Monday, November 22, 2010

Why atheism is the most skeptical position

Some people claim that I don't know what "skepticism" is really about because I haven't read the "fundamental" skeptical books. Which was shocking to me, since I thought the concept of skepticism was fairly simple - it's just the application the scientific method. Of course, other people just claim I haven't studied the philosophy of science enough to understand how science really works.

Hell, if a grad student in the sciences can't discuss skepticism because she doesn't have enough background, I guess those skeptical organizations will be waving goodbye to members who don't have the proper skeptical credentials. Let's leave it to the "professional" skeptics.

But while we're on the topic of appealing to authority, let's look at how Michael Shermer, co-founder of the Skeptics Society, defines skepticism in his "Skeptic's Manifesto":
Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, that involves gathering data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement. But all facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge, and therefore skepticism is a method leading to provisional conclusions.
Huh, that's exactly how I've always defined skepticism! I wonder if Michael Shermer knows he needs to go read some more books and brush up on his philosophy of science?

I previously thought this discussion about skepticism and atheism needed to die already. The horse hadn't just been beaten to death - it has already decomposed and had its molecules reassembled into the surrounding flora and fauna. But some people continue to miss the point, so people keep talking about it. Yesterday I showed up to my first official meeting of the Seattle Atheists (which was awesome, by the way), and what was the panel discussion on? Yep, skepticism versus atheism.

What was curious about that discussion was how different it was since an atheist group was hosting it, rather than skeptics. The atheists freely admitted that not all atheists are skeptics. Some, at least initially, reach their decisions thanks to emotional or value-based arguments, and don't skeptically examine religious beliefs until later (if ever).

But to those of us who came to atheism through skeptical analysis of religion, it was literally inconceivable how skeptics couldn't be atheists. The only explanation the panelists could think of for this current debate was that it was based on public relations, not intellectual merit - that yes, skepticism leads to atheism, but please hush about it so we don't scare away the religious members. Yet there's another explanation often given - that you can't directly test the God hypothesis, therefore please hush about it.

And that's where I must call bullshit.

To understand why I call bullshit (oh my, crass language! I must not know what I'm talking about!), let's review Wikipedia's decent summary on the null hypothesis:
The null hypothesis typically proposes a general or default position, such as that there is no relationship between two measured phenomena,[1] or that a potential treatment has no effect.[2] [...] It is typically paired with a second hypothesis, the alternative hypothesis, which asserts a particular relationship between the phenomena.

[...]Hypothesis testing works by collecting data and measuring how probable the data are, assuming the null hypothesis is true. If the data are very improbable (usually defined as observed less than 5% of the time), then the experimenter concludes that the null hypothesis is false. If the data do not contradict the null hypothesis, then no conclusion is made. In this case, the null hypothesis could be true or false; the data give insufficient evidence to make any conclusion.

I've always viewed atheism as the null hypothesis. It is the general, default position that makes no claims. Now, there are many, many alternative hypotheses. Zeus exists. The Flying Spaghetti Monster exists. The particular Judeo-Christian God worshiped by the Second Baptist Church in Richmond, VA exits. Atheists have come to the conclusion that these hypotheses are wrong, not only because they lack evidence (needed to reject the null hypothesis of atheism), but because they're not even internally consistent claims (contradictions in the Bible, the inability for an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving being to exist, yadda yadda).

"But what about a deist God?" you ask. "What about a definition of God that's wishy-washy and nebulous? God is love. God is in all of us. You can't even test those!" Exactly. And since you can't test them, you can't gather any evidence for them. And since you can't gather any evidence for them, you fail to reject the null hypothesis of atheism.

Am I 100% certain that no deity at all exists? No, but you'd be hard pressed to find an atheist who is - even Richard Dawkins wouldn't claim to be. Technically we're agnostic to some extent, and that's a whole other debate that's wriggling through an earth worm by now. But atheist vs. agnostic semantics aside, the point stands that the scientific method, when applied to belief in God, does not lead to deism or theism.

I guess this is an elaborate way of saying that the burden of proof lies on those making the claims. That seems to be fine when skeptics are dealing with psychics and Bigfoot, but not with God. If you want to avoid it for PR reasons, fine - I disagree with you, but you can run your organization however you like. But if you claim to avoid religious beliefs for skeptical reasons, then, I reiterate, you're not being fucking skeptical.

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