Friday, April 16, 2010

4-16-10 Skeptics, Atheists and Believers - Oh My!

Once every year or so I find myself in a position of feeling like I have to blog about my position on certain things – if only to help those new people following me or who have become acquaintances on Facebook - understand a little bit more about my views.

As you may already know or have figured out by the presence of the scarlet letter A on the side of my personal blog – I am atheist.

I used to believe in a god, but I no longer do. How and why I finally divested myself of that belief is for another story, hell maybe even a book, but today I feel the need to talk about that dreaded thing “the bigger picture.”

Separate and apart from my atheism – I am also a skeptic. What’s a skeptic you ask? Well, a skeptic is a person who – tries like anything – to use reason as a basis for decision making as opposed to blind acceptance, dogma, anecdote or non-scientific method as foundations of proof for any claim.

It’s why my profile says I’m an “atheist-skeptic”.

Recently, within the skeptic communities I’ve noticed that there seems to have been a real debate as to whether or not deism was somehow weakening the skeptic “stance.”

Number one – skepticism has no stance. On anything. Just like science has no stance – it merely is a process by which we Humans use to help us understand the world around us.

It is entirely possible for a person to have made a leap of faith with regards to the existence of a deity and still be entirely rooted in the use of science and skepticism for everything else.

For people to shun those with faith merely for the existence of that faith makes them fundamentalists – and I can think of no fouler word to describe a person.

Fundamentalism – in all its forms, whether religious, atheist, commercial or philosophical – is a wedge that drives people apart as opposed to driving real debate, understanding and tolerance.

Anti-theists have an opinion that frankly – I really do understand. I’ve seen more pure hatred, crime and tragedy inflicted upon people and children in the name of a deity than I have by any other means. There are many times I wish that everyone would just dump their blind faith to see that greater accomplishments are only achievable when actions are taken instead of the wasting their breath on prayer.

However I am also, above all else, a true believer in the right of others to be able to have that faith and to practice it how they see fit – as long as they keep it in their homes.

Many brilliant scientists are deists and just because they have a need to feel they’re going to have an after-life shouldn’t discredit their work - as long as their work is grounded in science.

The skeptic community needs every single person it has – deist and atheist – in order to help those who don’t even have a basic comprehension of scientific method understand more important things right now – namely the dangers of vaccine and AIDS denialism; the uselessness of homeopathic “remedies”; civil and Human rights; teaching young children to think critically about commercials and the way items are sold to them by misleading advertising; keeping junk science out of our courts; resisting the fundamentalist movement to push creationism in public schools …

… a multitude of problems that face Humanity, whether they’re believers or not.

I don’t want any religion in my government – not because I’m atheist – but because the one problem I really had when I was questioning my faith wasn’t really whether or not there was a god – but which faith was the “right one.”

I went to mass for most of my life and talked 'til I was blue in the face with priests and nuns and clergy. Then I went to synagogue for 2 years and talked 'til I was blue in the face with rabbis. I moved onto the local temple where the Buddhist monks listened and smiled and told me I was normal and that I would find my path. I traveled to the Hare Krishna temple to talk about their faith because I was told I couldn’t be Hindu as one is “born” into that faith and conversion to it wasn’t possible. I’ve spoken to Wiccans and Druids and Mormons and Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Native American polytheists and Pentecostals and Presbyterians and Episcopalians and finalized my religion shopping at a local mosque – where the imam graciously told me that I was doing more than shopping for a new religion – he rightly pointed out I was questioning all faith … to its core.

But the one thing I will always take away from the experience of reaching out to members of those communities is how private faith really is.

And by private – I mean private.

I have no right to tell others how they can believe, the same way those with faith have no right to tell me that I must acknowledge a deity’s existence.

However – as I’ve said before, the word “tolerance” doesn’t mean to accept as fact another person’s faith, ideas or philosophy – it means … tolerate.

It may sound like a mean or nasty term. To say I tolerate those with faith somehow sounds like I don’t like them.

Well – in some cases I don’t. Just the same way that some people with faith don’t like me. As long as they tolerate me and my right to exist without faith … then the system is working.

