January 2, 2014

Big Question 5: What is the Role of Skepticism in the Atheist Community?

Bigfoot?
Bigfoot? (Photo credit: Ben Cumming)
I'm back to sharing my thoughts about the six big questions over which atheists have disagreed, and it is time to tackle the fifth question. This one asks about the role of skepticism in the atheist community, and it is an admittedly strange question for at least a few reasons. First, some assumed that I had Atheism+ in mind when I added this one and suggested that it should be combined with the previous question about how tolerant we should be of diverse opinions in our community. But I was not thinking of Atheism+ here; I was thinking of something fairly different that I will explain below. While I do agree that an argument could be made for combining this with the previous question, I am not sure the overlap is as great as I initially thought. Second, this seems like an odd question because it is commonly assumed that most atheists arrive at atheism through skepticism and would therefore be strong proponents of skepticism. I am now convinced that this common assumption is likely false and that there are many atheists who came to atheism through means other than skepticism, some of whom also have little understanding of or appreciation for skepticism. Third, this question may prove to be even more divisive than the previous one, which might lead some to avoid asking it. But I am convinced it is worth asking, and so it is to the question which I will now turn:
What is the role of skepticism in atheism? Is it sufficiently important that we should seek to be skeptical of our own ideas, or is it enough just to be skeptical of others' ideas? Some atheists believe that certain ideas (e.g., components of their preferred ideology) are beyond questioning; other atheists perceive this as hypocritical and argue that we ought to question all ideas to evaluate their merit.
For many atheists, including this one, skepticism is how we arrived at atheism. My skepticism was what brought me to atheism and not the other way around. I have met many atheists with a similar experience, but this is far from a universal experience among atheists. For some of us, skepticism was key; for others, it was irrelevant. If we are going to make any sense of this question, we need to acknowledge our diversity here at the outset. The role skepticism played in bringing people to atheism is widely variable across atheists.

I did not have Atheism+ in mind when I added this question to the list; I had another group of people in mind. The people I had in mind were the many atheists who believe in ghosts, "Bigfoot" creatures, alien abductions, ESP, and/or other phenomena we might describe as paranormal. I have been surprised again and again at just how many atheists I have encountered who report believing in such things. But far more telling is that many of them seek to defend these things in some of the same ways religious believers attempt to defend the entities in which they believe. I am less surprised now, and that is mostly because I have learned that skepticism does not play much of a role for some atheists in what they believe.

Should We Encourage Skepticism?

Should we encourage greater skepticism among our fellow atheists? I think so. Atheists are certainly capable of being irrational about all sorts of things. I think we should encourage skepticism, critical thinking, and sound reality-based education wherever we find it lacking. Skepticism is too valuable to horde; I'd prefer to spread it around as much as possible. It is not just that skepticism provides the foundation of the scientific method; it has a number of practical everyday benefits. So yes, I would say that we should absolutely encourage skepticism among atheists and religious believers alike.

Perhaps an even more important question than whether we should encourage skepticism is how best to do so. And here I'd have to say that a kinder, gentler, more instructive approach is probably preferably to hitting someone over the head with skepticism. Skepticism requires sustained effort. Skepticism and critical thinking can be difficult for a number of reasons, and some people never had the opportunity to learn some of the methods. We wouldn't scold someone for not multiplying numbers correctly if they had never learned addition, and it is difficult to bash someone as being insufficiently skeptical who lacks the necessary foundation.

I would say that we absolutely should encourage skepticism among everyone, atheist and theist alike, and that we should try to do so from a position of patient understanding. Skepticism and critical thinking are often challenging and may be unfamiliar; if we want to encourage their use, we need to make sure that the person we are seeking to encourage knows how to do what we are asking them to do.

Skepticism of What?

Is skepticism so important that we should seek to be skeptical of our own ideas? Absolutely! If we are at all interested in guarding against the many errors in thinking to which humans are prone (e.g., confirmation bias), being skeptical of our own cherished ideas is probably even more important than skepticism of someone else's. Of course, it is also much more challenging to apply the methods of skepticism to our own ideas.

I realize that the moment I note that some atheists believe that certain aspects of their preferred ideology are beyond question and that skepticism should not be applied to them, some of you will think of Atheism+. You will recall how some of those associated with Atheism+ have said that feminism is beyond question and anybody who is skeptical of any part of their third wave feminist ideology is an "MRA," a "rape apologist," or a "sister punisher." Such claims strike me as dangerous and are reminiscent of fanaticism. I reject them, as I believe that we must question everything.

I am politically progressive, what some might describe as liberal. This label accurately describes many of my positions on specific issues. For example, I am pro-choice, support social safety net programs, believe that people who work should be able to earn a living wage, support strengthening environmental regulations, and seek to get corporate money out of the political process. Am I really saying that I should question all of these positions and apply skepticism and critical thinking even to something that is such a core part of my values? Yes! In fact, it is because these things are an important part of my values that I must work even harder to apply skepticism and critical thinking to counter my biases and improve my decision-making.

I am appalled by the uncritical acceptance of practically everything President Obama does by some on the left. While I may share many of the political views of these cheerleaders, I will not share their blind devotion. I will use skepticism and critical thinking to constantly test my assumptions and defend against the many cognitive errors I am prone to make.

Anyone can be skeptical of someone else's ideas. For me to be skeptical of something I hear on Fox "News" comes naturally and is not something I have to work toward. But it is every bit as important, maybe even more so, for me to be skeptical of what I might encounter on MSNBC or another progressive source. Why? Because I am already somewhat predisposed to believe things that coincide with my opinions. We all are.

Skepticism and Atheism

Atheism and skepticism are two very different things. Many atheists value skepticism as much or more than atheism; many others do not. One can be an atheist without being skeptical about much of anything, and one can be a skeptic in many areas outside of religion without being an atheist.

This question was designed to address the role of skepticism in the atheist community (i.e., among atheists who identify themselves as atheists). It makes sense to me that atheists who value skepticism as much or more so than atheism would embrace the modern skeptical movement with its emphasis on debunking. It also makes sense to me that atheists who do not value skepticism would see much of the modern skeptical movement as being a waste of their time or energy.

I would like to see more atheists taking an interest in skepticism and learning about it. I think this would be good for the atheist community, as well as the larger society. I would like to see atheists taking the lead in modeling critical thinking and skepticism for a public who knows relatively little about both. And I do think that this requires us to become increasingly willing and able to apply skepticism to ourselves.

For some additional thoughts on this question, see GroverBeachBum's post.

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