March 17, 2009

The Skeptical Attitude in Atheism

This is the second post in a multi-part series. The first part was "The Skeptical Attitude in Science." If I was pushed to give only one reason why I am an atheist, the reason I would give would indeed reflect the skeptical attitude: There is insufficient evidence to support the theistic claim that god(s) exist. Believing such an extraordinary claim without sufficient evidence would be undeniably irrational. Thus, reasoned skepticism leads - at least in my case - to atheism.

As we saw in the first post, not all scientists are atheists. Some utilize compartmentalization so as not to apply skepticism to matters of religion. Others are willing to set aside their scientific training completely by doing something scientists are taught never to do. They begin by accepting the conclusion that god(s) must exist and then work backward to piece their case together. Of course, it would be erroneous to consider such a process scientific at all. Such an individual is no longer engaged in science but apologetics.

For the scientist and non-scientist alike, I believe that one who applies the skeptical attitude to matters of religion will likely end up arriving at the atheist position (i.e., no longer accepting the theistic belief claim). For atheists, there is no reason not to apply the skeptical attitude to matters of religion too. After all, it has proven so useful in every other application that it makes sense to evaluate religious claims in the same manner. The Christian bible claims that the earth is 6,000 years old. Science has conclusively proven otherwise. The biblical claim is rejected.

Please do not misunderstand what I referred to above as "the atheist position." Atheism is not a rejection of gods, a worldview of any sort, or a worship of science or humanity. It is nothing more than the realization that one does not accept the theistic claim that god(s) exist. That is all I mean here by "atheist position."

While atheism may be a logical result of applying the skeptical attitude to matters of religion, this does not mean that all atheists became atheists because of skepticism or that all atheists are willing or able to apply skepticism in other spheres of life. Atheists may be rational and skeptical on the question of gods, but this is certainly no assurance that we might not fall into irrationality in all sorts of other domains.

I have known more than a couple atheists who believed in ghosts at the same time they regarded theists as silly for believing in gods. I know atheists who buy all sorts of vitamin supplements making fantastic claims without a shred of support. I know atheists who routinely fail to critically evaluate claims made by their favorite Fox "News" personality. Skepticism may bring many to atheism, but atheism is certainly no guarantee of effective skepticism.

Next up, I will address some domains where the skeptical attitude is desperately needed but often overlooked.

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