Sketicism vs atheism discussion comments

Listening to the Legion of Reason extra matterial discussion about the JREF’s statements about atheism not being sceptical.

I’ve been meaning to get down and write on this for a couple of weeks, but life has got in the way. As it will during the writing I am sure.

So for those who want to know what discussions I am talking about – the download is here

Overall I agree with the Legion team. Mostly … there are a few things I don’t agree with. Let’s see if I can parse these in some kind of logical order out of my scattered brain.

The discussions arose from the JREF making the claim that atheism cannot be reached through scepticism. The arguments for this position run the gamut of religion being non-empirical and non-testable to the value claim that they (the JREF and skeptics) do not want to ‘tell’ people what to believe.

I think a great point is made in this episode, that by accepting the inherent sceptical attitude and philosophy leading to atheism, you are not TELLING anyone what religion to believe, any more than you are TELLING someone not to believe homoeopathy works.

To make the claim that you are going to not only ‘not touch’ religion, but completely disavow it, because you don’t like the idea of ‘telling’ folks what to believe, seems to put you very much into the untenable position of having to explain why you tell folks not to believe that homoeopathy, reiki, acupuncture, chiropractic work, or that there are ghosts, and so on.

I have said before, and the folks on Legion of Reason also said. Were this just a ‘demarcation’/division of labour (the words I believe I used were division of resources) issue, then there would be no issue.

But that is not how it was addressed. What’s worse, how it was addressed, made it plain that despite atheists who are sceptics, being welcome to support the JREF. The JREF will in no way support any organisation with atheism as it’s core. Yet the JREF have in the past supported atheist conferences. Is this a new strategy? We’re going to put a one way wall between us and our allies?


In other discussions I have had with people, when this first came out. It became apparent that many in the sceptical community cannot see the difference between rejecting the positive claim that there is a god, and making the positive claim there is no god. There are some in the sceptical movement who make the claim that atheism is not sceptical because it claims there is no god.

(wow, that’s a lot of claims for such a short paragraph!)

This is simply not true. The standpoint of anti-theism would be the positive claim that there is no gods. And while I would argue that this too, is still suitably sceptical, the argument could be made that this positive claim is not substantiated on the basis that absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. And that would be a fair argument.

On the other hand, to argue that rejection of the positive claim that there is a god(s) cannot be a sceptical act, is, quite frankly, astonishingly baffling. To hold the position that, until the claim has been proven to be true, I will operate under the null hypothesis assumption that it is not. That is about as sceptical as you get. That is the very essence of scientific sceptical philosophy.

There is no compelling evidence FOR the existence of god(s), and no logical way to prove these things do not exist, hence agnosticism, followed by the prove it or it didn’t happen premise, leading to atheism. I would argue, that any sceptic who is anything other than an agnostic atheist, is not applying their scepticism to the entirety of their life, OR they are in possession of some evidence that I am as yet unaware of. In which case, kindly share, and allow my own view of the world to be updated thusly.

The JREF officially claim to be ‘ignoring’ the ‘god’ claims. Why? The philosophy of science clearly says, if there is no evidence, provisionally reject the claim. Is that not how the JREF claims to handle all other claims? Are they not ‘atheist’ when it comes to ghosts? Do they not reject the claims of chiropractors? But are these things not left with the caveat that should some real evidence come along, the case will be re-opened? Is this not why there are groups of sceptical investigators? Is this not why there is the JREF million dollar challenge? Is this not why there has been some too and fro on the status of chiropractic? With the possibility that there may be some small benefit, equivalent to that of physiotherapy? Is this not why some rather prominent skeptics have relatively changed their stance on global warming and climate change?

Yet, were people to take these same sceptical principals and philosophy, and be brave enough to apply it to the entirety of their lives, the JREF cuts them off.

Are there atheists out there who are not sceptical? Damn skippy. Just as there are people out there who do not believe acupuncture helps who are not sceptical.

So thus far, I’ve just mirrored and parroted, completely agreeing with the Legion of Reason. Well frankly I have good reasons too.

But there is a bit in here that drove me kinda crazy.

There was a little bit of sophistry in the form of equating non-existence and non-belief. Up till that point things were going well … that was the bit where I decided I absolutely HAVE to talk about this episode …

The idea being presented was that the existence of something affects the universe. Ok, I can fly with that. Following with the non-existence of something, NOT affecting the universe. Logical enough premise.

