Can You Be a Skeptic Without Being an Atheist?

This was originally posted by Hemant Mehta over at the Friendly Atheist on November 20th, 2010.  It deals with the ongoing debate in the sceptic world over whether it is possible to adhere to the ideas of scepticism and still hold religious beliefs.

One of these days, I want to start a blogosphere flame war. Maybe I’ll accuse PZ Myers of being a secret evangelical or something.

Until then, I’ll watch this one from a distance. JT Eberhard is organizing Skepticon 3 this weekend in Springfield, Missouri. (If it wasn’t for the big Speech Team tournament this weekend, I’d be there in a heartbeat.) Of the speakers, a small handful will be talking about religion.

Jeff Wagg (formerly of JREF) says that the name Skepticon — instead of, say, Atheistcon — is a misnomer:

The e-mail is an admission that the organizers of Skepticon believe that Skepticism = Atheism and that the event is designed to combat religion, specifically Christianity. I believe that if you equate skepticism with anything other than science, you’ve missed the point. As for Christianity, skepticism has nothing to say except about testable claims associated therein. Bleeding statues? Yes, skepticism comes into play. Jesus rose and is in heaven? Seems unlikely, but there’s not a lot more to say.

JT responded to Jeff’s points, defending the event and name:

Three out of the fifteen speakers, and suddenly we’re a purely atheist convention. Any love for D.J. Grothe who will surely speak about skepticism in general? How about James Randi, who will also be speaking? Rebecca Watson will be speaking about feminism and Joe Nickell will be speaking about critical thinking. John Corvino’s talk is titled Coming Out Skeptical. So I would have no problem if Jeff said that we include religion or even if he had said that we focus on religion: we do, and there’s not a thing wrong with that. But he’s saying “it’s an atheist convention”, which is just plain silly.

There is even a panel discussion on whether or not skepticism leads to atheism. In the comments of his post someone apprises Jeff to this fact. Jeff responds by saying…

Does he have any believers on the panel? I hope so.

What I do have are skeptics who have taken the position that skepticism does not produce atheism. Is this good enough for you, Jeff?

For what it’s worth, there are far more than 3/15 talks about atheism, but so what?

This discussion has happened before: Can you be a skeptic without being an atheist? I don’t see how.

We would dismiss anyone who said “I’m a Skeptic but I believe in homeopathy.”

I don’t see why we should take someone any more seriously if they say, “I’m a Skeptic but I believe in a supernatural deity who answers my prayers.”

There are religious people starting on the path to skepticism who may not have reached the “Religion” juncture yet. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But how can you call yourself a “True Skeptic” when you still believe in a god?

Jen McCreight has the right idea (emphasis hers):

Look, there are certainly religious beliefs that are benign enough and don’t end in the Crusades. And there are certainly instances of beliefs in psychics, astrology, and ghosts that do harm people. But to suggest that religious belief isn’t at least as harmful as important topics like homeopathy, chiropracty, or alternative medicine is frankly delusional.

Arguments against religion must be included in any real discussion regarding skepticism. In America — certainly in Missouri — religion is the most prevalent form of superstitious nonsense we come across. I’m surprised Skepticon 3 doesn’t have more talks about it.

Then again, talks about psychics and homeopathy and astrology bore me because they’re so easy to discredit. Why waste our time on low-hanging fruit like that? I know, I know, because a lot of people still believe in it. Fine. We should add those to the mix. But faith in the supernatural is at the core of what skeptics ought to address. So why not tackle religion with everything we’ve got?


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