I had promised myself that I would spend less time ranting about the problems of the activist community, but I was so disappointed and frustrated during a Twitter exchange with Melody Hensley (of CFI-DC, caveat: she was speaking for herself, not necessarily CFI) the other night that I felt it prudent to bring it up once again, or at least a part of it.
First, I want to address the tired complaint that traditional skeptics exclude “the god question”.
Yup, we do. But before you roll out the silly paragraphs in which you substitute “God” and “religion” with “ghosts” and “the paranormal”, understand this: we also don’t address “the ghost question”.
Or “the psychic question” or “the Bigfoot question” or “the angel question”.
Statements such as “There are no ghosts” with claims that this is more than a personal conclusion are not good scientific skepticism*. Neither is “All psychics are fakes”. Neither is “there is no God”.
I can’t tell you if ghosts exist. I can tell you that I don’t believe in ghosts. I can explain why I don’t believe in them. I can give you alternative explanations for the noises coming from your attic. I can discuss reasons that you might ‘feel’ that ghosts exist. But I cannot prove to you that there are no such thing as ghosts.
I can devise an experiment to show that your dog is not psychic, but I can’t prove that psychic energy doesn’t exist.
I can explain the mechanics of sleep paralysis and the nature of memory, but I can’t say for certain that aliens did not abduct you if you remove the testability of your claim by adding things like “they reset the clocks”.
I cannot prove that there is no dragon in your garage if it does not interact with the world in measurable ways. I can only say, “I am not convinced.”
What I personally believe about these things is irrelevant. It is poor skepticism, poor science, and poor reasoning to include my beliefs in a discussion of your claims. (NOTE: “Belief” is defined in my posts as “that which one holds to be true”.)
I will not speak for everyone who has “harped” about this issue, but I can tell you that this has always been my bottom line in these arguments, so those who would take it out of context and build straw men like “she says that religion is off-limits”, don’t bother.
What I really want to talk about is about here is why this isn’t good skepticism. I’d also like to refute the tired argument that only atheists are good skeptics.
Since there are several versions of this argument and I acknowledge that they carry different meanings, I am also arguing against the following claims:
- Only atheists are rational.
- Theists/Deists may be good skeptics when it comes to other areas, but they are not skeptical about religion.
- Agnostics and theists/deists do not ‘go far enough’.
- There are no reasons to believe in/is no evidence for the supernatural.
The problem with these claims is that they are based almost entirely on a conclusion – the conclusion that there is no god (atheism). It is human nature to judge the validity of arguments by the believability of the conclusion. For example, consider the following syllogisms and decide whether each is valid or invalid:
Some students are tired.
Some tired people are irritable.
Therefore, some students are irritable.
All dogs have four legs.
Daisy is a dog.
Therefore, Daisy has four legs.
If I study, I will get a good grade on the exam.
I got a good grade on the exam.
Therefore, I studied.
If you are like most of my students, you identified the first and third as valid, but the second as invalid. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. An argument is valid if and only if the conclusion logically follows from the premises. Validity is not truth. This is important, because none of us actually knows with 100% certainty what is and is not true.
When we assume that we know what is true, we fail to evaluate arguments on their own merits. If it we were wrong, we perpetuate and strengthen our misguided beliefs instead of discovering our errors.
To know how strong a conclusion is, we must examine two things: 1) the validity of the argument that produced it and 2) the strength of the premises.
The validity of the argument lies only in its logical progression, so we can evaluate this without going beyond what is presented. However, the strength of the premises is another matter. To evaluate those, we must consider their sources. In science, some are conclusions of other arguments (often previous research) and we must evaluate that research to know how strong the premise is. Others are a matter of observation, which is subjected to interpretation and induction. For example, in the famous syllogism about Socrates mortality, the strength of that conclusion relies on the assumption that the premise “All men are mortal” is accurate. Since not all men have died, we don’t actually know with 100% certainty that all men are mortal. We accept it based on a large number of observations and converging evidence, but certainty is not possible.
In my examples, the second syllogism is logically sound, but most people reject it because they “know” that not all dogs have four legs. Perhaps you’ve seen or heard of a three-legged dog (I met one once named “Tripod”) or you have knowledge of how it could occur. This does not make the argument invalid, but it does address #2, making the conclusion unsupported. We cannot determine if it is true from this argument.
The first and third arguments are invalid because the logic is unsound. We may “know” that the conclusions are true, but we can’t know that based on these arguments, so if we want to convince others we need to come up with better evidence/arguments.
