Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Atheist Connection

Well, it's been a while since I've had an on-theme post, so I eventually decided to stop waiting for some new inspiration and check out my notes in the past for something to talk about. And so we come to this topic: exploring the question of why so many skeptics are atheists.

First of all, let's define terms here. Skepticism is a particular method of finding the truth about reality utilizing the scientific method along with critical thinking and a working knowledge of many logical fallacies and biases people are likely to fall into. Atheism is, in general, a lack of belief in any god or gods. This is in general based off of one of the following conclusions:

1. There is insufficient evidence to justify belief in any god(s).

2. Whereas we'd expect evidence of gods if the claims of their religions were true and this evidence doesn't exist or contradictory evidence is present, we have in essence evidence against the existence of god(s).

3. No gods exist, with absolute certainty. Note that I've never actually met anyone who believes this way, and it seems to be more of a strawman position used to color atheism as another religion (but only when it's convenient to so color it). Nevertheless, someone who came to this conclusion would be an atheist (and possibly a nihilist as well).

Okay, so to answer our question: Why are so many skeptics atheists? Well, the obvious answer is that skepticism, given our current understanding of the world, leads to one of the above conclusions.

This post is looking to be a bit short and uninteresting, to be honest. Let's try to spice things up, shall we? How about we address the question of why a skeptic might not be an atheist (using an actual skeptic here, not a "zetetic" or pseudoskeptic). This could be a bit more interesting. Let's go over possible explanations as I think of them:

1. The obvious counter-explanation to why so many skeptics are atheists: Skepticism leads to a conclusion that some religion is correct. Now, the problem is that both of these possibilities can't be true, so if this is true we'd have to find some other reason for the many atheists, and if the alternative were true, we'll have to find another explanation for the religious people. In this case, it seems most likely that skepticism leads to an atheistic conclusion, if we take into account how much more prevalent atheists are among skeptics than among the lay population. It seems that if you add skepticism to a person, you're more likely to lead them to atheism than to lead them to religion. So, given that, let's come up with other explanations for why some skeptics aren't atheists.

2. They haven't gotten around to examining their religion skeptically yet. Quite simply, we can't expect someone to come to a skeptical conclusion on an issue if they haven't yet thought about it skeptically. No one has infinite time on their hands, and we can't fault them for not applying skepticism to everything they ever believed all at once.

3. They don't want to examine their religion skeptically. This one might come about for a number of reasons. Maybe their religion gives them comfort, and they fear giving it up. Maybe they fear societal rejection if they give it up. Or maybe it's been so ingrained into them by their religion that it shouldn't be examined critically that they refuse to do so.

4. They actually have examined their religion skeptically, but they came to the conclusion it was true. Perhaps this is because the religion ingrained sufficient biases in them to skew their perception of the data. Maybe proponents of the religion have access to secret evidence the rest of us don't. Or maybe it is true and the rest of us are just fooling ourselves.

5. They actually have examined their religion skeptically and come to the conclusion that atheism is true, but they're afraid to admit it. Given how harshly atheists are treated in some places, this can be understandable. Over on this side of the world, though, it's about time we started coming out (though that's a post for another day).

That's about all I can think of for now. Note that I've left out any possibilities that relate to them not really being a skeptic; those are a bit too obvious and lead to endless variations on what it is that makes them not a skeptic. We're assuming for the sake of this argument that they actually are a skeptic. If you have other possibilities, feel free to post them in the comments (and if you are a religious skeptic, I'd be interested in hearing your opinion on this).


Techskeptic said...

I think you will find that most reasonable theists will be described by #4. By 'reasonable' those that do not take the bible (or some other text) as the inerrant word of god, who decide the circular reasoning is good enough for them (the "bible proves god and god wrote the bible" circle I mean - does this have a name?).

I find that these folks have a different level of proof than I do. They do not require the strength of the statement "must disprove the theory that God didn't do it".

so they point to the 66 miracles that the catholic church has used to make saints. for example, its a miracle that can not be explained by any other thing except god if someone who has a fatal heart condition is cured of this condition when praying to a particular person in line for being a saint (I think sainthood requires 2 miracles).

To you and I this is simply coincidence. There a millions of people who have done the exact same actions with no result (I say millions because over the years the number of people who pray to these various saint accumulates to millions quite easily).

Its the same expectation you would have if you had a million people pass through a room and told them that the air in the room had a healing effect (or a crystal, or a homeopathic water, etc), you would expect 2 of the million to get better from their 'incurable' disease.

So while these people who fit into your #4 category are generally reasonable and relatively critical thinkers on most things, they let this slide a little.

Im sure you and I would expect, as proof, ALL of the people to get healed, or legs to grow back or something that has never happened before.

They simply lower the bar for this.

miller said...

I think that the reason that some skeptics are theists is simply because there is always some amount of unavoidable uncertainty in interpreting evidence. For issues that are obviously one-sided, like homeopathy, most skeptics will agree with each other. For much more complicated issues, such as conservative vs liberal economics, skeptics split into two sides, each thinking the other is biased. I'd say theism is somewhere between those two examples.

