to learn quite a lot by being open to knew information and challenging the beliefs we hold about certain things.
I totally agree with you. We do not have "faith" in relationships the way people have "faith" in gods. I know my friends support me and love me because they've given me ample proof of that, and I drive my car because statistically I know that the chances of dying or getting hurt in a crash are still pretty small (though much higher than needed, we should not accept so many traffic deaths). I also do not have "faith" that i won't die tomorrow, I think it's unlikely statistically speaking because I'm still fairly young and I have zero health issues, and dying from accidents it's still a small chance with respect of me not dying from an accident tomorrow. Not planning for the future because of these uncertainties makes no rational sense. We plan for the future because it makes sense.
You know the more I think of your comment, it's pure gold. It's using two different meaning of the word "faith". Bingo! I had failed to comment on that. I sent her this comment too, because it hits the nail on the head.
I think you also should tell her there really is no need for a guide to skepticism. All one must always do is to not believe things for which they have no evidence for.
I think the idea is to make a guide for the "media", so as not to confuse skepticism with denialism, or cynicism, etc. In that sense it's a good idea. But why exclude god from the list of testable claims?
Religious faith is a superstition. Indistinguishable from magic. It has nothing to do with trust in the probabilities.
From Latin *scepticus, only in plural Sceptici ("the sect of Sceptics"), from Ancient Greek σκεπτικός (skeptikos, "thoughtful, inquiring"), from σκέπτομαι (skeptomai, "I consider"), compare to σκοπέω (skopeō, "I view, examine").
late 16th century (in sceptic (sense 2 of the noun)): from French sceptique, or via Latin from Greek skeptikos, from skepsis 'inquiry, doubt'
Definition of sceptic
1- a person inclined to question or doubt accepted opinions.
---a person who doubts the truth of Christianity and other religions; an atheist.
2-Philosophy an ancient or modern philosopher who denies the possibility of knowledge, or even rational belief, in some sphere.
sceptic (plural sceptics)
Someone who is undecided as to what is true and enquires after facts.
Someone who habitually doubts accepted beliefs and claims presented by others, requiring strong evidence before accepting any belief or claim.
Thesaurus --Collins Thesaurus of the English Language – Complete and Unabridged 2nd Edition. 2002 © HarperCollins Publishers 1995, 2002
1. doubter, cynic, scoffer, questioner, disbeliever, Pyrrhonist --He was a born sceptic.
2. agnostic, doubter, unbeliever, doubting Thomas a lifelong religious sceptic
"I am too much of a sceptic to deny the possibility of anything" [T.H. Huxley]
Collins Thesaurus of the English Language – Complete and Unabridged 2nd Edition. 2002 © HarperCollins Publishers 1995, 2002
By omitting the supernatural out of your enquiries without any due considerations shows that your mind is closed not open. A open minded inquirer will consider all things pertaining to an aspect of knowledge to ensure that their conclusions are as correct as they possibly can be in light of the evidence available to them at the time of their enquiry!
Some sceptics are also cynics as well.
I agree, Davy. I think there is a political reason to leave "god" out of the realm of the Skeptic (with big "S") movement, and it's not to alienate the mainstream religious who like to question the paranormal, Bigfoot, homeopathy, etc. If Skeptics offend the mainstream religious, their movement will lose adherents, I think.
I confess that I prefer to call myself an atheist scientist. I do not exclude anything from critical examination.
It would just be honesty if you at least invited your religious skeptics to question the long string of preposterous claims underlying their faith.