Friday, September 30, 2011

A skeptic, first and foremost.

    I have discussed atheism in my blog a few times, and even have the word "atheist" in the title. It needs to be addressed, though, that being an atheist is not that important. Atheist, in the broadest definition, means "not a theist." It is actually quite easy to be an atheist; using such a definition, everyone is born an atheist because they need to be taught about god concepts before they can be a theist. Consequently, a person who is by definition an atheist can fall for stupid ideas just as easily as a theist. This ends up getting used against atheists in demonization tactics, the most common examples of atheists doing bad deeds being Stalin and Mao. Sometimes, even Kim Jong-il is brought up.

    These people have fair points. These points, though, do nothing to prove their god claims, and are only intended to distract from that main argument, but they still should be addressed to clarify the use of the atheist label. When I use the "atheist" label to talk about myself or other atheists, I'm typically talking about skeptical atheists ONLY and I'll do my best to point out when I'm talking about non-skeptical atheists. (Skeptical atheists will even include atheists who have primarily Libertarian political view points as they have likely been skeptical about god claims, though not necessarily on said political views.)

    Before continuing, we'll need to define what a skeptic is. First, there are essentially three types of skepticism: one for colloquial use, one for methodological skepticism, and one for a philosophical approach. The philosophical definition is, essentially, that certainty in knowledge is not possible. I have no major objections to that, other than it doesn't really have a practical application. Therefore, I will be focusing on methodological skepticism. According to Wikipedia, "methodological skepticism is an approach that subjects all knowledge claims to scrutiny with the goal of sorting out true from false claims."

    I also said there is a colloquial type (or term) of skepticism. This type of skepticism seems to often get confused with methodological skepticism. The colloquial term, in it's simplest use, means "an attitude of doubt." The word "skeptical," (obviously) another derivative of "skeptic" like "skepticism," can be used as a synonym for "doubtful." I have seen this in political news as of late. In regards to the topic of this post, there is not necessarily an approach to sorting out true from false claims under this definition, which is why I discourage using the word in such a manner. For example, Obama birthers may call themselves "skeptical" because they "doubt" that President Obama was born in Hawaii. 9/11 truthers may call themselves "skeptical" because they "doubt" that burning jet fuel can cause steel to warp and result in the collapse of a building (among other "doubts"). Anti-vaxxers may call themselves "skeptical" because they "doubt" that vaccines are generally safe. Many people in these groups seem to have little interest in determining truth from fiction and would rather believe what they want to believe. Therefore, these people are not skeptics when it comes to methodological skepticism.

    The part above about being interested in determining the truth is key here. It is OK, for example, to be skeptical about Obama, 9/11, etc., as long as you have a desire to examine the evidence. Therefore, it is important not to immediately ridicule people for seemingly being a conspiracy theorist just because they have the same doubts as a conspiracy theorist. It may be the case that they want to see if there is any legitimacy to the theorists' claims. It may be they are examining the evidence for the first time and have not had the time to reach a conclusion. This is perfectly acceptable and should, in fact, be encouraged. It is only those that ignore evidence that would set aside their doubts that deserve any ridicule. Long story short, there is a thin line between being a good skeptic and being a conspiracy theorist, and it is important to be able to recognize that line...which is part of the point of this post.

    To summarize the point above, skeptics (remember, we're talking about methodological skepticism now) have doubts about lots of things, and should have doubts about everything, but they examine the evidence!!! Having said that, it is important to note that different claims require different standards of evidence. Take this example: I tell you that I had lunch with Chris and Ryan. If you know me, you realize that I have friends named Chris and Ryan that live nearby and were also in my wedding. It is understandable that I might go out and have lunch with them. But what if I told you that I had lunch with President Barack Obama? Would that sound reasonable? No. (Perhaps if I lived in Washington D.C. and worked in politics, it would. But I don't.) You would certainly want pictures; and I don't mean just seeing the pictures, you would want copies so that you could look for signs of Photoshopping. This is fair. The more extraordinary (or unlikely) the claim, the more evidence you need to believe it.

    Getting back to atheism, most atheists in this country are atheists (not me, though) because they became skeptical of their religious upbringing. They doubted what they were told to be true, examined the evidence, and found it to be lacking. (As for me, I have been a religious skeptic in addition to being an atheist for the last three years now.) However, there are bound to be atheists who are not atheists through skepticism. I have heard stories from a few atheists who said they grew up in non-religious households, which would be like mine in some ways, so they were essentially atheists, yet had given religion very little though. But then, when they were young adults living away from their parents, they decided to get involved with church, often in a church of which a close friend was a member. (Sometimes the close friend in these stories would be a girl- or boyfriend.) They would then get sucked into religion for a while (sometimes many years) before applying skeptical thought to the religion. But what if they never applied skeptical thinking?

