On atheism and skepticism

I’ve been playing around in the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition and usage history for “atheism” and “atheist,” and found this rather relevant to ongoing discussions.

1876 GLADSTONE in Contemp. Rev. June 22 By the Atheist I understand the man who not only holds off, like the sceptic, from the affirmative, but who drives himself, or is driven, to the negative assertion in regard to the whole Unseen, or to the existence of God.

Now, far be it for me to suggest that dictionaries, let alone the particular usages they indicate from 153 years ago, are correct, but I think Gladstone is making a good point here. Skepticism is primarily an aversion to accepting certain claims without evidence. But this need not require one to reject those claims. Many ideas have too little evidence to support or reject them, and a skeptic can and should be open-minded toward such inadequately tested claims. Open-mindedness, of course, has limits, and I believe it was Feynman who urged us all not to be so open-minded that our brains fall out. Given that no evidence can be inconsistent with an omnipotent deity, I don’t see how there can be evidence on either side of the balance regarding such claims, and thus think there’s too little evidence to justify accepting or rejecting the existence of such a being.

Bear in mind that this may all be meaningless maundering. Up through 1863, there are recorded uses of this 3rd definition of skeptic:

One who doubts, without absolutely denying, the truth of the Christian religion or important parts of it.

So maybe Gladstone meant that sense of skeptic, rather than the more common definition we’re familiar with. Or maybe that third definition is a subset of the more general definition “one who maintains a doubting attitude with reference to some particular question or statement.” And again, dictionaries are not prescriptive, they simply describe how words are used, not what they should mean.

Comments

  1. #1 Janne
    April 29, 2010

    Thing is, religious belief is about _belief_, not about weighing evidence (there basically is no evidence for any religion, and really, anyone who needs evidence to support their belief isn’t a believer). An agnostic is basically saying “I don’t know if what I feel is belief in a greater power or not” while an atheist is saying “I don’t feel any belief in religion.”

    Restate it in belief in Santa Claus: is the appropriate adult response “well, I don’t know that there isn’t a Santa so I kind of sit on the fence” or “I don’t believe in Santa as an actual existing entity”? If it’s about evidence we should all be agnostic about Santa (there is no, and can be no, conclusive evidence he doesn’t exist after all). If it’s about what our minds have concluded after weighing our experiences – about what we _believe_ – then most of us are asantists, and properly so.

    Agnosticism is not knowing what you believe, while atheism simply means that you don’t believe. Which is perfectly rational – if you don’t believe, you don’t.

  2. #2 Deepak Shetty
    April 29, 2010

    @Josh

    Given that no evidence can be inconsistent with an omnipotent deity

    Omnipotence is a paradox (pit the omnipotent deity against itself in various forms like can he create a sandwich so big that he cant eat it…, and there goes the omnipotence).

    I don’t see how there can be evidence on either side of the balance regarding such claims, and thus think there’s too little evidence to justify accepting or rejecting the existence of such a being.

    Most atheists(in my experience) if pushed are agnostics. However that is not the common usage of the term. For e.g. Apathetic Agnosticism and Ignostism are the closest to my views, but any religious person will probably call me an Atheist. Even The Atheist Prophet Richard Dawkins doesnt put himself down as completely certain that no God exists.

  3. #3 Comrade PhysioProf
    April 29, 2010

    Many ideas have too little evidence to support or reject them, and a skeptic can and should be open-minded toward such inadequately tested claims.

    A skeptic should be open-minded to any cockamamie bullshit that gets pulled out of someone’s ass so long as there is “too little evidence to support or reject”? Seriously, dude, I really don’t understand why you are bending over backwards to provide solace to gibbering fuckwits. What’s the hidden agenda here?

  4. #4 Josh Rosenau
    April 29, 2010

    PhysioProf: No hidden agenda, and no need to deploy the fundamental attribution error. Cockamamie bullshit tends to be relatively easy to debunk, especially if it runs counter to all pre-existing knowledge. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence for a reason. And again, one shouldn’t be so open-minded that one’s brains fall out. The appropriate limits of open-mindedness toward religion in particular is a topic of debate among skeptics, clearly. I don’t see that anything I said requires bending over for gibbering fuckwits. Fuckwittery is wrong and should be called out. I see fuckwits in the skeptical camp, and I call them on their misbehavior, just as I call out fuckwittery among the more wooful.

