There Can Be Only One!
It is my understanding there is no individual or group that Skeptics refer to when determining what a person must or must not agree with to be a Skeptic. No President of Skepticism or Sheriff of the Critical Thinking Patrol ("Respect my authoritaa!") and thankfully no Great Dictator of Skepticism ("Big Smile! Big Smile!").
This may be because getting the majority of Skeptics to organize is akin to attempting a non medical sperm count ("Count them? I can’t even get them to hold still!") as well as Skepticism not being a specific belief, or specific disbelief for that matter.
There is no test to be a Skeptic and there probably should not be as Skepticism is relative to the information or assembled data that we currently hold (Google "giant squid" for an example).
It seems that saying "you can’t be a Skeptic if you are not an Atheist" is the No True Scotsman logical fallacy as it sets up the speaker to be the judge of what is real and true regarding both Skepticism and Atheism.
It also seems that saying "you can’t be a Skeptic if you are not an Atheist" is an Argument From Personal Incredulity logical fallacy (variation of Argument from Ignorance) as well: "I can’t imagine how, due to the lack of evidence for any kind of deity, anyone could not be an Atheist if they are a Skeptic, therefore, Atheism and Skepticism are one and the same."
It would appear that people like Hal Bidlack, Kitty Mervine and Martin Gardner continually put that remark to shame.
Stating that a Skeptic must also be an Atheist also smacks of a snobbish shut down of discourse and elitist exclusion: "If someone doesn’t agree with what skepticism has led me to and why, they can leave their Critical Thinking Light Saber and Skeptical Utility Belt by the door on their way out!"
In my opinion, this attitude is not a characteristic of a healthy ego and the pride one can take in choosing to pursue Skepticism; it is immature arrogance that borders on "Rectal Cranial Inversion Syndrome" and is poison for an individual or a community (not to mention the risk of asphyxiation via methane gas).
I’ve come across the term True Skeptic twice. The first time, which was during a very heated conversation on this topic, made the enamel on my teeth ache (for the reasons given above). The other was in an article titled "What Skeptics Believe" by Jeff Wagg, (JREF Quarterly, June 2008) that stated, in part, "There are no ‘True Skeptics’. There is no code of belief, no catechism and no creed. You are a skeptic if you TRY (emphasis mine) to base your beliefs on evidence and are willing to reconsider them based on new evidence. That’s it. We should expect to disagree with one another often."
Each of us, no matter how much we hone them, will have our critical thinking abilities fail us on more than one subject in our lives; this does not make any of us a failure as a Skeptic.
The term True Skeptic sounds, to me, like an Argument From Personal Incredulity mixed with No True Scotsman and a dash of Pomposity. ‘Nuff said on that one.
At The Beginning: Baseline Definitions
Oxford Dictionary Of Current English, 4th edition, 2006 definitions in total:
Atheism: disbelief in the existence of a god or gods, Greek atheos, without god,
Sceptical: not easily convinced, having doubts.
It could be said that Skepticism is the beginning of a doubt inspired search for truth. It’s what takes one on a journey, a process of discovery on a topic. It also has built in self correction as the ability to doubt leaves the way open for new evidence.
Atheism is a conclusion one can come to due to the perusal of evidence on the possible existence of deities. It is a destination, an end of a journey after careful consideration. Likewise, Atheism can be arrived at with no perusal of evidence therefore Atheism often flies in the face of what we currently understand as skeptical thought.
Leaving one’s mind open to new evidence that conflicts with one’s already held beliefs is an act of Skepticism not Atheism.
If Atheism, via proper evidence, is proven wrong, an Atheist can choose to no longer be an Atheist but they will still be a Skeptic.
I use a dictionary for baseline definitions because dictionaries have been endowed with the responsibility of keeping track of the meanings of words as they are right now, and without them everyone could alter or change the meanings of words per their personal desires (with the exception of Prince, who can turn a derogatory curse word into a term of endearment at the drop of a music note).
I do not use a dictionary to bolster my point because I think it has meanings carved in the cosmos and is forever unchanging and is at the forefront of the "Skeptical Movement".
Yes, I was actually accused of all that when I brought up the dictionary definitions during a conversation; I never thought I’d have to explain what a dictionary was used for (at least not to someone who was also old enough to know the proper way to use a fork).
As far as I know, there is no evidence that dictionary companies are changing meanings due to bribery or whims (of the rich or aliens or rich aliens) so there is no reason to question their work (although periodic check ups, preferably less than a hundred years apart, would be advisable).
Changing The Definitions
I think the people who would like to change the definitions, either literally or colloquially, of Skepticism and Atheism to make them synonymous should take a good look at how the word "theory" having two meanings has worked out so far...Theory Of Evolution anyone?
Skepticism is about giving people the tools to find their own way through life primarily by teaching critical thinking - how to think, not what to think or where being skeptical "should" lead a person on any particular subject.
Having Skepticism be interchangeable with any conclusion would be detrimental to the teaching of critical thinking as a whole. Right or wrong, no one likes to be told what to think or what they should be (yes, I know, "duh"). Doing so could very well alienate the people Skepticism is trying so hard to communicate with before they’ve gotten to "hello".