The tendency to judge conclusions based on current beliefs is a product of how our brains evolved and developed – a side-effect of what makes us successful organisms. It is human nature, it is wrong and must be overcome if one is to be consistently rational (This, by the way, is a bit of a pipe dream, but I think it’s a good goal).
This problem pops up in a host of cognitive tasks and is a manifestation of the most influential of human frailties: the confirmation bias. This makes it extremely resistant to correction, especially in real-world contexts. In my experience, the concept of “validity” is difficult for many people to grasp because of this problem.
So, going back a few paragraphs, note that I wrote, “The problem with these claims is that they are based almost entirely on a conclusion – the conclusion that there is no god (atheism).”
Reason is about the validity of arguments, so judging a conclusion as valid or invalid without examining the argument is itself an irrational act. Without the argument, your only yardstick is your own belief about the truth of that conclusion. Although we have reasons for our beliefs, so do the people whose beliefs we’re evaluating. Everyone thinks that their beliefs are well-reasoned and accurate. That’s why they believe them!
If you find their conclusion unbelievable, then by all means, be skeptical, but to call it “irrational” without evaluating the argument is to say that you are 100% certain that there is no rational argument. That is the very definition of arrogance and it is not scientific.
Science does not tell us what is (true). Science tells us what is likely (to be true) and, in most cases, how likely. It does so by making arguments. Science is shared knowledge, not because it tells us facts, but because we can discuss the evidence and logic processes behind why we should be reasonably certain of many things. Although science is both a process and a set of knowledge (I’ll call them ‘facts’), the facts in that set are the products of the process. This may include negatives such as “my dog is not psychic” and “vaccines do not cause autism”, but testing is required to make such conclusions scientific.
Science is not about those facts, though. It’s about the process of discovery. When scientists make arguments (by publishing papers), they cite previous literature by noting the findings and, in some cases, describing how those findings were produced. They do not list facts; they discuss evidence.
Scientists don’t judge conclusions. Scientists judge arguments. Scientists look at the whole argument – the assumptions, evidence, and methodology that make up the premises as well as the logic that holds them together – and judge if the conclusions logically follow from those premises.
Likewise, scientific skepticism is about testing claims, examining evidence, and providing natural explanations for the evidence. If there is no evidence to examine, there is nothing to discuss.
Because science ignores untestable claims and because some scientists (e.g., Carl Sagan) have discussed the reasonability of belief without evidence, many people oversimplify the issue (as Melody did in this Twitter conversation) by making the statement that belief in God is within the scope of scientific skepticism because “You don’t believe something without scientific evidence”.
This is misguided for several reasons, but the two main reasons are:
- The assumption that most or all religious belief is completely blind faith is simply wrong. “Evidence”, scientific or otherwise, comes in all manner of forms. In a 1998 study conducted by the Skeptic Society, the most popular answers among believers for why they believe in God involved empirical evidence and/or reasoning (you can find this in Michael Shermer’s How We Believe). These people certainly think that they have good reasons to believe. How people interpret evidence varies a great deal. Most real-world questions are very complex and what seems an obvious conclusion to one person may seem ridiculous to another. Skepticism is about how we interpret evidence, how we reason, and how we consider alternative explanations, not about the conclusions we eventually draw.A good example of interpreting evidence is the study that prompted me to send a tweet to Melody in the first place. She’d first shared a link, then tweeted it again, this time directly to Daniel Loxton, editor of Junior Skeptic, with the comment “More good news about atheists that you might find hard to believe:” Only Melody knows what she meant by the comment, but when I read the study I was disappointed to find that it is not “good news about atheists” at all. I will include details in a post to follow shortly, but the gist is that article’s spin is a very loose interpretation of the findings that fails to mention some sobering facts. Its overgeneralizations and assumptions are criminal. For example, the study reported doesn’t involve atheists. Researchers measured religiosity, then divided participants in half (“more religious” and “less religious”), a common practice in social psychology. Sure, there were atheists among the “less religious”, but we don’t draw conclusions about a part of a sample. Furthermore, taking the three studies as a whole, the ‘more religious’ were more compassionate and more prosocial than the ‘less religious’ half. In essence, anyone wanting to spin the findings another way could easily do so by noting that the less religious half onlyacted prosocially when moved to do so by compassion, whereas the more religious were consistently prosocial. This is not a finding that atheists are better people and, quite frankly, I am sick of people trying to prove such nonsense. Promoting the fact that one can be good without God does not require atheists to be morally superior and, as this study shows, it is a good thing that it doesn’t.Again, we all think that our beliefs are well-reasoned, but what’s more interesting is that people tend to assume that those who disagree do so because either they “need to” (In that same Skeptic Society survey, the most popular reasons believers gave for other people’s beliefs in God involved the stereotype of comfort and meaning to life.) or they are not as rational.
