Atheists, Theists and Skepticism.

Gather a group of skeptics together and you will find that they will talk about almost anything with a critical outlook.  Whether it is the latest alternative medical claim, psychic expose, or quantum gizmo the conversations flow like a floodgate released.  Many in the community revel in such discussions since often it is difficult to be able to talk with the average person on the street and have equal understanding.  The one topic however that is considered taboo by some is that of religion.

Many skeptics self identify as atheist or agnostic as well and as such have no problem delving into the dubious nature of many theistic claims.  There are times though where we encounter the Theistic Skeptic, and when this happens there is and admonishment against making them feel uncomfortable.  This was the message that we recieved from TAM 7 in July from Master of Ceremonies Hal Bidlack.

On a recent episode of The Non-Prophets, Matt Dillahunty talked about the separation of skepticism and atheism.  Matt was pointing out that atheism can be traced to a skeptical outlook.  It is a valid observation, I myself credit my burgeoning skepticism with my own deconversion from Mormonism.   The problem with equating skepticism to atheism however is that not all atheists are skeptics.

To be an atheist is simple, just lack a believe in any god(s).  To be a skeptic requires a more critical approach to life separate from personal beliefs.  I have known atheists who are anti-vax, follow “spiritualism”, believe that 9/11 was an inside job and more.   Some equate science to being a religion, and groups of atheists getting together for a common goal as indoctrination.

There is of course a lot of overlap between the 2 but at least in our local groups in Edmonton we felt that the distinction was enough to separate them.  With this separation we have drawn some to the Edmonton Skeptics and others to the Society of Edmonton Atheists.   Both of these groups are great to attend but they also have different dynamics.

As for the theistic skeptics however their unease of more theological discussions occurring in social settings should not be a call to quash such talk, but rather for them to examine their own position a bit more critically.  Free and open discourse is key to the skeptical movement, it may be better for official organizations like the JREF or Michael Shermer’s Skeptic Society to steer away from heavy involvement in religious debunking.  On the social one on one level however such limits can push people away.

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2 Responses to “Atheists, Theists and Skepticism.”

  1. While I’m an atheist I’ve got to agree with you there, as many of my friends tend to self identify as christians even if most of haven’t been to a church in years. Skepticism and atheism can be easily conflated and so scare off those who might otherwise become interested in skepticism and science. Unfortunately I’m even guilty of doing this myself at times.

  2. I too agree with you (in fact, what you said reminds me a little of something Stephen Fry mentioned in an interview about humanism vs secular humanism and what it means etc etc). Skepticism is a process, not a given conclusion and that’s what makes it so powerful. I suppose one could say most people have some aspect of their beliefs/values that they don’t like to enquire too deeply into, but then, I have always thought so long as that person is honest about why they might not want to do so (and does not use the personal value of said beliefs as a buttress against criticism from others), that’s skeptical enough for me.

    But I do think there is some benefit in the conflation of the two. Firstly, it enables theistic/deistic skeptics to think about their beliefs from a different angle but also I think it’s helped the New Atheist movement develop into a more cohesive unit. Alright, so there might be some/a lot of groupthink, but even a superficial allegiance to the cause of ‘reason’ and ‘rationality’ can act as a good enough neutraliser.

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