    This brings me to another motivation behind writing this post: atheists who convert. Christians will sometimes use these conversion stories to bolster their religion. The goal of this seems to be twofold:
  1.    The first is likely an attempt to encourage the bandwagon effect with atheists as the audience. The idea seems to be, "Look at this atheist who converted," followed by, "Maybe you should learn about Jesus like he/she did!" or "You need to unharden your heart like they did!" or something to that effect.
  2.    The second area this comes up is with Christian apologists. The idea seems to be very similar to the first: this atheist with a hardened heart found Jesus! Except in this case, the target audience tends to be Christians. The idea then seems to be a reassurance to those Christians that their religion is correct. (If a stubborn atheist converted, that must mean something!)
       Just for reference, some Christian apologists who claim to have been atheists include Kirk Cameron (who descibes his past self as being a "devout atheist"), Lee Strobel, and C. S. Lewis (though he said he was "very angry with God for not existing"). I have also heard Josh McDowell and William Lane Craig3 described as not having been devoted Christians early in their life, but not necessarily atheists. Another way to describe them at that time might be to call them "cultural" Christians.
To the point of this post, this does not impress me. At least not the fact that they converted1. I am much more interested in knowing why they converted, specifically what convinced them to convert. Was it a critical evaluation of the evidence and, if so, did they commit any logical fallacies, especially the argument from ignorance, in that evaluation, or did they convert purely for emotional reasons, which do not at all impress me? Or, in reference to atheist stories from a couple paragraphs ago, did they convert for the sake of a girl- or boyfriend and then rationalize their new belief after the fact2?

1 Additionally, I'm not even impressed or convinced by some of the stories. For Cameron, there is no such thing as a "devout" atheist, though I think I understand what his intentions are in this statement. He has talked about believing in evolution without questioning it, so he's confusing scientific theories that most, but not all, atheists accept with atheism itself. For Lewis, how can one be mad at something that they think doesn't exist? He sounds like someone who is confused more than actually being an atheist.

2 Rationalizing a belief after forming the belief leaves one susceptible to cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias. Essentially, the person will generally find facts that seem to support or "confirm" their position while ignoring those that don't and also committing logical fallacies to connect those facts; this is all done to avoid conflict in the mind. While I am always looking for such things in arguments for the existence of a god or gods, even when someone came to their belief through arguments, red flags are raised in my mind for such scenarios. Additionally, in the case of coming to belief after becoming involved in a relationship with a believer, I often suspect that it is through cognitive dissonance, which, again, is the minds way of reducing conflict, that they converted. Let me make it clear that my suspicions could certainly be wrong, so, like a good skeptic, I reserve final judgement until I have the evidence.

3 UPDATE: I found the link on Willaim Lane Craig that I was thinking about when I wrote that point. It can be found here. Apparently the original source is Craig's own book, "On Guard," which Amy owns, but I have not yet read.

    Before finishing, let me quickly go back to Stalin, Mao, etc. I don't care if they were atheists. Were they or the people who followed their leadership skeptical thinkers? The answer seems to be that they are not. (This is more obvious for Kim Jong Il, based on the stories that come from North Korea, which is why I think he is typically not brought up.) The communist idea, from my understanding, is that religion is bad for politics. This is understandable considering that the Catholic church had much political power in the past, and still has some yet today. However, it has nothing to do with the claims of the religion. It would be much like what we see today with people pressing for bans against Islamic law (known as "Sharia"), except in Russia it was a ban on all religion, including Christianity. This was forced atheism; it was not the result of skeptical thought. EDIT: Additionally, the actions of Stalin, Mao, etc. could not/cannot be driven by atheism. Atheism neither makes any claims nor tells one how to live. Such actions are most likely to be driven by obsession with control/power and political ideologies.

    Now for the most important part: If being skeptical is much more important than being an atheist, why then call the blog "The Midwest Atheist" instead of "The Midwest Skeptic"? Well, the answer is fairly simple, and that is because the topic of religion seems to be an important topic in this country, as well as in many parts of the world. Take, for example, those individuals who are running for President from the Republican party. Many of them promote their religious beliefs (it's the Mormons in the race who seem to be most hesitant to do so). They're not out confessing their beliefs, if they hold such beliefs, in psychic powers, astrology, UFO's/alien abductions, homeopathy, Big Foot, etc, etc, etc. Outside of the Presidency, those topics aren't important in politics. But religion is. Whether it's gay marriage or combating carbon dioxide emissions because "God has a plan" or "God is in control," or abortion, etc, religion plays a much larger role in decision making. While it may be that some politicians consult their horoscope before making a decision on a bill, they certainly don't admit to it in public! But many are fine with admitting they consult with their god! And it is this importance of religious beliefs that I use the atheist label as opposed to the skeptic label, though I am both.

    As a supplement to this post, I have embedded the following video from The Atheist Experience in which Matt Dillahunty likewise talks about how it is important to be a skeptic first and foremost.

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