    Janne, Deepak: That’s not what agnosticism means. I am agnostic because I believe knowledge of gods’ existence is impossible. It is not a lack of knowledge regarding what I belief, it is an assertion that certain things are unknowable. Some people choose to believe without knowledge (agnostic theists), others choose to disbelieve without knowledge (agnostic atheists). I’m an apathistic agnostic, as I believe knowledge of god(s) is impossible and unimportant. Check out Austin Cline’s helpful distinction of the terms here: http://atheism.about.com/od/aboutagnosticism/a/atheism.htm

    Santa Claus is a poor example. The question of whether St. Nicholas of Myra existed is a simple historical matter. Whether he lives at the North Pole is easily by satellites, helicopter flights, submarine expeditions, etc. NORAD would notice hypersonic reindeer in the skies. In other words, Santa poses a number of specifically testable claims. He probably really did live, he doesn’t have elves at the North Pole. Such knowledge is possible. Some of the miracles attributed to St. Nicholas may be testable, and others may not. I don’t especially care either way, though.

  5. #5 Jim L.
    April 29, 2010

    If you make your definition of “God” weak enough, e.g. a deistic god who set off the big bang and has been hands off ever since, then yes, I suppose I am agnostic for the reasons you mention. But this definition is absolutely worthless in just about any conversation, since “God” usually means the god as defined by the Abrahamic faiths. When we talk about this god, then I am fully atheist. Consider two hypotheses: 1) God is real, and a significant part of the Bible is essentially correct in its description of God, or 2) God is a myth and no more real than other mythical gods that are commonly recognized as myths. If you feel that the evidence for the former is weak and the evidence for the latter is strong, then you are an atheist.

  6. #6 Deepak Shetty
    April 29, 2010

    I am agnostic because I believe knowledge of gods’ existence is impossible.
    Untrue. We may not be able to determine the existence of God given some definitions, not all.
    Oh btw Santa Claus is undetectable, he is extrascientific don’t you know?

  7. #7 Phillip IV
    April 30, 2010

    but I think Gladstone is making a good point here

    I don’t – in fact, I think it’s pure sophistry.

    In regard to which practical, real-world question would an atheist’s and a skeptic’s answer (using Gladstone’s definitions) ever deviate?

    You either believe firmly in the existence of one specific deity whose specific rules and regulations should direct your everyday activity and societal contributions, or you don’t.

    If you don’t, it doesn’t matter if you deny the existence of a higher being outright or consider it barely possible that some undefined, undefinable higher being could potentially exist (if it just tries hard enough to be really inconspicuous) – in either case you would ultimately have to reject metaphysical arguments (i.e. “the Bible says so”) for practical considerations (your behaviour and your vision for society).

    I’d go on and say that even the kind of vague, new-agey spirituality that many people keep around for their comfort doesn’t meaningfully differ from either atheism or skepticism (as per Gladstone’s definition, again) in regard to practical considerations.

    In my opinion, in regard to any practically meaningful question it comes down to only two stances: You firmly believe in some external source that directly communicates moral guidance, in which case your behaviour and opinions should naturally be based on that, or you don’t believe in such a source, in which case your behaviour and opinions would have to be based on your own conscience and reason – and that latter scenario would apply to atheists, skeptics and a good deal of vaguely spiritual people.

  8. #8 Comrade PhysioProf
    April 30, 2010

    No hidden agenda, and no need to deploy the fundamental attribution error. Cockamamie bullshit tends to be relatively easy to debunk, especially if it runs counter to all pre-existing knowledge.

    I have no idea what is “the fundamental attribution error” (sounds like some kind of high-school debate-team championship garbage). What I do know is that there are no factual statements whatsoever concerning “gods” other than “gods don’t exist” that are not either total fucking horseshit or completely contentless.

    If you don’t disagree with this, then why do you concern yourself with atheists acting like assholes in relation to god wackos? There’s certainly multiple orders of magnitude more god wackos fucking up other people’s shit on account of their wacko god nonsense than there are atheist assholes fucking up other people’s shit on account of their accurate perception of reality.

  9. #9 Rob
    April 30, 2010

    I consider myself an atheist. I have no reason to believe there is or ever was any god/s. Ancient texts and mythology are not proof because they were created and written by man. How come these “gods” were so prevelant and took part in people lives for thousands of years but have not been seen or heard from since the dawn of the scientific age centuries ago? Maybe because man created “god” and not the other way around? I don’t need to fill in the knowledge blanks in my life with superstitions or imaginary beings. I simply accept that I don’t know and that some of life’s mysteries will undoubtedly be answered in the future, just as they have since the dawn of time. I don’t believe in “god/s” therefore I consider myself an atheist. Pure and simple. I think I can define what I believe and what I am better than a dictionary or anyone else can.

  10. #10 Josh Rosenau
    April 30, 2010

    “Fundamental attribution error,” to quote Wikipedia, “describes the tendency to over-value dispositional or personality-based explanations for the observed behaviors of others while under-valuing situational explanations for those behaviors.”