And maybe those of us in the skeptic communities had better remember that. I think the only way we’re going to be able to help those ignorant of the scientific method or lack the tools to grasp rational thought is to live by example and show others that tolerance is possible and work together to give them those tools.

Just my opinion of course – I only ask you tolerate my right to express it.



  1. Where's the shunning? I don't see anyone demanding that people who believe in god hand in their skeptic cards. But if people are going to believe in god (or ghosts or homeopathy or tarot or whatever) and call themselves skeptics then they should accept that it'll invite raised eyebrows and pointed questions, and the occasional challenge.

  2. Like I said - debate is one thing and healthy debate is a good thing. However, I've seen some pretty nasty comments on other blogs and Web sites that cross the line from debate into mud-slinging, name calling and rejection merely because a person has stated that they have faith and still somehow dare to call themselves "skeptic."

    Many people who were raised without faith will not comprehend the "process" by which divestment of faith is undertaken and for a lot of people - me included - skepticism is the first real foray into all critical thinking.

    I would hate for us to lose any "beginner" of critical thinking because we chose to attack their faith of a deity as opposed to letting those people figure it out for themselves.

    By the way - I don't mean that atheist skeptics aren't "allowed" to question those skeptics with faith and I don't think those with faith are somehow immune from having to tolerate the existence of those questions -

    But when this country and this society and this planet need people who at least come together to discuss how we're going to overcome the incredible blossoming of junk-science - I don't care if it's the fucking Archbishop of Canterbury supporting the teaching of evolution in public schools - it's another voice that reason needs right now.

    By the way - I went to Catholic school for 12 years - evolution was taught as fact and the Old Testament was taught as literature.

    Faith can be and should be questioned sure - but I don't think we can reject the opinions of those with faith when they are still using reason *when it matters.*

  3. On that point you won't get any disagreement from me, or from Richard Dawkins - who's praised the fucking Archbishop of Canterbury for his support of evolution - or from all but the fringes of the atheist or skeptical movements. Honestly, I don't see it as much of a problem. I'm more concerned by "moderate" theists who won't stand side by side with outspoken atheists when it matters.

  4. I followed a similar path TL. The main difference being in the end I just could not shake the fact there is something bigger that we are all part of; that which unites us in a way intangible to our human form, that we'd be truly lesser beings without. Whether that is some ZZ Top looking guy on a shiny throne, an Earth mother, an asexual genetic architect with a profound sense of humor that would put Rube Goldberg to shame, or even something as simple as residual energy leftover from the Big Bang.

    The reason I ended up returning to the church to finish my confirmation is the community more than the rite. I did not feel comfortable in the presence of anyone who would berate another for their beliefs and call themselves a follower of Jesus' teachings. Not to say in my time I have not met Catholics who follow that same logic, some fairly high up in the church. My mouth and my mind's inability to control it when I see something wrong may yet get me in trouble one day...

  5. Interesting note, TL. I am also the product of 10+ years of Catholic Schools. The first thing I thought of when reading this is something that Sister Fulgence taught us ages ago: Free Will. God doesn't require you to believe in him. He doesn't require you to worship him. He doesn't require you to do anything, really. He lets you choose for yourself what you're going to do, how you're going to do it. He let's you choose sin if you wish. But when the time comes, you have to be ready for the consequences.

    That being said, I am not sure I would call myself a skeptic despite my frequent skepticism. I do consider myself a critical thinker, but I'm also a fairly opinionated and periodically irrational person! It is what it is, I guess.

    I don't think that atheists are bad and it frequently astonishes me when Christians or other "religious" people point at that as something bad or evil. What happened to "Judge not lest ye be judged?"

    Whatever. Good to know ya. Drive on.

  6. "He doesn't require you to worship him."

    But if you don't he'll torture you for all enternity.


  7. LOL Michael - only some people believe in hell - and a lot of Catholics I know - DON'T believe hell exists...for they have greater faith in their deity's merciful nature and in the New Testament than anything of the "old God" talked about in the Old Testament.