As the definitions stand now, they work in favor of Skepticism and Atheism and the advancement of both into the general public. There are no two meanings to cause, or to be used to cause, confusion.
I am not suggesting that all Skeptics and Atheists and non-Atheists now join hands and sing George Hrab songs (at least not while wearing pants).
I’m not suggesting that those Skeptics who think that any kind of belief in a deity is incorrect need to shut up about it. Nor am I suggesting that those Skeptics who aren’t Atheists need to shut up about it.
On the contrary, although I personally think the language could be a bit more polite, conversation on this topic obviously shouldn’t stop.
If individual Skeptics who happen to also be Atheists don’t like or agree with individual Skeptics who happen to not be Atheists, don’t hang out with them (somehow I don’t think those who are not Atheists will be sending out party invites either). The Skeptical community (I use this term as loosely and inclusively as possible) may be small but it’s still large enough to not have to have dinner with everyone and still work together in the common goal of teaching critical thinking (we’re not the Clone Army after all).
Generalities: Beliefs, Rights, Society
Does a person have the right to believe that the moon is made out of cheese? Yes. Do they have the right to anyone’s respect for that belief? No. Without proper evidence the believer should not expect others to treat their belief as anything other than their cheese that has slipped off their cracker.
No one should care what a person chooses to believe personally as long as that belief stays exactly that, personal, and that the believer only expects their right to choose to be respected not what they have chosen to believe (law breaking, child endangerment, etc excluded of course).
When it comes to the Law Of The Land (government, politics, education, medicine, etc, and the separation thereof,), the acknowledgment of the truth relative to the information we currently hold is absolutely paramount and the only basis for decision making involving an entire society.
To be succinct; a person has the right to choose their personal beliefs/opinions not their public facts.
I agreed with the dictionary definitions of Atheism and Skepticism before I knew what they were. I didn’t note this outright because my personal agreement or disagreement with them won’t change them any more than if I didn’t believe in gravity I’d be able to throw myself at the ground and miss (thank you Douglas Adams). Up until recently everything I have read and heard on Skepticism and Atheism suggested the journey/destination difference, to the point that I was quite shocked when I first heard someone say they believed the two were the same.
I am guilty of the Argument From Personal Incredulity logical fallacy when it comes to Skepticism and Atheism: I have no clue how a person who looks at the evidence, or lack thereof, for any kind of deity skeptically can not be an Atheist, at least not without committing some kind of emotional "special pleading" logical fallacy, or in extreme cases, like that, in my opinion, "prat in the hat" the Pope, using belief as a tool of power.
An aside: anyone who harbors a pedophile, whether they’re the head of a church or the head of a skeptical organization, should be jailed. Why they did it, or what system was in play to help them do it, is secondary to justice being carried out swiftly. That is not to say that any system that allows for the harboring of pedophiles isn’t important to take down but, the definitions of Skepticism and Atheism should have nothing to do with that.
Teaching critical thinking would erode existing institutions of that kind, and help stop the creation of future ones.
Getting Even More Personal
Do I think that people, who have a belief in a god, or belief in the possibility of a god, are mentally ill? No. I feel it’s more of a learned cultural bias, often the result of childhood indoctrination, (sometimes self) brainwashing that takes place when one is emotionally or mentally vulnerable or a "blanket" (something that makes us feel warm in the night so to speak).
Do I think that a belief in a god and said god’s dogma can become so consuming that it may lead to violence and or mental illness? Yes. This is why I feel that a wide divide between any sort of personal belief system and the running of society as a whole must be firm and unyielding.
Do I feel that people, who have a belief in a god, or a belief in the possibility of a god, are being intellectually dishonest? In general no; in some cases yes. I do not think, due to the built in cultural bias to belief in our society (US), that it is an either/or situation but an individual by individual point. For example, I hope there is a huge difference between my grandmother, a self professed lapsed Catholic, and Sylvia Browne, a self professed psychic and creator of her own belief system.
I cannot stress enough that the teaching of critical thinking would, I believe, be a stronger weapon against the negativity, government sanctioning, violence and downright crimes that can and have been committed in the name of some religion than the terms mental illness, intellectual dishonesty and True Skeptic being served up as the PB, J & M on White or Wheat of either Atheism or Skepticism.
Skepticism Is To Atheism Like Car Is To House…Really? Yes, Really.
In closing (yes, I know, if there were a goddess you’d be thanking her right now), there are more important battles to fight than making Skepticism and Atheism the same thing (like making sure Skeptic and Cynic never become synonymous for instance) and the use of Occam’s Razor on this issue would behoove both Skeptics and Atheists, help to foster a more fact based run society and probably lead to the quicker creation of more Skeptics and Atheists. Ok, maybe not as fun as the usual way of creation but I’m all for exploring inter species mating rituals as I’m a child of Star Trek; Live Long And Prosper.
Published on Indie Skeptics October 4, 2010