Then moved onto belief affecting the universe in the same way as the existence of something.

Now here is where I begin to have problems. A person, or a group of people having a belief in something, most certainly can affect the universe. And has, on many occasions. Take the crusades, or the spanish inquisition, or the texas school board …. But this is NOT in the same way as the existence of that thing would affect the universe.

The follow on from that was that non-belief equates to non-existence for that same reason, that it would not affect the universe in the same way as non-existence would not affect the universe. Suggesting that non-belief is the same as non-existence.

Is anyone else slamming the brakes on hard here? It is entirely possible for me to NOT believe in something that has a definite existence. And for that existence to have just as much impact on the universe and reality as if I did believe in it. It doesn’t matter how much I do NOT believe there is a transport truck approaching the intersection, it’s going to make just as much of a mess of me as if I did believe in it.

Equating non-belief and non-existence seems to me to be just a piece of post modernist sophistry on a par with that jackass who sells the idea that you can change reality just by thinking it (name forgotten, but there are a few of them, take your pick).

By the same token, affecting the universe by believing in something is not going to give the same effect as that which would occur by that thing existing.

Sorry guys, when I first heard it I couldn’t believe you let that one through. Had to re-listen. Going to have to dock you marks for that one.

Something that was said did make me think, in a good way, however. Discussion was had as to what to do about the JREF’s stance. It seemed the consensus that boycotting was not the best course of action, and that change should be sought.

I agree that change should be sought. But you will notice, if you listen to the whole episode, that there was also discussion about how the organisation is not listening, or, perhaps more correctly, since we don’t KNOW they are not listening, we know they are not acting.

This seems like a rather foolish irony, since skepticism as a movement has been a grass roots, bottom up type movement, and now in an attempt to act top-down the JREF may be in the process of removing itself from the movement.


This would be a shame, because they do and have done a lot of good things. But just like religion, the good does not balance out the bad. If the bad cannot be changed, then perhaps it is time to move it on.


~ by scawalrus on September 21, 2013.

4 Responses to “Sketicism vs atheism discussion comments”

  1. Thanks for being a listener to LoR! It’s good to know that there is at least ONE of you out there….

    I’m not sure what you mean by saying we equate non-belief with non-existence, so you can correct me if I got you wrong. My opinion on something has no bearing on the existence of that something. (Oddly, I had that argument yesterday on Facebook. Someone was trying to peddle some post-modernist crap on me and I took them to task.) What I do believe is that any deity that interacts with the universe can be falsified. A god that answers prayer, for example, has indeed been falsified as intercessory prayer has been demonstrated to have no effect.

    Of course, one could say we were praying to the wrong god (which still leaves us without any evidence for that god’s existence, and so its existence should not be accepted) or we were testing god and so it refused aid (which falsifies the omnibenevolent god, and therefor the god whose attributes are being tested). With advances in modern cosmology, about the only deities left which haven’t been falsified are ones that had have never had any interaction with the universe at all, including its creation (if indeed it was created). That’s not much of a god, and since it can never (until it does interact with the universe in some manner) be tested, should not be accepted as existing.

    If I caused any misunderstanding of my position, mea culpa. I don’t disagree with you one bit.

    • I was really stumped too. But it honestly sounds like, toward the end there, there is an attempt to separate belief in something from existence of something. EG – if a god exists, they will have an effect on the universe. as differentiated from the belief in a god existing. Suggesting in the lack of a belief something exists leading to it’s non-existance.

      I cannot remember who was positing that argument, I am pretty horrible with names at the best of times, sorry.

      I could be completely getting that wrong, and if so, my bad.

    • On the fan side. It’s great to have something ‘local’ to listen to. With so much based in and focused on the US, having a Canadian perspective is something I greatly enjoy. And honestly I think you guys do a great job of making it enjoyable and understandable. Thanks for the great work.

  2. Yeah, none of us adheres to any The Secret-like notions. We talk about it at the beginning of the next episode (which will be released in a few minutes). Not sure where the lines got crossed, so I wanted to make sure that any misunderstanding is corrected. If you heard it, it’s likely other people did too.

    Thanks for listening!

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