Also, I think you missed a whole other group of reasons that skeptics are mostly atheists. Usually theism is not just a single claim, but is accompanied by an entire method of thought that can compete with skepticism. Many things, such as the idea of anything "sacred" are antithetical to skepticism. You also missed the possibility that atheism and skepticism are linked by correlation but not causation, but perhaps we can rule this out.

Elizabeth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Akusai said...

The big bang theory doesn't, in fact, posit "something from nothing." His "argument" is, in fact, nothing more than a the ages-old "Prime Mover" gambit. It sounds almost Aquinian: "Something must have set off the big bang, and this men call God."

So firstly, the big bang is not something from nothing, spontaneous generation of energy and matter, etc.

Secondly, even if it were, all he'd be doing is saying "Well, here's this question. Let's not delve into it, because I know the answer already! The answer is God!" I'll bet he thinks it's damn sophisticated, but his argument is really little more than the good old God of the Gaps.

If he's a skeptic, ask him to explain why he uses a negative proof of God instead of finding positive evidence for his existence, as the skeptical mindset demands.

Akusai said...

Hmm...Looks like in between the time I started posting and the time I finished, the comment to which I was replying got deleted by the poster. Weird.

Elizabeth said...

I have a friend with an interesting argument against atheism (he is also a skeptic). His argument starts with the idea of creation, because logically everything must begin somewhere. As far as I know, people have no concept for "beginning at infinity", only approaching infinity. But I mildly digress. If you have already decided that there was no creation, then his argument will make no sense to you.

The idea is, if there was a creation time, it essentially proves that there is a large and quite possibly divine force in the universe. Due to the laws of nature as we know them, you cannot create something from nothing. You can interchange matter and energy, but a vacuum can "create" nothing. So, how did the universe begin? A power greater than the natural laws must have intervened. That would be God.

I myself haven't been able to poke holes in it, apart from the concept that the universe has no beginning and has always been. I'm not too good at countering arguments, though. I'd be interested to hear what other people think.

Elizabeth said...

Yeah, I didn't mean to say "big bang", and couldn't find an edit button. Sorry.

Elizabeth said...

Upon a consultation with him, here is his reply.

He says that the creation idea requires divine intervention. There is no other scientific explanation for it. He also mentions that he believes this to be the only divine event, ever. But that's a whole other argument down there.

He also adds a bit more: to him, there is roughly a 50/50 chance for or against creation, since there is no evidence on either side that he knows of. So, from the creation side, we so far have a 50% chance of God's existence. From the non-creation side, there is still a possibility that there is a god. It has yet to be disproved beyond all doubt. (I know, you'll say that's just a negative proof. He says there is no completely leak-free proof either way, so he deems it a possibility.) Add this slight chance to the 50% from creation, and it is simply more likely that God does, indeed, exist.

Infophile said...

I've actually gone over many of these arguments before in different places, but let's aggregate as appropriate, shall we?

His argument starts with the idea of creation, because logically everything must begin somewhere.

See: The Ultimate Answer

To sum it up: If you're going to trace things back, don't stop at creation of the universe. Don't even stop at God. Eventually, you'll find either a beginning of something (could be God) with absolutely nothing before it and no reason, divine or otherwise, for beginning, or you'll find something infinite. Most religious people would be likely to say that God is infinite, but why not have an infinite meta-universe from which ours was created through natural processes?

It may seem like we have no way of distinguishing between the two, but that's not quite so. With a meta-universe, we can actually set up natural laws and use them to make predictions about what our universe should be. If we find some parameters that match what we see in our universe, then this meta-universe becomes a reasonable hypothesis. On the other hand, we can't make any predictions whatsoever from assuming a god, as everything is only created how it is because that's how God wants it.

If you have already decided that there was no creation, then his argument will make no sense to you.

I haven't decided that, but it's a cosmological possibility that we haven't been able to rule out. There are a few models for the universe which would extend infinitely backwards through time, such as the Big Bounce model.

Due to the laws of nature as we know them, you cannot create something from nothing.

That's not quite true. Conservation of energy doesn't mean you can't create something from nothing, it just means that if you have nothing and want something, you're also going to need to create a negative something. So, conservation of energy doesn't rule out a simultaneous production of two universes, one with positive energy and one with negative energy.

Then there's also the problem that we don't know for sure that conservation of energy even applies at the moment of the creation/Creation of the universe. The reason for this is complicated, so excuse me if I skip over a ton of details. Basically, conservation of energy is tied into the fact that the laws of physics are time-invariant (the laws don't change over time). However, the point of creation represents a compression of everything into a single point, and we can't say for sure that the physical laws can be maintained to that point. Therefore, we can't say that conservation of energy applies there.

He says that the creation idea requires divine intervention. There is no other scientific explanation for it.

There's no complete scientific explanation for it, yet. There are proposals that might explain it, but they aren't complete. They're a helluva lot more complete than "some divine force did it," however.

Also, I'd like to ask him how he would define "divine." To me, it seems like one of those ill-defined words thrown around to mean "I don't know" or "We can never know." If he has some better definition of it that doesn't a priori assume the existence of a deity, then it would help if he could explain it to us.