    I almost agree that “there are no factual statements whatsoever concerning ‘gods’ other than ‘gods don’t exist’ that are not either total fucking horseshit or completely contentless.” I think empirical claims about gods (including claims about their nonexistence) are generally contentless because they are untestable. What novel and testable prediction does “gods do not exist” generate? If the answer is the null set (as I think), then that claim is either horseshit or contentless, too! But that doesn’t mean you can’t say anything about gods. You can look at how people think about the god(s) they believe in. Studying what people think is not inherently horseshit, and constitutes real content, even if they are thinking about things which either don’t exist or can’t be shown to exist.

    It is similar in some ways to discussion of baseball or fiction. Statements about whether Kirk or Picard is the better Star Trek captain are either horseshit or contentless. But one can still ask why some people prefer Picard, or why Sisko never gets the same level of attention. And such studies are meaningful.

    But why spend time on fuckwittery within my own camp rather than just talk about fuckwittery within the other camp? A) Because I think fuckwittery is an evil in its own right B) It makes it harder for fuckwits from the other camp to claim that I’m only criticizing their fuckwittery because I disagree with their conclusions.

    Critical thinking and skepticism and rationality are goods unto themselves. I want to promote those things. People who get a result I agree with through the wrong process are still wrong, and deserve correction. I want to promote a process, not just have everyone accept that my opinions are correct (though that’d be OK). When I criticize fuckwits in my camp, it’s because I think they are employing and even promoting modes of thought contrary to critical thinking.

  11. #11 Matti K.
    May 1, 2010

    Is ist “fuckwittery” to mock homeopathy? Or shoud one keep an open mind towards this traditional healig method, as long as its practioners do not sell it as an alternative for modern medicine?

    I think it is a political matter. If well over 50% of the population would believe in homeopathy, the accommodationists would do doubt preach in favor of the compatibility of homeopathy and modern medicine.

  12. #12 J. J. Ramsey
    May 1, 2010

    Matti K.: “If well over 50% of the population would believe in homeopathy, the accommodationists would do doubt preach in favor of the compatibility of homeopathy and modern medicine.”

    Oh, yeah, because around 50% of the U.S. population believes in creationism (and I don’t mean theistic evolution here), so accommodationists preach the compatibility of creationism and science. Wait a minute … no, the accommodationists do no such thing.

  13. #13 Matti K.
    May 1, 2010

    #11 “Oh, yeah, because around 50% of the U.S. population believes in creationism (and I don’t mean theistic evolution here), so accommodationists preach the compatibility of creationism and science. Wait a minute … no, the accommodationists do no such thing.”

    Actually they do. The central idea of mainstream religions (theistic evolution included) is that there is an omnipotent creator. Hence all such religions can be called creationist. I do understand that in common language the term “creationist” means a person who takes scripture literarily. I also understand that even for accommodationists, such creationism is a no-no.

    However, with time all belief systems seem to split into sects with different emphasis. In the hypothetical pro-homeopathic society, there probably would be fundamentalists (Hahnemanists?) who would emphazise the literal text of Hahneman. Most likely thee would also be other supporters of homeopathy who could concede that Hahneman should not be taken literarily, but that homeopathy still is essential for the full well-beeing of humans. Calling homeopathy bullshit in such a society would be very unwise politically. That’s why accommodationists in such a society would probably say that homeopathy and modern medicine are compatible. After all, what’s the harm in taking some infinitely diluted stuff together with your antibiotics?

  14. #14 J. J. Ramsey
    May 1, 2010

    Matti K.: “Actually they do. The central idea of mainstream religions (theistic evolution included) is that there is an omnipotent creator. Hence all such religions can be called creationist.”

    You’re engaging in the very fallacy of ambiguity that I was trying to head off at the pass when I wrote “and I don’t mean theistic evolution here.” You replace the common meaning of “creationism,” which involves at the very least a denial of the theory of evolution, with a far looser definition that includes even deism and sows confusion. Sorry, not playing that game.

  15. #15 Matti K.
    May 1, 2010

    #14 Do as you please. I still think accommodationism is a practical (political) stance, not a philosophical view.

    The accommodationists feel that believing in an intelligent creator interacting with the materialist world is compatible with science. I understand from Mr. Roseanaus message that this is because this hypothetical creator cannot (by definition?) be observed with scientific methods.

    If that’s all what is needed for compatibility, then why isn’t the belief in the therapeutic effect of extremely diluted solutions compatible with modern medical science?

  16. #16 J. J. Ramsey
    May 1, 2010

    Matti K.: “The accommodationists feel that believing in an intelligent creator interacting with the materialist world is compatible with science.”

    That’s a half-truth. Some kinds of purported interactions between said intelligent creator and the physical world are unfalsifiable and are consistent with any state of affairs. Belief in such purported interactions doesn’t get in the way of doing or accepting science. Belief in a deity who created all life about 6,000 years ago, not so much.

