Saturday 8 September 2012

Skepticism; atheism — a concentric Venn

Aaron Higashi's comment to Paul Baird's post in the Unbelievable? Facebook group, about the next Qestion.Explore.Discover convention, raises some definitional points about skepticism that I'd like to address. Aaron's comment in full is as follows:
This is somewhat tangential to your post, but it just reminded me about how much I dislike identifiers that frame the opposite side in a way that they would never self-identify as. For example, pro-life. The opposite of pro-life would be anti-life or pro-death. No one would identify as such. Same for pro-choice. I don't think any pro-life people would identify as anti-choice. The identifier has a pretty obvious polemical element to it. It not only identifies a group, but indicts the opposition.

I think "skeptic" is that sort of identifier. Same with "reason rally" or "brights." People do not self-identify as gullible, irrational, or dim. Considering "skeptic" has next to nothing to do with philosophical skepticism in a classical sense, the word exists only in its popular connotation, it frames the opposite group as those who lack critical thinking skills, or who are disinclined to use them. It is not as though one cannot be both religious and "skeptical" in the contemporary sense. Any sufficiently critical attitude would be skeptical in a contemporary sense, and there are entire movements, interpretive frameworks, and denominations based on being critical of this or that other thing.

If it's a science conference, let it be a science conference. If it's a group of "skeptics," i.e. atheists and other non-religious folk, let it be that.

Having said all that, I hope some of the videos from the conference will be on youtube afterwords.
I agree with Aaron's point about the way attitudes are framed, but I don't think there's much that can be done about it. People are always going to spin their own point of view to make it look more reasonable or favourable than the opposition. It's up to skeptics to recognise this and identify it.

As for skepticism itself, I don't agree with Aaron's implied definition — ...a group of "skeptics," i.e. atheists and other non-religious folk... — which seems to be confined to atheism and opposition to religion. It's true that many skeptics are atheists, but atheism and skepticism are not the same thing. You could say that atheism is skepticism about gods — and that's pretty much the stand I take. My atheism is part of, or a subset of, my skepticism.

Skepticism is simply an unwillingness to accept unsubstantiated claims as true. The reason religion features strongly in skeptical discourse is that it has a long history of making unsubstantiated claims, and a reluctance (or inability) to provide substantiation when requested to do so. In addition, religion's standards of evidence seem in many cases to be inadequate. And there appear to be a great many more people who accept religious claims than who accept the existence of Bigfoot, or space aliens on Earth, or the usefulness of alternative medicine — to name but three of the many issues with which skeptics may be concerned.

Some high-profile skeptics will not discuss religion at all, and some of those even say that religion should be kept out of "skepticism" altogether. Personally I don't see how that's possible. If you're skeptical of ghosts, for example, that probably means you're skeptical of the afterlife — which is mostly a religious idea — and if you argue that there's no compelling evidence for an afterlife (near-death experiences notwithstanding) you will be seen as attacking religious belief.

The issue comes back to Stephen Jay Gould's flawed notion of non-overlapping magisteria. The problem is that they not only overlap — in many cases the magisteria are inextricably entwined.