PZ's Problem: Does Skepticism Makes An Exemption For Religion?

PZ’s Problem: Does Skepticism Makes An Exemption For Religion?

He’s got one of the most widely-​​read blogs of anyone related to the skeptic/​atheist/​freethought/​etc. community, so you’ve probably read it by now, but PZ Myers has “officially” left the scientific skepticism movement. And it appears to be solely about the way skeptics treat religion — or, at least, the way US magician Jamy Ian Swiss treats religion:

Thanks, Jamy Ian Swiss, you’ve opened my eyes and I will no longer consider myself a “skeptic”. I am a scientist, and from the talk he gave tonight (which was pretty much exactly the same as his TAM talk, except for the additions where he called me stupid and a liar), it is clear that “scientific skepticism” is simply a crippled, buggered version of science with special exemptions to set certain subjects outside the bounds of its purview. In addition, it’s promoters are particularly sensitive to having their hypocrisy pointed out (that, by the way, is what triggered his outburst — you’d have to be stupid or a liar to think that skepticism gives religion special privileges.)

But what else can you call this logic? Skepticism has no sacred cows! Except that skepticism only addresses “testable claims”. By the way, the existence of gods is not a testable claim.

That’s a pretty explicit loophole by definition.

Having not seen Jamy’s talk (it was apparently streamed live and has yet to be put up as a video), I can’t comment on that, but I’d like to touch on what PZ said, and potentially address his concern.

I’m a skeptic, and I’m an atheist. These two labels are pretty loaded to be honest, even in today’s slightly more… accepting culture. Skeptics are often misidentified as climate change deniers, and atheists as philosophically-​​confused1. But I stick by them, because I simply think they’re accurate. I’m a skeptic because I value critical thinking, the scientific method and the knowledge gained by the scientific community, and I’m an atheist because I don’t believe in a god.

But how does skepticism relate to atheism? It’s an old question, which has been debated for decades, if not centuries. It cuts to the heart of two issues: what science is, and what religion is. They certainly won’t be fully illuminated in this meagre piece of writing (who would be arrogant enough to claim that?), but I think enough light has been shed on the darkness to solve PZ’s problem, at least for now.

PZ doesn’t like that skepticism doesn’t take issue with the core claim of religion: the existence of God. On the surface (and from the perspective of someone who would be annoyed by such a thing), he seems justified — why does skeptical investigation stop there? Skeptics have no problem attacking ghosts, aliens, magic, creationism and psychic powers, so why leave out the biggest paranormal claim of them all? It seems downright weird. Skepticism seems to have carved a special place for religion, free from judgment and criticism.

However, I see it differently.

What is religion? It’s more than a belief in a god: it’s often a complex, messy bundle of beliefs about the universe, human nature, history, morality and, yes, supernatural entities. Singling out belief in God from the host of problems inherent in many religious traditions is almost like taking issue with a homeopath’s dress sense. There are better (and worse) things to criticise.

Skepticism concerns itself with many, many aspects of modern religious traditions (as well as ancient ones). Creationism falls to the ground with a shuddering crash when evolutionary biology and physics are brought into play. Outlandish claims about Biblical literalism crumble to dust when viewed critically and through the lens of history and archeology. A great deal of theistic claims about human nature and society don’t make any sense when you compare them to things we know from neurology, psychology and sociology. Even religious miracles, such as weeping statues and visions, are routinely investigated by skeptics that might otherwise be debunking UFOs and hauntings, and are found wanting.

Specific gods can be dismissed scientifically too, in a way. The Greek pantheon had direct control over the elements — but we now know why lightning forms, the waves crash and the Sun shines. I don’t think it would be unreasonable to conclude that science gives us good reason to believe they do not exist, even if science wasn’t the historical reason many people were convinced of this.

What is left of religion after all that skepticism? Moral teachings from ancient texts. Vague beliefs about supernatural worlds divorced of this universe. The possible existence of a nebulous entity that may or may not be able to do something or rather. These are all outside the realm of science. Sure, they can be questioned, but skepticism leaves the work up to philosophical fields such as ethics and metaphysics, where the answers are a little less clear, a little more personal and a whole lot less scientific.

A person can be a skeptic and believe in a god. But if they’ve gone and applied skepticism fairly, then it’s probably not going to be a god that PZ should worry about.

So PZ thinks that skeptics want to shield religious people from criticism, that they might join with us to fight more pressing battles, like intelligent design creationism in public schools or increasing science funding. But that’s not the case. Skeptics are simply seeing the limitations of the viewpoint that binds them together as skeptics. While many are non-​​religious like myself, we ultimately arrived at our atheistic conclusion through means separate from our skepticism. Knowing that to be true, we see no reason not to let those religious people who otherwise apply skepticism consistently be in on the label of “skeptic”. As they say, if the shoe fits…

Skepticism does not hold back from religion. In fact, it questions it in almost every way that is important. If the beliefs that are left over still bother and annoy, there are other ways to wrestle them. Why should skepticism be a silver bullet to everything a person finds objectionable?

PZ should be happy with what skepticism offers him. After all, he’s been benefiting from it for a while now.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by hyfen]

  1. The whole atheist vs. agnostic vs. anti-​​theist debate is old news, right? An atheist is simply someone who doesn’t believe in a god, and it’s a perfectly fine label for a non-​​religious person — if they in fact don’t believe in God. []