    Matti K.: “If that’s all what is needed for compatibility, then why isn’t the belief in the therapeutic effect of extremely diluted solutions compatible with modern medical science?”

    Because belief in the therapeutic effect of extremely diluted solutions entails physical claims about the world that not only can be tested but have been–and been found wanting.

    There is also the matter that homeopathy is far less of a moving target than religion, which is a grab bag of all sorts of beliefs, some far more harmless than others. Accommodationism crucially depends on this variability, allowing people the option of modifying their religious beliefs to accommodate the science rather than chucking them altogether. That kind of variability just isn’t a part of homeopathy.

  17. #17 Matti K.
    May 2, 2010

    #16 JJR: “Some kinds of purported interactions between said intelligent creator and the physical world are unfalsifiable and are consistent with any state of affairs. Belief in such purported interactions doesn’t get in the way of doing or accepting science. Belief in a deity who created all life about 6,000 years ago, not so much.”

    So belief in incredible events 6000 years ago is not compatible with science, whereas belief in incredioble events 2000 years ago and present-day miracles is compatible with science?

    JJR: “Accommodationism crucially depends on this variability, allowing people the option of modifying their religious beliefs to accommodate the science rather than chucking them altogether. That kind of variability just isn’t a part of homeopathy.”

    I know people who embrace everything in modern medical science. In addition, they apply homeopathic methods, when they or their dependants are sick. Basically, they trust science, but believe that the effects of homeopathy are somehow beyond scientific research. Although their ways bring no bodily harm to anybody, I still say their practice is bullshit. My point is that if homeopathy would be more mainstream, me saying so would upset the accommodationists.

  18. #18 J. J. Ramsey
    May 2, 2010

    Matti K.: “So belief in incredible events 6000 years ago is not compatible with science, whereas belief in incredioble events 2000 years ago and present-day miracles is compatible with science?”

    Let’s see now. On the one hand, we have purported large-scale events 6,000 years ago that would leave behind clear traces all over the world if they happened. On the other hand, we have purported events 2,000 years ago that are nowhere near as large-scale as, oh, a worldwide flood and aren’t likely to leave physical evidence behind in the present day that can be analyzed by present-day science. Way to compare apples and oranges there, Matti K.

    Matti K.: “I know people who embrace everything in modern medical science. In addition, they apply homeopathic methods, when they or their dependants are sick.”

    This is hardly the same as having a form of homeopathy that is actually compatible with scientific findings about the physical world.

    Matti K.: “My point is that if homeopathy would be more mainstream, me saying so would upset the accommodationists.”

    Your point is based on bad analogies, and you even tried to smuggle in a fallacy of ambiguity.

  19. #19 Matti K.
    May 2, 2010

    # 17 Sure, I’m convinced that human parthenogenesis (male from female) is “actually compatible with scientific findings about the physical world”.

    Do you mean that miracles are compatible with science as long as they leave no traces to be investigated? Does that hold only for anecdotes within mainstream religions, or is all folklore (including urban legends) included?

  20. #20 J. J. Ramsey
    May 2, 2010

    Matti K.: “Sure, I’m convinced that human parthenogenesis (male from female) is ‘actually compatible with scientific findings about the physical world'”

    More fallacious reasoning from you. A claim that women in general could do human parthenogenesis would obviously conflict with scientific findings about the physical world. As for a claim that 2,000 years ago, the normal laws of nature were suspended to allow a virgin to give birth? Good luck trying to find a scientific test of that claim.

    Matti K.: “Do you mean that miracles are compatible with science as long as they leave no traces to be investigated?”

    I’d say rather that a belief is compatible with science if it doesn’t get in the way of doing science or accepting scientific facts, period. Now if a purported miracle wouldn’t leave behind traces that could be scientifically investigated, then that would tend to keep it from getting in the way, since that means a believer in a miracle wouldn’t need to deny scientific facts in order to believe the account of the miracle. One could argue that belief in miracles requires a credulous attitude that would conflict with doing science, but in practice, it doesn’t seem to work that way.

  21. #21 Matti K.
    May 3, 2010

    I wonder why the compatibility of religion an science seems to be such a scripture for accommodationists. Is it only a PR-show to make science palatable for the american layman?

    I have the impression that truly competent religious scientists understand that the compatibility of religion and science is not a truism, and thus have a less missionary attitude toward this compatibility than the PR-folks (f.ex. Roseanau and Mooney).

    I personally respect any religious scientist who can compartmentalize his/her religious and scientific views in a way that they do not interfere. Just like I respect a competent medical doctor, even though he/she is a chain-smoker. Why not value this compartmentalization?

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