- Even if there was literally zero evidence, the “null hypothesis” argument is an oversimplification of a concept borrowed from statistical rules and applied to the assumption that science makes that every hypothesis is testable. Science makes this assumption, but it also acknowledges that the assumption could be wrong by excluding the possibility of 100% certainty and by limiting its scope to testable hypotheses. You cannot invoke science as an answer to claims it cannot test, nor can you claim that someone’s conclusion is wrong because science cannot test it; that’s circular reasoning unless you’re saying that science is the only way to know something. By that logic, people cannot be scientific thinkers and also have morals**. Science (shared knowledge) may ignore the supernatural, but people (personal knowledge) do not and cannot use scientific processes to examine every question and still manage to function in the world, so if you want to attack person knowledge as wrong, you’ll have to do better than “it’s not scientific”.
So, what about the other versions of this claim?
Are atheists more rational than believers? Probably on average, considering the other variables which are correlated with atheism. However, given how poorly all human beings are at reasoning, that isn’t saying much.
Is atheism rational? I can’t answer that. Atheism is a conclusion. Whether it’s a rational conclusion depends on why the individual drew that conclusion.
Is religion rational? Again, I can’t answer that and neither can you. It’s a conclusion. Whether it’s a rational conclusion depends on the reasoning of the individual and the evidence they considered.
From what I know about how human beings process information, I can see a great many valid arguments for the existence of God that would be perfectly rational. They’d have to have some extraordinarily well-supported premises in order to convince me, but lacking support for those premises won’t make them irrational. Reasoning well does not require convincing others.
As I’ve said twice now, everyone thinks that their conclusions are the ‘right’ conclusions. So what makes your conclusion (that there is no God) better than someone else’s?
If your answer is “mine is well-reasoned”, that’s not a comparison. See two sentences back.
To know that you are “right” and they are “wrong”, you actually have to examine their argument/evidence. If you haven’t examined their argument, then who are you to tell someone that they are irrational? Who are you to tell them that they have no evidence when you haven’t even bothered to ask them what their evidence is? This is exactly what you’re doing when you claim that any belief in a god is “irrational” or make a blanket statement about the intelligence or cognitive abilities of those with religious beliefs. It’s elitist, arrogant, bigoted wishful thinking.
You cannot judge an argument by its conclusion, no matter how unbelievable the conclusion seems to you.
Finally, the following is a list of things that I have NOT said. In fact, I do not believe that any of the people accused most of making these statements actually has:
- “Religion is off-limits in skepticism.” There are plenty of testable claims related to religion, but test the claims and discuss the evidence rather than attacking belief in them.
- “Stop talking about ‘the god question’.”I have no problems with debates about the existence of God. What I have a problem with is criticizing conclusions as rational or irrational without examining the argument that produced them and calling such criticisms “skepticism”.
- “Stop promoting secularism.” I am a strong advocate of secularism, but promoting atheism is, in my opinion, no different from promoting any other set of conclusions. Freedom from religion requires freedom of religion. Removing religion from government does not mean taking it away from its citizens.
- “Atheism is not the only valid conclusion of properly-applied skepticism.” I did not say that it was, either. Hopefully my discussion explains why that question is not relevant.
I had planned to ignore Melody’s accusations that my criticisms are ‘mean-spirited’, but I cannot do that, either. It certainly is mean-spirited to attack people, but that is not what I have done. You won’t find a personal comment about Melody here. If it is mean-spirited to address (or even attack) what people say and do, especially when one finds what they promote to be harmful, then our whole business is ‘mean-spirited’.
*Given that all of the major organizations in skepticism have adopted scientific skepticism, this is what I’m discussing. If you would like to argue that activism should go beyond scientific skepticism, please do so elsewhere. For that matter, this post is not even about limiting scope for practical and strategic purposes, which is an entirely different cup of tea.
**Yes, I am aware that Sam Harris claims that science can tell us what is moral, but so far his arguments fall far short.
NOTE TO WOULD-BE COMMENTERS: Please do not comment if you have not actually read (not skimmed, READ) the post. Also, before you write a comment about how Dawkins and others (i.e., persons whose credentials you think I should not question) argue that science refutes the existence of God or should include “the god question”, I recommend a thorough review those arguments (that means more than reading a couple of blog posts by bystanders or comment threads). Their treatment of the subject is much more considered than the oversimplification I’m addressing here and their arguments are not as shallow. Finally, if your plan is to quote from Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World, you might want to read the whole book first.