    HOWEVER - you are correct that the hypocrisy expressed by many fudnamentals - Christians in particular - who thrive on the hellfire are thoroughly confused and confusing in there rhetoric... :)

  8. I'm well aware that plenty of Christians cherry pick the bits they like and ignore the rest.

    It's understandable, of course. Christian dogma contains some truly horrible stuff, and it's natural for people to want to worship a loving god rather than some cosmic Hitler. It's interesting though that you mention the Old Testament, Teri, because hell and sin are New Testament ideas.

    Frankly speaking it's the fundamentalists who seem the least confused and hypocritical on this issue. They believe what they believe because it's in the Bible and the Bible is the inerrant word of god. Nonsense, yes, but honest nonsense.

  9. I realize this is an old post, but I'd like to offer a firsthand perspective from a non-fundamentalist Christian.

    One of the frustrations I run into is that for moderate Christians, no one will really have us. I think that sometimes other moderates will not speak out, or will not counter the fundamentalists is a fear of coming under attack from both sides at once and having no one left to stand by when it comes down to crunch time. I think that some may believe they need the fundamentalists to defend them, even if it's an uneasy alliance at best.

    This is part of why I have made the decision that I will speak openly without hiding my views. If an atheist happens to share a view that I have, I do not see any reason to change or abandon that view if it stands the test of careful thought, observation, and prayer. Just because atheists believe evolution exists does not mean I would ever deny the obvious physical evidence. I'm also not going to stand by if I see a fundamentalist attacking someone over that--regardless of the belief or nonbelief of the victim. If that makes me look like I'm "siding with atheists," then so be it.

    The ironic fact is that for me, it was the wonder and beauty of science and mathematics--of looking at the way the world was put together--that kept me from losing my faith during the time that I nearly abandoned it. During that time when I wouldn't set foot in a church, the closest I came was in my science and math classes. The very thing that frightens fundamentalists strengthened my faith instead of destroying it. Reason is not the enemy...nor is doubt.

    (I've had this subject on my mind since I recently had the privilege of digging out my old childhood books and putting them back out of my shelves--including some of my evolution books, about which I am VERY sentimental! :-) )

    On the other hand...I'm not comfortable with it when I see atheists speak as though the critical thinking capacity, intelligence, character, or any other characteristic of a Christian or other believer is deficient in comparison to that of an atheist. For me it is simply a matter of keeping each mode of thought in its proper place...I don't think science should be used to determine value or purpose or morals, and I don't think faith should be expected to make statements about the laws of mathematics or science. I'm not stupid or gullible. I look into things, carefully...and just because I still believe does not make me a permanent n00b with a less-evolved or genetically crippled mind until we suddenly get a good, hard look at the Monolith. ;-) And when I do not yet have answers, I have no need to hide that fact from myself. It also won't stop me from continuing to try to understand.

    (As for Hell...I'm going to need a whole blog post on that, so I won't take up space with it here. My thoughts are very well defined, but they need a lot of elaboration to make it coherent. In a nutshell--humans must NEVER put themselves in the place of eternal judges, and must NEVER underestimate God's capacity for mercy. There's a lot more to it, but some other time!)

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  11. I realize that it's been awhile since you posted this comment and I thank you for stoppin' by!

    Your concerns are precisely what I meant in my blog. I don't want atheists OR theists to reduce their arguments to personal bashing or name-calling because that defeats the purpose of our combined goals as skeptics.

    I don't think most theists are stupid - nor do I think they're gullible. I think that maybe there are other, less negative, reasons they require faith - but frankly - that's their issue, not mine.

    And that was the point I was trying to make. Science and skepticism are SEPARATE from matters of personal belief - regardless of what that belief is.

    Personally - I totally admire the fact that you have questions that you continue to strive to answer. I do too, in my own way. Not having the answers about the universe we live in gets me excited to read and learn and discover.

    I just don't feel a need to attach a deity's existence to those questions.

    Some people do.

    Whatever floats your own boat!

    But don't be surprised when I get angry when someone says it's their boat or no boat at all. And I promise never to rip your sail.